Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutic: Mapping Divine and Human Agency. By Mark Alan Bowald


Pp. xi, 202 . Aldershot , Ashgate , 2007 , £50.00 .

Bowald offers an extensive exercise in ‘mapping’: the key word in the subtitle of this book indicative of the fact that a good deal of its energy and attention is given over to the task of clarifying the location of particular thinkers on a grid which he devises. There is one very important question which runs throughout the discussion, and for which all may be grateful to Bowald for such an elegant and insistent formulation: the question of how to relate the aspects of divine agency and human agency in how scripture is understood and interpreted. Throughout this is the basic focus: how are we rightly to conceive of God's action in, with and under scripture? Put this way, it becomes clear immediately that a great deal of biblical interpretation does not trouble itself overmuch with this question, consigning it to a somewhat truncated vision of textual meaning(s) and readerly possibilities. I found Bowald's insistence on this point to be well-judged, and for its basic reconceptualisation of various interpretive possibilities I judge time spent reading this book to have been time well spent, and formative for one's thinking on a whole raft of hermeneutical issues.

Perhaps inevitably, in a book so given over to classifying individual thinkers, it is harder to agree with all the details. The thinkers in view are Barth, Frei, and (by and large) a wide range of those coming after them, in particular: Vanhoozer, Watson, Kelsey, Jeanrond, Fowl, Wolterstorff, and Smith (James K.A. Smith, sometime chronicler of postmodernism and radical orthodoxy). This is not perhaps a hugely representative selection in the long view, typically Protestant and with some investment in either evangelical and/or historical-critical approaches to scripture. One wonders how the treatment would have been different if thinkers of the stature of von Rad or Bultmann or even Childs would have been in view, and perhaps they might have troubled some of the more sweeping statements about what does and does not pass for recognition of divine agency in biblical studies? The accounts of each thinker are detailed and concerned with mapping them on Bowald's chosen typology, of which more in a moment. I found it slightly disconcerting to read of various of these writers getting ‘anxious’ or ‘nervous’, of offering ‘skittish’ writings, or ‘recovering for a moment from typical postliberal reticence’– these seemed quite bold ways of reading their texts in terms of knowing about the authorial agent, and were not always charitable designations either. Likewise, it seemed altogether too sweeping to say we need ‘a thorough revision’ of how to understand reading Scripture, or that biblical criticism of more text-focused types could be characterised as ‘isolated and desperate textual archaeologists’– this is surely a caricature.

The typology in view, which is perhaps the main functional aspect of the book, works by way of mapping left to right on a spectrum from textual agency to readerly agency, and top to bottom on a spectrum from divine to human agency. This is simple, ingenious, and a wonderful idea. It avoids, as Bowald notes, the problem with linear typologies which tend to do more violence to the data, and is subtle enough to offer a two-dimensional map of various possibilities. I must confess, despite repeatedly rereading the rationale, I could not follow the additional step of saying that this geometrical plane of possibilities offers us a ‘triangle’ where, along the bottom, we consider text and reader, and at the top, in a single point, we have God. Surely, if human agency can be considered along the text-reader spectrum (which Bowald rightly characterises as the limited range of options in view all too often), then so can divine agency: either through the text or through readers. Where does the singularity of divine agency come from? Is it an assumption that God could only ever say the same thing through the text as he does through readers? On an empirical level this is manifestly ridiculous, so on what basis is it presupposed? At least some form of argument is needed here, and in my judgment it is unlikely to be successful, unless one is simply asserting by fiat that divine agency is singular through the whole economy and history of the church reading scripture. I wonder too whether having a ‘square’ of possibilities rather than a triangle might have prevented the ‘funnelling’ effect whereby disparate thinkers who take divine agency seriously are lumped together whereas disparate thinkers who focus on human agency are painstakingly separated. Any grid that puts Barth next to someone working in the light of Derrida and Foucault seems to me to be more likely to tell us about the map-maker than the territory. (I also wondered whether the grid has to be the same for all types of biblical literature: Isaiah and Proverbs? Galatians and Chronicles? This subject does not come near Bowald's horizon, but I would be interested to see him consider it.)

All this notwithstanding, the existence of the vertical space in the typology above the line of text-reader possibilities of human agency is a great step in the right direction. A final chapter maps out some thoughts on a ‘divine-rhetorical hermeneutics’ promised for a future book. I shall look forward to seeing it explored, but in the process would enter two pleas. One, for some example or at least indication of how it works in practice: it is all too easy to pronounce confidently on the failings of others' approaches when one never even comes close to scripture oneself. Allied to this, a little more interpretive charity regarding other thinkers might be welcome, especially when they are out in the midst of actually reading scripture, and this volume is not. The hints of what is needed in the final chapter did not sound quite so radically new as Bowald sometimes liked to suggest in his earlier grand signals of inadequacy on the part of other approaches.

This book's big idea shines a piercing light into the midst of much hermeneutical confusion. Perhaps some things get lost in the shadows thereby created, but the light may yet overcome that darkness, and make clear more of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ in the discourses of theological hermeneutics.