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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.