The Sacred Text: Excavating the Texts, Explaining the Interpretations, and Engaging the Theologies of the Christian Scriptures. Edited by Michael Bird and Michael Pahl, Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias. 2010, xv + 265 pp., $114.00.
This book is the seventh in the Gorgias Précis Portfolios. These portfolios are collections of essays in conference or Festschrift (a collection of essays or learned papers contributed by a number of people to honor an eminent scholar) but united around a common theme. Gorgias Press is an independent academic publisher of books and journals covering several areas related to religious studies, the world of ancient western Asia, classics, and Middle Eastern studies. These publications are peer reviewed before acceptance and utilize electronic files in the publication process to ensure that titles will not go out of print. The limited print distribution explains something about the cost of the volume.
This particular collection of essays is the combined effort of twelve contributors. One of the twelve, Michael Pahl served as co-editor with Michael Bird. Its preface places a significant value on Christians discussing “in truly fresh ways about the nature, purposes, and function of Scripture.” (p. xii) This preference for “fresh ways” proves to be indicative of some of the more innovative discussions in the book. As a collection, perhaps by design, there is very little continuity or common agreement as to specific terms or definitions. The overall framework as described by the editors seems more artificial than accurate. There is no glossary but a modest index; each chapter includes a helpful list of recommended books for additional research. The format is extensively footnoted.
The Introduction (by Michael Bird, Ph.D., Queensland) states an admirable goal for the book to provide “brief introductions” to complex issues including:
Excavating the Texts, or the formation of the Christian canon in the context of the ancient church:
1 The Septuagint as Scripture in the Early Church – Karen H. Jobes (Ph.D., Westminster Seminary), Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis at Wheaton College and Graduate School.
2 Scripture in the Second Century – Tomas Bokedal (Th.D., Lund), Lecturer in New Testament at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, U.K.
3 Scripture and Tradition: Seeking a Middle Path – Michael W. Pahl (Ph.D., Birmingham) Pastor at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
4 Scripture and Canon – John C. Poirier (D.H.L. Jewish Theological Seminary) Chair of Biblical Studies at Kingswell Theological Seminary in Middletown, OH.
Explaining the Interpretations or the hermeneutical strategies for interpreting the Christian Scriptures:
5 Scripture and Biblical Criticism – Jamie A. Grant (Ph.D., Gloucestershire) Vice- Principal and Tutor in Biblical Studies at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, U.K.
6 Scripture and Theological Exegesis – Thorsten Moritz (Ph.D., Kings’ College London) Professor of Hermeneutics and New Testament at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN.
7 Scripture and Postmodern Epistemology – Robert Shillaker (Ph.D., Open University) Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, U.K.
8 Scripture and New Interpretive Approaches: Feminist & Post-Colonial – Jennifer G. Bird (Ph.D., Vanderbilt) Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Greensboro College in Greensboro, NC.
Engaging the Theologies or the theological status and function of Scriptures in various Christian traditions:
9 Catholic Doctrine on Scripture: Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Interpretation – Brant Pitre (Ph.D., Notre Dame) Professor of Sacred Scriptures at Notre Dame Seminary, New Orleans.
10 Scripture in Eastern Orthodoxy: Canon, Tradition, and Interpretation -George Kalantzis (Ph.D., Northwestern) Director of Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies.
11 Still Sola Scriptura: An Evangelical Perspective on Scripture – James M. Hamilton Jr. (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Seminary.
12 The Word as Event: Barth and Bultmann on Scripture – David Congdon (Ph.D., student in systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, NJ.
The book is characterized by careful and competent scholarship in each of the contributors; it also has the distinct advantage of a pervasive irenic tone and an apparent conciliatory attitude toward those who may disagree with a particular viewpoint. In pursuing diversity the editors not only selected a wide-range of theology but also a wide array of scholars, very much representative of the English-speaking world. They are all contemporary scholars.
This volume certainly attains its goal of encouraging greater appreciation for the existence of “sacred texts” as held by Christians. The complexities of the issues discussed and the controversies they engender certainly prompt the reader to pursue these matters that are introduced. The collective work of these scholars, no doubt specialists in their fields, is a commendable undertaking.
This review is prepared for the Evangelical Theological Society, (which view is that “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs…”) It is illuminating to observe how this concept is approached and applied.
Dr. Michael Bird, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Bible College of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, writes the Introduction. While acknowledging the “ancient idea of inerrancy” (p.14), he posits a contrast between inerrancy and infallibility; he invokes a carefully nuanced appeal to the veracity of Scripture that should be acceptable to even the Barthian viewpoint. Dr. Bird insists “that the church did create the biblical canon” (p. 9) and “God inspires authors to write Scriptures and inspires the church to make a canon” (p. 10). This will be clearly contradicted by Dr. Hamilton’s statement in chapter eleven that the church did not make the canon but “recognized as inspired” the Protestant canon. This is not hair-splitting. Dr. Hamilton footnotes his comment with Article I of the CSBI (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) which states: “We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source” (p. 218).
The Introduction also has one glaring error of syntax. Dr. Bird says, “… there is a closer relationship between ecclesiology and bibliology than is normally underappreciated in Protestant dogmatic.” (p. 9). This should no doubt read “that is normally underappreciated” or “than is normally appreciated.” Correctly understood, Dr. Bird still fails to make a convincing case for any failure of the traditional Protestant view of the relationship between ecclesiology and bibliology. Dr. Bird argues that the Reformers call for sola Scriptura would be better understood as suprema Scriptura and that the traditional Protestant view has been reduce to nuda Scriptura (the bare Scriptures) (p. 11). It may be observed that while Dr. Bird would assent to many of the affirmations of the CSBI, he would not agree with most of the denials as stated by the CSBI. His essay seems to agree with the CSBI Article One affirmation: “We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God.” However he would disagree with the corresponding denial: “We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.”
Whether he is right about “the pulpit pounding fundamentalist” (a curious derogation), he does not engage the scholarship of James Boice, Norman L. Geisler, John Gerstner, Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, Harold Lindsell, John Warwick Montgomery, Roger Nicole, J. I. Packer, Robert Preus, Earl Radmacher, Francis Schaeffer, R. C. Sproul, and John Wenham, original signatories of the CSBI.
Article XIII of the CSBI says, “We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.” Several of these contributors are clearly uncomfortable with the term inerrant. Dr. Robert Shillaker, chapter seven, quotes, if not with total agreement, certainly with admiration, of those who want us to get beyond “cheap inerrancy” (p. 157) and “the too-modern-sounding term inerrancy” (p.158). Shillaker concludes that somehow the Bible uses “truth” and readers should in some manner “expect something similar as Scripture is read” (p. 158). Something similar to truth is to be expected.
Dr. Jennifer Bird, in chapter eight, says that reading “the words of humans that reflect cultural biases can be mistaken for the word of God” (p.173). Dr. Bird engages 1 Peter 2:18 – 3:16 and finds the text as written to fall seriously short of egalitarian ideals. She does not question if egalitarian ideals are possibly wrong or inadequate, but rather says the text must be liberated from its cultural biases so “the life-stealing aspects” of the Bible would be removed and “the life-giving words [may] speak unencumbered for themselves” (p. 173).
In chapter nine, Dr. Brant Pitre, couches the Roman Catholic view of inerrancy within orthodox terms while vitiating the principle with the demand that Sacred Tradition “which is also the word of God,” (p. 194) be held as equal to Scripture. Dr. Pitre anticipates non-Catholic readers finding that view “problematic” but adopts an incarnational and ecclesial hermeneutic, elevating Catholic doctrine as promulgated by the living Magesterium (read current Pope and a synod of Bishops) above the Bible.
In an interesting, but unconvincing argument, Dr. Michael Pahl, in chapter three, presents a novel “middle path” between Sola Scriptura and Sacred Tradition (p.63). He observes the debate has become Scripture versus Tradition and he would frame the discussion as Apostolic-Kerygmatic Tradition. His search for the heart of the gospel is commendable but he does not explain any kind of authority that such a kerygma would have or how it would come to possess it. His thesis would not satisfy the Catholic demand for the role of the Magesterium and would weaken the Protestant view of Sola Scriptura. His conclusion seems to beg his question.
Of course, these views reflect the very diversity the editors desired to present. The contributors’ credentials and current employment are included in this review to give some context to their viewpoints.
There are some stellar contributions:
In Chapter one, Dr. Karen Jobes provides a succinct introduction to the Septuagint. She summarizes its origin, its use in the New Testament with specific attention to Isaiah, the Psalms and the Minor Prophets. She concludes with an evaluation of the proper appreciation of the Masoretic text in relation to the Septuagint.
In chapter five, Dr. Jamie Grant offers a superb brief history of modern Biblical Criticism and an essential introduction to the canonical approach of Brevard Childs. Grant offers a warning that “scholars throughout many generations have been guilty of a degree of intellectual arrogance” (p. 116) and encourages all to approach the Scriptures “with an attitude of appropriate humility” (p. 118). He echoes a valuable sentiment from the preface of the CSBI: “We offer this Statement in a spirit, not of contention, but of humility and love, which we purpose by God’s grace to maintain in any future dialogue arising out of what we have said. We gladly acknowledge that many who deny the inerrancy of Scripture do not display the consequences of this denial in the rest of their belief and behavior, and we are conscious that we who confess this doctrine often deny it in life by failing to bring our thoughts and deeds, our traditions and habits, into true subjection to the divine Word.”
Dr. George Kalantzis, in chapter ten, provides a clear comparison and contrast of the bibliology of Eastern Orthodoxy with both Roman Catholic and Protestant perspectives. There are no magisterium and communion-formative Confessions in Eastern Orthodoxy. There are few commentaries. Kalantzis identifies a synergeia between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy. Even the canon is not considered a closed issue; “it is firm but not rigid” (p. 202). This, in part, leads Kalantzis to conclude that “though Orthodox theology formally teaches a high view of Scripture, Orthodox praxis manifests a low use of Scripture” (p. 212). True of some Protestants as well.
In chapter eleven, Dr. James Hamilton, writing from the evangelical perspective, states clearly and confidently that the sixty-six books of the canon are inspired and inerrant. Hamilton deftly presents the witness of the Old Testament to its own canonicity and the New Testament evidence of the Old Testament canon. He deals with the New Testament canon, surveying the traditional views and then making the case from Scripture’s “self-authentication” (p. 235). He acknowledges the standard objections to the evangelical view and at one point he gently chides critics with the observation that “a remarkable amount of confidence is necessary to declare the Bible to be in error” (p. 238). Dr. Hamilton argues, “the evangelical view of Scriptures is derived from the Bible alone… Rather than being a philosophical or theological construct, the evangelical doctrine of Scripture arises inductively from the text of Scripture itself.” (pp. 216-217). This view is irreconcilable with the Roman Catholic, the Greek Orthodox, the Barthian, the post-modern and Feminist/Post-colonial viewpoints espoused elsewhere in this book under review. It is also at odds with any “middle path” of compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism.
In chapter twelve, Dr. David Congdon, in a very astute essay, identifies the commonalities of Barth and Bultman on the Scriptures as potential events that “must become God’s Word” (p.245). He writes with considerable skill, comparing and contrasting Barth and Bultman, and makes the case that their core views of Scripture were not dissimilar but his conclusion as to their value for moving beyond that perspective is somewhat overstated.
Overall this book does not serve well as an introduction precisely because of the disparate viewpoints espoused. It would be more useful if the alliterative title, Excavating, Explaining and Engaging, was presented from each of the various viewpoints; perhaps a counterpoint or rebuttal format would enhance the book in a utilitarian way. As is, it would be too advanced for most undergraduate students and too elementary for most graduate students, except perhaps as a collateral reading. Unfortunately, the cost would prove impractical as a collateral reading in most settings. More seriously, many chapters in this book are less than subtle attacks on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. To any evangelicals who think this issue was resolved in the last century, this book is a clear challenge to that opinion. Dr. Albert Mohler (in the Fall, 2010 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine) calls it the “Fifty Years’ War”. Dr. Mohler concluded his essay saying, “The rejection of biblical inerrancy is bound up with a view of God that is, in the end, fatal for Christian orthodoxy. We are entering a new phase in the battle over the Bible’s truthfulness and authority. We should at least be thankful for the undisguised arguments coming from the opponents of biblical inerrancy, even as we ready, once again, to make clear where their arguments lead.” Article Five of the CSBI’s opening statement warned, “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.”
With the clear exceptions noted previously, much of this book, The Sacred Text, is a clear effort to reject biblical inerrancy or at least to limit or disregard it; this effort resurrects old views (couched as “fresh ways”) of truth “contrary to the Bible’s own.”
Temple Baptist College, Cincinnati, OH