Review: The Future of Biblical Interpretation

future of biblical interpretation

The Future of Biblical Interpretation, Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: A festschrift for Anthony Thiselton exploring from different perspectives the tension between plurality of interpretations of the Bible, and responsible hermeneutics.

Plurality of interpretations is perhaps one of the more troubling aspects of Protestant biblical interpretation. Not only does it account for numerous denominational divisions but there is the troubling phenomenon of Christians thinking everyone is his or her own interpreter without controls or answerability to others.

This volume explores the question of how to practice responsible hermeneutics in this context, as well as with a text that we believe both the Word of God and the product of multiple human voices. It is a festschrift to Anthony Thiselton, author, in the 1980s, of the ground-breaking The Two Horizons, where he brings to bear the work of figures like Heidegger, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein in the broader field of hermeneutics to explore one of the basic sources of much interpretive plurality, the unawareness of the historical horizon of the biblical text as well as the contemporary horizon of the interpreter (including traditions of interpretation that might shape the contemporary interpreter).

Perhaps in this case, the best way to give a sense of this book is to provide a table of contents of topics and contributors:

Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm

1. The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics
Anthony C. Thiselton

2. Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Responsibility
Stanley E. Porter

3. Biblical Hermeneutics and Scriptural Responsibility
Richard S. Briggs

4. Biblical Hermeneutics and Kerygmatic Responsibility
Matthew R. Malcolm

5. Biblical Hermeneutics and Historical Responsibility
James D. G. Dunn

6. Biblical Hermeneutics and Critical Responsibility
Robert C. Morgan

7. Biblical Hermeneutics and Relational Responsibility
Tom Greggs

8. Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility
R. Walter L. Moberly

Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm

Thiselton’s opening essay is perhaps one of the most interesting. Drawing on Bakhtin, he argues for the importance in dealing with plurality of being aware of the polyphony of voices in the corpus of scripture. Responsible hermeneutics neither holds these voices in conflict, nor mutes some to privilege others, but seeks the larger perspective to which all of these contribute.

There were several interesting issues raised in individual essays as well as in the conflicting perspectives between some essays. Stanley Porter raises interesting questions about theological interpretation, and particularly the privileging of pre-modern theology in many discussions. Richard Briggs argues that scriptural responsibility in hermeneutics is a fostering of dialogue between different ideas of “scripture as.”  James Dunn argues for the priority of the historical horizon in interpretation, certainly reflected in his New Perspective work on Paul. By contrast, Robert Morgan argues for the role of theological criticism over against the text. The final two chapters explore the relation of biblical interpretation to our relationship to the church authority as well as to its traditions and creeds.

While I do think the interpreters raised different and interesting ideas from their own perspectives (something the editors wrestled with in the end), I found myself troubled in two respects. One was that for a group of people who are concerned with meaning, one found it a challenge to understand what they were arguing at times. This book actually assumes that the reader is highly conversant with the hermeneutic issues being discussed, the relevant philosophers and the particular uses of language in the field.

Related, but more troubling to me is that seems this work reflects an assumption of opaqueness rather than perspicuity of scripture. As I write this I certainly am aware of the fact that not every verse in scripture is utterly clear. But Robert Morgan’s theological criticism in particular seems to affirm there are times where the theologian must go against the clarity of the biblical text. In Moberly’s concluding essay, he begins with a discussion of the Pauline authorship of the pastorals and the unsettling discovery during seminary that biblical criticism calls this into question despite the clear attestations of authorship and relationship. By the end, he acknowledges himself agnostic on the matter and states that “literary theory makes it possible to take the first-person voice of the letters with full imaginative seriousness, and one can unreservedly inhabit the imaginative world of the text in preaching, while leaving open the relation between the literary voice and the historical author” (p. 156).

It seems to me that these writers often accept the hermeneutic of suspicion about these texts. I would contend that the mental gymnastics that differentiates between “imaginary Paul” and Paul, the apostle and martyr is a corrosive one that undercuts the preacher’s ability to speak the word of the Lord to the people of God. I do not see how “imaginary Paul” can speak with authority to the Timothys of this world, for example, about “taking your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), but the apostle who was stoned and beaten many times and who would die for the gospel certainly could and can.

So, while I would wish in no way to detract from Anthony Thiselton’s scholarship, nor from the value of a collection like this for elucidating the current discussions in hermeneutics, I must express serious reservations about the value of this work either for addressing the issue of plurality that is its purported task or for the edifying and equipping of the people of God. I’m not sure this is a future of biblical interpretation I can commend.


4 thoughts on “Review: The Future of Biblical Interpretation

  1. So interesting that books like this do not seem to be in conversation with real people leading real lives. Of course the Bible has plural meanings – when a billionaire reads passages from the Bible on justice and poverty, he needs to be reading them in a different way from someone who is poor. The Bible, God calls us to action, not idle reading and interpretation. One would hope that the billionaire recognizes a different call to action from that expected of the poor person.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2016 | Bob on Books

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