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?

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