What Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?
When I first encountered the term “theological interpretation,” I was a bit confused about its meaning. As far as I could tell, all the interpretation of scripture to which I had been exposed had been theological. So, I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. It should, of course, be understood that this thing called theological interpretation is quite a big deal. It has become a major movement in the world of academic biblical studies as indicated by a very significant amount of literature recently and currently being published. So, what is it? I’ve done a little reading in the area lately and, as best as I can discern, theological interpretation is the practice or discipline of reading and interpreting the Bible as holy scripture with something to say for the life and practice of the Church. “What?” you say. “What is so novel about that? Have we not been reading the Bible as holy scripture with something to say for the life and practice of the church for millennia?” This was my initial reaction to the matter as well. As a pastor, I do theological interpretation of scripture on a daily and weekly basis. I read scripture for the Church as part of my vocation. So, why all the fuss?
The reason this is a big deal is because it is catching on as a valid discipline in academic circles. A bit of history is always helpful. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, what has become known as higher critical scholarship was on the rise in the academic field of biblical studies. This movement dismissed the notion of a transcendent God who had made himself known through special revelation. These scholars did not read the Bible as scripture with something to say to the Church; they read the Bible purely as critics of history. These men were highly influenced by the German philosophers of the period and discounted all biblical accounts of supernatural activity like miracles and divine revelation. The Bible was read as a purely human book. Scholars sought to understand the historically authentic world that was allegedly behind the religiously embellished text. Thus, a massive wedge was driven between the Bible of history and the scriptures of faith. The Bible was seen as telling us about the beliefs of the early Christ-followers; it was seen as telling us nothing from God.
This historical context should shed some light on the importance of the current rise of theological readings of scripture in academia. Theological interpretation should be seen as a response to those who would strip the Bible from the devotional life of the Church. It is an attempt to recover the scriptures as the word of God for his people and the larger world. The movement is still young and a great deal of energy is being spent on issues of method and how exactly this practice should be done. The thing for which we can be thankful is that theological reading of the Bible is coming to be seen as a very exciting, valid, and scholarly approach to the scriptures.