A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation

A Manifesto for Theological InterpretationA Manifesto for Theological Interpretation

Edited by Craig G. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016
304 pp. | $29.99

This monograph is the fruit of meetings of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar (SAHS) held between 2012 and 2014. The SAHS emerged out of a 1998 gathering in Cheltenham of those concerned with the state of biblical interpretation. To foster ongoing dialogue to the end of engendering renewal in the field, the SAHS project was thus launched under the direction of Craig Bartholomew (it is now chaired by Heath Thomas).

Over the years, many partnerships have been forged, and a series of 8 volumes addressing various facets of biblical interpretation have been published. Contributors to these volumes and participants in the SAHS include luminaries in the field, such Nicholas Wolterstorff, Kevin Vanhoozer, Anthony Thiselton, Joel Green, Scott Hahn, Christopher Seitz, Oliver O’ Donovan, Christopher Wright, Gordon McConville, and Brevard Childs.

In recent years, the SAHS has met annually during the national Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting. I was present at the 2014 meeting of the SAHS in San Diego where the Manifesto was presented, and have been anticipating this release ever since. For a theologian, it is refreshing to find biblical scholars who are vested in the notion that Scripture ought to be read as something more than simply an ancient text. Indeed, those participating in the Seminar, on the whole, possess a deep conviction that the Bible is a book to be read in and for the benefit of the church – and that identifying Scripture’s proper ecclesial habitat in no way eviscerates scholarly endeavors concerning the text, but rather empowers them.

It is the above sentiment that resides at the core of the monograph under review here. As the title evinces, the phrase used to capture this commitment is the ‘theological interpretation of Scripture’ (or TIS), which has been something of a buzz-phrase in recent years. In brief, TIS is a move afield from critical approaches to Scripture (which rose out of modernity), and a move toward the re-appropriation of pre-critical approaches. This move does not, however, signal a dismissal of critical tools; rather, it involves their creative re-deployment for interpretation within a decidedly ecclesial context.

The above being said, answers to the question of what, precisely, ‘theological interpretation’ is are typically characterized more by opacity than clarity. In addition, practical examples of theological interpretation have been both sparse in quantity and inconsistent in quality (though the situation, thankfully, seems to be improving). This does not mean, of course, that those advocating for a theological approach to Scripture are off target, just that perhaps a bit more target practice is needed (at least by some).

Among contemporary theorists and practitioners of theological interpretation, those assembled in the volume under review are among the finest. As such, A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation is a significant work, and a logical entry point into the conversation regarding theological interpretation that is ongoing among biblical scholars. As to its format, the book includes the publication of the twelve-point Manifesto, followed by twelve essays, each expounding upon one point of the Manifesto. The essays are as follows:

  1. “The History and Reemergence of Theological Interpretation,” by Angus Paddison
  2. “Doctrine of Scripture and Theological Interpretation,” by Michael Goheen and Michael Williams
  3. “The Ecclesia as Primary Context for the Reception of the Bible,” by Robby Holy and Aubrey Spears
  4. “Theological Interpretation and Historical Criticism,” by Murray Rae
  5. “The Role of Hermeneutics and Philosophy in Theological Interpretation,” by William Olhausen
  6. “The Canon and Theological Interpretation,” by Stephen Dempster
  7. “Biblical Theology and Theological Interpretation,” by David Beldman and Jonathan Swales
  8. “Mission and Theological Interpretation,” by Michael Goheen and Christopher Wright
  9. “The Telos (Goal) of Theological Interpretation,” by Heath Thomas
  10. “A Framework for Theological Interpretation,” by Denis Farkasfalvy
  11. “Theological Commentary,” by Mark Gignilliat and Jonathan Pennington
  12. “Theological Interpretation for All of Life,” by Craig Bartholomew and Matthew Emerson.

By way of evaluation, there is much to love about this volume. It represents a mature move by biblical scholars toward the rapprochement of biblical and theological studies. It is both informative and insightful, identifying and illuminating key facets of theological interpretation. It poses important questions, and has the potential of sparking needed discussions. Moreover, while there is diversity in the material (and in the perspectives of the contributors) there yet seems to be a common desire among the authors to keep one foot in the academy and the other in the church, and to embody the synergy that comes from such a stance. As well, they hope to do so in a way such that those from different cul-de-sacs within the larger neighborhood of Christian orthodoxy can dialogue charitably.

And yet, for all that is satisfying about this book, I am left wanting more – to begin with, more specificity regarding what ‘theological interpretation’ is. A concern for reading the Bible in and for the church is a noble sentiment, no doubt. But what, exactly, does this mean? In order to make real headway, it seems to me that greater definitional and theological rigor regarding the nature of ‘Scripture’ (and how it interfaces with tradition) and ‘the church’ is in order. Of course, some degree of precision will necessarily be sacrificed when attempting to pitch a broad ecclesial tent. Still, in apprehending the edifice of ‘theological interpretation’ being constructed in this volume, its foundational elements seem to be in need of someĀ reinforcement.

On a related note, there appearsĀ to be a rather striking omission in the Manifesto (and thus in the chapter offerings): there is no point/chapter on theology itself. Surely, for interpretation to be ‘theological’, one must begin with a right understanding of God, and how interpretive intelligence is ordered to God. While implicit throughout the volume, explicit grounding of what the authors mean by theological interpretation would only have served to bolster their work.

All in all, however, A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation is a step in the right direction. To the end of opening lines of communication (between the academy and the church, and between biblical scholars and theologians), it largely succeeds. And, for those who are interesting in learning more about theological interpretation, especially from the perspective of those within the field of biblical studies, this volume would be a great place to start.


About Tim Harmon

Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.