Tag Archives: theological interpretation

What’s Wrong with Theological Exegesis

… or, what’s right with it, depending on who you are.

This week, James K. A. Smith posted a review of Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam at The Colossian Forum. Although Enns is a friend, I am not an apologist for this particular book, which is amenable to, perhaps significant, critique from a number of angles.

However, I am an apologist for people wrestling with the critical issues about what the Bible is, what it actually communicates, and what the impact of this might be for Christian theology.

And this is precisely the sort of challenge that Smith’s critique of the book seeks to circumvent. Smith’s critique of Enns’ methodology (it’s not a book review in the typical sense) is an almost stereotypical move by a theologian to keep the church from having to wrestle with what the Bible actually is, what it actually says, and how this might challenge what we think we know about ourselves and God.

You’ll notice I said “actually.” And here, no doubt, I can hear Smith jumping up and down and screaming, “‘Actually’ is precisely the point! Enns tries to define ‘actually’ as what the human authors meant, but that’s never been the full extent of what the church has believed.”

I know this. And so does Enns–more so than Smith gives him credit for.

Smith wrongly critiques Enns on two points.

First, he says that Enns’ paradigm is one in which the true meaning lies “behind” the text. This is a mischaracterization. For Enns, as for most scholars who turn to historical context to understand the text, the world “behind” the text does not determine what the text means, but helps us understand with greater plausibility the particular connotations this text would have had to a first audience.

This is not getting behind the text, it’s better understanding the text we actually have.

Second, for some reason Smith thinks that Richard B. Hays is his ally while Enns is dubious company. But both Hays and Enns argue that Paul reads the OT with a revisionist hermeneutic in light of the person and work of Christ (Enns) or the formation of the church in Christ (Hays).

This is where Smith’s critique was peculiar, to say the least. After chastising Enns for claiming an ultimate meaning in Genesis and not allowing a reframing of it in canonical context, he quotes Enns as saying:

what Genesis says about Adam and the consequences of his actions does not seem to line up with the universal picture that Paul paints in Romans and 1 Corinthians […]. I do not think the gospel stands on whether we can read Paul’s Adam in the pages of Genesis.

That sounds a lot like Enns is arguing for a revisionist reading of Genesis in light of the Christ event–a canonical reassessment that says, “How Paul reads Adam is not determined by the Ancient Near Eastern context.”

If Smith were in the mood to give Enns’ book a charitable reading, he might even say that Enns has demonstrated that these later meanings unfolded “in front of the text.”

But the real crux is that Smith wants to iron out all the wrinkles through an appeal to divine authorship. The problem, of course, is that this convenient appeal is so powerful that it can substantiate every claim while proving none.

Such appeals to divine intention have too long disallowed careful investigation into the plausibility of evolution and what the impact might be for how Christians read the Bible and understand human origins.

While I disagree with Enns on numerous points, his book is more valuable than Smith’s critique for two reasons: (1) It owns up to the Bible we actually have rather than the Bible Smith seems to wish God had given us. (No, appeals to God cannot make the critical issues of the Bible go away.) But perhaps more importantly, (2) It moves Christianity in the right direction by freeing evangelicals to wrestle with the questions of evolution and theology with integrity rather than calling us back again to the comfort of divine approbation for our closed-eyed denial of the problems facing our theological tradition.

Peter Enns

Smith closes his critique by suggest we return to ask the unasked foundational questions. This is a red herring. We can keep retreating to our theological reading rooms and having comfortable conversations about how important it is that God wrote the Bible. Or, we can continue the conversation that Enns has helped move along by (a) wrestling with the meaning of the Bible we actually have as both a historical and a theological document–God, if God be author, actually authored this and not some other book!–and (b) figuring out what we’re going to say about human origins now that we know humanity came to be in a much different way than we’d think from a literal reading of Genesis 1 or even the almost opposite way we’d think from a literal reading of Genesis 2.

Theological interpretation is at its best when it is drawing on what we know historically about the contexts of scripture to enrich and challenge the theology of the church. It is at its worst when it strives to use the power of God to keep us from recognizing either the Bible we actually have or the world we actually live in. Smith’s review is guilty of both of the latter.

Narrative Theology and Transformed Meaning

In practicing a narrative theology, the overarching conviction is that the revelation of God is a story: the story of the creator God, at work in Israel, to redeem and reconcile the world through the story of Jesus.

Part of what this means for me is the possibility of transformation, reconfiguration, and even leaving behind of earlier moments in the story as later scenes show us the way forward and, ultimately, the climactic saving sequence.

This is one point at which I differ from N. T. Wright.

Regularly in Wright’s writing we will find statements such as, “This is what God was up to all along.” I don’t disagree here. But what often goes unspoken, and where I think we need to be more clear, is that one only knows “this is what God was up to all along” once one is already convinced that “this new thing is actually what God is up to.”

The work of Jesus is not merely a saving act. For a people who are convinced that the saving work of Jesus is what was “prepromised in the scriptures” (Rom 1), the Christ event becomes a hermeneutic. It becomes a lens by which we reread the Old Testament and discover what can only be seen by the eyes of faith.

In light of the climax of the story, we reread the earlier moments and discover things that would not have been visible to the original audience. We boldly read those as indications of God’s work in Christ, nonetheless, because we believe that the same God is at work in the same story to bring it to its culmination in him.

Image courtesy of The Open Fiction Project tofp.org

This brings me to a point at which my version of narrative theology differs from the work of some practitioners of what is sometimes called “theological interpretation of scripture.” Here the specific example who comes to mind is Kevin Vanhoozer.

Confronted with the incongruity between “behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son” as it is used in Isaiah and in Matthew, Vanhoozer appeals to authorial intention to say that the Matthew meaning was, in a sense, the meaning intended for Isaiah as well. Of course, by “authorial intention,” Vanhoozer means God as author.

This, it seems to me, is cheating.

Instead, I propose a multiple-reading strategy. Allow the text to mean what it meant in its first context, as much as we can determine this. Do the historical critical work that sheds light on why, for example, an eighth century BC audience would formulate matters just so–and then recognize the freedom of later readers to reread those texts differently in light of later events.

Reading Vahoozer or Dan Treier, I sometimes fear that theological readings become a way to circumvent critical issues. But even if the demands of the church push us toward a final, post-critical reading, where we reincorporate the difficult message of an earlier day into the story of the church by a dramatic rereading of the text, I want to contend that we must still be first critical in order to be post-critical.

To my mind, narrative theology allows for such transformations. We are part of a story. Later moments take up, fulfill, recapitulate, and transform earlier. We can say both, “Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with a person born hundreds of years later to someone who has not had sex,” and, “the virgin birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7.”

Reading a book on theological interpretation by a scholar across the pond, I was struck by a claim that we are to read the Bible as a book addressed to us–that the ideal audience is those who proclaim and profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord.

This, it seemed, to me, was half right.

Yes, we are like the first and ideal audience: those expected to respond in faithful following of Jesus.

But we are also not like them: we are not first-century Romans; we are not first-century Jews; we are not fifth century Jews in Babylon. There is a specificity to the particular audience that sets us apart from them. To the writer, there would have been a hope that first-century Galatians would respond by “kicking out the slave woman and her son,” even as Abraham did. That word is not directly addressed to us in the same way.

What I propose for reading the Bible itself also pertains to reading it for our communities. We are part of a long story. This means that the retellings will involve some measure of transformation.

And this is, itself, faithful and living renarration of the story of God.

History, Theology, and Jesus

Today there was a wonderfully stimulating session in the Theological Interpretation of Christian Scripture group, as a panel of reviewers critically assessed and compared Darrell Bock and Robert Webb (eds.), Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus with Richard B. Hays and Beverly R. Gaventa (eds.), Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

The conversation on the panel swirled around the questions of what it means to read the Bible as Christians; or, how to do greatest justice to the historical narratives contained in the gospels.

In this, I was much more sympathetic to the Hays and Gaventa volume. Their volume strives to cultivate reading strategies for the canonical gospels that witnesses to Jesus. The Bock and Webb volume strives to establish, and explain the coherence of, a dozen key moments in the life of the historical Jesus.

Bock and Webb, along with Michael Bird, spoke of historical Jesus research as a necessary prolegomenon to New Testament Christology and other such study.

No, I don’t think so.

The church has not canonized the historical Jesus, it has canonized four Gospels. We can cultivate a rich theology for the church based on these interpretations, without digging behind them to the “real Jesus” back there in history. In such a practice, inevitably we tell a new story, construct a fifth quite theologically conditioned Jesus of our own. Our fifth Gospel is not the “starting point” for studying the four.

But for all my wariness about the historical project as such, I am not ready to rush into the arms of some versions of an already theologized Jesus, either.

And here I come back (again!) to the challenges posed by those who think that we should be reading the Jesus stories toward Chalcedon. In a line that was quoted a couple of times, Rob Wall spoke of scripture as something along the lines of spirit sanctioned witnesses to Jesus as incarnate Christ. I’m butchering the first and beautiful part of the sentence, in which Wall draws us to give the four canonical gospels their rightful place as starting-point for our Jesus deliberations.

But in articulating that to which they witness in the terms of the divine christology of the later church, the bible has lost the place he seems to be claiming for it, and now Chalcedon has come to take its place.

And so I once again walk away appreciative of both history and theology, but wanting to reiterate what I see as a better theological method: not beginning with the history behind the text, nor beginning with the theology placed in front of the text to refract our vision, but beginning with the stories of Jesus themselves.

Listening Teachers

The church’s task is, above all, to listen. The task of the church’s dogmatics is to stand under the word of God in giving stage direction to the church’s drama. And if it stands under the Word, it must continually listen to that word afresh, or else risk falling into the inevitable reality of straying from God’s word.

That’s my summary of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics §23.1.

Barth takes hold of the grace and promise of God, that God has not only spoken in the Word that is Jesus and the Word that is the Bible,

Image: David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
but will continue to speak the Word in the church. Those three dynamics of God’s speech are believed, clung to, passionately asserted.

This means that true Dogmatics is possible.

And and the same time, Barth stands with open eyes among people who can only speak and act aright because they are recipients of the grace of God. We receive grace, even the grace of truth, and mix our conceit, our love of the dogma more than the God about whom it speaks, and what was pure, if for a minute, becomes impure in our hands and in fresh need of the grace of God.

This means that a true Dogmatics will never become a possession that the church can cling to.

Barth’s recounting of how the church does theology calls it to keep listening, to be ready to hear from its dogmatics that everything it is doing demands repentance. It demands that we continue to be the church whose foundational calling is to speak not what had to be said to the church of times past, but to the church and place and time in which we find ourselves summoned to speak.

Because God has promised to speak, our “only resource is to seize the weapon of continually listening.”


I continue to harbor my concern that dogmatics as speaking correctly about God takes too central a role in Barth’s understanding of the church’s calling. In the face of various heresies that the church has faced, stood against in the hope of God’s promise to speak in the church, Barth claims, “the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church” (807).

As much I like what Barth is calling us to in our theological articulations, I continue to worry that “Word” has taken too central a place, and that “deed” takes too secondary a role in establishing the church’s faithfulness, identity, and peace.

Then & There, Here & Now

A friend recently gave me the heads up on an article in the Harvard Theological Review by Paul E. Capetz entitled, “Theology and the Historical-Critical Study of the Bible” (HTR 104 (2011): 459-88). It is a lengthy engagement with three advocates of Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, and Dale Martin.

Capetz writes from the standpoint of an avowedly liberal theological tradition, and asks why it is that otherwise critically-engaged scholars insist on setting aside critical scholarship when it comes to moving into theology for the church.

He contends that the move from critical to theological exegesis is arbitrary and muddy–and that it does not in fact honor the tradition of the church which it seeks to uphold. For instance: is it really honoring the “orthodox” forebears of the Christian tradition if we simultaneously say, “Yes, they were right that God is Triune” but then in the next breath say, “But no, Paul isn’t a Trinitarian–in fact, he’s a subordinationist” (478-79)?

Are we really honoring the tradition when we, on historical-critical grounds, affirm the exegesis of the heretics while simultaneously affirming the theological conclusions of the proponents of orthodoxy?

These are the very real questions that beset historical-critical study of the Bible. These are the types of issues that have left many snubbing biblical scholarship as useless for the church’s faith, and has led others to conclude that there is no faith worth finding in the Bible.

To my mind, all of this brings us back around to the question Christian Smith is rightly pressing in his book: what does the reality of the struggles entailed in reading the Bible tell us about what the Bible is and thus what we should be doing with it?

Not so incidentally, this is why I also have chosen a narrative model for making sense of both scripture and Christian theology. We need a model for thinking about who we are, and what our book is, that makes room for development, change, and even contradiction.

I find myself drawn in both directions in this debate that Capetz articulates. On the one hand, I agree that one of the most significant things that historical-critical scholarship helps us to is a better reading of the texts. Unlike Capetz, I agree that these texts are the normative rule of faith and life for the church.

Thus, the historical-critical study provides one piece of evidence, one point on the line of the developing narrative that the church continues to live in today.

But historical criticism will not frame its work within a self-consciously Christian narrative. And that is where we must allow it to claim to be an end in itself. Or, better, we must not allow the constraints of segmented OT and NT disciplines to segment the implications of NT historical-critical work. In the latter we discover a practice of rereading the OT in light of the fulfillment of Israel’s story in Christ–a fulfillment that negates many alternative would-be endings to the story than a first OT audience might have anticipated.

So where does that leave us? I want to keep trying to hold the two together as two different players in the same drama of biblical interpretation: the historical critic tells us what the text might have meant to an early, historically contextualized audience, the Christian commitment summons us to contextualize, realize, and sometimes relativize the on-going significance of that text in light of the later, decisive moment of the story and our own continuing participation in it.

Theological Interpretation Article in Christianity Today

I’ve had a thing or two to say about theological interpretation on ye’ old blog over the past couple of years. I am a theological interpreter of scripture, and strive to be a Christian reader of scripture, at that. So in general I resonate with, and am happy for, a movement that strives to carve out respectable space for so engaging the Bible in both the academy and the church.

This month’s Christianity Today has a cover story on theological interpretation by J. Todd Billings. It is not yet available online, but read it when you can if you would like a nice overview of what theological interpretation is up to.

The article echoes commonly stated needs of the church: to have a Bible that speaks to it as a word for people who are devoted to loving and following the Lord and God about whom the text speaks.

It also indicates that one of the more important ways forward is to read using the rule of faith.

As usual, I find the former element more important and compelling than the latter, as I continue to find myself scratching my head about what someone committed to the Rule of Faith is supposed to “do,” what kind of identity it forms, and why Christological readings should be transformed into Trinitarian readings. But then again, you’ve heard all that from me before!

This article really is a judicious piece, a welcome and accessible introduction to what is happening in the world of theological interpretation of scripture and provides some sense of why it is important.

Not the Rule of Faith: Why I Care

On this blog I am frequently doing my best to drive a wedge between the Bible (and good biblical interpretation) and systematic theology, the rule of faith, and the like. Several times I have revisited the question of why the story of Jesus, rather than the church’s doctrine of the Trinity, should be our interpretive grid–and what defines our identity as Christians.

Why do I care?

There are a number of ways to approach that question, but part of it has to do with a combination of personality and past experience.


Do you know the Enneagram?

I regret to inform you that I am an Eight. In brief, this means that I’m a controlling jerk. Well, that’s the worst of it.

Eights tend to be passionate about truth and justice. Of course, we’re always right, so this can be self-serving, but the redemptive edge of this passion is that we care about those who don’t have power. We care about the injustice and control that can dominate people’s lives when the wrong people use their power in the wrong ways.

The redemptive moves for 8 include becoming agents of mercy and justice, and inspiring others to follow along this path.


I have experienced that the theology of the church is a way to control people, and that this control often comes at the expense of honest readings of the Bible and honest articulations of what people actually believe.

I was in a denomination that had an 85+ page Confession of Faith, and any ordination candidate had to delineate every place he disagreed with it. And the list of disagreements had better be close to zero.

I discovered that this sort of Confessional magisterium (ask me to sing my “paperback pope” song for you sometime): (1) created disingenuous theologians, who affirmed things they disagreed with; (2) controlled biblical interpretation in ways that were distracting and just plain bad; and (3) served as a strong means for controlling the “insiders club” for the good ol’ boys (and they were all boys, no girls allowed) who had the power and only wanted to share it with those who were happy to help them build what was theirs.

Theology as the defining marker of the church creates systems of control that look nothing like the Jesus who said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The Rule of Faith, while quantitatively shorter, is qualitatively the same if it is functioning as rule. Trinitarian theology, similarly, can play this role of church control. It requires us to frame our reading, our gospel, our understanding of Jesus, in a way that binds us to the church rather than freeing us to follow Jesus–though going through that guarded church door might lead us into the company of Jesus as well.

But I rebel against the Creedal control because I don’t want you to think you have to experience what I did: that the only way into the fullness of participation in the body of Christ is through strange and foreign structures that often have little to do with the Bible through which God has chosen to make the Word of life known to the world.

But does it have the power, the authority to demand that we read in accordance with its traditions, its creeds? No, I’m too Reformed to say yes. And, I believe enough in the fidelity of what the creeds say that is true to demand that they control our reading of scripture: if they are right, then a good reading of scripture will generate these affirmations without those affirmations being the prerequisite assumption for reading the Bible rightly.

I want you to be free to discover that the Creeds are right. And, perhaps once every few hundred years, where they aren’t. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

ed note: I realize after posting this that it leaves unanswered about half a million questions about the place of the church in our christian practice. Please stay tuned for my next Church Dogmatics post for more theologically and ecclesially developed musings

ed. note 2: I think this post is a dud. I need to work on how I actually want to delineate the tensions I feel in different hermeneutics and their relationships to power, freedom, and the Christian story. I might have inadvertently gone Quito (Mtn Goats reference) in true 8 fashion

Christ or Trinity?

Since the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation last month (see here, and here) I have been mulling the question of Christian hermeneutics. In particular: is there a difference between a Christological hermeneutic and a Trinitarian hermeneutic? And if so, why do I advocate Christological readings rather than Trinitarian?

The answer to the first question is decidedly yes: there is a difference between Christological and Trinitarian hermeneutics. The former, readings that explore the ramifications of scripture for the story of the crucified and risen Christ, points us to the ministry of Jesus, in particular his death, resurrection, and exalted Lordship. The latter points us to the divinity of Christ.

The clearest example I have seen of the important difference between these is the reading of Lukan intertextuality provided by Richard Hays at SBL last year. He cited Jesus’ words at the end of Luke, that Jesus opened the minds of the travelers to hear all the things written about him in the scriptures.

Hays then proceeded to engage with a far-reaching reading of how Luke was applying the OT texts that referred to YHWH to Jesus instead. The upshot of Hays’ reading was that Luke is showing us that the OT’s YHWH is none other than the Jesus of the Gospel.

Even though this reading focuses on Jesus, it is a Trinitarian reading inasmuch as the working assumption that makes the reading possible is the idea of an eternal Son coequal with and in some way identical to the God of the OT.

Luke, however, intends a very different interpretation of the OT as a witness to Jesus.

Luke does not simply say, the OT is about Jesus no go find out how I’ve shown this. He tells us precisely how the OT speaks of Jesus the Messiah. First, in Luke 24:26-27 he says, “‘Wasn’t it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.”

The thing written about Jesus in the scriptures are not that Jesus is YHWH, but that Jesus, as Messiah, had to suffer and enter his glory.

This is even more clearly stated later in the same chapter:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures,and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.(NET Bible)

To read scripture aright is not to read it as a witness to the eternal Trinity, but to read it as witness to the suffering and glory of the Messiah.

The presupposition needed for the Christological reading that Luke directs us to is not that Christ is preexistent or in any sort of ontological way identifiable with YHWH of the OT.

The presupposition required for a Christological, narratival hermeneutics is that Jesus who died was, in fact, the Messiah, that that God raise this Jesus from the dead and enthroned him over all things.

There is a difference, and Luke invites us to Christological narrative rather than divine onotology as the way to correctly read scripture in light of the Christ event.

The narrative of Jesus, not divine identity as it is often construed today, is the way to correctly read the whole Bible in light of Jesus as Messiah, according to Luke (and Paul and John and Matthew and Mark and Peter and Hebrews and Revelation). This means that our hermeneutics will be driven by the story of Jesus rather than the Trinity. It also means that when we chose to use the Rule of Faith as our hermeneutical grid, we have taken a significant step away from the Christian reading of scripture that is commended to us in the NT.

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?

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.