Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

My doctoral supervisor, David Hogg, was once asked in my Theological Method PhD seminar what his method is. I still love his response: “I look for patterns and weird stuff.” That is, his approach to reading Scripture consists largely of paying attention to what is repeated and what stands out as extraordinary, either in terms of actual events or their description or both. This interpretive method produces readings that sometimes (many times) vexes those who hold to the historical-critical method and its evangelical cousins.

What, then, are the *theological* rationales that give an interpreter the hermeneutical warrant to link certain biblical texts together in a typological chain? To put a finer historical point on it, why does Irenaeus, in his On the Apostolic Preaching, feel justified in linking the Virgin Birth to the untilled ground out of which Adam is made, or Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to the Church’s birth out of Christ’s pierced side? I want to suggest that there are least three theological reasons that readers feel justified in these types of patterned readings.

  1. Spirit-Inspired and Christ-Centered: Of course, a canonical method, however clearly or vaguely defined, finds its ultimate ground in confessing that Scripture is one Spirit-inspired book with one Christological point. Because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to his people, its ultimate source is the Triune God. Its inspiration and purpose are therefore related to God’s economic activity of redemption, and specifically to his work of revealing himself to his people. Because God ultimately makes himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, we should expect that the Scriptures’ primary point is to show its readers the incarnate Son. This is bolstered by the fact that the Spirit who inspired the biblical text is a Son-centered Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s job is to testify to the Son, because the Son demonstrates to us the Father. For these pneumatological and Christological reasons, we should not find it strange when Christian interpreters insist that Scripture’s ultimate referent is the incarnate Christ.
  2. God’s Providence: Patterned readings – readings that pay attention to biblical repetition, either at a lexical or narrative level – are rooted in the fact that God has providentially ordered redemptive history to progressively  and repetitively intensify until it reaches its culmination in Christ. That is, God has so ordered the events from the first Adam to the Second Adam that they a) are repetitive at both the level of the event and the level of the author’s description of that event and b) intensify via this repetition to point forward to their eschatological fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. This providential ordering is related to the previous point, in that God’s revelation of himself centers on the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s providential ordering of redemptive history also points forward to that same Christ. We should therefore expect at both the literary and historical levels to find repetition from one biblical story to another.
  3. The Christological Center of Human History: Christ is not only the center of biblical history; he is also the center of human history, of the entirety of God’s economic activity in redemption and also in creation. Interpretations of the Bible that focus on seeing repeated patterns at the lexical and narrative levels find their ultimate foundation in God’s providence over all of human history, since that providential ordering centers on Jesus. This last point actually grounds the first two: because God’s economic activities of creation and redemption both center on the incarnate Son, he has ordered all of human history, and therefore all of redemptive history, and therefore his revelation of himself as part of that redemptive activity, to point to and find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

9 thoughts on “Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

  1. What books would you read for theological method? I’ve read Lints and some Vanhoozer but know there probably more I need need to read.

    • Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine is key. Swain’s Trinity, Revelation, and Reading. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine. Webster, Word and Church and Holy Scripture.

  2. Matt,

    So do you think these points justify Irenaeus’ readings?

    I guess one worry I have about the practice of canonical interpretation as it is often meant parallels discussions of biblical inerrancy. That is, I think as evangelicals we have a tendency to place more emphasis on our theory-building over the actual nitty gritty details. Thus, we point to certain texts to define a certain view of inerrancy and then take some implausible positions on other texts so they don’t contradict that view instead of letting those other texts shape our view of inerrancy (if you have read it, think of Vanhoozer’s essay in Five Views on biblical Inerancy where he talks about an inerrancy of glory and of the cross–I’m not sure if he goes far enough, but I found it a helpful emphasis).

    Similarly, it seems like the same thing often happens in canonical interpretation. So we say the whole Bible points to cross and we mean it in a certain way and we go to great lengths to make this true of other texts that are more difficult instead of letting those tough tasks shape what we mean by Scripture pointing to Christ.

    I suppose I’m just pretty wary of theory-building of this sort that often detaches itself from deep and tough exegesis of hard passages (of course this is never someone’s intention). It seems like we as evangelicals often tame the Bible by doing this.

    So any thoughts on that matter or pointers to other posts, articles, or books?

    (Obviously all of this is a lot more complicated than what can be conveyed here, but I think you will get my point.)

    • I think I’d ask in return what “justifies” particular readings. For my part, the controls I mentioned in the post are the ultimate criteria for assessing a reading. Yes, there are others, e.g. the historical-grammatical method. But I think we’ve put the cart before the horse for a long time in evangelicalism. The h-g method is subservient to the larger source and purpose of Holy Scripture. On this, see John Webster’s essay in his “Holy Scripture.”

      • Matt,

        Thanks for the response. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll try to read Webster at some point.

        So let me back up to clarify. When you say we in evangelicalism have put the cart before the horse, do you think this is true of all groups? Or do you have a specific group in mind: biblical scholars, pastors, laypeople, or some other group? Maybe we are talking at cross purposes.

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