Biblical Truths: The Meaning of scripture in the twenty-first century
Dale B. Martin
Yale University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27
DALE B. MARTIN is a well-established New Testament scholar, a Professor of Religious Studies at Yale, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also, by his own confession, a post-modernist, a Marxist (to the extent of accepting Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism and of its pervasive influence), an “orthodox” Episcopalian Christian (greatly cherishing the Book of Common Prayer) — and gay.
These affiliations make him profoundly sceptical of the value of a purely historical-critical approach to the study of scripture (particularly the New Testament, his specialism). “Biblical truths” cannot be derived from historical study alone: the gains from this depend on interpretation, which is necessarily influenced by other factors; indeed, any “biblical theology” would be moribund if it were not constantly engaged with the realities of a “post-modern” approach to Christian sources.
Accordingly, his book does not offer a “biblical theology” in the sense of exploring what the writers may originally have “meant” — which, in any case, is hardly recoverable apart from a considerable degree of interpretation. Instead, he arranges his book in chapters dealing with traditional categories of systematic theology: God, Christ, Spirit, Church, etc. Under these headings, he seeks to demonstrate how the insights gained from modern (indeed post-modern) critical analysis may feed into the faith and practice of a contemporary Christian.
He denies any need to harmonise the data or seek for a consistent “theology” in the New Testament writings; sometimes, indeed, their very variety and inconsistency can inspire creative modern theology. All depends on the assumptions that the critic brings to bear on the data, and these are legitimately influenced by a Christian lifestyle sensitive to the concerns of a person such as he declares himself to be.
This approach might seem to lay the critic open to the charge of considerable subjectivity: how is one interpretation to be judged more legitimate than another? What is the control that can be exercised to exclude heterodox or even heretical interpretations? If there is no attempt to reconcile apparently contradictory propositions, how do we judge between them?
Here the author acknowledges his debt to modern theories of knowledge, particularly to Wittgenstein as mediated to him through the recent work of Dominican scholars such as Fergus Kerr. These exponents of philosophical theology have the support of the Eastern apophatic tradition, and of a school of Western mysticism — and, indeed, of St Thomas Aquinas himself — when they affirm that no proposition can be altogether “true” about God.
This means that two contradictory propositions derived from scripture may be equally near to, as well as far from, any “truth” about God, and may both be accepted as throwing light on the ultimate mystery of faith.
Rigour in historical-critical study is essential — but only for establishing history. A search for the original “meaning” may be worth while in itself, but is not decisive for its meaning for us today. “Biblical truths” are found only through interpretation; the interpreter is sociologically conditioned; the active exercise of Christian faith is the necessary context for interpretation, and is nurtured by biblical study.
Certainly this rings true for many of us. But a nagging question remains. What is to prevent a proliferation of false interpretations? Martin discusses a number of these and finds reasons to reject them; but his point of vantage is confessedly personal to himself. Readers with different backgrounds and interests may (if we follow his methodology) legitimately beg to differ.
Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.