What is theological interpretation of Scripture? (ETS paper)

One of the papers I attended yesterday was Gregg Allison’s “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Promises and Pitfalls for Evangelical Appropriation.” In the paper, Allison did an excellent job with his three main goals:

  1. Define theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS).
  2. Identify some benefits of TIS.
  3. Explain some potential weaknesses of TIS for evangelicals.

Allison begins his discussion of TIS in the same place that most people do, by noting that there is no commonly agreed on definition of TIS. He begins by summarizing Vanhoozer’s description of what TIS is not:

  1. It is not the imposition of a theological system on the biblical texts.
  2. It is not the imposition of a general theory of interpretation onto the biblical texts.
  3. It is not a merely historical, literary, or sociological approach to the text.

Allison then goes on to offer his own definition of TIS:

“TIS is a family of interpretive approaches that privileges theological readings of the Bible in due recognition of the theological nature of scripture, its ultimate theological message, and/or the theological interest of its readers.”

TIS, then, is a broad label for a number of different approaches to Scripture that share a number of important family resemblances. Allison notes three key elements that are all thematized differently by TIS proponents.

  1. The Text of Scripture (textual TIS): From this perspective, a proper interpretation of scripture must be guided by a correct understanding of Scripture as informed by a doctrine of Scripture.
  2. The Message of Scripture (message TIS): On this view, a proper interpretation must be guided by the “theological locution of Scripture” – i.e. the core theological message of Scripture that drives and orients everything in the text.
  3. The Reading of Scripture (interest TIS): This element emphasizes the theological concerns that the interpreter and his/her interpretive community bring to the text.

These elements are not exclusive and many will incorporate several in their approach to TIS. The differences among various TIS proponents, then, stem from the different ways in which they unpack each of these aspects (e.g. different doctrines of Scripture, different ways of understand Scripture’s core theological message, etc.) and the different combinations in which these three can be found.

In addition to these three key elements, Allison identified a number of other key characteristics of TIS.

  1. It is often advocated as over-against or as an advance beyond historical approaches.
  2. It is often advocated as rescuing the Bible from the academny.
  3. It is commonly oriented to a rule of faith.
  4. It is commonly slanted to recovering the past by imitating certain elements of pre-critical interpretation (e.g., unity of Scripture, typology, analogy of faith, etc.), but without espousing a simple return to pre-critical interpretation.

Having explained what he thinks TIS is, Allison goes on to offer several benefits of TIS.

  1. It clearly presents Scripture as the Word of God.
  2. It makes explicit what we do unconsciously anyway (i.e. read the Bible theologically).
  3. It may help bridge the gap between interpretation and theology , especially in academic settings.
  4. It clearly emphasizes the explicit telos of Scripture (i.e. the ultimate purpose for reading Scripture).

Then, Allison concludes with what he sees as the key weaknesses of TIS, particularly for evangelicals.

  1. The lack of a clear definition. It’s a new movement, so lack of definitional clarity is not surprising. Nonetheless, Allison argues that we need greater consensus if the approach is going to move forward.
  2. The lack of concrete results by which to evaluate the approach. The best way to evaluate any interpretive method is to analyze its results. And, since the movement is relatively new, such concrete results are limited.
  3. The generic theological orientation to which TIS may lead. Here Allison expressed concern with limiting the “rule” that guides interpretation merely to the early creeds and councils. As evangelicals, we are heirs to the Reformation and our own evangelical distinctives, which should also inform our reading of Scripture.
  4. The theological perspective of most TIS proponents. Allison recognizes that a major stumbling block for many evangelicals is the fact that most of the current TIS proponents hold views of Scripture that most evangelicals find inadequate. He doesn’t think this is necessary to TIS, but is something to be acknowledged.

Reflecting back on the paper, there were just a couple of things that I found less satisfying.

  1. I wish Allison had interacted directly with some of the “concrete results” that do exist. The Brazos and Two Horizons commentary series have been around for quite a while. And, many of the major books published on TIS include some examples of TIS at work. Yet, Allison only referenced was Vanhoozer’s Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. And, unsurprisingly, he found the short articles in that work to be unsatisfying. But, of course, that would be like assessing historical-grammatical interpretation by reading one of Zondervan’s Bible dictionaries. It seemed clear that Allison’s understanding of TIS is more theoretical than practical. A direct engagement with concrete results might have led to a more interesting set of benefits and weaknesses.
  2. I think I’d disagree that evangelicals need to bring a more robust theological framework to the task of TIS. I completely agree with his point that we all bring our entire theological framework with us when we read the text; this is unavoidable and should be done with as much full awareness as possible. But, the idea behind a “ruled” reading of Scripture (i.e. the Rule of Faith), is that you are saying this is the rule by which Scripture must be read if it is to be read properly. While I hold to my theological convictions sincerely and deeply, I would not want to say that my entire theological framework is a “rule” in this sense.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 18, 2010, in Hermeneutics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. a simple question? What is a doctrine of scripture, surely an assumption is being made about the texts rather than let the New Testament of Tanakh speak for itself. This is surely a better starting point for theological interpretation. If i am not being clear in assuming the scripture is already doctrine an a priori decision about the texts. You may find helpful Benedict `s new document on Scripture helpful. How does this theological interpretation compare with Stephen Fowl`s work he sound like he was mentioned

    • I think what Allison was saying here is that this approach to TIS contends that a truly theological reading of Scripture comes to the text with some idea of what the text is. They are specifically not reading the text just like they would read any other text because they hold certain beliefs about the text. (Those beliefs, of course, will vary from one proponent to the next. But they form the core of their “doctrine” of Scripture.) Most TIS proponents will say, though, that this is not necessarily an imposition on the text as long as one remains open to having your prior conceptions challenged and transformed.

      Stephen Fowl would definitely be one of the major TIS players, and I think Allison would place him largely in the third category (interest TIS) with elements of the first (textual TIS). But, I haven’t read Fowl in a while, so I could be wrong.

  2. Hi Marc,

    Im a bit puzzled by Allison’s general definition: ‘TIS is a family of interpretive approaches that privileges theological readings of the Bible…’. Saying that theological interpretation is about theological readings does not really explain much. The question then becomes what is a theological reading?

    My own question right now concerns how fitting the label Theological Interpretation actually is for what is being discussed and proposed. If TI is not a set of exegetical methods, but is rather a distinctive set of goals and assumptions, and we may add a quest to unite biblical studies with theology, then should we categorize it as a distinctive ‘interpretation’?

    • Eddie, great questions. I would agree that Allison’s definition is pretty general. I think it was more important for him to include the notion that its a “matrix of family readings” to communicate that there will not be a one-size-fits-all definition. That almost requires the real heart of the definition “theological reading” to remain pretty nebulous. And, that’s probably also why Allison closed the paper with a call for a clearer definition of what exactly TIS is.

      I’m comfortable with calling TIS a distinctive method of interpretation because I would define an interpretation as the use of particular methods guided by a distinctive set of goals and assumptions. It’s the combination of the two that makes an overall interpretive scheme. And, since TIS is at least distinct with respect to the latter, it qualifies as a distinctive approach in my mind.

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