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
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
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
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)
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.”
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
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
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.