Review of Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds. Reclaiming the Bible for the Church. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1995 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996).
by Peter W. Dunn
The Anglican Church, as many denominations, is experiencing a crisis of biblical authority. Let us consider the debate over homosexuality: There are those who would promote the acceptance and blessing of homosexuality, saying that the Biblical prohibitions of same-sex relations are based on an antiquated world-view, that the Bible must not be taken literally, or even that the Bible actually promotes homosexuality (Jesus also had a beloved disciple!).
In 1994, an ecumenical group of like-minded theologians met in Northfield, Minnesota, to discuss the topic of reclaiming the Bible for the church. Their addresses were collected into this volume. The authors recognize that the treatment of the Bible in the church has become bipolar: the proponents of historical-critical method at one pole, scholars who seek to liberate the Bible from dogmatism, and the so-called “fundamentalists” at the other pole, who reject any form of historical-criticism. Their preoccupation is largely with the former tendency, since they all come to the Bible as recognized academics and largely from denominations threatened with the same loss of biblical authority as what Anglicans face.
At times the writers, being scholars, assume considerable expertise on the part of their readers, but I think most will still profit from the book. At times I found the occasional lack of references to the primary and secondary literature frustrating, but this is not a reference work but a symposium, and so I shall forgive this fault. I would recommend this book to the readers of Incourage, because the authors provide three essential services: (1) They trace the historical roots of the problem of the loss of biblical authority in the church; (2) they provide a useful analyses of the multifaceted question of this same problem; and (3) they make helpful suggestions for how to reclaim the Bible for the church.
According to the authors, since the Enlightenment, biblical scholars have sought to free the Bible from the trappings of dogmatic faith and to understand it according to human reason alone. But the Bible has since become captive to its liberators. Elitist academics are out of touch with the heart beat of the church, seek to deprive of the church of the right to interpret her own documents, yet they, as allegedly objective interpreters, are blind to how their own agenda skews their understanding and application of the Bible. Some scholars may attempt to be relevant in their rapidly changing cultural environment and try to reinterpret the Bible or demythologize it so that it can speak in today’s generation. But the Bible becomes a slave of foreign agendas which are often diametrically opposed to the faith of the historic Christian community, the church, which established the Bible as canonical authority.
According to Alister McGrath, a church that is too relevant ceases to have a raison d’etre: liberalism has robbed the church of purpose. The church needs to read afresh the Bible and to rediscover her roots, her distinctiveness. McGrath writes, “To take Scripture seriously is to allow the past to speak to us before turning, with a renewed and informed mind, to face the issues of the present” (p. 85). Robert Jenson suggests that like Irenaeus, we face gnostic interpreters who dissect the Bible and reinterpret the parts according to a foreign frame of reference. He suggests re-instituting Irenaeus’ rules of interpretation, among which was that the Bible is a coherent story of God’s redemption of humanity, so we need to recover a view of the whole and how the disparate parts fit into that whole. Another rule of Irenaeus is holding fast to the second-century Rule of Faith, the basic doctrinal statement of the early church, since no reading of the Bible in contradiction to the church’s faith is authentic. The essay of the late Elizabeth Achtemeier suggests expecting to hear the voice of God in the reading of Scripture and reaffirming the Old Testament, whose loss of importance in the much of the Protestant church has caused the New Testament and Jesus to become incoherent. These are some of the suggestions of book which could, if implemented, help the church to reclaim the Bible.
[This review first appeared in Incourage 17 (2004) 12-13.]
[List of Essays: Bevard Childs, “On Reclaiming the Bible for Christian Theology”; Karl P. Donfried, “Alien Hermeneutics and the Misappropriation of Scripture”; Roy A. Harrisville, “The Loss of Biblical Authority and Its Recovery”; Alister E. McGrath, “Reclaiming Our Roots and Vision: Scripture and the Stability of the Christian Church”; Robert W. Jenson, “Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church”; Thomas Hopko, “The Church, the Bible and Dogmatic Theology”; Elizabeth Achtemeier, “The Canon as the Voice of the Living God”; Aidan J. Kavanagh, “Scriptural Word and Liturgical Worship”.]