Timothy George on History of Interpretation and Theological Hermeneutics

Timothy George has an excellent article on the shift in biblical interpretation toward theological exegesis and history of interpretation/reception history in the March 2011 First Things. The article is entitled 'Reading the Bible with the Reformers: We ought to read Scripture the way Luther and Calvin did' and is not so much about Luther and Calvin as it is about renewed interest in the importance of theological hermeneutics and the avoidance the Enlightenment division between academic study Scripture and the devotional study of Scripture.

Early in the article, George addresses the problem of 'biblical presentism' in which the main focus of biblical interpretation is to answer the question: 'What is the Bible saying to us now?' George traces this perspective to Friedrich Schleiermacher and argues that the Protestant acceptance the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation was a response to this sort of feeling-centered, biblical presentism. But rather than the historical-critical method providing an objective understanding of Scripture, George contends: '...the effect has not been to reorient the churches around a revitalized biblical center. The historical-critical approach breaks the Bible down into discrete units to be further dissected in terms of competing hypotheses about authorship, literary form, original context, source origin, and so forth. This makes for good academic debate, but without a narrative or a doctrinal unity the Bible cannot compete with the imperial present. As a result, the history of the Church's interpretation of the Bible has been swept away, but little has taken its place' (pp. 28-29). As he points out, the problems of this sort of approach plague both liberal and conservative biblical interpretation, albeit for different reasons.

However, a shift has begun in returning to, or at least seeing the value of, pre-critical interpretation of Scripture. George highlights that this is not a rejection of the historical-critical method but a 'protest against the reductionism inherent in the long-standing monopoly of the historical-critical method' (p. 30). He then lists and discusses 'five principles that should guide our reading and understanding of Scripture':
  • The Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God
  • The Bible is rightly read in light of the rule of faith
  • Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires a trinitarian hermeneutics [sic?]
  • The Bible is front and center in the worship of the Church
  • The Study of the Bible is a means of grace
Discussing the fifth principle, George makes some valuable observations. 'The post-Enlightenment split between the study of the Bible as an academic discipline and the reading of the Bible as a spiritual nurture was foreign to the reformers as it was to the theologians and Christian scholars in prior centuries. They all repudiated the idea that the Bible could be studied and understood with dispassionate objectivity, as a cold artifact from antiquity...The reformers practiced what Matthew Levering has called "participatory biblical exegesis" in which the intimate "vertical" presence of the Trinity's creative and redemptive action suffuses the "linear" or "horizontal" succession of moments. According to Levering, "To enter into the realities taught in the biblical text requires not only linear-historical tools (archeology, philology, and so forth), but also, and indeed primarily, participatory tools--doctrines and practices--by which the exegete enters fully into the biblical world."' (p. 31).

George concludes with a Reformational call to return to the sources, a re'ssourcement. But by this return to the sources he means the interpretation of the Bible by the patristic, scholastic, medieval, Reformation, etc. Christians. Christian thinkers, especially those before the modern period, have much to say about Scripture that our modern exegetical methods may never say. There is much still be learned. This thoughtful essay, although with a plug at the end for the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series that George is editing, is a helpful reminder of the importance of Christian thought through the centuries and the value of taking that history of interpretation into account when interpreting Scripture today.

[Note the December 2010 issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament on Reception History.]

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