“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.