Reading the Bible Theologically with Todd Billings: An Antidote for folks like, Peter Enns, NT Wright, and John Dominick Crossan et al.

I am doing some research for a writing project I am involved with. I am writing a chapter on theological exegesis, and so plan on getting jeromebiblesome of that issue through posts here at the blog. I am currently reading through Todd Billings’ book: The Word Of God For The People Of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture. Billings broaches something worth broaching. Throughout the rest of this post we will broach right along with Todd.

Something that continues to dog biblical exegesis, or interpretation, is the impact that the Enlightenment, and subsequently, higher criticism has had upon us modern exegetes. Whether it be more liberal (non-confessional-Christians) like John Dominick Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk,; or more progressive types like Pete Enns; or more conservative types like NT Wright, to one extreme or another, what dominates the interpretive task and shapes the respective methodology is a kind of historism. The outworking of this is that the text becomes, primarily, a place where historical reconstruction gives it its primary meaning, even theologically. True, because of confessional disposition, someone like NT Wright, is able to better negotiate the theological implications of his historical, text-critical work, but his primary mode still comes from historism (I think). Todd Billings, without throwing away the work done by historians of biblical reality, has a better, more critical approach, and critique to this dominant way of interpreting the Bible; dominant for evangelical scholarship in general. Billings writes:

How can critical and theological reasoning be held together, particularly in dealing with behind-text-issues? There is no single “global” answer to this question, for it depends on the particular biblical issue in question, as well as the critical and theological questions being posed to the text. In the same way, no single critical method always leads to a faithful interpretation of Scripture, and all methods must be “tamed in relation to the theological aims of Scripture and the ecclesial context within which the Bible is read as Scripture.” In other words, critical methods need to be recontextualized within a theological framework: that is, they need to be evaluated and used according to terms that refuse to treat the Bible as nothing more than an object of historical inquiry.

This recontexualization of biblical criticism within theology is necessary because some biblical scholars use historical-critical tools in a way that marginalizes theological thought altogether. In general, these approaches do not seek to expand their horizon by hearing the address of the text about the subject matter of God’s work in the lives of Joshua, David, Jesus, or Paul. Rather, they fixate on behind-the-text issue such as the date of the text’s origin and the circumstances that gave rise to it, as well as issues and problems related to manuscripts, redaction history, the original audience, and so forth. In the course of these explorations, they lose the subject matter of the text itself. Therefore, in interpreting the prologue of the Gospel of John, rather than allow themselves to enter into play with the possibility of Jesus being the “Word made flesh,” these approaches move that question to the sidelines in their preoccupation with behind-the-text issues. When they use their explorations in this way, these purveyors of historical-critical methods do not lead to a receptive reading of the text; they simply use texts as steppingstones for reconstructing a history behind the text.[1]

There is obviously a continuum going on here, especially in reference to the types of exegetes I listed above. NT Wright, for example, does a much better job of reigning his historical work back into a theological exegetical discussion than do some of the others. That notwithstanding, something that I have noticed among many of his students is that understanding Second Temple Judaism reigns supreme as THE cipher by which the rest of the New Testament, as well as all of biblical history as its climax ought to be understood through. It is hard to see how this fits well with a robust theological exegetical approach that appreciates the Spirit’s work through the interpretive activities of God’s people, in his Church, throughout the centuries and into the present.

But I don’t want this post to tail off into a discussion about NT Wright in particular. Do you see the problem that Todd is addressing? I do! It is addressing a personal tension I struggle with, continuously; I understand the value of literary theory, historical reconstruction, etc. when it comes to interpreting the Bible, and at the same time I understand that the primary regulative reality of meaning in the text is highly theological, indeed christological. So Todd’s points are well taken, primary of which is the process of ‘recontextualizing’ things.

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 59-60.

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12 comments

  1. Gotta watch those Dutch Reformed guys from Western Theological Seminary 🙂 (said this guy who grew up in the Dutch Reformed church and spent two years at Hope College, which is across the street from Western Theological Seminary. If I remember correctly, Todd Billings is also a cancer survivor. I’m only on page 38 of his book, so I can’t really comment on it, but I did like Peter Enns’s “The Bible Tells Me So . . . “

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  2. Paul,

    Thanks! Yeah, Todd is a cancer survivor as well. He continues to keep his at bay through ongoing preventive chemo treatments.

    I have serious problems with Enns’ approach to things. Serious!

    Let me know what you think of Todd’s book when you finish it. I am not done with it yet either. It is one of many I am reading on this issue at the moment.

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  3. Ezekiel seems to be a good text for plunging in. Two ways of doing it–

    (a) Read Robert Jenson’s theological commentary on Ezekiel, and ponder his notion of ‘christologically plain reading’ as you work through the book.

    (b) Read Daniel Boyarin’s Jewish Gospels, sit oneself before the Bible as a Jew who sees Jesus in Daniel 7, and ponder Ezekiel.

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  4. Bobby,

    I liked Peter Enns’ book “The Bible Tells Me So . . . “ because:

    (1) It was written for non-theologians like myself.
    (2) It is very readable, even humorous at times.
    (3) It was a refresher course on and a good concise summary of the same sort of material covered in other relatively recent books, such as Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture,” Scot McKnight’s “The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How to Read the Bible,” Adam Hamilton’s “Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today,” Kenton Sparks’ “God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship,” and Craig Blomberg’s “Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Question.”
    (4) It helps to make Todd Billings’s point that “The Bible is a book; it is not the fourth member of the Trinity. It is not God.” (p. 5 of “The Word of God for the People of God”)

    Paul

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  5. Paul,

    You didn’t notice, though, how Enns reads the Bible like a modern higher critic? That does not fit so well with the traditional approach that Billings is offering.

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  6. Bobby,

    And what is wrong with two (or more) ways to read the Bible? Do we have to choose just one? I have also found historical criticism, particularly as discussed in Hays and Ansberry’s “Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism” to be very helpful.

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  7. By ‘plunging in’ I mean– with malice toward none, with charity for all– “reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting” the scriptures as the formation of the self. The classic way was and is and will again be to chant the Psalms with their traditional antiphons while meditating on the rest of scripture in a theologically congruent way. But until the next reformation, many will need some other anchoring experience. I’ve suggested two.

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  8. Paul,

    It is just “ways” of reading the Bible, it is how the Bible is conceived of to begin with; i.e. a Doctrine of Scripture and its ontology relative to God’s economy. Can Scripture rightly be conceived of apart from its givenness from God, the Christian God? Higher criticism says Yes, I say absolutely not! That’s the difference.

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