Words by Justin Allison, Photos by Tavis Bohlinger*
On June 18th and 19th, students, staff, and local attendees gathered in Durham for an international conference entitled “Closing the Gap: Best Practices for Integrating Historical and Theological Exegesis.” The aim was to host a conversation on the practice of theological interpretation, as opposed to the more abundant theoretical reflections upon that task.
The conference brought together twelve seasoned practitioners of theological interpretation. Six delivered plenary papers, to which six others responded. Our six plenary speakers were, in order, Grant Macaskill, Katherine Grieb, David Ford, Richard Briggs, Wesley Hill, and Walter Moberly. Our six respondents were, respectively, John Barclay, Elizabeth Shively, Francis Watson, Darren Sarisky, Loveday Alexander, and Angus Paddison. The papers fostered critical reflection on a set of case studies, including the book of Daniel’s relationship to history, the discernment of God’s character in Psalm 82, the gospels’ portrayal of Judas, and the oneness of the Father and the Son in John 10.
A general consensus revolved around several points. For example, “closing the gap” does not entail simply tossing either history or theology to the side. Nor does “closing the gap” involve denying the differences between history and theology. Notably, Hans Frei’s work deserves attention in this regard. There can be no simple, linear process from historical to theological meaning, that is, from what the text meant to what it means today (against, e.g., Gabler, Stendahl). Deep conversation across disciplinary and ecclesiastical boundaries (including inter-faith conversation) is critically important for raising self-consciousness as theological interpreters. Participation in particular ecclesial communities constitutively shapes theological interpretation. Theological interpretation should be exercised out of one’s participation in these communities even as one engages in conversation with those who differ.
During the two days of the conference it became clear that differences abound within the broad consensus, of which a few examples are instructive. Does theological interpretation require the interpreter to have a particular character, making it distinct from other modes of reading the Bible? Or does theological interpretation arise simply because of the inherent theological nature of biblical texts? Precisely how should theology and history, (or “the world behind the text” and “the world in front of the text”) be related in each instance of interpretation? If one requires that a good theological interpretation make use of modern biblical scholarship, does that mean our interpretations are better than, say, those of Jesus or the apostles? How might one conceive of theological interpretation that sits lightly to modern biblical scholarship? How should one relate a particular text to the canon of Scripture, and to which canon? How should theological interpretation of the Old Testament be practiced differently, or not, than that of the New Testament? For example, can one interpret Psalm 82 in a theologically robust way without explicit reference to Christ and his interpretive practice in John 10? What pneumatology and ecclesiology should be at play to give shape to theological interpretation?
As conference organizers, Benjamin G. White and I were delighted that Durham could host a genuine conversation on these difficult issues, when often such conversations devolve into partisan polemics. We hope that this conference and its forthcoming proceedings volume might foster further discussion upon the practice of historically and theologically integrative biblical interpretation. We aim to publish the proceedings toward that end in due course.
In this vein, keep an eye out for an upcoming conference to be held next year summer, June 24–25, 2019 in Durham, entitled “Biblical Hebrew Poetry as Scripture for the 21st Century,” which will feature Jewish and Christian scholars in conversation as a centerpiece of its proceedings.
Justin Allison is a PhD candidate at Durham University, recently hired to be Assistant Professor of New Testament at Prairie College, Canada, this coming January.
For a play-by-play account of each of the papers and their responses, go to Steve Walton’s blog posts on the conference.
*Tavis Bohlinger was only able to attend the second day of the conference, and thus unable to get pictures of the first day’s presentations.