Theological Interpretation in an Anti-Theological Tradition

In response to my post about the future of Churches of Christ as a theological question, a friend texted me this pithy observation: “For us theology = hermeneutics = exegesis.” To which I responded, “Tell me about it. I’m a PhD candidate in systematics writing on hermeneutics.” And that is very much the point.

For many years, my belief has been that the only way forward as Churches of Christ, on a very practical level—that of the congregation—is to lean all the way into our historical commitment to Scripture. All the way in, farther than ever before. There is, in my opinion, no other way to proceed with integrity and historical continuity. There are undoubtedly other ways forward, but in my estimation they will probably sacrifice integrity or continuity or both. I admit that as I deploy those two terms, integrity and continuity, they begin to bear considerable weight, but I don’t want to bog down just now in a technical discussion of what I mean by them. Suffice it for now to say, I’m referring to what I understand to be the two major dimensions of identity. While integrity and continuity are distinct in important ways, where they converge is also vital. In our tradition, they converge on interpreting the Bible at the congregational level. Unless we manage to address the hermeneutical problem in our heart, cardiac arrest is inevitable.

Now let me double down on my prior claim: the future of Churches of Christ is a theological question. The Bible is definitely not God, so what do I mean?

I mean that, as we order the issues we face, the first one we must address as a theological question is hermeneutics. Churches of Christ need a theological hermeneutics, just about on the order of a heart transplant. At another level, then, the question becomes: How can an anti-theological tradition develop a theological hermeneutics? 

To reiterate, Churches of Christ certainly have theological commitments and affirmations. And this is deeply important because one basic claim of those who advocate theological interpretation is that all interpretation is always already theologically committed. Further, properly Christian readings of the Bible depend on these commitments. There are many ways to read the biblical text. To read it as Scripture is to begin with critical, generative theological presuppositions. To read it as Churches of Christ is to reckon with a particular set of such commitments.

The term theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) refers to a recent development in the interdisciplinary space between biblical studies and systematic theology. This being an academic space, it is inevitably diverse and contested, so TIS does not refer to a single, fixed set of ideas or practices. But it is a singular enough conversation to designate under one heading. To call it a school of thought might be too ambitious for some, but I think it works provisionally. TIS’s typical features include consideration of pre-modern approaches to biblical interpretation (including those in the Bible itself), the role of faith statements such as the ancient Rule of Faith and the Ecumenical Creeds in biblical hermeneutics, readers’ theological influences (tradition, contemporary thought, and so on), the formative effects of church practices such as prayer and worship on Bible readers, and the uses to which the Christian community puts interpretation. [1. For introductory reading, see Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007); Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Cascade Companions (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).]

But our theology in Churches of Christ is, as I’ve said, typically inarticulate—first-order, implicit, and largely incoherent (I’ve contributed to a book that proposes one approach to coherence, more on which anon). If the practices of theological interpretation, insofar as it is a hermeneutical agenda, require explicit theology, then we need to address the theological question. Otherwise we cannot answer others, first and foremost the hermeneutical one.

I should be clear on this point, so I will reiterate it. There is no way to read the Bible apart from theological commitments; they are inevitable. There is no way to read the Bible faithfully apart from faith; it is indispensable. Reading the Bible faithfully calls for a faith that seeks understanding in the most thoroughgoing sense. In other words, we are obliged to articulate the faith by which we read. The attempt to do otherwise is false path, on which Churches of Christ have nonetheless stubbornly persisted many times over.

The quintessential attempt to read without theological lenses was the heart of the American Restoration plea: to unite on a simple, honest reading of the plain meaning of the text, without creeds, theological systems, or denominational biases obscuring the obvious commands examples, and necessary inferences of the New Testament. This conceit has been thoroughly illuminated and critiqued in the last fifty years (bibliography available on request), so I won’t belabor it here. This approach has proven to be naive, mistaken, and counterproductive. Its failure is at the root of the ongoing crisis of identity that dogs Churches of Christ.

Yet, there is another manifestation of the same impulse that deserves urgent attention. It is trickier to critique, because it has been the centerpiece of a legitimate attempt to move beyond the old hermeneutic. I am talking about historical-critical exegesis. As theological education has matured among schools affiliated with Churches of Christ—for which I give continual thanks to God—our inclination to attend to the first-century church has made the dominant approach of biblical studies in the modern academy a seemingly irresistible alternative to early Stone-Campbell hermeneutics. If we care first and foremost about what the biblical texts “meant” in the first century, what better solution than to major in the historical methods that might render our conclusions rigorously defensible? And, as it happens, the same Enlightenment suspicion of theological bias that animated the early Restoration Movement has dominated modern biblical studies from its beginnings. In many ways, it was a match made—well, not in heaven, but in a powerful twist of cultural predilection. 

Moreover, I am personally quite proud of this vibrant, albeit recent heritage. My years at Harding University and Harding School of Theology were marked by a voracious thirst for and delight in biblical studies in this mode. I am indebted to teachers who taught and exemplified the highest standards of historical-critical exegesis. My library is full of books that shed light on the biblical text with the very methods I am discussing. Generally speaking, I have no desire to approach the Bible without the tools that historical-critical methods frequently employ. From the lexical and semantic complexities of the original-language documents that underlie our biblical translations to the socio-cultural issues that frame them, the biblical text demands critical examination.

As I watched the church of my youth begin to free itself of patternistic and sectarian uses of Scripture, the alternative at the congregational level seemed to be something between saccharine popular spirituality (it’s all about “love” and “grace”—the scare quotes are doing real work here) and postmodern subjectivism (“what it means to me”), both of which made me feel a bit nauseous. I found solace in the rigor of biblical studies. I felt completely at home with the claim that historical-critical exegesis would anchor us in authorial intent and original meaning. I was happy that the methods of biblical studies would allow us to warrant arguments about the historical boundaries of meaning. Frankly, I still am. Sort of.

The big, hairy problem is that exegesis is not theology. Technically, it does not even amount to hermeneutics (i.e., the full-blown theory of how how readers make meaning of texts). The attempt to figure out what a text meant historically and then, in a second step, apply that meaning is ultimately another iteration of the approach taken by plucking commands, examples, and inferences from the Bible. That is why it is so appealing to Restorationists. And that is why it is, at its very best, inadequate.

Certainly, historical-critical exegesis is more sophisticated than the old approach. It is more scholarly, more demanding, more careful. These are positive attributes. Incidentally, they are also why much of the tradition has kept good exegetical practice at arm’s-length. Our native populism and suspicion of academic convolution has contributed to a major division between the ways that ministers have been trained to interpret the Bible in academic programs and the ways that interpretive discussions proceed in local churches. This is one problem, and it is not minor. But it is only a symptom of our essential dilemma.

Our essential dilemma is shared by many other traditions: the widespread rift between church and academy has left the methods of biblical scholarship bereft of the theological riches (confessional, liturgical, intellectual, and practical) of the church’s faith. This comes to expression in the disciplinary siloing of systematic theology and biblical studies in the theological academy. That is a problem for another discussion, and I mention it only to amplify the point that even in our best programs, there is an institutionalized internal rift between theological reflection and biblical exegesis. (Incidentally, this is why generalist programs of study like the Masters of Divinity are so important for ministerial training. We may often fail at facilitating integration, but at least we expose students to everything at once.)

In the end, exegesis just is theological. Our pretensions of objectivity, our desire to “begin” with the Bible, are powerless to prevent the influence of theological assumptions. That fact, however, does not overcome the deep-rooted tendency to leave “theology” as a second, often optional step. This means that the theology doing de facto work in our interpretive practices is both obscured and anemic. Stated more starkly, bad theology does interpretive work where good theology is absent. The future of Churches of Christ is a theological question because we need theology in order to lean all the way into our historical commitment to Scripture. We need theological interpretation of Scripture.

The hopeful news is that, in the midst of decline, there are signs of life. For example, Brad East, an associate professor at Abilene Christian University, has written “The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation: Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism: Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation,” (International Journal of Systematic Theology 19, no. 1 [January 2017]: 30–52.), in addition to compiling and editing a volume of essays by Robert W. Jenson (The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture [New York: Oxford, 2019]), one of the forerunners of TIS. Keith Stanglin, Professor of Scripture and Historical Theology Austin Graduate School of Theology, recently published The Letter and the Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). For the last two years, the annual Christian Scholars Conference has featured sessions on theological interpretation titled “Sola Scriptura and Prima Scriptura: The Tension and Cohesion of Scripture and Community,” featuring scholars from a variety of Churches of Christ schools. And John Mark Hicks’s volume Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible (n.p.: John Mark Hicks, 2019) is something of a primer in theological interpretation for Churches of Christ. Hicks’s book is especially important because of its accessibility and contextualization in the tradition. The rift between church and academy means that there is no telling whether the influence of most of the work I’ve mentioned (and undoubtedly there are others that merit attention) will make a timely contribution to the urgent state of affairs among Churches of Christ. But I am hopeful that they represent the leading edge of the theological renewal that our hermeneutics badly needs.

What will this look like on the local level? What does taking the theological question seriously mean for congregations? How can a tradition formed around the suspicion of theology make the transition? In my view, that is the ten-million dollar question. I doubt anyone knows the answer. I do see, however, a handful of key issues.

Media. First, we have to reckon with the loss of the media through which theological leadership once brought relative cohesion to Churches of Christ. For more than a century, periodicals played this role, marked through the years by increasingly evident regional predilections. As periodicals declined in influence, university lectureships rose in prominence, their reach and accessibility being even more limited. By the end of the twentieth century, lectureships (and their evangelistic counterpart, gospel meetings) had also proven impotent in the face of the tradition’s powerful sense of local autonomy. The universities themselves, particularly the publications of their Bible faculties and their influence on graduates, have been especially formative on a national scale in the last fifty years, but fragmentation has continued to accelerate. New media is too new to evaluate in retrospect, but I see no evidence that blogs and the like have filled the void. To the contrary, they play into the hyper-personalization and pluralization of perspectives that characterize the market of ideas in 2020. In some respects, this is the realization of a restorationist ideal, namely, the radical democratization of theological discourse. These days, the threat of clerical elitism has been totally overcome by a meritocracy of ideas (or, at least, one could wish that good ideas were the currency in circulation). The letter to the editor has become 280 characters of unmediated assertion. Subscriptions have become the echo chambers of social media algorithms. In some ways, there is nothing new under the sun. In others, we’re off the map, and here there be monsters. The point being, we have to figure out how theological leadership works through twenty-first century media.

Discursive practices. Second, our basic ability to have conversations, even on the local level, is in question. On the one hand, this is a matter of appetite. It is not clear that there is a hunger among most Christians for the kinds of conversations that would foster a robust theological imagination. Perhaps this is a result of training our desire almost exclusively toward the sort of packaged theology that sermons so often deliver. Theology is an endeavor usually relegated to the responsibility of a few who are expected to do the work of reflection individually and, in turn, present their ideas in easily digestible bites. This is evidently related to the cultural trend toward the presentation of smaller and smaller bits of information in the most entertaining or provocative way possible. I do not imagine that our history offers an ideal alternative. Discourse in the Restoration Movement was polemical from the beginning, and the entertainment value of such rhetoric should not be underestimated historically. Public debate has always been a powerful format for quite human reasons. But the demise of such media, arguably for virtuous reasons, did not give rise to alternative forms of attention-sustaining discourse. To the contrary, I see little evidence that Christians are willing to attend to each other long and carefully enough to do theological work together. The emergence of long-form podcasts and conversations in other “alternative” media are a hopeful sign in the wider culture, though it hardly represents a major movement so far. In any case, the question is how to generate a greater appetite for substantial theological reflection among congregations habituated to brevity, simplicity, and delegated responsibility.

C. Christopher Smith of The Englewood Review of Books has been doing important work on this issue for years. His books Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (2016), How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (2019) are key resources [2. It is noteworthy that this work grows out of a Restorationist heritage. See the story of Englewood Christian Church here: http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-3-2/authors/md-3-2-mobley-taylor-bowling.]. Books like David Fitch’s The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies (2019) or, in a sociological vein, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) are also relevant here. 

On the other hand, our ability to have conversations is a matter of spiritual formation. This claim aims at two problems. One is the tribalism that runs rampant in the rest of the culture. We are, again, habituated to picking sides and deploying un-nuanced, totalizing rhetoric against one another. Social media is not the scapegoat—indeed, it is more likely that the way we interact in comments and tweets reveals something about who we already are than that we are simply victims of a format. But it is a chicken-egg problem, because practice makes vicious. The openness, humility, and repentance that real dialogue demands is, for Christians, a spiritual matter. The other problem, then, is the widespread failure to make spiritual disciplines and the fruit of the Spirit the indispensable accompaniments of congregational dialogue aimed at meaningful new understanding. I believe this failure is compounded by the history of divisiveness that makes many in Churches of Christ feel that conflict as such is sinful. Rather than leaning into loving, prayerful, generative disagreement, many congregations employ strategies of avoidance that ultimately cripple their theological development. I have great sympathy for leaders who feel this is the only faithful option. The damage we have done to one another is nothing to shrug at. It is, nonetheless, deeply harmful in another way to imagine that either dividing the church or avoiding difficult conversations are the only alternatives. The question here is how to marry spiritual formation and theological discourse programmatically and inextricably in local church practice.

Identity formation. Third, our tradition wants for theological identity in a basic sense. This is, of course, a function of the theological anemia discussed in the previous post. But the identity issue puts us on a specific approach to the problem of theological interpretation of Scripture. It highlights who we are as interpreters—who the “we” is that comes to the text together in congregational interpretation. This is a difficult question to answer from our present moment in history. The book I’ve coauthored with Mark Powell and John Mark Hicks, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future, is aimed at this problem.

The chapter on Scripture addresses my present concern most directly, but it relies on the whole argument of the book, which is that a particular set of theological commitments has characterized and should characterize the theological vision of Churches of Christ. These commitments—Trinity (!), eschatology, Scripture, church, sacraments, and mission—cohere around the central concept and practice of discipleship. Our prayer is that the book serve the many churches in our tradition struggling, consciously or unconsciously, with the question of our identity. In particular, I hope it catalyzes a discussion of the theological identity that must come to shape our communal interpretation of Scripture if we are to move vibrantly into the twenty-first century. Because the question of whether Churches of Christ will outgrow our half-century-long identity crisis is an existential one.

Interpretive practices. Fourth and finally, there is a great deal of work to be done in creating resources that would make TIS understandable and practicable on the local level. I hope to see and perhaps to contribute in coming years to books, websites, or podcasts along the lines of “theological interpretation for everyone” (hats off to the “For Everyone” series of commentaries by John Goldingay and N. T. Wright). In this conversation, such resources are the main bridge that urgently needs to be built across the divide between church and academy. I have in mind especially traditions like Churches of Christ that value (ostensibly) inclusive congregational interpretation, whose strong populism renders reliance on well-trained church leaders less determinative in shaping interpretive habits and sensibilities. For such as these, the fact that TIS literature remains almost entirely academic and high-flown or, at best, written on a level most readily digestible for an MDiv is a major barrier. I wonder, can we make the discussion and practices of TIS as widespread and accessible as those of CEI (command, example, inference) were in the early Restoration Movement? 

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