Joel B. Green, ‘Modernity, History and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible’, Scottish Journal of Theology 54, 3 (2001), 308-29.
Joel Green has written a lot on theological interpretation, much of it now conveniently gathered in a book – Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007).
This 2001 piece was an early article, showing where his thoughts were heading, illustrated with reference to 1 Peter, which would eventually give birth to his commentary in ‘The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary Series’, which he co-edits with Max Turner.
He begins here by noting the ‘troublesome relationship’ between biblical studies and systematic theology, and the attempts on the part of some to span the divide between the two disciplines (308-309). He calls on biblical scholars, in particular, to ‘take theological concerns seriously’, but suggests that a large part of the problem is ‘history’ (310).
1. The problem of history
The problem is that ‘if all knowledge is historically grounded… then we moderns should not be governed in our knowing by someone else’s history, including the history of Scripture itself and the Christian tradition’ (311). Whereas premodern perspectives worked with an assumption that text and history were coterminous, the modern perspective ‘posits a purposeful segregation of “history” and “text”’, in which ‘interpretive privilege is accorded to “history”’ (312).
Among other things, according to Green, this reinforced the distinction between ‘what it meant’ and ‘what it means’, and is consistent with the more popular three-step engagement with the Bible of Observation–Interpretation–Application, neither of which he judges are well-suited to ‘those of us who locate ourselves as biblical scholars within and on behalf of the church’ (313).
2. Historical criticism: we cannot live with or without it
Our only attitude to historical criticism, he says, ‘can be one of ambivalence’ (313).
We cannot live without it because:
(1) ‘We are children of modernity’ (and we know that all language, including the language of the Bible, is embedded in culture) (314).
(2) ‘The capacity of the Bible to function as Scripture depends in part on its capacity to expose and thwart our own limited, historical horizons’ (314), where our own assumptions are called into question.
(3) ‘There is no escaping the historical character of our (biblical) faith’ (316).
And we cannot live with it because:
(1) ‘Historical criticism assumes… that there is more than one church’ – borrowing from Robert Jenson the comment that ‘the text we call the Bible was put together in the first place by the same community that now needs to interpret it’ (316), and from James McClendon the notion that ‘the fundamental character of the division between the biblical world and our own... is not historical but theological’ (317).
(2) ‘Historical criticism assumes what no one can assume – namely, that there exists in scholarly inquiry a ledge of neutrality on which to stand to engage in biblical interpretation’ (317).
(3) ‘Historical criticism as generally practiced is ensconced in a discredited philosophy of history’ (319) – a commitment to scientific method and scientific detachment.
3. Which way forward?
Green notes that two ways forward for revisioning biblical studies and systematic theology, or carving out ‘new disciplinary space’ are by attending ‘less to the original, historical sense of biblical texts and either more deliberately to their canonical address within Scripture-shaped communities or more fully to the history of their reception’ (321).
The books of the New Testament, he notes, are not themselves ‘the gospel’ but ‘witnesses’ to the gospel ‘within specific sociohistorical contexts’ (321). They are less sources for theological data so much as ‘already exemplars of the theological task, of representing the implications and working out the ramifications of the Gospel’ (322).
So, we can take note of how Scripture itself draws on paradigmatic presuppositions (e.g., the continuity of past, present, and future in God’s purpose) and yet also see how it models ‘the instantiation of the good news in particular locales and with respect to historical particularities’; we see, already in the New Testament, the ‘constructive task of reiteration, restatement, and interpretation of the good news vis-à-vis ever-developing horizons and challenges’ (322).
Thus, when it comes to 1 Peter (Green’s sample text in this article), our task is not simply to read the content of the message of 1 Peter into our world, but to inquire ‘how 1 Peter itself engages in the theological task’: ‘How is 1 Peter situated in and reflective of a particular sociohistorical environment? What is its response – on the basis of the great story of God’s activity in the world, including the world of 1 Peter – to that environment?’ (323). How does the discourse of 1 Peter transform our assumptions about God and the world?
Green makes four observations here:
(1) ‘The overriding metaphor of this New Testament document is “the diaspora”’ (323) – announced in the opening (1:1) and closing (5:13) of the letter, and which evokes a variety of images, including the temporal nature of the diaspora, the possibility of assimilation and defection, ‘the danger of acculturation and accommodation’. This is coupled with Peter’s identification of his Christian audience ‘with the ancient people of God’, all of which ‘signals the perspective that pervades the document as a whole’, with Peter collapsing ‘the historical distinction between Israel of old and his own audience in the service of theological identity’ (324).
(2) Identification with Israel of old, however, does not mean that Peter’s audience shares their experience of ‘forced relocation’. Instead, ‘those believers to whom Peter addresses this letter have not been transported into a new geographical space, but have rather been born anew within the space they had previously inhabited’ (325). Green draws on Miroslav Volf’s famous ‘Soft Difference’ essay here, noting that ‘Christians are insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again’ (325, citing Volf). Green also resists the attempts of some (e.g., John H. Elliott) to find a reference to the believers’ economic status, arguing instead that the implied readers ‘represent the broad spectrum of people living in Asia Minor’ (325). They are exiles in the sense that their ‘commitments to the lordship of Jesus Christ have led to transformed attitudes and behaviors that place them on the margins of respectable society’, people ‘whose reborn allegiances and transfigured practices distinguished them from Roman society’, whose ‘lack of acculturation to prevailing social values marked them as misfits worthy of contempt’ (326).
(3) ‘Peter demarcates the identity of God’s people in three ways’. First is ‘the positive route of characterizing his Christian audience in relation to God’s call to holiness’ (326) – the vocation of Israel, that they might fulfil their mission to the nations, noting that ‘holiness’ connotes ‘difference’ and ‘distinctiveness’, not a call to segregation but to a particular form of engagement. Second, ‘Peter adopts a negative stance vis-à-vis the former life of his audience’ (327) – not so much invective against the world at large as conversion of one’s moral imagination. Third, ‘he points to the preeminent example of Jesus’ (327) – with Christian identity and practice understood positively as the way of the Messiah.
(4) Then comes a ‘more pointed, more pivotal, and prior question that is both hermeneutical and theological: Who reads 1 Peter aright?’ (327). Green here borrows from Umberto Eco the concept of the ‘Model Reader’, readers who are both ‘presumed by the text and sculpted by the text’. Such readers ‘embrace and embody the status of persons whose identity as pilgrims in the world grows out of their experience of the new birth, whose lives are radically marked by their membership in a community defined by their allegiance to Christ, whose lives thus stand in an ambiguous relationship to the mores and values of the world around them, and, accordingly, whose forms of existence attract opposition from their neighbors’ (328).
Hence (coming back to the concerns of ‘history’ in the title of the essay):
‘To read 1 Peter aright, then, as its Model Reader, is not to objectify its message in an historical moment now distant from our own, and then imaginatively to allow its message to leap forward to our own time. It is, rather, to embrace the persona of Peter’s audience as our own. We do not invite the text into a transformation of its original meaning into a new application geared toward our thought forms; rather, the text invites us into a transformation of allegiances and commitment, which will manifest itself in behaviors appropriate to our social worlds’ (328).