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Definition

Theological Interpretation of Scripture is an approach to biblical interpretation that approaches the text with explicitly theological presuppositions, questions and concerns, seeking to hear in Scripture not only the thoughts and voices of its various human authors but a word from God that functions as the primary and authoritative source for our knowledge of him.

Summary

Theological interpretation of Scripture is both a long-standing Christian interpretive practice, arising out of the hermeneutics of the biblical writers themselves, and a contemporary scholarly movement that champions this approach to interpretation against Enlightenment notions of presuppositionless or methodologically agnostic exegesis. As critics of the movement have pointed out, this approach to interpretation involves a risk that the particular contribution of each individual biblical text and the distinctive voice of each biblical writer may be drowned out by the reader’s perception of the themes and storyline of Scripture as a whole, or distorted to fit within the framework and categories of the reader’s inherited theological pre-understandings. But there is ultimately no such thing as presuppositionless interpretation, and an approach to Scripture that comes to the text with self-conscious, explicitly theological pre-understandings is in keeping with the content and concerns of the text itself. Provided the reader is open to the possibility that these pre-understandings may be challenged or overturned by the encounter with the text, an overtly theological interpretive stance is a legitimate and fruitful approach to biblical interpretation.

Theological interpretation of Scripture as an ancient Christian practice

The Bible contains numerous claims that the books within it are not of merely human authorship but are to be received as the word of God, breathed out by his Spirit (e.g. 2Tim 3:16; 2Pet 1:20–21); that the one they speak of as LORD is the one true God and the creator of all things (e.g. Gen 1:1; Psa 33:6–9); that the universe holds together by his word, and by the word of his Son, the Lord Jesus (e.g. Col 1:16–17; Heb 1:3); and that the Scriptures are given by him to his people to strengthen them in faith, hope, and love, to make them wise for salvation and for life, and to equip them to play their part in his mission in the world and in the upbuilding of the church (e.g. Rom 15:4; 2Tim 3:15–17).1

Readers of the Bible who take those claims seriously have always understood the interpretation of Scripture to be an intrinsically and necessarily theological task; the Bible is—among other things—the primary and authoritative source for our understanding of God and his relationship to us and to all things. From the very beginning of the Christian church, therefore, the reading and teaching of Scripture has involved a circular movement of thought in which the meaning and significance of a particular biblical text are understood in light of the larger shape of the biblical story, its climax and fulfilment in the events of the gospel, and the basic convictions about God and the world that are the presuppositions and entailments of that story.2 To interpret Scripture in this manner, therefore, is not to impose on it an alien dogmatic grid but to imitate and participate in interpretive practices that we learn within the canon of Scripture itself, from Jesus, from the apostles, and from the writers of the New Testament.3

Following their lead does not, of course, mean obliterating all distinctions between their role within the economy of God’s revelation and our own. The writers of the New Testament (and Jesus himself) are interpreters, but what they write and preach is never presented as merely interpretation. They have testimony of their own to bear and are themselves speaking as mouthpieces of divine revelation in a sense that we, as contemporary preachers and writers, are not.4

For that reason (among others), it would be a mistake for us to think that our stance toward the New Testament should be analogous to the stance that Jesus and the New Testament writers take toward the Old Testament. There is good warrant for including the writings of the New Testament (and the remembered and recorded sayings of Jesus) within the larger category of “Scripture” (cf. 1Tim 5:18; 2Pet 3:16), but in assenting to that canonical judgment we do not obliterate the basic two-testament structure of the Scriptures. The canonical boundary line between us and the writers of the New Testament has more to do with differentiated degrees of authority and modes of divine speech than any fundamental change of epoch between their own time and ours. Viewed from the perspective of the New Testament writers, the distinction between “the past,” when “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets,” and “these last days,” in which God has spoken to us in his Son (Heb 1:1–2), is of far greater hermeneutical significance than the distinction between the apostolic era, in which they bore witness to God’s revelation in Christ, and the post-apostolic era, in which we continue to receive that witness. Our task, therefore, is not so much to imitate their interpretation of the Old Testament in our interpretation of the New but to follow their lead in interpreting the Old Testament (and all things) in light of Christ and Christ (and all things) in light of the Old Testament.

That being said, there is still—of course—work for us to do in interpreting the New Testament itself, and that task includes its own additional version of the kind of recursive process described above. The twenty centuries of Christian history between the writing of the New Testament and our own time have bequeathed to us a vast deposit of theological tradition, including the prayers, hymns, and creeds of the ecumenical church, the confessions and practices of our own particular tradition, and the writings of the Fathers and their successors across the following centuries. In addition to all that, and including it within it, there is the still larger body of literature and tradition generated across the centuries, in a wide variety of cultural and religious contexts, by human discourse about God and the gods; the early Christians, as Tertullian and Augustine acknowledge, did not invent the category of “theology” but entered into a conversation that the pagans had already been having for centuries.5

None of this, of course, occupies anything like the same place within the economy of revelation as the New Testament Scriptures themselves, but it still inevitably contributes to the pre-understandings and pre-commitments that we bring with us to Scripture as we read it. Mature and responsible theological interpretation involves both a grateful acknowledgment of the traditions that have formed us as readers and a humble readiness to submit our entire selves, including our prior theological understandings and convictions, to the judging and reforming work of God as we encounter him in his word (cf. Heb 4:12–13; Jas 1:22–25).

Theological Interpretation of Scripture as a recent movement

In addition to this generic sense in which “theological interpretation” has always been a basic element of serious Christian engagement with Scripture, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (capitalized, or abbreviated as the acronym, TIS) has also, over the last three decades, acquired a more particular meaning as the name of a contemporary movement.6  Championed by a loose affiliation of theologians and biblical scholars, the TIS movement seeks to reassert a version of the traditional understanding of Scripture as a text requiring theologically-engaged reading, pushing back vigorously against the view assumed in some academic circles that the only legitimate scholarly approach to the Bible is one that brackets out all theological questions and proceeds on the basis of a thoroughgoing methodological agnosticism.

The term adopted by the movement as its name has been variously defined by its proponents,7 but the essential feature of most of the definitions that have been offered is the recursive relationship that exists, within this mode of interpretation, between the reading of Scripture and the theological commitments and pre-understandings of the interpretive tradition in which Scripture is being read. Expressed a little more succinctly (borrowing a phrase from Daniel Treier), it means interpreting Scripture “with and for doctrine.”[viii]

The champions of TIS come from a variety of theological stances within the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions and include a number of prominent evangelical theologians and biblical scholars. Some versions of TIS have, unsurprisingly, met with criticism for the degree of interpretive authority that they grant to pre-modern interpreters such as the church fathers or the reformers of the sixteenth century, or to the creeds and confessions of Christian tradition; another related danger in some modes of theological interpretation is the risk of obscuring the meaning of the biblical text by imposing alien or anachronistic concepts, or by forcing artificial and premature harmonization with other voices from Scripture or the tradition.

But when practiced in a manner that honors the uniqueness and finality of Scripture’s authority and maintains a proper sensitivity to the individual voices of the canon, a consciously theological approach to interpretation can enrich and assist the interpretive process, suggesting possibilities of meaning that might otherwise not have come to mind, offering categories and frameworks for connecting what is said in this text with what can be learned elsewhere, and ruling out of bounds (at least provisionally) interpretive possibilities that conflict irresolvably with well-warranted theological control beliefs. At times, too, a prior knowledge of the theological tradition can have an appropriately chastening effect, reminding the brash or impetuous interpreter that he or she is not the first to wrestle with these verses and that the conclusion that seems self-evident to one interpreter is not always so obvious to another. Theological understanding can sometimes help us to say less, not more.

All in all, there is much value to be found in an approach to the interpretation of Scripture that takes serious and deliberate account of the character of Scripture as divine discourse, the centrality of God within the themes that Scripture speaks of and the story that it tells, the function of Scripture within the mission of God, and the place we have as readers within the people of God, gratefully (though not uncritically) drawing on the insights of others who have read the same texts before us.

Footnotes

1Some of the material in the following paragraphs is adapted, with permission, from David I. Starling, “Hermeneutics and Preaching: Theological Interpretation and the Preaching Task,” in Doctrine for Declaration: Explorations in the Theological Foundations of Biblical Preaching, ed. Chase R. Kuhn and Paul Grimmond (Bellingham: Lexham, 2020).
2There is also a sense, of course, in which it is even older than that, rooted in the interpretive practices of the authors and editors of the Old Testament itself as they read and reflected on earlier biblical texts and traditions, relating them to the unfolding story of God’s saving interaction with Israel and the world and its anticipated future climax. For a selection of case studies in Old Testament theological interpretation of Old Testament, see David I. Starling, Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: How the Bible Shapes Our Interpretive Habits and Practices (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 23-91.
3See especially Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster, 2005), 331.
4This claim is sometimes, though not always, explicit within what they speak and write. Whether or not that is the case, the inclusion of the New Testament writings within the canon of Christian Scripture carries the implication that they are to be read by the church as uniquely authoritative vehicles of divine speech.
5Cf. Augustine, On the City of God 6.5–12; Tertullian, To the Nations 2.1.
6Cf. the brief account of the emergence and precursors of the TIS movement in Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 11-36.
7Cf. the brief definitions offered in J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), xii, and Joel B. Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 4-5, and the seven theses propounded in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor's Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019), ch. 4.
8Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 64.

Further Reading

Introductions to TIS, written by proponents and practitioners of this approach to biblical interpretation:

  • Billings, J. Todd. The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
  • Fowl, Stephen E. “Introduction.” Pages xii-xxx in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Edited by Stephen E. Fowl. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
  • Green, Joel B. Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.
  • Treier, Daniel J. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.
  • Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019.
  • ________________. “Introduction: What Is Theological Interpretation of the Bible?” Pages 19-25 in In Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Reflections on the theological significance of Scripture’s own self-interpretation:

  • Blocher, Henri. “The ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Study of Scripture: In Search of Justification and Guidelines.” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 5 (1987): 17-38.
  • Starling, David I. Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: How the Bible Shapes Our Interpretive Habits and Practices. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016.
  • ______________. “‘Nothing Beyond What Is Written’? First Corinthians and the Hermeneutics of Early Christian Theologia.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8 (2014): 45-62.

Sympathetic critical reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of TIS

  • Allison, Gregg R. “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: An Introduction and Preliminary Evaluation.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14/2 (2010): 28-36.
  • Carson, D. A. “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But . . . .” Pages 187-207 in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives. Edited by R. Michael Allen. London: T&T Clark, 2011.
  • Trimm, Charlie. “Evangelicals, Theology, and Biblical Interpretation: Reflections on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 20 (2010): 311-330.

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