Michael Gorman on Theological Interpretation

If you attended SBL this year, you may have noticed the numerous sessions on the subject Theological Interpretation of Scripture.  These sessions, some of which I attended, were very popular and rooms were filled to the brim.

The interest in this topic is certainly there, but there is much confusion as to what exactly it is, what it stands for, and how it is done.  I respect many of the scholars who identify with it (Richard Hays, Walter Moberly, Mike Gorman), but I have had a difficult time getting a straight answer as to what it is.

Luckily, in the revised and expanded version of Gorman’s Elements of Biblical Exegesis (Hendrickson, 2008), he has added a new section entitled ‘Theological Interpretation of Scripture’.

He defines it as such: ‘biblical interpretation that takes the Bible not just as a historical and/or a literary document but as source of divine revelation, witness to God’s creative and salvific activity, and/or (minimally) significant partner in the task of theological reflection–thinking about God and about the world and humanity in light of God’ (144).

Gorman notes that this approach (or mood) was present in Scriptural interpretation before the Enlightenment which explains why this new school of Theological Interpreters are so keen on cracking open texts from the Patristic era.

Gorman argues that this new hermeneutic has had several effects:

– a growing number of groups within the professional societies of biblical scholars…are devoted to TIS.

-the launching of various reference projects such as the Two Horizons commentaries and the Brazos Theological commentaries

-a rediscovery of patristic exegesis

-the launching of the Journal of Theological Interpretation


Gorman observes (rightly so) that it is not a method, but it is about the goal of exegesis.  He writes, ‘if the exegete sees to understand a biblical text in order to appropriate its message as a guide for contemporary belief and behavior within a community of faith (whether Christian or Jewish)–whether that goal is achieved with historical-critical, social-scientific, narrative, or other methods–that exegete is doing theological interpretation’ (146).

Gorman goes on to explain eight principles for the TIS: Incarnation, Universal, Communal, Canonical, Coherence, Charismatic, Transformative, and Constructive.  I don’t have the time (or energy!) to explain all of these, but for those who wish to really understand what scholars are trying to do when they talk about TI, Gorman’s principles are spot on.

As a side note, I would like to say that, of all the exegesis textbooks out there, this is my favorite because it covers so many areas of interpretation in a simple and accessible way without being exhaustingly long (about 200 pp. before indexes).  Also, I have learned more about TIS from Gorman’s chapter on it, than I have reading almost whole articles, books, or reference works on the subject!


16 thoughts on “Michael Gorman on Theological Interpretation

  1. Have you given Dan Treier’s “Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture” (Baker Academic, 2008) a read? I found it very helpful

  2. I find it interesting that TIS carries around it buzz and hype as if it is some new trend, when it is really quite simple. It is simply a hermeneutic that Scripture actually presumes and calls for in its own pages. I hope it does not get chalked up with all of the other “methods” of the hour and that it remains articulated and understood as a hermeneutic, not a method.
    Side note: I wonder why Gorman does not include “cruciform” as one of the eight principles or perhaps the ninth principle. I only have his earlier edition of the book, which I have found helpful for teaching elements of exegesis to seminary students.

  3. To put my previous post in very simple terms: the people in the pews of most churches do not understand the buzz around TIS. They do not understand what the big deal is because interpretation “that takes the Bible not just as a historical and/or a literary document but as source of divine revelation, witness to God’s creative and salvific activity, and/or (minimally) significant partner in the task of theological reflection” is a no-brainer! It seems like it is mostly in the ivory tower that this an epiphany of sorts. What people in churches (and seminary students) can learn from all of this, it seems to me, pertains more to sorting out the various ways in which we construct our theological hermeneutic and being deliberate in how we draw on Scripture’s complex witness to do so. Gorman’s eight principles are not the only ones, and I am sure this sort of discussion (what principles should drive our theological hermeneutic? how do we arrive at them?) would be very fruitful in congregations (and seminaries).

  4. 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”.

  5. Thanks to Nijay and to all for your attention to this new chapter in the book and, more importantly, to the subject of theological interpretation. Nijay, I hope you don’t mind my responding to people here.

    Kyle–I have had similar reactions from pastors and lay people, and I share your sentiment, but whether or not this should be news in academic theological circles, it is.

    As you can imagine, I do think that cruciform, or perhaps christocentric, is a fair description of Christian theological interpretation. I think I was trying here to be at least theoretically inclusive of Jewish interpretation and also not to give the text too much of a specifically Gormanian hermeneutic without ample space to define and describe a cruciform hermeneutic.

    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.

  6. Theological interpretation approaches the text, either with an agenda (proof-text) or a bias (faith in a theological understanding), which is nothing other than supporting what the majority hold in the pew anyway. You may dismiss what the ivory tower does, but it is necessary for those who are really interested in “truth” and not just “their way of life” and a defense of it…..I think it is short-sighted, almost blindingly so, to “submit to a text without investigation or fully understanding what the original sources meant, and if the original sources even exist…

  7. Angie,
    I think that you misunderstand the agendas and methods of those who have supported this new interest in Theological Interpretation. While some writers out there may be accused of doing the things you have suggested, I would say that these descriptions would not apply to, let’s say, Markus Bockmuehl’s SEEING THE WORD or Walter Moberly’s recent works. Perhaps you could be more specific about which works of TIS advocates you find blindly short-sighted.

    I am perfectly find with people criticizing TIS. I, in fact, have my reservations about the kind of hermeneutic involved that supports an infinite number of meanings (I had a good chat at SBL with Stephen Fowl on this). But, because I have met many of the scholars involved in this kind of approach, I accept that they are not just proof-texting.

    When it comes to the issue of ‘bias’, yes it is an element of their approach that they come with a particular theological framework. But, they only are forthright about this because it has come to attention of most scholars that there is no such thing as presupposition-less exegesis. Therefore, we might as well lay out our cards. This CAN become a means of having tunnel vision, but the more we are aware of our own influences and motives, and honest about them, we can be more circumspect.

    Again, I am fine with you being critical. John Collins at SBL was very critical of Moberly and others, but he was also critically affirming and cautious that he was not advocating a position that was ‘perfect’. Hopefully we can all learn from one another and that takes a willingness to see where the other side is coming from and respect their education, intelligence and attempts to do good interpretation (even if you disagree in the end).

  8. 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.

  9. Nijay–

    I of course agree that it’s fine to be critical of any perspective, but I appreciate your insistence that the criticized position be fairly represented and respected.


    Theological interpreters approach reading the text with a framework and a goal (as do other interpreters), but not a with a narrow agenda or a desire to proof-text. And those of us who practice theological interpretation certainly do not “submit” to a text without investigation. We spend our whole lives investigating texts in their various contexts. But reading any text only within a narrow historical framework as if that will really get you to the “truth” about, or in, the text is short-sighted in my view. Is that how you read Shakespeare or Donne?


    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.”

  10. Thanks to Michael for his gracious responses. I appreciate this discussion as well.

    I remain a bit puzzled over the ‘newness’ of this approach to Scripture. In one sense, to me it represents the distance or even detachment of academia from the church that has been prevalent (though not necessarily ubiquitous) in the past century. I do not think, for example, that older scholars such as Lightfoot and his companions, Hoskyns, or Schlatter would have found TIS something ‘new.’ They used the ‘historical’ methods well, but always, it seems, for a purpose other than historical study itself. I suspect perhaps they would have been enlightened by the discussions which attempt to carve out some contours for interpreting Scripture “theologically”–that is, with an eye for how it functions as God’s word for the present church.

    It seems, as I write, that TIS is in part an attempt to bridge confessional lines–Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian… It is an attempt to forge a theological hermeneutic that takes all of these both seriously and critically. Perhaps this is looking into things too much.

    I also wonder what someone like N.T. Wright thinks of TIS. He seems to have always been pushing for this sort of interpretation in his writings (at least those with which I am familiar). Is this something ‘new’ for him?

  11. NTW is indeed part of this; he wrote for the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible. He is right there with Lightfoot, Shlatter, et al–you are “spot on” about them. And it does have an ecumenical tone to it–which is good.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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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