Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Ancient-Future Interpretation 2

posted by Scot McKnight

Bible.jpgJ. Todd Billings, in The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture ,  is seeking to explain the new “theological interpretation of Scripture.” This approach is heavy on “theology” and critical of the more pragmatic approaches — how does this passage speak of business practices. 

Here’s another major point Billings makes: “We start with faith in the triune God, a trust in Jesus Christ and the Spirit’s transforming power through Scripture. In reading Scripture, we seek to know and have fellowship with God in a deeper way.” He speaks of “mystery” and the need to “relinquish the position of being masters over the biblical text” (11).
Do you think we need to get beyond our preunderstandings? Do you think we should bracket our theology when reading the Bible? Do you think we should seek to come to the Bible with an empty slate? What does such an approach do to us when we read the Bible?

Billings then states that the rule of faith, the regula fidei, is essentially The Apostles’ Creed.
A major point: the NT authors did not read the Bible in order to find the author’s intention in its historical context. What Billings doesn’t speak to here is that many NT scholars are keen on stating very quickly that we cannot and should not reproduce the interpretive method of the early churches. This is quite the admission: it emerges from a commitment to the historical method and it admits that what we do is not the way the NT authors did things. Do you think this admission gives away the house? Does it actually bias us against a theological interpretation of Scripture?
For the earliest Christians, Christ was the key to Scripture and everything was read through that lens — allegory or not.
The regula fidei, then, provides guidance for how to read the Bible; it also provides parameters.
Big idea: We should not come to the Bible uncommitted. These are some of Billings’ central ideas.

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posted February 18, 2010 at 6:51 am

Several years ago, confronted by doubts, as many are, I started reading the early church fathers, and I started reading books on the nature of scripture.
One of the things that struck me immediately was that the early church did not interpret scripture the way we do. The NT also did not use “allowed” methods. But they all took scripture as the inspired word of God, able to give the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness.
This was liberating – because it meant that I was able to hold 20th century interpretative methods in the light of the church and evaluate them. The evangelical view of scripture is not the rock on which we stand. Current scholarship and methods can be embraced for the insight it brings, but the method can be modified when it leads to untenable conclusions.
But all – NT, early church, and today – need (or needed) to read and interpret scripture through the acts of God in history, most significantly the birth, life, death, resurrection and future hope in Jesus. Scripture doesn’t prove this – it illuminates this.

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Your Name

posted February 18, 2010 at 8:37 am

God is sovereign….there is nothing above him. There are people who still read the Bible as it is the inspired word of God. God gives us what we need from the Bible. I pray for holy understanding before I read the Bible! Try it….it will change who you are! When we learn how to pray and read are lives are forever transformed and we go into the dark dark world as a light, his light and goodness shines through us. He lives in us. He left his spirit here for a time. When that spirit leaves the Earth there will be no light only darkness and dark people.

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posted February 18, 2010 at 8:55 am

In seminary I was taught to interpret Scripture according to its genre and then use appropriate methods. But the first statement about the Bible we rarely discuss in interpretation is that before genre or any other matter the Bible is the church’s book. It was delivered in various ways to and through the church/God’s people.
That tells me that Billings is on to something that I want to take seriously. It begins with an assumption of faith and basic truths. I look forward to reading this book and the future posts on it.

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posted February 18, 2010 at 8:58 am

RJS, great story & comment.
On the larger question, I don’t think it’s possible to do anything with a “blank slate” but we can certainly approach scripture ready to be corrected.
And FWIW, that admission by scholars that NT writers didn’t read the Bible the way we do doesn’t give away the whole house–but maybe everything but a few (modern) appliances. I’d rather have their (the NT writers’) spiritual life than focus so much on being right about every detail of the story, which strikes me as the heart of the difference. Helpful post.

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Vaughn Treco

posted February 18, 2010 at 10:12 am

It ought not to surprise the Christian when our encounter with the biblical texts follows Abraham’s and Moses’s encounters with God, or the People of Israel’s experience of God’s mighty deeds, or that disciples’s collision with the God-Man. In each instance the person encountered is compelled to choose. This choice leads either to faith and obedience or unbelief and disobedience.
The Christian reading of the Bible follows from faith in the same way that Abram’s, Moses’s, Israel’s and the early disciples’s “reading” of God and the God-Man proceded from faith. Each of these people had witnessed what they were convinced was an act of God, or heard what they were certain was God’s voice, and they entrusted themselves to the God who had spoken or acted. In a similar way, each person encounters the Scriptures.
The Christian maybe said to be one who – having become convinced that the Scriptures are the very Word of God – submits and entrusts himself to them.

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J. R. Daniel Kirk

posted February 18, 2010 at 10:44 am

I started blogging some thoughts about theological interpretation today, mostly in terms of my hesitations and misgivings:
I’m concerned about a “theological interpretation” that requires us to measure our biblical interpretation against a different sort of non-storied theology.
Theological interpretation is crucial to the vitality of the church, but I have some fear that to some in the movement it can become a means of circumventing critical issues that might allow the Bible to call their theological commitments into question (or show that such commitments are not as biblical as they want to believe).

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Robin Parry

posted February 18, 2010 at 11:26 am

Surely some tension is a good thing here.
On the one hand, we do wish to hear the Bible in its original contexts as best we can. In part this is a theological move because we do not wish to tame the Bible to fit our own agendas and there is always a danger of reading our own ideas into the Bible. So there is an important place for setting aside some of our assumptions about what the texts must be saying and seeking to understand them in their ancient historical contexts.
On the other hand, I do think that such an approach to interpretation is inadequate for Christian reading of Scripture. And here I could wax lyrical for a long time (I actually think that NT authors provide good models for Christian readers of Scripture) but I’ll leave it to everyone else.

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Randy G.

posted February 18, 2010 at 11:31 am

Scott asks:
“Do you think we need to get beyond our preunderstandings? Do you think we should bracket our theology when reading the Bible? Do you think we should seek to come to the Bible with an empty slate? What does such an approach do to us when we read the Bible?”
Short answers: Yes, Yes, Not Quite, and Wonderful things.
When I encountered the work of NT Wright 12 years ago I embraced it precisely because he was willing to try to get beyond pre-understandings and let scripture take him where it would; he acknwoledged pre-understandings but was willing to learn. I believe it is important to bracket our theology for some reading, but do several layers of reading with different “lenses.” Bracketing theology and trying to come with an empty slate, while recognizing that we cannot do that entirely, is important in approaching a book that should be very strange to us denziens of the 21st Century.
I think of the approach drawing on Paul Riceour. That is be willing to “deconstruct” the text, bracketing our theology while reading with a hermeneutics of suspicion. But then go back and reconstruct it by reading with a “hermeneutics of grace.” When we do this, we find wonderful riches in scripture.

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Randy G.

posted February 18, 2010 at 11:38 am

I should add to my previous post that I came to Wright while working on a doctoral dissertation in history, and so highly value that reading that brackets theology in order to get at what was going on historically, before we bring our theological lens to work (while recognizing that to some degree we always use the theological lens). This is why for a long time I used the NRSV Study Bible alongside my NIV Bible.
Randy G.

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posted February 18, 2010 at 12:06 pm

On the NT use of the OT point: but aren’t there some prominent evangelicals now trying to argue that the NT authors in fact were being faithful to the intent of the OT authors? And isn’t this dispute one of those critical joints in the current Bible debates within evangelicalism?
Anyway: I think its impossible to set aside pre-understandings with respect to reading scripture. If we call it “scripture,” then we are coming to it with a package of pre-understandings about its source, nature and function. If we try to come to the text with a stance of “methodological atheism,” as is the requirement of much academic Biblical studies, then we are likewise bringing to it pre-understandings about what the text must “really” be all about.
There are no pre-theoretical readings of any text.

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Dana Ames

posted February 18, 2010 at 12:25 pm

RJS@1, well said.
Randy G., Wright opened scripture for me like no one else, and gave me a Jesus I can worship with all my being.
I worry when I hear people say that all we have to do is get people to read the bible, and then something will happen that will immediately “switch on the lights” about Jesus and “get people saved” and render society moral. Yes, such things can happen and do happen- and they happen because of an encounter with the Person of the God of the bible, not simply because of the act of reading. More people have probably read the text of scripture and have had nothing “happen”. That doesn’t mean God isn’t at work. But such a belief about simply reading the words on the page makes the bible into some sort of talisman or magickal object that in effect subjects God to *our* notions of what God is supposed to do.
It probably is profitable to try to come to scripture “with a clean slate”, setting aside our preunderstandings and theologies, but I don’t think most Christians know that such an approach can be useful. In this country, they probably would consider it heretical. [“You don’t believe the Bible (that is, my interpretation of it) – therefore you may not even be saved (have made a transaction with God that allows you to go to heaven when you die).”]

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posted February 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Happened to come across Marc Goodacre’s “NT Podcast” at lunch and he lays out very well the notion that “critical” methods come to the text by laying aside presuppositions:
Well — isn’t the idea that one can and should come to a text “critically” and “neutrally” itself a presupposition?

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Jim Martin

posted February 18, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Scot, I read your comments below and immediately put the book in my Amazon basket! :)
“A major point: the NT authors did not read the Bible in order to find the author’s intention in its historical context. What Billings doesn’t speak to here is that many NT scholars are keen on stating very quickly that we cannot and should not reproduce the interpretive method of the early churches.”
I don’t think that I have really thought about this, at least not in the way you express this. This makes me want to read the book, if for no other reason than to better grasp the way NT writers read the Bible set next the way we often read the Bible.

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John W Frye

posted February 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I feel uneasy at times with this surge toward “theological interpretation of Scripture” because the idea can be hijacked by those with an entrenched theology (theological system) as *the* lens through which to interpret Scripture. It is well and good to see the “theological interpretation” in a broad field–The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed–but I suspect this surge will degenerate to squabbling over tightly held theological minutia.

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posted February 18, 2010 at 2:39 pm

“Do you think we need to get beyond our preunderstandings?”
–I think we should hold onto them lightly. They are our starting point, but it’s not as though they are our salvation, right?
“Do you think we should seek to come to the Bible with an empty slate?”
–Not possible. But we should come aware of how full our slate is, consciously examining and reconsidering what we have brought.
“What we do is not the way the NT authors did things.”
–That’s for sure! See Galatians 4:24-26. I don’t know when I would have EVER come up with that take on Hagar and Sarah.

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Vaughn Treco

posted February 18, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Hey Keo… A winning combination: Prudence and good humor!

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Christi Benson

posted February 18, 2010 at 4:01 pm

How do I get beliefnet to stop sending advertisements? I have been requesting they stop for a very long time now . . . can you help? Please I want it to STOP!!!

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posted February 18, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Thanks, Vaughn. That’s how I roll.

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