This book came to my attention when I heard that it was recommended as pre-reading material for new students at Oak Hill College. So I was glad to stumble across a copy for sale recently at Keswick. It’s a short book, from 2015, by two Oak Hill stalwarts: Daniel Strange and (the late) Michael Ovey.
The first half has in mind the non-Christian enquirer. There are likely to be two obstacles to them hearing the message of the Bible: ignorance and implausibility. Ignorance is a simple problem, so the focus is on the question of whether it is plausible to receive the Bible as revelation from God. Four matters are considered:
- Is the idea of revelation reasonable? Yes, because reality seems to be fundamentally personal rather than impersonal, and hence it makes sense to believe in a personal God, and such a God might well want to communicate with us.
- Is the Bible relevant today? Yes, because a book from an ancient and unfamiliar culture can still speak to our own culture, and can do so in a refreshing way.
- Isn’t the Bible too much of a mess? On the contrary, it’s perfectly suited to our messy lives!
- What has the Bible ever done for us? Much in every way!
The second half speaks more directly to the Christian reader, and invites him or her to consider the central question: how much authority does the Bible have? Is it one authority among many, or is it the supreme authority? This is answered by considering the example of Jesus:
- We should give the Bible as much authority as Jesus gave it.
- Jesus treated the Bible as ‘the word of God’, and hence as superior to ‘merely human rules’ (Mk 7:7, 13).
- As the word of God, the Bible is accurate, good and effective (in contrast to merely human words).
- We should therefore treat the Bible as Jesus did: it is ‘necessary, to be obeyed, to be utterly trusted, is coherent around him in particular, and must be interpreted rightly’ (p. 127-8).
In many ways the book is a helpful introduction to the topic, and a welcome exhortation to have confidence in the Bible. But there are various weaknesses.
First, despite the (overly) careful reasoning, there are gaping holes in the argument as it stands. Essentially, the case put forward is that we should trust the whole Bible because the Bible claims that Jesus regarded the Old Testament as the word of God. But how do we know that the Bible is reliable about Jesus? And why does Jesus’ attitude to the Old Testament tell us anything about how we should treat the New Testament? I’m not saying these questions can’t be answered, but it is a pity they are not even raised. Nonetheless, I do think the argument is very powerful: it seems abundantly clear that Jesus treated the Old Testament as supremely authoritative, and how can his followers do otherwise?
Second, the scope of the Bible’s authority is quite severely restricted, with no real justification. The Bible reveals to us ‘what God is like, and what his will is for our lives’ (p. 79), but apparently it needn’t be treated as supremely authoritative on any other topic. But why not?
Third, a stylistic issue: the first half of the book is so full of contemporary cultural references that it already seems very dated only two years after publication.
Probably the best bits of the book, however, are the ‘Going deeper’ sections, of which there are four:
- There is a helpful discussion about trajectories. Not all trajectories are bad. When we apply the Bible to our own lives, we are invariably following a trajectory, by discerning the principles contained within the Bible, and asking what that means for us today. However, if we find ourselves following a trajectory from one part of the Bible that leads to a conflict with another part, we can tell that we’ve made a wrong turn.
- There is a section on dual authorship: the idea that ‘both God and an ordinary human being are involved in any part of the Bible’ (p. 103). Is this a partnership of equals? No: just as in many human texts with more than one author, there is a ‘senior partner’ in the Bible. ‘Jesus is clear that the divine side trumps any alternative claim to authority’ (p. 105).
- My favourite part of the book was the section on the hermeneutics of suspicion (which I tend to understand as, ‘Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?’). This is often applied to the Bible itself. But this assumes the Bible is merely a human text. Instead, the hermeneutics of suspicion should be applied to us as the merely human readers of the text. When we read the Bible we need to be suspicious of ourselves. So, in Eden, the serpent applied the hermeneutics of suspicion to God, by suggesting that God would say that (wouldn’t he?), because he is malicious. But Adam and Eve should have applied the hermeneutics of suspicion to the serpent and to themselves. They should have asked ‘whether they want to accept what the serpent says because they have been led into pride and envy by having the prospect of “being like God” dangled before their eyes. They should be suspicious both of the serpent as a speaker and also of themselves as hearers’ (p. 126).
- Finally, there is a section on further reading. The most substantial books recommended are John Frame, Doctrine of the Word of God; Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; and James Hoffmaier and Dennis Magary (editors), Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?