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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Ten Theses on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Published Thursday, July 1, 2010 By Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Introduction: The Ugly Divorce between Theology and Biblical Studies

According to David Bebbington’s well-known definition, “biblicism” is one of the four marks of evangelicalism, along with substitutionary atonement, conversion, and activism. For years, one of the chief questions fueling my work has been: What does it mean to be biblical? During this time, I witnessed the so-called “battle for the Bible” played out in and between evangelical (and Southern Baptist) churches and seminaries over inerrancy. Today I am involved in a new battle for the Bible, or rather over Bible reading. The issue this time is not inerrancy but interpretation, and the combatants are not conservatives and liberals but biblical scholars and systematic theologians.

“Battle” may be too bellicose a term, though at times the discussion between different academic disciplines does resemble a kind of entrenched warfare, with neither side able to speak the language of the other with fluency. Moreover, family feuds are often the most painful and intense, especially when what is at stake is possession of the family jewels: the authoritative Scripture of the Old and New Testaments. Whose inspired line is it? Which guild, the exegetical or the dogmatic, is the better keeper of the flame of biblical Christianity?

The answer, for many, is a no-brainer: of course biblical scholars are closer to the Bible, not least by definition. But this assumes that being biblical means being textual in a particular way. Many biblical scholars, however, are content to read the Bible like any other ancient text, studying the original languages and situating texts in their original historical contexts. Often this involves applying critical approaches that bring new historical knowledge to bear on the text’s interpretation. Does recovering a text’s “natural history,” so to speak, enable us to discern the Word of God? Can the grammatical-historical method get beyond descriptions of Israelite and early Christian religion in order to read the Bible as Scripture–as God’s self-communication?

Something new is happening in biblical interpretation–or rather, something old that had disappeared is making a comeback. After two centuries of captivity to Berlin (the university where the divorce between biblical studies and systematic theology became official), some exegetes are beginning to return to Jerusalem to read the Bible in canonical (and ecclesial) context as a unified Word of God to the church today.

As with all broken relationships, there are two sides to the story, and to suggest that biblical scholars alone have dropped the ball is only half the truth. If biblical scholars have been insufficiently theological, then theologians have been insufficiently biblical. The temptation for theologians is to read the biblical text in ways that confirm one’s prejudices (and confessional frameworks). Alas, the text offender you will always have with you. Revisionist and conservative theologians alike too often give the impression that they are unwilling to let particular biblical texts get in the way of their marching truth and sweeping generalizations.

Neither the divorce between biblical studies and theology nor the vilification of one by the other of these disciplines serves the church. The fact is that many biblical scholars seek to be faithful to the Bible precisely by attending to its language and historical context. The question is whether and to what extent their Christian faith is operational rather than merely notional when it comes to the thick of the exegetical process. In order to be biblical in its faith, thought, and life, the church needs to know both how to read the Bible as Scripture and something about the tradition of its orthodox interpretation. Exegetes and theologians must work together to develop biblical and theological literacy: canon sense and catholic sensibility.

Ten Theses

Bebbington’s quadrilateral you know, less so Vanhoozer’s decahedral, a ten-point checklist for fledgling theological interpreters of Scripture. The ten theses are arranged in five pairs: the first term in each pair is properly theological, focusing on some aspect of God’s communicative agency; the second draws out its implications for hermeneutics and biblical interpretation. (1)

1. The nature and function of the Bible are insufficiently grasped unless and until we see the Bible as an element in the economy of triune discourse. (2)
Those who approach the Bible as Scripture must not abstract it from the Father who ultimately authors it, the Son to whom it witnesses, and the Spirit who inspired and illumines it. Theological interpretation acknowledges the priority of God’s communicative activity as well as the integrity of human authorship. That the Bible is (a) a word of God that (b) speaks to readers in their own day captures the two most important assumptions that all ancient readers implicitly adopted. (3)

2. An appreciation of the theological nature of the Bible entails a rejection of a methodological atheism that treats the texts as having a “natural history” only.
The Bible is like and unlike other books: like other books, the Bible has authors; unlike other books, its primary author is God. Hence what I call the analogia lectionis or “analogy of reading”: the similarity in reading the Bible like other books is marked by an even greater dissimilarity due to its character as the Word of God. Moreover, God is a living author who intends our participation in his communicative act. Reading the Bible is part of our creaturely and covenantal relationship to God, hence the doctrines that speak to that relationship (for example, sin, regeneration, sanctification, ecclesiology, and so forth) also have a bearing on the act of reading. (4)

3. The message of the Bible is “finally” about the loving power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16), the definitive or final gospel Word of God that comes to brightest light in the Word’s final form.
The God who authored Scripture sends his Son and Spirit into the dramatic storyline. The God who led Israel out of Egypt is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead; the one Exodus anticipates the other. This in contrast to Walter Brueggemann’s defiant claim: “It is clear on my reading that the Old Testament is not a witness to Jesus Christ, in any primary or direct sense.” (5) Jesus himself interpreted “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27) and rebuked those who search the Scriptures for eternal life while ignorant of the fact that they bear witness to him (John 5:39).

4. Because God acts in space-time (Israel, Jesus Christ, and the church), theological interpretation requires thick descriptions that plumb the height and depth of history, not only its length.
An exegetical method is only as rich as its conception of history. Exegetes are not outside the world described by the Bible looking in; on the contrary, the Bible describes our world, our history. Adolf Schlatter dedicated himself to enabling biblical scholarship to deal with the presence and work of God in history. However, modern biblical scholarship has by and large hobbled itself to a purely immanent understanding of history as atomistic and linear. In contrast to this thin conception, theological interpreters insist that to be in history is to participate in the field of God’s communicative activity. This gives a very different spin to grammatical-historical exegesis, for “historical” now includes “a participation in realities known by faith.” (6)

5. Theological interpreters view the historical events recounted in Scripture as ingredients in a unified story ordered by an economy of triune providence.
There is no square inch of human history that is extrinsic to the mission fields of Son and Spirit. The biblical authors are witnesses to a coherent series of events ultimately authored by God. This series of events involves both divine words and divine deeds and, as such, is both revelatory and redemptive.

6. The Old Testament testifies to the same drama of redemption as the New Testament, hence the church rightly reads both testaments together, two parts of a single authoritative script.
Again, this hermeneutical thesis follows from the preceding theological claim. What unifies the canon is Divine Providence and this in two senses: formally, the Bible is the product of divine authorship; materially, the subject matter of the Bible is the history of God’s covenant faithfulness. It is the story of how God keeps his word: to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and so on. It follows that the Old and New Testaments are connected at a profound level, for the one story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise is told in two parts. The typological connections that link the two testaments are grounded on God’s acting consistently through time. (7)

7. The Spirit who speaks with magisterial authority in the Scripture speaks with ministerial authority in church tradition.
We owe the insight into the unity of the Old and New Testaments to precritical readers–Fathers and Reform-ers–who developed and maintained the Rule of Faith that generated in turn a typological Rule for Reading, in which earlier events and persons prefigured later aspects of the person and work of Christ. What might otherwise seem to be an arbitrary history of diverse interpretations looks different when viewed theologically, for example, as the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send his Spirit to guide his followers into all truth (John 16:13). Viewed in the context of the triune economy of communication, the Spirit is the prime minister of scriptural understanding, the Rule of Faith a prime means of the Spirit’s ministry of the Word. (8)

8. In an era marked by the conflict of interpretations, there is good reason provisionally to acknowledge the superiority of catholic interpretation.
The Word of God addresses the one church, local and universal; we are not the first generation to receive illumination. It is a bold critic who is prepared to identify his own interpretation with “what the Bible says” even when it flies in the face of the Great Tradition. One need not conclude from the history of textual effects that the Bible’s meaning has changed, only that communities in different times and places have searched the Scriptures from their respective situations, enriching our understanding of the literal sense.

9. The end of biblical interpretation is not simply communication–the sharing of information–but communion, a sharing in the light, life, and love of God.
The Word of God is not mocked: we may think we can master it, but it is “living and active,” turning the spotlight on us, “discerning the thoughts and intentions of [our] heart” (Heb. 4:12). It can also circumcise our hearts, renew our minds, and transform us (Rom. 12:2). We need to recover the practice of reading Scripture in order to renew our mission and reform our habits. The theological interpretation of the Bible is as much if not more a matter of spiritual formation as it is a procedure readers work on the text: “God’s employment of the words of Scripture to be an instrument of his own communicative presence, by which process they are made holy, has its goal and essential counterpart in God’s formation of a holy people.” (9)

10. The church is that community where good habits of theological interpretation are best formed and where the fruit of these habits are best exhibited.
The Bible’s communicative aim is to foster communion with God and with one another. God calls the church into being to be the community that facilitates this happening. The church is not one more interpretive community with its own set of idiosyncratic interests, but the divinely appointed context wherein God ministers new life via his Word and Spirit. Strictly speaking, “Scripture” makes no sense apart from the community whose life, thought, and practice it exists to rule and shape.

Scholars know deep down that they can and should do better than stay within the safe confines of their specializations: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the interpretive good I want, but the historical-criticism or proof-texting I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but interpretive habits that have been drilled into me. Wretched reader that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of secondary literature?” Thanks be to God, there is a way forward: the way, truth, and life of collaboration in Christ, where sainthood and scholarship coexist, and where theological exegesis and exegetical theology are mutually supportive and equally important.

Conclusion: Toward Theological Exegesis

The way forward is to tear in two the disciplinary curtain that divides biblical studies from theology in the ivory temple, so to effect a reconciliation of these alienated parties. Between the original languages and the doctrinal propositions of the Bible lie various forms of biblical literature. The literary forms of the Bible are lenses that school our imaginations to see and grasp things as wholes: the individual books as a whole, the connection between the books and, most importantly, our own world in light of the world of the biblical text. Those who wish to be “biblical” would do well to remember this literary level.

Theological exegesis is not less but more than grammatical. Meaning occurs not only on the level of the sentence but also of the genre as a whole, which is why our interpretation must be “lettered,” adept at interpreting the whole panoply of the Bible’s literary forms.

Theological exegesis is not less but more than historical. Everything depends on exegetes having a theologically “thick” view of history as the field of God’s communicative activity. It is precisely because of this broader divine economy “that the ultimate meaning of texts cannot be simply handed over to the critical biblical scholar.” (10)

Theological exegesis aims for both understanding and communion with God. To renew our evangelical mission to be a people of the book, then, we must conform our minds, wills, and hearts to the forms of thinking, doing, and feeling inscribed in Scripture. Being biblical is not simply a matter of grasping propositions but rather of learning certain cognitive, volitional, and affective dispositions that are part and parcel of what the Bible communicates.

Understanding without communion is empty; communion without understanding is blind. Joel Green’s comment continues to haunt: “No amount of linguistic training or level of expertise in historical and textual analysis can supersede the more essential ‘preparation’ entailed in such dispositions and postures as acceptance, devotion, attention, and trust.” (11)

The chief end of biblical studies and theology is to minister understanding of God’s Word. If current disciplinary structures and procedures get in the way of this end, then seminary faculties will need the courage to go against the institutional grain for the sake of forming theological interpreters of Scripture able to minister the Word, even if this means a loss of academic respectability.

It is best to view the new interest in theological interpretation of Scripture in relation to the old task of training ministers of the gospel. Exegesis and theology alike serve the task of Christian proclamation: that distinctive talk about the triune God and the gospel of Jesus Christ that the Bible both generates and governs. The preacher is a “man on a wire,” whose sermons must walk the tightrope between Scripture and the contemporary situation, bringing God’s Word to bear on all of life. The pastor-theologian should be evangelicalism’s default public intellectual, with preaching the preferred public mode of theological interpretation of Scripture. (12) The health of the church depends on it.

Editorial Note: For more discussion on biblical studies and theology, see the interview with D. A. Carson in this issue.

  • Kevin J. Vanhoozer


1 [ Back ] For overviews of the emerging field of theological interpretation of the Bible, see J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); Mark Alan Bowald, Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007); Stephen Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Cascade Companion, 2009); Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Renewing a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
2 [ Back ] See my "Triune Discourse: Theological Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks," in David Lauber and Daniel J. Treier, eds., Trinitarian Theology for the Church: Scripture, Community, Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 25-78.
3 [ Back ] So James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (Free Press, 2007), 14-16.
4 [ Back ] See John Webster, "Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections," in Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 47-86.
5 [ Back ] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 107.
6 [ Back ] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 6.
7 [ Back ] In his Brazos Theological Commentary, for example, Peter Leithart uses typology to show how the text "points to, anticipates, and foreshadows the gospel of Jesus the Christ" (1 & 2 Kings [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006], 20).
8 [ Back ] The authority of the Rule ultimately rests on its conformity to the biblical text, not community consensus. For a further discussion, see my The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 203-10.
9 [ Back ] Murray Rae, "On Reading Scripture Theologically," Princeton Theological Review 2008, no. 1, 23.
10 [ Back ] C. Stephen Evans, "The Bible and the Academy," in David Lyle Jeffrey and Evans, eds., The Bible and the University (Grand Rapids and Milton Keynes, UK: Zondervan and Paternoster, 2007), 310.
11 [ Back ] Joel Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 65.
12 [ Back ] A longer version of this article, titled "Interpreting Scripture between the Rock of Biblical Studies and the Hard Place of Systematic Theology: The State of the Evangelical (Dis)union," will be published in a collection, to be edited by Richard Lints, of papers that were originally presented at the "Renewing the Evangelical Mission" conference at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in October 2009.
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