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‘What It Meant’ ‘What It Means’: Biblical Theology in Discussion

What the text of Scripture ‘meant’ and what it ‘means’ has been one rubric by which Biblical Theology (as a  movement) has sought to identify a working definition of what it means, in fact, to do Biblical Theology (especially in the 19th century and onward into the present). Without adequate attention to the history of this dialectic (between meant/means), we all too often can repeat history, and not appreciate the kind of material impact that uncritical acceptance of these kinds of formal questions can have on our own conditioned and particular interpretation of Scripture today. I have N.T. Wright in mind, but he is not the only one. What I want to consider further (and not much deeper than just posing a question and my own thoughts here), is if there has been thorough enough attention given to the someone like Wright’s own appropriation of his conditioned employment of past hermeneutical practice? In other words, I often hear many of Wright’s most vocal proponents repeating and building upon his material exegetical and historical conclusions; but I am just curious as to whether or not enough attention has been given to the actual methodology that Wright is indeed employing to come to the theological conclusions that he is coming to in his own project—as he attempts to mediate ‘what it meant’ with ‘what it means’?

My questions about Wright above could be applied to many contemporary Biblical Theologians of our day. I suppose I simply want to register my own hesitation in regard to whether or not enough critical self-reflection has been maintained among Wright’s & companies’ proposals in regard to bridging the gap between what it mean and what it means (and in fact if this gap ought to be bridged at all); and furthermore, whether or not this is indeed what Wright is attempting to do? And if so, how is he doing it? Does he have a well thought out prolegomenon (hermeneutical methodology) that indeed engages with these kinds of more formal questions; or is Wright & co. so focused on their material conclusions, that they simply presume upon a certain mode of: What it meant, must be what it means? This seems to me to be the mode that Wright & co. often operate in; a mode that does not attend strongly enough to some deeper and important methodological questions—I realize that I am generalizing quite heavily (esp. when I write Wright & co.), but I think some generalization here, at least in order to provide heuristic purchase, is necessary.

In light of some of these questions, I thought that I would do a series of posts that seek to engage with them a bit. Let me offer a quote from Gerhard Hasel as he offers something from D. H. Kelsey in regard to the dialectic of what it meant and what it means; Kelsey’s questions for this dialectic are meant to be critical, and in fact to problematize in such a way, that ‘what it meant’ ‘what it means’ is shown to be too reductionistic of way to attempt to relate meaning in the text of Scripture.

[I]t is evident that the distinction of modern times between “what it meant” and “what it means,” i.e., theological interpretation which is normative, is problematical in both its distinction and its task. D. H. Kelsey, for example, has stated succinctly that there are several ways in which both “what it meant” and “what it means” can be related to each other with varying results. First, it may be decided that the descriptive approach that seeks to determine “what it meant” by whatever methods of inquiry is considered to be identical with “what it means.” Second, it may be decided that “what it meant” contains propositions, ideas, etc. that are to be decoded and translated systematically and explicated and that this is “what it means,” even though those explications may never have occurred to the original authors and might have been rejected by them. Third, it may be decided that “what it meant” is an archaic way of speaking dependent upon its own culture and time that needs to be redescribed in contemporary ways of speaking of the same phenomena, and that this redescription is “what it means.” “This assumes that the theologian has access to the phenomena independent of scripture and ‘what it meant,’ so that he can check the archaic description and have a basis for his own.” Fourth, it may be decided that “what it meant” refers to the way in which early Christians used Biblical texts and that “what it means” is simply the way these are used by modern Christians. In this case there is a genetic relationship. Kelsey notes, “None of these decisions can itself be either validated or invalidated by exegetical study of the text, for what is at issue is precisely how exegetical study is related to doing theology.” If this is the case, then one must ask on what grounds one makes a theological judgment in favor of one over the other of these or other ways of relating “what it meant” to “what it means.” [Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate, 37-8.]

Far from merely critiquing N. T. Wright, these questions take issue with all would be exegetes and theologues who see Scripture as something significant enough to take serious. And I am not trying to totally critique Wright by offering these questions; he is just the nearest, most public and popular and prominent Biblical Theologian of our day who makes himself readily available as foil for such considerations as I am offering in this post. My concern with Wright is what is asked by Hasel in the last clause above, “If this is the case, then one must ask on what grounds one makes a theological judgment in favor of one over the other of these or other ways of relating “what it meant” to “what it means.” I am not sure that Wright & co. attend themselves enough with this concern. It seems to me that he/they usually just presume upon whatever their theological predisposition is, and then act as if all they are doing is Biblical study; but then of course this begs the question that Hasel gives voice to.

I will continue this series of posts by following Hasel’s subsequent and developing thought in the directly subsequent paragraphs to the one I just shared. Stay tuned …