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. Continue reading
Paul’s Letter to the Romans deals with themes central to the Christian faith, which helps explain why, even after being read and reflected upon for nearly two millennia, lively conversations about how to best interpret it continue to take place. In his dissertation on Romans 9, Renaming Abraham’s Children, Robert B. Foster joins the time-honored tradition of “trying to think Paul’s thoughts after him,” to borrow N.T Wright’s turn of phrase (2009, p.x), attempting to show how Paul’s understanding of election was shaped by his prior engagement with the foundational stories of the patriarchs in Genesis (pp. 1-2). By tracing Paul’s interpretation of these narratives, Foster aims to help uncover a level of theological coherence in chapters 9-11 more frequently sought after than actually found (p.3).
The attention Foster gives to Paul’s usage of the Abrahamic narratives places him within a larger school of thought in scholarship, represented by figures like Richard B. Hays and N.T. Wright. These writers emphasize the idea that many of the more puzzling elements in Paul’s letters can be clarified when viewed as being undergirded by a deeper narrative-driven substructure (for an interesting set of essays examining this trend, see Narrative Dynamics in Paul, edited by Bruce Longenecker). Narrative approaches to Paul are often insightful, but they are sometimes criticized for being too subjective, unable to adequately deal with questions like, “when is a passage’s narrative substructure deftly submerged below the surface, and when is it just not there?” To make his proposal compelling, Foster has to show that he isn’t deaf to these concerns in Renaming Paul’s Children. Continue reading
Is faith mainly intellectual assent or heartfelt trust? Does the presence of doubt signify unbelief, or is it a sign of honest, mature reflection? Will certainty always remain elusive? In Doubt, Faith, and Certainty, Anthony C. Thiselton takes up a host of questions like these for the sake of developing more nuanced and healthy ways of understanding these closely related theological concepts.
Of course, crafting better definitions sounds like a rather dry exercise, and Thiselton does stray into the weeds at times, but for him it’s done out of a practical desire to provide some help and solace for those grappling with these concerns in real life. Though Thiselton seeks to address all kinds of readers in this book, some will most likely struggle with his writing style. At times it can be quite dense and technical, so nonspecialist readers shouldn’t be surprised if they happen to find themselves turning to a dictionary of philosophical terms every once in a while. The book’s structure is fairly straightforward, though, and his overarching thesis isn’t too hard to grasp:
This book carries a simple message. On doubt, it argues that while some degree of doubt in some circumstances may perhaps be bad, in different situations doubts may stimulate us to fresh thought and questioning. In fact, the message remains the same for doubt, faith, and certainty: none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings. (p.vii)
Reading the Old Testament with contextual sensitivity and theological depth can be difficult. It’s all too easy for people to assume they already know what the text is saying or to treat the Old Testament as a mere backdrop for the New Testament. University of Notre Dame professor Gary A. Anderson is well aware of these dangers, but he doesn’t let them dissuade him from reading the Old Testament with doctrinal reflection in mind.
On the first page of Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, he reveals the admittedly ambitious aim of the book: to demonstrate that “theological doctrines need not be a hindrance to exegesis but, when properly deployed, play a key role in uncovering a text’s meaning” (p.xi). In the world of biblical studies, this can be seen as a pretty provocative claim. Some scholars worry this type of approach inevitably overlooks the continued place of these scriptures in the Jewish canon and leads to the error of triumphalistic supersessionism. Anderson himself acknowledges the importance of these concerns, and he reassures readers that his Old Testament studies “take the Jewish character and integrity of the text with utmost seriousness” (p.xii). Continue reading
*This post is by guest writer Chris Wermeskerch. Chris is currently a M.Div. student at Northern Seminary. He loves memes, theology, Star Wars, and God. Not always in that order.
Collecting essays from an eclectic range of scholars and theologians, David Firth and Lindsay Wilson have created a unique package in Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature. The title is, in a way, a bit of a misnomer. More than a straightforward commentary on the four traditional wisdom books, this collection discusses a wide range of scholarship on the canon as a whole, really. This is part of the book’s overall strength, but unfortunately, it stands as a weakness toward the end of the book.
The book starts with an overview of the study of Old Testament Wisdom literature today. As a seminarian, I felt like this would be too much of a review for me. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see which avenues were explored in this section. Questions were raised related to the genre of the books, the definition of wisdom, and a history of the study of the wisdom books. I found this part to be interesting, being both well-paced and well-researched. Continue reading
In the introduction to Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship, David Starling suggests that scriptural interpretation should be thought of as “requiring not just sweat but skill, and not just skill but character” (p.17). Throughout the book’s pages he emphasizes that readers should consider biblical hermeneutics to be, not merely an austere set of rules for interpreting the Bible, but also a craft that one participates and grows in.
Part of what Starling seeks to address in Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship is the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” present in Protestant and evangelical hermeneutics (pp.7-8). One way of defining the issue can be found in Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. In this book, Smith essentially asks how it can be that, given the claims made by many evangelicals about the clarity and accessibility of Scripture, there are still significant disagreements amongst sincere, devoted, and intelligent evangelical readers about how to best understand and interpret it (The Bible Made Impossible, p.17). Continue reading
It was the 2nd century church father Tertullian who asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Readers coming to Kevin Vanhoozer’s dense and immensely rewarding The Drama of Doctrine might initially voice a similar question: “What does Broadway have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what does the church have to learn about its task from the theater? I believe that Vanhoozer’s reply would likely be something along the lines of, “Actually, more than you might think.”
The core of Vanhoozer’s proposal consists in a series of striking theatrical metaphors for theology, Scripture, interpretation, the Church, and even the pastor (p.xii). For him, these metaphors are appropriate because the world of “faith seeking understanding” is itself dramatic. He explains, “At the heart of Christianity lies a series of divine words and divine acts that culminate in Jesus Christ… The gospel—God’s self-giving in his Son through the Spirit—is intrinsically dramatic” (p.17). As a theological metaphor, the theater can also help show “how we come to know things not simply by beholding and contemplating them but by indwelling and participating in them” (p.79). Continue reading
What should healthy biblical interpretation look like? Craig Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics addresses this question head on, giving a sweeping introduction to the subject that both explains the history and importance of various academic approaches while also developing for readers a vision of biblical hermeneutics that is trinitarian in shape and aimed ultimately at enabling “obedient attention to God’s address through his Word” (p.10). Bartholomew was born in South Africa in 1961 and now teaches at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada.
Hermeneutics deals with the study of interpretation, especially in regards to works of literature. Therefore, it’s a particularly relevant area of study for Christians given the uniquely authoritative role Scripture plays in shaping the beliefs and practices of the Church. Bartholomew invokes the words of Karl Barth to make clear the kinds of demands made by the Bible on its readers, “If Scripture is the Word of God, then, as Karl Barth rightly observes, no one can stand before it as a spectator” (p.45). Hermeneutics might seem intimidating and irrelevant, but Bartholomew argues that it actually is “the theory of a practice,” adding that when it’s done well, “hermeneutics deepens and enriches our practice of engagement with the Bible as Scripture” (p.12). Continue reading
Pinning down the essence of postmodernism as a philosophical movement can be an intimidating task. Engaging with it fruitfully from the standpoint of Christian thought can be even harder to pull off. James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, admits an awareness of these difficulties in the opening pages of his 2003 book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, which grew out of a set of lectures he gave at the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland.
Smith differentiates “philosophical postmodernism” from “postmodernity” as a cultural condition, arguing that in order to creatively engage with the latter, Christians must first acquire a good understanding of the former. Why? As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Ideas have legs.” Smith expands on this phrase, telling readers that, “Schaeffer offers what we might call a trickle-down theory of philosophical influence: cultural phenomena tend to eventually reflect philosophical movements” (p.20).
Of course, Christians have responded to postmodern philosophy with varying levels of hostility and enthusiasm. As Smith puts it, “To some, postmodernity is the bane of the Christian faith, the new enemy taking over the role of secular humanism… Others see postmodernism as a fresh wind of the Spirit sent to revitalize the dry bones of the church” (p.18). Continue reading