“Theological Interpretation of Scripture” (TIS) is a term of recent provenance, but names something much older, at least according to its practitioners. The nineteenth century drew a wedge between academic disciplines that adopted a perspective often described as internal to Christian belief and commitment, and disciplines investigating that belief and commitment from an external perspective. Biblical scholars often, though far from universally, positioned themselves on the latter side of this line; the positioning of theologians meant they had no choice but to press on with the former side. But the distinction between the internal and external has never been wholly satisfactory. Thus, Christian theologians have always given nominal recognition to the notion that their field is not a hermetically contained universe: instead, theological ideas remain connected to a larger reality announced by the Christian Scriptures. Biblical scholars, on the other hand, are no mere impartial observers. Instead, they have had to justify their keen attention to a privileged set of texts, mirroring controversies over the “classicism” of the classics. One way, therefore, to understand TIS is as an attempt to bridge the internal and external, by insisting that, just as theology depends on Scripture, so too should the reading of Scripture be informed by theological commitment. Yet this, according to TIS’s proponents, is not anything particularly novel, but how Christians have usually read their Bibles throughout the history of the church.
The subject of the present symposium is Darren Sarisky’s recent monograph Reading the Bible Theologically. That work marks a major intervention into debates around TIS, precisely by trying to draw an account of what theological reading is. For Sarisky, it is not enough to treat theological reading as the mere output of particular reading communities with certain theological presuppositions. Rather, theological ontology must be the basic denominator: there needs to be a definition, cast in theological terms, of the text being read, the subject doing the reading, and the act of reading itself. In part 1, Sarisky therefore shows how theological notions of the text and reading subject were operational for Augustine. In part 2, he offers his own constructive proposal about what theological reading entails. Thus, what is the text? It is a work that “as a whole . . . is a (privileged) set of signs pointing to the triune God” (272, emphasis removed). Who is the reading subject? She is the person “receptive to the text’s claims,” because she “has the capacity to exercise faith in the God who discloses himself through the text” (189). Finally, what is the act of reading? It is “acquisition of the text’s sense, attempts to comprehend that meaning, and embodiments of it” (284), all so that readers “strive to engage more and more fully with the triune God via a practice of reading that unfolds and bears fruit over time” (289).
This Syndicate symposium brings together responses to Reading the Bible Theologically by five leading scholars. Sarisky offers a reply to each, using the opportunity to elaborate on themes announced in the monograph. The hope is for this symposium to act as a starting point, rather than terminus, for further discussion.
For Bo Lim, Reading the Bible Theologically is important for its insistence that TIS cannot be separated from historical investigation, and for providing a theological account of the reader, rooted in a doctrine of God. What Sarisky, nonetheless, omits is a description of where the reader’s social or cultural location, which is surely susceptible of theological analysis, falls within this account. “The history of the church,” Lim therefore observes, “is littered with examples of hegemonic forms of biblical interpretation claimed in the name of orthodoxy.” Sarisky’s answer, that a plurality of different voices enriches our understanding of the biblical text, echoes contemporary discourse about the value of diversity in institutions.
Amy Plantinga Pauw’s response to Sarisky draws on her deep well of experience as editor of the Belief theological commentary series. That experience, she suggests, confirms the need for a theological ontology in TIS, just as Sarisky contends. Where the two diverge concerns the particular place of history, especially reception history, within theological ontology, and specifically with the way in which biblical texts have been pressed to serve such troubling causes as antisemitism. For Plantinga Pauw, Scripture cannot be understood apart from the sometimes egregious ways in which it has been read, whereas for Sarisky, that history is useful to consider, but not ultimately critical. The difference here may reflect the pessimism of one’s starting point: is the reader, as Plantinga Pauw opines, always mired in the prejudices and interpretive sins of those who came before her? Or is it rather Sarisky who is right in suggesting that “the biblical text can escape its dark history of reception?”
For Devin White, the most important contribution Sarisky has made has been to push the reading subject into the center of TIS discussions. Yet, for White as well as other contributors to this symposium, a sticking point concerns the extent to which theory about theological interpretation can occur apart from its practice. Reading the Bible Theologically is a work about but not of TIS—but is it permissible for it to be as spare on biblical exegesis as it is? Sarisky’s response concedes that a better balance could have been struck between exegesis and other forms of theological reasoning. At the same time, Sarisky insists that “no theology can be other than indirectly biblical,” in that all theology relies, even if only implicitly and even where it has attempted explicit exegesis, on the interpretations of Scripture of past readers.
Andrea Saner delves into the conception of faith that underpins Reading the Bible Theologically. Is that conception too thin or too cognitive? Or is it compatible with a deeper anthropology of the reader, one who only lives in via, and who is transformed by the faith that God has given her? In his response, Sarisky proposes what the contours of this deeper anthropology would look like.
Finally, Daniel Driver applauds Sarisky’s book as a major consolidation or synthesis of accounts of TIS that have come before. But while the two share the goal of bridging the work of systematic theologians and biblical scholars, Driver charges Sarisky of unwittingly reproducing that divide, as well as a divide between systematic theology and history of theology. Sarisky responds by challenging Driver’s framing of the basic issues, when in fact Reading the Bible Theologically is an attempt to recast many of the lines over which TIS has been discussed.
I thank the contributors to this symposium, not least given the difficult state of the world, including the academic world, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Syndicate Theology is thrilled to play a role in shaping the debate over Sarisky’s important book, and to have gathered such an incisive group of contributors.
Accounting for Wounds
Darren Sarisky and I share an abiding interest in theological interpretation of Scripture, but we have been laboring in different parts of the vineyard. Sarisky has been thinking deeply about the practice and norms of theological interpretation. I have been guiding a wonderful group of theologians in writing theological commentaries, as well as writing one myself on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. William Placher and I teamed up as general editors of the theological commentary series Belief about fifteen years ago. Tragically, Bill died in 2008, two years before the publication of the first volume in the series (his own commentary on Mark). With the support and encouragement of Westminster John Knox, I have remained general editor of the series, all the while grieving the loss of Bill’s wisdom and friendship in what was intended to be a shared project. So far, twenty volumes out of a projected thirty-six have been published or are in production.
The theologians who have written commentaries for the Belief series have commented on how transformative the process has been for them. Living intensely with one portion of Scripture is a new experience for most contemporary theologians. It subverts theologians’ usual à la carte approach to the Bible, in which they flit among the particular verses and books of Scripture amenable to their own theological inclinations, avoiding the rest. It also disrupts homogenizing theological assumptions about how the biblical canon hangs together. A whole text of Scripture is a stubborn thing. It is hard to dwell for an extended period with Ecclesiastes, for example, and conclude that Christ is “at the center of all the Bible’s signifying activity” (Sarisky, 103). For the authors of the series, holding themselves accountable to a whole text of Scripture and wrestling over time with its angularities and ambiguities has been a spiritual as well as an academic discipline.
The Belief series has adopted a variegated approach to theological interpretation, stressing attentiveness to particular texts of Scripture over adherence to an overarching consensus about what the rules for proper theological interpretation are or what the results should look like. This attentiveness includes historical considerations. It has been my practice from the beginning of the series to send each manuscript out for review by a biblical scholar who is theologically attuned and has expertise in that part of Scripture. The series is not trying to replicate what trained biblical scholars can do, but this review process reflects a concern to avoid a “devaluation of history within the practice of interpretation” (251). As general editor, I never want a volume in Belief to get a review like Luke Timothy Johnson’s “Matthew or Stanley? Pick One” (252–59). The result of this text-specific, historically informed approach to theological interpretation has been, to use David Kelsey’s lovely phrase about the biblical canon in general, “a chorus that is sometimes dissonant.”1 The goal of the series is to cultivate theological readers of Scripture who are sensitive to the distinctive pitch and timbre of different biblical texts in their long journey to us, and who listen attentively for God’s voice in this polyphony.
Sarisky’s volume is a welcome opportunity to reflect on what I have learned from a decade of fieldwork. My responses to Sarisky do not necessarily represent those of the different authors of the Belief series, though their exegetical efforts have certainly matured and refined my views of theological interpretation. I find much to resonate with in Sarisky’s approach, though I spin out the details somewhat differently:
First, I agree with Sarisky’s foundational insistence on a theological ontology: attempting to see the reader, the biblical text, and the act of reading in the light of God. Behind this insistence is the conviction that theological readers are within their epistemic rights to claim belief in God as basic, and thus that metaphysical naturalism is not a methodological requirement for serious study of Scripture.
Second, I agree with Sarisky’s critique of contemporary theological approaches to Scripture that devalue or ignore historical study. Sarisky’s eye is on a small subset of contemporary theological interpreters, but I would also flag theological attempts, particularly in North America, to counter historical critical claims of objectivity with claims for the objective truth of the biblical text as a God-given fulcrum outside space and time.
Third, while these first two elements provide a general framework for theological interpretation, they require more specification to be useful. The label “Thinking with and beyond Augustine” (147) helps provide this specification, and I am happy to join Sarisky in this exercise. According to Augustine, readers of Scripture are pilgrims on an earthly journey toward loving communion with God and neighbor. This movement through history is not something to be shunned: as members of Christ’s body, they accept as he did the vulnerabilities and limitations of earthly life as the context in which God encounters and redeems them. Their pilgrim love of God is imperfect, and their pilgrim grasp of God’s truth is fallible and partial. Scripture does not deliver the perfect vision of God that awaits them in the eschaton, but it is their indispensable earthly companion, “the face of God for now” (91). Augustine provides for Sarisky a Christ-centered approach to theological interpretation that embraces historical existence and does not succumb to overweening theological claims about the text of Scripture.
My approach to theological interpretation differs from Sarisky’s in two major respects: historical considerations for me include greater attention to the reception history of biblical texts, and my own Augustinian orientation requires a more substantial role for the doctrine of sin in the work of theological interpretation. Taken together, these differences enlarge the theological task: the normative work of portraying how Christians should read Scripture must include theologizing about the failures and tragedies of how Christians have read Scripture. The production, transmission, and interpretation of Scripture are interwoven, and they are all the work of people whose loves are disordered. Contemporary theological readers are inheritors of a long struggle to understand biblical texts and their implications for worship and discipleship. It is the interpreted text that forms the touchstone of their communal Christian identity. This reception history both confers to them the benefits of the collected wisdom of the larger Christian tradition and sediments the sins of their forebears. The text contemporary readers encounter theologically bears the interpretive scars of its journey to them, and implicates them in what Choon-Leong Seow calls a “history of consequences.”
Sarisky’s constructive argument can leave the impression that the Creed is the only relevant bit of reception history in our theological reading of Scripture. He repeatedly attempts a standing broad jump from “the text’s origin in the past” (186) to our contemporary efforts to read the biblical text theologically. He urges contemporary readers to be receptive, even obedient to the text, to trust it to speak God’s gracious word to them, without taking into account how the text may have been used to wound and exclude them. He advocates a hermeneutic of restoration, while shunning its Ricoeurian twin, a hermeneutic of suspicion. My approach to theological interpretation is less placid, more interrogative. In our acts of theological reading, the presence of Christ lights the way but also calls us to judgment. The Spirit comforts but also troubles the waters. I agree with Sarisky that God continues to speak through Scripture, and that the Bible should be used to foster love of God and neighbor. But for me, the path to a restoration of biblical meaning runs through a hermeneutic of suspicion, and often requires the kind of creative agency on the part of the reader that Sarisky warns against.
This contrast in our theological approaches can be illustrated by elaborating on an example Sarisky himself provides. Sarisky describes the distress of a Kansas pastor who emerges from a continuing education class on the book of Romans taught by the New Testament scholar Richard Hays (221–32, passim). Hays convinced him exegetically that the main theological focus of Romans is the relations of Jews and Gentiles in God’s economy of salvation, and God’s irrevocable faithfulness to the people of Israel. But the theological focus of the pastor (in keeping with an established tradition of Protestant Pauline interpretation) was on individual salvation. With no Jews within a hundred miles of his church, he was now at a loss for how to preach the text.
Sarisky’s response is to urge the pastor to squelch “any proclivities toward anti-Semitism that may exist in [his] community” (228), and to take comfort in the fact that both Paul’s original readers and contemporary readers in Kansas are located in the same divine economy of salvation. My response starts by noting that early in the post-biblical period the Apostle Paul begins to be read as anti-Jewish. This eventually blossoms into a full-fledged theological supersessionism, which denies a common divine economy of salvation and centuries later plays a devastating role in Euro-American projects of peoplehood. The Christian repudiation of Israel’s identity as God’s chosen people created a theological vacuum that White American Christians were quick to fill with their own claims for divine chosenness. The state of Kansas (“Bleeding Kansas”) became ground zero for battles over slavery and the plunder of land from Native peoples. Preaching Romans in Kansas requires confronting the legacy of this violent and racially divided history and finding creative ways to reclaim God’s call to life together in Christ.
It so happened that I read Sarisky’s book concurrently with another recent book on biblical interpretation: Esau McCaulley’s Reading while Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic, 2020). In his seminary education, McCaulley notes, “almost all the authors we read were white men . . . It seemed that whatever was going on among Black Christians had little to do with real biblical interpretation. I swam in this disdain, and even when I rejected it vocally, the doubt seeped into my subconscious.” The Western academic discourse about “real biblical interpretation” has been overwhelmingly a conversation among White men, as even a cursory glance at Sarisky’s index reveals. Concerns about race and geography are not altogether dismissed in Sarisky’s approach, but neither are they allowed to do any theological work. McCaulley’s need to develop a “Black ecclesial interpretation” in order to hear God’s voice speaking through the text of Scripture to his Christian community shows how vital this work is.
Reading the Bible Theologically is a work that the whole church needs. The global church’s center of gravity has moved away from the North Atlantic world, but the resources and infrastructure for theological work have not. This means that all efforts at the theological interpretation of Scripture coming exclusively from the North Atlantic world will inevitably fall short. The Belief series has tried in a small way to counter this serious limitation by deliberate efforts to cultivate a range of western theological voices. The most recent volumes, for example, are written by Willie James Jennings (Acts), Martha Moore-Keish (James), and Amos Yong (Revelation, in press). A woman and two men. A Black Baptist, a White Presbyterian, and an Asian Pentecostal. Their serious engagements with the biblical text from their different communities of accountability sometimes harmonize and sometimes clash and break with dominant Western interpretative traditions. In either case, the hope is that together they are writing new chapters in the reception history of the Bible, one that will allow a broader circle of readers to hear in it “God’s gracious self-disclosure” (92).
Traveling to Cambridge years ago, I met a man who told me, “I used to have many theories about childrearing and no children. Now I have many children and no theories.” Sarisky announces his intentions to write his own theological commentary on Scripture. I encourage him to follow through on these intentions, and furthermore to pick a biblical book that is likely to challenge his theories about proper theological interpretation—Chronicles or Joshua, for example. I will be eager to read the result.
David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 215.↩
The Return of the Reader
If Darren Sarisky’s Reading the Bible Theologically has a single goal, it’s unpacking his assertion that “reality itself sets the conditions for interpretation and impels the reader to proceed in a certain way” (4).1 Darren writes simply and unpretentiously, and it can be easy to flash past some passages on which it would be better to linger. That said, when I first skimmed the sentence quoted above, I raised my eyebrows and re-read it a few times.
What stopped me mid-page was the realization that Darren had committed himself to a vexingly complicated project. To make the argument work, I thought, Darren would need to map the reality that bounds and guides theologically-committed Bible reading. Or, if not all of it, at least the most relevant bits. Choosing what to include and what to omit seemed nearly as difficult as actually discussing the theological realia that made the cut. I’m glad Darren stuck it out. The result is a 350-page investigation of Bible reading that touches on trinitarian theology, the nature of faith, ecclesiology, Christology, theological anthropology, theological ethics, the merits of historical inquiry, and more. In size, it’s more atlas than map. If I hedged at all when identifying the book’s thesis in the paragraph above, it’s only because the theological topography Darren covers is so expansive that limiting the book to one primary thesis feels reductive. This is systematic theology proper.
The basic virtue of Reading the Bible Theologically lies in how accurately its draftsman has identified and represented the essential features of the theological landscape. Darren’s map, of course, is not the only recent attempt to orient readers interested in exploring Scripture’s theological interpretation. For the purposes of this response, what interests me are the ways in which—and the reasons for which—Darren’s map differs from the dominant, preexisting maps.
I see Darren’s book as a revisionist map, a sort of Gall-Peters correction of the Mercator projection. Darren’s discussion of theological reading defers to no twentieth or twenty-first century theologian. Instead, Darren’s elects to base his book on critical dialogue with Augustinian hermeneutics. To his credit, Darren follows Augustine closely but not deferentially. Augustine provides him with a model for reflecting on Christian biblical interpretation, not an inflexible paradigm to which the Bible’s readers must conform. Thanks in no small measure to Augustine, four theological topics loom larger in the book than others. These become the geographical features dominating Darren’s conceptual map: the Triune God, the nature of Scripture, the nature of the reader, and the nature of the act of reading or interpretation itself. My impression is that heavy engagement with Augustine’s map of the hermeneutical landscape is both immensely productive and, at times, a bit limiting.
I’ll start with a way in which Darren’s engagement with Augustine is theologically generative. To my mind, the single most significant result of Darren’s extended conversation with Augustine is the starring role Darren assigns to Scripture’s reader. Really, it’s hard to overstate how refreshing Darren’s argument is on this point. Anyone familiar with philosophical hermeneutics and recent literary criticism will know that other academic disciplines have been discussing readers and their readerly communities for decades. Reading subjects are as central to the various iterations of reader-response theory as they are to the ascendant post-critical movement. For that matter, theologians have also shown renewed interest in how elements of their own subjectivity, from virtue to race, inform their theological practice. Over the past forty years, the theologians and Bible scholars interested in interpreting Scripture theologically never made readers central to the dialogue. (Darren helpfully cites relevant exceptions to this general rule [190 n.4]).
This isn’t the venue to speculate about the causes for that longstanding oversight. This is the venue to celebrate that, after Darren’s book, there’s no longer any reason to tolerate it. It’s risky to speculate about the ways any book could shift an academic conversation. But Darren shows that accounts of theological reading that ignore the reader probably presuppose a theologically insufficient vision of knowledge and of the reasoning subject: Darren profitably juxtaposes Augustine’s “substantive” view of knowledge with Spinoza’s “procedural” approach to cognition. For Augustine, as Darren explains, the point to reading is the reading subject’s contemplative engagement with the Triune object to which the biblical texts refer. For Darren himself, the reader who approaches the text with even a modicum of faith commitment ought to read in a manner consistent with that commitment. Again, that’s because claiming that reality looks a certain way obliges us to behave like reality actually is as we say it is. Darren, for his part, gives more attention to the way that the ecclesial reading community allows us to understand theological readers than Augustine himself does. But that shift in emphasis follows naturally from Darren’s stated aim of thinking with, rather than in thrall to, Augustine’s model.
This leads me to the way in which I feel Darren’s choice of interlocutor may also have limited him. For the purposes of this response, I’ll keep my focus on Darren’s treatment of the theological interpreter but I think the issue I raise pertains to other elements in his argument. Darren maintains that thinking of oneself as a theological interpreter requires allowing our first principles to be shaped by theology. He calls this “putting oneself within the space of theological meaning,” a process which entails “thinking about oneself from a biblical point of view, even while interpreting the Bible” (189). This comment suggests to me an irony lurking within and beneath the erudition on display throughout Darren’s book. It’s an irony that raises a question about Darren’s overall map, or at least about the colors in which he’s rendered it.
The irony is that a book titled Reading the Bible Theologically has no dedicated Scripture index. It doesn’t need one. When Darren does reference a biblical text, it’s usually to cite some other scholar’s exegesis. Apart from a few pages on Luke 24, and another short discussion of 1 Corinthians 2, biblical texts play no significant role in Darren’s discussion of the theological interpreter (207–10; 271). The discussion of Luke 24 leans heavily on Richard B. Hays. On one hand, the absence of close engagement with Scripture in no way undermines the clarity or persuasiveness of the book. But, on the other hand, Reading the Bible Theologically is a book about reading the Bible theologically. And Darren suggests, more than once, that the Bible itself provides a starting point from which to begin theological reflection. As he puts it, “theological belief is a receptive response to what the text signifies … What is crucial is that the reader not only thinks about the biblical text … but that the reader ultimately comes to think with and under its guidance” (206, emphasis in original). To belabor the map metaphor, Darren’s heavy engagement with Augustine and with other, more recent, books and articles on theological interpretation gives the impression that he sees his efforts as a technical revision of contemporary maps produced on the basis of his reading of an ancient map rather than as the work of a surveyor who has gone to study the landscape for himself.
So, to state the question directly: can we construct an orderly account of Christian biblical interpreters without actually exegeting passages of Scripture that might describe those interpreters? Or, to phrase the question more broadly, how should biblical texts themselves inform our dogmatic reflection on the theological reading of biblical texts? In light of Darren’s statements about the nature of the Bible’s relation to theological belief, I wonder whether his decision not to engage in theological interpretation might be inconsistent with the premises of his argument. I know that Darren’s is far from the only book on theological hermeneutics to forgo close reading of biblical texts, but those other books also don’t accent the role of Scripture’s reader in the way that Darren has. Because Darren is himself a reader of Scripture who believes that biblical words are signs indicating divine realities, why doesn’t he describe theological reading, at least in part, via theological reading? For a book about theological hermeneutics, the lack of close engagement with biblical texts left me with the impression that Darren was describing a hermeneutical circle that he didn’t want to enter.
Fairly or not, I wonder if I can lay the absence of biblical interpretation in Reading the Bible Theologically at Augustine’s feet. Augustine’s classic discussion of biblical interpretation in De Doctrina Christiana obviously cites Scripture, and a lot of it. Maybe Augustine’s use of Scripture there shows us rather than tells us that thinking about biblical interpretation requires biblical interpretation. Or maybe not. In either case, I don’t think Augustine explicitly identifies the interpretation of Scripture as a starting point for reflection on theological hermeneutics in the way that some of Augustine’s and Darren’s intellectual peers do. Origen, for example, insists that Scripture teaches its readers the principles by which they ought to read Scripture: “The way, then, as it appears to us, in which we ought to deal with the Scriptures and gather their sense … has been traced out from the writings themselves” (Princ. 4.2.4).2 More recently, Richard B. Hays has dedicated several of his major works to understanding the hermeneutics of Paul and of the evangelists. As with Origen, the theological engine driving Hays’s historical treatment of Paul’s hermeneutic is his view that “Paul’s readings are materially normative … for Christian theology, and his interpretive methods are paradigmatic for Christian hermeneutics.”3
If Hays is right that later interpreters should take Paul’s exegesis as normative for their own work, one thing we should probably learn from Paul is that biblical texts can guide our attempts to explain biblical exegesis. Paul’s clearest reflections on his interpretive practice lie in 2 Corinthians 3, and the argument there stands on Paul’s interpretation of the call of Moses, Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant, and Ezekiel’s prediction that Israel would return to the promised land (Exod 4:10–12; Jer 31:31–34 [38:31–34 LXX]; Ezek 36:22–32). There’s a lot about hermeneutics that Paul leaves vague in 2 Corinthians, but he’s clearly interested in the differences between readers of biblical texts. Consider, for example, Paul’s attempt to distinguish readers whose vision is obscured by Moses’s veil from other readers who enjoy a clear line of sight on the text (2 Cor 3:14–18). For what it’s worth, Augustine discusses 2 Corinthians 3 and Ezekiel 36 at length in his treatment of Tyconius’s fourth rule (Doct. Chr. 4.47–49). But if Augustine ever says that Scripture guides the reader in its own interpretation, my hasty search wasn’t thorough enough to locate it.
I don’t know that what I’ve written here amounts to an objection to Darren’s project. I share his view that ethics logically follows ontology. I agree completely that theological hermeneutics needs a strong account of readers and of their theological rationality. If my questions regarding the conspicuous absence of biblical interpretation in the book do constitute an objection, that objection probably reduces to something like, “Darren’s argument is sometimes too Augustinian.” If nothing else, this shows that Darren keeps excellent theological company.
Following the publication of his Reading the Bible Theologically, Darren accepted a position at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, where I’m blessed to have him as a colleague. Caveat lector.↩
English translation taken from Origen: On First Principles, trans. John Behr, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).↩
Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 183.↩
On the Ontology of the Reader
Darren Sarisky’s Reading the Bible Theologically is an astute proposal for the theological reading of Scripture. In a retrieval mode, drawing on the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, Sarisky describes how the reader, text, and task of reading can be understood in relation to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’ve learned much from engaging the book, which makes an important contribution to theological interpretation. I turn first to why I appreciate Sarisky’s discussion of the ontology of the text of Scripture, before considering his discussion of the ontology of the reader, and concluding with a puzzlement I had about the book.
One difference between what I have learned from Walter Moberly and John Webster concerns the difference between learning to read the Bible “as Christian Scripture” and coming to understand the dogmatic location of the Christian canon—that is, what Scripture is in light of God’s use of it in the economy of salvation. Sarisky bridges this distinction by focusing on the reader’s understanding of the ontology of the text in the act of reading. This suggests, on the one hand, that reading the Bible as Scripture necessarily involves claims about what Scripture is—either implicitly or explicitly1—and, on the other, that it is the reader’s ontology of Scripture that is primarily operative in reading. Indeed, this book is about the reader’s understanding of God, herself, the text of Scripture, and the process of reading.
Regarding the ontology of the reader, Sarisky focuses on the role of the reader’s faith commitments or belief in the interpretive process. Beautifully, Sarisky writes of the reader’s faith as given by the Holy Spirit:
The Spirit effects understanding as he indwells human beings: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (1 Corin 2:12). In this way, the Spirit completes the action of revelation by facilitating its reception and appropriation. The human response that corresponds to and answers God’s initiative to disclose himself in this way is faith, which is itself a gift the Spirit gives, not simply a human achievement. (271)
The reader brings faith to the task of reading, but both the content and the ability of faith come from God. While this point is as delightful as it is crucial, Sarisky’s focus on the faith of the reader—specifically their belief in God—strikes me as narrow. To his credit, Sarisky does account for humans as relational creatures in his discussion of the ecclesial community. However, his account of the ecclesial community is also subordinate to his focus on belief, as he describes two ways that these communities form readers: indirectly, with prior understandings and encounters with the subject matter of the biblical text; and directly, “by training them how to utilize certain reading strategies” (215). Furthermore, in his account of Augustine’s understanding of the reader, Sarisky begins, “Human beings are embodied souls” (82). Yet, Sarisky does not, in the constructive portion of this monograph, answer the question, what are humans. This is somewhat in contrast to Sarisky’s earlier book, Scriptural Interpretation: A Theological Account, in which he draws on St. Basil of Caesarea to give an account of humans made according to the image of God, and describes how the Holy Spirit conforms persons into the image of God, Christ Jesus, by way of purification, illumination, and participation/deification. I aim to build on Sarisky’s earlier account as well as his more recent one in what follows.
Now, I am well aware of the thorniness of issues involving the soul and body—in what sense they are distinct and united—and that it is the dominant view in biblical scholarship that the biblical witness regularly suggests the embodied nature of humanity, while language of “soul,” as it is frequently understood in English, is not a good translation of the biblical idioms.2 However, I think Sarisky’s theological ontology of the reader presumes something like an account of the human person as a unity of body and soul, and furthermore, that attention to human personhood could enable Sarisky to clarify how the reader understands herself in the process of reading theologically.
I have already suggested that Sarisky’s account of faith as a gift implies something like the soul as the location for the Spirit’s gift of faith by which the reader comes to know God. To say that there is a personal location or capacity commensurate with the Spirit’s gift of faith is not to say that faith is a human achievement or a natural ability of persons. Without contradicting the point that faith is a gift, it seems possible (and, I would argue, fruitful, if not also necessary) to say that humans were created for life with God and as such there is a corresponding capacity within human nature for spiritual life, even if that capacity is best described as an open space, or an ability to receive, something that comes from outside oneself.
An account of the rational soul as that which animates the body—not denigrating the body or rendering it superfluous, but showing how the body also shares in the life of Christ—could clarify how it is that the response of faith involves transformation of the whole person. Indeed, it is immediately after Sarisky points out that Augustine understands humans as “embodied souls” that he transitions to an affective key, since the soul is the principal agent of the two true emotions of the soul, namely desire and love of God and neighbor (83). Moreover, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, which features on the book’s cover courtesy of Caravaggio, and in Sarisky’s discussion of “thinking with” Scripture, shows how sense perception and inward experience correspond to understanding Scripture’s witness to Christ. In Luke 24, “two of them” on the road to Emmaus voice confusion over the events of Jesus’ death and reports of his resurrection, but come to a new understanding through their encounter with Jesus, who at first they do not recognize. It is in Jesus’ blessing, breaking, and giving of bread to them that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (24:30 NRSV). They have a sensory experience of Christ among them—hearing his explanation of the text as well as his blessing of the bread, seeing him break the bread and offer it to them—which enables them to recognize him both in front of them and in Israel’s Scriptures. At the same time, in retrospect, the disciples realize that Jesus’ explanation of the Scriptures elicited an interior response: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (24:32) Receiving Christ’s message about himself correlates to an interior response by the disciples, characterized by burning, which is reminiscent of Scripture’s frequent association of the Holy Spirit with fire. Recognizing Christ, for these two disciples, involves also understanding themselves to be changed by the encounter. Sarisky refers to the disciples’ experience as involving “divestment . . . from oneself those elements of one’s worldview that stand in the way of allowing the text and Jesus Christ to enter into a mutually interpreting relationship. In this way, it involves an epistemic transformation of the interpreter, a revision of one’s perceptual categories and view of what is ultimately real” (210). However, surely this epistemic transformation involves sensory perception and spiritual experience.
When Sarisky describes applicatio, he suggests that the theological reader knows himself to be “caught up in the same economy of salvation” as the first readers of the text (322). This point, it seems to me, is central, and could be further enhanced by discussion of theological anthropology in relation to the economy of salvation. While life in via requires continual repentance and a deepening love of God and neighbor—and so also a receptive stance before the claims Scripture makes—the reader can understand Scripture pointing toward her own transformation by faith, understood in Scriptural terms; one may humbly begin to view herself, by grace, as in-dwelt by the Father, Son, and Spirit to whom the text gives witness.
To all too briefly take up another example that Sarisky mentions: the text of Exodus 12–13 directs the reader’s attention to the mysterious liberation of the Hebrews from the oppressive, genocidal rule of the Egyptian king, as well as to the means by which they observe, remember, even participate in this mystery generations afterward. Read in relationship to Luke 22:7–38, the body and blood of Christ, who offered himself on the cross, are signified by the humble elements consumed by his disciples in their last meal together before his arrest, as Christ’s sacrifice fulfills the Passover sacrifice. The Passover rite signifies the graced relationship between the Israelites and the God who delivered them; more specifically, the Passover lamb is a sign of God’s deliverance of this people, a sign ultimately referring to Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross, which is also signified in the Last Supper and, in an ongoing way, in the Lord’s Supper. A theological reading of this passage requires, for example, a reader receptive to the truth that Christ is the Passover lamb. Further, the reader can consider the many mysteries signified by these texts, including God’s graced relationship with the Hebrews; the Passover meal as a sign of that graced relationship; Christ’s love for the Father, for the world, for the church, and for herself in this act of self-sacrifice; and the Lord’s Supper as a sign of that love and of the ongoing presence of the Lord with the community of faith. The Christian may well understand herself as participating in the story by means of participation in the Lord’s Supper, liberating the oppressed, or in many other ways, yet at the same time, she may be confronted and disarmed by the power of the self-giving love of Christ. Put differently, the reader may be both encouraged and critiqued by a growing understanding of the signs in the text and their signification of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who draws the reader to himself by means of the text.
Finally, something that has puzzled me about the book is why Sarisky, in the conclusion, returns to an objection that would undercut the entire project, namely, that holding theological commitment in the process of reading forecloses the interpretive process. There is no doubt that this objection, “the specter of eisegesis” (333), has been frequently and vehemently raised, but I would be surprised if readers of Sarisky’s book haven’t set it aside well before page 300. There may be many reasons for Sarisky to do this, but I have wondered whether Sarisky’s focus on the belief of the reader—belief in God the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, in contrast with nonbelief in this God, or belief in another god—has led to some preoccupation with presuppositions. If, as Augustine suggests, readers are embodied souls journeying toward God, then it seems more clear that the work of transformation is ongoing. Theological readers bring faith, hope, and love to their reading of the text while opening themselves to further faith, hope, and love through their reading.
I owe my understanding of this point to Ben Ollenburger, as voiced in his November 2013 response to R. W. L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) at the Theological Interpretation of Scripture session of the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Baltimore.↩
To name a few recent discussions of the issues: Lewis Ayres, “The Soul and the Reading of Scripture: A Note on Henri de Lubac,” Scottish Journal of Theology 61 (2008) 173–90; Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 566–94; Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008); J. Gordon McConville, Being Human in God’s World: An Old Testament Theology of Humanity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).↩
The End of Second-Order Reflection on Theological Interpretation
“Theological Interpretation of Scripture” has been a topic of discussion for several decades. Under that banner it became known in the 1980s, anthologized in the 1990s, and introduced and companionized in the 2000s. It has been promulgated through a variety of new seminars, symposia, journals, book series, commentary series, and reference works. The results have been various and uneven. Commentaries by prominent theologians arrived with great fanfare, only to be greeted by sympathetic biblical studies colleagues with a mixture of gratitude and disappointment.
Across the 2010s, by which time TIS had almost attained the status of a franchise, the outputs became increasingly diffused. Some leading voices distanced themselves from the movement. Others never joined it. Thomists remained Thomist, analytic theologians built infrastructure around big projects of their own, biblical scholars continued to answer the imperatives of their guild, and so on. Certain TIS-related projects at schools and publishing houses appeared already to have run their course. Others came under new management and faced uncertain futures. The decade was marked by enough write-offs, sell-offs, foreclosures, and consolidations to make some observers think that the budding industry had been overbuilt and oversold.
A complete history of this broad trend in biblical and theological scholarship has yet to be written, but my initial point is simply that its influence, even if it is now somewhat dissipated, has been considerable. Its impact is probably most visible in the new space that has been afforded to the study of early Christian sources at some stalwart institutions of American evangelicalism. I am thinking of things like the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, handsomely published by InterVarsity Press, and an MA in Classical Theology that takes a great books approach to the history of biblical interpretation, launched in 2019 at a school formerly known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.
Theological exegesis (to speak more broadly) has gone through a full life cycle, approximately corresponding to the productive careers of a generation of its currently best-known advocates, critics, and practitioners. Given that history, 2019 is remarkably late for a lengthy prolegomenal study such as one finds in Sarisky’s Reading the Bible Theologically. What does it mean to read the Bible theologically? How should one do it? These questions are not new. Nevertheless, Sarisky’s reframing of them here is welcome, in part because the book helps mark the end of an era.
Sarisky must start by resisting Stephen Fowl’s claim that, while “a period of self-definition” had once been necessary, that “period is now over.”1 He is right to do so. There is more sifting of recent literature than some readers will want or need, but while Sarisky states that “providing that is not the essence or purpose of this book” (330), the feature is actually one of its two major virtues. It is, in part, a work of consolidation. There are some gaps in Sarisky’s discussion, but this flaw is as forgivable as it is inevitable. Sarisky positions himself by echolocation, frequently explaining what he is not doing in dialogue with major views. Whatever its shortcomings, it is an impressive and valuable synthesis of a serious bibliography.
The book’s other major virtue is the clarity of its constructive proposal. It retrieves from Augustine a theological account of semiotics whereby the signs of Scripture (“what is written”) point to the res of Scripture (“what is written about”), namely, the triune God made known in Christ. It combines this Christian commitment to scriptural delivery of divine reality with a mandate for modern historical consciousness, although not one defined by the metaphysical naturalism of Spinoza. Finally, the proposal describes three phases for the practice of theological reading—explicatio, meditatio, and applicatio, all more or less adapted from Karl Barth—which nonetheless belong to a “one-step account” of the encounter between text and reader (305).
These building blocks are familiar. The value lies in Sarisky’s creative synthesis, which has the benefit of being rigorously systematic. He notes that a theological exegete’s theology of reading is too often “implicit and scattered amidst discussion of other topics” (238). Greater conceptual clarity can be a good in its own right, and that which is offered here promises to illuminate and aid exegetical operations. And yet, for all that, Sarisky’s determination to keep his analysis at a high level carries some risk. The proposal is theoretically complete but completely untested.
Let me concede that one does not have to do theological exegesis in order to talk about theological exegesis. I will not do any exegesis in this response, for example, and yet here I am talking about theological interpretation of the Bible. That is allowed. All the same, when the deferral of exegesis is as protracted as it is for Sarisky, then there is a fair chance that his theological proposal, however well-developed and coherent, will fail to match scriptural and historical realities. At best, opportunities are missed that could have added richness, detail, and complexity to the proposal. At worst, a wide range of textual, historical, hermeneutical, and theological problematics are quietly evaded.
The proposal’s internal consistency is at stake at this point, too. Sarisky promises to produce his own theological commentary in time (xv), but he rests content for now in a pragmatic “division of labor”: “biblical scholars will concentrate mainly on explicatio and perhaps also meditatio, while the parties most concerned with meditatio will be systematic theologians and historians, with applicatio being the primary concern of practical theologians as well as systematicians with an interest in the embodiment of texts” (325). If this attitude becomes even more entrenched than it already is, how can an essentially “one-step account” possibly survive intact?
Virtuoso performance is not a robust answer to our broad loss of capacity for theological exegesis. Sarisky is right that we cannot hope to build a model of exegesis on absolute mastery by individuals. However, I fail to understand the blend of theoretical idealism and status-quo institutionalism that surfaces at the tail end of his proposal. “The best work in theological reading usually emerges from . . . interdisciplinary efforts,” Sarisky observes, and for this reason he presents “each phase of interpretation separately, rather than putting forward a single sample reading that attempts to do everything all at once” (326). Does this choice not lapse into a multistep program? The concession also makes me wonder about his commitment to “best work” in theological exegesis. Francis Watson and Richard Hays are judged admirable but unfollowable. Stanley Hauerwas (on Matthew) is a parade example of what not to do. Are there any known works of commentary that Sarisky can point to as viable? He hedges on Barth’s commentary on the Romans because it presents “a final stage of interpretation that appears to come out of nowhere” (326n60, cf. 257n41). If Hauerwas’s commentary is bad, is Barth’s any good? If Barth’s is not good, what can one say for Augustine?
Twice Sarisky brushes up against language from the first verse of Psalm 121. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (KJV). The first occasion is in a quotation from Barth that serves as the epigraph to his entire constructive proposal (141–42). In it, Barth draws on Augustine’s first Tractate on the Gospel of John. On the second occasion, Sarisky quotes that Tractate directly. The citation of Augustine is instructive:
So let us lift up our eyes to the mountains from where help will come to us; and yet not in those mountains is our hope to be placed; the mountains, in fact, receive what they pass on to us. So then, our hope is to be placed in the one from whom the mountains receive. When we lift up our eyes to the scriptures, because the scriptures have been provided by human beings, we are lifting up our eyes to the mountains from where help will come to us.
On Sarisky’s reading, Augustine here “plays on biblical language about mountains and help,” illustrating how the Bible is “a privileged set of signs” (269). What strikes me about the passage is how seamlessly Augustine brings Old Testament language to bear on the exposition of a New Testament text, with suggestive results for a theology of Scripture. Is the biblical language there merely ornamentation, included as “play”? Is the hermeneutical point the underlying point, such that threads of Christian Scripture can be cut away from it like threads from a piece of embroidery cloth? I have my doubts.
One finds this kind of scripturally saturated discourse throughout Augustine’s work. When he comes to Psalm 120 (Latin), he likewise connects his official text with a range of other scriptural passages. With characteristic flexibility, he attaches the scriptural sign of “mountains” to different things. “We can take the mountains to be symbols of great and illustrious people. And is anything greater than John the Baptist? What a mountain he was.”2 As in the Tractate on John, the mountains are associated with Scripture again, too. How closely connected is this style of reading—figuralism, in a word—to the Augustinian semiotics of the signs and res of Scripture endorsed by Sarisky? Can Augustine’s commentary be a model for theological exegesis, too, at least in his own day if not in ours?
Put differently, a problematic division of labor appears to be baked into the study. That division is absent in Augustine, Sarisky’s reliance on him notwithstanding. Actual exegesis will be done later, hopefully by the author himself. And if it is never attempted, or turns out not to be good, what will be the result? Will systematic theologians set the interpretive agenda, hand over the work of explicatio to the biblical scholars, and then take the work back so that they can make the most of it in meditatio and applicatio? That arrangement would be neither practicable nor just. This is surely not Sarisky’s goal, but it is the end toward which his proposal tends.
In his best moments, Sarisky upholds the tradition of John Webster by articulating a crisp, Barthian theology of Scripture. But how valuable is an update of Barth without any of the small print? For those who aim to read the Bible theologically without dissolving the process into a baton race, the practical division of labor has limits. Regrettably, by constructing a proposal for theological reading while abstaining from the practice of theological exegesis, Sarisky tests those limits severely.
One final point. In addition to its failure to engage with Scripture itself, Reading the Bible Theologically suffers from a neglect of the history of biblical interpretation. This history belongs to the Bible’s history, and not incidentally, for there is a sense in which the Bible would not have survived history except for its use in it. However, that historical aspect is not captured by Sarisky’s account of the operations of text and reader. In an odd way, the proposal is insufficiently historical. The theological tools to address this shortcoming exist within the proposal as it stands, in its recognition of “a single economy of salvation in which all [theological] interpreters are situated” (226). But the proposal does not carry the implications of this insight as far as it should. Sarisky works to preserve the text’s “alterity,” understood first and last as a function of “historical distance”—what, if anything, does the Epistle to the Romans have to do with modern life in rural Kansas? (221)—only to try to overcome that alterity by establishing the possibility of a theological meeting of the ancient text and its modern reader. An arc of connection across history terminates in two nodes, namely, “today’s readers” and the “original readers,” which emerge as controlling concepts. But both ends of the bridging mechanism are abstruse, and it is not clear how it might attach to the bewildering flow of the Bible’s known recipients in time and space.
Sarisky’s bridge is an artificial, ahistorical abstraction. In addition to today’s Kansas and Paul’s Rome, what about Calvin’s Geneva, Origen’s Alexandria, and Ephrem’s Edessa? What about everyone else, most of whose names and addresses we do not know? Let me restate a question from above. If Augustine’s theory is still good in our day but his practice is no longer workable, then, from a theological perspective, what does his reading of the Bible mean in his own time? How does that concrete historical moment connect to our own enfeebled efforts to read the Bible theologically now? In the “single economy of salvation,” where do we stand in the aggregate of all possible bridge positions on both ends, between every original reader supposed to be at the text, somehow, beside every part of it in every authoritative version, and every subsequent reader of all of it? Something more needs to be said about the work of the Holy Spirit here, and Sarisky says precious little about it (though, in fairness, it tends to be left implicit in Augustine and Barth as well).
One way to address these deficiencies might be by broadening applicatio (at least) to some manner of figuralism in text and reader alike. Sarisky recognizes the first half of this possibility in the work of Paul Griffiths, Richard Hays, and Ephraim Radner, though he resists it, or at least turns in another direction. Application and figural reading are different, he states, “in that figural reading is something that takes place within the Bible itself” (321n74). Is this accurate? A figuralism of the text is widely available in antiquity, as we have just glimpsed, but it is by no means restricted to the text. The mountains of Psalm 121 loom large, and those who listen in on Augustine’s exposition are invited to gaze on them directly, “through the scriptures.” Augustine reads all of history in figure, too, and he is hardly alone in doing so. More recently, some Christian theologians have heard Andrew Louth’s call for a return to allegory.3 These efforts look timid when compared to the tradition, but even under present constraints I have to wonder whether allegory can be so firmly excluded from the business of meditatio and explicatio. If the first readers saw biblical figures, then today’s readers need to learn to see them as well. A figuralism of the reader has begun to reemerge, too, even though modern historical consciousness seems to have driven it more deeply underground. If Sarisky were so inclined, he could let his affirmation of “all readers being united together within the one economy of salvation” (226) take him further in this direction.
Let me close by thanking Darren Sarisky for a stimulating work on a subject that is worth thinking about carefully. I have learned from his “second-order reflection on interpretation” (294), and I am grateful for his adjudication of an array of current titles and his doctrinal acuity. My criticisms of his proposal are intended to sharpen, not slay. I am confident that we both want to see theological reading of the Bible flourish, and to that end I would like to encourage him to get on with the first-order task of exegesis. There is ample room in the world for bad readings of the Bible, but I doubt very much that he will add to their number. Il meglio è l’inimico del bene.
Stephen E. Fowl, “Editor’s Notes,” Anglican Theological Review 99.4 (2017) 645–50, here 645, cited in the preface to Sarisky, Reading, x, n3. Hereafter, parenthetical citations are to Sarisky’s book of 2019.↩
Augustine of Hippo, Expositions of the Psalms 99–120, trans. Maria Boulding, Works of Saint Augustine III/19 (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2003), 512.↩
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983).↩
Bo H. Lim
Retrospect and Prospect
Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) is an ancient practice, and as Sarisky observes, it need not be explicitly named as such to exist. But if this discipline is identified by the creation of publications and study groups that bear the name, it is roughly twenty years old in its current iteration. As is common for a new discipline, in its early years, discussions focused on disciplinary definitions, demarcations, and methodology. This phase was followed by scholars engaging in the task of theological interpretation. TIS now lays claim to a journal, a study group at the Society of Biblical Literature, two monograph series, and a proliferation of commentary series that bear its name. While some may consider TIS the most important recent theological development, I think it is fair to say that TIS has had mixed success. It is certainly here to stay, but its future impact is uncertain. Darren Sarisky’s recent work, Reading the Bible Theologically, is timely, since it demonstrates a command of the literature and addresses some of TIS’s most critical methodological issues. Sarisky never claims to write an exhaustive assessment of the discipline, so it is unfair to evaluate it as such. Framing my engagement of his work in this manner reflects my commendation of the scope and thoroughness of Sarisky’s research and the importance of his contribution.
While some like Stephen Fowl have primarily defined theological interpretation as ecclesial interpretation, the practice of faith communities to read Scripture, Sarisky argues that TIS is fundamentally distinguished by its faith commitment to the doctrine of God. He then draws out the hermeneutical implications of this view regarding two lacunae that has plagued theological interpretation: the role of history and the role of the reader. Throughout the book, Augustine is his chosen guide to address these topics. My response to Sarisky’s work will consist of a question regarding his theological method, an affirmation of his discussion of history, and a critique of a topic that I consider was insufficiently addressed.
Sarisky’s interest in Augustine is for the purposes of constructive theology. Augustine provides “a stimulating example of how to think theologically” (75), yet he is not beholden to the North African theologian so that his “book thus thinks with and beyond Augustine” (147, emphasis in original). Sarisky notes that one cannot neatly demarcate theology from philosophy in Augustine’s thought and goes on to describe Augustine’s understanding of the biblical text as “theological semiotics.” A number of scholars, building upon the speech act theory of J. R. Seale and J. L. Austin, have gone on to describe Scripture as a series of divine speech acts, and whole monographs in TIS series have employed this hermeneutic.1 This form of TIS has been criticized as a philosophical interpretation of Scripture rather than a theological one. As mentioned above, for many TIS practitioners theological reading distinguishes itself through its use of ecclesial tools rather than academic ones. I am left to wonder if Sarisky’s mode of reading with and beyond Augustine supports ongoing use of philosophical categories in TIS such as speech act theory.
Theological readings of Scripture have stumbled for a variety of reasons and the exegetical step they have most often trip on is failing to account for the historical dimensions of the text, as demonstrated in Sarisky’s critique of Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew. Biblical scholars have leveled this criticism against TIS, but in this case Sarisky, as a theologian, speaks out against one of his very own. He rightly points out that in response to totalizing interpretations of the text based upon historical reconstructions, theologians overreacted against history resulting in ahistorical approaches. Sarisky’s charge of dualism against those who ignore history will certainly cause interpreters to think twice about dismissing its importance in the exegetical process. Situating historical investigation within explicatio, the first phase of a tripartite structure of theological interpretation, elegantly highlights its relationship to meditatio and applicatio. While Sarisky does not provide a detailed account of what constitutes history and how one determines the historicity of the bible, he rightly excludes methodological naturalism from all methods of biblical study. Renouncing naturalism is an affirmation of God’s providential care of creation, and it assumes a preservation of the contents of Scripture and a historical integrity to its theological claims. While biblical scholars of TIS have typically attempted to refute historical reconstructions of the text that subvert its theological claims on historical grounds, Sarisky does so on theological ones. Sarisky has made clear his beliefs on the relationship between the history, the text, and the ontology of God, one wonders how his doctrine of God works back through the text to influence his historical method.
Methodological inquiries into TIS have largely focused on the nature of texts, the text’s relationship to history, and the activity of reading, but little has been done on the readers themselves. Here, Sarisky provides an important contribution to the future of TIS by reflecting theologically on reading and readers. He argues that, if readers look through the biblical text rather than at it in the manner of Augustine, they “understand themselves in a theological light, and theological resources enter into their interpretive reflection as hermeneutical first principles” (188). Sarisky acknowledges that such a hermeneutic does not deny the particularities of gender, race, nationality, religion, class, and age, but the receptivity to the God disclosed in the Scriptures serve as hermeneutical first principles. Since Scripture’s foremost function is to reveal God, when a person reads the Bible their primary identity is defined by their relationship to the one who is the object of it, God. For those who read the Bible theologically, their primary connection to the Scriptures is not its human qualities but rather divine. Sarisky writes:
[EXT]What secures the fundamental similarity between readers is not a likeness of human nature when that is construed in solely immanent or human nature when that is construed in solely immanent or mundane terms (focusing exclusively on those qualities frustrates identification because they spell out the differences between individuals), nor is it a faith held in common (it is not what people think but what is true of them that is important here), but rather their location within one and the same saving economy. (229)[/EXT]
Christopher Seitz has likened Christians reading the Old Testament to Gentiles accessing the Jewish Scriptures through a library card given by Jesus Christ.2 Seitz recognizes that, while Jews and Gentiles receive salvation through the same God revealed in Jesus Christ, in the economy of salvation their ethnic identities result in distinctions as to how they read the Jewish Scriptures. While Sarisky is correct to assert that the economy of salvation is to be among the first principles in reading, he neglects to acknowledge how, in this economy, social and cultural distinctions between persons continue to carry theological importance. One cannot deny that the poor, women, the stranger, the rich, and the foreigner relate to God in different ways even as they all find their salvation in Jesus Christ. The history of the church is littered with examples of hegemonic forms of biblical interpretation claimed in the name of orthodoxy, and my worry is that prioritizing a doctrine of God over one’s social location may lead to this result. What is needed is to draw out the ways one’s own sociocultural location is to be understood in light of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and how these factors influence the reading of Scripture.
Scholars of TIS have been engaged in Scriptural Reasoning, as well as discussions on the topic of Supersessionism. I recognize the differences between Jews, Christians, and Muslims are not merely cultural but also religious. Nevertheless, if theological interpreters can draw out the points of convergence and divergence between these groups, I see no reason why they cannot also negotiate how various social identities ought to be understood theologically. Sarisky observes, “Theological reading involves interpreting the Bible with an alertness to see such analogies and a willingness to make judgments about where telling similarities do indeed obtain” (227). A modern category such as race does not find an exact counterpart in the ancient Scriptures, so theological work on this topic requires creative and informed analogical work. I am not suggesting that one’s own dispositions dominate and determine the reading of Scripture; I believe the primary role of Scripture is not to see oneself in the text, but rather be seen by the Trinitarian God who is revealed in it. I would like to see TIS scholars apply the same rigor with which Sarisky analyzes a “non-theological” category like history to their analysis of other “non-theological” categories like gender and ethnicity. To accomplish these ends, different tools for the trade may need to be acquired than the ones TIS scholars typically employ.
In the book’s conclusion, Sarisky writes, “The heart of the challenge here is that for theological reading to flourish, its practitioners will have to learn how to think about the immanent features of the world as real but a pointing beyond themselves and toward God” (364). By “immanent features of the world” Sarisky refers to natural and human causality. Here I would press Sarisky and other scholars of TIS to not only examine history and personhood in an individualistic sense, but the social and cultural forces that shape readers of Scripture. If the practitioners of TIS do not engage these questions, I fear we will be rendered irrelevant to an increasingly diversifying church and world.
I have named my response to Sarisky book “Theological Interpretation: Retrospect and Prospect” because his work provides a penetrating analysis of TIS’s past and identifies its needs for a bright future. It is no accident that TIS has flourished during a time when biblical scholarship has shifted its focus away from history to readers. Journals, study groups at SBL, and biblical commentary series devoted to contextual readings of the Bible abound. This focus on social contexts is reflective of wider trends in the culture, but also the recognition of seismic demographic shifts in the global church. I have written elsewhere on this topic and on the ways I believe TIS, as a discipline, needs to pivot in order to meet its stated objectives to read Scripture with, and for, diverse faith communities.3 Any lack of engagement with social contexts is not a weakness of Sarisky’s work. As mentioned previously, the scope of his research is impressive, his analysis of key issues is penetrating, and his constructive proposals weighty so that all practitioners of TIS will need to grapple with his arguments going forward. In addition, Sarisky has rightly identified the examination of the reader as the next step for TIS and presented an important contribution on this topic.
Kit Barker, Imprecation as Divine Discourse: Speech Act Theory, Dual Authorship, and Theological Interpretation, JTISup 16 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016).↩
Christopher R. Seitz, The Elder Testament: Canon, Theology, Trinity (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2018).↩
Bo H. Lim, “Critical Methods and Critiques: Theological Interpretation,” in The T. & T. Clark Handbook to Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. Uriah Y. Kim and Seung Ai Yang (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2019), 141–59.↩
12.2.21 | Darren Sarisky
Response to Bo Lim
Bo Lim has expressed appreciation for key emphases in my book, especially that it incorporates within the account of theological reading both an anthropology of the reader and a stress on the historical background of biblical texts. He has also posed two questions, one about the role of philosophy in the proposal, and a second regarding the function of theology in my understanding of history. Finally, he has pressed me to develop further my account of readers, such that it underscores the value of readings occurring in a variety of sociocultural contexts. Lim has framed his response graciously, and his questions and challenge are well worth discussing.
First, does my proposal permit, or even support, the deployment of philosophical categories within theological interpretation? Or does using philosophy make for a fundamentally different kind of reading, one that may create distance between the reader and the world of the Bible? I am sanguine about utilizing philosophy, so long as it incorporates itself within a theologically framed worldview. Because of the way my book relates philosophy and theology, it counts as an example of Hans Frei’s fourth type of Christian theology.1 For my purpose, it is not worth detailing Frei’s entire scheme, but he does lay out a typology that can illumine this question. Philosophy may serve straightforwardly as trump suit, such that theology must always retreat whenever its claims conflict with the deliverances of a supposedly universal reason. Or, theology may serve as an equal dialogue partner for philosophy, the two entering into a conversation where each discipline correlates itself with the other. Or, as in my proposal, theology may pick out useful philosophical tools and bring them to bear on a given task, the agenda for which tasks theology sets for itself. For instance, I use speech-act theory to clarify the claim that the Bible is a set of signs directing its reader’s attention to the triune God (281–82). That the Bible is a collection of signs does not mean that all it ever does is refer to an extra-textual reality about which it says something (John Searle calls this type of language a “referring occurrence”). Signs in general, and the biblical signs in particular, do a variety of things, including giving orders, expressing wishes, and so on. I am happy to use speech-act theory for this purpose; as I note, I have learned a great deal from recent literature that brings speech-act theory to bear on biblical interpretation (282n94). There is, then, in my book no absolute dichotomy between theology and philosophy: it is not that theology is present while philosophy is entirely absent, but rather that theology has priority over philosophy.
Second, what difference does my doctrine of God make for an understanding of history? What are its implications for what history is and how people learn about the past? My answer here is similar to my previous one. I am contextualizing history within a theological outlook. The type four pattern holds once again. This will strike some readers as ambitious. But I am not rejecting historical-critical thinking; I am seeking to reconfigure it inside of a theological framework. Recall Karl Barth’s correspondence with Adolf von Harnack, in which Barth responds to his dismayed former teacher by saying that he wants a theological view of history, not an engagement with theological texts divorced entirely from the insights that historical investigation provides. How does this commitment work itself out in my book? It shapes the first phase of interpretation (297–307), for example. As I say, “Theological readers must be alert to social, cultural, and political currents within the text’s milieu of origin, but they should not proceed with a commitment to a naturalistic view of historical causation, according to which the social, cultural, and political exhaustively describe the real” (298). In addition, even when readers interpret the text in a way that is informed by a knowledge of its history, they should still aim to focus on the theological substance of the text.
These are just a couple indicative examples to illustrate how I try to root interpretation in history without allowing methodological naturalism to govern the conception of history that theological reading assumes.
This brings us to readers and their sociocultural location. In Reading the Bible Theologically, I do note that, whatever differences exist between the many unique readers of the Bible, a theological account must locate them all in relationship to God. Thus, the dynamics of creation, fall, and the invitation of redemption mark all of their lives (217–32). Readers are not just different from one another by virtue of when and where they live, the languages they speak, and so on; they are similar because the economy of redemption serves as a common point of reference for them all. Further, I observe that even a theological account of readers must note that readers manifest a certain race, class, and gender and that all these factors make a difference to how people read (312–13). Lim perceptively notes, however, that I do not go on to address the value, and indeed the theological value, of this fact that I have acknowledged. Where does this leave my argument? In closing, Lim says that this does not count as a weakness. He has perceptively observed a limitation, though, the boundary between what I do and do not say. Let me reflect further on this boundary.
What position on sociocultural issues would have been problematic, had I endorsed it? I would need to repent in sackcloth and ashes had I advocated a version of interpretive objectivity that was actually privileging a white, male point of view. J. Kameron Carter demonstrates that, in influential streams of Western academic culture, a notion of objectivity claiming to be without any influence from readerly subjectivity was in fact requiring non-white readers to conform to specifically white interpretive practices as a single universal telos.2 The trend Carter unearths runs deep and represents a serious problem. But because I have underscored the permanent plurality of sociocultural perspectives, this is not a trap into which I fall. In addressing the second phase of interpretation, I write, “Reading is a practice that human beings undertake, therefore it proceeds from a limited, human point of view, not from a God’s-eye perspective. Nationality, race, class, personality, gender, and all the rest shape the set of operative categories by which any individual navigates the world” (312–13). My point is that the categories by which readers make sense of biblical content are not universal but vary somewhat according to the reading subject. I never ask that all these perspectives reduce down to a single, normative, privileged one, and instead say that this variety will endure.
Let me now extend my line of argument to underline, in an explicit way, the value that this reality has. Focusing on the reader in the way that I do allows for this sort of extension. To the extent that many voices contribute to discussions of how to read the Bible, those discussions will definitely be enriched. The subject matter of the text is inexhaustible and cannot be known in a comprehensive manner. But a multiplicity of readings, coming from different sociocultural locations, will do greater justice to the subject than only a few interpretive takes possibly could. In this way, reading together with others has theological value. The seer of Revelation imagines a vast multiplicity of people present in the eschaton: “I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. . . . And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Rev 7:9–10). This variety of perspectives continues through to the end, and we certainly need it in the meantime, for it provides insights that discussions that are more restricted in the scope of their participants would omit. Lim wonders if Western theology will become irrelevant as the Christian church grows numerically in other regions of the world while it continues to decline in the West. I doubt the Western tradition will entirely stop attracting interest, if the number of graduate students coming from other parts of the world to study it serves as an index of what the future might hold. Perhaps an illuminating dialogue will ensue between Western sources and new forms of Christianity as they continue to develop. Time will tell. At any rate, this is what I hold out hope for, as this path allows for the most vibrant discussions.
As time goes on, I expect to glean more from Lim and others who are drawing attention to what readers like me stand to learn from others who approach the text from different sociocultural perspectives. In my response to Amy Plantinga Pauw, I will build on what I say here to address African American interpretation more specifically. But for now, let me thank Lim for the chance to reply to his questions and to ponder the challenge he has articulated with grace and acuity.
See Hans Frei, Types of Christian Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).↩
See J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), esp. 408n102.↩