The Goods of Reading: Theological Interpretation and Scriptural Reasoning

Rebekah Ann Eklund,
Duke Divinity School

The practice of reading texts has been scrutinized, deconstructed, and reconstructed from a multitude of angles. Scholars have probed the nature of texts, the perspective and presuppositions of the reader, and the way in which meaning is produced in the interplay between the two. These discussions have implications for the practice of scriptural reasoning, inasmuch as it is a particular way of reading a certain kind of text. Scriptural reasoning engages texts considered to be sacred by those who adhere to them: the Qur’an, the Christian Bible, and the Jewish Scriptures. Practitioners of scriptural reasoning are members of faith communities who seek to order their lives by the wisdom in these texts, and who come together into a shared space to read their sacred texts together.

As Nicholas Adams writes, what makes scriptural reasoning possible is not agreement on the rules for interpreting these sacred texts. Rather, “The significant point of contact is a shared acknowledgement that scriptural texts are sacred, together with a shared desire to do scriptural reasoning.” [2] Neither of these two points of contact are to be taken for granted. The first one, for example, raises significant questions for the scholar who is also a member of a community of faith. What does it mean to read the sacred texts of Christianity from within the academy, using its set of tools and assumptions, and at the same time to read for the end of theological interpretation? For the purposes of this essay, theological interpretation or reasoning is defined as reading the text for practical wisdom – in other words, for the flourishing and nurturing of a faith community and of those who seek to live faithfully to the God to whom the sacred text bears witness.

This essay probes the practice of scriptural reasoning as a model for reading sacred texts in a way that bridges the work and concerns of the academy and the faith community; it will do so from a specifically Christian perspective. In particular, it seeks to examine the presuppositions and modes of reading Scripture that make scriptural reasoning possible for Christians. To that end, we will consider the reading of the Bible for the purpose of theological reasoning, defined as increased wisdom that leads to a more faithful Christian life. In other words, reading the text “theologically” may be construed as reading for formation in identity and character, or for the strengthening of certain virtues. Thus, it must be asked, what practices regarding the reading of the text are required in order to read the text in this way? In addition to certain academic strategies, are particular “virtues” required for the reading of Christian Scripture for greater wisdom? And finally, does the unique practice of scriptural reasoning require or yield any virtues of its own? This exploration will be shaped around three primary questions: for what goods does one read; what does a text mean; and with whom does one read?

For What Goods Does One Read?

“One does not read the Gospel of Matthew in the same manner in which one reads the New York Times,” one of my seminary professors famously said. True enough: one does not read the two documents for the same reasons. The reasons people read the Bible are varied and overlapping; some of these “goods” suppose the text to be sacred or inspired, and some do not. Some of these modes of reading would be considered academic, some of them devotional or confessional, and some perhaps even secular; yet the same person might read the same text for several of these reasons all in the same day. For example, one may read the Bible for increased understanding or greater historical, literary, or religious knowledge. Historians turn to the Bible, with sharply differing accounts of the reliability of its material, for study of Israel’s history and society; of the Ancient Near East and its religions; of the Roman Empire; of Jesus and Nazareth; and of the development of the early church and the Christian religion. Literary critics study the Bible for its Hebrew poetry, muse over the genre of the Gospels, and compare Jewish and Christian apocalyptic works. The Bible may be read for religious knowledge, either in a more universal vein (greater understanding of the divine) or a more particular one (exploration of the identity of the Christian God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The question, of course, is if reading for greater knowledge in any of these areas is a good in itself, or if this good in turn leads to a greater good: the flourishing of humankind, for example, or the more thoughtful theologian, or the more faithful Christian.

Reading the Bible is by no means limited to intellectual pursuits. Some read the Bible for pleasure; one can easily imagine reading Esther for this purpose, if not Joshua or Jude. Others peruse the Scripture for insight into the human condition or the human spirit in general: the Psalms and the book of Job are sometimes read in this way. Outside the academy, perhaps the most commonly expected good of reading the Bible is that of personal spiritual nourishment; reading the Bible is construed as that which connects one personally to God in order to feed the soul, strengthen the faint heart, and provide answers or help in times of crisis or difficulty. Many Christians also read to seek instructions on how to live from day to day. In other words, the good to be attained is that of obedience, or the enabling of an obedient life. A person desires to know what God wills for her life; reading the Bible provides the commands to be followed. Finally, the Bible is read in another setting: neither the academy nor the home, but the church. In the case of liturgical reading, reading the Bible regularly and publicly is taken as one of the indispensable acts that enables the life and witness of the church. The good in this case is the shaping and sustaining of a particular community.

Thus, the primary good one hopes to obtain directs, at least in part, the way in which one reads, and the tools which one employs in that reading. To read the Bible for theological interpretation is also to read for a certain good, one which might be described as transformative knowledge of God: the increase of wisdom, further defined as “lived knowledge” or “performance knowledge.” [3] In short, one is enabled to love God and neighbor, [4] to live with and for God in the world, grounded within the life of a particular faith community.

Scriptural reasoning participants read from the positions of their respective faith communities, but come together under a “tent” for a time as a way of seeking wisdom together through the reading of their sacred texts. [5] The practitioners of SR are Jews, Muslims, and Christians who do not abandon their particular convictions to find so-called common or universal ground, but rather hope to “bring core identities [of their faiths] into conversation” and to “sustain them there.” [6] The anticipated goods of this mode of reading include not only wisdom, but friendship.

Scriptural reasoning is an occasional practice, not a normative one; it assumes that those who come to the table to read texts together as a way of reading across difference have been grounded in deep and sustained study of those texts within their own traditions. Scriptural reasoning requires a willingness to take scripture seriously as that which shapes and provides wisdom for a particular tradition. That the sacred text is a source of wisdom is taken for granted. Practitioners of scriptural reasoning accept that a member of a faith not their own may teach them something new about their “own” sacred text; the texts themselves are assumed not to be univocal but to be “patient” of multiple interpretations. Thus, what makes scriptural reasoning possible for Christians is a set of previous assumptions about how and why to read the Bible. [7]

For a Christian to participate in scriptural reasoning – to pursue those particular goods – presumes the Bible to be a certain kind of book. Yet what kind of book is it, after all? Does the nature of the Bible itself demand or hope for a certain kind of reader? Does the Scripture “expect” to yield up a particular good to its readers? This brings us to Benjamin Jowett’s infamous question, which set the stage for so much later hermeneutical wrangling: Is the Bible to be read like any other book? [8]

Those who read the Bible as Christian Scripture have answered Jowett’s question in at least two different ways: traditionally, the answer has been that the Bible is not like any other book; it is the inspired word of God and therefore special reading rules apply. Scholars in Jowett’s day tended to answer the question in the affirmative: the Bible was to be read precisely the way in which one read any other book. More recently, the answer has been more cautious. If the Bible is a sacred text, it presumably has some characteristics in common with all texts, some characteristics in common with other sacred texts, and even a few characteristics that might be special to its nature as Christian Scripture; what this means for the way it should be read has been notoriously difficult to untangle. Much hinges on one’s view of the divine element: the Bible is surely human, and it may be sacred, but if a transcendent God is somehow involved in the writing, transmission, or interpretation of the text, then the Bible is pretty clearly not to be read just like “any other book.”

Two distinct disciplines come into play when one reads the Bible for theological reflection: biblical studies and theology. [9] Biblical scholars and theologians sometimes appear to be talking at cross-purposes. Do historical-critical scholarship and theological reasoning share the same goods? Do they share the same understanding of what the Bible is, and what it is for ? Reading the Bible for theological or ethical interpretation has been an enterprise plagued with so many difficulties that (historically speaking) many have simply given up trying. It is notable in this respect that scriptural reasoning arose out of the prior practice of textual reasoning, a project founded by a group of Jewish philosophers as “a practice of philosophic reasoning that would emerge from out of the activity of reading rabbinic texts together with rabbinic text scholars and historians.” [10] According to Peter Ochs, this practice “stretched but did not overstep the bounds of either traditional Jewish practice or modern academic inquiry.” [11] The textual reasoning project then began to encounter Muslim and Christian text scholars and theologians/philosophers who shared analogous concerns, especially regarding dual service in “academy and denomination”; scriptural reasoning was born to encourage the practice of textual reasoning in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish fellowships, as well as to bring the three communities together. [12] We will return to the theme of community; here the pertinent point is that textual reasoning (and by implication scriptural reasoning) is, in part, the work of bridging the academic and confessional spheres.

Biblical theologian Brevard Childs devoted much of his life to the work of building his own bridges between disciplines: between the fields of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and between the fields of biblical studies and theology. For Childs, the central task in these endeavors is “employing the common historical critical tools of our age in the study of the Bible while at the same time doing full justice to the unique theological subject matter of Scripture as the self-revelation of God.” [13] Childs names a tension in the potentially competing aims of what he calls modern secular biblical scholarship and theological reading of Scripture, aims that derive from competing epistemologies. Childs critiques the tools of biblical scholarship for tending to limit reality to the scope of the human imagination. For example, his public quarrel with scholar James Barr in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament could be reduced, simplistically, to a single problem: Barr reads Scripture as the record of what people think about God, [14] whereas Childs reads Scripture as a record about God. In other words, the referent of Scripture for Childs is not human religion but the full divine reality to which the text points and bears witness. Yet Childs insists that it is imperative to use the historical critical tools; in which case, the tools must be (at least) theologically or epistemologically neutral, and not fundamentally incompatible, in aims or goods, with theological reasoning. Historical critical tools, including textual criticism, form criticism, and so on, can be used for a variety of purposes, but one of the primary ones is to establish the “meaning” of a text.

What Does a Text Mean?

Reading texts for theological reasoning or wisdom necessarily engages questions of how one determines the meaning of a text. New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl is often named as positing a gap that, while not quite an ugly ditch, has been bridged only with difficulty: the gap between what the text meant, and what it means. [15] For Stendahl, the task of the interpreter is to determine first what the text meant (historical-critical investigation) and then to explore what it means (application, interpretation, theological reasoning). Here we have, in nuce, the historic divorce of biblical scholarship from dogmatic theology. The first task (what the text meant) became the domain of the exegete, and the second step (what the text means) the territory of the theologian. [16]

According to Childs (et. al.), Stendahl’s first task falls prey to a historicist impulse: the need to find out “what really happened” by either reconstructing the historical events “behind” the text, reconstructing the early church (e.g., Matthew’s community), or reconstructing the person of the historical Jesus himself. A quick scan of historical Jesus scholarship reveals a difficulty: recovering the “real” Jesus often involves presuppositions about what belongs to the authentic Jesus and what surely cannot. One attempts to access a reality apart from the witness of the text: these various attempts at reconstruction are all moves to look behind or underneath the text.

In The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, Hans Frei traces the hermeneutical developments in the 18th and 19th centuries that gradually sundered the meaning of the biblical texts from their character as realistic, history-like narratives. According to Frei, biblical unity had once been conceived as “the enactment of a single pattern of meaning through a specific set of interactions constituting a single story consummated over a temporal span”; with later interpreters, this unity came to be seen as a historical rather than storied relationship. That is, the Bible becomes a “witness” to a history outside of itself, rather than a narrative text which itself constitutes the real world. [17] Interpreters then began to locate meaning not in the texts themselves but in something external to the text. This is a move Frei broadly calls “meaning-as-reference.” Once meaning is located externally to the text, it could be either 1) ostensive reference: i.e., historical reference, a space-time event outside the text; or 2) ideal reference: i.e., a general, universal religious or spiritual truth. This first move-meaning as ostensive reference—is directly related to the historicist impulse to rebuild a historical reality using the data of the text.

Modern biblical scholars who attempt to read the text to discover or nourish a theology must thus bridge two gaps: the one between the text and its subject matter, and the one between the text’s “original” meaning and its contemporary application. The recovery of narrative or intratextual readings (as advocated by scholars such as George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and so on) has been instrumental in bridging the first gap. For the overcoming of the second gap, we might turn to the scholars of the Scripture Project, many of whom contributed reflections to The Art of Reading Scripture, a collection of essays on what it means to read Scripture for the “good” of theological interpretation.

One of the Scripture Project’s “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture” includes the statement that “historical investigations [of biblical texts] have ongoing importance in helping us to understand Scripture’s literal sense and in stimulating the church to undertake new imaginative readings of the texts.” [18] Refusing to play by the rules of Stendahl’s gap – dividing biblical study into the two discrete tasks of exegesis and theology – does not mean ignoring what the text has meant to other communities throughout history.

To wonder what the text once meant is also to ask to whom did the text thus mean (a text does not mean unless it means to or for someone); and when did the text thus mean? One predominant answer has been to ask what the text meant to the original author – what the original author intended the text to mean. Various attempts in this vein have proven how speculative such reconstructions of the author’s mind can be, to the extent that some scholars have abandoned the attempt altogether and turned to the meaning supplied by the contemporary reader – in essence, leaping the gap by skipping the first step.

On the other hand, even if the mind of the author or redactor is essentially lost to us, historical, cultural, and linguistic information can provide invaluable background to the way the first hearers might have heard and understood these texts. We can explore what the text meant to them: the earliest readers are potentially discoverable, at least in tentative terms. Scholars also explore what the text meant to other readers throughout history: certainly we are able to trace this trajectory with relatively increasing confidence. Once we reach the present—what the text means to us—we have theoretically created a fairly open but bounded space for theological interpretation: a space in which what the text means for us is hedged in, at least provisionally, [19] by what the text has meant throughout its history. This could be roughly analogous to reading with the regula fidei, or the rule of faith, or as “apprenticeship to those who have become masters.” [20] Others might conceive of it as reading the text in its history of reception, from the time of composition to the present. New Testament scholar Markus Bockmuehl accounts for it as apostolicity: for two centuries after Christ, the living memory of the apostles “accompanied and guided the writing and reading of the apostolic word—serving as a vital historical index of the potential breadth, and the hermeneutical limits, of authentic apostolic faith.” [21] Reading the text for wisdom in the present faith community can mean drawing on the accumulated wisdom of the past faith community.

What the text means in the present is not of automatic interest to most historical-critical methods, although it is not ruled out; rather it might fall under the purview of either a scholar of religions (for the good of increased knowledge vis-à-vis human religion, or perhaps for interfaith dialogue) or the theologian or person of faith committed to the text as sacred Scripture (for the good of obedience, or faithful living). For this latter person, one who wishes to read Scripture for the good of wisdom, exploring what the text has meant to other readers is a preliminary step; it is the servant to the ultimately important question of what the text means to the present reader or living faith community. If a reader employs the tools of historical-critical exegesis, and has learned something new about a text, does this new piece of knowledge matter, and in what way? What purchase does critical work finally offer on what the text means?

The criterion of whether or not it “matters” seems to be a reasonable rule of thumb for the discerning use of historical-critical tools. If the good of the tools is their contribution toward the community’s wisdom, or theological reasoning, then the criterion for whether or not their use achieves that good is what we might call the criterion of fruitfulness. For Childs, for example, the fruitfulness of historical-critical tools is always in helping one understand the final form of the text – recovering the diachronic or depth dimension of a text in order to better understand the historical trajectories and developments within the tradition itself – the tradition being understood not from what Childs decries as a history-of-religions perspective, but as “Israel’s life with God” (in the Old Testament) or the church’s life with God in the New Testament. The ultimate goal is engaging deeply with the text in a way that leads one into encounter with what Childs sees as the true subject matter of the text: the Trinitarian God. For Childs, “True exegesis is basically dialectical in nature. One comes to any text already with certain theological (ideological) assumptions and the task of good exegesis is to penetrate so deeply into the text that even these assumptions are called into question, tested, and revised by the subject matter itself. The implication is that exegesis does not confine itself to registering only the verbal sense of the text, but presses forward through the text to the subject matter (res) to which it points. Thus erklären and verstehen belong integrally together in the one enterprise and cannot be separated for long.” [22] The ultimate good of reading with these tools is that they serve the greater or more ultimate good of a life with and for God.

With Whom Do We Read?

Establishing what the text means points up what seems to be an obvious problem. People read the same texts and produce deeply divergent, perhaps even diametrically opposed, interpretations and applications. [23] As noted above, scriptural reasoning allows for flexible readings and multiple interpretations. Yet “in-house” adjudications of faithful or accurate interpretations take on a sharper and more urgent edge, and may at times even impinge on the practice of scriptural reasoning. Are some people, or some communities, simply better readers than others, and by what standard are these judgments made?

The problem is sometimes identified as faulty hermeneutics: what is needed is better method or reading strategies. Or, the blame is laid on modes of interpretation, which assumes the text has a plain or clear meaning that has simply been misapplied. Perhaps, however, the root of the problem lies neither in hermeneutics per se nor in interpretation, but in the interpreting community itself, and its assumptions, practices, and prior commitments. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has adopted from literary critic Stanley Fish the insight that texts do not “mean” anything apart from an interpreting community or interpretive context, [24] an insight that coheres well with the understanding of scriptural reasoning. [25] Meaning is to be found not solely in the text itself, nor exclusively in the reader, but in the interplay between the text, its history of interpretation, and the present reading community. As Fish might say, there is a text in this class; but what kind of text is it, and what is the nature of the class?

The Bible is a sacred text, with a particular history of production, that imagines a specific type of reader. The anticipated reader of the Bible is not in fact a disinterested reader; instead, these texts were produced in, preserved by, and addressed to particular communities: Israel and the church. Markus Bockmuehl argues that the implied reader of the New Testament is a disciple; one might add that the implied reader of the New Testament is a disciple in community.

Reading as a disciple (and a scholar) positions one in a certain community with particular preexisting commitments and beliefs. We have already skirted around this issue by exploring briefly the nature of the Bible as a sacred text. For example, the church reads what it calls the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible or Jewish Scriptures) along with the New Testament as Christian Scripture. Both are read from the position of the church, while recognizing that the Old Testament is also read as sacred Scripture from a different position, by another faith community: Judaism. While Christians cannot directly position themselves to read from inside that community, Christians surely have much to learn from those who read from there – a belief the practice of scriptural reasoning reflects.

In/span> scriptural reasoning, the participants enter into what Ford calls “three-way mutual hospitality”; each religion’s practitioners serve in turn as host, welcoming the two guests into its scripture and its tradition of interpretation. [26] The ground where the group gathers to read is not neutral ground; rather, it is shared space. [27] The practice of scriptural reasoning points compellingly to another “good” of reading sacred texts with other communities: not just the seeking of wisdom, but also the fulfillment of God’s purpose of peace. [28] When practicing scriptural reasoning, one deliberately reads from a particular position – a unique three-part community – and in an intuitive mode that can produce unexpected insights as participants share their texts with one another and learn from their interactions.

If reading Scripture as a disciple requires one to be situated in a community, one could envision such space not as a single place but as gradually widening, overlapping circles. [29] The scholar who is also a person of faith is already a dual member of two spheres – the congregation and the academy – and is a participant in both who can bring the respective resources of the two communities to bear on one another. The sphere of the congregation begins with a local worshiping community: “A faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action – the church.” [30] The circle then widens to include a broader community of Christians, the holy catholic church throughout history and in the present day. This might involve reading John Calvin and St. Teresa; it might also entail Catholics reading with Moravians, Methodists with Baptists, and Orthodox with Lutherans. Finally, one might read together within the kind of inter-faith community envisioned by scriptural reasoning (Muslims, Jews, and Christians). In this model, friendship is not a tool or precondition for reading the text, but it is an anticipated good that in turn nourishes the practice of reading.

The Practice of Reading for Wisdom: Forming and Being Formed

Theologian David Kelsey has argued that every theologian (in Kevin Vanhoozer’s words) “makes an imaginative judgment as to what Christianity is all about based on his or her participation in the Christian community…. what is of decisive importance is not textual exegesis but a ‘pre-text’ imaginative judgment” – i.e., what Kelsey calls the sensus fidelium or “the sense of the people of faith as to how God is present in their community through Scripture.” [31] Kelsey highlights the rather common observation that everyone comes to the Bible with a “pre-text” – whether one calls it social location, pre-understanding, ideological stance, or presuppositions about the nature of the text and what one is supposed to find there. In order to read Scripture for theological reasoning, with what tools and pre-texts ought one approach the text? What are the necessary preconditions, if any, for careful theological reasoning with the text? One might imagine this as the set of virtues that form a person and a community into one who has been enabled to read for the good of wisdom.

Discipline This could be termed the virtue of scholarly hard work. Scriptural reasoning practitioners bring what Aref Nayed calls their “internal library” to the SR table with them. [32] These internal libraries include the diligent work scholars have done in language, textual study, philosophy, history, theology, and so on; to lack the depth and breadth of these internal libraries is surely to impoverish the reading of the Bible. One may argue (and many do) over how the divine and human elements are intertwined in the sacred text, yet the truth remains that the Bible is a gloriously messy collection of human writings, all quite ancient, produced in remarkably different cultures and social locations over the course of hundreds of years. If a tool will enable one better to understand it in order theologically to reflect on it, then let that tool be employed in due service to the hoped-for good: increased wisdom for right living with God and for the world; greater justice and peace; faith, hope, and love. This includes the historical-critical tools as well as literary ones: Stanley Hauerwas argues that Richard Hays is a good reader of Scripture in part because he reads poetry. [33] In other words, the general rules that make for good reading of any literary text apply to the Bible, too. Narrative and intratextual readings of Scripture have prompted much fruitful (although sometimes contentious) overlap between literary criticism and biblical scholarship.

Patience. Nicholas Adams describes scriptural reasoning as a “non-hasty practice.” [34] One of the joys of scriptural reasoning is that it is a slow, close reading of a short section of text; every word is carefully savored and examined. Likewise, biblical scholars Ellen Davis and Richard Hays often note that one of the virtues of reading in Greek or Hebrew is that it forces one to slow down and read carefully and deliberately, one word at a time. Martin Luther writes, “We shall not long preserve the Gospel without the languages [Greek and Hebrew]. …[T]here must always be such prophets in the Church, who are able to treat and expound the Scriptures and also to dispute; a saintly life and correct doctrine are not enough. …[L]anguages are absolutely necessary in the Church.” [35]

Imagination. Brevard Childs worries about the role of the imagination in interpretation, because he fears a style of exegesis that leaves one “lost and confused in a sea of indeterminacy.” [36] At the same time Childs repeatedly admires theologians who seem to read well “as if by reflex.” Scripture scholars (including Hays, Dale Allison, and Glen Stassen) often refer to Scripture as that which shapes the moral imagination. In turn, theologians such as Hauerwas draw upon the virtue ethics tradition to argue that the practices and worship of the church community form a person in a way that enables right reading of Scripture and the living out of its ethical demands. For Ochs, Jewish Morning Prayer can serve as a means of nurturing alternative habits of thinking: “Morning Prayer nurtures logics of judgment that are irreducible to propositional logic and that inhibit the tendency to overgeneralization that often accompanies propositional logic.” [37] In other words, Morning Prayer nurtures “redemptive thinking” [38] through formation of a different kind of logic (moving past the limits of purely propositional thinking). [39] The imagination can be trained by the practice of prayer. Similarly, scriptural reasoning resists the standard academic mode of textual study by emphasizing intuition and even a certain kind of playfulness with the text. It also demands a certain charity: the belief that one might be surprised by even a familiar text, and that a Christian might be taught something new about the Christian Scripture by a Jew or a Muslim.

Faith. To claim that this is a virtue of scholarship is certainly counter-intuitive – even anathema – to a dominant stream of the academic community. Yet must it be so? Athanasius took for granted that right understanding of Scripture requires “a good life and pure soul”; [40] Karl Barth wrote that the first task of the theologian is constant prayer. [41] In other words, the default position of most strands of Christianity, pre-Enlightenment, was that a holy life was requisite for good reading. Theological interpretation of Scripture “requires not only careful historical research, but, even more, our willingness to be morally formed in a manner appropriate to the claims of those texts.” [42] This is obviously not all it requires. Athanasius and Barth were deeply learned scholars. Nor is this to say that reading Scripture in general requires the reader to be a disciple – but only that reading the text for theological reasoning does require it. One reads to be challenged, changed, and overturned by the text: not that one masters it, but that one is mastered by it.

Community. Stanley Hauerwas argues that the Bible should be read only by “those who have undergone the hard discipline of existing as part of God’s people” – i.e., only by those within the community of the church. [43] This is another way of arguing that the ideal reader of the Bible as sacred text – the theological reader of Scripture – is a disciple in community. It also returns to Kelsey’s point that church communities shape or predispose people to read Scripture in a certain way. Of course, it is a dialectical relationship: Scripture shapes the imagination and life of the church, which in turn shapes the reading of Scripture. The point is, theological reading of and reasoning with Scripture requires—or is supported by—a certain kind of community, or communities, reading together.

Joy If one attends a scriptural reasoning session with Peter Ochs, one will likely hear him claim that the joy of Scripture study is an end in itself. If one knows the pleasure and the joy of studying the text for its own sake, then one will have something rich to offer to one’s fellow scriptural reasoning participants.

If Christians are enabled to fully participate in the practice of scriptural reasoning by a certain set of virtues or modes of reading, then scriptural reasoning in turn may nourish certain virtues in the Christians who practice it. Just as some of the “virtues” named above may be seen as prerequisites to reading texts for theological reasoning, these same virtues may in turn be strengthened by the specific practice of scriptural reasoning. The imagination, for example, is exercised by scriptural reasoning; a new and creative kind of community is made possible. Scriptural reasoning seems to nurture three virtues in particular: humility, friendship, and hope.

Humility flows from the openness to surprise frequently cited by scriptural reasoning participants, and connects to the virtue of imagination (and the charity contained therein) named above. To be enabled to see old texts with new eyes, to be changed in unexpected ways through encountering one’s own text as well as the other faith’s sacred texts, are ways in which scriptural reasoning encourages the formation of humility in the scholar as she approaches the text.

It may seem strange to name friendship as a virtue. Yet it is both a “good” (if not an end, certainly an anticipated and hoped-for result) of scriptural reasoning, and it is also a deliberate practice encouraged and even demanded of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who sit down at one table to read their sacred texts together. The relationships created and gradually strengthened by ongoing scriptural reasoning groups point to the way in which SR may also foster the virtue of hope.

When David Ford speaks of the potential of scriptural reasoning for collegial engagement in the public sphere, and David Hardy refers to repairing the suffering of the world and the possibility of hospitable, peaceful relationships among the Abrahamic traditions, they both reflect the careful hope that scriptural reasoning nourishes in its practitioners. [44] Scriptural reasoning is not naïve about the challenges of such hopes, but it is, perhaps, a reminder of the way in which the Abrahamic faiths all point to, lean into, and long for God’s good and peaceful purposes for God’s world.


Reading the Bible, like reading any text, entails making decisions about what good is being pursued by reading it. Although the Bible may obviously be read in many different ways, toward different ends, construing the Bible as Christian Scripture invites a certain kind of reader (a disciple within a community) to read toward a certain good (wisdom, or transformative knowledge). The Bible can be read fruitfully from a variety of positions, toward a number of different ends. But to read the Bible as Christian Scripture, and to read it for the good of greater theological wisdom, is to read from a particular place, within certain communities, committed to specific goods, and nurtured by particular virtues.

The goal of reading sacred texts theologically is, simply put, the seeking of wisdom: transformative knowledge that enables greater love of God and neighbor. To this, the unique practice of scriptural reasoning adds friendship – a kind of friendship that is the embodiment and pursuit of peace and healing in a world that is hungry for healing and desperate for peace. For scriptural reasoning, in the end, the ultimate good is not merely wisdom that leads to right living, but a deeper good: “…the final goal is not only returning to right ‘habit’ or the ‘right’ way of life but also and more importantly, redemption…. Healing signs (the act of scriptural interpretation) leads to healing people, and healing people leads to redemption.” [45] And that is a good worth pursuing, with all the tools at our disposal.


[1] Many thanks to Dr. Richard Hays, who graciously read and commented on an earlier draft of this essay. Any remaining errors or shortcomings are wholly mine.
[2] Nicholas Adams, Habermas and Theology (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); online at
[3] Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity; Leicester, England: Apollos, 2002), 39.
[4] Augustine describes this as his guiding hermeneutical principle in On Christian Doctrine; Christian Classics Ethereal Library,
[5] David F. Ford, “An Interfaith Wisdom: Scriptural Reasoning between Jews, Christians and Muslims,” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, ed. David Ford and C.C. Pecknold (Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 1.
[6] Ibid., 2.
[7] This essay examines what makes SR possible for Christians specifically, and does not make similar claims for what might enable it as a practice for Jewish or Muslim communities.
[8] Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” in The Interpretation of Scripture and Other Essays (London: Routledge & Sons, 1860).
[9] Many have lamented the historical split between the two disciplines and suggested ways to repair it; this essay follows Hans Frei’s narrative of the split, but see also Ed Farley, Theologia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001).
[10] Peter Ochs, “Response: Reflections on Binarism,” Modern Theology 24 no.3 (July 2008): 495.
[11] Ibid., 496. Ochs also notes, however, that some of his colleagues demurred this judgment.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Brevard Childs, “Critical Reflections on James Barr’s Understanding of the Literal and the Allegorical,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 46 (199): 8.
[14] James Barr, “The Literal, the Allegorical, and Modern Biblical Scholarship,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 44 (1989): 12.
[15] Krister Stendahl, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, A-D, ed. George Buttrick (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 418-432.
[16] The practice of textual reasoning (TR), in a roughly analogous way, reflects an attempt to repair a similar kind of gap in the Jewish academic disciplines, by bringing together text scholars with philosophers and theologians in order to reflect on the interpretation of texts alongside theological reasoning (David F. Ford, “An Interfaith Wisdom,” 3).
[17] Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 181, cf. also 153. Ochs reads Frei as having a reparative interest – i.e., his work attempts to repair the extremes between “‘dogmatic’ orthodoxy and ‘sceptical’ naturalism”; see Nicholas Adams, “Reparative Reasoning,” Modern Theology 24 no.3 (July 2008): 455. George Lindbeck seeks to repair a similar failure, by replacing the rule “What the Bible refers to is something ‘behind’ it” with the new rule “What the Bible refers to is displayed by how the community of interpreters perform the scriptures, in narrating the person of Jesus Christ, and narrating its own identity as the community of his disciples” (Adams, “Reparative Reasoning,” 456).
[18] The Art of Reading Scripture, eds. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 3.
[19] This approach does not assume, naively, that past interpretations of what the text means were all unqualifiedly faithful readings.
[20] The Art of Reading Scripture, xvi.
[21] Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 188.
[22] Brevard Childs, “Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis,” Pro Ecclesia 6 no.1 (1997): 123.
[23] I am not concerned with a multiplicity of interpretations per se, but mutually exclusive interpretations, or interpretations that can be taken to fall out of the bounds of the “orthodox” faith, even as generously interpreted by the faith’s adherents. In other words, I take it that a text can mean a variety of somethings, but it cannot mean anything.
[24] Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980); Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pages 19-28.
[25] See, e.g., Adams, “Reparative Reasoning,” 456.
[26] Ford, “An Interfaith Wisdom,” 5.
[27] Ibid., 10.
[28] Ibid., 5.
[29] Samuel Wells argues that the diversity of Scripture itself demands a diverse reading community, in God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 158. This diversity could be accomplished most fully in multiple reading communities.
[30] The Art of the Reading Scripture, 3.
[31] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 30. See also David Kelsey, Proving Doctrine: The Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 167.
[32] Steven Kepnes, “A Handbook for Scriptural Reasoning,” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, 31.
[33] Stanley Hauerwas, “Why ‘The Way the Words Run’ Matters: Reflections on Becoming a ‘Major Biblical Scholar,'” in The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays, ed. J. Ross Wagner, C. Kavin Rowe, and A. Katherine Grieb (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 2.
[34] Nicholas Adams, Habermas and Theology;
[35] Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” 1524,, accessed March 2009.
[36] Brevard Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 164.
[37] Peter Ochs, “Morning Prayer as Redemptive Thinking,” in Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption, ed. Randi Rashkover and C. C. Pecknold (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 57.
[38] Ibid., 58.
[39] Ibid., 69-70.
[40] Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 36.
[41] Frances Rice McCormick, “Sabbath Rest: A Theological Imperative According to Karl Barth,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62 no.2 (1994): 545-546.
[42] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 70.
[43] Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture, 9.
[44] Ford, “An Interfaith Wisdom,” 19-20; Daniel W. Hardy, “The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning,” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, 207.
[45] Steven D. Kepnes, “Peter Ochs: Philosophy in the Service of God and World,” Modern Theology 24 No. 3 (July 2008): 500.