D. Christopher Spinks on Theological Interpretation

D. Christopher Spinks, a Fuller Ph.D. graduate who did his dissertation on theological interpretation, has written an article entitled "Theological Interpretation: Some Traits, A Key, and a List" for the April 2009 issue of the Methodist publication Catalyst. It is an insightful article that explains some of the essential moves informing theological interpretation.

Drawing on Francis Watson's Text and Truth Spinks points out four important "hues" that theological interpretation practices:

1. Takes the biblical text as Scripture: he posits that recognizing the theological nature of texts and their readers is the "primary factor leading to all others." A problem, however, arises when examining this recognition of the text's sacredness. Is the text sacred in itself or is it sacred because the church makes it so? He paints this question in light of a "modernism and postmodernism" dilemma.

2. Accounts for the role of faith: he argues that "the issue of faith that influences one's perspective on the biblical text is at the very center of the emergence of theological interpretation." Modernist interpretations, described as being hostile to faith, sought a sense of objectivity that faith disallowed. Postmodernism, however, has "created space" for faith- informed readings by "acknowledging the situatedness of the readers as well as the writer." Such readings have allowed "interpretive schemes" that 1) stop the assumption that God speaks unfiltered in the Bible, 2) recognize church readings do more than textual archeology, and 3) keep interpretation from giving all the authority to the reader. These schemes, while exhibiting a rising focus on theology, also keep the pursuits of history, grammar, and literature, but in a secondary role. The theological character of the texts themselves, in addition, must be recognized for proper interpretation.

3. Recalls the practices of historical interpretation: he establishes a link between the postmodern turn to "faith-ful" readings and the pre-critical readings of church history.

4. Participates in a dialogue: reading Luke 10:25-28 he interprets Jesus' "What is written in the law?" as "How do you read?" These two questions show the dialogical nature of theological interpretation that allows for disagreements and conversation. It is a "constellation of conversations striving to answer both of Jesus' questions."

My Discussion:

Spinks rightly identifies one of the crucial questions of theological interpretation as the role of faith in reading. This question is buried in the "theology" of theological interpretation. While Spinks cites a divide on how theology and exegesis should interact along modern/postmodern lines, I would like to offer a different rubric that posits four ways of seeing their interaction. The first, which fits with his modernist category, separates faith and theology out of scientific exegesis (William Wrede and Heikki Raisanen). The second is exhibited by Peter Balla who argues that one can study the theology contained within the NT without making any truth claims about that theology. This position is very similar to that of Wrede and Raisanen, however, it severely narrows its focus to the genre of "orthodox literature" contained in the canon. Such narrowing is argued for purely on a historical basis. The third method is done by most New Testament theologies today. It mixes scientific exegesis (think historical-critical paradigm) and theology in an unsystematic fashion. The benefit of this method is that it allows faithful scholars to participate in academic discussions while upholding faith commitments. The detriment is that the mixing of scientific exegesis and theology is never(?) satisfactorily justified. Historical study is kept while undermining the historical-critical method by ignoring its principles of doubt, analogy, and cause-effect relations. I call this the "historical-critical+" method - meaning "historical-criticism + God." The fourth method casts scientific exegesis overboard in pursuit of theology. Stanley Hauerwas's Matthew commentary, while not arguing for this position, is nonetheless a good example of it in exegetical form. He does not ask any text-critical questions nor is interested in moving "behind" the text. The text is what matters and its basis on historical-critical grounds is left unexplored.

Having laid out those four options, I wonder where Spinks sees theological interpretation falling? Maybe he has a paradigm I have not identified? Statements such as
From an epistemological stance, interpretation must continue to engage questions of history, grammar, culture, and the like because of the conviction that at every stage, from writing to collecting to reading, humans and their history are involved.
It is difficult, therefore, for [the] theological interpreter to deny the inevitability of the historical-critical methods long associated with 'modern' approaches to the text. To jettison modern methods completely would be as destructive to the development of theological interpretation as wholesale reliance on them.
lead me to preliminarily see him as falling under the third category. My concern with the third category is that I am unsure that it is possible to use the historical-critical method only partially. As Ernst Troeltsch is famous for pointing out, the historical-critical method is like leaven, seeping into everything it touches. I know Spinks was limited in space and such questions are beyond the purview of this article, however, this question is a major one for theological interpretation.

1 comment:

Chris Spinks said...

Seth, thanks for this post. I've written a reply to it and a post from another blogger on my own blog. You can find it at http://dcspinks.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/response-to-replies-to-catalyst-article/. I look forward to continued discussion.