Fowl, Stephen E. 2009. Theological interpretation of Scripture. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
Stephen E. Fowl is the chair of the Department of Theology at Loyola College in Maryland.
This seems like a difficult book to get into, because, as Fowl says, “there are now a variety of institutional structures concerned to support theological interpretation of Scripture, however that is understood”(ix). He mentions a number of them and invites the reader to “join the party and participate” (x) and see the role of Scripture.
It is therefore a demanding and often dull party for a layperson like me. The book is small, some 92 pages, including several remarks at the end of the book about “guests” at the party, followed by a bibliography. There are also terminological phrases to contend with, such as: philosophical hermeneutics, hymnic language and speech, epistemologically-focused doctrine of revelation, and God’s providentially ordered self-revelation, to name a few.
In some ways, Fowl notes, focusing on Scripture as both divinely (the Word of God) and humanly ordained (the work of human hands) is analogous to the nature of Christ himself. This turns out to be somewhat simplistic because such interpretations do not, as Barth claims, “demand any specific interpretive practices” (3).
Morever, texts indicate that “Scripture is the result of God’s condescension to human nature” (7) and, in addition, to recognition of the dual nature of Scripture. It “is tied to a variety of historical, political and social processes” (8). Revelation, none the less, is a Trinitarian phenomenon, with God providentially expressing himself by these means.
Theological interpretation is related to a number of other concerns: primarily, to the end goal of a “deeper communion with God and each other” (13). In addition, the priority granted to history and historical criticism is relevant to how textual interpretation is tied to the modern world. This impinges upon what we see as “reality” in the world, as well as the historical accuracy of the Bible. “Scripture is the result of God’s condescension to human sinfulness” (7) and reveals the mystery of how he deals with us. Fowl rejects the notion of “divine dictation” (9), where human authors have no personal say in the matter.
Therefore the triune God is not only the content of revelation, but also the one who draws humans into a relationship with himself so that they can understand the revelation.
Fowl poses three questions that sum up the contents of the first chapter (12): 1) what does it mean to think of Scripture as divine and human?, 2) why is it important to relate revelation to the Trinity?; and 3) why is the notion of God’s providence so important in understanding what we read in the Scripture? To answer the first question we turn to the example of Christ in his human and divine natures and how they relate to our self-revelation of the Scriptures; the second question connects us with the fellowship of God in his triune nature; and answering the last question leads us to see how God communicates with us through his triune nature.
Chapter two relates theological interpretation to other concerns, although the primary goal of it is to give us a deeper communication with God (13).
The historical stance cannot, however, be divorced from “the scholar’s confessional stance” (19).
Fowl is clear that end (telos) of the Christian life should be a deeper communication with God and that everything should, if fact, lead us to God. We can make our statement of faith by reciting the fundamentals of the faith, e.g. by means of the ‘Apostle’s Creed’.
Fowl is somewhat acquainted with speech act theory, at least as put forward by Austin and Searle, the former who sees “the priority of practical reasoning in interpretation” (48) and the latter who has developed a philosophy of language built or intentions. However, Fowl is “not persuaded that speech act theory can provide either a theory of meaning or the basis for arguing for the interpretive priority of the communication intention of authors” (ibid). He believes that by making theological interpretation the rule for the author’s intention, there will be “a difficult time accounting for Christological and Trinitarian readings of the NT [and] may also end up supporting unchristian dispositions and actions” (49). Fowl follows Aquinas that “the sense of Scripture is what the author intends” (50).
Fowl goes on to question letting hermenetical concerns “play a normative role in theological interpretation” believing, instead, this is “an activity of Christian community” (51).
Our understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments is crucial because we see Christ as the underlying factor of the Old, such as Isaiah 72:14 and 11:1-5 as pointing us to the New. And we must see John 1 and Phil 2:6-13, for example, pointing to the Old.
It follows that we must have interpretive principles and standards by which we understand the ‘meaning’ of the Scriptures.
In the next chapter Fowl deals with “Practices and Habits of Theological Interpretation” in which he examines the importance of pre-modern interpretations and figural reading. The former must be examined to see which can be of help in interpretation and the latter, following Aquinas, to the possibility of multiple literal meaning to particular passages. Figurative meanings then extend the literal senses. For example the OT, if interpreted figurally, allows that “biblical Israel and her divisions may provide us with ways of thinking and living in our own divided churches” (59).
The issue of ‘truth telling’ or ‘truth seeking’ become paramount in interpretation because “Debates, discussions, and arguments about Scripture or anything else cannot be life-giving apart from issues of truthfulness” (66). Fowl makes the point that the first “casualty of sin” is truth. Therefore to engage in communal discussions requires repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, although “patience should not be confused with passivity or apathy” (70).
Finally, what are the prospects and issues for the future of biblical interpretation? According to Fowl, the separation between theology and biblical study have gone on so long there are “few scholars who have much experience interpreting theologically” (71). The two sub-disciplines must be combined, especially as sermons are the primary mode of interpretation. There must be a conviction that the Holy Spirit is directing, coupled with a sincere desire to learn and the discussions must be by informed Christians who can convince and enlighten others.
In the book’s section “Guests at a Party”, Fowl provides an annotated bibliography that is thematically arranged. It covers hermeneutics and theological interpretation, history and historical criticism, the history of interpretation, and theological approaches to the Old Testament. There is also a number of “guests” that provide information on Roman Catholic contributions, as well as “other interesting and interested parties.
Fowl has provided a brief and sometimes overloaded summary of theological interpretation. Those theologians and scholars who are familiar with the history of arguments surrounding the issue will find this a concise and helpful summary. For the rest of us, it is, at times, a frustrating potpourri of information and scholars that Fowl alludes to and, in some cases, describes more fully.