Biblical Interpretation and the Church: Text and Context

Written by D. A. Carson (ed.) Reviewed By W. A. Strange

The eight essays published in this book arose from the work of the ‘Faith and Life’ study unit established by the World Evangelical Fellowship under the co-ordination first of R. T. France, and latterly of D. A. Carson. True to their background, these studies are evangelical in approach and international in origin. The mandate of the unit was ‘to explore some of the hermeneutical issues that bear on the tasks of worldwide missions at the end of the twentieth century’ (p. 7). In order to keep their task within bounds, the members of the unit have here concentrated on ‘a variety of hermeneutical problems relevant to understanding the nature, scope and mission of the church in various cultures’ (p. 7).

The first chapter, by D. A. Carson, serves to introduce the whole. In it the reader discovers the significance of the words ‘Text and Context’ in the book’s title. Carson makes the point that the assumptions, ideas and attitudes which belong to our culture—that is, our context—can, and often do, so dominate the way we interpret the Bible—that is, the text—that we may hear it saying only what we expect or want it to hear. This observation is a common starting-point for much discussion of hermeneutics. But these authors go beyond observation: they have a clear message about the way in which biblical interpretation ought to take place. They accept that any reader’s perception of the Bible is likely to be affected by the ‘pre-understanding’ which he brings with him. They do not accept, though, that the biblical message should be wholly accommodated to the reader’s context—his assumptions, attitudes and concerns. A major thesis of this book is that failure to perceive this truth has led to much erroneous interpretation of biblical material about the church and its task in the world. So, the anti-supernaturalism of many Western theologians has led them to dismiss certain things as impossible. They should instead be willing to let their assumptions be called into question by the text of Scripture. Carson mentions Bultmann in this regard, and at a later point, G. Maier touches on the same theme in his essay on the church in Matthew’s gospel, in which he discusses the debates over the authenticity of Matthew 16:17ff.

Theologians in non-Western cultures do not escape, either. T. Tienou’s essay, on the church in African theology, surveys critically some attempts to make the Christian gospel relevant to African society, notably by identifying the doctrine of the communion of saints with the African’s sense of belonging to a great family. The hermeneutics of liberation theology are discussed by E. A. Nunez (‘The Church in the Liberation Theology of Gutierrez’), and by R. P. Shedd (‘Social Justice: Underlying Hermeneutical Issues’). All three essays trace the fault of the theologies they criticize to the same root: they begin with context, and not with text. They are not based on the whole of Scripture as source and corrective.

R. T. France adds a valuable chapter on the kingdom of God. He maintains that because we do not trouble ourselves to discover the meaning of ‘the kingdom of God’ in the text, we misappropriate it in our own context. In his essay on ‘Biblical Models of the Church’, R. P. Clowney argues that the whole rich diversity of biblical metaphors is necessary for our picture of the church. To do less, for instance to take the Exodus as a controlling paradigm, is to distort Scripture, and deny the authority of the whole.

P. T. O’Brien’s essay on ‘Principalities and Powers’ shows what questions still remain even when the case made by the contributors to this book has been accepted. O’Brien argues that by ‘Principalities and Powers’ Paul meant supernatural forces of evil, and not, as has frequently been assumed in recent years, socio-political structures. If it is granted that O’Brien is right—and he argues with detail and cogency—the problem remains of how we preach Paul’s gospel now, if in our context people do not believe in the demonic. Do we first educate people to believe in the demonic—prefixing the kerygma with didache, in a way Paul did not? Or do we re-interpret his language into terms which make sense as good news to our hearers? Which is more faithful to Paul? This book is principally concerned with thinking about the church, within the church. It is about doing theology rather than directly about mission. But the two cannot be divorced. The church has to meet the world somewhere, and at that point the problem of contextualization will not go away.

The contributors to this volume are sounding a warning about the relationship of text to context in present-day biblical interpretation. Anyone concerned to interpret the Bible could read it with profit. It does not baffle by technical language. It will certainly stimulate further thought on these vital issues.

W. A. Strange