Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction Justin S. Holcomb, ed., (New York University Press, 2006)
Justin Holcomb wears several hats. He is ordained in the Episcopal Church of Sudan, serves as a Guest Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, teaches at the University of Virginia in the sociology and religion departments, and is the Director of Graduate Ministries for the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, VA. For the past six years he has traveled to southern Sudan to teach chaplains in the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army. Justin and his wife, Lindsey, direct Mosaic, which is a non-profit organization that initiates sustainable projects for peace and social justice in southern Sudan and Uganda and partners with organizations to enact creative strategies to serve those who are suffering in these areas.
Apparently Justin needed something to keep him busy, so he edited a book on Scripture, and a very good one at that.
Holcomb wrote the introduction (to which I want to return in a minute), but then leaves the rest of the writing to a diverse array of writers, totalling seventeen essays and spanning the Patristic to postmodern times, with authors from both sides of the Atlantic and representing several traditions. I think it is worthwhile to reproduce the table of contents here to give an accurate picture.
Part 1. Patristic and Medieval
1. Partrisitic and Medieval Theologies of Scripture: An Introduction (Lewis Ayres)
2. Origin (R. R. Reno)
3. St. Augustine (Pamela Bright)
4. St. Thomas Aquinas (Peter M. Chandler, Jr.)
Part 2. Reformation and Counter-Reformation
5. Theologies of Scripture in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation: An Introduction (Micahel S. Horton)
6. Martin Luther (Mickey L. Mattox)
7. John Calvin (Randall C. Zachman)
8. Scripture and Theology in Early Modern Catholicism (Donald S. Prudlo)
Part 3: Ninteenth and Twentieth Centuries
9. Theologies of Scripture in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: An Introduction (John Franke)
10. Friedrich Schleiermacher (Jeffrey Hensley)
11. Karl Barth (Mary Kathleen Cunningham)
12. Hans Urs von Balthasar (W. T. Dickens)
13. Hans Frei (Mike Higton)
Part 4: Contextual Theologies of Scripture
14. Tradition and Traditions: Scripture, Praxes, and Politics (Graham Ward)
15. Scripture, Feminism, and Sexuality (Pamela D. H. Cochran)
16. Scripture in the African-American Christian Tradition (Lewis V. Baldwin and Stephen W. Murphy)
17. Postmodern Scripture (Gerard Loughlin)
As with any edited work of this nature, one does not come away with a single “vision” for a Christian theology of Scripture, but, of course, that is not Holcomb’s intention. By bringing together this group of scholars, Holcomb is clearly trying to generate conversations among Evangelical readers to think more broadly about what Scripture is. As Holcomb puts it, “This is not a work of dogmatic or systematic theology that posits a specific doctrine of scripture that must be rigidly followed. Nor is this a work of religious history that records the transition of Bible texts or the development of the canon; it does not enter into debates about how the Bible was formed, compiled, and preserved. Rather this book investigates the history of Christian thought by looking at major figures in the tradition and describing their unique contributions to the lingering and overarching question, what is Scripture” (p. 2).
Thus, Holcomb’s task is largely descriptive in nature more than synthetic (note the volume lacks a concluding section where Holcomb could have tied some of the strands together). But this is not to say that Holcomb has no opinions on the matter and is not aiming to get an idea or two across himself. I will let him speak for himself, and so perhaps give readers a better feel for where the book is going and spark some interest.
“…to ask the question, what is scripture? is to become mired in a muddy pool of questions: What is the nature of scripture? Is it divine? Human? Both? Is scripture authoritative? If so, how and for whom? Whst is the scope if its authority? Is scripture inspired by God? What about scriptural interpretation–is that inspired? Does God illuminate humans to understand scripture? Who can interpret scripture? What is its purpose? How is scripture used? How ought scripture to be used? How do scripture and tradition relate? Does scripture interpret tradition or does tradition interpret scripture? Or both? What does it mean for a Christian to call the Bible ‘the Word of God’? And if Jesus is also called the Word of God, how does Jesus as the Word of God relate to the Bible as the Word of God?” (pp. 1-2).
Now, before one condemns Holcomb as being somewhat overambitious, he is merely laying out the types of questions that come to mind when one turns to think about the nature of Scripture and its interpretation. He is very clear, in fact, at the end of his introduction that “this is not a book with one answer to the question, What is scripture? Indeed, as demonstrated by the wide diversity of Christian theologians of scripture presented in this book–from Origin to Augustine, Luther to Christian feminists–there is no single Christian theology of scripture. Instead, this book offers many answers to many questions provided by many Christian theologians and traditions over the two-thousand-year history of the Christian faith. Only such an approach can do justice to the rocky terain of scriptural interpretation and begin to draw a map of Christian theologies of Scripture” (p. 7).
Some readers will certainly disagree with Holcomb in this conclusion, namely because some would not consider every theologian engaged in this book to be an example of a viably Christian doctrine of scripture. That being said, it would be a shame if readers would glance at the table of contents and dismiss the book’s entire premise as faulty. Again, in Holcomb’s words, “The chapters do not attempt to defend the theologian they are describing. Rather, they investigate how each theologian developed ways of interpreting scripture in response to the demands of his time and place and its particular understanding of the Christian tradition” (p. 4).
The question of the nature of Scripture is not an new one but an old one, although I feel the ante has been raised a bit over the past several generations due to developments in biblical studies. Having said that, however, it is not only helpful but probably a respsonsibility of thinking Christians today to have a bird’s eye view of the broad Christian heritage of thinking about our sacred text. Toward that end, Holcomb has provided a very helpful resource for Christians who are so inclined.