A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation

Edited by Craig G. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas

Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. 304 Pages. $29.99.

Reviewed by Rev. Jacob Hercamp. Pastor, Saint Peter Lutheran Church, La Grange, MO on 02/06/2018

This book is an intriguing read for anyone who enjoys exegetical theo­logy, especially the field of hermeneutics. Theological Interpretation is offered as the most ancient of hermeneutics, and the contributions to this book hold theological interpretation as the best way to interpret the Bible for the church at large. The contributors come from various theological backgrounds emphasizing that theological interpretation is an ecumenical project that crosses denominational and doctrinal lines.

This work is, in the words of the editors, “an attempt to identify the key issues in theological interpretation and to propose fruitful ways forward.” Theological interpretation is a moving target because the context in which we read the Bible is changing. Each contributing author asks specific questions about how theological interpretation should move forward in the present context that the church finds itself. Some topics of discussion include the presentation of a ‘missional hermeneutic’, a theological view of history, and theological interpretation in relation to Historical Criticism and Biblical Theology.

The first chapter is the twenty-five page manifesto, which is comprised of twelve points, each of which receives deeper treatment in the following twelve chapters. This structure allows the reader to have a summary of the book’s position and to read further into whichever points interest them. Unfortunately, the book lacked a suggested reading section or a bibli­ography, which limits its utility in finding further reading.

The first point is that Theological Interpretation has not actually been lost, but rather it was forgotten in the academy. You might say that this Manifesto is a reaction against Historical Criticism. The theological inter­pretation of Scripture never lost its place in the church. It was and has been done within the confines of the church from the beginning. The Manifesto then sets out to offer criteria for a doctrine of Scripture. The authors call for a “robust, creative theology of Scripture.” They also desire that the doc­trine of Scripture understand that the Bible is part of a larger ‘organism’ of revelation, using a fourfold distinction: creational revelation, redemptive revelation, Christ, and the Scriptures. This distinction is not particularly helpful since all four types of revelation are essentially just Scripture.

The authors see the Scriptures as a unified narrative telling the story of God’s saving and judging acts, which finds its center and focus in the coming and the work of Christ. Using postmodern terms, the Bible is the only true metanarrative of the whole world. What is interesting is that the authors use terms “God-breathed,” “inspired,” and “infallible” to describe the bible and its authority. They do not use the term “inerrant”. The lack of the use of the term “inerrant” might be cause for concern because Lu­therans uphold both the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Due to its ecumenical nature, the Manifesto uses terms broadly. The Manifesto says that the Bible is infallible in that it does not err in its purpose to lead us to Christ. That is where the Bible’s authority lies. But does that mean that the Bible could err otherwise? And is there anywhere in the Bible that does not lead to Christ? For a Lutheran, these questions are not satisfactorily an­swered.

The second point is that the ecclesia is the primary context for the reception of the Bible. The Bible can only properly be understood by those who believe the words written there to be the very words of God. The Bible is God’s chosen means of communication, and through His speaking in Scripture, God creates his own audience. Reading the bible in this way ultimately moves us into the Manifesto’s third point that a theological reading of Scripture demands a theological reading of history as a whole. This chapter deals primarily with how theological interpretation indeed utilizes the tools of Historical Criticism but does not use them to effectively destroy the inherent narrative unity of Scripture. Point four addresses the role of hermeneutics and philosophy in theological interpretation. The conclusions in this point are sound, but the use of philosophical ter­minology makes it difficult to determine if the reasoning is sound.

Points five and six  deal with the canon of Scripture and biblical theology, respectively, in relation to theological interpretation. The canon is the context in which theological interpretation is done. It is not done behind the text. Biblical theology is the practice that helps readers grasp the unity of God’s Word across the Old and New Testaments, just as theological interpretation provides the tools to attune our ears to hear God’s address. Though the manifesto suggests different ways of reading the Old and New Testaments, including a Christological reading, it ad­vances the narrative approach as the primary method.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book was the chapter on mission and theological interpretation. The chapter effectively argues that any theological interpretation must have mission as part of its herme­neutic. This argument has some merit, since Scripture does have the theme of God’s missional work through his Son and through the Church.

The final points of the book deal with the question, “Where do we go from here?” What is the goal of theological interpretation? What is the state of theological commentaries? What is a framework for doing theo­logical interpretaion? Can we do theological interpretation for all of life? These final sections are wonderful because they deal with the ever moving target that is biblical exegesis and interpretation. It is interesting to note that the Concordia Commentary series is mentioned in the section on theological commentary.

As Lutherans, we might shy away from the using the word ‘inter­pretation’ because we might not feel worthy to say that we can interpret the Word of God. We only listen and respond. That is the stated goal of this Manifesto. The authors desire that the church continue on her way reading and truly listening to the voice of her Bridegroom speak to her through the Scriptures. While the authors never mention some of the Lutheran distinctives in hermeneutics, such as Law and Gospel, there is still much to learn from this book. This is an edifying book that could be read at one’s leisure. It is not only a friend to the scholar, but it is also a call to get back into sincerely reading Scripture for what it is, God’s voice speaking to us.