Book Review: The Bible in History
David W. Kling, The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times (Oxford University Press, 2004).
As acknowledged in the preface, I was consulted for bibliographic input for one of the chapters of this book several years back. I have only just now finished reading the final result so that I can review it. David W. Kling, an evangelical Presbyterian with a Ph.D. in American Religious History from the University of Chicago, teaches on the religious studies faculty of the University of Miami, FL. He has given us a very rare book here, but one that I hope creates several emulators.
Books on the inspiration and authority of Scripture are legion. So are books on the nature of the canon, books on hermeneutical theory, etc. What is rare are book-length treatments about how particular biblical texts have been interpreted and shaped particular movements in Christian history. (One of the few examples to come to mind is Willard Swartley’s Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation [Herald Press, 1983].) Kling proceeds to look at eight (8) influential movements (and/or debates) in Christian history through the lens of eight (8) separate texts of Scripture that played pivotal roles in those movements. The cases chosen for examination are:
- St. Anthony and the rise of monasticism (“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.” Matt. 19:22).
- The primacy of Peter and the Papacy (“Upon this rock I will build my church.” Matt. 16:18.)
- Bernard of Clairvaux, Medieval mysticism and the Song of Songs (“Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth.” Song of Songs 1:2-4)
- Martin Luther and the Reformation focus on justification (“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.'” Rom. 1:16-17.)
- Anabaptists and Christian Pacifism (“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'” Matt. 5:44b) (Yes, this is the chapter I was consulted on in David’s early research stages, but the results are still his and I was seeing them for the first time. I also gave a few bibliographic suggestions for chaps. 6 & 8.)
- Exodus in the African-American Experience (“Go to Pharoah and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go that they may worship me!'” Ex. 8:1)
- The roots of Pentecostalism (“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.” Acts 2:4)
- 19th C. and contemporary debates over women’s ministry and ordination (“There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 3:28)
Obviously many other texts and movements or controversies could have been chosen, but this is quite a selection. For each chapter, Kling examines contemporary biblical scholarship on the passages–which sometimes supports and sometimes opposes the way the passage was interpreted in the selected movement, the influence of other passages on the movement, other intellectual and cultural factors (e.g., ascetic impulses throughout the Greco-Roman world at the time of the rise of monasticism), the overall approach of the movement to the whole of Scripture, and the reactions of other movements (even counter movements) to the selected movement. In this way, we get insights into how a passage functioned in a particular historical period as well as how it has continued to impact the church since then.
Works like this are invaluable. Scholars can debate theories of biblical authority or hermeneutics all they wish, but they need to be in dialogue with studies that show how Scripture has actually functioned at different periods of church life. Just as the late Jaroslav Pelikan gave us a work of overwhelming importance in examining the differing christologies of church history (in Jesus Through the Centuries), so Kling has furthered our understanding of the roles that Scripture (especially particular texts of Scripture) have played throughout church history. I recommend this book highly.
Question: If you were contemplating writing a sequel, what movements and/or texts would you want to feature? (Notice that I am NOT asking what you would write, instead, such a book about the historical background of the texts in their original setting, etc. which are plentiful and helpful. I am not asking what you think Kling should have written instead of this book–especially if you haven’t yet read it.)
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