Joseph Kelly is exploring the task of writing biblical theology. John Anderson, James Spinti, and I have joined the conversation. I agree with Kelly and Anderson that the discipline of biblical theology, variously construed, is livelier and more interesting than ever before. Like other subdisciplines of biblical studies (biblical archaeology; the history of the religion of Israel; source criticism), the discipline of biblical theology is no longer dominated by European and North American Protestants. It now benefits greatly from the contribution of scholars who inscribe their work in overlapping and sometimes opposing “projects of salvation.” To be sure, it is sometimes clear that a scholar’s opus is first and foremost an act of self-medication rather than the expression of a commitment to tikkun_olam.
It is only natural that controversies which invest the field of general hermeneutics impact the way biblical theologians understand their craft. Literary critics Harold Bloom and Mikhail Bakhtin consciously and forthrightly seek to dethrone the author and the meaning he/she intended and replace her/him and it with the reader and her/his meaning. Perhaps especially from a psychoanalytical point of view, the approach is not only suspect insofar as it takes a disorder like the Oedipus/Electra complex and makes it the basis of an approach to reading, but unhealthy. These hermeneuts are bold, that's for sure. The best way I know to honor them is to be bold right back.
It is possible to concur with those who emphasize reader-response that everything depends on the reader. Precisely for that reason, it is important to be able to distinguish between virtues and vices in a reader, and virtues and vices in the process of reading.
An instructive test case is the example of history and historians. I don't know about you, but the historians I admire the most are the ones who restore a personality from the past and a period to a contemporary reader in all of their weirdness and disagreement with my personality and my period. I have a great need for portraits, to cite examples that matter to me, of Paul, Augustine, John Calvin, Giordano Bruni, Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and Mark Twain that understand them in terms of their own context and their own agendas. I cherish readings which avoid defacing authors and readers of the past in the name of a truth of modern or postmodern coinage.
Harold Bloom refers to a “strong misreading” in which “the mighty dead return,” but “they return in our colors, and speaking in our voices” (Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 141. Bloom's project of devoicing, and voicing over, is admirable in its explicitness. But I would argue on behalf of the opposing viewpoint. As an exegete and a biblical theologian, my goal is to enable the (so-called) dead to return in their own colors, not mine. I fight to allow them to speak in their own voices. Not mine, not yours, but theirs.
It is worth proposing to a reader a list of virtues with more than just poetic license and "boldness" on it.
There is the further question of correctly characterizing approaches to interpretation embodied within biblical literature. An excellent point of departure is a programmatic essay by Bernard Levinson. I quote therefrom:
"Seen from that vantage point [of a corpus that sanctions theory], the canon is radically open. It invites innovation, it demands interpretation, it challenges piety, it questions priority, it sanctifies subversion, it warrants difference, and it embeds critique" (Bernard M. Levinson, Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008] 94).
The dictum is correct so far as it goes. Nonetheless, I would counterpoint Levinson's assertions.
Point 1: “The canon is radically open.” In the Bible, the principle of reality and the principle of justice are one and the same. The alef of all that occurs, the giver of all norms and all wisdom, is identified with the judge who promises the tau of justice and reconciliation. Anticipation of the promise’s fulfillment, more than disenchantment with its non-realization, sets in motion a conflict of interpretations. But the terms of the conflict are, insofar as they become canonical, established. They are not or no longer subject to revision. The canon is radically open and radically closed at the same time.
Point 2: “It invites innovation.” The canon invites innovation within an established framework. Innovation occurs within a tradition of innovation. Innovation is traditioned, and is designed to preserve tradition.
Point 3. “It demands interpretation.” At the same time, the Bible is its own interpreter. It contains interpretation, and demands that that interpretation be treated on a par with that which is interpreted. No matter how strident the conflict, the 'organized contradiction" is the preferred starting point of further interpretation.
Point 4. “It challenges piety.” It ridicules lack of pietas - lack of devotion to God, country, and family.
Point 5. “It questions priority.” It questions priority in the name of more fundamental priorities.
Point 6. “It sanctifies subversion.” It sanctifies the subversion of subversion. It sanctifies the subversion of one tradition on the basis of another.
Point 7. “It warrants difference.” It strives for coherence. However tentatively, it harmonizes.
Point 8. “It embeds critique.” But it resists the critique of the sufferer's lament from God's would-be defenders. It also resists critique devoid of pietas.
Additional online bibliography of interest: