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Can We Put the Bible at Center Again

Kenneth L. Cukrowski, Mark W. Hamilton, and James W. Thompson. God’s Holy Fire: The Nature and Function of Scripture. Abilene: ACU Press, 2002. ISBN 0-89112-037-8; 303 pages; $14.95; www.acu.edu/acupress.

As a “people of the book,” the reading and study of the Bible has historically been a centerpiece of the American Restoration Movement. Alexander Campbell set the hermeneutical tone with his essay on biblical interpretation in his “Christianity Restored” (1835), which was followed by Lamar’s “Organon of the Bible” (1860), Dungan’s “Hermeneutics” (1888) and Lockhart’s “Principles of Interpretation” (1901).

Aside from the rather academic festschrift for Jack Lewis entitled “Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice” (1986), Churches of Christ lacked a comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation and application until the appearance of “God’s Holy Fire.”

This is the second book in Abilene Christian University’s “Heart of the Restoration” series. The first was “The Crux of the Matter” (2001) by Foster, Reese and Childers. While the first volume interpreted the current situation of Churches of Christ in the context of their controversial past and hopeful future, the second challenges us to rediscover the central place of the Bible in the life of the church. It encourages a love for and a knowledge of Scripture, equips for its proper use and clears away common misunderstandings. It decries biblical illiteracy and the decreasing use of the Bible as it challenges the church to rediscover the Bible and the Story it narrates.

The authors are comprehensive. They cover issues ranging from the inspiration of the Bible to its exegesis and practical use in making daily decisions (including discerning the will of God in specific decisions). The appendices assist the reader in building a library for Bible study, including recommending some key reference works. It also provides a “template for Bible study,” including a method for teaching and a case study example of how to teach Romans 14-15 (though I find the case study filled with hidden assumptions unavailable to most readers). The book provides study questions for each chapter which facilitate discussion for Bible classes or small groups.

“God’s Holy Fire” has many strengths. Its fundamental strength is that throughout it emphasizes the narrative character of the Christian faith. The Story (metanarrative) is central, and ultimately biblical hermeneutics is understanding that story in such a way that it shapes our own stories. This story emphasis not only connects with postmodern readers but is also representative of the best of our Restoration heritage which often spoke of the “Scheme of Redemption” (the title of Milligan’s 1868 classic).

Other strengths contribute to this theme — the inclusion of the Old Testament in our hermeneutical frame (chapter 4), the recognition of how the occasionality and literary diversity of Scripture affect interpretation (chapters 5 & 6), the recommendation of both an exegetical method (chapter 7) and a method for practical application and teaching (chapters 8 & 9). Included in these discussions are classic Restoration Movement issues such as the silence of Scripture (pp. 176-184) and the three-fold hermeneutic of command, example and inference (pp. 160-161). These chapters are filled with helpful and practical insights. Especially significant is the interest the authors demonstrate in “theological literacy.” It is simply not enough to understand the meaning of the biblical text. One must also understand its theological significance. They move the reader from the reading of Scripture as an ancient document to discerning its theological intent with the goal of shaping the stories of our lives with the Story of God.

While the strengths are overwhelming and commend a wide reading, there are several weaknesses which will hinder the book’s effectiveness among Churches of Christ. Though the authors stress the “authoritative” and “divine” character of Scripture, the chapter on inspiration lacked a clear definition of inspiration. Even the section under the heading “Defining Inspiration” (pp. 39-44) never defines inspiration (their recommendations for reading on the inspiration of Scripture would not be mine [p. 301-302]). Instead, it attacks a superficial definition of inerrancy. Though they recognize that the problems with inerrancy are not “insoluble” (p. 41), this section provides no positive definition of inspiration while at the same time pressing a negative critique of inerrancy. This will hinder the book’s utility among Churches of Christ as will its assumptions about certain higher critical conclusions (e.g., the dating of Daniel, pp. 142-143). Nevertheless, the authors are, correctly, more concerned about the power of Scripture in the lives of people than a highly focused and technical human definition of inspiration (p. 45).

While the authors stress the need for theological literacy, and one of their purposes is to encourage such (p. 214), this is the major area in which I find the book wanting. Their forays into this arena are laudable but superficial. “God’s Holy Fire” challenges us to think with and through the Story, but provides very little on how to do that theologically. How do we think Christologically? How do we read Scripture with theological eyes? Perhaps we should not fault the book for attempting too much since comprehensiveness is a virtue. But this weakness — a historic weakness that the “Crux of the Matter” highlighted — needs specific attention from the rest of the series.

There are, of course, many points at which one might disagree with the general characterization of a biblical book or a specific biblical text (e.g., is Job’s religion really “transactional and legalistic” [p. 140]?). But this would be true of any work on biblical hermeneutics. What is valuable is that the authors set the reading of Scripture in the context of the Bible’s own story, provide an exegetical method for seeking the meaning of the text, and challenge us to think theologically about the text’s contemporary significance.

My fear is that its assumptions, method and process will be beyond the reach of most, but my hope is that it will begin anew a healthy dialogue about the nature and function of Scripture among Churches of Christ. It is certain their work will renew the hermeneutical discussions of the 1980 - 1990s, but whether the dialogue is healthy will depend more upon the readers. This book sets the agenda for future discussion with a good tone and provides a wonderful opportunity for the Churches of Christ to once again think through their biblical hermeneutic.

Written for the Christian Chronicle, May 2002.




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