On November 10, 1942, following a British victory in Egypt during World War II, Winston Churchill famously quipped, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
I thought about those words as I opened The End of Interpretation: Reclaiming the Priority of Ecclesial Exegesis, a recent book from Catholic theologian and First Things editor R. R. Reno. Just as Churchill saw that victory as a decisive turning point in the war in North Africa, Reno sees a renewed synthesis between Scripture and doctrine as a path forward through the crisis of our cultural moment.
The book hovers around an essential question: “How,” Reno asks, “do we square doctrine with Scripture?” On the surface, this might sound like an odd question to pose. Aren’t Scripture and doctrine the clearest of allies? Aren’t they two parts of the harmonious whole of Christian witness? For most believers, surely, there is no obvious tension between them. But in seminary classrooms, the topic tends to launch impassioned debates.
In advocating a new synthesis between Scripture and doctrine, Reno is responding to a gradual division during the 20th century among those who engage in serious study of the Bible and theology—a rupture he considers harmful and unnatural. In broad outline, the task of biblical exegesis (understanding the objective meaning of Scripture in its literary, historical, and canonical contexts) has come unglued from the task of theology (constructing authoritative doctrine that distills the Bible’s teachings on God and man).
As Reno makes clear, this state of affairs has an important institutional component. For too long, the traditional disciplines of biblical and theological studies have been separated by a sea of competing methods and assumptions invented in the halls of modern German universities. At this point, Reno hopes that we will cease any attempt at building bridges between them and will instead sail back to the safe harbor of the church, where these boundaries evaporate. Then, if we can get back to reading the Bible in ways that accord with the church’s teaching, perhaps we can pursue the kind of spiritual formation that is socially redemptive.
The ‘presumption of accordance’
Anyone familiar with Reno’s recent publications (Sanctified Vision, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Genesis, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Return of the Strong Gods) can see the way this book captures the transition in his own thinking toward, as his subtitle reads, “the priority of ecclesial reading.”
In the introduction, Reno traces his own intellectual journey through the writings of Karl Barth and 20th-century “post-liberal” theologians, which led him to see the truth of God not as a set of rational propositions or subjective feelings but as a symphony displaying the “synthetic genius” of the divine composer.
Reno’s basic approach in The End of Interpretation can be summarized in a simple sentence: “Proper interpretation proves itself to be such when our reading of Scripture accords with what the church teaches.” Curriculum managers at academic institutions may reject Reno’s call for synthesis, but in my assessment, he is not trying to convince academics. Rather, he is trying to awaken Christians who are active in church ministry and wearied by stagnant debates over biblical interpretation.
As Reno writes, “This book presumes that we ought to take great care to honor the truth of our faith, and it is the job of reason, including its modern methods, to purify and deepen that truth. But we must seek this purifying and deepening as Christians.” Through the union of exegesis and theology, we are drawn “closer to God” and challenged to deeper engagement with Christian theologians who have gone before us. For Reno, the words of Pope Benedict XVI capture this imperative: “For the life and mission of the Church, for the future of faith, it is absolutely necessary to overcome the dualism between exegesis and theology.”
The book’s chapters follow a straightforward outline: The first two defend and explain how doctrine and exegesis “accord” with each other. Chapters 3–4 find historical examples in the work of the church father Origen and the Reformers. And chapters 5–7 provide case studies applied to readings of Genesis, John, and 1 Corinthians. Finally, the book concludes with some reflections on the lessons Reno gleaned while serving as the editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary series.
Throughout the first two chapters, Reno’s watchword is accordance. He argues that exegesis should begin with “the presumption of accordance,” a phrase he describes as follows:
If the Bible teaches something we judge integral to the gospel, then we hold that the church’s teaching must be substantially the same. The reverse holds as well. If the church teaches something as a saving truth, then we assume that the Bible does so. It’s that simple: what the Bible says accords with what the church proclaims.
The word church, of course, could have many different meanings, especially as it relates to Protestant-Catholic divisions, but Reno reminds us that “nearly all Christians adopt the presumption of accordance,” even those Reformation traditions that give primacy to Scripture rather than church tradition.
In chapters 3–4 Origen and Luther are brought forward as examples of the kind of “interpretive synthesis” that Reno hopes the church will model. Origen is certainly controversial, and Reno does not defend him in every way but does show how Origen reads Scripture in a “Christ signifying way.” Of course, Origen labored to draw out the spiritual implications of various biblical texts, but only through an intense focus on their literal meaning. Luther, for his part, argued that doctrine provides what Reno calls a “horizon of truth” that focuses exegesis and stabilizes interpretation.
In chapters 5–7 Reno works through specific passages in Genesis, John, and 1 Corinthians and demonstrates how to read Scripture in a way that accords with doctrine. His discussion of Genesis, for example, shows that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (from nothing) is not something theologians have “imposed” on Scripture, a point he reiterates several times. In reality, the doctrine emerged over time through careful negotiation, or “pressure,” between Scripture and doctrine. In fact, the doctrine is essential for helping us better understand the early chapters of Genesis.
The same is true with Jesus’ call for unity of faith in John’s Gospel and Paul’s insistence on moral formation in 1 Corinthians—the kinds of readings that form believers for what Reno calls “selfless service.” Doctrine, rather than standing apart from these passages, lends them greater clarity and equips believers to live them out. In his examples, which span the whole canon, Reno synthesizes Scripture and doctrine in ways that aim to shape the people of God and prepare them for cultural engagement.
The book ends with some discussion of the controversial Brazos Theological Commentary series, for which Reno served as the general editor. The narrative around this commentary series offers a fascinating case study in the discussion of theological interpretation. Reno admits that authors for the series weren’t told which interpretive approaches to employ, apart from assuming that Nicene Christianity would play a crucial role. While some volumes are more successful than others, this series was a living attempt to accord Scripture and doctrine.
And that is the point: These books were not a platonic ideal that materialized in publication but an example of the journey to marry two things that have been put asunder. While the volumes may have received mixed reviews, at least these were serious attempts, and we can hope, as Reno writes, that in the “foundry of exegesis, better theologians were formed.”
Reviving the church’s voice
Different chapters in The End of Interpretation were written at different points in Reno’s career, and some chapter transitions are difficult to follow, but a careful reading can discern the internal logic of the whole. I find myself largely supporting Reno’s hope for recovering ecclesial exegesis, but I can see the challenges that linger on the other side. I am still not sure how a generation of seminarians and academics trained in critical methods and assumptions can learn to appreciate the synthesis of Scripture and theology.
On some level it seems that the work of reconciliation must begin in the church. The word ecclesial, of course, can mean different things within different denominations and church traditions. But perhaps we can table those differences for another day and, in the meantime, worry about recovering a church-centered way of reading Scripture that offers something hopeful as the people of God face significant cultural transition.
In the end, Reno’s book offers the seasoned reflections of a Christian intellectual who has thought deeply about the history of biblical interpretation and the need for “good” exegesis in and for the church. Reno has been working diligently in recent years to revive the church’s voice in cultural engagement, and it is easy to see how his clarion call for “ecclesial exegesis” fits that agenda.
I sympathize with his thesis, and while his work may not betoken the end of scholarly methods for interpreting Scripture, I pray that it signifies a Churchillian moment when the church can recover habits of ecclesial reading and be bold enough to embrace them. Figures like Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and the Reformers were. I hope that we are too.
Stephen O. Presley is senior fellow for religion and public life at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy (an initiative of First Liberty Institute) and associate professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World Like the Early Church.