Biblical Interpretation: History vs. Mystery?

Daniel Treier, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, reports on a conference he attended in September 2011 at Regent College (Vancouver, Canada) entitled, “Heaven on Earth? The Future of Spiritual Interpretation”:

From an initial gathering with Regent students during our airport pickup to question and answer sessions and hallway conversations, there was a consistent theme: how to navigate apparent conflict between modern biblical scholarship and classic spiritual exegesis. Although any school has its unique features, the challenge faced by these Regent students has become fairly typical at a number of evangelical institutions. Courses in biblical studies and (usually) hermeneutics teach how to exegete the Bible using modern tools of critical scholarship, perhaps with a measure of discernment about the presuppositions involved in the history of those tools. Meanwhile courses in theology and (perhaps) pastoral ministry or spiritual life teach what classic churchly interpreters did with the Bible and suggest (to varying degrees) that we should go and do likewise. The challenge of discernment becomes much more difficult as a result: can the students embrace a modern approach centered on historical reconstruction of the human author’s intentions, simply making minor presuppositional adjustments that uphold the Bible’s historical value and theological authority? Or must students fundamentally embrace a more classic understanding of spiritual exegesis centered on pursuit of the divine Author’s intentions, simply making ad hoc use of modern historical tools when these seem helpful to churchly aims?

Of course, these may not be the only possibilities. But feeling confused and caught in the middle—unable to decide between or integrate the two perspectives—tends to be the student outcome when relative newcomers hear the most strongly argued, polarizing presentations of each position. Some Regent students have therefore dubbed the debate “History vs. Mystery”—of which the conference staged a pointed yet charitable version.

The “mystery” advocates—most (traditional or conservative) Catholics and a rising number of Protestants—rather unequivocally embrace the spiritual exegesis of the classic church(es). They may or may not allow for historically oriented university exegesis to play a significantly informative role in overall judgments about the meaning of Scripture. But they are open in principle to the full range of classic exegetical practices—not least, “allegorical” interpretations—being pursued within the boundaries of the Rule of faith. Within such parameters, correctness of interpretation is not as important as edification, and aberrant interpretations can be winnowed out over time via churchly discernment.

Conversely, the “history” advocates—most evangelical Protestant biblical scholars and some Catholics—believe that true spiritual edification requires correct understanding of Scripture’s literal sense. They may or may not allow for meaning to go beyond the intentions of the human author to reflect divine meaning at the canonical level, for instance through “typological” interpretations (a common New Testament practice, e.g., seeing Christ as a Passover lamb). But “allegorical” interpretations are off limits because they obscure or even contradict the message that the texts try to convey at the literal level.

Seemingly caught in the middle are some evangelical Protestant theologians who try to affirm the concerns of both “history” and “mystery” advocates. At the conference, such thinkers tended to face criticism from the Catholic “mystery” advocates over being too historically preoccupied and restrained in their hermeneutics. Yet they nevertheless generated concern among the “history”-oriented Protestant biblical scholars, who feared that elements of “mystery” would override the application of appropriate exegetical procedures.

– “Heaven on Earth? Evangelicals and Biblical Interpretation” (Books & Culture)

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