Michael Gorman on Theological Interpretation

Michael Gorman on Theological Interpretation December 9, 2008

If you attended SBL this year, you may have noticed the numerous sessions on the subject Theological Interpretation of Scripture.  These sessions, some of which I attended, were very popular and rooms were filled to the brim.

The interest in this topic is certainly there, but there is much confusion as to what exactly it is, what it stands for, and how it is done.  I respect many of the scholars who identify with it (Richard Hays, Walter Moberly, Mike Gorman), but I have had a difficult time getting a straight answer as to what it is.

Luckily, in the revised and expanded version of Gorman’s Elements of Biblical Exegesis (Hendrickson, 2008), he has added a new section entitled ‘Theological Interpretation of Scripture’.

He defines it as such: ‘biblical interpretation that takes the Bible not just as a historical and/or a literary document but as source of divine revelation, witness to God’s creative and salvific activity, and/or (minimally) significant partner in the task of theological reflection–thinking about God and about the world and humanity in light of God’ (144).

Gorman notes that this approach (or mood) was present in Scriptural interpretation before the Enlightenment which explains why this new school of Theological Interpreters are so keen on cracking open texts from the Patristic era.

Gorman argues that this new hermeneutic has had several effects:

– a growing number of groups within the professional societies of biblical scholars…are devoted to TIS.

-the launching of various reference projects such as the Two Horizons commentaries and the Brazos Theological commentaries

-a rediscovery of patristic exegesis

-the launching of the Journal of Theological Interpretation


Gorman observes (rightly so) that it is not a method, but it is about the goal of exegesis.  He writes, ‘if the exegete sees to understand a biblical text in order to appropriate its message as a guide for contemporary belief and behavior within a community of faith (whether Christian or Jewish)–whether that goal is achieved with historical-critical, social-scientific, narrative, or other methods–that exegete is doing theological interpretation’ (146).

Gorman goes on to explain eight principles for the TIS: Incarnation, Universal, Communal, Canonical, Coherence, Charismatic, Transformative, and Constructive.  I don’t have the time (or energy!) to explain all of these, but for those who wish to really understand what scholars are trying to do when they talk about TI, Gorman’s principles are spot on.

As a side note, I would like to say that, of all the exegesis textbooks out there, this is my favorite because it covers so many areas of interpretation in a simple and accessible way without being exhaustingly long (about 200 pp. before indexes).  Also, I have learned more about TIS from Gorman’s chapter on it, than I have reading almost whole articles, books, or reference works on the subject!

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