Working Towards Reading the Bible Post-Critically: Reviewing “Scripture and Its Interpretation,” Edited by Michael Gorman

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

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Here We Are, Slaves to This Day: A Review of “Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright” Edited by James M. Scott

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

At their best, good conversations are lively, wide-ranging, and sometimes even surprising. They push us to consider ideas from new angles and hammer out with fresh clarity why we see things the way we do. It’s not always easy to find these kinds of discussions, but the essays that make up Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright demonstrate for the most part what thoughtful scholarly discussion is meant to look like. The contributors are generally successful at avoiding the twin pitfalls of uncritical acceptance and blunt rejection in their responses to N.T. Wright’s influential (and controversial) proposal regarding the notion of ongoing exile as an influential “controlling narrative” for many Second Temple Jews and early Jesus followers (8).

The book opens with a lengthy essay by Wright himself giving a fresh articulation of his thesis. He delves into passages like Deuteronomy 27-33, with its sequence of sin-exile-restoration, and the great prayers of Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 9, as well as other literature from the Second Temple period like the Dead Sea Scrolls, all in order to demonstrate that many Jews saw themselves as continuing to live in a state of exile, even though a large number of them had geographically returned to the land of Israel (21-22). Turning to his critics, Wright asks:

Would any serious-thinking first-century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed and Israel’s sins forgiven?… Or—in other words—that the exile was really over? (35)

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A More Nuanced Form of Canonical Interpretation? Gary A. Anderson’s “Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament”

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

Pursuing Wisdom: A Review of “Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature”

*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

Should I not Pity…?: A Review of Phillip Cary’s Commentary on Jonah

The book of Jonah is short, but its brevity does nothing to reduce the significance of the theological questions it raises. In Phillip Cary’s 2008 commentary on Jonah, he shows that those who have the courage and humility to let Jonah’s story confront them will be challenged to deepen their understanding of God’s mercy and wrestle once again with the meaning of the proclamation in Exodus 34:7 that the LORD is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (NRSV).

Cary approaches Jonah with both literary and theological sensitivity, pointing out relevant storytelling and rhetorical features, bringing the rest of the Christian canon into conversation with the text, and reflecting on how the book of Jonah might have challenged those who first encountered it. He also explores ways in which Jonah can continue to challenge Christian readers today.

Unfortunately, some studies of Jonah get tangled up in questions of historicity to the degree that the heart of the story—the expansive depth of God’s patience and mercy—can be missed. While some read Jonah as a historical narrative, there are a number of reasons for thinking that this is a misunderstanding of Jonah’s genre. Regardless of one’s position on the historicity of Jonah, though, most readers can hopefully agree that the main focus of the story is on the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Continue reading

The Surprising Nature of Scripture: A Review of “Preaching the Luminous Word” by Ellen F. Davis

preaching-the-luminous-word*This review was originally posted over at The Englewood Review of Books. Do check out their other reviews if you have a few minutes. 

Near the beginning of Preaching the Luminous Word, Ellen F. Davis describes herself as “an exegete who teaches Old Testament and preaches, in that order” (xxiv). I’m grateful for that. It means the sermons gathered together in these pages are born out of a love for exegesis and attentive theological study, and it allows her to open up the unendingly rich and surprising world of Scripture in ways that invite her hearers and readers to slow down and linger with the text. Though her main academic background is in the Old Testament, Davis’s sermons in this volume reflect her engagement over the years with both the Old and New Testaments, delivered on a variety of occasions and in the midst of the seasonal rhythms of the Church’s liturgical calendar.

In the past, Davis has expressed concern over the harmful effects of shallow Scripture reading, which she finds to be an all-too-common problem, at least in some North American churches. What she speaks of as shallow readings of Scripture flow out from the presumption that we already know what the text has to say to us, so our readings become more like rehearsals than fresh explorations (xii). In sermons, this can manifest itself in a tendency to sentimentalize the Bible or rely too heavily on (sometimes rather contrived) illustrations to keep up the interest of those sitting in the pews. In light of these things, Davis wants to recover the importance of reading Scripture in deeply theological ways for the Church, especially from the pulpit. Stanley Hauerwas hits it on the head when he comments in the foreword that this sermon and essay collection “not only provides the exemplification of a theological reading of Scripture but also demonstrates the power of such a reading when articulated by someone of depth and elegance” (xiii). Continue reading

A Review of John Goldingay’s “Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel”

israels-gospelFor some people, their initial forays into the Old Testament go something like my first attempt at reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. It was one of the first real works of theology that I ever read, and I began with much enthusiasm. However, due to a combination of inexperience with studying theology and the fact that I was reading a work translated from German, my progress slowed the farther I got into the book. I completed The Cost of Discipleship—a challenging and truly worthwhile read—fully aware of the tenuous nature of my understanding of Bonhoeffer’s words.

I think the Old Testament can sometimes seem similarly foreign and intimidating, and some Christians get discouraged when they immerse themselves in it for the first time. For readers in this situation, a wise guide is helpful. I found John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, the first book in his sprawling three volume series on the Old Testament (which he prefers to call the First Testament), to be a helpful resource for becoming better acquainted with shape and nature of the Old Testament’s story. Continue reading