Reception History of the Bible

Reception HistoryA brief review of The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible

A wide range of modern interpretations of the Bible is on display in Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, and Jonathan Roberts (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible. This large volume is somewhat uneven, often frustrating, occasionally quirky, but vastly stimulating.

Its 44 chapters cover the reception history of certain portions of the Bible (such as Genesis, Job, Psalms, John, and Revelation) followed by a wealth of more specialised studies, such as “The Bible and Anti-Semitism”, “Esther and Hitler”, “Ezekiel 1 and the Nation of Islam”, “Exodus in Latin America”, and “Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis.” There are also a range of personal chapters on the biblical understanding of, for instance, Dante, Bob Dylan, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, Handel, Gandhi, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Joanna Southcott.

Vast amounts of further reading are suggested in a sumptuous volume that is not without its lighter moments and bizarre interludes.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

GignilliatA brief review of Mark Gignilliat’s, Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs

This book is by a scholar who previously taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and is now Lay Canon Theologian at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. Essentially, it is a study of seven major figures in Old Testament studies from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first: Benedict Spinoza, W. M. L. de Wette, Julius Wellhausen, Herman Gunkel, Gerhard von Rad, W. F. Albright, and Brevard Childs. These are used as windows into the major trends in critical studies over the last 400 years. It is a broadly reliable and readable textbook.

It is less brief, but it is worth noting at this point a new English translation of Henning Graf Reventlow’s four volume masterpiece, History of Biblical Interpretation. Each volume contains a number of 10-20 page biographies of major biblical interpreters, looking at their life and works and attempting to locate each one in the broader streams of thought in their age. This is a substantial and impressive work from a single scholar.

These brief reviews first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Use and Abuse of the Bible

WansbroughA brief review of Henry Wansbrough, The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation

This is a very helpful and short (179 pages) overview of the whole history of interpretation and misinterpretation. Many will know Gerald Bray’s magisterial Biblical Interpretation Past and Present, which remains a much stronger and more reliable source, but this primer from a Benedictine Monk and former Chairman of Oxford’s Theology Faculty is vivid and well-written, even if he does think the Bible is sometimes historically inaccurate (and Paul employs “doubtful” arguments).

Wansbrough shows how theologians such as Aquinas have been sadly neglected as exegetes of Scripture, and digs deep to uncover the less than savoury motives of some interpreters throughout history. Further reading is helpfully indicated at the end of each chapter.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Froehlich on Biblical Interpretation

FroehlichA brief review of Karlfried Froehlich’s, Biblical Interpretation from the Church Fathers to the Reformation

There have been some interesting new books on interpreting the Bible recently. Karlfried Froehlich’s, Biblical Interpretation from the Church Fathers to the Reformation is a handy collection of 13 articles by a prolific scholar covering several aspects of medieval and Reformation biblical study.

A number of these articles focus on the Glossa Ordinaria, a medieval Latin commentary on the whole Bible which has often been attributed to Walafrid Strabo (erroneously, as Froehlich nicely demonstrates). He also considers the interpretation of Paul, particularly Romans 8, and the place of Peter (and the papacy) in history.

He shows that medieval exegetes were not blatant “prooftexters” or imposers of “framework” onto the text, with a lovely quote on this from Abelard, saying, “I do not want to be a philosopher in such a way as to lord it over Paul.”

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Recent books on Augustine

augustineA review of several recent books on Augustine.

There have been several recent new books on the great early church theologian, Augustine. Henry Chadwick’s Augustine of Hippo: A Life is a new and distinctive approach to the African bishop who has done so much to shape the development of Western Christendom. When Professor Chadwick died in 2008, the finished manuscript for this book was discovered, and in many ways it is a gem that has been hidden too long.

It charts Augustine’s life story and intellectual development, outlining and explaining his key doctrinal and practical texts such as On the Trinity, The City of God, and the Confessions along the way. It is not too long, and is a well-written book but not simplistic, illuminating for the way in which it shows Augustine not just as a deep thinker but as a pastor, thinking deeply for the sake of his ministry to people. Chadwick seems not to entirely “get” the heart of Augustine’s soteriology, as far as I can see, and so Pelagius comes across as a better theologian and Augustine as less of a Calvinist than one might expect.

Miles Hollingworth’s Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography is more detailed on the ideas that make Augustine so influential (as well as passionate and poetic at times), and Matthew Levering’s The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to his Most Important Works is a surer guide to the theology. Yet Chadwick’s long lost biography will be the first port of call for more ordinary readers.

Younger readers, however, will benefit immensely from a new book by Simonetta Carr, as will parents. Augustine of Hippo is a beautifully-produced hardback book for children, with illustrations by Wes Lowe. It is part of a series called “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” which includes volumes on Athanasius, Anselm, John Knox, John Calvin, Lady Jane Grey, and John Owen. Carr has done her research admirably, and is clearly clued up on the history and theology of her subjects, not least Augustine. This book covers Augustine’s life from his childhood, to conversion, and later ministry without shying away from the controversies in which he was involved.

The only blemish is that my (then) 9 year old son Joshua spotted a mistake on page 46 when we first read this together: the Visigoth King, Alaric, did not attack Christian Rome in 410 BC. This is only a small quibble of course (but one I am compelled to point out by aforementioned offspring!). The print is clear and large, the chapters just the right length, the illustrations rich, colourful, and varied in style. The overall message is one of God’s grace towards us and how the gospel is passed on from one generation to the next. A book at bedtime for kids anywhere between 7 and 12, which may well teach parents a thing or two as well.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity

Hooker McGradeA review of the new edition of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: A Critical Edition with Modern Spelling (3 volumes) edited by Arthur Stephen McGrade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) is a new standard edition of the classic work of Anglican theology by Richard Hooker (1554-1600). It is possibly a little overblown to describe this, as the preface does, as “the first substantial contribution to theology, philosophy, and political thought written in English,” (much depends on what counts as “substantial” of course), but it remains a vitally important work for Anglican self-understanding nonetheless. Hooker’s reputation has evolved over the years, but he is still considered by many to be the prophet of Anglicanism par excellence, the first systematic defender of the via media. Whether this concept of a middle way between Rome and Geneva is quite what Hooker was getting at is a contentious point, but there is certainly much here that would challenge the modern notion that the Church of England is a designedly broad and inclusive church which is intended to simply reflect the values and mores of the nation in religious guise.

This edition is essentially the corrected Folger Library text of Hooker but with updated, modernized spelling. A substantial appendix in the third volume gives all the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin from Hooker’s text and footnotes, but these have been translated into English in the main text itself, which may be a little irritating for the purist scholar but is certainly a generous help to the modern reader. The editor has also done sterling work to translate Hooker’s often cryptic references to other authors and works into much fuller citations to available English editions. The glossary, guide to sources, and indexes make this a truly excellent study resource.

McGrade’s introduction provides a grand overview of Hooker’s magnum opus. The structure of the whole is made clear so that readers can navigate the eight books of material with greater ease.   Since the Restoration in the seventeenth century, Hooker has been seen by many as the guardian of a distinctively Anglican identity, rather than as an English Reformed theologian. The debate over how to locate him in the taxonomy of religious parties will continue, but readers are now more than adequately served with a very serviceable modern edition of this seminal work over which to continue that argument. His half a million words of polemic appear to me to be designed to maintain a particular form of Reformed Protestantism against adversaries on several sides, both Roman and separatist Puritan. Hooker, and of course the Church of England, embraced the Reformation wholeheartedly, and as Nigel Atkinson showed some time ago in his monograph on the great Elizabethan, Hooker “adopted a Reformed position in all cardinal doctrinal tenets.” There are many things here which will make modern Anglicans squirm, not only so-called liberals and Anglo-Catholics, but also some evangelicals. Whether we ultimately want to agree with everything Hooker asserts or not, he is always bracing and worthy of close attention.

The smaller, two-volume Everyman Library edition of Hooker (covering Books 1-5 of the Ecclesiastical Polity only) is much easier to hold on the bus, in bed, or in the bath. This new edition is far easier to understand and to use in the study. Its price ensures it will be consulted mainly in libraries or by the devoted, but Hooker fans everywhere should be delighted by what will now surely become the standard critical edition of a breathtaking work of Anglican erudition and argument.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/1 (2014).

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A Short Intro to Luther

Hendrix Luther

A review of Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction.

This is a great addition to OUP’s “Very Short Introductions” series of books, which manages to pack a huge amount of fascinating and useful material into just over a hundred small pages. It even manages some very nice black and white pictures, index, glossary, and seven pages of further reading suggestions.

Hendrix handles the history well, and gives a very readable glimpse into Luther’s spiritual ancestors. He also has an accurate assessment of the Reformer’s impact in various places, writing that “Calvinism was more influential than Lutheranism on the Reformation in England.” Luther is not seen as the sole cause of the Reformation (as if it were all “by Luther alone”) though he is given his rightful place of honour as pioneer, and as theologian, Bible translator, liturgist, hymn-writer, preacher, and institutional leader. The author is clearly aware of a vast amount of scholarly discussion and secondary literature on Luther and has an enviable ability to summarise and critique it in short compass, and he does a good job of helping us appreciate the historical distance between us and Luther.

Hendrix is a more than competent Luther scholar, and is usually insightful and clear in his judgments here. Occasionally there are some tendentious appropriations of Luther for a modern agenda he would not recognise, and I would have liked more of his theology to shine through. At the very end of the book, however, there is a particularly jarring note, which strikes me as not being especially faithful to the subject. He writes, “The best parts of Luther’s legacy may be his eschewal of fundamentalism and his insistence that religion is not a way to appease the gods and gain their favour — but a constant reminder to place the world and its needs above selfish desires.”

I’m not sure Luther would recognise such a this-worldly summary of his thought or be pleased if this were indeed his greatest legacy. As for his supposed “eschewal of fundamentalism” it all depends on what fundamentalism means of course, and Hendrix thinks Luther did not recognise Scripture as his chief authority per se as other Protestants did. Whatever the accuracy of that assessment, and it appears somewhat dubious to me, it is certain that in today’s ecclesiastical climate Luther would find more of a home amongst the inerrantist, “Bible-bashing,” supernaturalist, heaven and hell fundamentalists of this world than he would amongst the urbane intellectual élites of the global North pushing ecumenism, homosexuality, and feminism. Indeed, we can be sure that he would have some harsh and probably unprintably coarse words to say regarding the latter!

This review was first published in Churchman 127/4 (2013).

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