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.

Pneumatological Method

The second foundational aspect of a Christian approach to Scripture is that method ought to be pneumatological in character. That is, it should be driven and empowered by the Holy Spirit. From the first post:

This means it will recognize the role of the Spirit in both inspiration and interpretation, and will note the Spirit-generated ecclesial context (both historically and contemporaneously) in which interpretation occurs. It also recognizes both the contextual and presuppositional nature of all interpretation and the Spirit’s ability to confront our context and presuppositions.

Although an emphasis on the Christocentric nature of Scripture is sometimes controversial in the field of hermeneutics, I think this aspect of a Christian theological method hits against many of our interpretive presupposition. We as 21st century interpreters have, in my opinion, been pre-conditioned to focus on an “objective” reading of the biblical material that privileges the human author over the divine, even to the point where the divine author is ignored or consciously set aside. What I am calling a pneumatological method pushes against this entire stance towards biblical interpretation.

First, a pneumatological method recognizes both the divine and human authorship of Scripture. In my articulation of this foundation, I would further say that the divine author holds the privileged position in terms of whose intent we are seeking to understand. This does not mean the human author’s intent is no longer important; on the contrary, genre, literary devices, and historical background – all facets related most directly to the human author – each still play an important role in interpreting the text. The divine author, the Holy Spirit, though, has the privileged position. Connections between different passages, the intent of the passage, and especially the Christocentric nature of individual sections are all ultimately tied to divine intent. Again, the human author can and does make intertextual connections and point to Christ, but recognizing the Spirit’s superintending authorship of Scripture allows us to more boldly recognize these intertextual and Christological connections.

Second, a pneumatological method recognizes that the context of interpretation is the church. Often in modern exegesis the exercise is isolated and individualistic. The Spirit, though, has birthed the interpretive community in its work of regeneration, and it is in this Spirit-born and Spirit-led community that a properly Spirit-illuminated interpretation can and should take place. We should further say that this community transcends time and space, and so a properly pneumatological method will recognize that the Spirit has guided interpreters in different parts of the world and in different times than our own. The tradition and global nature of the church can help us in the third facet of a pneumatological method – confronting our own preconceptions.

Finally, a pneumatological method recognizes that it is the Spirit-inspired text that should master the interpreter and not the other way around. We cannot simply put the text through our hermeneutics machine and expect to grind out objective interpretations like some kind of Bible sausage. God confronts us through his Word, and a Spirit-led interpretation will recognize the confrontational and transformational nature of Scripture. The goal of God’s revelation is to point to Jesus, not only to help us understand propositions about God but so that through understanding God we might be changed into the image of his Son (2 Cor. 3:17-18). A theological method that does not recognize that the text is meant to transform us is not reading Scripture as it is intended to be read. To say it in contemporary terms, the text ought to apply to us. The Spirit does this through the text on its own, by the way – we don’t have to “find the application.” Additionally, understanding that the text confronts us helps us to own up to our own cultural presuppositions. Everyone comes to the text with baggage, and we should expect for that baggage – presuppositions – to be confronted in the text by the Spirit.