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Leviticus (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)
Leviticus (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)
Ephraim Radner
Brazos Press, 2008
320 pp., 34.99

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1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)
1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)
Peter J. Leithart
Brazos Press, 2006
304 pp., 32.99

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Stephen J. Lennox


Tossing Down the Gauntlet

Theological interpretation of Scripture.

The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible "was born out of the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures." Dogma, says series editor R. R. Reno, is not "a moldering scrim of antique prejudice obscuring the meaning of the Bible," but the lens through which God intended Scripture to be read. With these words the gauntlet is thrown at the feet of contemporary biblical scholars for whom reading the Bible through the lens of theology is unforgiveable. It was just for this reason, we are told, that even the great Augustine misinterpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan, understanding the man going down from Jerusalem as Adam, the robbers as the devil and his minions, the Samaritan as Christ, the inn as the church, and the innkeeper as Paul.[1] To avoid such eisegesis, these scholars argue, we must approach the text objectively and let it speak for itself. Only after discovering the human author's intended meaning should we begin to think theologically.

Scholarly interest in theological interpretation has been growing. Barth's commentary on Romans insisted that historical criticism, for all its value, was less important than the "venerable doctrine of Inspiration."[2] The canonical approach of Brevard Childs and others provided scholarly cover to approach the whole Bible as a finished ecclesial product. Theological interpretation has gained from postmodernism's insistence on the reader's role in shaping meaning, on the impossibility of coming to the text without theological presuppositions, and on the community's role in discovering truth. Renewed emphasis on the early church fathers, such as through the Ancient Christian Commentary Series on Scripture (IVP), has made the thoughts of early Christians more accessible, prompting inquiries into their interpretive methods.

Recently, as well, theologians have been paying more attention to pneumatology and ecclesiology,[3] two topics directly related to theological interpretation. Study the Holy Spirit and you will eventually ask about his role in biblical interpretation. Modernist biblical criticism, even among the theologically conservative, sharply curtails the Spirit's role, in contrast to the expansive understanding of the early church fathers. Growing attention to ecclesiology has made us increasingly aware of the important role the church has played and continues to play in the interpretation of Scripture. Theological interpretation, unlike modernist interpretation, operates self-consciously within an ecclesial perspective.

Although theological interpretation employs a variety of hermeneutical approaches, it is united in the conviction that, in Reno's words, "church doctrine does not compete with Scripture in a limited economy of epistemic authority." Theological interpretation will prove more illuminating on theological questions, he says, than "chasing the fantasy of a pure exegesis that will somehow adjudicate between competing theological positions." Historical criticism is still valued from this point of view, but for its "ministerial, not magisterial, function in biblical interpretation."[4] This helps explain why theologians, not biblical scholars, were chosen to contribute to the Brazos series. More valuable than expertise in history or philology was "knowledge of and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition." Indeed, "theological interpretation," says one theologian selected to write for this series, "is not the exclusive property of biblical scholars but the joint responsibility of all the theological disciplines and of the whole people of God, a peculiar fruit of the communion of the saints."5 Reno puts it more pugnaciously: "War is too important … to leave to the generals."

For Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, Leviticus is filled with promise when read in light of the coming of Jesus Christ. He offers his "theological reflection" in conversation with "a small number of prior readers." We can learn much about Radner's priorities from those on his list: all approached the book theologically; they are about equally divided between Jews and Christians; and all but one lived centuries ago.

Since the Old Testament provides "a shadow of the things that were to come" (Col. 2:17a), Radner believes that to understand Leviticus one must carefully consider the reality that cast the shadow. The Apostle Paul links this reality specifically to the body of Christ (2:17b), incarnated, dying, rising, ascending, and experienced in the church. Since Christ is central to all, he must be central to the world of Leviticus. Radner begins from the text but then asks how it addresses God's ultimate purpose, the "summing up" of all things in Christ.

This is not the commentary for those who only want the human author's intent for the text, its cultural background, or its documentary history. As his full-length bibliography makes clear, Radner knows this information but resists readings which aim for "common sense and practical utility." These are the "idols of this age," tied as they are "to a common and universally accessible reason that can limit the reach of scriptural texts to agreed-upon usage."[6] This is a commentary for those who want to see the world "as it truly is—that is, as God's world, the God revealed in Christ." Radner interprets Scripture "in a way that can uncover this God in all corners of its textual universe," for this is how we "learn to live truly in this world, God's world, as it is."[7]

The volume dealing with 1 and 2 Kings comes from Peter Leithart, professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He focuses on the literary elements of the text, such as chiasms and inner-biblical interpretation (e.g., Solomon presented as a "new Joshua"). Several of his insights are helpful and make his commentary worth consulting for a theologically conservative literary take on 1 and 2 Kings, especially one sensitive to implications for political theology. Along the way he makes some unusual claims (e.g., the Temple is "a 'trysting place' for Yahweh and his bride").

Comparing the approaches of Radner and Leithart illustrates the series' policy to not impose a "particular method of doctrinal interpretation" but also the diversity of opinion on what theological interpretation actually means. Because Radner first establishes a comprehensive rationale for his approach, his theological conclusions flow organically from the text. He follows paths marked out by earlier interpreters, which frees him from the need to say something new and allows his work to breathe freshness.

Leithart offers limited justification for his theological interpretations: the book of Kings, like the rest of the Old Testament, "points to, anticipates, and foreshadows the gospel of Jesus the Christ." This thinner rationale produces typological and other interpretations that sound stale and disconnected. I did appreciate his attention to the character of God and his reminders that inner biblical readings reflect "clever providence" and "internal typology."

Leithart offers a reading of 1 and 2 Kings "that places the story of divided Christendom within an evangelical framework," providing a Reformed perspective on Christian divisions. He criticizes the "communal amnesia" which causes Christians to forget that "the whole history of the church is our history," and yet he makes little use of Christian interpreters before Calvin. Both volumes speak about the church, but Radner lets the church speak to us.

Theological interpretation has never disappeared. It continues among Christians who read the Bible as a single book, employ figural readings, and ask what God is saying about himself in the Bible. Generally speaking, its practitioners have been suspicious of biblical criticism (one of them defined exegesis as "Exit Jesus"). It also continues among some scholars who, after discovering authorial intent, draw theological conclusions. The Brazos series represents less a revival of theological interpretation than an effort at its scholarly legitimization. It confronts modernist historical criticism by asserting that all read with theological presuppositions and that the best presuppositions for reading Christian Scripture are found in the Nicene tradition. More specifically, the series offers a scholarly defense for figural reading of the Bible. This series provides permission to combine the findings of biblical criticism with the theological riches of the Spirit-led church while maintaining intellectual integrity. One hopes the series will enrich and expand this synergy. One also hopes for more volumes like Radner's, which provides a solid rationale for theological interpretation, to identify the most beneficial hermeneutical approaches.

Tossing down the gauntlet, a medieval way to issue a challenge, is a fitting metaphor for the resurgence of theological interpretation. What we are hearing is the sound of voices from the first 1,500 years of Christianity, demanding that their approach to biblical interpretation no longer be ignored or dismissed. The question remains whether today's church will take up the challenge.

Stephen J. Lennox is professor of Bible at Indiana Wesleyan University.

1. This summary follows the treatment of Augustine by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their much-used guide to biblical interpretation, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd edition (Zondervan, 2003), p. 150.

2. Karl Barth, "The Preface to the First Edition," The Epistle to the Romans, translated from the 6th edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford Univ. Press, 1933, 1968), p. 1.

3. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 7.

4. Kevin Vanhoozer, "Introduction," Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey (Baker Academic/SPCK, 2005, 2008), p. 20.

5. Vanhoozer, p. 18.

6. Ephraim Radner, Hope Among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2004), p. 82.

7. Radner, Hope, p. 100.

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