What We Believe
i

Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (with forward by Scot McKnight), by Hans Boersma. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2021, xv + 152, $20.00, paper.

Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew (with forward by Hans Boersma), by Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2021, xii + 161, $20.00, paper.

InterVarsity Press, Hans Boersma, and Scot McKnight should all be congratulated on this two-volume publication project, both in its conception and in its execution. Each author is well-credentialed in his respective field: Boersma has taught at Regent College and at (his current institution) Nashotah House Theological Seminary, has written several scholarly volumes, and is ordained in the Anglican Church in North America. McKnight has taught at North Park University, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has written about fifty scholarly books. He is also ordained in the Anglican Church in North America, which nicely prevents inter-denominational squabbles from marring the project.

The publisher wisely decided not to assign particular questions or topics for each author to address but left it to the two authors to address the matter of what their own discipline wished for the practitioners of the other discipline. Note, then, that each author had his own wish-list of five matters, none of which I will attempt to unpack in this review (other than one brief explanation), encouraging readers either to hear the authors in their own voice or not at all:

Boersma

  1. No Christ, No Scripture
  2. No Plato, No Scripture
  3. No Providence, No Scripture
  4. No Church, No Scripture
  5. No Heaven, No Scripture

McKnight

  1. Theology Needs a Constant Return to Scripture
  2. Theology Needs to Know its Impact on Biblical Studies
  3. Theology Needs Historically Shaped Biblical Studies
  4. Theology Needs More Narrative
  5. Theology Needs to Be Lived Theology

Note, then, that InterVarsity permitted each author the freedom to address the matter on his own terms. This makes the project far more interesting and engaging than it would have been had the publisher assigned topics as a debate panel might do at a university forensics competition. Readers will quickly recognize that the concerns of the two authors are sincere, heartfelt, and of an enduring nature. Though each author wrote the forward to the other author’s volume, this was the closest the project ever got to a debate. Neither author abused this privilege; each addressed the other thoughtfully and charitably.

Among the virtues of this two-volume project is the bibliographical material. Each volume has a nine-page (small font) bibliography in the back to direct readers into a fuller discussion of the general issues or into a fuller understanding of the authors cited throughout the two volumes. An interested pastor, elder, or deacon might wisely consult these bibliographies before planning one’s vacation reading.

Exemplars Not Representatives

The two authors are exemplars of their respective disciplines but not necessarily representatives of their respective disciplines. Their credentials in their respective fields are typical of others in those respective fields; each has taught (at the graduate level) in his field, published in his field, and each is an ordained churchman. Each, therefore, is a solid exemplar of the discipline in which each labors. However, neither is necessarily representative of his respective discipline; if the publishers had polled twenty other theologians and twenty other biblical scholars, it might be that none of the twenty in each case would have an identical list of “five things” he wished. I would guess, however, that a significant majority would, at a minimum, have profound sympathies with each list. Wise readers of these volumes might find it helpful to make this distinction between exemplar and representative.

Means and Ends

Each author recognizes his own discipline (and that of the other) to be a means to a greater end of knowing God, a recognition that is appropriately pious without being pietistic. Each laments that neither discipline—especially in its academic form—has recognized its instrumental role adequately. Their respective recommendations and observations about how scholarship could and should better serve the interests of genuine devotion to Christ and his church were and are especially noteworthy. This regard for Christian faith and life, and for the health of the Christian church, would probably not have been true had some other representatives of each respective discipline been selected; InterVarsity wisely selected two credentialed academics whose writings pulsate with vital Christian faith.

“Christian Platonism”

One matter (the only specific one I will address more than summarily in this review) that arises in this two-volume project, that might not have arisen had other authors been chosen, is the matter of “Christian Platonism,” the second of Boersma’s five “wishes” and perhaps the only one expressly mentioned in McKnight’s forward to Boersma’s book. To put it mildly, not every systematic theologian would elect to identify himself as a proponent of “Christian Platonism,” and Boersma does not do so without important caveats and qualifications. Permit an extended quotation:

Christians should not treat Plato as a sheer villain, because a proper reading of Scripture depends in part on the traditional mode of reading it, which we may fairly label “Christian Platonist.” . . . On my understanding, a Christian metaphysic is theological in character: we dare not impose the pagan philosophy of Plato (or of anyone else) on Holy Scripture. Christian metaphysics must take its starting point in the Christian confession of Christ as the incarnate Lord. Still, it is true that the early church typically read Scripture through the metaphysical lens of Christian Platonism, and I will argue that this approach safeguards rather than hampers biblical teaching. The second thing that I, as a theologian, wish biblical scholars knew is that the Bible cannot be interpreted without prior metaphysical commitments and that we need Christian Platonism as an interpretive lens in order to uphold Scripture’s teaching. (39–40, emphasis and parenthesis Boersma’s, and the emphasis appears in each chapter as the definition of each of his five wishes)

Note three things here: First, Boersma places the expression “Christian Platonist” in quotation marks. Critics of this viewpoint often overlook that some of its protagonists appear to be quite conscious of the fact that the expression is intentionally oxymoronic. Boersma expressly warns that “we dare not” impose Plato’s pagan philosophy on the Scriptures. A Christian metaphysic is not identical (of course) with any pagan or polytheistic metaphysic; rather, Boersma argues that the two metaphysics share some assumptions about the natural order, a super-natural order, and language. Second, Boersma affirms, with many philosophers and theologians, that “the Bible cannot be interpreted without prior metaphysical commitments.” Third, he affirms that “we need Christian Platonism as an interpretive lens” and that the early church did so read Scripture. This third matter is the one where Boersma is more likely to encounter skeptics:

  1. regarding the necessity of “Christian Platonism” (even if qualified), and
  2. regarding whether the early church did adopt such Platonism, and
  3. regarding whether the early church’s assumptions would be authoritative even if they were Platonic in some senses.

Some readers will likely underestimate Boersma’s qualifications; others will likely exaggerate them; perhaps a few will find that they satisfy the Rev. Goldilocks’s criterion of “just right.”

Historical-Critical v. Grammatico-Historical

Criticisms by both authors of the weaknesses of biblical scholarship often refer to the historical-critical method but not to the grammatico-historical method. Nearly all scholars who have a high view of Scripture have recognized the severe limitations of the historical-critical method since its seventeenth century emergence; indeed, since Brevard Child’s seminal work on canonical criticism, even scholars with a low view of Scripture have tended to recognize the limitations of the historical-critical method. The grammatico-historical method, by self-conscious contrast, has ordinarily been practiced, developed, and propagated by those who recognize divine inspiration and the methodological consequences thereof. To my knowledge, neither author expressly acknowledged the grammatico-historical method as an alternative to historical-critical methodology on the one hand, or an a-historical, proof-texting methodology on the other (though perhaps Boersma refers to the grammatico-historical method by denoting it as the “sola scriptura” approach, and perhaps McKnight does so implicitly by promoting what he calls “prima scriptura”). Perhaps each author just assumed knowledge of this alternative on the part of their readership, but I regard it as a mild defect in a two-volume project such as this that neither author expressed a “wish” for the grammatico-historical method of exegesis. Boersma, more so than McKnight, is willing to resurrect some aspects of the sensus plenior method of the early church’s allegorical exegesis (20–38), though with some qualifications. I believe this aspect of both books (rejecting historical-critical methodology but no clear commitment to grammatico-historical methodology) has been addressed more ably in several of Vern S. Poythress’s works:

  • The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (P&R, 1995).
  • God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (P&R, 1999).
  • “Edmund P. Clowney’s Triangle of Typology in Preaching and Biblical Theology,” Unio cum Christo 7/2 (Oct. 2021): 231–238.

Poythress’s pertinent writings have always been sensitive to the proper limitations of “authorial intent,” which he has deftly addressed by recognizing dual-authorship (divine and human) of Scripture, thereby evading “the intentional fallacy” by acknowledging, methodologically, both authors of Scripture.

Inter-disciplinary Conversations in the Body of Christ

Inter-disciplinary conversations should be welcomed, though not canonized. In one sense, each of the theological disciplines is still a way of “doing theology.” Whether systematic theology, biblical theology, exegetical theology, practical theology, polemical theology, historical theology, missionary theology, apologetic theology; all theologies attempt to think God’s thoughts after Him, and they do it in varying ways for varying purposes. Whenever the various sub-theologies (if we may call them that) are conversing with one another, iron will likely sharpen iron. Armed with a robust understanding of differing gifts in the body of Christ, these various sub-theologies may devote themselves fully to their respective tasks, while welcoming the contributions and insights of others. All human knowledge is partial (and not just in the eschatological sense of 1 Corinthians  13:12); so it is not a fault of any discipline that it is not doing what other disciplines do. Conversations such as these perhaps even contribute to the “hermeneutical circle” becoming a “hermeneutical spiral,” in which each discipline leaves its own well-worn path temporarily in order to return to it more wisely.

Discussions such as those contained in these two volumes have the helpful effect of relativizing the respective enterprises of each discipline. Exposure to other disciplines that have equally-devoted practitioners and equally-erudite conversations may have the desirable result of deflating our respective disciplines’ egos. Recognizing our substantial ignorance of how other disciplines function may relativize not only our own discipline’s knowledge but our personal knowledge as well. Recognizing our own (disciplinary or personal) fallibility need not injure our confidence in the infallibility of Scripture; as David Wells often reminded us, one can believe in biblical inerrancy without affirming one’s own inerrancy. Indeed, scriptural infallibility shines brighter when contrasted with all human fallibility.

The complexity of hermeneutical and/or epistemological discussion reminds us that human communication itself (and the language/s we craft to facilitate knowing and communicating) is, like love, a “many-splendored” thing. Knowing is one thing; justifying knowledge is another thing altogether. My first Ph. D. dissertation proposal was to evaluate post-Bultmannian hermeneutics. My doctoral advisor, the late Paul Achtemeier, had written An Introduction to the New Hermeneutic (Westminster, 1969), so he was competent to direct the project. In my six months of provisional exploration (by reading Wittgenstein, Heideggar, Godamer, and their interpreters), I was almost eager for the proposal to be rejected by the department, as it eventually was, so I then pursued the comparatively easy matter of Paul’s understanding of the Law (Biblical scholars may appreciate the irony of that last clause). Reading the concerns that these two individuals have about each other’s respective discipline has the salutary effect of reminding us that there is a certain amount of mystery that surrounds every human effort to understand other humans or God himself.

Neither of these volumes is easy to read and should not be tackled without finding a decent amount of uninterrupted quiet. The difficulty is not due to either author’s inability; the difficulty is due to the complexity of the matter of doing theology itself (in any of the various disciplines). Each author exposes failed assumptions and methods both within his own discipline and in other disciplines; in the process, they disabuse the reader of any hope for easy answers within disciplines or across them. But, after all, we are finite beings attempting to understand the Infinite God, and we are unholy beings striving to understand the Holy God, whose ways are inscrutable, who hides himself, and whose proper glory is, in part, to conceal things (Rom. 11:33; Isa. 45:15; Prov. 25:2).  

My Advice to Potential Readers

I rarely give advice when writing book reviews; this may be the only time I have done so. But the following three things either helped me by doing them, or would have helped me if I had done them, so I pass the three along to potential readers.

First, read both volumes or neither volume (and read them both with few interruptions in between). InterVarsity planned this as a two-part project, and the authors participated in it as such; to remove one part or the other is to miss part of the intended affect. Each volume is reasonably brief; the two together are just under 300 pages, so the potential reader should consider this as a 300-page read in two parts, not as two 150-page reads. For this reason, I also add the above qualifier that, if possible, they be read with few interruptions or disruptions between them. I found that the juxtaposition of the two was part of the benefit of the project; to separate them by a month or more would be like separating the first movement of a symphony from the second for a similar time.

Second, read them in reverse order of your present competence. Most churchmen—whether academics or not—have certain interests and competences that differ. One immerses himself in church history, another in biblical studies, yet another in systematic theology. I chose this method myself and benefited from reading the theologian before the biblical scholar; Boersma welcomed me into his conversational world, as it were, before McKnight continued a conversation in our shared world of biblical studies. I felt much more at home in McKnight’s world, of course, but benefited profoundly by adjusting my hearing to attune itself to Boersma’s patois.

Third, ask what you can learn from each, rather than “who won?” Before I attended college, my uncle said, “David, when you arrive at college, learn as much as you can from every professor. Of course, you will like some more than others and find some easier to follow than others, but each knows a good deal more than you know, and you should make it your aim to glean as much as you can from each.” It was great advice (and literally avuncular!), and it would be good advice here. InterVarsity intentionally conceived this project to be an honest expression of wishes, not a debate; readers who attempt to make the project do something other than what it was intended to do will glean far less than will readers who let it do what it was designed to do.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a retired professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2022.

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Ordained Servant: June 2022

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