Joel B. Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation. Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic. Baker Academic, 2011. 146 pp.
Joel Green’s book is a great addition to the growing literature on theological interpretation. Much less concerned with theory, Green wants to see how it functions with particular texts from Scripture. The book, therefore, is less an example of exegetical method (i.e., telling us how) and more of a demonstration of how a seasoned scholar interprets texts theologically (i.e., showing us how). I have appreciated and learned from many of Green’s essays on theological interpretation and thus was happy to see a longer work that engages the issue.
A note on the series: “Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic” is a series that stems from two public lectures given at Nazarene Theological Seminary: the Earle Lectures on Biblical Literature and the Grider-Winget Lectures in Theology. Green’s book is from the former, given in 2010. Chapters 1–3 were given as the lectures, whereas chapter 4 was added for the purposes of the book.
The introduction paints the background to the development of theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS), noting that it is not exactly a method (e.g., method cannot guarantee that an interpretation will be “theological”), but “is identified more by certain sensibilities and aims” as well as a “self-consciously ecclesial location” (2). What are these aims and/or sensibilities? It’s worth quoting Green at length:
A theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture concerns the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities. Theological interpretation emphasizes the potentially mutual influence of Scripture and doctrine in theological discourse and, then, the role of Scripture in the self-understanding of the church and in critical reflection on the church’s practices. This is biblical interpretation that takes the Bible not only as a historical or literary document but also as a source of divine revelation and an essential partner in the task of theological reflection (4–5).
The following chapters demonstrate how this works with particular biblical texts. [Sidenote: it was interesting to me to see Green defend the “throat-clearing” of TIS proponents: While some critics are upset with all of the “throat clearing,” Green argues that this is necessary due to the “taken-for-granted hermeneutical commitments of modern scholarship” (8) which are in contrast to those found in most TIS proponents.]
Chapter 1 focuses on the relationship between TIS and Christian formation by raising the question of the role of the reader. A good theological reader, Green argues, understands that the church is one. “Were we to take this ecclesial unity seriously, it would reshape our approaches to reading the Bible” (16). By this he means not only that we can learn from other “saints” throughout the tradition, but that Scripture is addressed not only to its original audience but to us as well. As one church, we are the same community that now must interpret the texts written so long ago. From this point Green moves towards explaining Umberto Eco’s idea of a “model reader” and does this by using the Letter of James (specifically James 1) as a test case. For the model reader “the problem is not our lack of information about folks in the first century. The issue is theological. What separates us from the biblical text read as Scripture is not so much its antiquity as its unhandy, inconvenient claim on our lives. We are not ready to embrace this God” (22; emphasis his). Narrative plays a key role in both understanding God’s work and purposes leading up to and after the life and work of Jesus as well as when it comes to ordering our lives according to the Bible’s narrative (28–29). James’ letter presents the narrative: creation > present life / exilic life > new creation and this helps us see the conceptual patterns and better interpret it theologically. But even more importantly, it helps shape a model reader who hears and puts into action its very message.
Chapter 2 ventures into the difficult dialogue between the role of history, historical criticism and TIS. Green defines historical criticism according to three agendas: (1) “The reconstruction of past events in order to narrate the story of the past.” (2) “Excavation of traditional material in order to explain the process from historical events to their textualizing in the biblical materials.” (3) “Study of the historical situation within which the biblical materials were generated, including the sociocultural conventions that they take for granted” (44–45). TIS has no use for #1; #2 may serve some “rhetorical interests” for TIS, whereas TIS is generally more hospitable to #3. Acts 6:1–7 functions as an additional case study in relation to these issues.
For me, the motto of this chapter is something like “history is not enough!” Therefore, historical studies plays a role, but we must be aware of the limits of its role and we must have appropriate expectations for the results it can produce as we seek to interpret a text wherein God speaks through a human medium. What does this mean for TIS? “Theological interpretation of Christian Scripture concerns itself interpretation of the biblical texts in their final form, not as they might be reconstructed by means of historical-critical sensibilities” (49).
Chapter 3 looks at the relationship of TIS and the Rule of Faith. Green’s concern is with what happens “when an otherwise apparently faithful reading of Scripture stands in tension with a claim of the ecumenical creeds of the church” (80). Drawing on his work from Body, Soul and Human Life (Baker Academic, 2008), Green argues that Scripture teaches that we are souls (i.e., monism, instead of having souls), yet the Athanasian/Chalcedonian definition affirms that Christ had a “rational soul.” Green traces the origins of this phrase and is concerned with the fathers’ use of extra-biblical categories that resulted in the separation of body and soul. Green’s concludes that he disagrees with the specifics (rational soul) of the early creeds, but agrees with one of their key thrusts (the humanity of Christ):
my understanding of the witness of the Scriptures to theological anthropology may stand in tension with a particular anthropology assumed by the christological claim made by the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith, but in no way does my interpretation of the monist anthropology of the Scriptures stand in tension with the kerygmatic affirmation of Jesus’ true humanity essential to these two creedal statements” (95).
Scripture is not the foundation for the creeds, nor the creeds the foundation for delivering Scripture’s meaning. Instead, there is a mutual influence, or dialectic. But do note, it’s not an equal influence. Scripture still retains its primacy.
Chapter 4 is a case study on theological interpretation using John Wesley, a theologian who existed before the rise of historical criticism. How does one’s theological or ecclesial tradition shape their interpretation of Scripture? Should it? Shouldn’t we remain neutral, or can we even be neutral? These are some of the questions Green raises with relation to his own Methodist tradition and Wesley and concludes that it’s essential to recognize our own commitments. He demonstrates this by looking at Wesley’s theological interpretation of 1 Peter and predestination.
In the Afterword, Green notes that “theological engagements with Scripture has no need to exclude other interpretive agendas, but only insists that reading the Bible theologically as Christian Scripture has its own inherently theological presumptions and protocols” (124). Biblical studies has no more need for the bridge metaphor when it locates itself within the context of the church and its purposes. He then calls for more work to be done on theological claims, dispositions, horizons, and method.
My main area of push-back goes back to chapter 3. Green comments in a number of places that the early church fathers used categories derived from their culture instead of Scripture. He notes how this created problems, both then and now, and for the most part I agree with him. However, I’m not sure the concern is fully warranted. I think we may benefit from removing the dichotomy between biblical vs. non-biblical categories. No scholar uses purely scriptural categories, just as no scholar can be completely neutral. This doesn’t mean that any category is fair game, but it does mean that just because you can trace a category to Plato or Aristotle does not make it problematic for articulating scripture’s meaning (Green has clearly borrowed categories from our own time to express his theological anthropology and it’s difficult for me to see how this is significantly different). This issue requires a much longer discussion, but seemed worth bringing up.
Green’s book is a helpful guide for those wondering about all the hoopla surrounding theological interpretation. He is a careful reader of Scripture who also engages with and knows the great tradition well. As a good listener, Green is sympathetic to his critics but still maintains a strong and sometimes bold voice towards the renewal of relationship between biblical studies and theology. This is a great place to begin or even continue the conversation.
Many thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy.