Book Review: Practicing Theological Interpretation by Joel B. Green

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A popular illustration for bible reading has been that we are reading another person’s mail. There is some immediate resonance with this picture. After all, we find letters of Paul addressed to geographical locations (Rome, Corinth, etc.) where we do not reside and some two thousand years prior to our own.  While this illuminates the importance of historical and cultural context, it also focuses our attention mainly on the past.

THE BIG IDEA

“A theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture concerns the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities.”  (p. 15)

Practicing Theological Interpretation consists of three lectures given in 2010 at Nazarene Theological Seminary, plus a fourth chapter on John Wesley’s interpretation of Scripture. Together, these continue Dr. Green’s pursuit and promotion of reading the Bible theologically. (See also his other projects, including Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture and the academic Journal of Theological Interpretation, for which he serves as editor-in-chief.)

To read the bible as divine revelation—liturgically speaking, “the Word of God for the People of God”—is to engage in “interested exegesis.” That is to say that theological interpretation is not another method in our toolkit for biblical study. Instead, theological interpretation involves faith commitments (that the bible reveals the nature of God, for example) and purposes for our engagement with the text (identity formation). These commitments and purposes set reading the bible within and for the Church apart from reading the bible in a department of religious studies at a secular university. This “interested exegesis” provides a framework within which a host of methods are marshaled in service of discerning the divine word speaking to believers today.

After introducing theological interpretation to the reader, Dr. Green deals with four concerns that need to be addressed if we are to practice theological interpretation.

  • Chapter one concerns “the relationship between theological exegesis and Christian formation.” (p. 18)
  • Chapter two inquires about the role of historical criticism in theological interpretation, especially given the modern dominance of the historical-critical method.
  • Chapter three explores the relationship between Scripture and the Rule of Faith—the early ecumenical creeds of the Church—and how each influences our reading of the other.
  • Chapter four showcases John Wesley as an example of reading of the Bible theologically.

TRAVERSING THE TRUE DISTANCE

“What separates us from the biblical text read as Scripture is not so much its antiquity as its unhandy, inconvenient claim on our lives.” (p. 26)

Here Dr. Green confronts the illustration I mentioned at the beginning. We are not eavesdropping, he contends. The bible is the Church’s Scripture. It is addressed to us. Therefore, the question is not merely, “To whom did James address his letter?” but, “Are we willing to let the Letter of James to tell us who we are?”

The greatest distance between us and the biblical text is not historical or cultural. Learning languages and historical background cannot cover ground we are otherwise unwilling to traverse in terms of our self-identity. The basic reality, “as a whole, [is that] we do not want to think of ourselves as dwelling on the world’s margins.” (p. 26) Our choice of clothing, careers, friends, etc. reinforce in us a competing self-identity, namely that we fit in. Can we instead take on the posture of persons addressed by the letter James has written?

HISTORY SERVING THE PRESENT DAY

“History-writing concerns itself not with objective retrieval of the past but rather with the benefits of the past for the present.” (p. 49)

Dr. Green asserts that theological interpretation is interested in the sort of historical work that elucidates the message of the bible for Christians listening for the divine voice in the present. Primarily, this involves the historical context and the socio-cultural norms of the day. The connection to the section above is clear—to understand the sort of personal disposition conducive to a faithful reading of the text, historical and socio-cultural realities are helpful. Yet the study of history is not an end unto itself for “interested exegesis.” It serves the aim of forming faithful Christians today.

THE TAKEAWAY

The importance of this book to preachers and teachers in churches, classrooms, or other ministry settings is expressed well in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (NIV). Anyone called to preach the gospel and teach the faith will be concerned with how best to read the Bible faithfully and read it well. In Practicing Theological Interpretation, Joel Green challenges us to a more careful and close reading of the biblical text.  Our task is not to “make the bible relevant for today’s world,” rather, through immersion in the bible’s world, to become persons who are at home within it.

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Guy Williams is Senior Pastor of the United Methodist Temple in Port
Arthur, Texas. A graduate of Texas A&M University and Asbury Seminary,
he is married with three children. Follow him on twitter @guymwilliams
or find him online at guymwilliams.net.

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