Ecclesial Exegesis: A Synthesis of Ancient and Modern Approaches to Scripture

Written by Gregory Vall Reviewed By Mart Jan Luteijn

For more than two centuries Christian scholars and pastors alike have wrestled with the different worldviews of modern critical exegetical methods and the creeds of premodern churches. Sometimes this resulted in an anti-academic faith commitment, at other times the mainly historical work of biblical scholars turned out to be unsuitable for the pulpit. It is delightful to live in a period in which both worlds are being integrated more and more. The proposal of Gregory Vall in Ecclesial Exegesis is, therefore, a step in the right direction, but unfortunately not the final solution.

This publication comprises a series of articles Vall published during his career of exegetical work in the Catholic tradition. In general, he recalls the engagement of the recently deceased pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), who in the 1980s declared it time to integrate traditional exposition (method A) and historical exegesis (method B) into a revolutionary new way of doing exegesis (method C). Ratzinger already expected it would take a whole generation of scholars to fulfill this vision (p. 6 and repeated multiple times). Vall now looks back to see to what extent this third approach has indeed become compelling and shares some of his “best practices.” The volume consists of two-thirds earlier work, complemented with a formulation of its theoretical framework and some new examples.

Two important threads can be distinguished throughout the work. Firstly, Vall analyzes the recent Catholic discussion with a theoretical-hermeneutical lens in order to understand what method C actually is and also what it is not. It is not, for example, a simple two-step exegesis (p. 103), in which one first does the “historical” work (to understand what the text meant) and only afterwards tries to relate this to our time (what the text means). On the contrary, modern methods and traditional expositions must be in constant dialogue. Secondly, concrete exegetical examples are presented in which Valls tries to find this perfect mix. The widely diverse topics include Psalm 22, the Sabbath laws, and filial adoption in Romans 8. In these chapters, a particular patristic interpretation of a biblical passage is joined to more recent scholarly findings. In many cases, Vall’s specific exegetical remarks are quite helpful. Yet, regarding the general hermeneutical gains the result is less positive.

While the hermeneutical approach as such is certainly to be applauded, it falls short in two major ways. Firstly, traditional (A) and historical (B) interpretation are constantly imbalanced. For example, one chapter ended up more like a study in church history than an exegetical-hermeneutical proposal (pp. 123–52 cite no contemporary exegetical work), while another chapter functions as a biblical theology without any pre-twentieth century references (pp. 227–66). Next to this material imbalance, there is also a more systematic discrepancy: traditional and historical interpretation are arguably unequal quantities for Vall. The dogmatic voice of the text seems overall more important than recent scholarly findings (see pp. 22, 117, 165, 217, among others). So I would categorize Vall’s hermeneutical approach as an A+ method, in which the exegetical shortcomings of the patristics are supplemented but not fundamentally altered by modern studies.

Regrettably, Vall is also not in dialogue with other recent proposals outside of the specific intellectual environment of the Ratzinger school. His main opponents are important Catholic theologians at the end of the twentieth century in the wake of Vatican II (mainly Raymond E. Brown and Joseph A. Fitzmyer). Since then, however, other proposals have been added both inside and outside the Catholic church. For example, Vall is silent about the recent approach called Theological Interpretation of Scripture (he only notes its existence in the introduction, p. 13). Additionally, the debate between traditional and historical interpretation has become more complicated with the rise of contextual approaches like feminist and social-scientific criticism. The binary debate Vall encountered during his years as a student in the 1980s has, for better or worse, developed into a plurality that is bigger than the opposition between theological and diachronic methodologies. Therefore, more than three alphabetic letters are needed to categorize this whole field.

Vall’s approach is thus quite similar to the recent work of Jamieson and Wittman. These Baptist theologians retrieve some exegetical rules of the early church, while seemingly neglecting recent historical and contextual findings. Their conclusions on the possibility of divine regret (Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2022], 84–90; cf. Thomas Haviland-Pabst’s review in this issue) are also to a great extent comparable to the ones of Vall (pp. 70–71). So while the approach of Vall and others is certainly both contributing to a recent debate and a great ecumenical opportunity, the past generation has (with some exceptions) not yet succeeded in bridging the gap between more critical academical work and faithful listening to God’s word in Scripture. Apparently, it is still hard to fully combine the capacities of our mind and our heart, but Jesus taught us to love God with all we have to offer, both intellectually and spiritually (Mark 12:30). In this way, this work offers yet another stimulus to continue the exegetical-theological dialogue with all our Christian brothers and sisters.

Mart Jan Luteijn

Mart Jan Luteijn
Evangelical Theological Faculty
Leuven, Belgium

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