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WHAT KRISTER STENDAHL "MEANT" -

A NORMATIVE CRITIQUE OF
"DESCRIPTIVE BIBLICAL THEOLOGY"

Ben C. Ollenburger

Within biblical scholarship generally, and particularly


among Old and New Testament
(or "biblical") theologians,
there is currently a lively debate about method - or rather,
several such methodological debates going on at the same
time. The purpose of this essay is not to chronicle these
debates, and certainly not to resolve them. I want rather to
address a particular methodological problem, a problem
raised for biblical theology by Krister Stendahl.
It has been more than 20
years since Stendahl first
proposed that biblical
theology could achieve clarity about
its task if it recognized that biblical theology is properly a
descriptive discipline, not a normative one, and that it
describes what "it meant," not what "it means."I Whether
or not Stendahl's brought about any real change in
proposals
the way biblical theologians have gone about their work, it is
undeniable that they have profoundly affected the way
biblical theologians, particularly in this country, think about
their work and reflect on certain central, methodological
questions. In fact, the distinctions for which Stendahl pleaded
have come to be seen as virtually axiomatic, and self-evidently
so, particularly for distinguishing biblical from systematic
theology and the other theological disciplines. It is in locat-
ing biblical theology within the theological curriculum, and
in providing a rationale for this location, that Stendahl's
proposal has proven most persuasive. That biblical theolo-
gians describe texts (or their theologies) and determine what

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they meant is of little use in differentiating biblical scholar-


ship from other historical disciplines, or in distinguishing
biblical theology from other kinds of biblical
scholarship.
But this characterization has
proven extremely useful in
differentiating biblical scholarship from theological inquiry
generally, and for preventing biblical scholarship, as a his-
torical discipline, from being given theological responsibili-
ties that historical disciplines cannot legitimately exercise.
While it has not always been recognized, it seems to me
that this is where Stendahl's real contribution lies.
At same time, this has been seen as the problem
the
with which Stendahl's proposals confront biblical theology.
If descriptions of texts are to be sharply differentiated from
their normative appropriation, and if what texts meant is
to be distinguished from what they mean, then it seems a
chasm has been created between historicaland theological
study. Some biblical theologians have been troubled by the
existence of this kind of chasm and have wondered how it
might be bridged. The goal of this essay is not to propose
some kind of bridge, but to ask whether Stendahl has really
left us with such a chasm. The proposals made by Stendahl,
I contend, have had a kind of bewitching effect on biblical
theology. They have never, so far as I know, been subjected
to rigorous examination or systematic criticism.2 Some
scholars have argued that Stendahl is wrong, but a more
fundamental question is whether his proposals make sense.
That fundamental question is at issue in this essay. Should
my arguments succeed, this would still not provide an answer
to biblical theology's methodological problems, but it could
clear a space for considering these problems in fresh ways.
This essay will focus for its critique on Stendahl's article,
"Methodology in the Study of Biblical Theology," written
for the Society of Biblical Literature and published in 1965.3
This is Stendahl's most recent comprehensive statement of
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his position, and its compactness makes it especially useful


for analysis. At the same time, I would like to make clear
that the present essay is not intended just as - or even
primarily as - a critique of Krister Stendahl. His contribu-
tions to biblical scholarship have been major and exemplary.
At the same time, his methodological proposals for biblical
theology have taken on something of a life of their own, so
that while this essay takes up these proposals as formulated
by Stendahl in 1965, it is meant also as a critique of the way
these proposals are perceived in the contemporary discussion.

II
Beforelaunching my own critique of Stendahl's propo-
sals I would like to make note of an objection often raised
against Stendahl, or against the kind of formal requirement
that holds biblical theology accountable for the strictly
descriptive character of its work - an objection more fre-
quently heard in discussion
than read in print.
It is often pointed out that one of the Enlightenment's
requirements for validly scientific work was objectivity.
Objectivity was held by the Enlightenment to be not only
possible but indeed a conditio sine quo non for science. Any
historian whose work was to be judged scientific would have
to be governed by objectivity. More recently, however, and .
in partial dependence on work in hermeneutics, it has been
objected against this Enlightenment claim that all work,
including that of science, is done from the perspective or
under the influence of certain presuppositions. Sometimes
the name of Thomas Kuhn is invoked to urge that these pre-
suppositions are unavoidable, sometimes the name of Hans-
Georg Gadamer is invoked to urge that they are necessary
and beneficial ingredients for the work of interpretation.4
Since biblical theology is concerned with interpretation and
meaning, presuppositions of the kind that render objectivity
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meaningless are to be embraced, rather than avoided. In this


way Stendahl is interpreted as urging a naively Enlighten-
ment sort of objective historiography against which biblical
theologians must argue that since history and interpretation
cannot avoid presuppositions, they shouldn't try to. The
minor premise to this argument is that since some presupposi-
tions are unavoidable, and indeed indispensable, then particu-
lar presuppositions are permissable. The next step is then
to decide which among the several possible presuppositions
ought to be chosen and acted upon. This choice may be
made according to a criterion of judgment according to
which the proper presuppositions are those which most
closely match those of the text under consideration. In the
case of Scripture the appropriate presuppositions would be
those which match the claim of the text to be religious -
that is, to be making normative claims upon the reader.
Hence, the conclusion is reached that normative interpretation,
whatever that might be, rather than being excluded by proper
scientific method, is enjoined upon the interpreter who is
concerned with being hermeneutical - or theological.
This kind of argument these days often invokes the
name of Peter Stuhlmacher, and is justified by Stuhlmacher's
reading of Gadamer.5 Whether or not this is fair to Stuhl-
macher, and whatever the
independent merits of his argu-
ments, it is not a fair reading of Gadamer, for whom
"prejudices" are not equivalent to particular religious pre-
suppositions.
It is my contention that this discussion of presupposi-
tions is the
wrong way to go about discussing Stenvahl's
argument. His argument in no way precludes the conclu-
sions of contemporary hermeneutic theory, or even common
sense, that everyone works within the context of certain
social and cognitive structures that bear upon the work of
interpretation - that everyone has presuppositions. As he
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acknowledges, historians are not capable of "absolute ob-


jectivity."6 But his point is that a "common discourse" is
possible even among people with various presuppositions,
and that this common discourse is historical and descrip-
tive.7 His argument is merely that various kinds of pre-
suppositions should not be allowed to detract from the
primary task of description, in favor of a normative inter-
pretation. The limitation of biblical theology to description
is intended to provide a "control" on our presuppositions.
The appropriate argument is not about whether or not inter-
pretation, including historical interpretation (yet to be
defined) involves presuppositions. The appropriate argument
is about whether the contrast of descriptive/normative is
susceptible of clear formulation. To state it another
way,
the issue to be decided is what we are describing when we
are being descriptive, and how choices between alternative
objects and procedures of description are to be made. That
is, on what grounds do we decide to describe one thing
rather than another, and to describe it in one way rather
than in another? My concern with Stendahl's proposal
centers on the question of the grounds on which these
choices are made, and with the legitimacy of other possible
choices - choices we might want legitimately to make.
In order to assess these questions critically, I will first
try to describe in more detail Stendahl's proposal itself.
Stendahl begins by urging us to accept a distinction between
"descriptive study of the actual theology and theologies to
be found in the Bible," on the one hand, and "any attempt
at a normative and systematic theology which could be
"
called 'biblical,' on the other hand (p. 199). This distinc-
tion assumes that there are theologies to be found in the
Bible, and that they can be described. Biblical theology, as
Stendahl understands it, will be given the task of describing
these theologies found in the Bible. On the other hand, the
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distinction assumes that systematic theologies are or might


be done in such a way that the adjective "biblical" could be
applied to them, although Stendahl is apparently dubious
about the appropriateness of commending to systematic
theology that it be "biblical" in some formal way. What
distinguishes this kind of systematic work from the task of
describing theologies Bible is "normativity."
found in the
The task of describing those theologies found in the Bible
is not a normative activity, while those conclusions arrived at
by systematic theologians are normative. Normativity and
systematic theology are united under the umbrella of "autho-
rity."
At this point there is some unclarity in Stendahl's
proposal. He is quite clear that describing is a kind of activity
in which biblical theologians are to engage, and that this is
a non-normative activity. Its non-normativity is derived
from its disinterestedness in the matter of authority. Syste-
matic theology is defined differently, not as an activity but
as the result of an activity
performed in the interest of
authority. Systematic theology is normative, but the activity
of describing is non-normative. A contrast is thus drawn be-
tween an activity and a finished product. The product is
normative, in case it is the product of systematic theological
activity, while the activity of describing is non-normative.
Schematically represented:
1. - BT - Activity: describing; character: non-
normative.
.
ST - Activity: ??; character: ??
2. - BT - Product: description; character: ??
ST - Product: theology; character: normative.
Thus far we do not the activity of syste-
know what
matic theology is, nor do we know whether it is normative or
non-normative; neither do we know whether the product of
biblical theology is normative or non-normative. Stendahl
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seems to hint the product


that of the descriptions biblical
theologians offer, the theologies to be found in the Bible, are
not normative. This is stated obliquely, however, in his
repudiation of the tendency to reserve authority to early
stages in the tradition, or to endow biblical concepts or
thought patterns with authority. But neither of these is
properly a theology to be found in the Bible, unless a theo-
logy found in the Bible is to be equated with the concepts
found in the Bible and the thought patterns, whatever those
are, in which theyare expressed. There would be, I suspect,
an inclination among biblical theologians to treat a theology
found in the Bible as normative in some sense, or to endow it
in some sense withauthority, or to regard it in some sense
as authoritative (these may not all be the same thing). It
appears that Stendahl is arguing against this inclination,
perhaps unclearly.8 In fact, he leaves off any discussion of
theologies to be found in the Bible, how they are to be found
and how described, and takes up the "what it meant" and
"what it means" distinction. Here it is clear that he wants
us to regard the descriptive task or descriptive study as issu-
ing in a statement of what it (a text? a conception? a.his-
torical phenomenon? a concept? a thought pattern? - he
never says) meant. But this kind of task seems somehow
different from "the
descriptive study of the actual theology
and theologies to be found in the Bible" (p. 199). Perhaps
he wants us to say, on the basis of descriptive study (?),
what a theology found in the Bible meant, which would be
an odd way of putting it; or perhaps he is merely equating
what a text meant with the theology to be found in it, which
would be only slightly less odd. In any event, contrasted
with "the descriptive 'what it meant' " is "the normative-
"
systematic 'what it means' (p. 199).
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But this lands us again in our original confusion: (i)


what is the systematic activity that corresponds to descrip-
tion, but ends up producing something normative? In addi-
tion, a further confusion has crept into the discussion: (ii)
how are we to understand the task of describing what "it"
meant? In response to the first question Stendahl seems to
suggest that "hermeneutics" is the kind of activity which
ends up with normative statements, grounded in authority.
To that we will turn momentarily. In answer to the second
question, Stendahl suggests that questions about meaning are
to be treated historically, and that they always "require a
subject (for whom?) and a framework ... (when and in
relation to what questionor questions?)" (p. 200). In other
words, the properly historical procedure is to ask, regarding
the "meaning" of Paul, "what his different readers under-
stood him to mean" (pp. 199-200). Such historical study
issues in a history of interpretation that begins with the
Corinthian audience of Paul and extends, among those
Stendahl mentions, to Bultmann. So biblical theology is
"nothing more than the first chapter of historical theology"
(p. 205). The answer to the question, "What did Calvin
understand Paul to mean?" is not an answer to the norma-
tive question, "what does this statement of Paul's mean?"
But the interpretations of Paul offered from the Corinthians
through Bultmann are all "meanings" (p. 200). "They are
all ... answers to the question what it means to someone
who finds Paul worthy of authority in matters of faith and
order" (p. 200).
Thus, for Stendahl, "X meant Y," where X is a text or
event, Y is a meaning-statement, / is some interpreter who
offers meaning-statements of X, and T is the time and situa-
tion in which such meaning-statements were offered. Of
course, someone who is a New Testament interpreter may
be interested not in what Augustine took Paul to mean, but
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in what meaning ought to be ascribed to Paul. She may be


interested in knowing, that is to say, whether Augustine got
Paul right! While Stendahl has proven himself in practice to
be expert in just such judgments, so far as I can see, his
methodological statement offers no way to judge such quest-
ions, since meaning-statements are offered only by inter-
preters, and not by those phenomena that they interpret.
The only hint he gives is that if we "would ask what a certain
writer meant," for example, Paul, we should take this to be
the equivalent of asking "what ... Paul thought that he
meant" (p. 199).9 But apart from some kind of divination
this would only be available if Paul had offered some mean-
ing-statements about himself. Even these would count only
"
as the earliest in the "line of interpretations, or 'meanings,'
extending from Paul to Bultmann.
Under the rules set down by Stendahl, in other words,
there is no access to Paul's meaning in accordance with which
we could evaluate other proposals, or meaning-statements.
An interpretation of 1 Thessalonians as predicting that "the
world will end in 1984" is a valid statement, by a church
historian, of "what it meant," so long as someone at some-
time offered this as the meaning of 1 Thessalonians. But
this seems to be in some tension with the notion of inter-
pretation, or description, yielding an account of the mean-
ing of a text. Whatever biblical theologians describe, in
Stendahl's proposal, it is not textual meaning, but meanings
ascribed to the text
by interpreters over history. Stendahl's
account would entail that biblical theology works not toward
the meaning of a text, but toward a given author's thoughts
about meaning. Given, as I presume, that we do not have
any non-inferential access to what Paul took himself to mean,
the study of meaning, as applied to the Bible, falls under the
domain of church historians, on the one hand, and norma-
tive-systematic theologians on the other. Biblical theologians
are engaged with other things.
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There seems to be no particular problem with Stendahl's


description of what church historians do - they study the
"meanings" attributed to biblical authors in the course of
church history. But the activity in which theologians engage,
which yields normative-systematic "what it means" state-
ments, is described as "hermeneutics." As Stendahl describes
hermeneutics it appears to be purely the concern of theolo-
gians, whose "specific theological stance" is presupposed
(p. 202). That is, a theologian does not arrive at a theo-
logical stance by virtue of some interpretation of Scripture;
rather, this kind
of activity (interpretation) assumes a theo-
logical stance that guides interpretation, or hermeneutics.
Thus, the fundamental hermeneutical question for Stendahl
is, 'why assign any 'meaning' to these events or texts at all?"
(p. 206). This basic hermeneutical question can only be
answered within the community of faith. In that sense the
hermeneutical question is dependent on canonicity and the
contemporary affirmation of the same. "He who says Bible
says church" (p. 206). In other words, hermeneutics and
interpretation are activities confined to theology, from which
Stendahl excludes biblical theology, and the latter discipline
(which is really no discipline at all [p. 204] ) has no need of
therm. 10 "We must know that we are doing something differ-
ent from what theologians and preachers and believers have
done before us .. They theologized, proclaimed, confessed,
interpreted - we describe" (pp. 202-203).
Description, of the kind done by biblical theologians,
is not interpretation, and it is not theological, so hermeneut-
ics is unnecessary to it (see his discussion on pp. 200-202).
What theologians do, including those who previously thought
of themselves as biblical theologians, is determined as norma-
tive by questions of authority answered by hermeneutics.
It is apparently not governed by the inter-subjective agree-
ment, the "common discourse," characterizing the methods
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of historical criticism, but is given in the theological stance


assumed by theologians, and this stance is subject to evalua-
tion and assessment only by "thedisciplines of metaphysics
or systematic theology" (p. 202). There are thus only two
disciplines involved in the study of Scripture: historical
description and systematic theology. There is no methodolo-
gy to be appealed to in answering questions about their
mutual relation. To be sure, (systematic) theologies will be
"informed by the Bible in certain specific ways," but there
is apparently no way to judge which of these specific ways is
more appropriate than others - at least no way of which
biblical theology is or ought to be aware. Furthermore,
there is no theological use of Scripture, in Stendahl's pro-
posal, that is not systematic.
There is much in Stendahl's own work that has con-
tributed to theology, particularly his revision of previous
theological uses of Paul, and much in his "Method in the
Study of Biblical Theology" article that makes a positive
contribution. Yet, the proposals he offers seem deeply dis-
satisfying at several levels. What can we make of his claim
that biblical theology describes, but does not interpret?] 1
Or, similarly, how are we to understand the assertion that
hermeneutics is only a tool of authority-burdened, normative
theology that is concerned to transgress description in favor
of meaning? There are various questions that are provoked
by this essay, but I would like to focus the critique by
addressing only twoissues, because they are central to
Stendahl's argument, and because they have exerted con-
siderable influence in biblical theology. The issues to be
addressed are the two central distinctions Stendahl makes:
that between descriptive and normative, and that between
meant and means.
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ml
Descriptive and Normative
In 1959, P. F. Strawson published a book on Meta-
physics, entitled Individuals.h 2 It is an analytical work that
deals with individuals in only a very special sense, and has
such chapter titles as "The Introduction of Particulars into
Propositions" and "Subject and Predicate: Two Criteria."
The book engages in argument with various other philoso-
phers and proposes a number of theories, and the work, while
acknowledged as important within the discipline, is still the
subject of philosophical debate. I mention the book here
because it carries the subtitle, "An Essay in Descriptive Meta-
physics." After reading Stendahl's article it should strike us
as odd that a book on metaphysics should be called descrip-
tive. It is not at all historical; rather, it offers some innova-
tive new theories. It does not treat past attempts at meta-
physics, but offers a fresh account. I do not believe that
Strawson anywhere invokes a notion of authority, other
than that of clear thinking and analysis, but there is every
indication that he wants his account to have some kind of
normative value, in that subsequent thinkers should be
guided by it. It is an account of what we ought to think, or
rather, how we ought to think about certain things. In what
sense, then, is this book descriptive? Fortunately, Strawson
tells us what he means by descriptive, and interestingly, the
contrast is not between descriptive and normative, but be-
tween descriptive and revisionary.
"Descriptive metaphysics is content to describe the
actual structure of our thought aboutthe world, revisionary
metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure"
(p. xiii). Strawson readily acknowledges that no absolute
distinction can be drawn between descriptive and revisionary
metaphysics, and that the most noteworthy philosophers of
the past incorporated elements of both. However, he is will-
ing to characterize Descartes, Leibniz and Berkeley as
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revisionary, Aristotle and Kant as descriptive, and Hume as


straddling the distinction. My point is not that biblical
theology has some inherent connection
metaphysics, with
though that has been argued My point is simply to
before. 3
suggest that normative may not be the most useful contrast
to descriptive. No doubt Kant would have accepted the
characterization of his metaphysics as descriptive (he would
have insisted upon it!), but he would have been extremely
puzzled had his work been characterized as non-normative.
If his First Crituque describes the conditions under which
knowledge is possible, then it is a normative account of the
conditions under which
knowledge is possible. More to the
point of Stendahl's article, there is nothing confusing about
talking about systematic theology as descriptive. In fact,
Karl Barth intends his Church Dogmatics to be descriptive -
descriptive of "the distinctive utterance of the church."14
Yet it would be odd, on any grounds, to suggest that Barth's
Dogmatics is not normative, or that dogmatic theology is a
non-normative activity. I would not attempt to provide a
taxonomy of systematic theology in order to characterize
some attempts as descriptive, others as revisionary (though it
could be done, by someone more knowledgeable than I).
Rather, it is sufficient to point out that, as in philosophy,
the distinction of descriptive from normative is not helpful.
We need now to look at why it is not helpful in general,
and why, after all, it may not make sense. We turn then to
some semantic considerations.
Initially, the contrast of normative
descriptive and
looks clear, but upon closer examination the clarity fades.
It is unclear in just what way descriptive and normative
contrast. If someone describes something, say the
Leaning Tower of Pisa, we would take her to be offering an
account of the relevant features of this phenomenon. We
would understand this as a description, and the account
would be considered descriptive, just in case it was a set
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of propositions that constituted an account (in some unspeci-


fied terms, whose specification is centrally important)15
of the Tower. To be descriptive, then, is to offer a descrip-
tion of something. An account is descriptive just in case it
offers such a description.
Things are quite different with "normative." It is true
that we sometimes use a verb "to norm," which seems
to
resemble the verb "to describe." But it is not clear in what
sense one could "norm" the Leaning Tower of Pisa, while
it is perfectly clear that one could describe it. To norm
something seems to entail constraining it according to a set
of rules (i.e., something normative). But there is a dual sense
to the adjective "normative," as theologians are well aware.
Something can be normativejust in case it is constrained by
a given set of rules or standards, and it can be normative if
it itself constitutes a set of rules by which something else is
to be constrained. The manual governing the use of the com-
puter on which this essay is being written is normative: it
constrains me to a particular set of procedures which, if
followed, result ultimately in the appropriate words (at
least those I choose) appearing on a sheet of paper. But it
is also normative in that it is itself constrained
(normed)
by the design of the machine. The manual is, in other
words, norma normans and norma normata.
"Normative" and "descriptive" are, then, adjectives
that follow quite different semantic rules, and it is difficult
to construe them as opposites. This difficulty becomes
clearer if we recall that something can be both
descriptive
and normative. More
properly, there
is nothing contra-
dictory in offering a normative description. The aforemen-
tioned computer manual is descriptive: it constitutes a set
of propositions that describe what will happen if I follow
a certain set of procedures. But this description is norma-
tive : it describes what I must do, given certain intentions,
such as intending to produce a manuscript. Similarly, an
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account of the Leaning Tower of Pisa could be taken as a


normative description. While one can speak of a normative
description, one cannot, so far as I can tell, speak intelli-
gibly of a "descriptive normation." The two terms may not,
then, offer the kind of contrast that Stendahl's account
would have us believe they can.
In
considering our example, under what conditions
might we take an account of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to
be a normative description? Given our previous discussion, it
would likely be an account that was constrained by certain
rules and/or constrained us to a certain way of understand-
ing the phenomenon. Such an account could be offered, for
example, by an architect, or a geologist, or a physicist. It
could also be offered by a historian, but in each case the
account would involve a description constrained by the
procedural rules of the particular discipline involved. If an-'
astrologer offered an alternative account - describing the
tower's "lean" as the result of its construction during a
particular stellar configuration - we would probably not
consider this
description normative, unless we were norm-
ally given to astrological explanations. The reason we would
not accept such a description as normative is not because it
does not constitutea description, but because it is not con-
strained by rules we recognize as valid. It is constrained by
rules, but we think of the rules as wrong, or just silly. We
generally accept as valid the rules according to which archi-
tects or geologists or physicists offer descriptions, even if
we do not fully understand them "Rules" here is equiva-
lent to "a theory-governed method," and "valid" is equiva-
lent to "having genuine explanatory power." Both categor-
ies are interest and object-relative. 6
If it is the case that descriptive and normative do not
offer the kind of contrast that Stendahl assumes they do,
why has it seemed to biblical scholars to be so helpful in the
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field of biblical
theology? I suspect that one reason is that
we (biblical scholars) have a generally shared sense of what
constitutes a (normative) description. Such a description
will normally be an account of the phenomena (texts, or,
according to Stendahl, events) that is constrained by a given
set of tacitly accepted rules and will hence constrain us to
assent to the account. By "assent to the account" I do not
mean that we will have no potential disagreement with it,
but that we will assent to the account as one that follows
the relevant procedural rules (method). If universal agree-
ment were a requirement, then no account would be norma-
tive in any useful or interesting sense. An account is also a
(normative) description if it successfully explains a phenome-
non - and "successfully explains" is again a relative (but not
subjective) category.17 As it happens, the procedural rules
that we are generally (or tacitly) agreed upon are those we
normally lump under the rubric of "historical-critical
method," and which yield a particular kind of understand-
ing of the phenomena (texts or events) under consideration. 8
What Stendahl suggests is that we call accounts that are con-
strained by these rules "descriptive," and those which are not
in the same way constrained "normative."
This distinction seems to me unhelpful for reasons I
have already outlined. We do in fact accept historical-
critically governed descriptions as normative, in the sense
that we accept such descriptions as normative for our under-
standing of the texts, just in case these descriptions do not
violate the constraints of historical-critical description.
The proffered descriptive-normative distinction would have
us reserve the label "normative" to those descriptions that
are constrained by rules other than those usually employed
in critical historical investigation. This would be as if archi-
tects reserved the label "normative" to those (imagined)
descriptions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa offered by astrolo-
gers.
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Questions should of course be raised here about ac-


counts that Stendahl wants us to take as non-descriptive,
even if offered according to the constraints imposed by
tacitly accepted procedural
(inter-subjective) rules - but
not those usually employed by historical-critics. Understood
in this sense, "normative" would be reserved for those ac-
counts that were taken to be binding ("authoritative") in
some other way. In the example of the architectural account
of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Stendahl might understand
the account (or interpretation) to be normative if architects
"described" the Tower as a way of making claims about how
architecture ought to be considered. This is in fact, I suspect,
the way in which Stendahl intends "normative" to function.
Normative interpretations (accounts) of Scripture are to be
understood as those interpretations by which we are con-
strained to order our beliefs and actions as Jews and Christ-
ians. There is some precedent for this understanding, per-
haps, in the tendency of "theological" interpretation to
center on certain "subject matter" proposals, and to offer
accounts of the proposed subject matter ("righteousness of
God," "justification by faith," etc.) rather than, strictly
speaking, the texts. There is nothing at all wrong with this
tendency (at least there is no a priori criterion for showing it
to be wrong), it merely shows that descriptions can be offered
of different things. Stendahl, however, wants us to take
some of these accounts as normative, and non-descriptive.
The point to be made here is that, on the one hand, these
"normative" accounts are no less descriptive than, say,
strictly historical ones, and, on the other hand, strictly
historical accounts are no less normative than these. As
Stanley Cavell has put it,
Descriptive statements ... are not opposed to ones
which are normative, but in fact presuppose that
78.

we could not do the thing we call describing if


language did not provide (we had not been taught)
ways normative for describing.1 9
To use Stendahl's own language, any "common dis-
course" (or discipline) will have its descriptive and normative
components. Stendahl is right to distinguish between history
and theology, and to urge us to practice the kind of civility
that does not try to mount historical arguments that depend
on theological warrants. But to contrast descriptive and
normative as he does is to confuse the issue by asking us to
contrast the descriptive component of one discipline with
the normative component of another.
Stendahl that theology tells us how we
seems to think
ought to believe or what
we ought to believe. In a sense,
this is the case - in the same sense that it is true that history
tells us how and what we ought to believe, only about differ-
ent things. In fact, theology describes Christian belief, or
Christian faith. It is, we might say, an account of the grounds
and content of Christian faith, and there are properly des-
criptive and properly revisionary such accounts. Stendahl's
characterization of theology as normative, as distinct from
descriptive, is hard to square with what theologians actually
do. Langdon Gilkey says of this characterization, that
As a moment's reflection will clarify, this is not
what goes on in a contemporary class or program
in theology ... in most places where it is now
taught - in colleges, universities or in most semi-
naries - any more than do most medical schools
now center their curricula around courses in
bleeding.20
It would seem, then, that the appropriate questions for
biblical theologians to ask, when urged to be descriptive and
not normative, are "descriptive of what"? and "normative
in relation to what?" The reason that Stendahl's distinction
79.

has seemed intuitively correct, I would suggest, is that we


have assumed answers to these
questions. We have assumed
that "descriptive" means to offer an account of the relevant
features of the texts we study in accordance with procedures
constrained by the rules of our discipline. Our discipline is
normally a combination of linguistics, history and sociology,
sometimes supplemented by anthropology, literary criticism
and others. Our descriptions will thus be those of pheno-
mena (features of the texts) that these disciplines teach us
to pick out in the biblical texts. We do not think of these
descriptions as normative because we understand "normative"
to refer not to what we are engaged in, but to first order
theological discourse, or to prescriptive dogmatic claims.
There is more than one issue at stake here. The issue
that Stendahl
picks out for mention is the move from what
he calls descriptive study to something that he calls norma-
tive. He thinks that this move is brought about by herme-
neutics, which has, he says, two questions to answer. The
first or basic question is "Why should this move take place?"
In the case of biblical theology an answer is given in the
decision of the community to hold certain texts to be authori-
tative. The second
question of hermeneutics, what he appa-
rently regards to be the task of hermeneutics per se, is "How
do we move from descriptive study to normative meaning?"
Stendahl thus has a very narrow understanding of herme-
neutics as the specifically theological sort of endeavor that
establishes the rules according to which historical descrip-
tions are to be used in forming theological judgments.21
Of course hermeneutics, as understood by those who
normally use the term, is concerned not just with the rela-
tion between descriptive propositions and prescriptive ones,
as Stendahl's model would imply, but with historical under-
standing as such, and the grounds of its possibility. Herme-
neutics, in other words, is just as fundamental to history
80.

(and description) as to theology (and proclamation). Sten-


dahl, in the article under discussion, is really not interested
in hermeneutics, however, but in stating his claim that biblic-
al theology should be "descriptive" biblical theology - by
which he means that it should situate itself exclusively in
the "common discourse" of history.
Stendahlis right to point out, of course, that there is
no way to decide simply on the basis of the possibility that
a historical description can be offered (either of a text or of
an event) how that description should be taken account of
by theology, or by anyone outside the "common discourse"
of history. This has been adequately demonstrated by
David Kelsey.22 Stendahl would seem to owe us an account,
then, of what constitutes a theologically (as opposed to
merely historically) responsible use of Scripture. It seems to
me that he intends his distinction between "what it meant"
and "what it means" to constitute such an account, because
the determination of what a text "meant" will free it from
accumulated theological debris and permit it to be explored
in fresh ways - and normative ones.
It is appropriate, then, to turn next to an analysis of
Stendahl's conception of biblical theology's task as that of
describing what the text(s) meant. In the following section
I will try to show that this conception only lands us in more
, problems by equating an already problematic descriptive
normative distinction with an equally problematic meant/
means distinction.

IV
What It Meant and What It Means
As we have already noted, Stendahl offers a relatively
unproblematic account of "what it meant" in terms of how
a text was interpreted in the history of its use in Christian
interpretation. In this sense "what it meant" is equivalent to
81.

how someone interpreted the text at a given time and situa-


tion in the past. The problem arises when we want to say
that some uses were, on some criterion, better or more legiti-
mate uses than other ones. Stendahl wants to show that his
use of Romans 7 is a better use, on some criterion, than was
Luther's use of the same text. The criterion that he wants
to use is "what Paul thought he was saying." Actually, that
is not the criterion he uses, since Paul's thought about what
he was saying in Romans 7 is not available independent of
what he said in Romans 7. In other words, conclusions about
"what Paul thought that he meant" can only be subsequent
to and dependent upon, in this case, an interpretation (or
description) of Romans 7. In the nature of the case we
cannot know what Paul meant until we know what Romans
7 means.
Stendahl seems to be thrown into confusion by his
stipulation that "meant" entails "meant to someone at
time. t." That is a perfectly reasonable
stipulation, until we
try to use it to determine what Paul meant. Then, if we
follow the stipulation of meaning offered by Stendahl, "what
Paul meant by Romans 7" is equivalent to "what Romans 7
meant to Paul at time t," and time t would presumably equal
"when he wrote it." Stendahl's interlocuter may be inclined
to say, "I don't care what Romans 7 meant to anybody,
I want to know what Romans 7 means ..., or ... meant! "
The frustration to which the interlocuter has been driven
derives from the confusion inherent in the implication that
if something meant something, it doesn't mean it anymore.
The meant/means distinction does seem to involve some
confusion, and as an example of the kind of confusion to
which it can lead I have chosen, largely at random, the
methodological preface of Samuel Terrien's The Elusive
Presence.23 Terrien is not confused in his work on the
texts, which he goes about with unusual and admirable
82.

clarity, but his explanation of what he thinks biblical theo-


logy ought to do is not so clear.
Terrien begins (p. 39) by stating that biblical theology
is a "historical discipline which seeks to elucidate the mean-
ing of the Bible itself." This is clarified by insisting that
this historical task is to be kept distinct from that under-
taken by a systematic theologian, who "seeks to translate
biblical dynamics of faith and cultus into the contemporary
idiom." This account already raises two very important
questions:
1. Is "the meaning of the Bible itself" something other
than the
"biblical dynamics of faith and cultus?" Since
Terrien orients his work around the poles of faith and cultus,
using the theme of God's elusive presence as that which
unites these poles, the answer would seem to be negative.
That is, the meaning of the Bible itself just is, for Terrien as
biblical theologian, the biblical dynamics of faith and cultus.
2. Can this meaning be stated in some idiom other
than the contemporary one? Is there, in fact, an idiom avail-
able other than the contemporary one, or is what biblical
theologians do something other than translation? If the
Bible speaks an idiom different
ours, from which it must,
since theologians have to translate it, then how can anyone
understand biblical-theological accounts of it other than by
means of translation? Do systematic theologians have to do
idiom translation before biblical theologians can do their
world view translation?
The distinction between biblical and systematic theo-
logy which Terrien feels the need to draw appears
to be
muddled. It gets even more so when Terrien goes on to
describe the prerequisites of an adequate biblical theology.
He says that biblical theologians must
a. become explicit regarding their epistemological
presuppositions;
83.

b. attempt to penetrate the meaning of Scripture;


c. translate this meaning into the world view of the
Twentieth Century.
But these prerequisites can be met, according to Terrien,
only if "the biblical theologian is also subject to a personal
involvement" in the knowledge of God that the OT has as
its object and subject (p. 42). Biblical theology must further
be done with a view to "promoting a stability of faith" and
to "facilitate the transmission of that faith to the next gen-
eration" (p. 41 ).
There are several components of this program of biblical
theology that Terrien commends to us. First of all, biblical
theology translates the meaning of the Bible into the 20th
Century world view, which is somehow different from the
contemporary idiom.
Secondly, there are epistemological
prerequisites for the accomplishment of this task, and the
biblical theologian must be clear about them.
episte- These
mological prerequisites seem to be summed up in the in-
volvement that such a theologian must have, not just with
the material on which she is working, but with God who is
the subject matter of this material. Finally, a biblical theo-
logian adequate to the task must take it as the goal of her
work that it contribute to the faith of the worshipping com-
munity.
The point to be made regarding Terrien's methodological
discussion is that, whatever the merits of these recommenda-
tions on general grounds, they are useless as a way to differ-
entiate the task of biblical from that of systematic theology.
Terrien is committed to the theological importance of biblic-
al theology, yet recognizes the difficulty of articulating this
importance while giving independent space to biblical theo-
logy between history and systematic theology. He attempts
to resolve this difficulty by appeal to some rather confusing
methodological guidelines. It seems to me that the confusion
84.

in Terrien's recommendations is prompted by a tacit ac-


ceptance of some understanding of the meant/means distinc-
tion.24 This is evident in the overburdened metaphor of
translation.
First of all, Terrien insists that the responsibility of
translating the biblical dynamics of faith and cultus into the
contemporary idiom be left to the systematic theologian.
But he goes on to claim it as a responsibility of the biblical
theologian to translate scriptural meaning into the 20th
Century's world view. Sense can perhaps be made of this
apparent contradiction if we understand Terrien to mean
that biblical theologians have a responsibility to give some
kind of synthetic account of the biblical texts that con-
temporary people can understand. By the "contemporary
idiom," which is the object of a systematic theologian's
translations, I take Terrien to mean the task of stating the
theologically prescriptive claims that such a synthetic account
makes on people who are disposed by reasons of faith to be
constrained by the texts in some way. What Terrien seems to
grasp intuitively is the difficulty of establishing the theo-
logical relevance of historical
description, so he states his
proposals in such a way that biblical theology becomes
methodologically indistinguishable from biblically oriented
systematic theology - just what Stendahl wants to avoid.
The result is that the move from "descriptive" to "norma-
tive" or "meant" to "means" takes place behind our backs,
so to speak.
This the back move seems to take place in the
behind
stipulation that
we must, as descriptive biblical theologians,
get ourselves into a position of involvement with God in
order appropriately to understand the texts with which we
have to deal. But given our discussion about descriptive and
normative this stipulation, if it makes sense at all, is just
what is ruled out by biblical theology that understands
85.

itself to be historically descriptive. I take Terrien's methodo-


logical discussion to imply that he wants biblical theology to
be descriptive in the sense that it offers theologically norma-
tive descriptions - descriptions that are constrained by the
rules of theologicaldiscourse, and perhaps descriptions that
also constrain these
rules (norma normans, norma normata).
He is thrown off course, however, by a lack of precedent.
We are unaccustomed to think of theological descriptions
in biblicaltheology, since we think there are only historical
ones, and so confine ourselves to sober discourse about what
the text meant. Terrien senses that historically descriptive
discourse does not us why such discourse
tell should be
theologically interesting, so to guarantee that it will be he
introduces the "epistemology" argument: we must be in-
volved with God in order to properly understand the texts.25
.
The description offered will be historical, according to
the methodological discussion, but it will have a theological
payoff insofar as it includes an involvement with its subject/
object (God). In this sleight of hand way, to shift the meta-
phor, a discussion of what the text meant can also just turn
out to be a discussion of what it means. By accepting as
sound the requirement that biblical theology be descriptive
of what the text meant, Terrien is unable to give a clear
account of what he is up to, and hence we are unable to say
whether or not he has pulled it off.
We are (finally) at a point, then, where we need to take
up explicitly and
analytically the question of stating with
respect to a given text what it meant, and differentiating
this from a different and not clearly related statement of
what it now means, without turning this into a program for
church history. We often discuss the meaning of texts as if
meaning were something that texts possessed, or as if "mean-
ing" were the object of a transitive verb "to mean," and as
if it were our task to uncover this mysterious possession-or,
86.

as if a text had primary qualities, such as its words, its sen-


tences and its structure, and secondary qualities, one of
which is its meaning. The meant/means distinction seems to
trade on this understanding.26
I will apologize in advance for the abstract and symbolic
character of the following discussion, but it seems to me the
clearest way to lay bare the conclusions and problems entailed
in holding to a meant/means distinction in biblical theology.
To get the argument going, let us assume that someone holds
that texts may be interpreted according to this distinction
of meant/means, and that meanings are something that texts
just have, and if we have the proper philological and herme-
neutical equipment we can uncover, depending on who we
are, the meaning a text had, and the one it has. In that
case we may expect such a person to utter the following
' '
locution:
B has the task, for which S has no competence, of
describing for you the property M which T had at
t, but B leaves to S the task, for which B has no
competence, of describing the property M' which
T has at t'.
= a biblical
(B theologian
S = a systematic theologian
M = what the text meant
M' = what the text means
T = a text t
t and t' = two temporally distinct occasions)
There is something odd about this locution. It implies
that T, a single entity, possesses some property, M, and ano-
ther property besides, M'. These are both exclusive proper-
ties of T, yet one can be described without reference to the
other. The description of these properties is the special
talent of two different people, B and S. It is also odd because
M and M', the province of B and S respectively, are to be
87.

described with reference to t and t'. In fact, T has as its


properties M or M' depending on whether it is seen in relation
to t or t'. B has special skills that permit her to describe the
relation between T and M at t, while S has special skills that
permit him to describe the relation between T and M' at t'.
Let's say that the person who uttered the above locution
encountered a hermeneutician, say Eric Hirsch, who stipu-
lated that as a fundamental principle T can have only one
property, M or M' but not both.27 Then B has some options.
She can say that S is mistaken, and that T has M', but not M.
Alternatively, she could say that there are in fact not just T,
but T and T', which have M and M' respectively. This strikes
B as silly, since there is only one Romans 7, no matter how
many copies there are.
What B actually decides to say, having found Hirsch
confusing, is that T had a property M, which it no longer has,
although she can know what this property was. At the same
time, T now has a property M' which it did not have in the
past, and which only S is in a position to know. B has read
Stendahl, so she knows that M is important to S in such a
way that S can only know the property M' if B has told him
about M, upon which M' is dependent, but which T no longer
has. Is M', then, really a property of M, rather than of T?28
In any case, it is strange that if T no longer has M as
a property, M should be of any interest to someone at t'.
If a property which T no longer has is of no interest, then
B's work is of questionable relevance to S, or to anyone at
t'. Of course, it is also a problem how B could know that
T possessed M at t, unless M had some effects at t'. But then
how would these effects differ from M', unless they are both
properties of T? But if they are, then what of Hirsch's ob-
jection ? Didn't Occam say something about the multiplica-
tion of entities? More importantly for us, would anyone be
interested in a description of what a text does not mean,
88.

especially since such descriptions would be potentially in-


finite ? M turns out to be just the first in a series of properties
that T no longer possesses.
It is of course possible to talk about meaning in ways
other than as properties of texts - in fact, it is probably
all wrong to talk about them in just this way. It may be that
it is not helpful to talk about meanings at a11.29 The question
is, however, whether one can rigorously differentiate what
a text meant from what it means without recourse to this
understanding of meaning. In Stendahl's article the only
other possibility given limited attention is that of under-
standing meaning as use. But we saw earlier that his attempt
to join "meaning as use" with the meant/means distinction
landed him in the difficulty of giving an account of how we
can distinguish what Romans 7 meant, for example, from
the uses to which it has been put - both of which, for
Stendahl, have still to be distinguished from the present
meaning of Romans 7. Understanding meaning in terms of
use is a possibility, but only if it is divorced from the pre-
vailing meant/means distinction.
The meant/means distinction, which seems so straight-
forward and helpful at first glance, seems upon closer analysis
to be problematic in fundamental ways. It seems doubtful
whether it can be stated in such a way that these difficulties
disappear. Stendahl intends the meant/means distinction to
clarify his prior and more fundamental distinction between
descriptive and normative, a distinction which is itself du-
bious as Stendahl uses it. There are differences between what
biblical and systematic theologians do; about that there is
little doubt. If biblical theologians are to gain greater clarity
about the distinctiveness of their own task, presuming that
that is an important thing to do [the importance of being
distinctive is self-evident only for academic curricula], it
seems that they will have to find ways of understanding
that task other than those offered by Stendahl.
89.

v
The goal of Stendahl's argument seems to be that of
making room for the work of historical-critical description
in biblical theology, and of making biblical theology account-
able to that kind of description. With that goal no one
should find fault. Indeed, any use made of any text must
be, in some way, accountable to historical-critical descrip-
tions, assuming for now that there is a discreet class of
descriptions that may be assigned that label. With respect
to the biblical texts, even systematic-theological uses of them
are accountable, in some way, to historical-critical descrip-
tions. Any discipline, including biblical theology, is free to
hold that historical-critical descriptions are not exhaustive
of its interests in the texts, but disciplines are not free simply
to transgress such descriptions in principle.
For example, a literary-critical reading of Genesis, of
the kind undertaken by Robert Alter, may be interested in
different kinds of descriptions from those offered by tradi-
tional historical critics. But it is not free simply to trans-
gress them. Such a literary critic may be interested in
describing the dramatic narrative character of Genesis 22,
rather than the history of its redaction and transmission.
But he is not at liberty to claim that it has no such history -
just because his work can be done without taking it into
account. If such a claim is made, it must be supported by
the kinds of evidence, and by the kinds of warrants, com-
monly accepted by the intellectual community of biblical
scholarship.30
Similarly, one may suppose, biblical theologians are
free to determine, on the basis of their particular set of
interests, what sorts of descriptions or accounts of the
biblical texts are most compatible with those (presumably
theological) interests.31 This would not relieve them, how-
ever, of a fundamental accountability to historical descrip-
tions or accounts of the texts with which they work. A
90.

theologically interested
account of the book of Isaiah, for
example, (whatever such an account may look like)32 may
pay more or less attention to the historical diversity of the
material in that
book, but it is not free to claim, without
proper argument, that such diversity does not exist.33
Had Stendahl claimed this much, and not more, there
would be nothing controversial about his argument. But
Stendahl goes on to make the much stronger claim, without
sufficient argument, that historical-critical descriptions
exhaust the work of biblical
theology. Stendahl's claim rests
ultimately on his assumptions that with respect to the Bible,
i.e., the canonical text of a religious community, there is
only historical criticism and "theology per se," with nothing
in between - and that theology operates by using the meta-
physical tools of hermeneutics to do normative work on
biblical texts.
A critique of Stendahl's notion of what theology, "per
se" or otherwise, actually does is a topic for someone else to
address.34 This essay has tried merely to show that the
categories by which Stendahl attempts to articulate the
distinctive tasks of biblical theology are unhelpful, simply
because of the logical problems involved in an understand-
ing of these categories as he uses them. It is true, of course,
that we understand a biblical text differently today from
when it was written.My argument is not that this (seemingly
self-evident) proposition is false. But the point is that all
of us understand such a text differently today from when
it was written, whether we are philologists, literary critics
or systematic theologians. There is enormous utility for
all present readers of the texts, in the work of historical-
critics (philologists, historians), who make as clear as possible
the differences between our "horizons of expectations"35
and those of the ancients. However, this claim is far differ-
ent from the set of claims embedded in Stendahl's argu-
ment, and the manner in which it is carried out.
91.

There are differences among us regarding the way (or


even whether) we are to locate ourselves with reference
to the biblicalnarratives. The task of so locating ourselves,
and discriminating among the various proposals for doing it,
is a task too important to be left to biblical theologians
alone. But if they cannot participate constructively in this
task one wonders why they should be called theologians.
And if they do not participate in it, one wonders who will.36
If this
essay has shown Stendahl's methodological
argument to be unconvincing, that does not yet provide us
with positive answers to our methodological problem, but it
does open us to different ways of conceiving it. It opens us
to the possibility of considering afresh what biblical theo-
logy's interests in the texts are, and of reflecting on the
descriptive and normative components of the methodologies
that serve those interests.37

- NOTES -

1. "Biblical Theology, Contemporary," IDB 1 (1962) 418-32. The


essay is now reprinted as "Biblical Theology: A Program," in Mean-
ings : The Bible as Document and as Guide (Philadelphia: Fortress,
1984) 11-44.

2- This is not to say, of course, that his claims have not been con-
tested. See already Brevard Childs, "The Theological Responsibility of
an Old Testament Commentary," Interp 18 (1964) 432-49. Stendahl
comments on Childs's critique in "Methodology in the Study of Biblical
Theology," The Bible in Modern Scholarship (ed. J. P. Hyatt; Nash-
ville : Abingdon, 1965) 203 n. 13. From the standpoint of theology,
Langdon Gilkey critiques Stendahl's distinctions in "The Roles of the
'Descriptive' or 'Historical' and of the 'Normative' in Our Work,"
Criterion 20 (1981) 10-17. While I am in agreement with Gilkey's
critique, my own argument is different from and independent of his.
See also Nicholas Lash, "What Might Martyrdom Mean?" Ex Auditu
1 (1985) [ed. Thomas W. Gillespie and Dikran Y. Hadidian, Allison
Park: Pickwick Publications, 1985, 14-24].
92.

3. See the previous note. He has commented further on his argu-


ment in "Meanings," the introductory essay in the book of the same
title (pp. 1-8).

4. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed.;


Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth
and Method (New York: Seabury, 1975).

5. It seems possible to take Stuhlmacher this way in Historical


Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Philadelphia:
Fortress, 1977). See his discussion of the "hermeneutics of consent"
(83-91). Stuhlmacher's more comprehensive statement can be found in
Vom Verstehen des Neuen Testaments (ATD; Grundrisse zum NT 6;
Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979) 205-25. Seminary stu-
dents seem particularly drawn to this understanding of "hermeneutics,"
as a way of dismissing historical criticism.

6. Walter Brueggemann and John R. Donahue seem to offer this


critique of Stendahl in their Series forward to Paul D. Hanson's The
Diversity of Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982) x. Stendahl
rejects this critique in "Meanings," 3-4. This particular criticism
would count against an earlier argument resembling Stendahl's by
D. S. Adam, "Theology," ERE 12 (1922) 293-300. See John H. Hayes
and Frederick Prussner, Old Testament Theology: Its History and
Development (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) 208. Stendahl denies that
historians are capable of "absolute objectivity" in "Methodology,"
202.

7. "Methodology," 202. The quotes and page numbers that follow


in the text are all taken from this article.

8. He does think, however, that his proposal will lead to the search
for "more original intentions and expressions" that will be "suggestive"
for what Christianity is about (ibid., 207).

9. In "Meanings" this becomes even more confused, because now


Stendahl says that biblical scholarship is to answer the question what
Paul or another biblical writer "thought that they thought" (p. 2).
I am doubtful that asking someone what they "thought that they
meant" makes sense, and am certain that asking them what they
"thought that they thought" does not. The potential for infinite
regress is apparent: "what do you think that you thought you thought?"
93.

10 Historical-critical biblical scholarship can apparently be called


"biblical theology," because it works on canonical texts - the texts of
the synagogue or church. But the term "theology" does nothing,
according to Stendahl, to distinguish what biblical theologians do from
historical scholarship generally.

11. That descriptive biblical theology does interpret, in a highly


reflective way, is clear from Stendahl's own work; for example, the
essays published in Meanings.

12. London: Methuen, 1959. References in this essay are to the


paperback edition of 1963 (Garden City, NY: Anchor).

13. Most comprehensively and abstrusely by Wilhelm Vatke, Die


biblische Theologie wissenschaftlich dargestellt (vol. 1; Berlin: Bethge,
1835).

14. Barth, Church Dogmatics (1/1; 2nd ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T.


Clark, 1975) 5.

15. The specific terms in which such a description is offered are


governed, in part, by the kind of description desired. Interpretations
of historical phenomena, including historical-critical "descriptions"
of texts, may be more appropriately called "redescriptions." On this
point see the excellent essay by Mary Hesse, "Theory and Value in the
Social Sciences," Action and Interpretation: Studies in the Philosophy
of the Social Sciences (ed. Christopher Hookway and Philip Pettit;
Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1978) 1-17.

16. By this I mean simply that the rules chosen will be those appro-
priate to our interests, and appropriate to the object. If we are archi-
tects we will not choose (or be primarily interested in) other kinds of
descriptions. Similarly, if the object is a text, rather than a tower,
architectural "rules" will not be valid, since they haven't any explana-
tory power relative to a text. On the "interest-relativity" of explana-
tion, see Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences (London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978) 41-45. Putnam's example is of a bank
robber asked by a priest, "Why do you rob banks?" The thief's answer,
"Because that's where the money is," is an "explanation," but not
one commensurate with the priest's interests. He wanted to know why
the thief robbed banks instead of obeying the law, not why he robbed
94.

banks instead of liquor stores. On the place of "explanation" in textual


interpretation see Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse
and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: TCU, 1976); "Explanation
.and Understanding," The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (ed. C. E. Reagan
and David Steward; Boston: Beacon, 1978) 149-66. Mark Kline Taylor
has lucidly summarized Ricoeur on this point in, "Symbolic Dimen-
sions in Cultural Anthropology," Current Anthropology, 26 (1985)
167-74.

17. "Successfully explains" is relative in the ways described in the


previous note. It is not subjective, however, because it is, in any
concrete application, constrained by tacitly accepted (inter-subjective)
rules - usually those developed in an academic discipline.

18. It would seem to me that texts and events, respectively, require


different explanatory strategies - something Stendahl does not ac-
knowledge.

19- "Must We Mean What We Say?" in Ordinary Language: Essays


in Philosophical Method (ed. V. C. Chappell; Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, 1964) 94.

20. Gilkey, "The Roles of the 'Descriptive'... and the `Normative,"'


10. Whether or not Stendahl actually conceives theology this way,
such a conception seems to be entailed in his proposal.

21. Stendahl seems to urge that such a transformation be achieved by


uniting the biblical past with the theological present under the cate-
gory of history, indeed "sacred history" ("Biblical Theology: A
Program," 34-37). But such an overarching "salvation-history" seems
forced with respect to the Bible, and dubious with respect to the pre-
sent. How can descriptive biblical theology, as Stendahl has defined it,
end up saying that a theology of history is what the texts "meant?"

22. The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fort-


ress, 1975). Kelsey discusses Stendahl on pp. 202-203, n. 18. See
further below, n. 28.
95.

23. Harper & Row, 1978. The page numbers in the following para-
graphs refer to this work.

24. He refers to Stendahl approvingly in ibid., p. 39. But it is not


clear exactly what in Stendahl's argument he is approving.

25. I do not know quite what Terrien means by this rule. 'f he means
that God's guidance is necessary for adequately understanding any text,
or for understanding just the Bible but not other texts, it is not a rule,
but an article of faith. If he means that identification with that of
which texts speak (God, in our case) is prerequisite to understanding
them, then Christians can understand only Christian religious texts.
That would be an odd rule. If he is talking only about a kind of "Ein-
fuhlen," then this rule would have to be stated in another way, without
reference to God. I suspect that the "rule," as Terrien uses it, has no
function other than to bring about the "behind the back" move that
we are describing.

26. As W. V. Quine points out, the way in which we talk about


"meaning" leads us to conceive it as the object of a verb, "to mean" -
as something that sentences (or texts) do something to. See his essay,
"Use and Its Place in Meaning," in Theories and Things (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University, 1981) 43-54. Jeffrey Stout follows Quine in
suggesting that we "explicate meaning by eliminating it." In other
words, since "meaning" obscures rather than clarifies what our interests
in a text are, it is more helpful to specify those interests and act accord-
ingly than to talk obscurely about meaning ("What is the Meaning of a
Text?" New Literary History 14 [1982-83] 1-12).

27. E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale Univer-


sity, 1967). Hirsch's proposals, critiqued by Stout (see the preceding
note), may be taken to support Stendahl's, since Hirsch argues for the
authority of an author's intentions. But what he means by "author's
intentions" is more complex than what a given author wanted to say
or do in writing a text (e.g., pp. 217-24). On the other hand, Hirsch is
insistent that interpretation has one goal: to determine a text's mean-
ing. On Hirsch's model, the "meant/means" distinction would be
unintelligible. For a more helpful account of the place of intention
in understanding see Karl-Otto Apel, "Intentions, Conventions, and
References to Things: Dimensions of Understanding Meaning in
96.

Hermeneutics and in Analytic Philosophy of Language," Meaning


and Understanding (ed. Herman Parret and Jacques Bouveresse; Berlin:
de Gruyter, 1981 ) 79-111.

28. David Kelsey cites with approval Stendahl's distinction between


meant and means (above, n. 24). The point Kelsey is trying to clarify
is that there may be "conceptual discontinuity" between the biblical
texts and theological proposals. But the way Kelsey formulates it, "the
logical point is that the basic theological judgment ('what it means')
may be conceptually discontinuous with the historical and interpretive
judgment ('what it meant')" (202). In other words, in defending Sten-
dahl he has shifted from talking about the move from text to proposal,
to talking about the move from one kind of "judgment" to another.
Theology's problem, as he makes clear in the text (e.g., p. 189),is not
that of redescribing one account of scripture into another, but - simply
- redescribing scripture. Theologians interpret scripture, in the diverse
ways Kelsey so ably analyzes, not historical-critical interpretations of
scripture. Stendahl's distinctions seem to undermine rather than
support just the point Kelsey wants to make.

29. See above, n. 26. Sean McEvenue argues for the strict priority
of "biblical meanings" in biblical theology, equating these with authors'
intentions, e.g. those of the Yahwist or "P," yet he claims that he does
not intend to criticize the work of those who deny that the meaning
of a text is equivalent to an author's intentions ("The Old Testament,
Scripture or Theology?" Interp 35 [1981] 229-42, esp. pp. 237-38
and n. 24, citing Warren and Wellek, Gadamer and Ricoeur). Drawing
on the work of Anthony Campbell (The Ark Narrative [SBLDS 16;
Missoula: Scholars Press, 19975 ), McEvenue says that the meaning of
the Ark Narrative is that "Yahweh is radically free of all human mani-
pulation in making his choices and that Yahweh had chosen to come
to Jerusalem and to bless the Davidic era there" (239-40). If this is
the meaning of the text, and biblical theology (or exegesis) aims at such
meaning statements, one wonders why Campbell had to exert so much
effort in arriving at it. Anyone competent in English could arrive at
this "meaning" through a casual perusal of the RSV. In this case the
"meaning" of the text proves to be the least interesting thing about it.
Campbell, by the way, explicitly rejects McEvenue's equation of mean-
ing and intention (Ark Narrative, 195-96).
97.

30. On Stendahl's model, literary-critical descriptions would be dis-


allowed, just because they are not historical-critical ones. In critiquing
literary approaches to Scripture he at least implies that historical
approaches are the only ones appropriate, just in case a reader of the
Bible wants "to seek guidance from the Scriptures" ("Meanings," 6).
This seems to follow for Stendahl from literary-criticism's general lack
of attention to authorial intention. Why this lack is crucial for those
seeking guidance from Scripture is not clear.

31. This could be taken to be, in fact, what is basically at issue


between (for example) Brevard Childs and Norman Gottwald. See the
somewhat similar comments of Walter Brueggemann, "A Shape for
Old Testament Theology, I : Structure Legitimation," CBQ 47 (1985)
28-46.

32. I have tried to offer one such "theologically interested" account


in Zion, the City of the Great King (JSOTSS; Sheffield: JSOT, forth-
coming).

33. In a somewhat analogous way, a description of a table may be


considered adequate, given some set of interests, even if it does not
refer to the molecular structure of the wood that composes it. But no
such description can simply claim that there are no molecules hidden in
the wood. In other words, the legitimacy of such "surface" descrip-
tion does not itself count against alternative "molecular" ones. Domi-
nick LaCapra points out that "when texts are relegated to discrete
disciplines they are read in an excessively reductive way," in "Rethink-
ing Intellectual History and Reading Texts," History and Theory 19
(1980) 271. It would seem important for biblical theology to avoid
such reductionism. I have taken the LaCapra quote from Marylin
Chapin Massey, Christ Unmasked: The Meaning of the Life of Jesus in
German Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1983) 3.

34. See the previously mentioned article by Gilkey (above, n. 2).

35. The term is used by, among others, Robert Jauss ("Literary
History as a Challenge to Literary Theory," New Literary History 2
[1970] 14), who means by it, according to Susan R. Suleiman, "the
set of cultural, ethical, and literary (generic, stylistic, thematic) expec-
tations of a work's readers ..." (Susan R. Suleiman, "Introduction:
Varieties of Audience-Oriented Criticism," The Reader in the Text
98.

[ed. S. R. Suleiman and Ingo Crosman; Princeton: Princeton University,


1980] 35. As Suleiman points out, even when a work first appears
there are several such horizons, not just one. This would obviously
apply to the biblical literature as well.

36. Here it is appropriate to commend George A. Lindbeck's The


Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), esp. pp. 113-24.
However systematic theologians come to evaluate Lindbeck's recom-
mendations for their work, biblical theologians have here an excellent
set of recommendations for their own. See further my essay in the
B. W. Anderson Festschrift, "Biblical Theology: Situating the Disci-
pline," Understanding the Word (ed. J. T. Butler, E. W. Conrad and
B. C. Ollenburger; JSOTSS 37; Sheffield: JSOT, forthcoming). This
essay agrees in its recommendations, I believe, with Lindbeck's, though
it was written before I had seen his.

37. I would like to thank my colleague, Mark Kline Taylor, for his
careful reading and thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this
essay. Some of the issues addressed here have been carried further in
the area of hermeneutics by Charles M. Wood, by whose work some of
my own arguments have been shaped. See especially Theory and
Understanding (AARDS 12; Missoula: Scholars Press, 1975); The
Formation of Christian Understanding (Philadelphia: Westminster,
1981).