Dialoging About Dialogue Partners: Theological Interpretation of Scripture in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews

Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews—Profiles from the History of Interpretation. Edited by Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (LNTS 423; London: T&T Clark, 2012). Thanks to T&T Clark for providing a review copy of this book.

What makes interpretation “theological”? In many and diverse ways, the contributors to this volume suggest that the answer to this question is at least a function of one’s dialogue partners. In short, they suggest that to do TIS is to read something other (or perhaps in addition to) than modern biblical scholars: systematic theologians, non-western interpreters,[1] pre-modern exegetes, creeds, etc.[2] The key question, then, is what do we gain by engaging those outside the modern biblical guild with respect to our understanding of Hebrews and the God of whom it speaks?

First, though, a brief note on why such an enterprise is necessary. The essays in this book agree, generally speaking, that studying Hebrews beyond the parameters of historical criticism is necessitated by the fact that the naturalistic assumptions of historical criticism are directly opposed to the perspective of Hebrews itself: that God—a Person whose existence is not contingent upon human religious imagination or experience—has spoken and continues to speak (e.g., Laansma, 30; Hagner, 215; Greene-McCreight 227). In order to understand Hebrews, we must approach its subject matter with its own presuppositions in tow. Insofar as the interpreters discussed in the book have taken this crucial step, they offer insight into Hebrews unavailable via historical criticism.

This does not mean that we must take upon ourselves all of the presuppositions of these various interpretive voices—their presuppositions are valuable to us only insofar as they are shared by Hebrews (or the canonical witness more broadly). Thus we need not believe, with John Owen, that the vowel points of the Masoretic text fall under the umbrella of inspiration (Kapic 137). We need not share the proof-texting approaches of some modern Protestant dogmatics (Treier/Atwood 186–87). We may disagree with Aquinas on the importance of Aristotle. And so on. Neither, however, do we dismiss these voices on account of these disagreements—Owen, for example, is not relegated to the sidelines because of a common-in-his-day naïveté concerning the history of textual transmission. What we presuppose along with Owen and Aquinas, these essays suggest, far outweighs the common historical insights we share with current biblical scholarship; and conversely, our disagreements with Owen and Aquinas pale in comparison to the fundamental differences between our perspective—as shaped by Hebrews—and that of the historical-critical biblical guild.

To the main question: what benefit is derived from reading interpretations of Hebrews off the beaten path? At least three answers arise from this book. First, we remain closer to the faith and life of the church, as McCormack suggests by drawing a fine line between his own (Barthian) reading of Heb 1:1–4 and that of Kenneth Schenck, who he accuses of “losing contact” with Nicea (172).[3] Greene-McCreight makes a similar point by noting the importance of the rule of faith and the sacraments for theological exegesis (236)—Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrewsthough McCormack and Greene-McCreight disagree significantly on the precise role of the rule of faith and the creeds (McCormack 161–62, Greene-McCreight 234–35).

Second, we gain greater awareness of and sensitivity to the theological issues at stake in various texts (esp. Young 46–47; Treier/Atwood 201). A recent study of Hebrews by David Moffitt illustrates (negatively) this point. Moffitt argues, with striking similarities to the claims of Faustus Socinus in the 16th century, that Jesus received his Melchizedekian priesthood by virtue of his indestructible life, which he received via the resurrection. Moffitt acknowledges the similarities between his own views and those of Socinus, but goes no further. He ignores, first, the theological basis upon which Socinus’s exegesis was based: an explicit denial of the deity of Christ. He also ignores centuries of responses to Socinus, including those of some interpreters discussed in the book in view here (Jonathan Edwards and especially John Owen). Moffitt has entered into a deeply nuanced theological conversation with little regard for numerous significant voices in that conversation, and his work is poorer for it.[4]

Third, as Keating argues in his essay on Aquinas, we receive a clearer vision of the Christ whose sonship and priesthood make contact with God possible in the first place (99). How could an interpretive enterprise that denies the very existence of the God who speaks in Hebrews possibly help us draw nearer to that God in the way that Hebrews envisions (see, e.g., Laansma’s critique of Räisänen and Wrede [16–18])? Laansma, et al, do not suggest that we can learn nothing from Wrede and his descendants. But is it worth the effort? Could not our energies be better spent elsewhere? Given the vastness of secondary literature (I count around one hundred scholarly publications focused entirely on Hebrews in the last two years alone, and Hebrews lags far behind the Gospels or Pauline studies in this respect), we have to make choices about where to spend our time.

I should note, however, that Laansma’s suggestion that our lack of historical information about Hebrews has caused it to suffer within the historical-critical guild (10, 23) actually has an upside: scholarly literature on Hebrews is usually less frustrating than studies on other portions of Scripture insofar as certain historical-critical agendas are less likely to dominate the discussion. In other words, whereas critical scholarship on Exodus is frequently scholarship on J, E, D, and P, and not on “Exodus” at all, and Matthean scholarship is as likely to say something about Mark and/or Q as about Matthew, biblical scholarship on Hebrews tends to actually address “Hebrews.” Thus insofar as a critical commentary (that of Westcott, for example) is trying to understand what is going on in Hebrews, we have at least that much in common.

To these three points I would add two of my own. First, and most simply, my understanding of Hebrews will be enhanced by reading Chrysostom, Aquinas, and Owen because as “other” than myself they will inevitably see things in the text that are invisible or nearly so from my vantage point. This is not merely a matter of lengthening one’s bibliography! Recent commentaries on Hebrews, such as those by Attridge, Lane, Koester, Ellingworth, and O’Brien, offer a diversity of perspectives on a single set of (grammatical-historical) issues. The more varied the conversation partners, the more diverse the questions of which we become aware.

[Lest this be taken as a diatribe against modern English commentaries on Hebrews, the same point applies to any single set. No one group of interpreters, nor one scholarly genre (whether patristic, medieval, early reformed, historical-critical, etc.), will unpack the full range of Hebrews’ theological potential.]

Second, we need to get past the assumption that interpretation of Hebrews has progressed in a straightforward upwardly-mobile-scientific-progress manner in which new voices are necessarily advancements beyond their predecessors. Are modern biblical scholars really making substantive claims about Hebrews that render pre-modern interpretations obsolete? This “chronological snobbery,” to use C.S. Lewis’s term, is frequently assumed, but I have seen no argument on its behalf.

The document we call Hebrews has remained basically unchanged over the centuries (minor text-critical issues aside), so we should not be surprised that the same debates over its meaning surface again and again regardless of the interpreter. No matter one’s location geographically, historically, or ecclesially, serious engagement with Hebrews always leads to the same issues: the in se and quoad nos relationship of Father to Son, Hebrews’ interpretation of the OT, old vs. new covenant and supersessionism, warning passages vis-à-vis eternal security, and the atoning function of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. In some areas, archaeological discoveries have truly advanced the discussion—an essay comparing 11QMelchizedek to Hebrews 7–10 is unlikely to find great insight in medieval literature. But the major issues in Hebrews such as those just mentioned surface again and again, and generally speaking, the same arguments and refutations are presented ad nauseum with no awareness of their predecessors.

If I submit to a peer-reviewed journal an essay on Hebrews’ intellectual milieu that disregards Hurst, Williamson, Spicq, and Käsemann, the reviewers will rightly recognize that I have not done my homework—how could I advance a discussion when I have no knowledge of its nuances up to this point? What the essays in this volume suggest is that we ought to widen our field of vision. We ought to ask, in other words, whether an essay on atonement in Hebrews that ignores Aquinas, Socinus, Owen, and Edwards is any less deserving of rejection than one that ignores Milgrom, Eberhart, and Moffitt. Again: is an essay on Christology in Hebrews 1 that ignores Cyril, Aquinas, and Barth any more fit to be published than one that ignores Bauckham, Webster, and Schenck?

All of the essays in this book argue, some implicitly and others explicitly, that “theological” interpretation of Scripture is necessarily one that engages dialogue partners outside the modern biblical guild. To this end, many of the contributions act as tertiary sources that tell us where to look for Hebrews in the primary sources, though they do little in themselves to advance one’s understanding of Hebrews (Allen’s essay on Calvin and Bingham’s essay on Irenaeus fall into this category). Others go further, acting as valuable sources not only for understanding their primary voices, but for understanding Hebrews as well (Young’s essay on Christology in Greek patristic commentaries and McCormack’s presentation of Barth on Heb 1:1–4 are exemplary in this regard).

This book is more a means to an end than an end in itself, offering a way forward for those of us inclined to take seriously the church’s reading of Scripture in general and Hebrews in particular. Individual essays vary in value, as is always the case with such publications, but taken as a whole it contributes to debates over what constitutes “theological” interpretation of Scripture and offers an entryway into non-historical-critical readings of Hebrews.

[1] The volume was to have included two contributions by African scholars. One wonders, though, why none of the essays ultimately contained in the book refer to non-western interpretations of Hebrews. I understand the practical limitations invoked by Treier/Atwood in their survey of Protestant Evangelical dogmatics (174), but the book as a whole suffers from a rather narrow field of vision in this regard.

[2] A slightly different point, but no less important, is that the canon itself should be one of our conversation partners. Here the contrast is between primary sources (other canonical texts vs. ANE or Greco-Roman texts) rather than secondary sources, which is the main focus of this essay.

[3] McCormack tries to avoid both the Scylla of Webster’s strictly Nicene reading of Hebrews 1 and the Charybdis of Schenck’s purportedly non-Nicene (I do not say “anti-Nicene”) reading; whether he has successfully done so (or whether he has even fairly framed the debate) is another question.

[4] One example: while Moffitt interacts briefly with Richard Bauckham’s emphasis on the deity of Christ in Hebrews and rightly (in my view) criticizes him on certain points, Moffitt’s over-reaction in one direction corresponds to Bauckham’s overemphasis in another. The conversation would have been better served had Moffitt interacted with more careful discussions with the deity/humanity dynamics of Hebrews 1.

About Mike Kibbe

I am a recent graduate of the PhD (NT) program at Wheaton College, having completed my dissertation on the Sinai theophanies in relation to their use in Hebrews 12. I have been married to Annie (Kerns) for 7 years, and we have one son, Sean, who was born February 2012. I currently teach undergraduate New Testament courses at Wheaton.
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2 Responses to Dialoging About Dialogue Partners: Theological Interpretation of Scripture in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews

  1. Mike,

    I’m curious if you have some non-Western scholars writing on Hebrews to recommend. (I admit I would have liked to have seen essays by African theologians on Hebrews, since I can see great relevance of that book in various African settings.) Also, for those of us who don’t have time to read the whole book right now, which chapter or two would you say are “must read” material?

  2. Stephanie A. Lowery says:

    Mike, the late Kwame Bediako wrote an article titled “Christian Faith and African Culture – An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews” (in Journal of African Christian Thought 13, no. 1). It would simply be a starting point for you, of course.

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