- Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation by Stephen Westerholm, Martin Westerholm
Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, the Pietists (Spener, Francke, Bengel, and Wesley), Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer, each are investigated by the Westerholms for the manner in which they read Christian Scripture. Stephen Westerholm had wanted to consider ten scholars but agreed with a colleague that he had to include Barth. Martin, Stephen’s son, wrote the chapter on Barth and agreed to do a chapter on Schleiermacher as well. One might object to the list of writers, but the Westerholms were not interested in writing at length.
This insightful and respectful survey is very helpful as an introduction to each theologian as an interpreter of the Bible. If one wishes to spend a few profitable hours with some of the finest Christian interpreters of Scripture, this book will prove rewarding. It is an excellent introduction for seminarians and informed lay persons and properly places the emphasis not upon mere scholarship, but discipleship. [End Page 450]
Before launching into his survey, Stephen Westerholm prepares the ground with a chapter on the “Voice of Scripture” that covers how the Pauline letters, Gospels, and the Old Testament intend to be read.
At the beginning of this chapter, reflection on the dictum that the Bible should be read “like any other book” prompted the observation that different books call for different kinds of reading; this in turn leads to the realization that the writings of the New Testament and the Old are characterized by an implicit claim to convey the call of God to their readers, whose absolute duty it is to respond with obedient faith.(27)
Westerholm’s thesis contends that reading the Bible as any other book would be to violate the very purpose for which the Bible was constructed. “The focus of this present study, however, is on how the Christian Bible has been read and understood by influential interpreters sympathetic to its implicit claim to represent and convey the word of God” (28).
The second chapter deals with how the New Testament came to be and how the Old Testament was regarded by the early Church. The survey of scholars begins in chapter three with Irenaeus. He was among the first to wrestle with how Scripture ought to be regarded, in contrast to the heretics of his day. Each subsequent chapter begins with an introduction to and a short biography of the figure under consideration and includes a critical assessment of each writer’s method and manner of reading Scripture. Neither Westerholm is in thrall to any particular interpreter. They can be critical of each, pointing out their shortcomings and mistakes. For example, Augustine is criticized for his lack of learning and his penchant for Christological readings of the Old Testament. Schleiermacher is upbraided for his neglect of the Hebrew Scriptures altogether.
Martin Luther is examined in a long chapter and mentioned throughout the book. Key topics are Luther’s regard for Scripture as the Word of God, as the basis of faith, and as clear and true. Attention is also given to his historical sense of Scripture, his appreciation of law and gospel, and his views on the place of experience in interpretation.
The book seeks to demonstrate how each interpreter was not merely a student of Scripture, but a disciple; a person upon whom [End Page 451] Scripture had a claim. If Scripture has no claim on the scholar or if the scholar resists that claim then it is a dead letter, the intent of which has been wasted.
The final chapter, “Beyond the Sacred Page,” reiterates the main theme that “no interest in the Bible as such should be allowed to replace the humble, engaged reading that is attentive to God’s voice” (426).