In his endorsement for Mark Alan Bowald’s Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics, Kevin Vanhoozer writes that “theological hermeneutics has no more avid cartographer than Mark Bowald.” This is a fitting description of Bowald and the work he does in Rendering the Word: he takes on the role of theological-hermeneutical cartographer and maps out the state of theological hermeneutics as he saw it in 2007, when he first published this work with Ashgate. In 2015, Rendering the Word was picked up by Lexham Press and republished as part of their Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology series. Though there have been many developments in the “theological interpretation of Scripture” movement (TIS) since its first publication, Rendering the Word continues to make a helpful contribution to the topic by charting its key representatives in relation to one another.
Bowald’s primary concern in this volume is to call attention to the role (or lack thereof) divine agency plays within the systems of TIS’s spokesmen. With the question of divine agency in view, Bowald charts these spokesmen in relation to one another within a triangular typology (more on this typology below). According to Bowald, divine agency plays too small a role in the hermeneutical processes of these spokesmen. It is Bowald’s contention that the same Kantian ideas of the illegitimacy of antecedent judgments in epistemology, which occasioned the skepticism of higher biblical criticism, have continued to influence the very movement that objects to those ideas. TIS, he argues, is still influenced by Kantian skepticism in its dismissal of divine agency in the hermeneutical process.
Bowald begins his work by describing the stage of contemporary hermeneutics as set by Kantian epistemology. He describes Kant’s epistemology and its two limitations that effect hermeneutics: (1) the assumption that “true knowledge” of God is impossible on account of finite man’s inability to experience the infinite, and (2) the assumed illegitimacy of “other influences” and prior knowledge. Kant’s epistemological assumptions therefore necessitates a hermeneutical skepticism with respect to divine agency. To the degree that Kantian philosophy has influenced theological hermeneutics, Bowald argues, this skepticism remains in the hermeneutical process.
In chapter two, Bowald explains the triangular typology he uses throughout the rest of the volume. The upper plain of the triangle refers to divine speech agency and the bottom to human speech agency. The triangle’s bottom-left corner refers to the text, its bottom-right to the reader, and its top to God. Hermeneutical systems that operate toward the far bottom-left side are imminently concerned with what the text’s human authors have written, and not at all concerned with divine agency (top corner) or the role of reader response (bottom-right corner), et al. The further a system moves into one corner, the further it moves away from the other two. With this framework set in place, the next three chapters are dedicated to examining figures who operate primarily within one of the triangle’s three corners.
In his third chapter, Bowald gives an overview of type one by using Hans Frei (particularly his earlier work), Kevin Vanhoozer, and Francis Watson as representatives. According to Bowald, the commonality between these three figures is that they are primarily concerned with discovering meaning by examining the text of Scripture itself. Though it is notable that each of these figures undergoes a unique transition of sorts. For example, Frei begins by insisting that meaning is found decisively and solely from within the narrative (i.e., not from extratextual sources), and eventually makes a drastic move over into type two, where he insists meaning is derived in diachronic conversation between the church and the text. These figures’ hermeneutical frameworks are not static, and Bowald makes this point clear.
Chapter four surveys David Kelsey, Hans Frei (focusing on his later work), Werner Jeanrond, and Stephen Fowl to illustrate type two: hermeneutics that focus primarily on the human agency of the reader. This type can be further subdivided between those who emphasize the role of human agency in diachronic reading (the interpretation of the reading community throughout the centuries) and synchronic reading (the interpretation of each generation’s reading community). According to Bowald, Kelsey’s and Fowl’s hermeneutics are ecclesiastically pragmatic; contemporary Christians determine Scripture’s meaning by its use (synchronic). As mentioned above, Frei’s later hermeneutic sees Scripture’s meaning as a product of semi-fluid conversation between the text and its interpretative community (diachronic). Jeanrond, an extreme example of type two, argued that every reading of the text offers a new meaning, since all context and historical intent surrounding a text was lost the moment it materialized (radically synchronic).
In chapter five, Bowald surveys the work of Karl Barth, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and James K. A. Smith as representatives of type three. Each of these authors emphasize that the interpretative task ought to be concerned with what God is doing in revelation and in the hermeneutical process. Barth attributed a significant role of divine agency in hermeneutics, going so far as to argue that Scripture, as witness to revelation, becomes the word of God when (according to God’s activity) it effectively bears witness to Jesus. Barth was a Christ-centered type three. Wolterstorff proposed a very practical type three hermeneutic consisting of two steps: (1) determining what God was saying through the human authors when they wrote, and (2) determining what God is saying through the text now. Smith is very near to type two, insisting that meaning is determined by the interpretative community both in its synchronic and diachronic reading. According to Smith, the text’s ambiguity that requires the communal context (which determines the text’s meaning) is intentional on God’s part, and it is God’s action in the hermeneutical process. In other words, God acts through the community’s response to the text’s ambiguity.
Bowald concludes Rending the Word by summarizing the overall argument of the volume (i.e., that TIS has, by and large, neglected to heed appropriate attention to divine agency in the hermeneutical process), and by offering a proposal for a way forward. Bowald’s proposal is a dynamic hermeneutic that he calls “divine-rhetorical hermeneutics.” This hermeneutic borrows the Aristotelian rhetorical categories of ethos, logos, and pathos. He insists that all three of these aspects of rhetoric inform one another; ethos (i.e., the character of the speaking agent) establishes the reliability of—and demands the reception of—logos (i.e., the content of the speaking agent’s speech act), informing its appropriation in the pathos (i.e., the response of the speech act’s receivers).
To lay out the hermeneutical distinctives of so many original and prolific thinkers is no small task, and Bowald excels in doing just this. Bowald’s ability of condensing and describing the unique contributions of these figures is truly impressive, and for that, he ought to be commended. However, there are some important criticisms I wish to raise, beginning with the central triangular typology he uses. The terms of the triangle are fairly subjective and are therefore only helpful to those who already agree with Bowald about them. Further, after laboring to fit all of these authors and their hermeneutical processes into this triangular typology, Bowald himself rejects the typology as the ideal context for construing a hermeneutical framework in place of his own proposal (i.e., divine-rhetorical hermeneutics) (238). In this way, Bowald seems to give himself an unwarranted level of privilege that he withholds from the authors he analyzes; they are rigidly forced to occupy a space he is not willing to occupy. Why should Bowald be allowed to leave the triangle?
Further, Bowald’s own proposal is counterproductive in its most crucial point. Bowald argues for the primacy of divine ethos (i.e., the character of God, the divine agent) and its relation to the logos (i.e., the inspired text of Scripture; the communication of the divine agent) and pathos (i.e., the reader’s reception and application of the logos) in his divine-rhetoric hermeneutic. Structurally, this is brilliant and it addresses the need that Bowald highlights all throughout the volume. However, rather than allowing for the divine agent to establish his own ethos (that is, through the self-revelation of Scripture), Bowald makes a bizarre turn and undermines the perspicuity and authority of Scripture by insisting non-divinely-inspired sources ought to establish ethos: “To begin, this requires not the jettison of one’s confession and catechesis: to the contrary, to prepare to listen to the living word of God begins with learning all one can about this God and his Word. So: the study of Church history, of dogmatics, of traditions of reading and so on, is prerequisite.” (240) This seems to undermine the notion that the divine agent communicates himself directly through the inspired text. Instead, the text is minimized as a divine self-communication, one that is unavoidably misunderstood apart from Church history, dogmatics, and traditions of reading. These are “prerequisite” to interpreting Scripture. They are thus elevated to a de facto place of authority alongside the revelation itself.
Despite the fact that Bowald succumbs to some of the same pitfalls he argues other authors have fallen into, his greatest contribution in Rendering the Word is that he highlights two important hermeneutical necessities: (1) the unavoidability of depending on divine agency in theological hermeneutics (consciously or otherwise), and (2) (in around about way) the impossibility of harnessing divine agency into a tidy method. Bowald critiques authors who relegate divine agency into the background of their hermeneutical task while his own approach amounts to little more than the same relegation, albeit with more explicit and frequent discussion about the background. This seems to be the unavoidable conclusion given the premise of divine agency to begin with: if divine agency in Scripture (both in its genesis and its reception by readers) is God’s action, then the reader’s relationship to divine agency must be passive. Divine agency, by definition, can only be appropriated into the hermeneutical process through faith. “Faith” not in the colloquial sense of leaping into the dark, but in the theological sense of looking to God to meet a need. Arguing for the need of such a humble theological-hermeneutical method is Bowald’s primary aim in Rendering the Word, and my qualms about the particularities of his unique proposal notwithstanding, he succeeds in this endeavor.
Because of the shortcomings of Bowald’s highly technical, idiosyncratic triangular typology, I would not recommend this work to many readers. It is too problematic for the reader who is not already convinced of many of the points for which Bowald argues. I would, however, highly recommend Rendering the Word (particularly its middle section) to readers curious about the unique contours of the TIS spokesmen Bowald analyzes. I would recommend the work to such individuals, however, with two caveats. First, Rendering the Word is not user friendly—it is highly technical and difficult to follow—so be prepared. Second, Bowald shines when he is describing the work of others, but dims when prescribing a way forward. In other words, to the inquiring reader I advise: Bowald is a much better cartographer than he is a trailblazer. Be sure to thank him for his cartographical contribution, but you may be better served by following other leaders on your hermeneutical expedition.