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Recap of “Closing the Gap” Conference in Durham

Words by Justin Allison, Photos by Tavis Bohlinger*

On June 18th and 19th, students, staff, and local attendees gathered in Durham for an international conference entitled “Closing the Gap: Best Practices for Integrating Historical and Theological Exegesis.” The aim was to host a conversation on the practice of theological interpretation, as opposed to the more abundant theoretical reflections upon that task.

Durham Cathedral’s famous “Sanctuary Knocker,” once offering 37 days of hope for refugees from the law.

The conference brought together twelve seasoned practitioners of theological interpretation. Six delivered plenary papers, to which six others responded. Our six plenary speakers were, in order, Grant Macaskill, Katherine Grieb, David Ford, Richard Briggs, Wesley Hill, and Walter Moberly. Our six respondents were, respectively, John Barclay, Elizabeth Shively, Francis Watson, Darren Sarisky, Loveday Alexander, and Angus Paddison. The papers fostered critical reflection on a set of case studies, including the book of Daniel’s relationship to history, the discernment of God’s character in Psalm 82, the gospels’ portrayal of Judas, and the oneness of the Father and the Son in John 10.

The Pemberton Rooms, adjacent to the Cathedral and next door to Durham’s Department of Theology and Religion on Palace Green, were the site for “Closing the Gap.”

A general consensus revolved around several points. For example, “closing the gap” does not entail simply tossing either history or theology to the side. Nor does “closing the gap” involve denying the differences between history and theology. Notably, Hans Frei’s work deserves attention in this regard. There can be no simple, linear process from historical to theological meaning, that is, from what the text meant to what it means today (against, e.g., Gabler, Stendahl). Deep conversation across disciplinary and ecclesiastical boundaries (including inter-faith conversation) is critically important for raising self-consciousness as theological interpreters. Participation in particular ecclesial communities constitutively shapes theological interpretation. Theological interpretation should be exercised out of one’s participation in these communities even as one engages in conversation with those who differ.

Benjamin White (University of Durham) introduces Wesley Hill (Trinity School for Ministry) and Loveday Alexander (University of Sheffield) at the opening of the second day of the conference.

During the two days of the conference it became clear that differences abound within the broad consensus, of which a few examples are instructive. Does theological interpretation require the interpreter to have a particular character, making it distinct from other modes of reading the Bible? Or does theological interpretation arise simply because of the inherent theological nature of biblical texts? Precisely how should theology and history, (or “the world behind the text” and “the world in front of the text”) be related in each instance of interpretation? If one requires that a good theological interpretation make use of modern biblical scholarship, does that mean our interpretations are better than, say, those of Jesus or the apostles? How might one conceive of theological interpretation that sits lightly to modern biblical scholarship? How should one relate a particular text to the canon of Scripture, and to which canon? How should theological interpretation of the Old Testament be practiced differently, or not, than that of the New Testament? For example, can one interpret Psalm 82 in a theologically robust way without explicit reference to Christ and his interpretive practice in John 10? What pneumatology and ecclesiology should be at play to give shape to theological interpretation?

Wesley Hill and Loveday Alexander in friendly discussion after their respective paper and response.

As conference organizers, Benjamin G. White and I were delighted that Durham could host a genuine conversation on these difficult issues, when often such conversations devolve into partisan polemics. We hope that this conference and its forthcoming proceedings volume might foster further discussion upon the practice of historically and theologically integrative biblical interpretation. We aim to publish the proceedings toward that end in due course.

In this vein, keep an eye out for an upcoming conference to be held next year summer, June 24–25, 2019 in Durham, entitled “Biblical Hebrew Poetry as Scripture for the 21st Century,” which will feature Jewish and Christian scholars in conversation as a centerpiece of its proceedings.

Wesley Hill delivers his paper, “In Defense of Doctrinal Exegesis,” in which he compared the views of Moltmann (and Richard Bauckham) and Aquinas on the Trinity, and the implications for trinitarian hermeneutics.
Loveday Alexander in response to Wesley Hill, in which she related a story about the striking differences in reception of a theologically minded paper first presented in post-Cold War Germany and then in Cambridge.
Andrew Byers (Cranmer Hall Theological College) puts forth a question to Wesley and Loveday concerning the level of consciousness of biblical scholars regarding their doctrinal presuppositions.
Grant Macaskill (University of Aberdeen) poses a question to Wesley Hill regarding the role of the Shema as a theological constraint in exegesis.
David Ford (University of Cambridge) reacts to Wesley Hill’s paper, commenting that “once you read Barth’s dogmatics you don’t forget it!”
David Ford suggests to Wesley Hill and Loveday Alexander that foundationalists have received unwarranted bad press in the past.
During lunch, scholars at every level, from postgraduate to VIP, reconnected or were introduced for the first time.
Walter Moberly (University of Durham) is introduced by his doctoral student Stephen Campbell, as Angus Paddison (University of Winchester) awaits his turn to respond.
Walter Moberly presents his paper, “On Recognizing the True God: A Reading of Psalm 82.”
Angus Paddison responds to Walter Moberly by first raising the question, “Where is Jesus in your paper?”
David Reimer (Faith Mission Bible College) asks a question of Walter Moberly.
John Barclay (University of Durham) poses a question to Walter Moberly concerning God’s justice to the wicked.
Steven Walton (Trinity College Bristol) question Walter Moberly on the possible misinterpretations that Jesus may have been responding to in John 10, a common passage cited in the Q&A for this session.
Daniela Hoberg asks a question in response to Walter Moberly’s paper.
Francis Watson (University of Durham) compliments Walter Moberly on combining the various disciplines of historical, philological, and theological inquiry in his paper.
Benjamin White introduces the final session of the conference, the concluding roundtable discussion (although, as he admitted, there was no actual round table). Justin Allison (University of Durham), his co-organizer and author of this post, sits on his right.
Grant Macaskill during his closing comments. His paper the previous day, “Identifications, Articulations and Proportions in Practical Theological Interpretation” received a response from John Barclay.
David Ford (University of Cambridge) during his closing remarks. He gave a paper the first day titled “Closing the Gap…with special reference to the Gospel of John,” responded to by Francis Watson.
Katherine Grieb (Virginia Theological Seminary) during the closing roundtable. She presented a paper the previous day entitled, “Anti-Judaism and Judas in the New Testament Once More,” responded to by Elizabeth Shively (University of St Andrews).
Wesley Hill offers his final remarks during the roundtable.
Richard Briggs (Cranmer Hall Theological College) gives some final thoughts during the roundtable. The day before he presented “A Test-Case in Ascriptive Realism,” responded to by Darren Sarisky (Trinity College, Oxford).
Walter Moberly concludes the roundtable discussion with friendly repartee.
Walter Moberly stresses a point during his final comments.
John Barclay poses some final questions after the roundtable.
Elizabeth Shively asks the panel about the practical implications for theological questions in a university setting.
Angus Paddison gives some final thoughts for the gathered panel during the roundtable.
Matthew Williams (University of Durham) presents the typical posture of many in attendance: the Scriptures open, both in original languages and translation, with a spirit of humble engagement over diverse points of view.

Justin Allison is a PhD candidate at Durham University, recently hired to be Assistant Professor of New Testament at Prairie College, Canada, this coming January.

For a play-by-play account of each of the papers and their responses, go to Steve Walton’s blog posts on the conference.

*Tavis Bohlinger was only able to attend the second day of the conference, and thus unable to get pictures of the first day’s presentations.

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