Word of God and Theological Interpretation

Yesterday’s post probed a bit of Karl Barth’s doctrine of scripture. Today I want to think a bit about what such a view of the Bible as the Word of God might mean for how we conceptualize theological interpretation of the Bible.

The conference I attended in New Zealand last week was on theological interpretation. In short, the movement is designed to muster Christians to read the Bible as Christians, and not as ostensibly detached historians.

Scholarship has been mired by the idea that our goal is to use scripture to find a history behind the text that is the actual history we are concerned with. In general, scholarship has worked to assess the human hands’ work in inscribing the Bible, setting God entirely to the side.

So what does it look like for Christian scholars to embrace our conviction that this scripture is the means God has chosen to speak to the world in order to reveal, ultimately, the redemption offered in Jesus Christ?

I typically approach this question with a hermeneutical type answer: we read the Bible Christianly when we read it as a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A christological reading strategy keeps our readings focused rightly on Christ and on the fact that our calling is to live faithfully after him and in him.

An interesting question that was raised at the Colloquium last week, however, had to do with the fact that many of us spoke as though theological interpretation is an ecclesial practice. What does it mean to read the Bible as something written in, with, and for the church?

Many of us used such language in our presentations. But all of us were academics. Ok, there were one or two folks who were also ordained ministers. But we were engaging in a decidedly academic task.

All of this (Barth plus the Colloquium) got me wondering: if theological interpretation is predicated on the notion that the Bible is the word of God, is it viable to think that we can read the Bible theologically in the academy at all? If the Bible as the word of God depends on the fact that God chooses to take quite humans words and make himself known afresh through them, does that make academic study of the Bible, by definition, the wrong kind of practice for hearing the Bible as the word of God?

I think academic study of the Bible is crucial. And my seminary classroom regularly becomes a place where that academic study confronts the church with a demand for more faithful practice.

Moreover, rigorous scholarship opens our eyes to the thought world within which the scriptures made a certain kind of sense and bore various connotations that are too often lost on current day readers. So academic study of the Bible is crucial for hearing what was said. And, such study should help us see more clearly how, in fact, the Bible speaks about God.

But after we’ve said all that, can we expect that the Bible, studied in the academy, will be the Bible as word of God? Or will that experience of scripture depend upon participating in the hearing of scripture with a body gathered to hear it–or at least, listening to it as proclamation?

Or, to put things differently, might we expect that a group that has gathered to study the human hands at work, the human history as such, will be inherently less likely to be confronted with those human hands as “word of God” than a group gathered to hear (and listen!) to and for the word of God?

These really are questions, and I’d value your feedback. At root what I’m trying to figure out is whether Barth doesn’t offer us a doctrine of scripture that offers a helpful way forward in doing historical biblical scholarship without growing anxious that it does not immediately address us as word of God.

Given that the word is spoken in such historically contextualized modes, and that these are what God has chosen to speak through, might the process of shaping understanding of what the scriptures “meant” be the best way forward for Christian academics?

8 thoughts on “Word of God and Theological Interpretation”

  1. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘the Bible as the Word of God’. When I’ve heard the expression, it’s meant ‘The Bible as interpreted by my theology’, and I don’t think that’s the same thing at all! I don’t think that’s the task of the academy, but I think they could do more to put the fruits of their scholarship into the hands of preachers, and it’s surely their job to present a message from God, which will normally involve the Bible. I can’t say more than that since so many of them use an ont-of-context snippet as a pretext for whatever they want to say.

    I think one reason why so many Christians are fundamentalist is simply that they’ve never been exposed to any alternative understanding. That’s a really important job we need to tackle.

  2. The Bible as the Word of God prioritizes a theological principle as an a priori to academic work. In this way, it can be thought of as a thought experiment such as “What if the Bible were the Word of God.” But such a thought experiment is much more of a theological one than a biblical one. And most of the times, it limits the various ways one comes to the text (while it may open new theological ones). For example, a theological reading of an apocalyptic text, such as ‘the end of this age,’ is often read as a theological/ontological truth. Rarely to theological intepretations ask the anthropological reasons behind a community’s desire for the end of the world to come. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility of more “academically friendly” theological readings.

    In my case, I am more inclined to say that Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the record of a people’s encounter with this God and with this Christ. For me, such an a priori theological stance rarely interferes with the questions I might possibly bring to the text.

  3. Daniel, on the one hand, I think it means that academia does not have a privileged position and must approach the Word with equal humility. On the other hand, ignorance is certainly not privileged. Learning about the details can shed light on what God is doing.

  4. I’m pondering exactly these sorts of things at the moment. I’m hesitant about Barth’s conception of the Word of God, but I do sense that there must be a way in which we can “non-anxiously” enjoy the work of both church and academy in hearing the Bible

  5. I think Scripture has to be read ecclesially (hear Yoderian egalitarian local community here, not some hierarchical magisterium) because the ekklesia is the only thing that holds “the Bible” together as any kind of coherent collection. It’s not a book, as everyone well knows, except by virtue of the community that reads it as such. Scholarship learns important things by taking the bits apart, and seeing what Malachi or Luke or the Chronicler was saying on his or her own terms. But nobody is going to put the bits back together except the church/Israel. Nobody would put Jonah and Obadiah together, or Mark and John, except the community that did.

  6. ‘In my case, I am more inclined to say that Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the record of a people‚Äôs encounter with this God and with this Christ.’

    That goes some way towards here I am; Jesus is the Logos (‘word’ isn’t an adequate trandlation), and the Bible represents human discourse about him and about God. I won’t call it a ‘record’ becase I think its authors were very far from unbiased witnesses.

    Then there’s the relationship between the Bible and the church to be considered. Biblical interpretation is very much controlled by church tradition, even if we don’t like to say so in the Protestant churches. I don’t know how we deal wioth that one.

    1. I agree “record” is kind of misleading. I meant something more along the lines of an anthropological trail of data. The writers are trying to lead us somewhere, it’s just not always to the same place.

  7. This is something I have been struggling with for a long time. There seems to be a dichotomy between what the academics are arguing and writing about. and what happens at the grassroots, where Christians have to move out into the marketplace and make decisions based on their understanding by their reading of the Bible. I wonder what are your comments on this, Daniel?

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