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[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Theological Exegesis

Categories Common Places

Many of the most interesting developments that have taken place in the fields of biblical studies and systematic theology in the last twenty years can be charted under the heading of “theological interpretation of Scripture.” Even more specifically, narrowing the focus a bit more, it seems that many of these developments may be described with the word retrieval. Biblical scholars and dogmatic theologians are reaching back to eras of the Christian past before the rise of modern ways of reading in order to rediscover and reimagine older habits of biblical interpretation.

Giants of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century biblical scholarship, such as J. P. Gabler and William Wrede, had argued that study of the biblical texts should be a purely historical discipline. Our goal as readers should not be to itemize the abstract “doctrines” that the “canonical apostles” believed. Instead, Wrede and others thought we should limit ourselves to studying the religious life of early Christian communities, “orthodox” and “heretical.” What theologians later chose to do with these historical findings was their own business, not the historians.

But in contrast to this “historical critical” approach, many Christian biblical scholars today are recognizing that that kind of method isn’t theologically satisfying. The texts of Paul, James, John, and others are not simply “early Christian texts” that can serve as windows onto some human experience. They are, rather, for the Church, “words of the Word, human words uttered as a repetition of the divine Word, existing in the sphere of the divine Word’s authority, effectiveness, and promise” (as John Webster has put it). And as such, they need to be studied in the context of the Church’s life, under the Lordship of the Triune God. The doctrines of the faith—above all, the doctrine of God—and the creeds, confessions, and liturgies of the Church are the arena within which to understand the task of biblical interpretation.

Much of the freshest and richest biblical scholarship today is, accordingly, oriented to this ecclesial context of biblical interpretation. I think, for instance, of Markus Bockmuehl’s recent work on the apostle Peter, which locates the significance of the New Testament witness on a trajectory that includes consideration of the Bishop of Rome. Or I think of Walter Moberly’s new Old Testament Theology, whose readings of select Old Testament passages would have been impossible without the history of Christian spirituality and prayer, even as they serve to root that history more firmly on biblical terrain. Or I think of C. Kavin Rowe’s work on the Gospel of Luke, which highlights the continuity between Luke’s portrayal of Jesus as the “Lord,” the kyrios, and the later Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. Or I think of a forthcoming volume on “Reformation readings of Paul,” which lets biblical scholars engage Pauline texts with interpreters such as Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer, demonstrating along the way how deep a conversation is possible when we assume that the “theologians” of an earlier time weren’t simply imposing their own assumptions and convictions on biblical texts but were, like us, trying to grasp the text’s subject matter and state it afresh in their own day.

Conversely, I am heartened by recent dogmatic and historical theology that sees biblical exegesis as integral to its task, too. Thirty or forty years ago it would have been much harder to find the kind of detailed engagements with the exegesis of Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth that is so plentiful today. Furthermore, it is now beginning to seem normal again—as it would have been in previous chapters of the Church’s life—to find vast tracts of biblical exegesis in a dogmatics volume on the Trinity or justification by faith or political theology.

Retrieving the past, of course, doesn’t—or shouldn’t—equal a naïve desire to forget the intervening centuries. We need voices like Wrede’s in our ears, keeping us honest about the need for rigorous historical study. But the practice of retrieval is a way of confessing anew the third article of the creed. As biblical scholars and theologians, we believe that the Holy Spirit was alive and well before the dawn of modernity, and reading Scripture well today means taking seriously what happened then.


Wesley Hill is assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry. He is author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010), Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans, 2014, forthcoming).


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read column introduction here.

Our first series, The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval, explores positive developments in theology over the past twenty-five or so years, considering some of the ways in which the recovery of theological tradition has proven to be a stimulating resource for constructive systematic theology.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places

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