Colloquium on Theological Interpretation: Reflections

After the second day and closing ceremonies of the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation at Laidlaw college, I have a few overall thoughts about the enterprise of theological interpretation.

One of my thoughts is about theological interpretation as a discipline unfolding in the biblical studies academy. In short, I realize that I perceive the academy differently from my senior colleagues who feel the need to fight for space for theological interpretation, because I see them as the academy.

In conversations with several senior colleagues I’ve seen that the academy that they see themselves needing to try to survive in is the world you catch a glimpse of whenever someone writes a letter to the editor at SBL and decries the presence of people who think the Bible is scripture.

For me, the academy is the place that has always had a Pauline Theology group. It’s the place where the Richard Hayses and Michael Gormans and Joel Greens and Tom Wrights and Stephen Fowls and AKMAs and Jimmy Dunns are presenting papers that have significant theological weight to them.

In other words, I’m spoiled, and I tend to take for granted that the biblical studies academy is a place where I can do the kind of work I want to do–whether that be the boring stuff of Pauline chronology (I’ve got a riveting paper on my hard drive) or the more theologically engaged discussion of the beauties of the hermeneutics of Christological revisionism.

So: thank you to the generation of senior scholars who have created this space in the biblical studies world, especially in Pauline studies.

The second reflection is more about the substance and practice of theological interpretation.

In general, a wide gulf continues to exist between biblically generated theology and the theology of theologians, and this gulf will continue to stymie the vision of bringing together the fields of biblical studies and theology.

There were only a couple of hints at this over the weekend, where in general the conversations seemed to be unfolding on the same playing field.

But there were hints. One paper that was reflecting on T. F. Torrance’s reading of scripture talked about Torrance’s assertion that Mark indicated a virgin birth, for instance. In the Q & A afterward, this presenter talked about the annoyance of students coming from their intro to the Pentateuch course into his theology course and not having anything significant to say, theologically, about Gen 1-3. The “throat clearing” has taken place, but they’ve not yet spoken.

I began to wonder if the problem wasn’t with what the students were reading in Genesis, but that theology, in general, has not yet learned to listen to the theology of scripture, how ancient pre-Patristic texts theologize; or, even more importantly, that the texts simply do not speak of, support, or presuppose the theology that the theologian demands of them.

In a side conversation with one of the presenters (whose paper I very much appreciated and whose overall position on theological interpretation I find quite congenial), I made a brief case for why Christian hermeneutics should be Christological rather than Trinitarian.

He sees these working together. And I get that. But in trying to situate my point I asked, “Was Paul a Trinitarian?” He said, “Yes.” End of conversation.

That’s a small picture of where a biblical scholar can’t say what a theologian presumes, and why scholarship’s Bible will continue to be an enigma to the church. Beyond whether scholars are approaching their exegetical task as Christians, theologians (and church people) often want the Bible to say what it does not say, to support what it does not speak to.

I do wonder if the church’s theology will need to learn to hear what it takes for throat clearing as the song of the Spirit before the chasm will bridged between theology and the Bible.

19 thoughts on “Colloquium on Theological Interpretation: Reflections”

  1. Great… ditto. This is what I mean when I tell people “I don’t like theology” or “I don’t really do much theology” and they give me the strange look and respond “…and how many degrees do you have again?” as though thinking to themselves ‘gosh, so-n-so pastor back at my old church only needed to go to seminary for 3 years to learn all this stuff…’

    I don’t care for theology…

  2. I don’t get it. The Trinitarian relations unfold from the Christological. The Father is made known by the Son in the Spirit of Christ. Why did he have a beef with that?

    I’m not sure though that I would pit Biblical Studies against Theology as you do. The two should obviously work in harmony. I do agree that there is a problem when the two are disconnected. That is perhaps better labeled as mythology, even if Jesus is the hero of our story.

    1. JRDK isn’t the one making the division. It’s what we find when we try to get into any given field of study on the material of Christian religion. It’s historic, built out of the simple fact that Bible was amenable to Renaissance humanistic studies as a classic text, and that critical scholarship there could bloom away from Catholic and Protestant dogmatic orthodoxies — but it had to do so *away* from theology, because the churches wouldn’t have it. You can’t muck about in the ground of political orders without challenging them. And in theology, we wind up with a different history, of fundamentalism vs. modernism, and the outworkings of that very deep split, on basically similar grounds but happening later.

      You’re right that it’s counter-intuitive, and that Bible and Theology belong together — and this is something for which Barth is a sort of tonic, but he is also an example of working across both disciplines and being fought on both sides. Because history is what it has been, and it takes a lot of work to bring the two disciplines together.

  3. I’ve been mulling over your question to the theologian, Daniel, and thinking chaplain-like open-ended thoughts and questions. Certainty is a bear that lurks in all our insecure closets, especially when yes/no questions are asked. I like asking bears questions. :) I’d like to be a quiet listener to hear some theologically biblical wondering about how Paul contemplated God, Jesus and Holy Spirit, if he even thought those thoughts or considered them relevant to the ministry to which God called him. How would the conversations proceed as if those in ministry and in the pews were listening? (Robert Wuthnow’s insight – Wittgenstein, too, IIRC – about games we’re playing when we converse.)

      1. Sorry, that was ambiguous. I see no evidence of Paul being a Trinitarian, not to mention it’s quite anachronistic. Also, I see little evidence of a Trinity in the New Testament, especially in Paul. Sorry for my lack of clarity.

  4. Great post, Daniel. Chronological concerns mentioned on FB aside. ;-)

    Most churches, of course, do not want to bridge chasms. They want to build walls. It’s like Orwell said – does the dictator assert himself to safeguard the revolution, or does the revolution exist to establish the dictator? In church history, much (if not most) theology was first developed as a way of *defining* the chasms.

    I’m supposing the gentleman who said, “Yes” about Paul’s Trinitarianism was probably reasonable enough to have said, “Yes but he didn’t know it.” If so, then the conversation ending effect of the shorter response may be one reason he phrased it that way. Case. Point.

    But again, to your overall blogpost, yes. Let the academy remain all that it is. Ban the banners. Full speed ahead.

  5. Good word from many of you, to the effect that there were other places to go with the theologian. I do find it… “interesting” that theologians are often quite precise about what everyone in history actually believed right up until they come to the Bible. Then everyone is said to believe in the same Trinitarian God the church always confesses. It’s almost like there is an inverse of the application of the historical method between the two disciplines when practiced by Christians.

  6. I’m curious how you think theologians should relate to biblical studies? I hope to pursue systematic theology but one that’s conversant with the historical and theological work done by biblical theologians. Maybe a way to ask it is like this, how can the systematic theologian help you?

  7. Hi Daniel

    I was at the colloquium you spoke at as one of Green’s Masters students and I just wanted to leave a quick note to say thank you for your contribution. I found your presentation not only the most engaging and lively but also delved into an area that I have struggled with understanding. As a result I will be using a lot of your thinking (referenced of course :)) in an essay I am currently writing.

    Thank you again, I will be visiting this blog in the future

  8. Hi Daniel,
    As you know, (but others won’t) I was the theologian you were talking to at the Colloquium and who responded to your question about whether Paul was a Trinitarian with the answer ‘Yes’. Before I could go on, however, you responded, ‘There’s your problem!’ and at that point other events intervened to preclude us discussing the matter further. It is a little misleading, therefore, to infer that my response brought an end to the conversation. If I had been able to continue, I would have made clear that Paul certainly did not have a developed Trinitarian theology such as emerged in the subsequent centuries of theological and biblical reflection, but it seems clear to me that the rudiments of a Trinitarian theology are present in Paul. He seemed to believe, for instance that God makes himself known to us and brings about our salvation through Christ and through the Spirit, who are themselves to be thought of as having a uniquely intimate relationship with the Father. Careful exegetical work, clearly beyond the scope of a blog post, is required to piece together the undeveloped but nonetheless nascent Trinitarianism in Paul’s thought, but such work would in my view justify a ‘yes’, albeit qualified, rather than a ‘no’ to your original question. So, I stand by my initial response. I did want to correct the impression given by your blog post, however, that the theologian you spoke to can offer nothing beyond a dogmatic assertion. On the contrary, I believe that the matter of Paul’s trinitarianism (or not) deserves our careful exegetical attention.
    Best wishes, Murray Rae

    1. Hi, Murray,

      Sorry to indicate that the answer “Yes” was the show stopper. It certainly was a series of events that kept us from pursuing it further, which I regret was the case. I confess to being flummoxed at the initial Yes! I did not mean to imply that you had nothing other than dogmatic assertion to offer.

      To me, the historical “no” to that question is important for us to hold onto. In part, for the purpose of recognizing that there are other ways that the material could have been put together, in part to realize that people were Christians for centuries before they were fully Trinitarian, and in part to realize that there was even an early generation of Christians who were truly Christian without holding to a divine Christology.

      I agree that the story of Jesus began to transform the way that Paul talked about God, and that the Spirit also is essential to this revelation. Chris’ paper was phenomenal on this point.

      Again, I apologize if I mis-represented our conversation. I know well that you have more to offer than mere assertion and had looked forward to resuming our conversation at some point.

      1. i’d be happy if that conversation were recorded, even if only in highlights, in whatever format would be most feasible without taking too much away from the important details. please consider, and thanks!

  9. Hi Daniel,

    Many thanks for your response. I hope my comments indicated a readiness for further conversation, and I too am sorry if I read into your original posting a more pejorative reference to theologians than was intended.

    As it happens, your paper and our brief conversation have prompted my further reflections on the matter of Trinitarian Hermeneutics. I plan to write a paper on the matter for a conference in December. I confess that I have not attempted before to articulate what a Trinitarian hermeneutic might look like so I am hoping that our brief exchange will engender some worthwhile further work.

    I agree that people were often Christians before being fully Trinitarian (actually that’s still very common), although I would be inclined to argue that the logic of basic and very early Christian claims about the Lordship and salvific agency of Christ entail a Trinitarian theology. Thus ‘nascent trinitarianism’ is a description I would persist with in respect of many others in the early church.

    Warm regards,
    Murray

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