I teach a course, along with my wise and faithful colleague, Joseph Mangina, called “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Theory and Practice.” We have wonderful students. But the topic is difficult for all of us. “Theological Interpretation” is in the air, so we examine it. Yet what is it, exactly? In distinction from other sorts of Bible reading — historical, linguistic, literary, sociological, political or psychological — theological interpretation is usually defined as reading the Bible as if it were, on a primary level “about God.” Certainly, if Scripture is about anything it is about God. But I’m increasingly uncomfortable with this way of putting things.
Scripture is obviously a book, capable of being translated, printed, and read. This fools us into thinking that it is also “like” other books, as Benjamin Jowett (in)famously insisted: capable of being parsed, deciphered, and applied, in the manner of legal documents, personal confessions, informational digests, and instructional exhortations. Perhaps all this is true. People “use” the Bible in lots of “useful” ways. But Scripture is, as every Christian (and Jew) also knows, more fundamentally God’s word, or wisdom, the voice of the Holy Spirit. Before it is “about” something, it is something: the articulate presence of God. The Bible is thus, in itself, a divine act, whose character is as comprehensively and inexhaustibly reflective of God’s own self as the human mind could ever fathom in the face of that simple truth of the One who is First and Last, who creates and destroys, for whom light and dark are both alike.
Indeed, Scripture is fundamentally not “about” any “thing.” For God, after all, is neither any particular thing nor the sum of all things. Scripture, rather, is God at work, and hence it is God’s declaration of all things, of reality itself. Scripture provides the infinite number of divine “performative” utterances, words that “do” things just by being said: Come! Do! Stop! Now! What? Not! Yes! Blessed! Amen! So, in Scripture, God speaks, and thus everything comes to be, the word is found and unfolds, God stands firm before us.
Reading Scripture as if it were primarily “about God” certainly yields an array of important insights. Some of these properly find their way into doctrinal reflection, maybe even definition. But reading Scripture doctrinally, we all know, can be — and has been — as constraining as the limited churches whose dogma the Bible is seen as upholding. These are useful readings, but not necessarily good readings. Reading Scripture well, instead, is primarily about engaging, somehow, Scripture’s divine “this-ness,” its breadth and substance, its “being there” such that we can see that we are, how we are, and where we are as God’s creation. From the perspective of interpretation, good reading is explication and implication — inhabiting and seeing the rich “folds” of divine reality — rather than solving or decoding.
On this basis, there are a few benchmarks to good scriptural reading that one can identity, but that have little to do with deciphering Scripture’s “message.”
Good reading takes us further into, not out of, of Scripture
This criterion can be applied to lots of reading practices and evaluates a range of consequences. One can confront the general criterion by simply asking oneself, as one reads, “what am I thinking or talking about as I read? Am I talking about Scripture itself or about myself and others?” The more our reading has us talking about ourselves, and the less about the Scriptures, the less good it is.
The primary and unquenchable thirst, by modern readers, for “application” is one that this criterion hits hard. “What does this text mean for me? How does it guide our relationships in the world? How should it shape the church’s decision-making?” Beyond issues of the moral life, there are other questions that the criterion limits: “what does this tell us about the ancient Israelites? how does it reflect literary ideas? who wrote it?” These kinds of questions, however useful (and inevitable), are post- or extra-scriptural, not scriptural. We can ask these questions and learn things from their answers. But we should not confuse these questions or the answers we construct with reading Scripture well. And coming up, as they often do, immediately or quickly and often exhaustively in our reading of Scripture, such questions have the effect of taking us out of the very place we are meant to stay put.
Good reading, by contrast, leads us to put down stakes in the text. The text itself, after all, is God’s self-presentation. It is not us, not our family, our church, our politics, our situation, nor our intellectual or emotional interests. Good reading, therefore, will lead us to linger over words and phrases, to pause on and circle around events, to wonder about figures, to dwell on questions raised in the text, or on its oddities, amazements, even leaden and intolerable normalcies.
Historical, textual, or lexical studies have their value here, it should be said. Looking up words, following out their usage in the Bible, making distinctions with our cultural presuppositions: this can slow us down, keep us tethered to the text itself. But such studies, if made foundational, or left unchecked, often have the effect of leading us — and leaving us — out of the text. Beware!
Of course, many church leaders read the Bible in order to preach on it. And preaching is no good, surely, if it has no basic application to “real life.” But “real life,” if Scripture is what I have suggested it is, is to be found in, not outside, of the text. If we must provide a homiletic application of a scriptural text – out of pastoral and circumstantial concern – we must rein it in proportionately. No more than one fifth of a sermon, perhaps, should be applicatory; and we should never leave it to the end, as if it were the sermon’s “point.” It isn’t, at least not if one is preaching on the Bible. Any such applicative “message” is a disappointment in the face of God’s Word! Sermons should begin, stay with, and end with Scripture itself. There’s nothing to worry about at that point: God is acting in his Word, say what we will.
The next installment of this essay will round out the characteristics of good Bible reading.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.