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Fowl on History and Historical Criticism, pt. 2

This is the second in an eight-part series of excerpts from Stephen E. Fowl’s forthcoming volume in the Cascade Companion series. Theological Interpretation of Scripture will be released later this summer by Cascade Books.

Theological Interpretation of ScriptureContents
Introduction: What Sort of a Companion Is This?
One – Scripture: Its Nature and Place in God’s Drama of Salvation
Two – Theological Interpretation and its Relation to Various other Concerns
Three – Practices and Habits of Theological Interpretation
Four – Prospects and Issues for the Future
Five – Guests at a Party

The series of posts will follow Fowl’s sustained discussion of history and historical criticism in the second chapter. Feel free to comment.

Part one

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To begin then, we need to explore, at least briefly, why relatively well known textual puzzles, ruptures, and obscurities began—sometime in the mid to late 18th century—to generate concerns that led to the rise of historical-critical methods of interpretation. In brief, during this period there is a fundamental shift in the practices of biblical interpretation. Prior to this shift Scripture was believed to be the most important of God’s providential gifts for ordering, understanding and making the world accessible to humans. In this light, the Scripture presented a unified narrative through which people could develop unified, coherent views of the world. The evident diversity and rich detail of Scripture called forth a variety of reading practices, both literal and figural, that presented a common narrative. The rich variety of reading strategies characteristic of pre-modern biblical interpretation were essential if the Bible was to provide Christians with a way of rightly understanding and living within their past, present and future.

[S]ince the world truly rendered by combining biblical narratives into one was indeed the one and only real world, it must in principle embrace the experience of any present age and reader. Not only was it possible for him, it was also his duty to fit himself into that world in which he was in any case a member, and he too did so in part by figural interpretation and in part of course by his mode of life. He was to see his disposition, his actions and passions, the shape of his own life as well as that of his era’s events as figures of that storied world. (Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 3)

To put the matter oversimply, interpretation here moves from text to world. This view presumes that it was often difficult to figure out how to live and move in the world in ways that would enhance your prospects of living and worshipping faithfully before God. Scripture, despite its evident obscurities provided a relatively clear and God-given set of lenses for viewing the world and faithfully negotiating one’s path through it.

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