Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Stephen Fowl and the Virtue of Charity in Interpretation

Stephen E. Fowl, Professor of Theology, Loyola College, Maryland, is known best for his work on Paul (see his Ephesians, Philippians commentaries) and his work in Theological Interpretation of Scripture (see here) has an insightful essay on the latter in the Festschrift for Andrew Lincoln, Conception, Reception, and the Spirit, entitled, "Historical Criticism, Theological Interpretation and the Ends of the Christian Life" (173-186). Fowl does not offer specific methodologies on how theological interpretation should be carried out, but rather points the way forward with an eye towards the future of the enterprise, namely, matters of self-definition.

I'd like to focus on one particularly helpful section of Fowl's essay in this post. He notes:
When theological interpretation of Scripture was trying to get a foothold in the academy there was a good deal of overheated rhetoric from both theological interpreters and historical critics about either the necessity of or the bankrupt nature of historical criticism. I think the time is right to reflect on these relationships in less fevered tones. (178)
After Fowl argues that theological interpretation should employ various interpretive practices, including the various methods of historical criticism (182), he remains reluctant to provide a descriptive account of what theological interpretation should look like. Instead, Fowl takes a prescriptive posture towards the practice of theological interpretation, particularly as it pertains on the interaction with those with whom we disagree. Fowl writes:
Rather than pursuing a method, however, to keep all of the various interpretive interests of biblical scholars in some sort of proper order, theological interpreters would be better served by working to cultivate a set of interpretive virtues which will help them make wise judgments about how to keep theological concerns primary in their interpretive work (182; emphasis mine). 
Fowl recognizes that there is a multiplicity of virtues a theological interpreter should strive to cultivate, but insists that the most important are charity and prudence. My focus is on the former, because what Fowl states here, I believe, has ramifications for all sorts of discourse (political, religious, personal, etc.) and exemplifies Jesus' command of loving one's neighbor (Mark 12:31).

Fowl states:

Charity in interpretation is always directed towards maximizing agreement between interpreters. The point of this is not to reduce disagreement because disagreements are bad and upsetting. Rather charity assumes that if interpreters read each other's works in ways that maximize their agreements, then both the nature and the scope of their disagreements will be clearer and more capable of resolution. Such charity is particularly important when dealing with interpreters and interpretations that come from times, places, and cultures far different from our own. When we seek to maximize the agreements between ourselves and such interpreters we diminish the temptation simply to reduce those interpreters to inferior versions of ourselves who can be easily dismissed. In this respect, when historical critics emphasize how it the temporal and cultural 'strangeness' of the Bible, they are emphasizing a necessary, but not sufficient, aspect of interpretive charity. They see the importance of undertsanding intepreters and interpretations on their own terms (183; emphasis mine).
Fowl takes the notion of interpretive charity a step further when he states:
...the charitable interpreter will want to present alternative interpreters and interpretations in the most positive light possible. This might require going above and beyond the work done by those who hold alternative views; this may involve doing more for one's argumentative opponents than they did for themselves. (183).
In case Fowl could be accused of an artificial attitude of interpretive humility, he goes on to state:

It does not require one to support weak or erroneous interpretations in favor of keeping interpretive peace. There is no reason for charitable interpreters to shy away from disagreement or argument. Indeed, this seide of the eschaton, Christians can expect disagreement and debate will mark all their engagements with Scripture. In such a situation, charity is that virtue that will give us the best chance of resolving are disputes well (183; emphasis mine). 
We would do well to follow Fowl's lead. I believe he has his finger on the pulse of something hugely significant. I, for one, tire of the ad hominem attacks that pervade much of the scholarly, social, political discourse one sees on a regular basis. We have lost sight of the mantra, "Disagree without being disagreeable." Fowl has provided an important insight on how our discourse should take place in the scholarly community, and I argue, his point transcends this very community and gets to the heart of Jesus' command to love one's neighbor.

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