Daniel Kirk has a post that has been making the rounds this week in which he connects the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement with something he calls the “problem of whiteness.” Leaving aside questions about whether or not we can speak of TIS as a singular coherent “movement,” let’s consider the thrust of Kirk’s argument. As I understand it, Kirk appears to be arguing that the TIS movement, unlike other “situated” readings (such as feminist, African American, and LGBT readings), has failed to own up to its own “revisionist” approach to Scripture and that this failure is owing to the general “whiteness” of the movement–presumably TIS advocates are mostly white males who are not accustomed to locating their scholarship within a particular perspective. As Kirk puts it:
White, western theology has sat at the center of biblical interpretation for so long that all of our debates can only be about what the text “really” says. And when we know that the text doesn’t say what it must we create a theological paradigm (reading in light of the rule of faith) that enables us to say that everyone has to agree with us even when we’re disagreeing with the text because the people who gave us the text used our paradigm to pick which books belong.
The problem of whiteness in theology and theological interpretation is that it has sat at the center for so long, it has been “the right answer” for so long, that it is dispositionally incapable of recognizing that it only says what it says because it is white, western, and hegemonic.
As I see it there are at least three false dichotomies apparent in Kirk’s argument.
1. Kirk falsely pits the New Testament against subsequent orthodoxy.
Kirk seems to be assuming that TIS advocates don’t know the difference between the fourth century and the first. He assumes that “ruled” readings must necessarily be anachronistic–that we must “make Paul or Matthew into a proto-Trinitarian.” But, of course, no one actually makes that mistake. No TIS scholar of which I am aware would argue that the NT authors were Trinitarian in the same way that, say, Athanasius was Trinitarian, homoousios and all.
But quite obviously Kirk is making the opposite mistake in driving a sharp wedge between the NT and the trinitarian doctrine that organically grew from it in the earliest centuries of the church. He is, to use David Yeago’s categories, conflating theological concepts with theological judgments: “the same judgement can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms, all of which may be informative about a particular judgement’s force and implications.” So it is possible, and perfectly permissible as an academic argument, to suggest that Paul could be rendering the same judgment about the status of Jesus Christ that the Nicene Fathers did, even if he did not (for obvious historical reasons) utilize their precise conceptual language.
2. Kirk falsely pits the acknowledgement of our situatedness against the quest for truth.
Another problem with Kirk’s argument is that he seems to assume that TIS proponents are unaware or else unwilling to admit their own theological presuppositions. But I don’t see how any reading of the main texts of the TIS movement–including the evangelical ones–could be interpreted in this way. It seems to me that the TIS movement, in all of its various manifestations, is characterized by just the opposite: a broadly “postmodern” sensibility, a focus on the interpretive role of the community, a valuing of interpretive pluralism (within certain constraints), and an appreciation for premodern exegesis (with its more open-ended hermeneutic). Ironically, one of the main burdens of the TIS movement has been to show the limitations of the supposedly “objective” readings of the modernist historical-critical method.
But again, Kirk makes the opposite error. The real problem for Kirk seems to be the quest for “right” readings of the biblical text. This is where the “whiteness” charge comes in. TIS proponents, to the degree that they seek “the right answer,” are simply the product of a “white, western, and hegemonic” power play. But interpretive pluralism need not imply a kind of radical relativism: an anything-goes, wax-nose approach. There is truth to be had in interpretation, even if our access to it is always conditioned by our historical and cultural context. Acknowledging our theological presuppositions does not eliminate the possibility of better and worse readings of Scripture. However we want to conceptualize this dynamic (the hermeneutical circle, critical realism, etc.), there is a dialectic between the reader and the text that somehow does not leave the reader stuck in the mire of his own prejudices. Real advance toward the truth is possible.
3. Kirk falsely pits the rule of faith against listening to minority voices.
Kirk is right to call TIS opponents to consider their own prejudices and to embrace hermeneutical humility. Further, his piece serves as a helpful reminder that we should listen to minority voices in biblical and theological scholarship. White scholars of all theological stripes can be indicted on this front to one degree or another. Thankfully, recent decades have witnessed several attempts to remedy this error.
But Kirk makes an interesting and erroneous assumption in driving this point home. He argues that Western voices “create[d]” the theological paradigm of the rule of faith in order to exercise control over the marketplace of ideas. Apparently orthodoxy “only says what it says because it is white, western, and hegemonic.” As a friend pointed out on Twitter, another irony lies in the fact that the rule of faith was developed largely in non-Western contexts: places like northern Africa and modern-day Turkey. Further, the TIS movement has been eager to retrieve perspectives from Eastern Fathers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, even Origen.
But in any event, it seems that one of the implications of Kirk’s argument is that the rule of faith, embodied in the Creeds of the church, is the unique creation and preserve of white western men. But what an insult this is to our trinitarian brothers and sisters in the majority world! The African bishops of the Anglican and Methodist churches, the evangelicals of China, and the Pentecostals of Latin America would surely be surprised to learn that they have embraced the trinitarian faith only because of white western colonialism. A true appreciation for our situatedness would acknowledge that only in a western liberal academic context could we make such a condescending assumption as to equate the ancient, trinitarian rule of faith with latter-day “whiteness.”