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
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
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
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
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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