History and Hermeneutics. By Murray A. Rae
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 123–124, January 2009
How to Cite
Briggs, R. S. (2009), History and Hermeneutics. By Murray A. Rae. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 123–124. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_5.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp vii, 168 , London : T&T Clark , 2006 , £25.00 .
In a slim and coherently argued volume, Rae offers an apologia for a hermeneutic for reading scripture which takes history seriously, within a dogmatic framework concerned to affirm that the truth about God in Christ, as creator, and re-creator of all things, should set the proper agenda for biblical interpretation.
The final chapter, on ‘The Ecclesial Reading of Scripture’, is perhaps the goal throughout, though admittedly this was not initially obvious in the opening discussions of historiography. In this concluding section Rae says many wise things about the need to adopt a hermeneutic which does justice to the theological subject matter of the text. He follows Stephen Fowl in arguing for the church as the proper communal context for scripture interpretation, though he moderates Fowl's rejection of meaning into a proper reconceptualisation of meaning as including theologically-driven concerns. He finds support in John Webster's account of a theology of reading scripture which is not simply a local form of the general activity of reading, but is a pursuit of the church. He takes comfort too from a range of biblical scholars (Richard Bauckham, Chris Seitz, John Goldingay, Walter Moberly) who have all seen that the notion of interpreting the ‘Bible’ is one which already presumes upon a certain theological conceptuality before one can have a Bible to talk about.
All of this is well said, and seems highly likely to be true. More difficult to discern is the target and agenda of this book. Who is Rae trying to convince? To this reader, it read very much like an exercise in prolegomena to the task of articulating a theological hermeneutic, essentially fighting a battle with a range of positions well known in biblical studies, either overly beholden to positivism (thus the Jesus Seminar) or too eager to respond with non-historical alternative frameworks (Bultmann, or differently Barth, and others). By focussing instead on the significance of a doctrine of creation (and promise), and the need to develop a theological account of history (a particularly helpful chapter) Rae seeks to show that events in history carry theological freight in an irreducible sense, and that therefore one cannot rule out theological categories in interpretation. Likewise, a lengthy chapter rehearses the irreducible role of testimony, noting that just because knowledge is mediated through testimony does not jeopardise it on principle. But although all these points are well taken, they are also well known, and all the biblical scholars noted above have, arguably, not just made these points, but have gone on to the next, and infinitely more demanding, task of demonstrating what theological interpretation looks like in practice.
Rae does offer some helpful pointers on Luke 24, as well as some other verses, mainly from John, on occasion from Paul. Strangely, though, these are often presented by way of the insights of a range of somewhat arbitrarily chosen commentaries (of a wide range of theological positions, let alone epistemological paradigms), and one almost has the sense of hearing scripture at some remove from the energy of the text. One long chapter early on simply rehearses the views of eight different writers concerning ‘theology and history’, including Bultmann, Pannenberg, Frei, and concluding with N.T. Wright.
If a criticism may be ventured it is that biblical scholars who have grasped the need for theological interpretation may well feel that little is added by this discussion, while those who disagree with the diagnosis will, I fear, find it easy to suggest that the interaction with actual biblical scholarship here is dated and on the superficial side. Frequent recourse to parading the Jesus seminar as an example of what happens when positivism runs riot does not help here. But interestingly, on Rae's own account, those sceptical of his claims concerning history are unlikely to be persuaded simply by having the philosophical and epistemological terrain mapped with care. So one returns to the question: who is this book trying to persuade? What is being missed by the reader who feels that it is an exercise in systematic theology proclaiming on how biblical interpretation should operate (inherently theologically) but without taking the time to discover that the discipline of theological biblical interpretation is currently a massive, lively and yet still fundamentally contested area?
For this reviewer, Rae says well much that is helpful, and his conclusions are strong as far as they go. But they do not go as far as inhabiting the area to which he points as being where the discussion should be taking place.