August 26, 2015 / Perspective
The best – or perhaps only – way for theology to be itself is to fail.
April 2, 2006
Lately, the Bible has been all over the news. The recently discovered Gospel of Judas, the debate over scriptural authority in matters of ordination, not to mention the brouhaha over Dan Brown’s book, all indicate that the questions surrounding what the scripture is, how it’s been transmitted, and what use we make of it still have tremendous traction in our culture. What is often missing in these highly-publicized controversies is an understanding of the rich and eclectic theological heritage which we can bring to bear on the questions of scripture and its authority, a heritage which makes the Knights Templar, for instance, appear to be relatively minor characters in the saga of Christian thought. Christian Theologies of Scripture, published in 2006 by NYU Press, helps correct that misunderstanding through a thoughtful, rigorous, and yet accessible survey of this important branch of historical theology. We clearly need books like this today, books which can be read by a wide audience and yet require careful thought on the part of the reader, books which suggest ways into the future by showing the contours of the past.
The metaphor of movement that appears in Justin S. Holcomb’s introduction to the volume is useful for understanding what the book accomplishes. Holcomb describes the collection of essays as an attempt at “mapping the theologies of scripture,” a guide to the “rocky terrain” which often causes us to “stumble” in our efforts to proceed (6, 7). The honesty of this approach is characteristic of the book as a whole; this is a place to come for better questions, not dogmatic answers. Which is not to say the book leads one to a sophisticated skepticism, either. If nothing else, reading this book causes you to realize that the wealth of past thinking requires all of the care and attention we can give it.
The book is divided both chronologically and thematically, with the bulk of the chapters dedicated to individual theologians of the major traditions. Beginning with Origen (born around a.d.185) and ending with Hans Frei (who died in 1988), the historical survey is divided into three major periods: “Patristic and Medieval,” “Reformation and Counter-Reformation,” and “Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Each chapter, written by a different scholar in the field, begins with a brief biographical note describing the background and career of the theologian in question, quite useful for someone new to the study. The remainder of the chapter focuses on the particular position and role of scriptures in the theologian’s overall project. As Holcomb points out in his introduction, the book is not a systematic theology, nor a history of scriptural transmission, nor an account of canonicity debates; instead, it is an investigation of “the history of Christian thought” as individuals in that history respond to the “overarching question, what is scripture?” (2).
The advantage of this approach is that it allows valuable access to the actual thinking about and use of scripture throughout the history of Christian practice without getting bogged down in esoteric details. Furthermore, the organizational structure itself suggests one of the book’s major insights: that theologies of scripture are always situated in the needs and struggles of their place and time. Through accounts of Augustine’s responses to classical philosophy, Luther’s conflict with his political and ecclesiastical moment, Schleiermacher’s particular interaction with the Enlightenment, and the role of scripture in the battle for African-American liberation, the book demonstrates again and again that people attempting to see the Divine in their material and cultural world produce understandings of the Bible. And yet, despite these historical and social differences, the book also reveals the moments of continuity between these traditions, a continuity that comes precisely because of that commitment. Graham Ward, in his chapter on the social elements of Christian praxes, eloquently describes this dynamic of the temporal and the eternal: “here ‘in the middest,’ we are caught as poets, makers, fashioners, and inventers, between the contingencies of history and the transcendental grammars of theology; between traditions and tradition” (258). Although Christianity proclaims the existence of an Eternal Word, its practices reveal a commitment to the temporal words of history and culture, a fact reflected in theologies of scripture as much as everything else.
It is the sensitivity to our historical situation, at the beginning of the 21st century, that makes the book particularly valuable; it not only traces where Christian understandings of scripture have come from but what they are facing now. This contemporary orientation is most evident in the book’s final thematic section, “Contextual Theologies of Scripture.” In this section, along with the Gerald Ward essay I just quoted, Pamela D.H. Cochran offers an insightful account of scripture, feminism, and sexuality as it continues to be worked out in the debates of recent years, while Lewis V. Baldwin and Stephen W. Murphy narrate the role of scripture in the African-American Christian tradition. These particular chapters are compelling not only as history but also as examples of theologically sensitive discourses of justice which emerge alongside traditional heritage even as they extrapolate from it. The last chapter of the book is Gerald Loughlin’s assessment of postmodern scripture, a finely textured reading of a topic that is often unfairly oversimplified. Placing this final contextual section at the end of the book is a compelling reminder to us as readers that there is still work to be done and distance to be traveled.
On the rare occasion, Christian Theologies of Scripture evinces the strain of an academic text that still attempts to address general audiences. The more scholarly-minded will only find their appetites whet by the relatively short chapters, while from time to time the prose becomes a little dense for those readers who don’t spend the majority of their time critiquing theological treatises.
Nevertheless, these points are few, and I think the demands of the book are worth the cost, since it brings together the often-separated realms of theological speculation and daily practice. Ultimately, it is this combination of thought and practices, the essence, perhaps, of faith, which makes the book and the history it describes uniquely valuable for anyone honestly engaging the use and role of scripture today.
Mary Kathleen Cunningham’s essay on Karl Barth, for instance, cannot avoid a sentence like the following: “This ‘being-in-becoming’ of scripture is in turn a reflection and extension of Barth’s Christology, that is, of his decision to ‘actualize’ the doctrine of the Incarnation and to speak of the ‘being-in-becoming’ of Jesus Christ” (186).