A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Andrew Ballitch
Summary and Review
In this massive, but readable volume, John Barton offers an exhaustive history of the Bible, from an introduction to the literature of both testaments, to how the Bible came to be and how it has been interpreted over the centuries. He hopes his book will first, dispel the notion of the Bible as a sacred monolith, second, illustrate the difficulty of moving from the Bible to faith, and, finally, showcase the Bible as an important source of religious insight. His thesis: “The Bible does not ‘map’ directly on to religious faith and practice, whether Jewish or Christian.” The Bible is irreplaceable, but “Christianity is not in essence a scriptural religion, focused on a book seen as a single, holy work” (2). In short, when the Bible is viewed as Holy Scripture, as inspired by God with all of inspirations entailments, it denies the depth, variety, and richness of the texts.
In part one, readers are introduced to the history of ancient Israel and the Hebrew genres of narrative, law, wisdom, prophecy, and poetry. The discussions of genre and considerations for interpretation are insightful, but the presentation as a whole feels like an exercise in ‘nothing is as it seems.’ This what-you-probably-assumed-is-wrong approach continues in part two, where he, again, puts forward the consensus conclusions of historical criticism, this time of the New Testament. Barton argues that no neat relationship exists between the Old and New Testaments, pits Paul against orthodoxy on the resurrection and divinity of Jesus, and buys into the New Perspective on Paul, deflating the importance of justification by faith.
In part three, the book transitions to being more reliably informative and helpful, though not in its conclusions and recommendations. Here Barton explores canonization and manuscripts. On the former, he makes the helpful distinction in the process of going from a list of books that are “at least” Scripture, to a list that are “at most” Scripture (223). While the formal process of canonization of the New Testament was not finalized until the fourth century AD, he recognizes that the New Testament books were considered Scripture in the second. This discounts the popular nonsense that authorities in the church made arbitrary or worse, self-serving, decisions about what books were in and which ones were out. In the chapter on manuscripts, he greatly undersells the reliability of the Greek New Testament as we have it today, asserting that no appeal to the exact wording of the text is even possible.
Apart from the argument that any overarching theme of the Bible is necessarily superimposed, part four, which handles the history of biblical interpretation and translation, is on point. Barton’s comparison and contrast of Rabbinic and early church interpretation is enlightening. His tracing of the developments in biblical interpretation through the Middle Ages and Reformation is accurate and calls attention to all of the main players. He correctly identifies the Enlightenment as the true watershed in hermeneutics, when meaning was unhinged from truth, history divorced from faith. The concordat between criticism and religion that existed from the middle of the nineteenth century through the years after World War II is identified, as well as the increasing hostility between critical claims and religion in the last few decades, the exception to this development being, of course, the canonical approach and its offshoots, including the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.
In his conclusion, entitled, “The Bible and Faith,” Barton drives home his thesis. He claims that the Trinity, divinity of Christ, and even monotheism do not spring from the Bible alone. Basically, no reading of the Bible could predict what the church ended up believing or looking like. After identifying what he believes are three unexplainable paradoxes that result from alternatives to his conclusions, namely, the acceptance of the Old and New Testaments together, inspiration and human authorship, and the strained readings that stem from an authoritative text, he offers a metaphor for his position. The Bible and faith are like two concentric circles that overlap but are not coterminous. Confidently included in the contents of the overlap are “absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ, and the belief that ‘God was in Christ’” (488). Anything more than that is adiaphora.
Where to begin? Well, I would like to begin by stating two things about this book that I greatly appreciate. One is the incredible breadth of familiarity that Barton demonstrates with Christianity and Judaism as they exist today and have existed over the course of millennia, added to a command of the Bible and the history of its handling and interpretation. It is quite apparent that this book is the result of a long, thoughtful, and fruitful career. Two, Barton is up front about his own theological convictions. He is a theological liberal, bought into historical criticism with its conclusions, and, honorably, he owns that. The concerns I have come as a historian, theologian, and pastor.
While Barton does reference primary sources and their authors throughout the book, he does not cite them in such a way that they are the chief evidence for his argument. Take, for example, his chapter on Reformation interpretation. The endnotes display substantive interaction with the international secondary literature, but little primary source work, which, when it does appear, is not tied to first or best editions. On a separate historical note, as an Anglican, Barton finds inspiration for his treatment of the Bible from Richard Hooker’s 1594 treatise, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: we must take heed lest “in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed” (13, 489). Huh? As the title of the work hints, this treatise was written in the context of the sixteenth-century Puritan push for further Reformation in the polity and liturgy of the Church of England. Hooker may not have seen the Bible and faith as coterminous concentric circles, but the content of the overlap, “those things which indeed (Scripture) hath most abundantly,” included staggeringly more in his estimation than allegiance to Jesus as the self-expression of God. It included the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and, yes, the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration.
The theological problems, from a confessional Christian point of view, are many. I have already mentioned Barton’s denial of central orthodox tenants of the faith, or at the very least his relegation of them to marginalia. One more illustration of the bias of naturalistic presuppositions is his handling of the Old Testament prophets. Because true predictive prophecy is precluded, the major and minor prophetical books are hopelessly sliced to pieces with source critical knives. Of course Daniel was written in the second century BC, it is the only option if predictive prophecy is impossible. Plus, those who see prophecy fulfilled in the New Testament or the future necessarily read the text as cryptic in the absence of a category for legitimate typology.
To be fair, Barton is not hostile toward “Fundamentalism,” his designation which includes evangelicals who hold to inspiration. But he is dismissive. He raises questions that he considers unanswerable and then moves on without considering those answers that have been offered. Examples include his treatment of inspiration, of course, but also the Ten Commandments as impossible to understand as a universally binding moral code of ethics. On the very last page of his conclusion he challenges readers to ask whether what he has offered is plausible and fruitful. Plausible, yes. Fruitful? That question brings to mind a historical axiom, incontrovertibly proven over the last two-hundred years. That is, liberalism does not make converts, it steals them. No one will be drawn to the gospel by reading this book. Movement, if it happens, will be the other direction.
As a historian I cannot recommend this book as methodologically compelling. As a theologian I cannot recommend it as doctrinally sound. And, as a pastor, neither can I recommend it as safe. At one point, those who interpret the Bible with the church (aka as Holy Scripture) are charged with “inhabiting the world of Origen and Augustine, not that of the modern historical critic” (481). Indeed, and Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. Gladly!
Andrew S. Ballitch (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Westwood Alliance Church in Mansfield, Ohio.
Buy the books
A HISTORY OF THE BIBLE: THE STORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST INFLUENTIAL BOOK, by John Barton