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)


    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.

  • Winter Book Picks

    The holiday time is a wonderful season for sipping hot mochas, playing in the snow, watching Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and…stocking up on lots of books!  This year I have been blessed many times over by generous friends, relatives, and journals that are willing to give a poor student some very expensive books to review (for free!).  I don’t know why I presume my book picks interest you, but perhaps you did not know some of these books exist.  Also, this may give you an idea of what I will be blogging on in the coming months!

    Here they are in no particular order (and some are not brand new…)!

    1. Richard Horsley (ed), In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (WJK, 08).  This is a collection of essays on the theme of the Bible and Empire. Contributions are made by such scholars as Horsley, W. Brueggemann, Crossan, Neil Elliott, and Warren Carter (among others).  
    2. Constantine Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Zondervan, 2008).  As a Greek teacher, I am very interested in what Campbell has to say on this.
    3. P. Vardy, An Introduction to Kierkegaard (Hendrickson, 2008).  I don’t know why this book attracted me.  As I am trying to be more interdisciplinarian, this seemed like a good way to dip into theo-philosophy.  We’ll see if it makes any sense to me.
    4. S. Gundry et al. (eds.), Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2008).  Scholars W. Kaiser (who was most recently President at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, my alma mater), D. Bock, and P. Enns weigh in on different approaches to how NT authors use OT texts.  I have worked in this area a bit and the conversation should prove to be very stimulating.  I already am skeptical of the overly-strict and direct approach that Kaiser takes, but I am open to being convinced.
    5. J. Neyrey, Give God the Glory: Ancient Prayer and Worship in Cultural Perspective (Eerdmans, 2007).  Of the Context Group scholars, I trust Neyrey’s work the most.  He seems to be most level-headed- he does not seem to overdraw conclusions.  I am very interested in the theology of prayer.  Neyrey’s historical and social approach should be illuminating.  The book is blurbed by non-Context scholars such as David Aune and Telford Work.
    6. James Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes (WJK, 2007).  I am highly interested in biblical theology, so this should be a nice contribution. Now, I recall that James Dunn did not give this book a good evaluation on RBL, but the book is blurbed by Matera.  We’ll see.  More to come.
    7. Jerry Sumney, Colossians (NTL; WJK, 2008).  Colossians is not actually my primary area of expertise.  I do much better in 1-2 Corinthians and Philippians.  But, for some reason, I have a ton of commentaries on Colossians (Dunn, O’Brien, Lincoln, Pokorny, Wilson, Wright, Garland, Thompson, Lightfoot) and I just finished reading Moo’s recent treatment.  Well, Sumney’s volume is short.  Also, Sumney was my respondent at SBL and he is a sharp scholar and a nice man.  I look forward to reading this.
    8. O. Skarsaune and R. Hvalvik, eds. Jewish Believers in Jesus (Hendrickson, 2007).  After this volume was reviewed and discussed at SBL, it encouraged me to get a hold of it.  Hagner’s volume came under fire by Mark Nanos.  I read their comments and papers.  Now I need to read the essay that started it all!  
    9. Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life (Baker, 2008).  I was interested in what Green had to say about cognitive linguistics at IBR this year.  I would like to see what he has to say about the human body and biblical anthropology.
    10. Reumann, Philippians (Anchor-Yale, 2008).  I am not sure whether or not to be excited about this.  I love new research on Philippians, but when I started reading the commentary I was immediately turned off by dissectional approach which sees it as a compilation of multiple letters…ugh…
    11. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (Anchor-Yale, 2008).  Though probably not ‘theologically’ rich, I expect Fitzmyer to have good historical and philological insights.

    I am still holding out for someone to give me the new Hays FS.  Santa can you hear me….

    Interested in NT PhD – update planned

    My most popular post is “Interested in a NT PHD” (see page link above); as it is nearing 4,000 hits, I am thinking of doing a significant revision, update, and expansion.  Hopefully it will also now include how to actually survive the PhD process, to suceed in paper presenting and article writing, and also to navigate through the job application and interview process.

    I would, at this stage, be interested in knowing what kinds of questions some of you have about any of these issues including preparation for doing a PhD in Biblical Studies.

    Also, thank you to my readers who have followed my ramblings and advice.  I hope I have not led you astray!

    Thoughts and Advice on Choosing a Thesis Monograph Series

    At a departmental function this weekend I had a nice chat with a scholar I trust.  I asked him which monograph series he encourages his own doctoral students to publish in.  He had recommended specifically Walter de Gruyter and Mohr Siebeck.  I had asked him why he did not mention the UK publishers.  He commented that a well-known UK series has a policy that they want short 80,000 word manscripts, following the trend of some universities which have set their max word limit at 80K for theses.  Since Durham is still at a 100,000 max limit, it would be difficult (though not impossible) to cut it down to their liking for publication.  This is something significant that I had never thought about before.

    I had mentioned that it seemed like Mohr Siebeck did not seem like a really exclusive series since they seemed to put out so many volumes per year.  He mentioned that they have revamped a bit and now are much stricter.
    Though there are many factors to consider, these are a couple worth noting.  Also, I heard that if you are interested in doing a post-doc in Germany, it helps to publish your thesis in a German series – this may just be a rumor, but it does make some sense.

    Common Mistakes in Theological Research #6: The Us Versus Them Problem

    Every thesis has an argument.  In order to argue something “new” or “original” you need to know what has been argued before and where you can go with your own research.  There is a certain kind of thesis, a very common one, which is largely a negative argument: Professor So-and-so’s theory on X in respect to Y is WRONG.  Or, perhaps a lighter version: My solution to the problem Y is correct, which means that Professor So-and-so’s theory is WRONG.

    Theses like these are often times very interesting and can have the power to shift consensus opinions.  These can often be very fun to read and can be persuasive if the evidence is there.  Once you have hooked your reader (in the first couple of chapters), he or she often buys into it and is waiting to hear more in your subsequent chapters.

    The problem comes if the writer has an us vs. them approach.  This can even become ad hominem where the goal of the writer is to lampoon the opposing position.  There are a few problems here.  The first is that your viva examiner(s) may not feel persuaded by your very one-sided approach (especially if it is unrelentlessly antagonistic and vituperative).  Secondly, I am personally put  off by someone who treats their scholarly debators as punching bags using words like ‘absurd’, ‘clearly not’, ‘obviously’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘a very poor attempt to…’.  If we have read the appropriate literature on both sides of the ‘debate’ (whatever it may be), you show a certain air of intellectual superiority and academic ignorance when setting up your opponent as a fool.

    How can you avoid this?  Be careful when the temptation comes to use polarizing words like all, never, always, etc…These kinds of statements can seem clumsy.  Also, when you seem to be setting the opponent up as a straw man and/or a whipping boy, it can make you come across as intimidated and insecure.  Be willing to highlight what you agree with in the work of your debators.

    This us-versus-them seems to be a tendency that is more common amongst conservatives who sometimes appear to have an axe to grind.  If you are a conservative (as I could be labelled), this may be something to keep in mind when you formulate your thesis idea and decide whom your debating partners are.  Remember, it is a debate, not a lynching.  Your goal is to win the argument and further a better understanding of the text – not to stand victorious over the bloodied bodies of your ‘enemies’.

    Common Mistakes in Theological Research #5: The Weak Cumulative Argument

    A very common mistake that researchers make is what I call the ‘weak cumulative argument’.  This involves some thesis: ‘NT author X is referring to issue E whenever he brings up words/concepts A, B, C, or D’.  This often happens in studies that are intertextually-driven.  The problem here is that often the author can find one, two, or three examples that clearly make these connections.  However, he or she ends up spending many chapters looking for more ‘subtle’ examples.  Suprise!  There are ‘subtle’ examples everywhere!  Oh how scholarship will change once people read and understand concepts A, B, C, and D with issue E in mind!

    The problem here is that previously few people, if any, have observed any of these subtle connections.  What ends up happening is that the author is trying to build a cumulative argument based on two or three strong cases, and dozens of tenuous or highly speculative cases.

    The reason why the author has become blind to this fallacy is that she has been so immersed in the relevant literature that she sees examples literally everywhere.  It is like when a computer screen is on the same image for days and when you turn it off, it can’t get the impression to disappear.

    What can you do about it?  Well, be very careful about your methodology section.  Create an approach that is sensitive to this problem and have ways to test whether the connection you see is really there.  Secondly, be in dialogue with others and ask them (before your viva!) if they understand the connections.  Finally, be willing to label each instance.  In my own thesis, I am in danger of this problem, so each example I look at I have labelled as ‘certain’, ‘almost certain’, ‘probable’ and ‘possible’.  Obviously, the ‘possible’ ones are the least convincing, but if my overall argument is based on the ‘certain’ and ‘almost certain’, then it is nice to have other potentially correlated pieces of evidence.

    There is something to say about arrangement as well.  In the book I am currently reading, his best examples (what I would label ‘certain’ and ‘almost certain’) are front-loaded (in the first two chapters), but he goes into all sorts of tenuously related more subtle examples.  This kind of deflates the argument.  You might want to sandwich by leading with your best examples, but saving some good ones for later.  You should, of course, always end strong.

    This is a difficult fallacy to avoid becuase it is so subjective.  It may help to state that somewhere, but in the end your argument stands or falls on the strength of your examples.