Theological Interpretation of Scripture



Posted Sunday, October 12, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: HermeneuticsTheological Interpretation of Scripture   Comments: None
Show Introduction

I am presenting a paper at ETS this year on the theological interpretation of Scripture from a biblical studies viewpoint. I'll be including most of the paper (minus the footnotes) over the next few posts; naturally, I would love to hear any feedback you might have! Follow the link below to see the bibliography.


The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIOS), focusing on the importance of the hermeneutical significance of the canon and reading the Bible in a theological manner, has been gaining popularity recently, giving rise to a variety of articles, books, and commentaries. But there has been little reflection from evangelical biblical scholars. Should evangelicals embrace TIOS? Should it cause them concern? This paper will give a short history of TIOS, present the beneficial aspects of TIOS for evangelical biblical scholars, discuss a few potentially unbalanced directions taken by some TIOS advocates, and briefly evaluate the recent TIOS commentaries in the Brazos and Two Horizons series from the perspective of evangelical biblical studies. My contention is that evangelicals should sympathize with much of TIOS, but the TIOS critique is not badly needed by evangelicals.



Posted Wednesday, October 15, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: HermeneuticsTheological Interpretation of Scripture   Comments: None
Show Introduction

Short History of TIOS

While TIOS is very old, its recent incarnation arose in a very specific context. Ever since the Enlightenment, theology has been banned from exegesis, or at least relegated to the back seat. The result is that “ideal exegesis” entails studying the passage scientifically with no interference from dogmatics, which would prejudice one against the true meaning of the text.This kind of exegesis is clearly seen in scholarly commentaries written during the first part of the twentieth century. Theology could only be done after the text was thoroughly studied, and so much discontinuity was seen in the Bible that most thought a coherent theology was impossible for the Bible as a whole. This style of atheological exegesis has brought a variety of reactions in the past few decades. Some have focused on literary methods. Others have looked to biblical theology to hold theology and the Bible together. TIOS is another reaction against the historically dominant critical method. Advocates of TIOS strive to return the Bible to the church from the academy and to connect the Bible to theology once again.


The relationship between TIOS and evangelicals is somewhat ambivalent. In a sense, evangelicals as a whole are bystanders in the debate between the historical-critical method and TIOS. TIOS has mainly reacted against a strict view of the historical-critical method and the study of the Bible as it is conducted in the university rather than the evangelical seminary.4 Evangelicals have traditionally emphasized linking exegesis and theology, and many of the critiques of the historical-critical method from TIOS have already been articulated by evangelicals.


Trying to define TIOS is somewhat like eating ice cream with a fork: it is possible, but it is very slippery. TIOS advocates cover a wide swath of theological territory, as illustrated by A. K. M. Adam and Kevin Vanhoozer. Adam represents the postmodern edge of TIOS and rejects a determine meaning in the text, relying instead on local criteria to interpret the text. Vanhoozer, on the other hand, defends a determinate meaning connected more closely with the author. Adam (along with Stephen Fowl) argues for the acceptance of homosexuals in the church, while Vanhoozer would presumably not come to the same conclusion. But in spite of their differences, Adam and Vanhoozer both claim to be doing some form of TIOS.

For the purposes of this paper I will list a series of important principles which most of the TIOS advocates hold. Not all TIOS advocates would subscribe to all these principles, and the sum of these principles does not equal TIOS, but this listing is an introductory way to grasp the essence of TIOS. I will begin by listing some principles which I think are helpful to evangelicals before moving on to a few principles that can become more problematic.



Posted Friday, October 17, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: HermeneuticsTheological Interpretation of Scripture   Comments: None
Show Introduction

Helpful Principles of TIOS


Breakdown of Barrier Between Biblical Studies and Theology


One of the primary goals of TIOS is to bring exegesis and theology back together again. The university has pushed these two fields into two different disciplines which rarely intersect, resulting in theology-less exegesis and exegesis-less theology. The emphasis on the combination of theology with biblical studies is an important aspect for evangelicals and one that plays an important role in many evangelical seminaries, not to mention the churches of evangelicalism. In my own training (as well as the training of my classmates who went to evangelical schools) the two disciplines were engaged. In our exegesis classes we discussed theology and in our theology classes we did exegesis, a pattern that I think should be common. Naturally, a divide still stands: we have professors of theology and Old Testament, for example. But the link between exegesis and theology is one that should be affirmed by evangelicals, especially as we train pastors for ministry. A few pastors have the idea that if they just exegete the text well their job is done, and the reminder from TIOS of the importance of theology in exegesis is helpful for them. One possible idea to further the connection between theology and exegesis would be to have more interaction between professors in different departments, perhaps even team-teaching classes on occasion (an OT theology class taught by an OT scholar and a systematic theologian, for example).


Higher View of Precritical Exegesis

In the common parlance used by biblical scholars a “classical view” tends to be a view from the 19th or 20th century. TIOS says this is far too myopic and we need to pay greater attention to interpretation from before the Enlightenment. This fits with the other beliefs of TIOS, since many of the precritical interpreters operated under other TIOS principles, such as the rule of faith. Similar to our American culture, evangelicals as a whole have little knowledge of history (even evangelical history, let along broader church history), and as a result we are doomed to repeat mistakes made by our ancestors. Paying attention to history is more than surveying the literature over the past two hundred years, or even making a nod to Calvin. We need more evangelical commentaries which engage the history of interpretation, even if we do not always agree with those who have gone before us. The Ancient Christian Commentary Series is a help in this, although the removal of the quotations from their context is unhelpful. I would love to have a series like ACCS which was more bibliographic, not necessarily giving the quotations, but extending coverage further through church history and listing more of the places where a biblical text is mentioned.




Posted Tuesday, October 21, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: HermeneuticsTheological Interpretation of Scripture   Comments: None
Show Introduction

Views of Those Outside North America and Europe

While this focus has not received as much attention as other characteristics, it fits with the TIOS desire for multiple perspectives.  As I look at the commentaries and books on my shelf, very few stray from my cultural context. It is good for us as evangelicals to learn how others outside our culture are reading the Bible in order to see the blind spots in our own thinking.



The rejection of “lone ranger” exegesis in favor of community exegesis is an important aspect for many in TIOS. TIOS sees one of its main goals as giving the Bible back to the church, a goal with which evangelicals should be in hearty agreement. While some measure of individualism is important in the Christian worldview, Americans are very unbalanced in this area. We need to read the Scriptures not only alone in our studies but also together: with others in the academy and others in the church. Perhaps pastors could have a mid-week Bible study based on the text for the following Sunday sermon, which would not only allow discussion but also give more ownership to the people of the church. Professors should be active in local churches, both to keep them in the real world and to bless the church with what they have learned.





Posted Sunday, October 26, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: HermeneuticsTheological Interpretation of Scripture   Comments: None
Show Introduction

Helpful but Easily Distorted Principles of TIOS

Embracing of Theological Lenses and the Rule of Faith

One of the ways that TIOS seeks to bring together theology and exegesis is to bring theology to the text. Instead of recognizing our theological lenses and then seeking to overcome them, we should embrace those theological lenses when we read the Bible. The clearest example of this is that TIOS advocates desire to return to using the “rule of faith” in interpretation. The content of the rule of faith is usually associated with the patristic summations of the faith, culminating in the Nicene Creed. The rule of faith serves two functions. First, it is a fence for interpretation: if an interpretation falls outside the rule of faith, then it cannot be accepted. Second, and more obliquely, it serves as a guide or a key to exegesis: It actively helps us to understand the text in a better and fuller fashion.

How extensive these beliefs should be is unclear, although most agree that they should at least be the general orthodoxy handed down by the early church. While Vanhoozer makes clear that “[t]heological interpretation of the Bible is not an imposition of a theological system or confessional grid onto the biblical text,”3 others explicitly argue for approaching the text with the theology of one’s tradition.4 Wall says that it even includes our own individual rule of faith, not simply the church as a whole.5

The rule of faith as a fence, while potentially revolutionary for scholars in a university setting,6 can be easily accepted by most evangelicals. But its usefulness is not that great because of evangelical statements of faith which already contain the rule of faith. How often does one hear outright Arian teaching among evangelicals?

But the rule of faith as a guide or a key is more difficult to understand. Treier gives one of the better presentations of the rule of faith as a key in a discussion of the Brazos Theological Commentary Series, edited by R. R. Reno.

If this approach [of Reno] is correct, then interpretation according to the Rule of faith does not simply involve coming to exegetical conclusions that cohere with Trinitarian orthodoxy; rather, it means stretching ourselves to explore imaginatively the classic Christians consensus about God, suspecting that the tradition can illuminate far more in the Scriptures than simply the doctrine of the Trinity or incarnational Christology, narrowly conceived. Beyond merely setting boundaries, the Rule of faith grants us true freedom by guiding us to pursue particular directions of interpretation.7

While helpful in showing what he is not talking about (finding the Trinity in every passage in the OT, for example), this is still obscure to me. How does it grant us true freedom? Does theology give us the correct questions to ask? Or does it gives us answers as well? Treier desires that theology play some role in interpretation, even if the Bible is ultimately authoritative. “The movement of theological reflection is multidirectional, even if in a sense the line of authority moves in one direction, from the Bible to contemporary theology.”8 Elsewhere Treier suggests that we begin the interpretative process (get the ball rolling, to speak colloquially) by using “our theological understanding of the scope of the Bible's teaching.”9

Further suggestions on using theology in exegesis comes from R. R. Reno (editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary Series). He is displeased with much of what passes as TIOS. The main reason is that most TIOS moves from the text to abstraction. As an example, he speculates as to what Augustine would say about Song of Songs 4:2 (Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes ascending from the pool, all of which give birth to twins, and there is not a sterile animal among them) before actually reading what Augustine wrote: “Indeed, like the shorn ewes, divine love is fertile and generative.” Instead, here is what Augustine actually said:

It gives me pleasure to contemplate holy men, when I see them as the teeth of the church tearing men away from their errors and transferring them to its body, breaking down their rawness by biting and chewing. And it is with the greatest of pleasure that I visualize the shorn ewes, their worldly burdens set aside like fleeces, ascending from the pool (baptism) and all giving birth to twins (the two commandments of love), with none of them failing to produce this holy fruit.10

Reno desires that we follow this pattern. Instead of thinking that theology means abstraction from the biblical text (divine love, God's power, etc.), he wants us to use the biblical idiom in a specific and concrete manner. Since he critiques much of TIOS, I wonder what other TIOS advocates would say about his proposals.

An unclear aspect in all this is whether this theological reading is the only way to read Scripture or not. Some advocate reading the text first without the theological lenses, and then using one's theology on the second reading.11 But when it comes to actual practice, it seems that much of the first reading is done with the theology in mind (see below for my critique of some of the published TIOS commentaries).

In my mind the idea is clearest when TIOS is compared to other approaches to Scripture which bring outside ideas as heuristic models. For example, the principles of post-colonialism might help us see the conquest from a new perspective. What TIOS does is to take theology as that heuristic model and then tries to understand the text better based on that theology. On one level, this is clearly much more appropriate than many other models. How much more relevant can one get than theology in understanding the Bible? But on another level this also causes problems.

The reason that this characteristic is problematic in my mind is the lack of self-correction. Just as Lucy comes with her belief about the Brazilian origin of the butterfly and does not change her belief even when the butterfly is revealed to be a chip, if we bring our theology to the text, then it will be very difficult to change that theology to some other belief. Using theology as a heuristic model to understand Scripture can be problematic because theology itself comes from the Bible. If the authority for our theology is to be Scripture, how can our theology receive any kind of correction if our reading of Scripture already inherently contains our theology? We will simply find what we are looking for. To state it another way, we will end up imposing our theology on the text.

Fowl’s phrasing of the relationship between theology and Scripture helps to show the problem: “Further, rather than providing a set of proof texts for doctrine, we should study, interpret, and engage Scripture to deepen and enrich the agreements between Scripture and our doctrine, faith, and practice.”13 If our reading of Scripture simply enriches the preexisting agreement, there is little room for considering that the prior agreement might be a figment of our imagination. Instead of being determined by Scripture, our theology will instead be based upon our community or our desires. For these reasons, John Goldingay calls the rule of faith “a disaster.”14

There are some passing comments from TIOS advocates which address this concern. Hart says that we should read the Bible within the rules of our tradition. He appeals to a hermeneutical spiral to avoid being misled, but it seems to me that if one actively embraces one’s tradition then even a spiral will not do much good to correct an error, since one will not even consider other options.15 Instead of asking “Does my theology fit?” when reading the text, TIOS instead asks “What can theology teach me about this passage?” The first question is much more open to correction than the second.

A similar suggestion to counteract this problem is to read Scripture several times, each time with a different theological view. After we read the text embracing various theological views, we determine which reading fits most naturally.16 This is similar to the idea of the hermeneutical spiral just presented, but it has a wider base and a better chance of success. Another important feature would be that the staring theology is held with varying levels of certainty. Those explicitly contained in the rule of faith, such as the Trinity, would be held very strongly and never called into question. But non-creedal issues would be held with more corrigibility, with more openness to change. While this is an excellent suggestion, it is difficult and time-consuming to put into practice on a regular basis and to know other perspectives so well we can think inside of them. It also does not seem satisfactory from a TIOS perspective, since this seems to go against the very idea of embracing one’s theology: we are to use our theology to enlighten the text, and this suggestion returns to “proving” theology from the text.

Fowl also provides some guidance in this area, although he examines how we interpret the Bible to support our sinful habits, not interpreting in an incorrect manner. He argues that we (the plural “we” is as an important part of his argument) need to interpret the Bible with the constant recognition that we are sinners, with the result that our interpretations will have a certain amount of tentativeness and that we will always be seeking corrections from others in our community and other communities.17 This is certainly a helpful guideline for us as readers to keep us from becoming too dogmatic on our own readings of Scripture. But this suggestion once again takes extensive time and effort to interact with those outside our community. Further, how will we know when to listen to others who read differently than us? How do we know when they are being the sinful readers and not us?

In spite of these ideas for self-correction, the danger for TIOS is a real possibility. If the system encourages starting with the endpoint then it will be difficult to self-correct one’s theology along the way. Not only is self-correction difficult, the end result sometimes is an imposition of an external theology on the text. While there are glimmers of ways to reduce this problem, the problem seems to be mostly ignored so far by TIOS advocates.

As evangelicals I think we face a similar problem. Evangelicalism has historically been opposed to bringing theology to the text. Just as an example, Daniel Fuller rejects theological exegesis, which he defines as reading Scripture to conform to one's theology.18 However, even though evangelicals have been ideologically opposed to the practice, I think that it still happens much too frequently: it is just too easy to come to a text and find what we are looking for. I think that the thoughts just presented about guards in interpretation are good and should be followed as much as possible. For my part, my goal to read the Bible in a series of ways. I first read it trying to keep my theology out (although that is never entirely possible). Then I read it with my theology in mind and see how my theology (i.e., what I think the rest of the Bible says) helps me understand the passage, as well as what kind of questions I can ask the passage based on my theology. Then, to the best of my ability, I read it from other perspectives and see how it works in other paradigms in order to see my own blind spots more clearly.19 While the majority of my time is spent on the first step, the latter steps are important as well.