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The Art of Reading Scripture
book coverEllen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays, Eds.
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge UK, 2003
Reviewed by David F. Ford

“A quiet revolution” is what this book proposes.

It is a remarkable collection of essays on how to read and teach the Scriptures, drawing on the Christian tradition and on resources from 21st century culture, combined with exegeses of difficult passages of Scripture and six sermons by the editors. It is the result of the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry’s Scripture Project in which 15 biblical scholars and theologians, including two pastors, met over four years to discuss questions such as how the Bible is authoritative for the faith and practice of the church, what are the most appropriate practices of reading, how historical criticism is to be assessed and used, and how traditional readings can be related not only to historical methodologies but also to feminist, liberationist and post-modernist readings.

The result is very exciting. I do not know of anything quite like it. It is not only that this is a deeply Christian and intelligent group, alert simultaneously to multiple dimensions of the Bible’s meaning as well as to contemporary culture and church life. It is also a group that has talked together intensively with a view to the future, and has done so for long enough to form something of a common mind.

That common mind is expressed most clearly in a set of nine theses at the beginning of the book, accompanied by short explanations and a series of questions for ongoing discussion. The theses try to distill what the later chapters say at greater length, and they are an effective set of slogans for the revolution. It is possible, of course, to argue with them (indeed one of their strengths is that the questions for discussion often raise exactly the right problems; though a further one I would add is about the somewhat excessive prominence of “narrative,” which occurs in no less than five of them); but overall this is the most thorough, perceptive and balanced guide to Christian interpretation of Scripture that I have come across.

The nine points are about Scripture as the story of God’s action of creating, judging and saving the world; the church’s rule of faith as a guide to the dramatic coherence of the narrative; the importance of interpreting the OT and NT together; the multiple senses of Scripture; the four Gospels as testimony to Jesus; the importance of the church as community of interpretation; the guidance of the saints in interpreting and performing Scripture; the need for Christians to read the Bible with diverse others outside the church; and the need for ongoing discernment oriented to God’s future, open to continually “fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.”

The book covers a wide range of topics and inevitably is stronger on some than others. Special strengths are on the “relentlessly theocentric” character of Scripture and how to interpret it in line with the reality of God and God’s purposes; the interrelating of OT and NT, with the consequent importance of engaging with past and present Jewish readings; the recovery of the wisdom of premodern interpretation and of reading with an ear for more than one voice or sense, yet without losing the benefits of historical criticism and other modern methods; and the sense (above all from the sermons) that Scripture interpreted in the Spirit and alert to the best scholarship is bursting with life and relevant meanings.

Inevitably, too, it is possible to produce a wish list of things that would be desirable in a longer book—mine would include more on the interplay of genres; some appreciation of the Bible as a global book (rather important for Americans given the role of the U.S. today); an extension of the special concern for relations with Judaism to include at least Islam; more on corporate and individual practices of reading Scripture; more thorough engagement with contemporary hermeneutics (I would see Paul Ricoeur, for example, as one of the most significant Christian thinkers of the 20th century); and thoughts about the shape of any theological curriculum that took this book seriously.

Duke has contributed more than its fair share to the book. There are several pieces by the two Duke editors —Ellen Davis’ wisdom-packed essays and sermons are in many ways the spiritual heart of the book, and her concept of “critical traditioning” is an essential revolutionary discipline; Richard Hays’ daring proposal of a “resurrection hermeneutic” focuses on the God-sized event that makes the revolution possible; and there are strong essays by Gregory Jones and David Steinmetz. This makes me as an outsider think: Surely Duke must be a key centre for this revolution (even the dean is a subversive!)? What plans are there at Duke to train revolutionaries, issue manifestos, and spread this dangerous practice of reading Scripture with the risen Jesus in the Spirit?

There is talk in the book about the Holy Spirit doing something new today with Scripture in academic settings. I suspect that this is right, and that the preparation for it has been going on for some time. There has long been a sense that far too few of the academics with special responsibilities towards Scripture—biblical scholars, systematic theologians, theological ethicists, practical theologians, and others—have been inhabiting Scripture in fruitful ways and producing those “fresh rereadings in the light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world” that this book calls for and exemplifies.

We need “prophetic wisdom interpretation” of Scripture for our century. One recalls Stephen in Acts, “full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit,” offering the longest single scriptural interpretation in the New Testament; and one also recalls what happened to him immediately afterwards. Revolutions are costly. Academics are not usually stoned to death, but, if the rhetoric and other practices of academic life are any measure, it is a violent place. This book is healthily provocative and it will be interesting to see the responses to it in the institutions of its authors; it will also be interesting to see what happens if it is carried in comparably provocative ways into other academic arenas beyond the targeted audience in theological seminaries.

David F. Ford is Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge, England, and the author of, among many books, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (CUP); The Shape of Living (Baker); and Theology: A Very Short Introduction (OUP). He is the editor of The Modern Theologians (Blackwell).

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