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Criticism which starts with faith

05 August 2016

John Barton on a useful guide to Bible interpreters of a particular kind

Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the history of biblical interpretation
Stephen Westerholm and Martin Westerholm
Eerdmans, £26.99
Church Times Bookshop £24.69



THE Westerholms, father and son, have produced a guide to many of the major figures in biblical inter­pretation, from the original forma­tion of the Bible down to the 20th century. They cover Irenaeus, Origen, John Chrysostom, August­ine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, the Pietists and Wesley, Schleiermacher, Kierke­gaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer.

Anyone interested in how the Bible has been interpreted need look no further for a definitive guide, in a brief compass, to any of these significant figures. Each chapter here begins with a biography, before going on to look at the principles of interpretation, followed by the figure in question, and examples of how these principles worked out in practice. In the process, we learn much about the theology and spirituality of these important students of the Bible.

So this is a useful compendium, and there is nothing else quite like it on the market. But it also has a thesis to argue: that modern biblical interpretation has abandoned the theological commitment of these earlier figures, and has become too secular and uncommitted. It is notable that none of the great figures of post-Enlightenment biblical study is included: there is no F. C. Baur, no Strauss, no Well­hausen, no Bultmann. This is not a history of biblical criticism, but a survey of committed Christians who started from the premise that the Bible is inspired scripture, and found ways round the difficulties biblical critics have noticed in it, without departing from orthodoxy. (Though others did not always judge them so — Origen in particular was anathematised.)

”Theological interpretation of scripture” of this kind is currently popular, and biblical criticism of a more sceptical kind is on the back foot. And even those who still be­­lieve in criticism (as I do) cannot fail to admire the depth of insight that teachers such as Augustine or Barth brought to the interpretative task. In showing this, the Westerholms tend to kick biblical criticism rather hard, but no one need dissent from their positive point: that there is still much to learn from the kinds of interpreta­tion showcased here.

To single out just one figure: it is interesting to find Kierkegaard included. He was certainly highly critical of the critics. “Confronted with learned claims that ‘Paul’s epistles were not by Paul’ . . . the believer can simply turn to God in prayer and say, I’m no match for all this learning, but I abide by Paul’s teaching.” But, on the other hand, he was not exactly an orthodox Christian, but constantly sought to confront a complacent Church with the challenges of the gospel, based on his own, often idiosyncratic, reading of the Bible. He was a maverick, as the other characters introduced in this book were not: it is refreshing to find him here.

Reading Sacred Scripture offers encouragement to those who wish to read the Bible with the Church, and as such should be widely wel­comed.


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

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