Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation Past and Present. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 608 pp., cloth, $34.99. ISBN: 0-8308-1880-4.
In 1885, Frederic W. Farrar delivered the Bampton Lectures under the heading History of Interpretation. In 1948, Robert M. Grant published the first edition of A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (revised 1963). Farrar's well-written survey of the hermeneutical issues into the late nineteenth century is as wordy as Grant's volume is succinct: the former a model of Victorian style; the latter the epitome of crisp, pithy condensation. Now comes Gerald Bray with an up-to-date survey which is more thorough than Farrar (though not as interesting stylistically), yet more satisfying (because more extensive) than Grant. While it may be premature to suggest that Bray's will be the standard work into the next century (a la Farrar), it is safe to say he has provided an impressive overview of Biblical interpretation from the apostolic to the contemporary era.
Of particular note (though not unexpected, given the imprintIVP) is the sympathetic treatment Bray accords evangelical interpretation. His judicious summary of twentieth century evangelical scholarship is a road map to issues, personalities, potentialities and, inevitably, traps and pitfalls. In the process, we are introduced to the opposition from contemporary higher criticism, i.e., classic liberalism, form criticism, redaction criticism, canon criticism and more. One of the most helpful features of the volume is the running "list of players." Bray provides names, dates, a (too) brief biographical note on each influential scholar or commentator together with a select list of the individual's most significant writings. The Index of Names provides quick reference to more than one thousand persons who have helped shape the hermeneutical landscapepast and present. This is a mini-encyclopedia of the history of interpretation! Each section concludes with a "case study" of a particular Biblical passage derived form the comments of the major players of that era.
But grant the thorough coverage of the history of interpretation from the patristic to the modern era; kudos for the encyclopedic vade mecum of persons and their works; cheers for the sympathetic treatment of evangelical scholarship; thanks for the case studies of specific Biblical textsis the book a safe guide to the discussion of hermeneutics as it has evolved down through church history? In the main, Yes! This book will likely become a "textbook" for many classes in the history of biblical interpretation especially in evangelical circles. It is the most helpful survey of the issues in print and should be required reading for all serious pastors, seminarians and interested laypersons. They will certainly know the "lay of the (hermeneutical) land" when they finish the book.
And yet, however much he appreciates and commends historic orthodoxy in hermeneutics, Professor Bray betrays slight leanings to the left of the theological spectrum. For example, when discussing the Christocentric and eschatological perspective of the apostolic writers (pp. 64ff.), he nevertheless resorts to Jewish rabbinical methods of interpretation such as pesher and midrash to account for the background and distinctiveness of the New Testament. If this seems somewhat reminiscent of left-wing "evangelical" Robert Gundry, note Bray's ambivalence about the Westmont professor's methods (pp. 549-50). Without denying the Semitic substratum of the New Covenant documents, it remains highly speculative to suggest that Paul's method of interpreting the Old Testament (to single out the great apostle) is virtually a first century summary of Strack-Billerbeck (cf. pp. 66-69). The old Reformation principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture (Scriptura sui intepres) is a safer guide than resorting to Jewish techniques anchored in Qumran or the Talmud. I, for one, remain unconvinced by the literature that suggests that every New Testament allusion to the Old Testament is enlightened when filtered through Qumran or the Talmud. Qumran (Dead Sea Community) remains sectarian Judaismnot mainstream Judaism. To measure the New Testament (or the Old Testament for that matter) by Qumran would be like measuring orthodox Christianity by the Watchtower of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Mainstream Christianity is found in the New Testament and the New Testament writer's use of the Old Testamentnot intertestamental or rabbinic Judaism. The critical search for the roots of the historic New Testament should end in the mind of God as revealed through his inspired apostles as they record the fullness of the times through the life, death and resurrection of the second person of the ontological Godhead, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. In particular, Bray's case study for his section on the New Testament period (pp. 70-76, the epistle to Hebrews) blithely ignores the magisterial third chapter of Geerhardus Vos's The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. That chapter, "The Epistle's Philosophy of Revelation and Redemption," is a safer guide to the mind of God than Bray's excursus.
The section on patristic interpretation (pp. 77-128) rightly focuses upon the contrast between Alexandria and Antioch (Origen versus Theodore of Mopsuestia)allegorical versus literal exegesis. Noting that allegory does not need historicity, Bray trenchantly observes that the former "quickly slides into moral exhortation" (p. 101). Counterpoised to typology, which necessitates historical continuity, the canard that types degenerate into allegory is only true for those who have vaporized the horizontal in favor of the mystical. Typology is no more typology when the historical vector has been ignored. Yet typology enriched by the eschatological or vertical vector (i.e., the vertical-horizontal hermeneutical interface) anchors historicity while gathering the pilgrim people of God (cf. the main themes of the epistle to the Hebrews) into participation with the eschatological intrusion. In short, history is a vehicle of supernatural revelation and self-disclosure because God's redeemed creatures are historical persons whom he has been pleased to unite with his eschatological self and arena. The patristic struggle with typological history and recapitulation was a "feeling after" the biblical-theological perspective, even though falling short in a tragic allegorical/literal antithesis. One exception receives scant attention from BrayMelito of Sardis and his profound Pascal Homily (cf. Kerux 4/1 [May 1989]: 5-35). The solution to Alexandria versus Antioch is found not in polarization, but in transcending and eschatologizing patristic exegesis. Back to Paul and John and Luke and Peter, etc. for the resolution of the tension between spiritual (allegorical) and literal (historical) hermeneutics. We can never be bound by the church fathers however much we may benefit from them. Our hermeneutical canon is the Bible and the Bible alone.
Additional strengths of Bray's patristic section include: a summary of the famous rules of Tyconius (pp. 107-8) as commended by Augustine. These principles dominated hermeneutics well into the Middle Ages (witness their use in the most famous Bible commentary of the medieval period, Nicholas of Lyra's edition of the Biblia sacra cum glossa ordinaria ["Sacred Bible with the standard gloss"] together with Nicholas's postilla or expository comments). All students of biblical interpretation should understand the role of Tyconius's rules. Bray provides a bibliography of the era (pp. 111-15) which is up-to-date including the very important recent works of Simonetti and de Margerie. Finally, the case study on patristic interpretation of Genesis 1 provides insight into the variety of interpretations of the "days" of this passagea variety which should give pause to the exegetical tyrants of the present day who seem more interested in their own myopia than the tolerant liberty which has enabled brethren to "dwell together in unity" on this issue from the time of the fathers to the present. Is it too much to expect charity from those whose spirit seems to breathe the intolerance of fundamentalism than the "liberty with which Christ has set us free" with respect to this disputed question?
The most disappointing section of the book is Bray's discussion of medieval hermeneutics. Acknowledging that the period has received inadequate treatment (especially from Protestants who tend to skip over it), Bray falls into the same pit by giving short shrift to a complex and difficult period. By devoting only 35 pages to one thousand years of Biblical interpretation, Bray betrays his ignorance of the recent explosion of interest in medieval interpretation (witness the appearance this year of an English translation of the first volume of de Lubac's standard French work, L'exégèse médiévale: les quatre sans de l'ecriture = Medieval exegesis: the four senses of Scripture [Eerdmans]). Add to this the massive Cambridge History of the Middle Ages and the Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (both of which are multi-volume sets in progress) and one realizes Bray's brief section is hardly adequate. The medieval era was a search for codification (i.e., one hermeneutical authority for the entire church), but that quest for standardization was fraught with variations ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. We must recall that in the providence of God there could be no Reformation without the Middle Ages. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli reactbut they react out of minds informed by the pasta past that drives them ad fontes ("to the sources"), namely sola Scriptura.
Once possessed by the Christ of Scripture, there was no going back to patristic or medieval exegesis for the Reformers. The way forward was solely through faith in Christ. The Reformation was a Christocentric revolution as much as a Biblical revolution. From Luther's sola fide to Calvin's covenant theology, Christ remained the heart of the text. This is why the works of sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestants continue to warm the hearts of God's children. The Christ of grace and the grace of Christ are central to their devotion. How far the modern Protestant and Reformed church has deviated from this Christ-centeredness! Topical drivel, doctrinal boredom, moralistic motivationalism, uninformed (because unresearched) messages, superficiality which requires no penetration into the mind of the Biblical writer, let alone the mind of Christ: all these have trivialized modern evangelical and Reformed homiletics. Contemporary Reformed preachers are sophomoric, dull or neo-charismatic. They lust after relevance searching for "connections" everywhere but in the Christocentric aspect of the text. Without the unique Christocentricity of the original Reformation, the modern Reformed pulpit is doomed to drift, their churches certain to be pop culture mirrors, their leaders power brokers and agenda setters. The future of such Protestantism is the very liberalism which swallowed up the culture of the eighteenth century. That piranha we call the Enlightenment.
Bray is superb in describing the results of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and its historical-critical hermeneutical liberalism. If he is too analytical, he at least tells us the story of this horrible downgrade of anti-supernaturalism and anti-Christocentrism. Modern churches hankering after relevance for the contemporary culture are on the same track as classic Enlightenment liberalism. If the reader doubts the previous sentence, he need only read Edward O. Wilson's recent article on the Enlightenment in the March Atlantic Monthly. Wilson's gospel is the gospel of the philosophes, the gospel of the supremacy of man, the gospel of powerpersonal and state. It is no coincidence that the tyrants (political and personal) of the last three centuries regard themselves, like Wilson, as children of the Enlightenment.
Biblical hermeneutics shifted with the culture of the eighteenth century. Bray demonstrates that we have not recovered yet from that devastating legacy. Unwitting evangelical and Reformed pastors who eschew Christocentric biblical-theological preaching are indistinguishable from their (enlightened) liberal peersthey only wear different hats. But they use the same methodreduce the text to practice, application ("the sermon doesn't start until the application begins"), telos, moral improvement. This regimen is "wood, hay and stubble" of the worst kind because it robs the children of God of Christof graceof life in the heavenliesof covenantal inclusion in the life, death and resurrection of their federal Head. Contemporary evangelical and Reformed churches have sold their Protestant birthright for a mess of pottage. They are closer to liberal fundamentalism than they realize.
Bray's singular weakness in this largest (and most informative) section of his work (pp. 261-460 for the historical-critical method) is the lack of detail about underlying philosophical presuppositions in post-Enlightenment hermeneutics. He analyzes terms ("form criticism," "redaction criticism," "quest for the historical Jesus") without penetrating the philosophical inspiration bolstering the terms. Hence, we learn about De Wette, Strauss, Schweitzer, Gunkel, Dibelius and Bultmann without learning how they were "men of their time," enchanted by the philosophy and culture of their day from classic rationalism and liberalism, to idealism and positivism, to existentialism and linguistic analysis. How much more devastating to understand Reimarus as a bigoted rationalist; Strauss as a narcissistic idealist; Bultmann as an arrogant existentialist. The system which has driven Biblical hermeneutics since the eighteenth century has not been the text of the Wordit has been the prevailing philosophy of the day. It is not the Christ of Scripture who shines through the higher critical fundamentalists of the left; it is the Christ of the philosophersa Christ refashioned in the ever-shifting image of the prevailing Weltanschauung. Albert Schweitzer saw this in the nineteenth century quest for the historical Jesus. He said that we learn more about the authors of the quest (Strauss, Renan, etc.) than we do about the Jesus of Scripture. More's the pity that Schweitzer himself fell into the same pitshaping Jesus in his own humanitarian image. Bray's volume would have been significantly strengthened had he laid bare the foundational philosophical presuppositions of post-Enlightenment Biblical hermeneutics.
The following are some minor quibbles. Spener's famous book is mistranslated Pious Requirements (p. 241). The Latin title (Pia Desideria) is straightforward and means Pious Desires. Reimarus is dismissed from his role in inaugurating the quest for the historical Jesus (p. 243)certainly news to Albert Schweitzer, whose most famous book about the quest of the historical Jesus (its actual title in English) is Von Reimarus zu Wrede. Strauss's Leben Jesu (p. 330) is certainly not regarded as preferring a "supernatural" interpretation of Jesus. This is stunning news to all the opponents of Strauss who labeled him the "Nineteenth Century Judas." Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth, two of the most radically liberal Old Testament scholars of this century, are treated innocuously. Their reconstruction of the early history of Israel based upon the amphyctiony (tribal confederation) of the ancient Aegean world relegates the patriarchs and the exodus to hoary myth. Though mentioning the amphyctionic theory (p. 381), Bray seems naively unaware of its devastating results when applied to the text. Our author's suggestion that Gerhard Von Rad is the source of redaction criticism (1938) is a bit anachronistic. The term was coined by Willi Marxsen, a New Testament scholar, in 1954! Von Rad is more accurately an advocate of form criticisman agenda he does indeed positively advance. J. Gresham Machen's powerful anti-liberal apologetic is incorrectly identified as Liberalism and Christianity (p. 545). Machen knew the priority which belonged to orthodox Christianity; liberalism was another religion. The most serious blind-spot in Bray's presentation is his hagiographical treatment of John Bright (The Authority of the Old Testament, p. 410). What utter nonsense! Bright was a brilliant neo-orthodox biblical-theologian, but was vehement in his rejection of the inerrancy and historicity of the Old Testament.
With respect to the final section of the book ("The Contemporary Scene," pp. 461-588), we learn much. "Evangelical" is a term almost impossible to define at the end of the twentieth century (an observation Harold Lindsell, former editor of Christianity Today, made more than ten years before his death in January of this year). We are introduced to Eric Auerbach, a name virtually unknown in Reformed seminaries. Every student and pastor should be required to read his remarks on figural interpretation in his book Mimesis. Bray is also aware of the contributions of Hans Frei and Northrop Fryetwo other penetrating authors not found on most Reformed seminary reading lists (though the revolution they inaugurated in narrative studies is now more than twenty years old).
Yet another quibble: Bray regards Richard Bauckham and W. G. M. Williamson as conservative evangelicals. In fact, they are left-wing evangelicals of typical middle-of-the-road British stripe, who are more comfortable smoozing with higher critical positions than traditional orthodox ones. Bauckham is certain the author of the fourth gospel is not the "John" of the book of Revelation. Williamson is comfortable with more than one IsaiahIsaiah of Jerusalem and the so-called Deutero-Isaiah (cf. his The Book Called Isaiah). We discover that Antony Thistleton, who took the evangelical world by storm some years back, is in fact an advocate of the "new hermeneutic" (p. 488). And while we are introduced to Julicher, Dodd, Jeremias and Blomberg on the parables of Jesus, we are not informed of Herman Ridderbos's monumental treatment in The Coming of the Kingdom. Nor is Richard B. Gaffin listed on Paul or Meredith G. Kline on covenant. True, Geerhardus Vos and Old Princeton (Warfield, Davis, Machen) do receive attention, but Bray seems unaware of the torch carried on from Vos by the above two contemporaries.
Bray is absolutely right about the fragmentation in contemporary evangelicalism (p. 584). In Reformed circles also, more interest is vested in tyrannizing the conscience than in granting the liberty of the animus imponentis ("prevailing mind ") of the Reformed denominations. Modern conservative Reformed Christians do not seem to comprehend the liberty of "actively concur, passively submit, peaceably withdraw." Instead, modern factions insist on flexing their muscle in displays of tyranny every bit as brutal as those of liberal fundamentalists. Reformed theology has always endeavored to maintain the fellowship of the fundamental articles while providing liberty on matters not yet definitively determined. Sadly, our generation is witnessing a self-ish dominance of conscience apart from due process. Unity is slipping through our fingers because of legalistic oppressors who flaunt their power to define orthodoxy based upon their own private agendas.
Sadly too, Bray doesn't seem to grasp the central heart of the biblical- theological method. If the preacher's task is to discover a "message of spiritual power" (p. 587), then the Enlightenment has triumphedeven in Gerald Bray's system. His concluding plea for applicatory preaching is the very basis of liberalism's anti-supernatural and anti-Christocentric bias. Liberalism regarded such supernatural and Christocentric orthodoxy as irrelevant. Is Bray leaving us with the "same old, same old"? Hopefully, readers will catch the salient warnings and well-defined pitfalls outlined in these pages so as to avoid reducing the Bible to application. Dear reader, the Bible is about Christ and the true application is living en Christo ("in Christ").