Reading Scripture together, and wrestling with its significance, is a central practice for many Christian communities, especially ones tracing their heritage to the churches that grew out of the Protestant Reformation. “The essential form of the common life,” Ellen F. Davis suggests, “is in the broadest sense a conversation in which members of the community explore and debate the meaning of their sacred texts” (Preaching the Luminous Word, 90). Of course, getting acquainted with the world of biblical scholarship, and seeking to relate to the Bible seriously as both a subject of rigorous, critical study and as a means of encounter with God, can sometimes be a difficult task.
The essays gathered together in Scripture and Its Interpretation: A Global, Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible seek to make the path into the realm of scholarly biblical studies less steep. As Michael Gorman explains in the introduction, the aim is to help readers explore “the breadth and depth of Sacred Scripture,” approaching the text alongside others “from familiar surroundings as well as those from other centuries and locations” (xxii). It seems to me that one of the strengths of this book can in fact be seen in its title, which suggests a frank recognition of the ways in which reading Scripture and engaging in interpretation are always bound up with each other.
Getting Acquainted with the Bible and Its Readers
Since one of the hopes of Scripture and Its Interpretation is to orient readers to the Bible as a whole, a significant section of the book is taken up with essays that examine various aspects of the Old and New Testaments themselves. These chapters are of course by no means exhaustive, but they do briefly give some context for the formation of the narratives included in Scripture, along with an introduction to noteworthy non-canonical collections of writings significant for scholarly study, such as the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls (97). Other essays include ones that briefly explore relevant geographical contexts as well as a short sketch examining how biblical manuscript traditions were passed down and translated into other languages throughout the long and varied history of Christianity. Broadly speaking, what can be said for these essays can be said for the book as a whole: in general, they show an openness to the influence of historical studies and the fruits of critical scholarship, seeking to integrate them with a spiritual perspective that approaches the Bible as “both human book and sacred text” (4).
The latter (and longer) sections of Scripture and Its Interpretation shift from directly looking at the biblical texts to exploring how Christians across the centuries and around the world have read and made sense of the Bible, as well as exploring how Scripture relates to various aspects of contemporary life (151-152; 337). Amongst these essays, a number of them reflect on what it looks like to interpret Scripture from the perspectives of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Pentecostalism. It’s in these sections that the diversity of the contributors included in Scripture and Its Interpretation comes especially through as a strength.
By using scholars writing from within the traditions being discussed, readers are able to get a glimpse of how these traditions look from the inside, as it were. Some of these chapters did feel incomplete, but they may merely be victims of the scale of the subject matter they are attempting to summarize. After all, how could one condense the relationship of any of these streams of Christianity with Scripture into a single brief discussion and not be left wishing for more ground to be covered? It should also be said, though, that the reading guides included at the end of each chapter do give some solid suggestions for those wishing to pursue further studies, and this does help to remedy the situation somewhat. The survey of Christian reading practices across global cultures included in the book is also valuable for those introducing themselves to the study of the Bible, since it’s imperative that readers listen to the voices of those living around the world, especially among more marginalized communities that are too-often ignored. I wish that the roots of liberation theology in a South American context had been more deeply explored, however.
Throughout the pages of Scripture and Its Interpretation, readers are given some good metaphors for imagining how to relate to the Bible fruitfully. In his essay looking at spirituality and the Bible, for example, Gorman suggests that many readers of Scripture would find it helpful to embrace a “second naïveté” (I believe this phrase was coined by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur). Doing this entails the commitment to approach the Scriptures “with the informed freedom of one who knows the intellectual challenges but nonetheless chooses to open oneself fully to the text as a place for encountering God” (342-343). As with many things, this sounds to me like something that when done reflectively, in a spirit of curiosity and love, is the welcome work of a lifetime.
Among the other metaphors for thinking about scriptural interpretation that may be helpful for some readers, the writers in this book suggest seeing the Bible as both a single, coherent book and a diverse library of many texts, and they also bring up the British scholar Richard Bauckham’s framework of seeing Scripture as both a “plurality of narratives” that when gathered together tell something of a “coherent single story” (19). To these images I would also add Walter Brueggemann’s language of testimony, counter-testimony, and dispute, and Peter Enns’s incarnational analogy of the Bible as being both human and divine, as additional healthy possibilities for thinking about how to read Scripture well.
In the end, Scripture and Its Interpretation is a helpful resource for those who want to delve further into the scholarly study of the Bible. In the same book we referenced near the beginning of this review, Ellen Davis characterizes a trusting relationship with Scripture as one that “expresses itself in a conviction that, no matter how strange or unappealing a given passage may be, there is something in it for us, something to be gained from the work of painstaking, acute listening” (Preaching the Luminous Word, 90). For those working towards cultivating this kind of reading approach, one that takes both the modern world and Christian spirituality seriously, Scripture and Its Interpretation makes for a fairly solid starting place, and it’s worth taking the time to read with a pen in hand.
*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.
Thanks for this review. I particularly like your observation that reading scripture ‘entails the commitment to approach the Scriptures “with the informed freedom of one who knows the intellectual challenges but nonetheless chooses to open oneself fully to the text as a place for encountering God”’. This has become my prayer in my daily reading.