Archives For Book Reviews

51-K0sC-AFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A few weeks ago Books at a Glance published my review of Michael Gorman’s book on the atonement. I found it a stimulating book and he had some arguments to consider. Here is the thesis of the book.

Gorman proposes what he calls “a new-covenant model.” He argues it is broader because it incorporates the other models, yet also focuses on the ultimate purpose of the atonement, to create a new-covenant people.

The purpose of Jesus’ death was to effect, or give birth to, the new-covenant, the covenant of peace; that is, to create a new-covenant community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who would fulfill the inseparable covenantal requirements of faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus, expressed in such practices as faithful witness and suffering (cruciform faith), hospitality to the weak and servant-love for all (cruciform love), and peacemaking (cruciform hope).

And part of my conclusion.

Although Gorman may have not done justice to the arguments of the other models, his model does more clearly incorporate ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and missiology. Some might argue that such a big blanket thrown over the atonement covers precipices rather than revealing them.

The promises of the new-covenant in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah are internal transformation, forgiveness of sins, and return to the land. Ezekiel emphasizes the role of the Spirit in this, and Isaiah uniquely emphasizes the role of the suffering servant in establishing the covenant. Elements of soteriology, ecclesiology, and ethics are also all part of the new-covenant.

The question becomes whether in the new-covenant there also is an element which is foundational?

gospel of the lordOver at Books at a Glance I did a review of Mike Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Told the Story of Jesus. I begin saying:

A myriad of questions surround the formation of the Gospels: questions such as, how was the tradition passed on? What role does memory play? Who controlled it? What is the relationship between the Gospels? Mike Bird’s latest book seeks to answer these questions, surveys recent research on these issues, and provides some of his own critical feedback. This book is not about the Gospels per se, but rather about the formation of the Gospels.

I was so pleased with this book and recommend it to all. I only had one critique, which was minor.

My only critique of Bird’s book is that he could have thought more (for pedagogical purposes) about a “loose” blueprint. In other words, why not move towards a categorization of the stages of transmission as Watson has done. Obviously much of this is guess work, but a good guess can be given for the passing on of any tradition.

My (initial) preferred outline would be the following with a smaller “interpretation + reception” listed in between each stage.

Event > Memory > Tradition > Inscription > Normativization

My point is that Bird could have more explicitly structured his book around something like this. Titles like “The Formation of the Jesus Tradition” could be conceived as being located in any of these steps and leaves something wanting in a conceptual framework for the book.

Read the rest of the review here.


264816982I did a review of Roy Harrisville’s book Pandora’s Box Opened: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method and Its Master Practitioners over at Books at a Glance. Here is my conclusion.

Harrisville concludes that the historical-critical method introduced many evils, yet it also has been a force for good (at the very same time). The Bible is historically conditioned and requires the use of the human mind for exposition. Because the Christian proclamation involves witness in writing, the receiver must acknowledge the claim made by the biblical text. And the text must be allowed to have its say. In other words, the interpreter sits under the text, not over it.

Therefore the historical-critical method need not be outright rejected; yet its arrogance needs to be stripped away. Alternatives have arisen, according to Harrisville, alternatives such as rhetorical criticism, structuralism, and deconstruction. Yet I think Harrisville could have expanded this list to literary criticism, biblical theology, and canonical criticism. The later three criticisms are united by their rejection of the piecemeal view of the text, and an embracing of the unity. Added to these lists could be philosophical reflections on the role of the community, the nature of truth, and the role of subjectivity. Despite the opening of Pandora’s Box, the critical method is still able to be harnessed in the service of gospel proclamation. As Adolf Schlatter said:

For me, faith and criticism never divided into opposites, so that at one time I would have thought in a Bible-believing way, and at another critically. Rather I thought in a critical fashion because I believed in the Bible, and believed in it because I read it critically.

one-bible-many-versions.png?w=512My review of Dave Brunn’s book One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? is up at the RBL site. I begin the review thusly.

His aim is not to fuel the ongoing translation debate but rather to bring greater unity to the English translations by highlighting their similarities. Brunn claims the different English translations are mutually complementary and mutually dependent rather than contradictory. He does this by analyzing current English translations and putting them up against their own standards stated in their introductory translation theoretical proposals.


537875Over on Books at a Glance I reviewed Crossway’s Acting the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification (John Piper & David Mathis, eds.).

Acting the Miracle had its start in the Desiring God 2012 National Conference. John Piper and company present five different chapters on the reformed view of sanctification. Mathis asserts the book is about what theologians call progressive sanctification rather than definitive sanctification. He warns against slogans or simplistic understandings of sanctification saying that the Scriptures present a more complex view of this doctrine.

Read the rest of the review here.


Listening to the Bible

April 4, 2014 — 9 Comments


Christopher Bryan has produced an excellent book, published by Oxford University Press, called Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation.

I have scanned numerous books on reading the Bible, but this one distills so much of what I have learned into easily chewable chapters.

The Division

Bryan begins with “the division.” The division, or the problem with biblical interpretation is the divorce between the academy and the church. The academy has adopted the historical critical model and if biblical scholarship has effected the preaching of the Word at all, “it seems chiefly to have been that is has engendered a reluctance to engage the great central tenets of the Christian faith.”

Although Bryan notes that are exceptions, the divorce between the academy and the church is clear, yet the the true setting in life of the Bible has and should always be the community of faith.

How Did We Get Here?

Bryan then moves to answering the question of how we got to this divorce. He begins with Schleiermacher who said that the primary task of the interpreter was to avoid misunderstanding and to discover the author’s intent. Benjamin Jowett then in 1860 said that the first principle of interpretation is

that Scripture has but one meaning –the meaning which it had to the mind of the Prophet of Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it. We need to abandon the attempt to adapt truths of Scripture to the doctrines of creeds and the adaptation to the precepts and maxims of Scripture to the language of our own age.

Pay attention to this paragraph, for in essence, the entire book is an overturning it.

This in turn led to readers not being so much concerned with what the texts had to say to us, but rather a tool for dissecting them for some hypothetical source or situation or information that might lie behind them. Historical criticism had high hopes. Precise questions were to be asked, and then followed through with scientific precision so as to deliver clear answers.

Why Jowett’s Project Was Impossible

However Jowett’s project was impossible, because he thought he was carving a way to objectively look at a text, “but in a century and a half after Jowett the situation had not changed, for historical critical method was no more able to protect its practitioners from writing under the influence of their own prejudices and interests than were the methods that preceded it.” As Marilynne Robinson puts it, “that mysterious presence, the Observer, can never wholly stand apart from the object of inquiry.”

A second problem was that the hermeneutical process as Schleiermacher and others had conceived it was vastly oversimplified and underestimated what is actually involved in any act of communication between past and present.

The whole thing is too big, too complex, and too swiftly changing for any group of precise questions to be devised that could look for precise answers. This is not to despair of interpreting ancient texts: it is simply to concede that every language act has a temporal determinant, that that the range of possibilities that might actually be explored –semantic, cultural, historical, personal–in order to assure full comprehension of almost any statement by anyone at all approaches infinity. Biblical interpretation like all other interpretation, will be aided by research–by asking many precise questions as possible: but it must in the end be a matter of art and imagination, not science (19).

This hermeneutical viewpoint led to the hermeneutic of suspicion, where everything was looked at and deconstructed.

So What Do We Do?

Bryan begins answering the question of ‘what do we do’ in chapters five through nine.He suggests we start with the fact that the Bible is a thing written. It is literature.

What then are we supposed to do with literature? This is where Schleiermacher and Jowett were right. Any critique or discussion of a written text that is not concerned with listening to the text for what it is trying to say is beside the point. Therefore we need to listen to the authors individually.

But second we need to listen to the “Bible” and its voices considered together.

There is surely a third thing we need to do. If there is in this body of material a “matter,” a shared concern, what does that “matter” have to do with us? We need to ask what the individual voices, and the whole of Scripture relates to the continuing life and witness of the Church up to and including our own day.

In short, Jowett and Schleiermacher got off on the right foot, but did not go far enough.

Listening to the Individual Voices

Jowett’s first principle was that Scripture has but one meaning-the meaning which it has to the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist. There are elements of this assertion which prove valid, and elements which are mistaken. What is valid about this statement is that it acknowledges that ancients are not simply the same was we are, and that we will understand them better if we try to hear them in the context of their own times and assumptions.

But where Jowett is mistaken is that Jowett and the rest of us cannot possibly know that the “meanings” intended by the prophets and evangelists and the “meanings” understood by those who heard them were always the same. From the way in which Paul himself argues with his converts it is perfectly clear that sometimes they were not. Words in fact do not have a single meaning, and still less their meaning is not limited to authorial intent.

This does not mean texts can mean anything, for whatever meaning we attribute to the text we must be able to point to a rationale for it within the text itself. Authorial intent is not the only element in what a text means, but it certainly is an element.

Relating the Parts to the Whole

The second task of a biblical scholar is to consider the individual voices in relation to the whole of Scripture. The task of biblical scholarship according to Jowett was to interpret the biblical text without reference to creeds and controversies that were “of other times.”

However this is where Jowett is again mistaken. For the gospel, the narrative, and the creeds have always stood together. They evolved together. Historical questions are important, but the eye of faith is always more than just the “facts.”

The fundamentalist reader of the Bible is scandalized by this, and insists that faith’s reality must have been clear and identical with what could be seen and measured. The well-informed skeptic smiles in superiority of a fuller knowledge and since what could be seen and measured was evidently so much more ordinary than what is claimed by faith, dismisses faith’s claims as fantasy. Fundamentalist and skeptic alike are making the same mistake. The creature is not merely what it is made of. The creature is indeed dust, but beloved dust.

And history–what “really” happened–is always more than what scientific discipline would regard as “facts.” Of course Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That is a fact. But the meaning of the fact will only be apparent to prophetic and apostolic imagination and the eye of faith (75-76).

So What Now?

“How does the Bible relate to the life of the church up to and including today?” (88). Bryan asserts that looking back on Jowett’s project reveals that Jowett was right in what he affirmed and wrong in what he denied.

Jowett was right to suggest that we need to approach the Bible as any other book, and he was also right about the perils of looking for answers to our own questions that were written without any conception of such questions.

But Jowett was wrong because the meaning a text has for us is always effected by what we bring to it, by our personal inner “texts,” conscious or unconscious.

Since every person who comes to these texts is unique and has a particular history, there is always the possibility for new meaning. This is true of all great texts, and is therefore true of biblical texts. Some Christians seem to find this threatening, but it seems to me entirely appropriate that God’s revelation much always be capable of unfolding for us new meaning. For the fact that our knowledge of God is as yet incomplete does not mean that we have not knowledge, or that there is no God to be known, or that the effort to know more is not proper (89).

My “text” as an individual and our “texts” as a community do engage with the biblical writers’ “texts” at numerous points, both personally and theologically. As I have said, their “today” is by its very nature bound up with my own “today.” Our “texts” interweave (95).


Evangelicals may complain that the division between the academy and the church does not apply to us in the same force as it does to broader biblical scholarship. I would generally agree. We have been more apt to keep the wall from being built.

But maybe the division for us is something different, the division between principle and practice, the fragmentation of disciplines. Largely we teach the historical-critical method, but then stand up on Sunday morning and do something different. We explain this by saying something like “seminary teaches the ground work, then you need to just apply it to your people.

So we still, more or less, have co-opted Jowett’s thesis in our teaching, but not in our practice (while staying away from historical critical conclusions, and adding the cherry of application on top).

I still regularly hear people say, “all you need to do is read the text and wrestle with it yourself,” or “interpretation is all about figuring out what the author is saying to his hearers” or “to be a biblical scholar all you need to have is a lexicon in your right hand and the Bible in your left” or “I just teach the Bible.

But isn’t this just Jowett’s proposal? And do we find the early church arguing anything like this?

What I loved about Bryan’s book is that his proposal was eminently simple.

  1. Read the Bible, listening to the voice of individuals.
  2. Read the Bible, listening to the voices as a whole.
  3. Read the Bible, listening for a word for us today.

And although most would read those three points and agree with them, Bryan’s book provides a nuanced discussion of each point which shows that interpretation is more than Jowett imagined.



Table of Contents
I. The Division
II How Did We Get Here?
III. Why Jowett’s Project was Impossible
IV. The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
V. So What Do We Do?
VI. The First Task: Listening to the Individual Voices
VII. A Digression: “Great Literature?”
VI. The Second Task: Relating the Parts to the Whole
1. The Rule of Faith and the Question of History.
2. The Different Voices and Their Different Accounts of the History
VII. The Third Task: So What Now?
1. Why We Must Ask the Question
2. The Scriptures as Interpretative Narrative
3. The Exercise of Christian Imagination
VIII. The Drama of the Word
Appendix (by David Landon): Speaking the Word: A Guide to Liturgical Reading
Selected Bibliography