Over or Under Scripture

My friend, Myk Habets linked to a quote provided by Chris Spinks over at the Wipf and Stock editors’ Running Heads blog. The quote comes from Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, and he is referring to a distinction he sees accruing between what he calls ‘guild exegetes’ and the ‘churches’ theologians’. What he is noticing highly resonates with me, maybe it will for you too; he writes:

No reading of Scripture as Scripture in fact proceeds without theological presumptions. Since many guild exegetes pay no attention to this point, the theology that goes into their exegetical mill is subliminal and almost always childish; and so what comes out is the same. And of course, those scholars who have ceased to read Scripture as Scripture are then simply engaged in a possibly interesting antiquarian enterprise, rather like excavating nineteenth-century pots in Manhattan. [quote and biblio info can be found here, from the original post by Chris]

This is important. If you are going to read scripture as a Christian, then read scripture as Christian. I am afraid that Christians—the ones who actually read scripture—confuse the work that New Testament historians do with a theological reading of scripture. This is my own experience, growing up as an Evangelical; we inherited the rationalist ways of reading scripture that are naive to the fact that in fact scripture is the place that God, without apology, has decided to encounter us, in Christ, as Sovereign Lord. This reminds me of something that Martin Luther pressed; the distinction between the ministerial and magesterial approach to scripture. Do we sit under it, or over it. Jenson would be asserting that the guild exegetes sit over it, and that the churches’ theologians sit under it (or they should) by way of attitude, posture, and thus methodology.

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2 comments

  1. I’m not sure you’ve got Jens right here. Reading Scripture as Scripture involves necessarily understanding that you have theological presuppositions and doing justice to theology in the process. Exegesis involves theology. And yet many “guild exegetes” (stereotypically and even occasionally in fact) are dismissive of the disciplines of theology, and proceed as though it was unnecessary, thereby importing their existing presuppositions into the text unquestioned. Critical text inquiry, from this standpoint, if it is done without critical theological inquiry, is little more than an objective study of old words.

    But to say that NT historians are all basically foul of this line is false. It doesn’t even hold for the Jesus Seminar, and certainly not for the movements since the New Perspective on Paul. These are pointedly questioning the theology with which the text is read, even if occasionally also the theology of the text itself. And the best of them, while far from being theologians, produce understandings of the context which enable better theological reading—most especially by clarifying the fact that your situation is not that of the text.

    Most SBL exegetes I know are more content with a primary role as enabling better theological exegesis, as long as such “theological exegesis” respects the theology of the text itself in its difference from their own. This does not place them in any way artificially against the text. It is not a form of hubris or self-exaltation over the text. Call those instances very precisely when you see them; don’t tar the discipline for the sins of individuals—and be especially careful when you do so in Jenson’s name! Your over-under dichotomy is very poorly placed, here, besides the fact that I can’t see where it fits with Jenson’s quote in his advocacy for theological exegesis. These are students of the text as much as you desire to be, if in different ways. Make sure you know who exactly Jenson is targeting.

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  2. But, Matt, you agree then that Jenson is critiquing banal abstract readings of scripture, right? Well I am taking that principle and applying it to my particular experience and context. I don’t think I do anything close to what you are suggesting that I have done with this post. In fact I am very specific about whom I am referencing in the application of Jenson’s critique. Let me reiterate what I wrote:

    “… This is my own experience, growing up as an Evangelical; we inherited the rationalist ways of reading scripture that are naive to the fact that in fact scripture is the place that God, without apology, has decided to encounter us, in Christ, as Sovereign Lord….”

    How is this tarring the whole discipline? My application is very specific to my own idiosyncratic experience, and indeed, training as an Evangelical. You and I inhabit quite distinct theological traditions and spheres. What you say of some bib studies folk is true, I don’t disagree; nevertheless, deplorably, within the evangelical realm I would say in general what I have voiced is true. That’s why, for example, on my bible college and seminary campuses there was a palpable divide and competition between theology and biblical studies folk; you were either one or the other. And not just in the sense as noticing a difference between distinct disciplines, but in the sense that bib studies folk believed the study of theology was an abstraction and artificiality that really had nothing to do with Jerusalem or Biblical Studies. Systematic Theology, in this realm, seemed to represent more of a red headed step child status. And so I think my application holds; I don’t see how what I wrote tars the whole discipline though. That seems to be too quick of a conclusion on your end.

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