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Well-versed in the OT

by
18 September 2015

John Barton welcomes a collection of essays, some of them classics, by a veteran scholar

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Cultural Landscapes and the Bible: Collected essays
J. W. Rogerson
Beauchief Abbey Press £46*
(978-0-9576841-3-3)

 

JOHN ROGERSON is an Old Testament scholar of amazing learning, versatility, and skill in exposition, notable also for his commitment to applying biblical insights to the demands of the modern world. This large volume consists of his most significant papers over a span of about 40 years. (A previous volume contained some of his many contributions to biblical ethics, an interest that is, therefore, not represented much here.)

The areas covered include social anthropology, sociology, the history of biblical interpretation (Rogerson probably knows more than anyone else in the English-speaking world about the history of German scholarship), philosophical issues relating to the Bible, and hiblical translation. Everything is suffused by Rogerson’s academic rigour, philosophical sophistication, and, above all, commitment to social theory and social justice.

Some of the pieces here have become classics, and it is useful to have them available now in one place: for example, “The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality: A re-examination”, from 1970; “Structural Anthropology and the Old Testament” (also 1970); and “The Old Testament View of Nature: Some preliminary questions” (1976). These call in question ideas that were in common circulation at the time, and that are still encountered today, alleging that ancient Israel had a distinctive mindset that we cannot now recapture. Rogerson carefully undermines the relativistic implications of that view, as he does in a much more recent and previously unpublished piece on post-modernism and Old Testament studies, from 1996.

In many ways, the heart of the collection is a group of papers on the history of biblical studies. It is here that his encyclopaedic knowledge of German (and British) scholarship is most in evidence. There are essays on his favourite 19th-century scholar, W. M. L. de Wette, and also on Herder, Colenso, Vatke, Wellhausen, Geddes, Robertson Smith, and Houbigant; and there are thematic pieces on the writing of Old Testament history and on reactions to Darwin.

But more miscellaneous contributions show the same critical acumen, as in the history of the Manchester Faculty of Theology, a study of William Temple as philosopher and theologian, and an essay on the Old Testament and the environment, in which Rogerson’s well-known commitment to ecological causes is grounded in the Old Testament, and shown to involve issues of justice.

A number of the papers are translations from Rogerson’s own German originals, and were delivered in various universities in Germany.

For me, one of the most interesting points that Rogerson makes concerns the difference between German and British approaches to the Bible — arguably as evident now as it was in the 19th century, and a cause of much misunderstanding of “the Germans” in Anglo-Saxon theology and church life. Rogerson writes: “The philosophical-theological climate of Christianity in Britain in the period 1770 to 1840 was characterised as consisting of truths conveyed by revelation, approved by reason, accepted by faith, and put into effect by moral conduct, and by worship and prayer. [Whereas the climate in Protestant Germany] can be characterised, by contrast, as follows.

“It is personal experience of a liberating God, who can be glimpsed in the deepest feelings of the human soul, and in the processes of history, and whose reality is confirmed in the biblical record of God’s dealings with his people, which record is also a means whereby God becomes a living reality to the believer.”

Rogerson shows that the philosophical background of the two approaches is quite different: Locke on the British side, Kant and Leibniz on the German side, mediated through Schleiermacher, Fries, Schelling, and Hegel. Unless this is understood, British readers of German commentaries and books on the Bible are almost bound to get the wrong end of the stick.

Theological students, Rogerson suggests, should be given some basic grounding in philosophy before they undertake biblical studies. Otherwise, “most of them will retreat into an acquiescence in biblical criticism, for the purpose of satisfying examiners, but basically, they may well be untouched by biblical criticism. They will not find it liberating, and some may reluctantly be driven into a sophisticated form of fundamentalism, perhaps derived from C. S. Lewis.”

This is a magnificent collection, forthright, and yet also subtle and sophisticated. No one seriously interested in the Bible can afford to miss it.

 

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.

 

*This title can be obtained from www.lulu.com.

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