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Daniel Treier

Heaven on Earth?

Evangelicals and biblical interpretation.

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In mid-September 2011, a conference entitled "Heaven on Earth? The Future of Spiritual Interpretation" convened at Regent College in Vancouver, cosponsored by The Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue. Just a few weeks before, Christian Smith, the renowned sociologist now at Notre Dame, published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos)—along with, almost simultaneously, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Cascade).

Smith's work generated fairly predictable reactions, albeit sometimes from surprising quarters. Meanwhile, the conference papers, though mostly case studies, generated surprisingly high quality conversation. The convergence of the two events challenges us to assess the state of Scripture interpretation in North American churches.

History vs. Mystery?

The conference's Catholic keynote speaker, Fr. Brian Daley of Notre Dame, rooted his presentation in contemporary appropriation of patristic exegesis. By contrast, the Protestant keynote speaker, Kevin Vanhoozer, addressed the church fathers occasionally but rooted his approach in contemporary appropriation of the Protestant Reformation. The rest of the invited presenters—including, in the interests of full disclosure, yours truly—covered a range of biblical texts and traditional figures. Beyond these particulars, though, the conference kept returning to some key issues.

From an initial gathering with Regent students during our airport pickup to question and answer sessions and hallway conversations, there was a consistent theme: how to navigate apparent conflict between modern biblical scholarship and classic spiritual exegesis. Although any school has its unique features, the challenge faced by these Regent students has become fairly typical at a number of evangelical institutions. Courses in biblical studies and (usually) hermeneutics teach how to exegete the Bible using modern tools of critical scholarship, perhaps with a measure of discernment about the presuppositions involved in the history of those tools. Meanwhile courses in theology and (perhaps) pastoral ministry or spiritual life teach what classic churchly interpreters did with the Bible and suggest (to varying degrees) that we should go and do likewise. The challenge of discernment becomes much more difficult as a result: can the students embrace a modern approach centered on historical reconstruction of the human author's intentions, simply making minor presuppositional adjustments that uphold the Bible's historical value and theological authority? Or must students fundamentally embrace a more classic understanding of spiritual exegesis centered on pursuit of the divine Author's intentions, simply making ad hoc use of modern historical tools when these seem helpful to churchly aims?

Of course, these may not be the only possibilities. But feeling confused and caught in the middle—unable to decide between or integrate the two perspectives—tends to be the student outcome when relative newcomers hear the most strongly argued, polarizing presentations of each position. Some Regent students have therefore dubbed the debate "History vs. Mystery"—of which the conference staged a pointed yet charitable version.

Literally Spiritual or Spiritually Literal?

The "mystery" advocates—most (traditional or conservative) Catholics and a rising number of Protestants—rather unequivocally embrace the spiritual exegesis of the classic church(es). They may or may not allow for historically oriented university exegesis to play a significantly informative role in overall judgments about the meaning of Scripture. But they are open in principle to the full range of classic exegetical practices—not least, "allegorical" interpretations—being pursued within the boundaries of the Rule of faith. Within such parameters, correctness of interpretation is not as important as edification, and aberrant interpretations can be winnowed out over time via churchly discernment.

Conversely, the "history" advocates—most evangelical Protestant biblical scholars and some Catholics—believe that true spiritual edification requires correct understanding of Scripture's literal sense. They may or may not allow for meaning to go beyond the intentions of the human author to reflect divine meaning at the canonical level, for instance through "typological" interpretations (a common New Testament practice, e.g., seeing Christ as a Passover lamb). But "allegorical" interpretations are off limits because they obscure or even contradict the message that the texts try to convey at the literal level.

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