The Failure of Exile and Theological Interpretation

True confessions: I’m a theological reader of the scripture. [A stunned silence grips the crowd.]

Ok, that comes as no surprise to anyone. But if you’re not in the biblical studies world, where “theological interpretation” is a movement gathering a full head of steam, you might be surprised to learn that I’m more than a little cautious about the movement.

What’s my hesitation? It has to do, primarily, with what sort of “theology” should form our interpretive grid.

As the title of (and every post on, it seems!) this site indicates, the sort of biblical theology I am interested in is a theology that maintains its narrative dynamic. In the history of Christian theology, I don’t think it’s too sweeping a generalization to say, “real” theology has been concerned with threshing off the narrative chaff in order to uncover an ahistorical core of universal truth. This conception of theology will never succeed in making sense of the Bible.

Attempts at doing biblical theology got off entirely on the wrong foot with J. P. Gabler‘s famous 1787 address, “On the Correct Distinction Between Dogmatic and Biblical Theology and the Right Definition of Their Goals,” in which he incorrectly distinguished between dogmatic and biblical theology and wrongly defined their goals.

Gabler envisioned biblical theologians doing what my father-in-law does in fine chemical sales: using special skills to develop chemicals and intermediaries that can be handed over to another company (say, a pharma company) to make into the specific drugs, etc. that they wish to manufacture. Only, in the case of biblical theologians the “goal” is the theological truths that are embedded in scripture and the end product is a systematic theology that orders these truths appropriately.

With this vision of the biblical theologian’s work, Gabler failed to articulate a truly biblical theology, turning biblical scholars into hunters for non-biblical theology in the pages of scripture.

This will not do.

My concerns about such a game is that systematic theology then ends up masquerading as biblical theology. A theological approach that is devoid of diachronic change, devoid of narrative dynamics, impatient of polyvalence now becomes the goal for a discipline that is inherently diachronic, narratival, and polyvalent. It simply  cannot work without transmogrifying biblical scholarship into something else entirely.

And thus my concerns with the contemporary theological interpretation movement. This is a broad umbrella, with no set theological approach. But… One indication of how it is going is last year’s SBL, at which there were probably no fewer than a dozen papers (and some whole sessions) touching on “The Rule of Faith” as a hermeneutical guide to reading the Bible.

And so we’re back at Gabler’s mistake: bringing a different kind of theology as our guide for reading scripture.

So what does all of this blah, blah, blah have to do with reading the Bible?

I’m just about to finish reading the book of Isaiah. Something that strikes me as I read through the book is that the various voices and perspectives indicate that the exile was, for all intents and purposes, a failure. The purpose of exile is purgatory and transformative: it’s supposed to not only discipline Israel, but transform her into a people who will love God with all their hearts (cf. Deuteronomy). But it doesn’t.

So here’s the question: what sort of guidance can theological interpretation give us for reading 1st Isaiah as Christian scripture? I have a couple of different answers depending on what “theological interpretation” means, and they illustrate why we need a narrative theology rather than a systematic theology as our rule of interpretation.

We’ll get to my answers tomorrow. Do you have any thoughts about how your interpretive practices might help the church read a failed expectation of exile as Christian scripture?

14 thoughts on “The Failure of Exile and Theological Interpretation”

  1. As you know from conversations we’ve had elsewhere, I’m in the midst of reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Unsettling God. The book has convinced me that there is no way around the fact that the Old Testament presents a God much more like what has been commonly called the “openness of God” view than our more traditional, Western-modern views.

    To be brief, Brueggemann shows that the biblical authors/compilers didn’t spend much time sweating over the ontology of YHWH, but seemed to comfortably assumed that Israel was in a real (covenantal) relationship with YHWH, with all that “relationship” implies among humans–including the assumption that both parties in the relationship will learn and grow from the relationship. While Israel was serious about the sovereignty and power of YHWH, they were just as serious about their ability to affect YHWH and even change YHWH, based on YHWH’s promises of covenantal faithfulness.

    On your topic, perhaps a possible answer is that exile was a sort of experiment on YHWH’s part, the same way that we as parents try out different parenting techniques, eventually abandoning those that just don’t work?

    1. Interesting thoughts. When I read what you wrote I start trying to see if it fits within some other ways I’ve already been thinking. Does the following mesh with what you’re saying here to draw attention to the idea that God’s identity is tied to the story and people of Israel?

      There is a way in which God’s faithfulness exceeds Israel’s faithlessness, but that narratively enshrined identity leaves a lot of leeway for God to change in relationship to his people that one might not necessarily find in a definition of God that simply demands constancy, perfection, etc., considered as ahistorical absolutes (or even in one that links God to say “creation,” but not a particular story line within it before Jesus rolls around).

    2. And yet, what I am afraid that Open Theists don’t recognize is that the openness of God is not a systematic category that can simply replace traditional or classical articulations of “the doctrine of God.” It is not as though classical doctrines of God are merely wrong (though they are), more important is that they approached the whole subject wrong-headedly. I think Daniel’s response recognizes this well.

  2. Im taking a prophets class right now at TEDS and we have been reading a lot of Seitz, so Im in process on all of this. But between Seitz and VanGemeren (the prof) I find myself being opened up to what VanGemeren is calling a “surplus of expectations”. But I think our tendency is just what we miss in reading the prophets, that there was only one exodus, one exile, and now Jesus. But there was a second Exodus with the post-exilic era, and then another exile until Christ, and now on this side of the cross we are in a form of exile as well. So I think that these reoccurring narratival themes are continuing to show up in christian history, and thus we can see the prophetic word speaking to us in ways we never have before because we no longer look at it as one to one fulfillment, but as expectations with an S. Thus, the prophetic word has a profound voice for the church as it is calling us again to our God in a time of waiting to when God will fulfill his promises finally in the second coming of the King.

  3. Hope my first, long comment didn’t get lost; haven’t seen it here yet.

    Brueggemann’s first answer in this interview is, I think, quite apropos to your question.

    Here’s a nugget:

    “It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character [the "character" that is the surprising and unpredictable "God" in the Bible] and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting.”

    1. “the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable” that is a great quote. It brings to mind God’s justice.

      In my catholic circles we have a social justice movement that is coming under attack for losing faith in our confounding God and going too far in another direction. That is the belief that God is best found in our close proximity to the poor and vulnerable rather then in the church. As if the church is on a treasure hunt and the gold, the presence of God, is in an alleyway. There may be discovery in poverty but the true presence of God must be found in God and for us that is in the Eucharist.

      But if we are in exile then where is our hope for knowing him in the midst of our anxiety? The narrative gives a polysemic answer. We are aliens, strangers, God’s adopted sons living in his kingdom here on earth. That we are not alienated from God yet we are full of anxiety in anticipation for his coming. This world is broken and in a sense, separated, but not far flung from God. Maybe this is where the concept of a narrative works best, in that we can leave unsettling paradoxes to intuition where we rest in faith with joyful anxiety, until unity is revealed through our natural senses and revelation.

      Bear with me as I’m working through this concept of narrative interpretation and my own fundamentalist dross. I’m sure I’m off the mark a little, but I appreciate beng enable to engage the conversation.

  4. Honestly, lately the narrative aspect of reading the Bible has made my sense of being apart of God’s people real. With that reality ethic and community come into play. The idea of Paul writing Gentiles into Israel’s story is astonishing. What has struck me the most is the redefining of God’s people. I don’t exactly express my thoughts because they are developing, but I can say this much: I don’t know much.

    I have to think about the 1st Isaiah question.

  5. Oh come on, Daniel. God can’t fail. Because if God’s efforts fail, then OUR efforts for him might fail… ha ha ha.. and you just know that we can’t let that idea into our interpretative lens, can we?

    (See Todd Bolen’s quote from Elisabeth Elliot, on the way people “interpreted” Jim Elliot’s death after the fact. It’s priceless.)

  6. Frances Young has a wonderful discussion–in her little book on the creeds–about how the creeds play this role of supplying the large/over-arching narrative structure within which the church reads Scripture week in and week out. What larger story do these particular passages, this week, fit within? The Apostles Creed, for instance, is the answer (i.e., the context).

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