Book Review: Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible by Kevin J. Vanhoozer
It might sound strange to suggest that we need a dictionary devoted to the theological interpretation of the Bible, but Kevin J. Vanhoozer wagers that we do with the publication of Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (DTIB). A little familiarity with the history of biblical interpretation over the past 350 years confirms this wager. From the modern preoccupation with speculative theories of textual development (e.g., the Documentary Hypothesis; the Synoptic Problem; etc.) to the postmodern obsession with special interest group hermeneutics (e.g., feminist, gay, etc.), Bible interpreters since the Enlightenment have concerned themselves with many things other than Christian doctrine. Even conservative exegetes (and theologians!) too often have been willing to live with Gabler’s wall of separation between “biblical” and “dogmatic” theology. But, as is always the case, the putting asunder of things joined together by God has had its negative consequences. It is refreshing therefore to find a dictionary that seeks to reorient our interpretive focus to the true subject matter of Holy Writ: the triune God of the gospel.
To accomplish this reorientation, Vanhoozer, with associate editors Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright, has assembled an international team of contributors to address a host of topics relevant to the theological interpretation of Scripture. Topics covered in the articles fall under four categories: (1) Texts: articles in this category cover the books of the Bible (tracing both the history of interpretation for a given book as well as that book’s contribution to Christian theology), canonical corpora (e.g., “Pauline Epistles,” “Prophetic Writings”), and perennial issues of biblical interpretation such as “Allegory” and “Typology”; (2) Interpretive theory (“hermeneutics”): these articles survey a wide array of literary and philosophical approaches to interpretation from “Narrative Criticism” to “Speech Act Theory”; (3) Interpreters and interpretive communities: here we find articles devoted to “Augustine” and “Thomas Aquinas” as well as to “Catholic Biblical Interpretation,” “Orthodox Biblical Interpretation,” and “Protestant Biblical Interpretation”; and (4) Doctrines and themes: these articles cover topics like “Covenant,” “Last Things,” and “Sanctification.” It is unusual to have a resource with articles on both “Ephesians” and “Epistemology.” But the editors of DTIB believe that familiarity with both topics is essential to fruitful theological exegesis.
DTIB is written from the perspective of what we might call a “post-critical generous orthodoxy.” The perspective of the dictionary is “post-critical” in that its entries do not bypass issues raised for biblical interpretation and general hermeneutics during the “Age of Reason.” Nor do they exhibit a longing for an idealized, bygone age in the history of interpretation. The perspective of the dictionary is that of “generous orthodoxy” in that its entries promote a way of reading Scripture that coheres with the basic ecumenical consensus of historic Christianity. The Bible, Vanhoozer tells us in his introduction, “should be read as a unity and as narrative testimony to the identities and actions of God and of Jesus Christ.”
While united on the “fundamentals” of Nicene orthodoxy, DTIB nevertheless displays multiple perspectives regarding the nature of the theological-interpretive enterprise. Some articles appear almost exactly as they might in a comparable dictionary on, say, Jesus and the Gospels, rounding out otherwise historical-critical discussions of a topic with a few theological gleanings. Others bring to bear a significant awareness of the history of interpretation or of contemporary dogmatics. Still others reflect a more conventional biblical theological treatment. This diversity comes by editorial design. The editors did not wish to “preempt” the current debate concerning what may or may not count as a valid approach to theological interpretation since discussion about how to renew this ancient Christian practice is just getting under way.
The overall standard of research, breadth of discussion, and clarity of DTIB is excellent. As is the case with any dictionary, quality varies from article to article. I found the articles devoted to interpretive theory generally more helpful than those on Bible books or theological themes. However, a number of the biblical and theological entries have become for me a first point of reference. Examples include Henri Blocher on “Atonement,” Richard Schultz on “Isaiah,” Geoffrey Wainwright on “Trinity,” and Gordon Wenham on “Law.” The articles on literary features such as “Metaphor,” “Imagery,” and “Irony” are also very well done.
In a project like this one, editors always have tough decisions to make. Unfortunately in the case of DTIB, history took the hit. A number of major interpreters and interpretive traditions from ancient, medieval, and modern church history receive either passing mention or none at all. This is unfortunate, for a rehabilitation of theological interpretation in our day will doubtless require an apprenticeship to the masters who have preceded us in this sacred craft. Nevertheless, articles on “Patristic Biblical Interpretation,” “Medieval Biblical Interpretation,” and “Hermeneutics” (which addresses hermeneutics since Schleiermacher) provide learned and sympathetic accounts of these eras, blunting somewhat the force of this criticism.
I was very surprised not to find an entry devoted to biblical inerrancy. This is a strange omission because DTIB contains articles on the Word of God as well as on Scripture’s authority, clarity, sufficiency, and unity. Furthermore, while the dictionary directs us under the heading of “Inerrancy” to its entries on “Authority of Scripture” and “Word of God,” neither entry discusses inerrancy! It is lamentable that this doctrine gets ignored, for contrary to the recent suggestion that inerrancy is a peculiarly modern American anomaly; the conviction that Scripture never leads its readers astray has governed mainstream Christian exegesis from the beginning. And though we may admit that this doctrine alone is not sufficient to establish a theological reading of the Bible, it certainly seems necessary to such a task.
A few minor typos appear in this otherwise finely edited volume, which has already received critical acclaim in the broader evangelical community. The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association named DTIB its “Book of the Year” for 2006 (formerly the “Gold Medallion Award). DTIB also won Christianity Today’s 2006 book award for the biblical studies category. In my judgment, the present volume merits such acclaim. Vanhoozer and company has provided us a truly groundbreaking resource that holds much promise for putting our interpretive attention where it needs to be: “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10).
This review first appeared on Reformation 21