Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can't Learn from Exegesis Alone

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can't Learn from Exegesis Alone

Article excerpt

Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis that You Can't Learn from Exegesis Alone. By John L. Thompson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007, xi + 324 pp., $20.00 paper.

"You don't need dead theologians to tell you how to read your Bible!" exhorted my undergraduate chaplain during a conference for students who were leading campus Bible studies. While he no doubt had high regard for the Word's self-interpreting power, his words betray both arrogance about the present and, most troubling, a low view of God's work in church history. The irony is telling: while students should not listen to past pastors, they should certainly heed his expository preaching in chapel every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday! Being deprived of tradition is no testimony to Scripture's perspicuity. It is only a statement about one's mistrust of previous interpreters, the unintended consequence of which is that Scripture was less perspicuous in the past than it is at present. I can think of no real reason why today's Christians should not benefit from yesterday's, and it is unfortunate that so many have been told a high view of Scripture entails exactly this result. Of course, few serious evangelicals would deny the value of tradition. But our exegetical practice and our commentaries do not evince much interest in dead theologians, and the overblown rhetoric of zealous preachers like my college chaplain does not help matters.

In fact, there is already a consensus that evangelicalism is historically naive, and a growing number of evangelicals are responding by urging a fresh ad fontes that looks to the church before the Reformation, particularly in its patristic period; this period is understood to be uniquely formative. Thomas Oden, seen as the initiator of the so-called "paleo-orthodoxy" movement, takes the ecumenical consensus of the early church as integral for accurate biblical interpretation. Whereas evangelical pastors emphasize present personal interpretation of Scripture, Oden urges us to turn first to our forefathers. He introduced his concerns in 1979 with his Agenda for Theology (New York: HarperCollins, 1979). His three-volume Systematic Theology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), which has seen several printings, has been important for showing evangelicals what they share with the ancient church. His two recent readers-TAe Justification Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)-are but the latest of his efforts; both surface similarities between patristic and Protestant doctrines of justification by grace through faith. Finally, as general editor, Oden has brought us IVP's Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series; this will soon have a sibling in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.

Numerous evangelical scholars have joined this trend or formed similar movements. Christopher Hall penned Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), which is as much an introduction to early biblical interpretation as an exploration of what evangelicals can glean from the Fathers. The late Robert Webber believed that the prevalence of pluralism in both postmodern and ancient culture meant today's church needed to fortify its future by learning from the past. Thus his Ancient-Future series-^Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World; Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community; and Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999; 2003; and 2004, respectively). His project now boasts a study center (http://www.aefcenter.org) and growing support from evangelical leaders.

Many more examples could be produced, but the work of D. H. Williams deserves mention. His Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) provided an apologia for evangelical engagement with the Church fathers. …

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