Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Write-Up: Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics

Mark Alan Bowald.  Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

The summary on the back cover of the book was a lot clearer than the book itself.  The summary on the back cover also seemed to have a different focus from that of the book itself.

The summary on the back cover focused on the nature of Scripture, specifically the question of whether Scripture is human or divine in its properties.  It said that Mark Alan Bowald’s answer is both.  To quote from the back cover: “When the divine inspiration of Scripture is overemphasized, the varied roles of human authors tend to become muted in our approach to the text.  Conversely, when we think of the Bible almost entirely in terms of the human authorship, Scripture’s character as the Word of God tends to play little role in our theological reasoning.”  Excellent observation!  A question one could then ask is how God inspired Scripture—-how is Scripture divine, and how is it human?

The book itself focused on something different: the reading and interpretation of Scripture.  Rather than extensively discussing the nature, properties, or inspiration of Scripture, its focus was on the way that readers approach the Bible.  Should people bracket their religious convictions in reading Scripture in an attempt to be “objective”?  Or should theology play a role in how one (or a community) interprets Scripture?  Does God play a role in how a Christian community reads and interprets Scripture, guiding the interpretive process and leading the community?  Is there authority in how a religious community, as a religious community, reads Scripture?  Is what the text actually says relevant, or does that become lost in a sea of interpretive subjectivity?

Triangles occur often in this book.  Bowald interacts with the thought of George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Kevin Vanhoozer, Francis Watson, Stephen Fowl, David Kelsey, Werner Jeanrond, Karl Barth, James K.A. Smith, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  Bowald plots their thought onto a triangle.

The triangles’ three points correspond to three approaches to the text.  One point is the text itself.  This point relates to trying to determine what the text itself says and means, objectively-speaking.  This can include the historical-critical or the grammatical-historical method of reading the Bible, or it can include simply looking at the text itself (new criticism).

The second point relates to readers’ reading and interpretation of the text.  This point coincides with questions about whether there really is an objective reading of the text.  Readers bring themselves into their reading, and they can take the text in directions that its author may not have intended.  This second point focuses on religious communities’ interpretation of the text, as religious communities.

The third point relates to God’s role in the interpretive process.  Does God play a role in guiding how religious communities interpret and apply the Bible?  If so, how?  This point can pertain to the question of how the Bible is inspired, but, as I said, Bowald often focused on reading rather than the properties of Scripture itself.

Some of the thinkers Bowald profiles lean more towards the first point in their emphasis.  Some lean more towards the second point.  Some interact more with the third point.  After describing and assessing their thought, Bowald himself says that all three points are important.  Regarding the first point, we should be trying to understand what Scripture means.  Bowald does not support bracketing off theology in attempting to do this, for he believes that proper theology can place Scriptural passages in context: as Aristotle said, understanding the character of the author can help readers understand the text.  But the second point is also significant: how Christians and their communities approach and read the text.  For Bowald, they should be reading the text devotionally, prayerfully, and with receptivity to God.  And, of course, point three is significant because God guides the interpretive process.

The book’s asset is that it discusses the views of various thinkers, who are significant in discussions about theology and biblical hermeneutics.  Bowald’s contribution could be that he challenges prevalent interpretations of these thinkers.  According to Bowald, some believe that Hans Frei initially leaned towards point one of the triangle (the text’s meaning) and later moved towards point two (reader response to the text).  Bowald, by contrast, maintains that Frei did not completely abandon point one, even after moving towards point two.  The standard characterization of Karl Barth’s thought is that Barth said that Jesus, not the Bible, was the Word of God, and that God uses the Bible to instruct people, apart from any divine properties that Scripture itself has.  While Bowald acknowledges that there are passages in Barth’s writing that point in that direction, he raises the possibility that Barth may have believed that Scripture was the Word of God, in some sense.  Then there is the question of whether Nicholas Wolterstorff believes that the Bible itself is inspired (and if so, how?), or thinks that humans wrote the Bible and God appropriated the text for God’s purposes.

There were things that Bowald said that made me curious, even if I did not understand them entirely.  There is the question of how Christianity can affect hermeneutics, not only of the Bible, but of texts in general.  Can Christianity make people better readers, in the sense of making them more charitable?  One thinker believed so, and his emphasis was on what Christ did on the cross.  At some point, Kevin Vanhoozer, seemed to relate hermeneutics of texts in general, and texts themselves, to God’s order of creation.  I was unclear as to whether Vanhoozer was saying that hermeneutics manifest the orderliness that God intends, or that texts themselves are divinely-inspired or reflect God, in some manner.  More reading of Vanhoozer may be in order, on my part!

In my opinion, Bowald did not adequately wrestle with the question of why biblical scholars believe interpreters should bracket their religious convictions in an attempt to read the Bible objectively.  Bowald went into reasons for Kant’s support for such an approach: Kant believed that Scripture should be evaluated according to whether it agreed with reason, and Kant preferred for interpreters to focus on what was in front of them rather than bringing larger theological issues into the picture (since there is so much that we do not know).  But there is another reason that biblical scholars believe in bracketing religious convictions in an attempt to be objective: because reading the text with a bias can get in the way of seeing what the text itself is saying!  I have seen evangelical Christians project their evangelical Christianity onto the Bible, and this can easily lead to ignoring what the text itself is saying, or trying to force the text to say something that is not apparent in the text itself.  Bowald says that he is writing a sequel, so perhaps he will address such issues in that.

The book is very abstract.  I did not follow everything, and I sometimes wondered if I would have followed it as well as I did had I not learned about literary theory in school!  It was not the clearest book in the world, and yet I could still learn from it.

I apologize for any misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of the book on my part.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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