Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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:

  1. 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).
  2. The primacy of Peter and the Papacy (“Upon this rock I will build my church.” Matt. 16:18.)
  3. 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)
  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.)
  5. 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.)
  6. 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)
  7. 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)
  8. 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.)

May 14, 2007 - Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, church history


  1. For sure I’d be interested in reading about Romans 2… I read somewhere that Paul’s little jab at women who traded in the natural for unnatural was interpreted by some Church fathers as referring to reverse role-playing in idol worship (women with strap-ons penetrating men… you get the idea)… which may (or may not) have implications for how the text is used in debates over homosexuality…
    I’d also want to read about vegetarianism in light of the Genesis Creation stories (where God gives fruits and veggies to Adam and Eve for food) or Isaiah 11 (the great vision of God’s (vegetarian) Reign).

    The book sounds fascinating. 🙂

    Comment by Daniel | May 14, 2007

  2. Thanks for the review. Looks very interesting. Adding it to my reading list. Oh, so many books….

    Comment by Chris Huff | May 15, 2007

  3. I think it’s really important to view how certain texts have been interpreted throughout history. But, I think the goal in doing this should be to examine how we have allowed the reigning culture to shape our understanding of the text, rather than us letting the text shape how we view the reigning culture. The real effort in Biblical interpretation should be to get back to the culture at the time the passage was inspired. In this way we can understand how the original audience understood the particular passage – what the Holy Spirit was saying to them. Once we have properly understood this, then we can better understand how the text should apply to us today. We need to remember that the Holy Spirit inspired the text once and there there is only one proper interpretation to the text – the original intent of the Holy Spirit to the original audience. After all, a text can never mean what it never originally meant. The Holy Spirit (the Godhead, for that matter) does not change, thus we can be sure that the Word that God has inspired doesn’t change either. Because of that, getting back to the original meaning of the text is essential in properly applying it to our culture.

    Also, (briefly) to Daniel – I think you have misled in your reading. The Church Fathers were clear and unanimous in how they viewed Romans 1:24-27. It is evident that they understood this even as the Jews and Greeks did (see Babylonian Talmud and Plato’s Symposium), which was that the exchange of natural functions by women and men was homosexuality, not merely some strange sexual perversion. For actual quotes by the Church Fathers (as well as a case for the traditional view of interpretation of Romans 1, you can go here – Homosexuality and The Apostle Paul: A Study on Romans 1:26-27 (Church Father quotes can be found in the comments section).

    Comment by D.R. Randle | May 15, 2007

  4. Again Michael,

    You find ways to discount my views without actually dealing with my arguments. The “Pope Benedict” comment is yet another example of an ad hominem and a red herring. First, I did look at Daniel’s blog and yet I still felt I should leave my comment (so maybe it was you who jumped to judgment there). Second, my comment about the original intent of the author and inspiration of the Holy Spirit was in reaction to your statement, “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.” I was pointing out that I find historical theology to be secondary to Biblical theology and hermeneutics. Third, whether my view is modernist doesn’t discredit it. It seems to be the position of the Early Church Fathers as well as the Reformers. I’ll take that over some johnny-come-lately philosophical garbage like postmodernism which essentially denies logic like the Law of Non-Contradiction. Finally, I am glad you brought up a Catholic perspective by comparing me to Pope Benedict. I can say that to the extent that Pope Benedict speaks correctly about Scripture as inspired by the Holy Spirit I agree with him. But obviously I certainly disagree with his view of the elevation of Tradition to Scripture. That is why it is absolutely necessary for us to seek to understand how the original hearers understood the text – so that we do not confuse our cultural readings with the culture of the first Christians, thus causing us to adopt traditions that do not conform to the Holy Spirit’s original intent. Thanks for helping me to make my point on that one.

    One more thing – why do you always feel it is appropriate to take pot shots at me, as if that fosters discussion? For someone who seems to pride himself about an open mind, you seem very closed off and hostile to my point of view.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | May 15, 2007

  5. Michael,

    What happened to your comment to me? Did it get deleted accidentally or did you remove it? Also, I noticed that you added some clarification to your question. If you did so because of my comments, then let me address a possible misunderstanding. I believe that historical theology is deeply important, so I didn’t write what I did to suggest that King wasted his time or should have written a different book (as I said above they were written in response to your statement which I quoted). In fact, I think James Leo Garrett’s 2 Volume Systematic Theology is an invaluable resource because of this. And in light of this let me put forth a few texts the historical interpretations of which would be good to examine – Matt. 24:30-31, Mark 7:27-29, John 6:35-40, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 3:18-20, 2 Peter 2:1, Revelation 3:15-16, and Rev. 22:18-19.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | May 16, 2007

  6. I removed my own comment because, on reflection, it didn’t seem helpful. I didn’t do it soon enough, however, to prevent you from continuing to rant.

    The author’s name is Kling, not King. I am surprised that you appreciate Garrett’s work since he was so opposed to the “conservative resurgence” precisely because he believed they/you distort evangelical Baptist identity.

    You don’t say why these texts would be good to examine and in connection with what movements?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 16, 2007

  7. […] denominations and traditions in the Church through the centuries.  I reviewed that wonderful book here.  One of the many strengths of Richard B. Hays’ excellent work on New Testament ethics, The […]

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