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?

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