The hope here is to bring the practice of theological interpretation to the church. To this end, I have simplified the process of reading theologically to 3 basic contexts and 3 basic contributors to our understanding.
In Augustine’s sermons on the Gospel of John, he read the bible by placing it in three contexts.
1. The literal-historical context. This is reading to understand the historical context. This includes understanding the intent of the original author and his or her original audience.
2. The Salvation-historical context. This is reading to understand what the passage tells us about God’s ongoing work to reconcile the world to himself. (Does this happen before or after the fall? during the life of Jesus? after the resurrection? At the fulfillment of the new creation?)
3. The rhetorical-historical context. This is reading to understand what the passage has to say to us who are its current hearers, and how it wants to form us into its doers.
In order to understand what the bible says in these three contexts, there are three key contributors to our understanding of the bible in theological interpretation.*
3 Contributors to our understanding:
1. Canon. To this end, the wider bible helps us understand individual passages in 2 ways. First, where the passage belongs in the bible contributes to our understanding of what God is communicating through it. Is in in the Old Testament and does it anticipate Christ? Is it in the Gospels and recount the life of Christ? Second, if we understand the bigger picture of the bible, we are better able to understand the smaller episodes within the big picture.
2. Creeds. We are aided in our reading of these ancient texts by the ancient creeds of the church. We make doctrinally informed interpretive moves that are themselves shaped by the rigorous creedal formation of the ancient councils. (In other words, we aren’t just feeling our way through the darkness!)
3. Church. Finally, diverse, faithful readers of scripture, past and present, help us see beyond the limitations of our individual, situated perspectives. Reformed, Wesleyan, catholic, charismatic, Eastern Orthodox, liberationist, black, womanist, feminist, latinx, mujerista, and many more approaches to reading scripture in the diversity of the body, helps us see past the myopia of our subjective reading. This is the gift of the church to all of us.
We do not find the meaning of a text at the end of a linear equation. Rather, we understand through reflection on the text from its many facets. We draw nearer to a conclusion as we “turn” the text like a multi-faceted diamond. We begin with the grammar and language of the text itself. We observe what possibilities from historical criticism lie within, or are restricted by, the Hebrew or Greek itself. This may entail many revolutions as we move back and forth between theology, the text, and its interpreters. In each turn of the diamond, we pick up or dispense with contributions as they either draw us closer to or further away from hearing the text’s witness faithfully. In the midst of this circling, we bring in the master interpreters of the tradition–the church fathers, the scholastics, the reformers, and the like.
In the end, the aim is not just to possess the meaning of the Bible. The aim is to be possessed by the spirit of the Bible, the Holy Spirit. And so, we land on a meaning like a leaf that lands when the wind dies down, but only to take flight again as the pnuema blows where it wants. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.**
*Treier, Daniel J. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
**Miller, Ike. Seeing by the Light: Illumination in Augustine’s and Barth’s Readings of John. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.