Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. By Matthew Levering


Pp. xi, 310 , Notre Dame, IN : University of Notre Dame Press , 2008 , $25.00 .

Levering teaches theology at Ave Maria University in Florida. In this volume he seeks to reorient biblical interpretation away from what he perceives as a certain theological inadequacy in its historical-critical manifestations, by dint of reconceiving the location of the exegete in ‘participatory’ terms, whereby the understanding of history at work in the process is grasped as ongoing participation in the providential activity of God. This makes for a highly theorised argument about the need to interpret the Bible in a theologically and ecclesially informed location, though the book does make an attempt at showing what it would look like in practice.

The introduction rehearses some issues concerning the uneasy stand-off between biblical studies and systematic or historical theological concerns, looking at Brevard Childs' ‘canonical’ work as one well-intentioned possibility for bridging the gap which is ultimately judged to be insufficiently challenging of its critical framework. Chapter 1 explores the roots of the kind of disciplinary divide which Levering is seeking to challenge, looking at late-medieval nominalism and engaging with the debate about when providence faded from view, tracing it to a fourteenth-century metaphysical shift. Aquinas' interpretation of John 3:27–36 is then offered as a ‘benchmark’ for the kind of approach Levering has in mind. Chapter 2 then traces the perceived decline from Aquinas onwards by sampling ten different thinkers through to Raymond Brown. Chapter 3 (the best of the book perhaps) takes up Augustine and looks at what makes an ‘Augustinian reader of Scripture’, characterised in particular by a reading of De Doctrina Christiana with its dual focus on love for God and love for neighbour, all built into an understanding of God as teacher in biblical exegesis. Chapter 4 then complements this by looking at the human contexts and perspectives of ‘participatory biblical exegesis’, taking a lead from Jon Levenson's eloquent defence of Jewish particularity in reading Hebrew scriptures to argue that there must be a Christian particularity for reading the Bible, over against proposals for historical-critical neutrality. This leads to an analysis in chapter 5 of the dynamics of ecclesial authority, in dialogue with Stephen Fowl's Engaging Scripture, which argued for such a framework in the abstract. Levering, indebted to Fowl, nevertheless challenges him to say that his underdescribed ecclesiology needs supplementing with a robust notion of how exactly sacra doctrina functions. Readers may not be surprised to learn that the resolution to such a discussion, again indebted to Aquinas, brings us to some sort of taking up of the concerns of biblical exegesis within the context of the magisterium.

Levering is alert throughout to the potential problems of eisegesis, and effectively is trying to outflank the historical critics by saying that history needs to be taken more seriously than historical-criticism does, by way of a theological reconception of history under God's providential ordering. Since the only examples he gives of the kind of practice he has in mind are basically from Aquinas, it is a little hard to see what this would mean in practice in the twenty-first century. (One must also note the extraordinary proportion of the book given over to notes – the main text ends on p.148, less than halfway through, and the interaction with others in the footnotes is vast but hard to harness to the main flow of the discussion.)

I am not unsympathetic to the argument here, but conclude with some reservations. First, I was unclear as to the rationale for the various switches between ‘exegesis’ and ‘interpretation’ in the book (and indeed its title). On a formal level, exegetical endeavour is at some remove from a philosophy (or theology) of history. Secondly, given that Aquinas is reading John's gospel herein, I wanted to ask how one might read Numbers chapter 1, say, or 5, or 35, or indeed any such OT narrative, in this framework, and what would one need to know from a fairly traditional historical critic in order to make sense of it? Finally, I wondered how Levering's approach accounts for ecclesially well-rooted readings which have in fact (and might still in the future) wreak havoc with either the text or the community to which it is interpreted. Alertness to eisegesis aside, the real gains of (traditional) historical criticism seem either underplayed or perhaps simply not grasped, which can be said alongside recognising its flaws, limitations, and particular predilections for the less theological data of (and perspectives on) scripture. So overall, I judge this to be a slightly over-confident call for a return to earlier modes of reading, too strident in its claims for a model not sufficiently explored in practice herein.