Review of Watson’s Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 57/2 (1995) 475-478. Used with permission.]

Francis Watson: Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994.  vii, 366.  Handcover.  $34.99.


Watson’s book develops a synchronic, canonical, and theological approach to interpreting the Bible.  Historical-critical study of the Bible does not provide satisfaction, and in fact is reaching a kind of dead end: it just multiplies possibilities without ever coming to rest (pp. 52-53, 58, 225).  Hence, we need specifically theological interpretation.  The book is intelligent, creative, and sensitive to nuance.  As such it represents something of the “state of the art” in modern theology, at the same time that it pushes the boundaries forward.

The book interacts creatively with a host of key ideas in hermeneutics.  It takes its start from Hans Frei and Brevard Childs, both of whom express principial dissatisfaction with the cul-de-sac into which the historical-critical method has led.  But the book rightly complains that both Frei and Childs fail to provide a fully satisfactory alternative.  For Frei the text remains a literarily self-contained object that interacts with neither church nor world (pp. 19-29).  Childs through his canonical emphasis begins to set the text in the context of the church, but the church is still conceived ideally.  Canonical interpretation is pictured unproblematically, as if it were not subject to both internal and external conflicts (pp. 44-45).  Watson’s book wants to engender a kind of canonical interpretation that takes seriously the canon as a literary unity, but that is also not afraid on this basis to engage a full spectrum of modern issues, political, economic, social, and sexual.

Watson then goes on to interact further not only with the historical-critical tradition but with various strands of deconstruction, postmodernist views of meaning and truth, and feminist interpretation.  He shows that he can use methodological tools from these traditions, but in the end he finds deficiencies as well.  Using Jürgen Habermas and Alistair McFadyen as a starting point, he develops a view of human beings as communicators, not merely as captives of a language system (pp. 107-123).  Genesis 1 can then be understood in the light of this communicative capacity.  Postmodernism, in viewing truth claims as merely relative to particular communities, is at odds with the universal claims of Christian truth underlined in Genesis 1.  God, not human beings, created a world through language.  God’s language, and the things made by him, form a stable reference point countering the relativism of postmodernist approaches (p. 151).

The book then wrestles with the feminist claim that the Bible is oppressive.  Unaware of Clines’s argumentation,1 it attempts to understand Genesis 1-2 as an egalitarian prologue to a fallen patriarchal situation (pp. 188-95), and to show how the Son’s revelation of the Father in the Gospels criticizes and surpasses patriarchalism (pp. 202-219).

Watson himself appears to believe quite a lot.  There are favorable references to the Trinity as a basis for hermeneutics (e.g., pp. 6, 149-53, 207-8, 255), the Nicene creed as one of the creeds limiting ecclesial interpretation (p. 6), and the reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ in accordance with the Scriptures (p. 292).

There is thus much food for thought here.  The book can be commended for trying to create space for biblically based theological reflection.  But one must also note the handicaps under which the book labors.  The book is addressed to the academy (p. 11).  It intends to use arguments with which that academy can sympathize.  Hence it discusses the biblical canon primarily from a sociological point of view rather than from the standpoint of the doctrine of inspiration.  Thus one receives the impression that the canon is defined by the church rather than vice versa (p. 3).  Moreover, comments here and there show that Watson holds a neo-orthodox rather than an orthodox doctrine of Scripture.  In fact, he is willing to go far beyond Karl Barth by undertaking content criticism (Sachkritik; pp. 116-17, 155, 166, 231-36): “… to distinguish the biblical witness to the liberating gospel from its entanglement in the oppressive law” (p. 155).  “The theological hermeneutic outlined here by Luther enables us to recognize the oppressive text and to resist its literal meaning, not because the latter is a simple misunderstanding but because the authority of the gospel is greater than the authority of the text” (p. 234).  Though appealing to Luther, the book understands law and gospel not in terms of legal demerit and substitutionary deliverance, nor in terms of their subjective correlates in accusation and freedom of conscience, but in terms of oppressive and liberating voices inhabiting the actual message of Scripture.

In the end, any book of this sort, trying to persuade the academy by its own rules, can achieve only limited success.  For it must conceal from itself the fundamental ethical problem: the problem of standards.  By what standard does the book claim what it claims, and on what ultimate basis does it argue for the goals that it commends?  The book cannot appeal to standards on which the academy already agrees.  For postmodernism makes clear the rational and ethical bankruptcy of modernism.  What remains beyond modernism is ethical relativism or the power of the strongest.  The book doubtless wants to appeal to the biblical canon in deriving its own standards.  But since it does not operate from an orthodox view of biblical inspiration, the standards must inevitably arise from one way among many in which one stakes out a canon within the canon.  The standard appears to be the “gospel” (pp. 231-36).  But what conception of the gospel does the book have?  The gospel is never finally fixed, but can only be found through “a constant struggle for discernment, taking place above all in dialogue with others” (p. 236).  The book is nevertheless confident that the gospel is essentially liberationist.  At a key point, the book appeals to an ideal of human liberation deriving from Habermas’s and McFadyen’s views of persons in dialogue (pp. 107-123).  Aspects of this standard can be found in the Bible, when read in a certain way.  But the book’s readership is sophisticated enough to realize that such is but one way of reading.

As presuppositional apologists know, a second problem that confronts non-Christian and semi-Christian modes of thought is internal tension and inconsistency.  One of the book’s strengths lies in its sensitivity to political and social dimensions of interpretation.  Yet this very strength may become a weakness when we apply it self-referentially.

Let us ask in particular: can the hermeneutical approach of this book win an on-going social place for itself in the church or the world?  Perhaps it can, but such a result is far from self-evident (pp. vii-viii).  Classical theological liberalism and neo-orthodoxy have both found some social sustenance for themselves, but only with difficulty.  Watson’s approach seems to have few of the ideological strengths and most of the weaknesses of the earlier theologies.  It does not have the naive world-affirmation and ethical self-evidentness (and therefore psychological security) of classical liberalism.  It does not have the zealous activism generated by the pronounced horizontal political focus of popular liberation theology.  It does not have the “biblicism” of conservative neo-orthodoxy (pp. 155, 231), which might permit the illusion of authority.  Will modern scholars eagerly pay both the academic price of embracing the scandal of the resurrection (pp. 292-93) and the ecclesial price of embracing a radical critique of scriptural content (pp. 231-36)?

There is still another problem.  This book’s theological hermeneutic seems to me to require sophistication and complexity.  Because of the inherent complexity, this new theological hermeneutic is even less able than liberalism or neo-orthodoxy to direct an effective appeal to the uneducated and the lower classes.  In particular, content criticism, by discerning supposedly antithetical oppressive (“law”) and liberating (“gospel”) voices in the Bible, destroys the perspicuity of the word of God for the masses.  Hence, it is doubtful if such a hermeneutic could be sustained except by an intellectual elite.  To its credit, the book recognizes that academic expertise can be used to oppress and terrorize the amateur (pp. 166-67).  But if so, is not the academy potentially an oppressive, patronizing elite?  And is not the tension made worse if one adopts an egalitarian ethic in which virtually any form of hierarchy is innately oppressive?  The book attempts to avoid patronizing by making dialogue fundamental (pp. 236, 107-123).  But what if, in this dialogue, the unenlightened masses want simple, totalizing certainties?  They ask, “Is the Bible the word of God or not?”  The masses must then be saved from themselves.  Unless the book can move beyond this problem of intellectual patronizing, it condemns itself according to its own standards.

Ultimately, the issue of the Bible’s authority remains to be faced.  Only constant intellectual, elitist effort can hold at a distance the Bible’s claim that it authoritatively interprets all of life.  “We are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history ….  Everything else that happens in the world can only be conceived as an element in this sequence; into it everything that is known about the world … must be fitted as an ingredient of the divine plan” (p. 22, quoted from Auerbach, Mimesis).

Watson’s book senses the biblical pressure toward a totalizing picture, but as yet it is unwilling to embrace the consequences.  At its end, Watson’s book accepts the reality of the resurrection of Christ, and of its cosmic implications.  But this acceptance must now work its way out until the whole lump is leavened by repentance and crucifixion with Christ.  The book’s own half-way position would then go over into biblical orthodoxy, because the word of God, as expressive of the Lordship of the ascended Christ, would liberate us by providing the standards by which we sift everything else.  With orthodoxy would come an authority and perspicuity of Scripture that would once again make the Bible accessible to the unlearned.

Unfortunately, the book does not complete its journey.  It remains to some extent enslaved to a liberationist idol, according to which any orthodox solution represents only an oppressive “biblicism.”  If this book, in spite of sincere, fervent intentions to the contrary, can unwittingly link itself with patronizing and subtle idolatry, the same is true of us all.  We who live within orthodoxy must beware of temptations superficially opposite but fundamentally the same: by virtue of our superior knowledge of the truth, to protect the sheep by developing subtle forms of Pharisaic posturing and control.  Watson’s book alerts us to the exceeding subtlety of sin (Jer 17:9).


1  D. J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do To Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament (Sheffield: JSOT, 1990) 25-48.