Mike Gorman and John Poirier on Theological Interpretation

This is a post that is based on a series of exchanges between Mike Gorman and John Poirier on a previous blog post of mine.  Mike’s and John’s comments about Theological Intepretation are interesting for many reasons, one of which because they are representative of dominant views in modern hermeneutics and both capture their positions with verve and skill.  I have edited portions and added some headings only for ease of access to readers; I have not intentionally changed any major statements.

Michael J. Gorman is Professor of Sacred Scripture and Dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He is a graduate of Gordon College (B.A. in French, 1977) and Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1982; Ph.D., 1989), where he specialized in New Testament (especially Pauline studies) and developed additional academic and personal interests in early church history, the theological interpretation of Scripture, the book of Revelation, and nonviolence.

John Poirier is Chair of Biblical Studies for Kingswell Theological Seminary.  His Th.M. (New Testament) is from Duke University Divinity School where he studied under E.P. Sanders.  His D. H. L. (Ancient Judaism) is from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  Poirier is the author of numerous articles in peer reviewed journals and has been recently appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research. 

JOHN: Concerns with Theological Interpretation of Scripture

  • As one who has always winced at the term “theological interpretation”, I must say that I find Gorman’s definition refreshingly broad. The problem with the way “theological interpretation” is usually defined is that a term that is so disarming and descriptive should mean something as straightforward as “interpretation that is theological”, but this is far from the case. Unfortunately, “theological interpretation”, *qua* technical term, has come to stand for a variety of hermeneutical approaches that treat the act of interpretation *itself* as theological, along the lines of some sort of theology of the Word. This narrowing of the term “theological interpretation” is rather unfortunate, and forces its proponents to dismiss things like Dodd’s discussion of the kerygma, or Meyer’s discussion of *Christus Faber*, as something *other than* theological interpretation (which is plainly ridiculous). Happily, Gorman’s definition avoids this by including an “and/or”: Gorman’s definition makes room for “theological interpretation” meaning simply “interpretation that is theological”, which, on any fair account, is how it should be. Unfortunately, Gorman spoils this gain by adding his eight principles, none of which should really be necessary for simple theological interpretation. (I have not read Gorman. I’m going from Nijay’s summary.)

    In light of the above, I must say that I found Treier’s book *Introducing Theological Interpretation* rather disheartening. His discussion is not at all fair, and I found his reasoning rather associative and driven more by pious appeal than by logical necessity.

    Needless to say, I’m annoyed by “theological interpretation”.

  • MIKE: Defense of TIS as outlined by Gorman

  • John–I appreciate your positive words and understand your concerns about principles. But (a) a broad approach still needs to be fleshed out, (b) I think my principles actually represent something of a growinc consensus, and (c) please remember that this book is a text for students, who need more than a definition if they are going to practice theological interpretation.

    Finally–I would commend to all the section in the book on specifically missional interpretation as a form of theological interpretation.

  • JOHN: Terminology and Ideology

  • Thank you, Michael, for your response. I look forward to reading your book.

    Let me clarify one thing: my main problem is with the use of the term “theological interpretation”. I also have problems with the approaches that stand under that label, but my biggest problem is simply with the idea that some people out there would say that *this* approach (which is theological in its goals) *is* “theological interpretation”, but *that* approach (*viz.* historical-critical reading of a theological passage in Paul, which is *equally* theological in its goals) is *not* “theological interpretation”. It’s an unfair use of terminology, and it stacks the deck in favor of the opponents of historical criticism by making it appear that historical criticism is, in principle, *not* theological.

  •  

    MIKE: The need for TIS as a new approach (or goal)

    John–

    Having said that, I’m all for historical reading of the text, and even for some historical-critical reading, but I conceive of the methods associated with these approaches as (a) means rather than ends in themselves (Fowl is good on this) and (b) part of a larger handbag of tools. Is that also what you are saying? I’m curious how you define the word “theological” in the phrase “theological interpretation.” Those who have been critical of the historical-critical method are usually convinced that diachronic readings and the pursuit of sources have minimal theological payoff at best (other than understanding the theology and social situation of the compilers of an alleged source, which is more of a historical enterprise than a theological one). But they/we have not necessarily eschewed historical readings per se. Recall that a decade ago or more Karl Donfried suggested replacing “historical-critical” biblical studies terminology with “historical.”

    JOHN: History, Theology, and Authorial Intent
    Michael asks whether I “conceive of the methods associated with [historical-critical] approaches [are] means rather than ends in themselves . . . and . . . part of a larger handbag of tools”. He also asks how I “define the word ‘theological’ in the phrase ‘theological interpretation’.” The answer to the first is simple, but perhaps difficult to answer clearly: “historical” reading refers to more than a method–it also refers to the theory of meaning that one brings to the text. To read a text “historically” is to read it with an intentionalist hermeneutic. In that sense, “historical-critical reading” is *not* merely one method within a “handbag of tools”. Rather, it represents both a method and a fundamental view of texts as conveyors of meaning and truth. It assumes that the meaning of the biblical text is the meaning given it by the original author, and *not* the meaning it appears to be given by its canonical setting, or by the church’s tradition, or by the reader, etc. As far as I can see, nearly every recent proponent of “theological interpretation” is opposed to this stance. My main beef with these people is that they let their rhetoric do what should only be done with an argument. If one opposes the view that meaning lies in the author’s intention, one should give a rigorous, substantive argument against that view. The “theological interpretation” movement, instead of presenting any sort of real argument for their position, simply redefines the term “theological interpretation” so that it excludes an intentionalist hermeneutic. Michael, I’m not sure if you’re among those who do this, but I must say that I find this tactic downright reprehensible. Readers deserve better than this.
  • As for how I understand “theological” in the phrase “theological interpretation of Scripture”: to me, a theological reading of Scripture is simply a reading of Scripture for its theological content. That content is unearthed through an intentionalist hermeneutic. IIRC, Schlatter indeed did use the term “theological interpretation”, and when he used it, he was talking about exactly the same thing I’m talking about. For Schlatter *et al*, reading the Bible theologically simply meant agreeing with its theology–*viz.* it meant believing what its authors were trying to say. The phrase was opposed to unbelieving criticism. Unfortunately, the recent advocates of “theological interpretation” have used the same opponents as Schlatter (i.e. atheists) as foils in their rhetoric, but they have defined “theological interpretation” differently, thereby making it appear that historical criticism itself is atheistic, or that if you don’t jump on the new “theological interpretation” bandwagon, then you are keeping company with atheists. (If you don’t believe me, go back and reread Hays’s article in the first issue of the *Journal of Theological Interpretation*–he represents the proponents of historical criticism as those who advocate taking confessional reading of Scripture out of the university!)

    Finally, you mention those who think that “diachronic readings and the pursuit of sources have minimal theological payoff at best “, but I don’t think that the ends justifies the means. We shouldn’t cheat when we read the Bible, *especially* if we’re doing it for the sake of theology.

  • MIKE: The Problem of traditional historical-criticism and intentionalistic hermeneutics

  • John and others:

    There are in fact advocates of theological interpretation who have an “intentionalist hermeneutic,” such as Kevin Vanhoozer. I respect this view, and accept aspects of it at times, but doubt that it is theoretically or practically possible to discern the intention of the author (which author, say, in the case of Genesis?) in many cases. And I definitely don’t think that authorial intention exhausts meaning. Fowl, for instance, asks what about the meaning God intended (say for Isa 53)? (Try raising that question in the secular academy!

    In the book I say that the best we can usually find is an approximation of what the text would have meant to those who first heard/read it. Sometimes (as in the case of Paul) we can get closer to intention than at other times.

    This does not minimize the importance of historical investigation, but it does contextualize it within a broader framework. More significantly, I would suggest that historical-critical work per se, with regard to authorial intention, creates an incredible nightmarish network of problems. I say again, Which source? In the case of a text in Matthew, for example, do you mean Jesus’ intention, the intention of the Q community or author, the community/ies that circulated a tradition, an intermediate readactor, the evangelist?

    If we are trying to discern the theology of the final form of the text, a task that is easier than discerning authorial intent but still challenging (and is not really a *historical-critical* task per se), and if we are trying to do so to agree with it (or better, stand under it), I certainly support that effort as part of the goal of theological interpretation.

  • JOHN: The exegetical necessity of the consideration of authorial intent; the determination of meaning

  • Thanks, Mike, for your response. Yes, I am aware of Vanhoozer’s defense of intentionalism, but I think that he is an exception. Perhaps there are more.

    As for whether discerning the author’s intention is always possible: I have no doubt that sometimes it is difficult to discern the author’s intention, but it is not valid to say, “Oh, we don’t know what he meant, so let’s just read this text through a non-intentionalist hermeneutic.” Logistical convenience never trumps logical necessity! Our hermeneutics need to be driven by logical necessity, not a desire for hermeneutic closure. We cannot turn from intentionalism just because it is difficult to work with, or because its results are sometimes tenuous.

    As for whether “authorial intention exhausts meaning”, I fear that an implied (bogus) argument stands in the way of our making this move legitimately. That argument swaps one meaning of the word “meaning” for another, without any sort of analytical reasoning. I’ve seen this argument many times: since the word “meaning” (in English) refers to all sorts of things, ranging from authorial intention, to purely formal quantities, to readerly reconstruction, a number of those advocating a turn from intentionalism have argued as if these different meanings of “meaning” are somehow interchangeable–that they’re all part of one *thing* called meaning. But, of course, they are not–at least not *logically* so. With every text, there is an opportunity to find what the author meant, what the formal aspects seem to dictate, or what the reader gets out of it, but our job as hermeneuts is to interpret the text only through that semantic grammar (so to speak) that aligns itself with the alethiology (= theory of truth) that underpins the belief system in question. In the case of the Christian gospel, “truth” is a matter of spacetime actuality. We know this by the way in which Paul exploits the ontological/alethiological structure of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15: for Paul, the “truth” of the Christ event (specifically the resurrection) is not a matter of storytime actuality (as narrativists would have it), but rather a matter of spacetime actuality. It is a matter of its referential integrity. This rules out all readerly and ecclesial hermeneutics (including narrative theology and the canonical approach).

    I apologize that I don’t have time to flesh this out any further, but I really believe that the very structure of the gospel obliges us to endorse intentionalism.

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    2 thoughts on “Mike Gorman and John Poirier on Theological Interpretation

    1. I agree with the point that even so-called historical-critical interpretation is theological. Everyone approaches the NT with their theological assumptions in mind and rewrites the evidence to fit their theology.

      I certainly do not agree that anyone cares about the original author’s intentions. To do that, you would have to be able to accurately state what the text says and then ask what the author was up to. But no one is capable of stating what the text says. No one even cares. No one ever acknowledges what the pure data is (the actual verses). What eveyone gives us is data with spin and then pretends they are discussing the actual data.

      You can see this very clearly with the story of Judas. Everyone reads negativity into the texts even where there is none. How many scholars realize that every single piece of evidence regarding Judas in Mark’s Gospel is ambiguous? No one. Mark does not present one unequivocally negative piece of information about Judas. So if you care about author’s intentions, the question is why would Mark tell such a perfectly ambiguous story about Judas? But 200 years of historical or theological interpretation has suppressed this question. Everyone assumes their theology of Judas as traitor is correct and completely ignores the text. And that is a good summation of theological intepretation: Ignore the evidence, suppress the evidence, and make up your own vision.

      Leon Zitzer

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