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The future of biblical interpretation

Review: Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm (eds.), The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics (IVP Academic, 2013) 

The Future of Biblical Interpretation illustrates three near inevitabilities of contemporary publishing in the field of biblical studies: (1) An edited collection of academic essays will be uneven. (2) If the topic is hermeneutics, the study of understanding, the discourse will often lack clarity or felicity — sometimes both. (3) The mind-bogglingly prolific Stanley Porter (Dean and President of McMaster Divinity College) is probably one of the editors.

Though not a Festschrift as such, this slender volume is dedicated to Anthony Thiselton,[1] and is a collection of papers originally given at a conference in his honor at the University of Nottingham, for which he offers the cover essay. Most of the contributors are well-known in the field of biblical studies, many of them among our guiding lights at the intersection of biblical studies and theology.[2] Thiselton, of course, arguably stands unrivaled as the biblical scholar who has made the most substantive and sophisticated contribution to theological hermeneutics in our generation.[3]

I begin with a conclusion: I recommend the collection as an introduction to the state of the question in contemporary theological hermeneutics, though, in candor, the recommendation is lukewarm. The volume quite succeeds with respects to its objectives. As intended, the essays serve the useful function of illustrating the diversity of approaches in contemporary biblical studies (even among contributors of a relatively close confessional kinship). At the same time, the volume cumulatively falls short of its intended goal of offering a principled and disciplined plurality, which is probably an expectation too high of this sort of a project, in any case.

Before assessing the larger contribution of the collection synthetically, we might simply survey the contents, setting aside the editors’ introduction and conclusion:

1. The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics, Anthony C. Thiselton

2. Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Responsibility, Stanley E. Porter

3. Biblical Hermeneutics and Scriptural Responsibility, Richard S. Briggs

4. Biblical Hermeneutics and Kerygmatic Responsibility, Matthew R. Malcolm

5. Biblical Hermeneutics and Historical Responsibility, James D.G. Dunn

6. Biblical Hermeneutics and Critical Responsibility, Robert C. Morgan

7. Biblical Hermeneutics and Relational Responsibility, Tom Greggs

8. Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility, R. Walter L. Moberly

Thus, the theme of the volume is “plurality” as qualified by a set of interpretive responsibilities. This is useful; indeed, the table of contents could only be faulted for raising expectations. But, as the editors concede in the conclusion, for the most part, the collection does not comprise an argument for plurality but simply illustrates the contested diversity in contemporary biblical studies. It is not so much that the Christian approach to the Bible ought to be diverse. We simply observe that it is, each author contending for a piece of the variegated real estate. This, of course, is a claim already generously demonstrated in Thiselton’s writings, where, however, exposition of the diversity is matched by critique and assessment.[4]

Nonetheless, the architecture of the collection is salutary and confers more coherence than will customarily be the case with conference proceedings, even when themed. The adjectives theological, historical, ecclesial, and so on make sense and are usually transparent to the essay, although it is unclear in some cases just how the adjective functions (e.g., Malcolm’s “kerygmatic responsibility” still eludes me after several readings). Some of the essays might well have exchanged titles and the result would be no less fitting. The “relational responsibility” of Greggs’s essay is clearly ecclesial without remainder (cf. Moberly). Similarly, Dunn’s and Morgan’s essays might have traded titles with no added confusion. Both are arguing, albeit in different ways, for the biblical scholar’s autonomy to read the text “on its own terms,” unconstrained by any theological a priori.

I could have imagined a few more themes, especially given the volume’s overlaps. No essay raises the question of epistemic responsibility (granted, religious epistemology). Is the point so basic as to have been overlooked? It is all the more noticeable an absence, since this concern saturates Thiselton’s many writings. I find it regrettable as well that no essay addresses ethical responsibility, which is surely a driving concern of much contemporary interpretation. Likewise, an essay on literary responsibility would have been a welcome addition, although several authors — Thiselton more than any other — pay at least passing attention to genre. Finally, given the ecclesial direction of Greggs’s essay on “relational responsibility,” an essay on communication theory and intersubjectivity might have proven especially useful. Cheap criticisms, these, but the more I reflected on the actual contents of the volume, the less impressed I was by the scope.

It would be tedious to rehearse the substance of each essay, so I would single out a few of the essays that, to my reading, make the largest contribution. To begin with, I find Richard Briggs’s essay possibly the most foundationally useful in the volume. Continuous with his considerable work in “speech-act theory” and echoing David Kelsey,[5] Briggs makes the clarifying — and obvious, but only upon reflection — observation that our manner of engaging the Bible depends rather entirely upon how Scripture is construed and toward what ends. Thus, following Garrett Green, Briggs proposes a shift from “Scripture is” to “Scripture as” — the “copula of imagination” preferred over the “copula of judgement” (Kant via Garrett Green).[6] I’m not sure of the necessity of pitting these against each other, but the point remains that most of the skirmishes and turf wars regarding the Bible — even in this volume — are already set in motion by a priori construals, possibly unacknowledged, of the text as something. And debates about how the Bible should be interpreted, with what methods and toward what ends, are often little more than simple failures to answer the prior questions, or to not acknowledge that one already has.

Maybe unsurprisingly, given his long and constructive reflection on the matters at hand, the summatively most useful essay in the collection might be Walter Moberly’s “Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility.” If Briggs is analytically basic and useful, Moberly is prescriptively incisive. As summarized by the editors, Moberly “essentially advocates an approach to the Bible that is neither naively ecclesial (and so in denial of critical issues) nor naively critical (and so in denial of the situatedness of the interpreter)” (p. 10). Coming, as it does, near the end of a series of position-taking essays, Moberly’s reads as a welcome “yes … but” on what precedes.

Finally, I offer a more qualified commendation of Stanley Porter’s contribution for putting his finger on what might the most significant, if accidental, theme of the collection. Porter makes the observation that Thiselton’s wide-ranging work in theological hermeneutics is not easily assimilated to the recent movement toward the “theological interpretation of Scripture” — whereas several of the contributors are notable voices of that persuasion. For his part, Porter is clearly skeptical of the turn toward “theological interpretation,” at least as it is currently advocated and practiced.[7] And he offers briefly here a set of penetrating, not to say unanswerable, challenges that could themselves have driven the whole volume. In any case, in doing so, Porter helpfully isolates this subplot as an underlying dynamic influencing the whole collection in an interesting way. Thus, we can read this collection as the implicit divisi between contributors who prioritize readings oriented toward historical objectivity and verification, that is, more or less advocates of historical-critical methods on the one hand (Porter, Dunn, Morgan), over against those who prioritize the Bible’s historic and constitutive relationship to the Church as her identity-determining canonical texts, that is, those more inclined to the “theological interpretation of Scripture” (Briggs, Greggs, Moberly), with Porter, Malcolm, and Thiselton doubling as both players and referees.

As plots go, this one remains unresolved. Happily, the conversation rarely devolves into polemics, and, as noted, there are several places where we are offered glimpses of resolution and synthesis. In the end, the book does about as much as can be expected of the genre and — this will be the mark of its success — is surely already stimulating better proposals than it offers.


[1] Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm have already produced Horizons in Hermeneutics: A Festschrift in Honor of Anthony C. Thiselton (Eerdmans, 2013).

[2] In fact, all of the contributors, save for theologian Tom Greggs, are located in biblical-studies disciplines.

[3] Note especially The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Eerdmans, 1980); New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Zondervan, 1992); Thiselton on Hermeneutics: The Collected Works and New Essays of Anthony Thiselton (Eerdmans, 2006); Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 2009).

[4] Most directly in New Horizons.

[5] David H. Kelsey, Proving Doctrine: The Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology (Trinity Press International, 1999); previously published as The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Fortress, 1975).

[6] Garrett Green, Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination (Harper & Row, 1989).

[7] Having explored this at much greater length in his contribution to the Thiselton Festschrift: “What Exactly Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Is It Hermeneutically Robust Enough for the Task to Which It Has Been Appointed?,” in Horizons in Hermeneutics, pp. 234–67.


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