This is a great book for anyone who struggles to read the Bible (so everyone right?)
To who is the Bible addressed and what is its significance? These are questions that Joel B. Green asks in this book. It seems that Green aims to place the Bible back into the hands of the church and also to teach the church to read it expecting that God has something to say.
This book is situated within a contemporary academic discussion labelled as “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” Kevin Vanhoozer describes the project this way: “Theological interpretation of the Bible, we suggest, is biblical interpretation oriented to the knowledge of God…to know God as the author and subject of Scripture requires more than intellectual acknowledgement. To know God is to love and obey him, for the knowledge of God is both restorative and transformative” (Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005, 24.) Green’s book adds to this conversation. A key point that he makes throughout his work is the proper stance that readers should have in relation to Scripture. This stance is that communities of readers ought to be under the text, attentive to God’s voice, letting it challenge them and transform them.
In chapter one Joel makes the distinction between reading the Bible and reading Scripture. To read Scripture in Green’s view is to make a theological statement. Modern scholarship has given primacy to scientific methods when interpreting the Bible. This places the scholar as one who examines the object of the text, who in other words stands over the Scripture. For scholars who use this approach neutrality is the ultimate aim when approaching the Bible and any theological interests brought to the text are seen as unwelcome. Green points out that this neutrality is utterly impossible, especially in light of postmodernity (link article here, see esp. point 7), which has emphasized the subjectivity of interpretation. The key point seems to be one of determining the place of the interpreter. Green asserts that readers of Scripture are to stand under the Scriptures. Green says, “Center stage belongs to those practices of engaging with Scripture that embody the reader’s commitment to live faithfully (or not) before the God to whom the Scriptures witness” Hence the role of formation is central in Green’s work. Scripture is not just to be read; rather, it is to be lived. The church is called to participate in the ongoing story of God at work in the world. Green emphasizes the role of the Scripture in shaping and transforming people and communities in a holistic sense: thinking, feeling, believing and acting.
In chapter two Green lays out some aims and assumptions. He develops three key points: the status of the Old Testament as Scripture; the relation of Scripture to conversion or transformation and the question: what would it mean to read Scripture as though it was addressed to us? These aims and assumptions are undergirded by the immediacy of God’s voice in the Bible, that is, the ability of biblical texts to speak to people today. Green then humbly affirms the point that sin is an issue when it comes to interpreting the Bible. He says, “What separates us from the biblical text is not ‘the strange world of the Bible’ as much as its unhandy, inconvenient claims on our lives” (55). This is a key point and again it reiterates a main point in Green’s work, which is that the interpreter is to stand under Scripture, not the other way around. It turns out that Scripture says stuff we don’t like to hear.
Chapter three outlines resources for reading the Bible as Scripture. Green argues that Scripture must be read in Christian community. Not only is it read, it is also lived out or as Green puts it: “performed” in community. What is so important about a community reading is that it gives a richness and depth. People read with various biases and questions. This point by Green is an especially important one in light of much of the postmodern critique of power. It doesn’t take a church historian to encounter oppressive practices that were legitimized by a specific way of reading the Bible in the past. Therefore the voice of the so called “other” must be heard. This will mean cultivating communities that are diverse in culture, gender, socio- economic status, age, and so forth.
Green then addresses the way in which reading Scripture must be theologically fashioned. He affirms that neutrality is a myth and in light of this he emphasizes a “ruled reading” and a reading that is located within a theological tradition. In addition Green highlights a reading located in a tradition by working out of his Methodist tradition by using John Wesley as an example. Throughout all of this Green affirms the need for critical engagement with Scripture. Green suggests engagement that is cross-cultural, canonical, historical, communal, global and hospitable. Highlighting a common theme of being under the text, Green again affirms the need for interpreters to recognize that their own tradition may in fact need reforming. This is to place tradition under the authority of Scripture, which is its appropriate place.
Joel also makes a very important point that reading Scripture must be done in partnership with the Holy Spirit. He concedes that it is very hard to articulate just how the Spirit is involved in the process of interpretation. How do communities interpret Scripture with openness to the Spirit? According to Green this involves a great deal of prayer and a willingness to be open to what God might want to change in us through what God speaks in Scripture.
In chapter four, Green turns to methods. His key metaphor in this chapter is that reading Scripture is a craft and learning to do this is to take up an apprenticeship. This is a powerful image that displays a humility and discipline on the part of the interpreter. Green outlines three areas where meaning is located: behind the text, in the text and in front of the text. Green gives priority to the text itself placing it at the centre of interpretation. He then looks at a close reading of the text affirming the need to see the text in light of its literary context, historical and cultural context and in relation to other texts (stuff Biblical scholars do!). Green affirms that good use of these tools is essential but that alone it will never be enough. To come back to the central metaphor: to be an apprentice is to be a certain kind of person, shaped in light of the craft. Again, the call here is for the church to stand under the text as an apprentice stands under a master.
In the final chapter Green turns to the question of authority. He illustrates the fact that familiarity with the Bible and a theological understanding of it are often absent from the church. Joel identifies three crises: a crisis of function, a crisis of relevance, and a crisis of authority. He also grounds the authority of the Bible within the story of Scripture. He makes the distinction between narrative and history in that narrative is concerned primarily with significance. In the case of the biblical narrative, readers are invited in to the story. This story is God’s story, one of creation and redemption in which we are invited to participate.
Green’s work is pertinent for all those who wish to read the Bible thoughtfully and with openness to what God might say. An essential contribution of this book is that it affirms that immediacy of the Scriptures, in other words – God speaks through them! Not only this but it also acknowledges the need for interpreters to employ a humility that submits to the text and sits under it rather than over it. This book does not just encourage the church to reclaim a reading of the Bible as Scripture; it also challenges the church to participate in the story of Scripture and in doing so to be transformed.