Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction

This book has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, waiting for a review. I was sent this book by New York University Press for a review and it has taken me awhile to get around to it since things have been so crazy. So finally it is with great pleasure that I can post a review today…not because I finally got it done, but because I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have learned quite a bit.

The book is edited by Justin Holcomb and is a collection of writings from various scholars, thinkers, professors, writers (you get the point), that write about, and review, what Holcomb would describe as “mapping theologies of scripture.” Holcomb starts off the book in the introduction by saying this:

What is scripture? Wilfred Cantwell Smith challenges us to pause and ponder this question. All religious traditions that ground themselves in texts must grapple with certain questions. In worship services and public and private readings, Christians often turn to scripture for guidance: to the stories of Abraham or Moses, to the Psalms, to the prophecies of Isaiah, to the life of Jesus, to the letters of Paul, to the vision of John. Therefore, Christians must confront their own set of questions. Indeed, to ask the question, what is scripture? is to become mired in a muddy pool of questions: What is the nature of scripture? Is it divine? Human? Both? Is scripture authoritative? If so, how and for whom? What is the scope of its authority? Is scripture inspired by God? What about scriptural interpretation–is that inspired? Does God illuminate humans to understand scripture? Is there an appropriate method of interpreting the words of scripture? Who can interpret scripture? What is its purpose? How is scripture used? How ought scripture to be used? How do scripture and tradition relate? Does scripture interpret tradition or does the tradition interpret scripture? Or both? What does it mean for a Christian to call the Bible “the Word of God”? And if Jesus is also called the Word of God, how does Jesus as the Word of God relate to the Bible as the Word of God?”

…..Pause….catch your breath….take a deep breath. You get the idea that reading this book will take you down a path where many questions will be raised, longtime views and answers that we have held will be challenged, but as Holcomb states, “But we are not the first to ask these questions, nor the first to stumble over them.” I remember having a professor in undergrad tell me not to go to Fuller Theological Seminary because I would gradaute and not know what I believed. What he meant was, they will raise questions and you will walk away with more questions than answers possibly. I don’t understand that fear and so if you fear having questions, then well, it’s best not to engage with material that will raise them. And this book will raise them, but you will be better for it.

So what is this book about?
“This book investigates the history of Christian thought by looking at major figures in the tradition and describing their unique contributions to the lingering and overarching question, what is scripture?”

Why do I like this book so much?
Because it is fair and even-handed. What do I mean by that? This book is not a critique of each thinker, where one sets out to prove whether one’s view of scripture or interpretation is either right or wrong. Rather, each writer of each chapter allows each theologian and tradition to speak for themselves without cumbersome comment on whether they are on the right path or not, according to our own beliefs and traditions. Each contributor identifies what major contribution the theologian has made to their field or their context or their period in history, and by doing so the reader receives a more wholistic look at what scripture is, rather than an isolated view. As Christians we tend to pick sides, draw lines in the sand and stay in our camps without engaging others, except in the case of theological warfare. Here, the reader is faced to look at the tradition of scripture and the theologians who over the last 2000 years have faithfully set out to interpret it in the context of their traditions.

Why should you read it?

Because if you are like me, and if you are like most Christians, we tend to only read from our own traditions. If you are neo-orthodoxy you read the neo-orthodox theologians. If you are Calvinistic, you read Calvin. You get the point. And the only time we tend to read the other thinkers is when we can find something to disagree with them about, or when we read someone else’s critique of those who aren’t in our tradition. This book will expose you to the long standing tradition of scripture and the various ways in which it has been handled.

How is the book broken up?
The book is broken up into four parts: In Part 1 the reader looks at the Patristic and Medieval “theologies of scripture” and theologians such as Origen, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are discussed. In Part 2 the reader looks at the Reformation and Counter-Reformation “theologies of scripture” and theologians such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Early Modern Catholicism. In Part 3 the reader looks at the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries “theologies of scripture” and theologians such as Fridrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hans Frei. Last, in Part 4 the reader looks at the Contextual Theologies of Scripture and the issues of Scripture, Christian Praxes, and Politics, Scripture, Feminism, and Sexuality, Scripture in the African-American Christian Tradition and Postmodern Scripture.

That is what I mean when I describe the book as fair and even-handed. Many books on interpretation and the theology of scripture can often ignore differing viewpoints within its pages, as well as ignoring the tradition of Catholicism, feminism, African-American tradition or the thoughts of interpretation in a postmodern context. But Holcomb has managed to compile and edit a great book here that is well worth your reading.

If you think you know all the answers and you have no desire to raise new questions in your life when it comes to interpretation and the scriptures, then this book is obviously not for you, but then you are missing out. This book will challenge you. Holcomb says in the closing part of his introduction:

Ultimately, this is not a book with one answer to the one question, What is scripture? Indeed, as demonstrated by the wide diversity of Christian theologies of scripture presented in this book–from Origen to Augustine, Luther to Christian feminists–there is no single Christian theology of scripture. Instead, this book offers many answers to many questions provided by many Christian theologians and traditions over the two-thousand-year history of the Christian faith. Only such an approach can do justice to the rocky terrain of scriptural interpretation and begin to draw a map of Christian theologies of scripture.”

This is a much needed book and I’m glad Holcomb saw the need for it as well and delivered. I will continue to use this book as a resource and post on occassion different things by different theologians. But for now you can visit Scot McKnight’s blog and read his thoughts on the book at Scriptures and Scripture 1 and Scriptures and Scripture 2.

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