Review of Goldingay’s Models for Interpretation of Scripture

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 58/2:316-19. Used with permission.]

John Goldingay: Models for Interpretation of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle, England: Paternoster, 1995. x, 328. paper.

 

Building on Goldingay’s earlier book, Models for Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), this book turns to the principles and practice of interpreting Scripture.

Goldingay’s book has much to commend it. It focuses especially on the difficult question of how we may move beyond inhibiting limits in our understanding. It discusses limitations from lack of knowledge of historical setting, misperceptions of genre, contentment with what we already think we know, protection of some social, political, or theological status quo, tradition, skepticism, individualism, objectivism, subjectivism, fear of personal engagement, personal engagement that overwhelms or blocks the original message, lack of attention to the modern audience, and so on. It indicates how various modern approaches to interpretation, when used with sanity, can offer insights that help to free us. Included in the picture are not only critical historical investigation, but literary analysis, reader-response theories, structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, liberation theology, and demythologization. Despite the difficulty of the subject-matter, the exposition is clear, readable, and engaging.

The book rejects the extremes to which some of the modern approaches have been taken. It pleads for wrestling with the biblical message as opposed to rejection of what we do not like in it (pp. 107-110). It argues that the Bible has both literary, historical, and theological interests in its message, so that ignoring any one dimension leads to a distortion. In particular, it rejects the destructive metaphysical assumptions behind deconstruction (pp. 29-32) and demythologization (pp. 204-215). But even in dealing with these two radical approaches, it manages to salvage something positive for use in believing interpretation: deconstructive perspectives can be useful in alerting us to ambiguities in the texts, and demythologization raises the challenge of how to communicate the gospel winsomely in a modern world where biblical metaphors are sometimes no longer immediately engaging and gripping.

The book thus weaves its way discriminatingly through the modern scene. It offers food for thought or a nugget of insight on almost every page. It is all most stimulating.

The book is attractive when we look at its details. But it has some weaknesses when we look at its global shape and impact.

First, the book’s overall structure is awkward. It divides itself into four parts, building on the earlier book Models for Scripture. The earlier book used four “models” for understanding what Scripture is: witnessing tradition (exemplified by narrative), authoritative canon (exemplified by law), inspired word (exemplified by prophecy), and experienced revelation (exemplified by meditative literature: wisdom literature, NT letters, and apocalyptic visions). This division may have worked well in the earlier book, but it does not work well in Models for Interpretation of Scripture. The modern techniques and critical methods, such as historical investigation, literary reading, and liberationist reading, are relevant to the interpretation of all sections of the biblical canon. Hence, the organization of the discussion under the four genres does not really help, and in fact can be confusing. For instance, liberation theology is discussed under the section on authoritative canon (pp. 106-114), even though liberationists tend to gain their greatest payoff from narrative texts (exodus and Gospels), and show many similarities to reader-response theories (which link up with the category of “experienced revelation”!).

Second, because of its specialized focus, the book needs to be supplemented by other texts. One must go elsewhere for discussion of detailed steps in interpretation, or for discussion of techniques relevant to different genres, or for detailed exposition and criticism of the various modern schools. This book presupposes some knowledge of the schools, rather than providing detailed explanations.

Third, the book needs deeper critical penetration in its evaluation of the modern schools. It is good at redeeming insights from the schools; and it is correct in repudiating their obvious excesses. But it needs sustained attention to the way in which the most basic issue of human life, submission to God or to idols, colors the ideologies and frameworks belonging to the various schools. For instance, it doesn’t express any wonder at what deep forces must be at work to lead to some of the strangeness of modern interpretation. John Dominic Crossan concludes from the Bible that “God is unknowable” (p. 31). The relativists continue with their work, though they are well aware of the easy refutation that claims that relativism is self-refuting (p. 28). One can understand these phenomena at a deep level only through reckoning with Romans 1:18-31, as Cornelius Van Til has done. Without this reckoning, students are left with fragments from other people’s systems, but without having an understanding that would allow them to engage at a deep level the people that still inhabit the other systems.

This lack of penetration is particularly unfortunate when the book discusses historical investigation. All possibilities for historical research get lumped together under the broad label of “historical criticism.” No distinction is made between the way historical research proceeds in twentieth century mainstream scholarship, the way it worked with the Reformers, and the way it is practiced by modern supernaturalist Christian scholars. Because God works and speaks in history, “historical-critical interpretation [is] appropriate to the scriptures” (p. 174). The book avers that criticism includes appreciation and not necessarily hostile skepticism. But it slides casually by the major issues. It fails to wrestle seriously with either the Kantian and naturalist ideological influence on mainstream historical criticism, or the possibilities of serious alternatives in the form of Christian historical scholarship. It does not reckon seriously with the implications of the fact that God, not a naturalist idol, providentially controls history.

Moreover, in discussing historical investigation, the book fails to show an appreciation for the importance of the distinction between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the text. Synchronic approaches can be of great value when they use the best information about the historical, social, and literary environment in which the text was written. By contrast, with the exception of text criticism, diachronic approaches (traditional source, form, and redaction criticism) contribute virtually nothing directly to knowing what the text means.

It is not surprising, then, that when the book throws out hints here and there about its own positions, it shows a considerable adaptation to what it thinks are established verities of criticism. We hear of gradual growth of the Pentateuch, JEDP, three Isaiahs, second-century date for Daniel, possibly deuteropauline writings in the NT. Modern application should probably accept egalitarianism in sexuality, but not homosexual marriage (pp. 119-20). Authority of Scripture is rescued through looser conceptions of genre: biblical narratives are not intended to be purely historical, nor is pseudonymy intended to be deceitful..

The point of the book is not, of course, to advocate specific positions on historical or ethical questions. The point is hermeneutical. And the book contains many valuable insights on hermeneutics. Moreover, to its credit, the book is passionately concerned that the Bible be read and applied with full seriousness and with openness to our being surprised, criticized, and transformed through its speech. The surprise and the transformation apply in particular to theological conservatives who cling to their tradition and read the Bible only through its grid. But the challenge also applies to modern academia, which has become comfortable. If the book has a major failing, it is that it fails to carry through its own passion at a crucial point: to reflect in depth on the Bible’s critique of autonomy and naturalism, which are rampant in academic disciplinary matrices. The book therefore remains one-sidedly optimistic about using modern intellectual currents. Its point of view is aptly summarized on p. 28:

These [contemporary] intellectual currents are unlikely to be totally wrong, even if they have been distorted, not least through their lack of relationship with the gospel. The ease with which we ourselves domesticate or otherwise distort the gospel makes such intellectual currents positive handmaids, by virtue of their facing issues that we may avoid.

The point about domestication is apt, with respect to many of us with a high view of Scripture. No doubt modern perspectives may jolt us into insights. But one may still wonder whether a tour of the intellectual world will lead to spiritual health. The Bible’s own counsel involves passionately embracing Scripture and its God. We come to Christ as the fount of all wisdom (Col 2:3; Phil 3:10). Goldingay’s book may still have a place, inasmuch as Christ contains in fullness all the fragments of insight scattered through all the modern intellectual currents. Yet we must also sound a warning about compromise with non-Christian trends, particularly at a time when much of the church is selling itself out to conformity with the world.

The Bible’s alternative leads away from easy appropriation of modern currents. One lives one’s life within the Bible’s universal story, and so dissolves the idea of history as “what really happened” in brute, uninterpreted facts. One lives in submission to the Bible’s authoritative canon, and so subjects to canonical standards modern epistemology. One lives in the face of the rebuke of prophecy, and so submits to radical humility, suspicion of self and world, and transformation through the cross. One lives in the vision of experienced revelation, and so one knows God and the folly of modern naturalism. I fall short; and so do orthodox Christian churches. But more “appreciation” of modern hermeneutics offers no final remedy for the most fundamental failing: sin.

 

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia