I’m pleased to publish what is a predictably comprehensive critique by Alastair Roberts of some recent work written by Daniel Kirk, who has become one of the main intellectual leaders of the post-evangelical left.

The Revisionism of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Kirk’s Criticisms

The Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement recently faced some criticism in a Daniel Kirk post (reiterating criticisms he has made in the past). He sums up his criticism as follows:

My critique, depending on the person I’m engaging, often boils down to this: using the “rule of faith” (a statement of Christian belief that’s somewhat hard to pin down but might be roughly equivalent to something like the Apostle’s Creed) as a hermeneutic deafens us to what any given scripture might more accurately be said to say.

For instance, in Kirk’s judgment, none of the biblical writers were Trinitarians: Reading Scripture through a Trinitarian lens will necessarily obscure the actual meaning of the text and produce an interpretation that departs from the original sense. ‘Any time we make Paul or Matthew into a proto-Trinitarian we are saying that the theology of the text is deficient in a problematic way, that we know better what the right answer is, so we are going to provide a revisionist reading that squares with our theology.’

Kirk contrasts such readings that dissemble their revisionism with the contextual readings of non-mainstream scholars: feminist, LGBT, Black, Asian, etc. While the former bolster the unexamined normativity of white male readings, the latter reveal the situatedness and the contestability of all such readings.

This, according to Kirk, is the ‘problem of whiteness’: the inability of the white (male) biblical scholar to recognize the contingency of his own reading, his dullness to the fact that his specific vantage point thoroughly colours his reading. Oblivious to their own situatedness, white males perceive their readings of Scripture to be objective and, through these readings, reinforce the presumed normativity of the subject positions that produced them. By presenting readings that challenge these supposedly objective readings, minority and marginalized theologians expose the unasked yet crucial question of white readers’ subject position that has been begged all along.

Kirk concludes by expressing his desire that white male mainstream Christian scholars would be forthright about the revisionary character of their readings of Scripture. We should openly acknowledge that, while it can inform them, the text doesn’t actually teach our developed theological and ethical positions and that our readings are inescapably rereadings in terms of our extra-scriptural commitments and identities. Following the example of contextual theologians, we will make clear that any reading of a text is relative to a contingent social location, and, even if viable, cannot claim objective authority for itself, and must be considered contestable.

Points of Agreement and Initial Reservations

There are definitely things to agree with in Kirk’s post. All readings are socially and subjectively situated. There is no neutral and universal perspective open to the reader of Scripture. All of our readings will be conditioned by the specificity of our vantage points, with their common blind spots and constrained fields of vision.

The danger of presuming the objectivity and normativity of one’s vantage point is most pronounced among those whose social location and subjective positions are privileged. As such individuals seldom have to accommodate themselves to social orders that weren’t designed for people like them, they really can fail to see that their supposedly ‘plain vanilla’ perspective is a flavoured and non-neutral one, just like everyone else’s. The ground that they are standing upon is socially unquestioned and hence tends to be hermeneutically unexamined.

The openly situated readings of marginalized and minority readers can occasion a far more thoroughgoing auditing of mainstream hermeneutics that have hitherto been taken for granted. Such readings can often bring into view or bring into focus important dimensions of texts. Even when such readings are deconstructive and purposefully read the text against itself, they force us honestly to reckon with the particularity of our vantage point and to make a case for it, rather than simply taking it for granted.

Luke Stamps’ response articulates many of my own disagreements with Kirk’s post. Stamps helpfully identifies three ‘false dichotomies’ in Kirk’s position: between the New Testament and subsequent orthodoxy, between acknowledgement of situatedness and the quest for truth, and between submission to the rule of faith and attention to minority voices. Theological interpreters of Scripture do not in fact believe that the Apostle Paul was a Trinitarian in the same manner that post-Nicene Christians are. This, however, need not mean that a Trinitarian vantage point upon the text is a distorting one. The genuine situatedness of the reader does not forestall any movement towards a truth that exceeds that situatedness. Finally, there is no necessary conflict between following the rule of faith (which was produced in large measure by non-Western thinkers) and listening to interpreters from a range of different backgrounds.

Relativism in Two Movements

Kirk’s handling of context invites a kind of relativism, closing off contexts to each other and generally preventing truth from traversing the passages between them without suffering an onerous levy upon its authority. This operates on two fronts.

  • First, the place given to historical criticism so privileges the immediate original contexts of texts that those texts are largely withdrawn from the broader contexts to which they rightly belong: canonical context(s), liturgical contexts, ecclesial contexts, etc.
  • Second, readings of the text are so conditioned by the contexts of their readers that any appeal to the objectivity of truth may come to be presumed to disguise a self-asserting power move (even if unwitting).

The Embarrassing Whiteness of Historical Criticism

It is important to recognize the role played by historical criticism in Kirk’s vision and those of the contextual readings that he valorizes. Historical criticism greatly elevates the importance of the world behind the text and the original meaning of the text in its historical context. It places considerable weight upon the importance of the fundamental traditions, genres, sources, and communities that first gave rise to the biblical texts. However, in according so much weight to such factors and agencies, the scriptural texts themselves can easily become fragmented, locked into the cells of their respective contexts, detached from the broader biblical witness, the tradition of interpretation, and the ongoing life of the Church. As this occurs, the authority of their voice is muffled, they are rendered more vulnerable to a hermeneutic of suspicion, and they are much more likely to become pawns in people’s agendas. Conversely, the more texts are so conceived, the more that we too can become (wilful?) prisoners of our own contexts, unable to hear any unsettling voice that truly comes from beyond them.

While historical criticism should not simply be rejected or ignored as evangelical theologians have often been in danger of doing, nor should it be elevated to the place of primary significance. The Scriptures have complicated historical origins that we need to study, origins that can be illuminating for our understanding of the sort of text that it is. Seeing the challenge to faith presented by higher criticism, it may be tempting to restrict ourselves to reflection upon the final synchronic form of the text as a literary object of analysis, divorced from its historical origins, or to adopt a lazy form of fundamentalism. Yet, as the witness of Scripture depends upon a historical referent for its truth, such a retreat is impermissible. Both historicism and overly synchronic reading distort our reading of the Scripture.

Nevertheless, it is the final form of the text that is authoritative, not the texts, sources, communities, and traditions that lie behind it. It is this final form of the text that communicates historical revelation to us in an interpreted manner. The danger of historical criticism is that, as texts are cut loose from the canonical context and canonical elements are stripped from them, they are consigned to an inaccessible past. The authoritative voice of these texts crosses history precisely through their presence within and formation by the broader canon witness. Unsurprisingly, as the canon and the Word-formed people that (cor)responds to the canonical Scriptures are minimized, a divine revelation that traverses the contexts of history will retreat from view. However, the manner in which texts exceed their original contexts and speak directly into other contexts can already be witnessed within the canon itself.

The affinity of historical criticism with contextual readings (feminist, LGBT, black, etc.) of Scripture is not accidental. Historical criticism itself often encourages us to read Scripture as a site of subtle power struggles between different parties and communities over Israel’s religious patrimony. We are taught to read with suspicion, mindful that the text dissembles the partisan motives and power plays that often gave rise to it.

We are also encouraged to regard the text as composed of competing rather than harmonizing voices. Kirk writes:

If scripture is in any way normative, then the diversity of the theologies that comprise its tellings of the same stories (J vs. E. vs. D. vs. P in the Pentateuch; Matthew vs. Mark vs. Luke vs. John in the Gospels) demonstrates that theological diversity is, itself, normative in the church of God.

It is very important to notice the way in which Kirk’s argument simply assumes that the genuine theological ‘diversity’ of the Scriptures takes the form of antagonistic relations between them—‘J vs. E. vs. D. vs. P in the Pentateuch; Matthew vs. Mark vs. Luke vs. John in the Gospels.’ A sort of interpretative violence is often presumed to be exhibited within the Scriptures themselves as Scripture writers commandeer earlier texts to support their positions. The modern reader of Scripture can be encouraged to handle it accordingly: choosing sides between different voices in the biblical witness, reading texts against themselves, and subjecting Scripture to the yoke of their own supposedly righteous agendas.

Kirk accuses the Theological Interpretation of Scripture of privileging white Western (and male) voices in the reading of Scripture. Its supposedly objective readings of Scripture are appreciated because of the power that they give to those that wield them. Historical criticism, by contrast, is an important part of overturning the stifling hegemony of whiteness in scriptural interpretation. Historical criticism is treated as if it were immune to the dangers of subjecting Scripture to the demands of an alien context: indeed, it is integral to our liberation.

Yet historical criticism has always had its own history and context, a context that is much more ‘white’ than that of the rule of faith. As one mischievous commentator observed on Stamps’ post:

So, non-white people who train at elite western institutions and employ the historical-critical methods developed by 19th century Germans and critical theories put forward by 20th century French and German philosophers bring needed diversity but theological interpretation that uses 1600 year old creeds written by Middle Easterners and North Africans and accepted by nearly all Christians throughout the world as a guide is tainted by whiteness. Check.

If Theological Interpretation of Scripture needs to question the supposed objectivity and authority of its readings—and it should always retain a robust self-criticism—by the same token historical criticism needs to exhibit considerably more self-suspicion (as scholars such as Ignacio Carbajosa have argued). Historical criticism has ideologically weighted methods and philosophical assumptions, assumptions about the character of history, the evolution of religion, the sort of text that the Scripture is, etc. Indeed, precisely on account of its scientific pretensions, historical criticism has been arguably been considerably more vulnerable to delusions of its own objectivity and immunity to conditioning by its context. Such delusions are, of course, particularly characteristic of the Enlightenment (which is as white, Western, and male a phenomenon as one might hope to find). When historical criticism is practically elevated to the status of a culturally neutral and unconditioned (or universal) posture adopted in relation to the text we have a far more pronounced instance of Kirk’s so-called ‘problem of whiteness’ than the rule of faith could ever represent.

The Captivity of Contextual Readings

Earlier I spoke of two fronts on which contexts are closed off. The first front is that of the original historical context of the text, which is cut off from the canon and the ongoing life of the people of God. This typically occurs through the work of historical criticism, which, unsurprisingly as a prominent product of modernity, can be treated as if it enjoyed an unconditioned status as a neutral science.

The second front, however, relates to the contexts of readers, which are closed off from each other as each context so conditions those within it that any truth claims become self-assertions and discourse between contexts will commonly be presumed to have the character of a power struggle. Since readers are so conditioned by their context, any interpretation is more or less a revisionist interpretation. Truth’s traversal of contexts is increasingly restricted and denied and thereby also the power of a historically delivered word to address us directly and authoritatively in the present time.

Here the influence is less that of the Enlightenment and modernist biblical scholarship as it is that of a pronounced postmodern relativism and critical theory. Having located the text within its historical context using the objective and scientific methods of modern historical criticism, subjective and relativistic postmodern theories that privilege or problematize various subject positions then come to the fore. As truth claims are widely supposed to be veiled power claims, texts and the people who use them as authoritative must be approached with intense suspicion. Their words should not be taken as face value, but their dissembled motives must be unmasked, typically using a hermeneutic of suspicion.

The representation of the biblical text within historical criticism as fragmented and fraught by inner antagonisms empowers the hermeneutic of suspicion: the reader of Scripture is encouraged to read texts against each other, against themselves, and against traditions of interpretation. When texts and truth claims are means of power, the task of interpretation with increasingly become a matter of resistance, evasion, distrust, suspicion, and violence.

In The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus, Walter Moberly remarks upon the ways in which many suspicious reading often rest upon a series of assumptions that make them possible. They must discount the wider history of interpretation, detach texts from the wider body of the Scriptures, they must change the accent and weighting of texts, and they must exploit gaps and silences as footholds for suspicion.

Matt Colvin has observed how in some cases such readings directly violate the textual representation of ‘actants’, confusing our sense of the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. As interpretations, such suspicious readings are often incredibly tendentious and unapologetically revisionist.

Moberly observes three problems with such suspicious readings.

The first is a ‘reluctance to enter into the narrative world in its own right and to take the irreducibility of the narrative with full seriousness.’ When the narrative is often treated as a disguise for a power move by some party or approached in a guarded manner, it ‘can be difficult to take seriously the issues of the narrative as genuine issues in their own right.’ As one might expect, such an approach can inure the reader to any surprise that might come from the text: the text is ‘safely neutralized’. When the reader is assured in advance that the narrative is really a disguised self-serving power move, the actual concerns of the text will only ever be seen through and the reader can never actually learn anything that they didn’t already know.

At this point I am reminded of the dwarves in Lewis’ book The Last Battle, who, eating a rich and bountiful feast, on account of their extreme distrust, insist that they are still in a dirty and dark stable against anyone who seeks to persuade them of the truth. As Aslan says of them, “Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out.”

The second and related problem Moberly identifies is suspicion’s lack of criteria for assessing the important senses in which a biblical narrative might be true. Narrowly focused upon historical and socio-political—economics, politics, gender, etc.—dimensions of the text, it is dulled to texts’ moral and theological import. In such a manner the suspicious reader not only reveals the limitations of their imagination, unable to see beyond its obsession with these aspects of existence:

Moberly writes:

Even more important is a prejudgement of precisely the crucial issue of ‘what really matters’. It is one thing to criticize those who stress a narrowly defined personal piety at the expense of any critical understanding of, or engagement with, the social, economic, and political dimensions of institutional, not least religious, life. It is another thing to undervalue the realities of personal encounter with the living God or to dismiss its foundational nature for human existence. Because by its nature much suspicion is concerned with ‘structural’ questions about language and social role, it may be insensitive to those dimensions of human life such as loyalty or trust which are either ‘on the surface’ or, in so far as they tough the depths of human persons, may remain largely oblique to the discourse of social power.

The third limitation with suspicious readings of texts is their common failure to take account of the extensive and repeated ‘recontextualization’ of texts within the context of the canon. The immediate power struggles and tensions that supposedly gave rise to certain texts may well have long since disappeared, but the texts themselves endure and speak meaningfully into markedly different contexts. The divine Word traverses historical contexts and, while different dimensions and aspects of its meaning will be perceived in different contexts, its truth is not bound: it is neither consigned to the prison of its original context, nor an enslaved hostage when it enters others.

The Theological Interpretation of Scripture and the Conditioned Reader

Reading from a Position of Responsibility

Earlier, I acknowledged that Kirk recognized a genuine conditioning of the reader by their context and rightly challenged assumptions of a neutral and unconditioned reading of the text. He also is correct in his observation of the particular vulnerability of socially dominant groups to the delusion of their objectivity. In my response, I have suggested that historical criticism—overwhelmingly a product of modern white and Western male scholarship—is, ironically, often a perfect example of such wrongfully assumed objectivity and would be a worthy target for the hermeneutic of suspicion that so often derives from it.

What about the Theological Interpretation of Scripture? By contrast with much historical criticism, the Theological Interpretation of Scripture has a self-critical alertness to the position and posture of the reader of Scripture at the heart and outset of its approach. Rather than approaching the Scripture primarily in terms of a supposedly ‘neutral’ or ‘scientific’ historical method, the Theological Interpretation of Scripture recognizes that no such neutral reading of Scripture is possible. Our reading of Scripture is always a conditioned one and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture makes explicit the position from which it reads the Scripture.

Scripture comes to us as a witness and it calls its interpreters to adopt a dispositional posture—faith—relative to it. There can be no two-level undertaking of theology, first a neutral and objective philological and historical exercise followed by a subsequent subjective believing reflection. For instance, as Carbajosa argues, refusing to interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New ‘implies weakness in one’s Christian experience, a dualistic conception of the faith, which generates the drastic separation of (scientific) exegesis and (believing) theology.’ This does not mean that we do not tarry with the voice of the Old Testament in its own time, prematurely hastening to the resolution of its tensions and ambiguities in the voice of the New. However, we must appreciate their testimony to a single reality that undergirds them both. This conviction is not alien to the text, but arises from a reading of the canon itself as New Testament claims concerning Christ, for instance, require rereading of the Old Testament witness in their light.

In addition to calling for the responsible reading of faith—which answers to the character of Scripture, rather than simply expressing a reader’s own instinctive disposition—Scripture also is concerned with the social location of its readers. The Church is a Word-formed body, a social position that arises from the calling of the Word and its ongoing critical formation of its readers. The Word forms its own readers through its work in word and sacrament and conforms them to its own reality. It establishes and governs the position from which it is to be read. Scripture speaks across contexts, but also recontextualizes and con-scripts its readers in order that they might truly hear its voice.

The result is not a neutral and objective reading, nor is there the assumption of a universal perspective. However, the Theological Interpretation of Scripture also resists the relativism that characterizes Kirk’s account. While neither universal nor neutral in its pretensions, the particular position that the Theological Interpretation of Scripture calls readers to occupy relative to the divine Word is uniquely ‘responsible’ to it. It is the position that is authorized by, formed by, and subject to the Scripture and it is the position that alone is capable of appropriate response to it.

Of course, neither the Church nor the Christian ever fully occupies this position. This location is a site of judgment, a site where we and our contexts are placed in radical question. We are made aware of our contexts in large measure as the ground that we stand upon—whether we are members of dominant or marginalized social groups—is challenged. We are also made aware of our contexts as our gaze is captured by a glorious light beyond them, a light that summons us to reorder those realities that are closest to hand so that they might no longer obstruct or obscure that light. We reorder those realities so that light beyond might stream unhindered into our context, bathing all with its glory, and exposing those things within our context that hitherto had remained unseen.

The Church is called, within its context, to step boldly into the light of God’s truth. However, in our fallen world, we will always remain to some extent in shadow or gloom, the light obstructed by the clutter of our contexts, and its brilliance obscured by the griminess of the glass through which it is perceived. The value of attending to the readings of marginalized people shouldn’t be grounded in a relativistic notion of everyone’s interpretation being revisionist to some degree or other, but in the recognition that marginalized people are often better situated to alert us to the control that our contexts can have over us. The mutually challenging readings of multiple interpreters who are all responsible to the Scriptures are one means by which its authoritative judgment is enacted upon and within the Church. This judgment does not arise from the self-assertion of various contextual voices, but from a unifying truth that exists beyond and above all of our contexts to which we bear contextual witness.

The Dangers of Contextual Theology

From time to time I see people remarking upon the fact that although one can find Asian theology, black theology, African theology, feminist theology, and queer theology, when Western white men write about Christianity, they are seen to just be doing ‘theology’. This, it is suggested, is a sign of Western white men’s proud assumption of their neutrality and the universality and unconditioned character of their viewpoint.

This is quite mistaken. In fact, most Christians throughout history who have written about God—whatever their background—have been seen to be engaged simply in the task of theology. The task of theology should not generally be qualified by such terms relating to identity and context, precisely because its object exceeds and traverses all particular contexts and calls all contexts to be responsible to its reality beyond them.

This is not a denial of the fact that our theologizing is culturally conditioned. The backgrounds of modern white male theologians can blind them to much truth. Responsibility to the light of God’s truth must also often entail attention to the voices of marginal readers. Such readers are frequently the channels of Scripture’s critical authority to people whose social location might be hermeneutically unscrutinised and also ensure that the authority of Scripture is not co-opted by a particular context or set of readers. The plurality of biblical interpretations is not a celebration of indeterminacy, the supremacy of our disparate contexts, or of the radical autonomy of readers. Rather, it is a mutually honing process through which our understanding is deepened through reading Scripture responsibly together, as we all hold each other accountable to truth beyond the immediacy of our contexts. Where a clear responsibility to context-surpassing truth of Scripture is absent, the benefit of engaging with contextual readings will be severely limited.

Attending to the manner in which concepts such as ‘whiteness’, ‘patriarchy’, or ‘heteronormativity’ are employed in such contexts can be illuminating in this regard. Rather than serving the cause of our greater submission to a truth that surpasses any single context, addressing realities that obstruct that truth, they function precisely within the relativistic logic of competing power claims. Such contextual readings of Scripture are all too often so preoccupied with the immediacy and self-assertion of their own contexts that responsibility to a reality beyond their contexts is entirely abandoned. As such, they can offer to remove the mote from the other’s eye, while retaining the beam in their own. Heavy reliance upon lazily deployed, vague, generalizing terms, which seem to be little more than the regurgitation of half-digested theory—‘patriarchy’, ‘colonialism’, ‘whiteness’, ‘heteronormativity’, etc.—are usually a sad indication that someone is substituting tribalism for critical thought (and, yes, conservative Christians have plenty of equivalent terms on their side of the aisle).

Categories such as ‘whiteness’, ‘patriarchy’, or ‘heteronormativity’ often seem to function as black box concepts, at their most useful in discrediting opposition when there are kept most vague. As Scott Alexander has argued, ‘white’ is generally a code word for the conservative American (‘Red’) tribe employed by the liberal (‘Blue’) tribe. Many of the people who most vocally bemoan the problem of ‘whiteness’ look as though they hail from a land that melanin forgot.

However, no matter how much they themselves may comport themselves like poster children for Stuff White People Like, the ‘whiteness’ they excoriate is always primarily regarded as the outgroup’s issue. Of course, there are few things more excruciatingly culturally conditioned than a married white progressive male in a coastal American academic context talking earnestly about the problems with hegemonic whiteness, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy.

Marginality may be hermeneutically privileged, but it is all too often privileged in a deeply uncritical and irresponsible fashion. It is privileged as a move of resistance against culturally dominant interpreters, but not necessarily because it is more receptive, open, and attentive to a truth beyond itself. In my experience, the people who talk most volubly about ‘whiteness’ generally show little interest in carefully unpacking the concept, cataloguing its elements, identifying the sources of these, and exploring their operation, in order to arrive at understanding. If we actually did start to unpack ‘whiteness’ in any meaningful way (as we ought to do: it could genuinely identify obstacles for our interpretation), it would be much less effective as a tribal designation for the problems with the outgroup.

There are few things more ‘white’ than the liberal veneer of ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ in the seminar room of a liberal academic institution, where the theories of nineteenth and twentieth European biblical scholars, philosophers, and critical theorists hold unrivalled sway. ‘Whiteness’ is WEIRD-ness (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) and all that comes with that. ‘Whiteness’ is universalism and a highly exogamous society (‘white’ people are typically oblivious to the dynamics of clannish and highly familial societies). ‘Whiteness’ is liberal cosmopolitanism’s celebration of a shallow ‘multiculturalism’ (which only recognizes the tip of the cultural iceberg). ‘Whiteness’ is hyper-individualism and a culture founded upon choice. ‘Whiteness’ is a gender-neutralized and ‘sexually liberated’ society. ‘Whiteness’ is the mass culture of the society of the spectacle. ‘Whiteness’ is being majority culture, which cannot always straightforwardly be mapped onto race. ‘Whiteness’ is seen in the Whiggish history of progress and liberation. Etc., etc.

All of these things are genuine and profound obstacles to our understanding of Christian truth, aspects of our context that must be registered and/or reformed, if we are to be responsible servants of Scripture. However, as soon as we begin to take such an inventory of ‘whiteness’ it should become clear that the very theories that claim to deliver us from it are generally blithely infected themselves, and seeking to advance the infection in many respects themselves.

Indeed, the practical purpose of a notion such as ‘whiteness’ is all too often precisely that of discrediting those who subject currently hegemonic or dominant cultural and ideological values to the unsettling and chastening critique of voices beyond our culture. This voice of critique is most powerfully encountered within the deep diversity of the Church’s historical tradition, which is where the Theological Interpretation of Scripture seeks to ground our process of reading. While we need a diversity of contemporary cultures and backgrounds represented in our reading of Scripture as the people of God, voices who are in thrall to the dominant culture and closed to historical challenge of its values (not least in regard to sexual ethics) have relatively little to offer us.

Sadly, when the global South challenges the norms of the Sexual Revolution, for instance, all too often they are declared to be dupes of the colonialism of Western ethics. This is just one instance of the manner in which the boundaries of ‘whiteness’ can be thoroughly gerrymandered. When arbitrarily defined marginal readings are handled in a tribalistic manner and absolutized, their advocates risk ghettoizing themselves, closing themselves off from the wider reality of Christ, the Church, and the Scriptures, consigning themselves to an increasingly self-absorbed and irrelevant prison of discourse.

Is Trinitarian Reading of Scripture Revisionist?

At the heart of Kirk’s post is the claim that the Theological Interpretation of Scripture is revisionist, most particularly in its Trinitarianism. Trinitarian categories are an imposition upon the New Testament, obscuring the actual teaching of the text. Kirk seems to regard a Trinitarian rule of faith as trapping us in a narrow and constraining hermeneutical circle.

As Luke Stamps argues in his post, advocates of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture don’t actually support reading the text in such a fashion. He observes:

But quite obviously Kirk is making the opposite mistake in driving a sharp wedge between the NT and the trinitarian doctrine that organically grew from it in the earliest centuries of the church. He is, to use David Yeago’s categories, conflating theological concepts with theological judgments: “the same judgement can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms, all of which may be informative about a particular judgement’s force and implications.” So it is possible, and perfectly permissible as an academic argument, to suggest that Paul could be rendering the same judgment about the status of Jesus Christ that the Nicene Fathers did, even if he did not (for obvious historical reasons) utilize their precise conceptual language.

This is not to deny that some theological approaches to the reading of Scripture have been stifling and restrictive, preventing us from hearing the voice of Scripture itself. However, the sort of theological interpretation of Scripture offered by theologians such as Wesley Hill can be deeply attentive and sensitive to the text, demonstrating ways in which Trinitarian categories can open up the Scripture and, conversely, how our Trinitarianism is established upon and through the Scripture.

Kirk’s own suggestion that Trinitarianism is alien to the biblical texts is a highly contentious one, disputed from the texts themselves by a great many theologians and exegetes. In telling advocates of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture that they should openly acknowledge the revisionary character of their readings, he seems to be begging the question. Perhaps it isn’t a desire for apparent objectivity and the power granted by the supposedly ‘right’ answers that grounds the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, but a conviction that the truth of the Trinity is both taught in and powerfully illuminating of Scripture, Kirk’s arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. Perhaps the problem is not the bad faith of Trinitarian readers of Scripture but the unpersuasive character of Kirk’s readings.

In a recent post on the subject, I described the role of the doctrine of the Trinity as akin to an elevated vantage point, from which the whole terrain of biblical revelation unfolds as a glorious vista before us.

The ‘proof’ of Trinitarian doctrine is not principally found in self-regarding moments, as it catches a passing glimpse of its reflection in the text. Rather, its proof is found as, regarded from the vantage point it offers, the greater realm of the Scriptures comes into view, and, conversely, as the heights of the doctrine of the Trinity are discovered to be a landmark from which we can get our bearings wherever we find ourselves.

It is crucial to appreciate that enjoying the full significance of this vantage point isn’t a possibility for the dogmatician who is simply airlifted onto it. Rather, this vantage point is properly reached through a lengthy scriptural itinerary, a difficult and often visually obscured passage through the territory that only later unfolds beneath us. Appreciation of the significance of the vantage point that the doctrine of the Trinity offers belongs to those who have trodden the paths that lead up to it—paths marked out, signposted, and fenced for safety by former travellers—and who pay close attention to the warnings at its summit, where careless steps may cause people to fall to their deaths. Only the careful traveller who walks the full path can appreciate the power of the mutually revealing perspectives they have enjoyed in their journey.

The doctrine of the Trinity represents a particular and situated perspective, yet it is a perspective from a summit to which we have been led by responsibly following a scriptural itinerary. It is not an alien imposition upon that itinerary from without. The doctrine itself isn’t explicit in the New Testament, but it has a profound and pervasive albeit tacit presence. The subsequent Trinitarian doctrine of the Church is like the protective fences, signposts, and landmarks by which a formerly unmarked mountain summit is identified and bounded for the safety of those who have climbed it.

In contrast to the sort of approaches that can result from the over-elevation of the historical critical method, contextual reading, and the hermeneutic of suspicion, a theological interpretation of Scripture upholds the openness of contexts to each other and the truth’s traversal of the bounds between them. The diversity of Scripture isn’t an antagonistic or oppositional one, nor is this diversity contrary to its unity. The unity of Scripture is found in the oneness of its divine author, in the unity in being and agency of the one who is its great object, in the singularity and continuity of the itinerary of the history witnessed to within it, and in the unity of the social location  into which it leads and forms its readers.

The purpose of a Trinitarian rule of faith is not that of foreclosing the surprise of the text, or its capacity to challenge us. Nor does it establish itself over against other perspectives as the only perspective from which the text can rightly be regarded, even though it does maintain its priority and authority. Many of the Scriptural texts that lead us to the vantage point of the Church’s Trinitarian doctrine do not directly contain that doctrine. However, they are seen in a new and revealing light from the perspective of that truth.

Conclusion

We all read from particular vantage points, yet not all vantage points are equally appropriate, revealing, or responsible. The Christian reading of the Scriptures is to be one that is responsible and responsive to a reality and a truth beyond our contexts and identities, a reading through which we are established as servants of the Word of the Lord.

As we look beyond the immediacy of our contexts, we gain a new perspective upon them, as Hans-Georg Gadamer appreciates: ‘To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it but to see it better, within a larger whole and in truer proportion.’ Contexts are not closed and impervious to each other, and truth can both transcend them and traverse the spaces between them. Contexts and subject positions can also be reformed in light of a truth that arrives from beyond them.

In contrast to the assumptions of much historical criticism, the Theological Interpretation of Scripture appreciates the openness and porosity that contexts can have to each other, even while retaining their own distinctness and integrity. In particular, the texts of Scripture are open to the broader canonical context in which they are situated and, beyond that, they open up contexts within which those who respond in faith to its word are brought into a fitting and transformative relation with it. In addition to this, the contexts of the many readers of Scripture throughout history are open to each other and, as we read Scripture together, we are honed through that interaction. We are brought closer to each other and are more fully exposed to the truth of God’s Word.

Where we have assumed an unconsidered and unquestioned hermeneutical posture, we must repent of it. Where we have sought to bind the truth of God to the service of our contexts and identities, we must repent of it. As readers of Scripture, we are always strangers in a strange land, responsible to truth that should unsettle and transform both us and our contexts. The genuine value of minority readings and the readings of marginalized groups is only truly discovered as they too are subjected to this same process of judgment and testing, as they too find their identities and contexts unsettled by a truth that surpasses them. When this occurs, although their contexts are not absolutized, those contexts may afford them a perspective upon the truth and an appreciation of particular blind spots of readers from more dominant social backgrounds that is of profound benefit to the Church in its shared process of reading.

The Theological Interpretation of Scripture is also acutely aware of the non-neutrality of our posture towards the Scripture. We do not have pretensions to the universality of an unconditioned vantage point. Rather, to see Scripture as we ought, we must be powerfully conditioned by it, taking up the position of faith that it has furnished to us in its kerygmatic summons. Together and in constant interaction with the people of God throughout the ages, we place our subject positions and contexts under the scrutiny of its judgment, submitting to shared processes of formation and discernment. Where once we might have recreated the Word in our own image, now we are powerfully refashioned by it.

Posted by Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University in England) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespass beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast and blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria.

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  • It reads to me as though you are critiquing a different definition of ‘diversity’ to the meaning Kirk implies.

    To me, the paragraph you quote below speaks of the benefits and breadth generated by differing perspectives, brought together and synthesized. You have interpreted it rather as competition, antagonism, interpretive violence, coercing prior texts to support later positions.

    It feels like you’re caricaturing his meaning by over literally seizing on the shorthand ‘vs’ in order to ridicule his position, rather than understand it well enough to earn the right to critique.

    But I could be wrong???

    Here’s the section I’m uncomfortable with:
    “We are also encouraged to regard the text as composed of competing rather than harmonizing voices. Kirk writes:

    ‘If scripture is in any way normative, then the diversity of the theologies that comprise its tellings of the same stories (J vs. E. vs. D. vs. P in the Pentateuch; Matthew vs. Mark vs. Luke vs. John in the Gospels) demonstrates that theological diversity is, itself, normative in the church of God.’

    It is very important to notice the way in which Kirk’s argument simply assumes that the genuine theological ‘diversity’ of the Scriptures takes the form of antagonistic relations between them—‘J vs. E. vs. D. vs. P in the Pentateuch; Matthew vs. Mark vs. Luke vs. John in the Gospels.’ A sort of interpretative violence is often presumed to be exhibited within the Scriptures themselves as Scripture writers commandeer earlier texts to support their positions.”

  • hoosier_bob

    Does Kirk really represent the post-evangelical left? Kirk’s views are too eclectic to fit neatly into any kind of left-right rubric. Now that Donald Trump has officially killed evangelicalism (by demonstrating that substantial elements of it valued alt-right political ideologies more than the risen Christ), perhaps it’s time for those of us who reject alt-right ideologies to come together without hurling loaded phrases around. In evangelical circles, the term “left” generally translates into something akin to “traitor,” “not one of us,” and the like. Perhaps we can dispense with this kind of pettiness and discuss issues on their merits. It’s time for us to move beyond the alt-right influences within evangelicalism, along with the doctrines that reflect that poison.

    That said, I largely agree with Roberts’ critique of Kirk on this particular point, although I fear that Roberts makes a bit too much of a straw-man caricature out of Kirk’s position. For example, I don’t see Kirk as suggesting that diversity necessarily implies antagonism. Such diversity is only antagonistic if one makes the unwarranted assumption that Scripture should read like a modernist treatise (i.e., as a systematic theology).

    Even so, I’m glad for fresh voices like Kirk’s. Evangelicalism has been intellectually moribund for too long. We’re only going to recover intellectual heft it we can get beyond the kind of defensive (and unchristian) line-drawing that inhibits iron-sharpening discussions.

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