Saturday, June 11, 2011

Book Review: Collected Writings on Scripture

‘In some ways, this is a difficult book to assess because it is not a sustained thesis or critique but a reprinting of seven papers or lectures delivered or published elsewhere.’ (p. 209) Such were the author’s words as he begins one of the several book reviews in this volume, but thankfully this assessment doesn’t apply to the book under review. Collected Writings on Scripture comes from the pen of esteemed lecturer and Bible teacher, Dr Don Carson, and is a helpful and challenging set of articles and reviews on the nature, form and use of Scripture in the academic world, as well as in the church.

In ‘Approaching the Bible’, Carson seeks to answer two main questions - what the Bible is, and how to interpret the Bible. As he begins, the reader is reminded that the doctrine of Scripture does not exist in splendid isolation, unimportant and unconnected to our theology. Rather, our doctrine of Scripture is integrally linked to and informs our theology. If the Bible really does reveal God to us, then ‘to approach the Bible correctly it is important to know something of the God who stands behind it.’ He continues by considering the Bible as being ‘simultaneously the product of human authors and the revelation of the God who talks.’

This is a good introductory essay which sets out the issues for someone approaching the Bible for the first time or the thousandth time. The principles set out to help understand the Scriptures are clear and pertinent, given that Carson reminds us from 2 Timothy 2:15 that ‘it is dangerously possible to be someone who does not correctly handle the word of truth.’ As is characteristic with Carson’s writings, this essay is comprehensive, well thought out, both helpful and heartwarming with some of his memorable one-liners.

The second essay, ‘Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture’, is more technical, and primarily relating to the (American) academic discussions on the nature of the Bible. He argues that there has been a resurgence of interest in the doctrine of Scripture due to the growing strength of evangelicals, the fragmentation of evangelicalism, the crisis of authority in modern Western Christianity, and the theological revolution in the Roman Catholic Church. These factors (among others) have led many to take up the pen to rethink or restate both traditional and innovative formulations of the doctrine of Scripture.

What follows is a discussion of the ideas of various scholars centred on verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, common sense realism, accommodation and inerrancy. At times it seemed hard to follow the fairly detailed and technical differences in the theories, being unfamiliar with the work being discussed. Yet Carson is able to keep the reader’s attention, through the debates to discussing, finally, how these developments impact on the church and the world.

‘A high view of Scripture is of little value to us if we do not enthusiastically embrace the Scripture’s authority. But today we multiply the means for circumventing or dissipating that authority... The authority of the Scriptures is in such instances almost always formally affirmed; but an observer may be forgiven if he or she sense that these self-promoted leaders characteristically so elevate their opinions over the Scripture, often in the name of the Scripture, that the Word of God becomes muted... [In other circumstances, we] can by exegetical ingenuity get the Scriptures to say just about whatever we want - and this we thunder to the age as if it were a prophetic word, when it is little more than the message of the age bounced off Holy Scripture.’

The third essay considers ‘Unity and Diversity in the New Testament’ and whether systematic theology is possible. While many claim that the New Testament reflects various competing theologies, Carson is clear that given the unity of purpose and source of the Scripture, such a systematic theology is not only possible, but necessary. Indeed, the diversity found in the New Testament often reflects diverse pastoral concerns being worked out from the common credal position. Once more, Carson’s concern is not ultimately with the scholarly, but with the pastoral implications: ‘This chapter has dealt with technical articles and critical judgments, but in the final analysis what is at stake is not some purely academic dispute, but what we preach.’

The fourth essay is a thorough discussion of ‘Redaction Criticism: On the Legitimacy or Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool’ and will be of particular interest for those with theological training and those seeking to use a variety of methods to understand the Scripture. Some of Carson’s careful criticisms may be powerfully applied further in the realm of criticism.

In the final essay of section one, Carson asks the question, ‘Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today?’ While the perspicuity of Scripture may be of perennial concern, the presenting issue comes from the rise of the postmodern epistemology and its characteristic doubt of an authoritative meaning and universal truth. This chapter, while very helpful, was far too brief, however he has covered the same topic in other volumes, such as The Gagging of God and Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church.

Part 2, which takes up the final third of the book, is a collection of book reviews written by Carson on the work of others on the theme of the Scriptures. These were an interesting addition, illustrating some of the vast and varied opinions and theses of others working in the same field. As always, Carson is thorough as he summarises the books, giving both praise and critique where necessary.

All in all, this was a very helpful volume to review, and one which carefully but clearly sets out a coherent evangelical doctrine of Scripture. While some sections may prove too technical for the regular member of the congregation, theological students, pastors and academics will richly benefit from Carson’s scholarly analysis undergirded by his pastoral passion. His rigorous argument and defence springs not from academic pride or the endless production of papers, but first and foremost for the encouragement and growth of Christians:

‘The aim of thoughtful Christians, after all, is not so much to become masters of Scripture, but to be mastered by it, both for God’s glory and his people’s good.’

A version of this book review appeared in the new edition of Search: A Church of Ireland Journal, published in June 2011.

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