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Seattle Pacific University
Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1 | Features
"Eyes of Faith" continued

What Is “Theological Interpretation”?

What makes biblical interpretation “theological”? Theological interpretation is not a “method” of studying texts, but a practice or way of approaching Scripture with eyes of faith, seeking to understand it within the community of faith. What are the identifying marks of this practice? For starters, I propose 12 such marks.

1. Theological interpretation is a practice of and for the church. We lavish our attention on the biblical texts because they testify to events in which God has acted for our salvation. We approach these texts as Scripture, not merely as a collection of ancient writings whose content is of historical interest. Theological interpretation, as Meeks rightly but disapprovingly notes, seeks to read the Bible as establishing standards for a worshiping community.

2. Theological interpretation is self-involving discourse. Interpreters who read the Bible theologically approach the text knowing that we are addressed by the word of God spoken in the text, and that we are answerable to that word. For that reason, theological interpretation will frequently contain sentences that use pronouns in the first and second persons as self-involving confessional acts.

3. Historical study is an integral part of the practice of theological interpretation. If God has created the material world, and God has acted for the redemption of that world through the incarnation of his son in the historical person Jesus of Nazareth, then history can be neither contrary nor irrelevant to theology’s affirmations of truth.

4. Theological interpretation pays attention to the literary wholeness of the individual scriptural witnesses. The Bible contains a chorus of different voices, and the distinctive integrity of each part in the chorus is essential to its overall harmony. Theological interpretation attends lovingly to the distinctive testimony of each witness.

5. Theological interpretation, however, can never be content only to describe the theological perspectives of each biblical voice; instead, it always presses forward to the question of canonical coherence. We seek the big picture, asking how any particular text fits into the larger biblical story of God’s gracious action.

6. Theological interpretation focuses on the biblical texts as testimony. If we read the texts as testimony, we will find ourselves constantly reminded that the Bible is chiefly about God, not about human religious aspirations and power struggles.

7. The language of theological interpretation is intratextual in character. That is, interpretation will remain close to the primary language of Scripture rather than seeking to translate Scripture’s language into general conceptual categories.

8. Theological interpretation that stays close to the language and theology of Scripture will be drawn into its web of intertextuality as well. The New Testament alludes to the Old Testament, and argues for a narrative continuity between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. Consequently, theological interpretation concerns itself with the correspondences between the testaments.

9. Theological interpretation is committed to the discovery and exposition of multiple layers of meaning in biblical texts. When Old Testament texts are read in the company of the New Testament, new and unexpected resonances are found as Israel’s story prefigures events far beyond the historical horizon of the Old Testament audience. Likewise, the New Testament’s stories of Jesus, when understood as the mysterious fulfillments of long-ago promises, assume a depth beyond their simple literal sense.

10. Learning to read the text with eyes of faith is a skill for which we are trained by the Christian tradition. Consequently, we can never approach the Bible as though we are the first ones to read it — or the first to read it appropriately. We know that we have much to learn from the wisdom of those who have reflected deeply on these texts before us.

11. Theological interpretation, however, goes beyond repeating traditional interpretations. Instructed by the example of traditional readings, theological interpreters will produce fresh interpretations of Scripture guided by the Holy Spirit.

12. Finally, when we speak of theological interpretation, particularly when we acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s role, we must always remember that we are speaking not chiefly of our own clever readings and constructions of the text, but rather of the way that God, working through the text, is reshaping us.

A Transforming Vision

If it is true, as we confess with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), then we may expect to be transformed as we read Scripture. This means that theological interpretation must always be done from a posture of prayer and humility before the Word. As Karl Barth insists in the preface to the English edition of his Romans commentary, theology is nothing other than ministerium verbi divini — service of the divine word. Our work of interpretation will be an act of devotion in which we offer our minds and our lives to serve God. And, as Paul declares in Romans 12, when we offer ourselves in that way, we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

All who are transformed in that way will find themselves caught up in God’s mission in the world, a mission of reconciliation and hope. We will be not only the recipients of God’s transforming power, but also its instruments.

So, “Can a university change the world?” It would be more theologically precise to say that a university — precisely through faithful interpretation of the Word — can participate in the world-changing power of God, a power that can be seen truly only when we read the Bible with eyes of faith.

— By Richard B. Hays

Internationally known for his study of New Testament ethics and the theology of Paul, Richard Hays is the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. His 1996 book,
The Moral Vision of the New Testament, was selected by Christianity Today as one of the 100 most important religious books of the 20th century. He holds a bachelor of arts degree and master of divinity degree from Yale University, and a doctorate from Emory University. He has lectured widely in North America and such places as New Zealand, Israel, and South Africa.

In November 2006, Hays visited Seattle Pacific University as the featured speaker for the President's Symposium of Embracing the Christian Story. This article is adapted and abridged from a lecture he delivered at the symposium and as essay that will be published in The Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, Joel B. Green, editor (forthcoming), and Sharper Than a Two-Edged Sword: Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible, Michael Root and James J. Buckley, editors (Eerdmans, forthcoming).

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