Book Review

A More Christian Reading of the Bible

Aaron Clay Denlinger
J. Todd Billings
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

In recent years, numerous theologians have begun advocating an interpretive approach to Scripture that purposefully foregrounds dogmatic commitments and concerns. The call for theologically informed biblical interpretation comes in reaction to post-Enlightenment academic trends that encouraged biblical schol-ars to free themselves from a priori judgments about the book(s) they study, chiefly on the basis that prior assumptions about Scripture–assumptions regarding, say, its inspiration or instrumental role in the economy of salvation; assumptions rooted in ulterior convictions about divine existence and agency–necessarily serve as obstacles to proper understanding of Scripture's meaning. Proponents of "the theological interpretation of Scripture," as it has come to be called, insist not only that prior as-sumptions about God and Scripture are inevitable but that certain convictions positively illumine, rather than obscure, the meaning of biblical texts. The movement has generated scholarly books (cf. suggestions for further reading in the work under review), an academic journal (Journal of Theological Interpretation), a series of biblical commentaries (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), and new degree programs in institutions of higher learning (cf. the M.Litt. in Theological Interpretation of Scripture at St. Andrews University, Scotland).

In The Word of God for the People of God, J. Todd Billings, associate professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary, adds his voice to the chorus of scholars advocating theologically in-formed biblical interpretation. His principal aim, however, is to commend "the wide range of practices" involved in theological interpretation to an audience beyond the academy (xii). Billings rightly recognizes that many conservative Christians engage Scripture with interpretive strategies that mirror those employed by liberal heirs of Enlightenment thought; if dogmatic preconceptions are acknowledged at all, attempts are made to eliminate or bracket them when reading Scripture (cf. so-called "inductive Bible study" methods). Those unaware that dogmatic convictions necessarily inform biblical interpretation–or at least unsure what convictions inform their interpretation–are perhaps most prone to adopt essentially un-Christian assumptions about God and Scripture when they read sacred texts. Many Christians, Billings suggests, embrace a basically deistic framework in their own reading, even when the text confronts them with the person of the Son or that of the Spirit. Such a framework becomes apparent where readers approach the Word not as the divine means by which they will be incorporated into the saving work of Father, Son, and Spirit, but as a sourcebook of instructions for moral self-improvement in a legalistic process best described as self-salvation. Billings offers this work, then, to help Christians recognize the value of approaching Scripture from a carefully defined dogmatic perspective; in other words, this book is calculated to help Christians become more intentional–even, one might say, more Christian–in their reading of the Bible.

In his opening chapter Billings highlights the "inescapability" of theology by showing how all human activity necessarily presupposes certain ideas ("functional beliefs") about God, humankind, and the world. Given the existence of such beliefs, and so the opportunity of recognizing and refining them, Billings advises Christians to adopt the "rule of faith"–defined as "a summary of the received teachings of the Christian church" (17)–as an initial guide for reading and interpreting Scripture. The rule of faith, substantially exhibited in the church's early creeds, does not dictate exact meanings but indicates "the center and boundaries of a Christian interpretation of Scripture" (22).

Chapter 2 aims to show how insights gained from general hermeneutical theory and biblical-critical studies can be incorporated into a practice of theological interpretation. While such studies must, significantly, neither "set the starting point nor the ending point for a Christian reading of Scripture" (37), they might foster close readings of the Bible–readings characterized by careful attention to grammatical and historical aspects of texts. Proper appreciation for Scripture's human authors and their historical particularity permits a liberal, if guarded, use of general hermeneutical theory and biblical-critical studies in the interpretation of a book that is, ultimately, a divine product and instrument of divine activity in every age.

In chapter 3, Billings resumes his central task of clarifying convictions that should undergird interpretation of the Bible. Drawing further attention to a "functional Deism," which informs much that passes for Christian worship and practice today, Billings presses readers to approach Scripture with a more intentional "Trinitarian theology of revelation" at work, a theology in which "our lives and the knowledge of God are caught up in the triune activity of God" (88). A proper Trinitarian perspective should norm not only the meanings discovered in biblical texts, but also the way Scripture is read: "We should read Scripture as food and nourishment for our growth by the Spirit into our God-given identities in Christ" (90).

Billings advances arguments for reading Scripture with the worldwide church throughout time in chapters 4 and 5. Possibilities for "mutual enrichment" follow from "the Spirit's work of indigenizing the Word" in diverse cultures (109). And the biblical exegesis of pre-modern (patristic, medieval, and Reformational) Christians in particular constitutes "a rich and varied feast" offering much nourishment and delight to the church today (149). Engaging Scripture with the church in diverse times and places should alert contemporary Christians to their own cultural prejudices and how these distort Scripture's meaning. But Billings' endorsement of cross-cultural and pre-modern biblical interpretation is not unqualified. Careful discernment–and a specific reluctance to let religious experience determine the validity of interpretative claims–is required when reading Scripture with the church around the world. The warning label on pre-modern exegesis is less pronounced; Billings does, however, draw attention to "frequent anti-Jewish polemic and patriarchal attitudes" resident in biblical interpretation of past ages.

In his final chapter, Billings explains more concretely how Scripture functions in God's saving purpose and details reading practices that follow from proper recognition of Scripture's role in the economy of salvation. Scripture is much more than an informative book about God. Scripture is the means by which God, in the power of his Spirit, actually addresses (and so acts upon) sinners–warning them, judging them, consoling them, and ultimately justifying them–in the great drama of his reconciling work. Implications for how we read Scripture in light of this are plentiful; and Billings provides something close to a summary of this reality's practical import when he notes: "Biblical interpretation for Christians involves nothing less than a worshipful consecration of our practical lives to participate in the triune God's work, so that we may be mastered by the living Christ who speaks through Scripture" (197).

Reformed Christians will likely sympathize with the argument of Billings' book. Indeed, the theological framework he suggests believers bring to holy writ–though broad enough to appeal to Christians from various traditions–is largely reflected in the Standards of Reformed churches, especially in confessional statements on the Trinity, Scripture, and the role that law and gospel play in judging and justifying sinners. Of course, Reformed Christians recognize a biblical basis for these confessional claims; they also, however, believe that these (and all) confessional claims should, in turn, inform their reading and interpretation of Scripture. Catechesis in Reformed communities is specifically calculated to equip believers with theological convictions that will make their reading (and hearing) of the Word most fruitful, situating them–so much as lies within the church's power–to be continually enveloped by the drama of the triune God's redemptive and reconciling work.

One place where Reformed Christians might feel some reservation about Billings' book is in his blanket approval of pre-modern exegesis. Perhaps hoping to maximize the catholic appeal of his work, Billings shows little if any preference for Reformation exegesis over patristic and medieval. Indeed, he purposefully seeks to alleviate (Protestant) concerns over loose allegorical interpretations of pre-Reformation exegetes by situating allegorical interpretation on a spectrum with typological; the latter, of course, figures prominently in classical Reformed exegesis. Billings does have some warrant for softening the divide between Reformation and pre-Reformation readings of the Bible; Calvin's "literal" approach to Scripture was a far cry from contemporary biblical literalism. I'm not sure, however, that Billings' treatment does justice to Calvin and company's explicit rejection of certain interpretive practices of their late-medieval predecessors and Roman contemporaries. Reformed scholars, then, may wish to develop a model of theological interpretation that takes more serious account of positive exegetical/interpretive insights gained in the Reformation; after all, the Reformation involved a fair bit of wrangling over how Scripture is read in addition to what it says.

This quibble should not, however, be permitted to overshadow the great value of The Word of God for the People of God. Christians would do well to digest Billings' work and let their practices of reading Scripture be challenged by it. Self-identifying conservative Christians in particular might discover–through Billings insightful probing into how Christians engage Scripture–that their own reading and interpretive practices are rather derogatory of the Bible, no matter how "high" the doctrine of Scripture they profess.

Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology