Encountering God's Word: Beginning biblical studies, edited by Philip Duce and Daniel StrangeEvangelicals can face serious challenges when they are exposed to biblical studies in an academic context. This book, from 2003, is intended to prepare new students in theology to deal with the questions that their studies will raise.

Books by multiple authors tend to be mixed in quality, and this volume is no exception. Of its four chapters, only the first hits the nail on the head, in being both ideally suited to its intended audience, and also worth reading. (This chapter and the final chapter were freely available online on Theology Network, but this is sadly no longer the case. However, the final chapter is still available elsewhere online.)

Chapter 1, ‘Beginning to study the Old Testament’, is by Peter J Williams, who is now the Principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge. Dealing with questions of history (‘Did it happen?’), composition (‘Who wrote it?’), and ethics (‘Is it good?’), the consistent advice is to seek – patiently – to distinguish between data and interpretation. This is because many objections to an evangelical view of the Old Testament are derived from non-evangelical presuppositions, rather than from the actual data. Along the way, there is some helpful advice for students. For example, it should not be surprising if you find yourself emerging with more questions than answers. This is not necessarily because your view of the Bible is fundamentally flawed, but could simply be the result of a problem-based method of learning.

Chapter 2, ‘Beginning to study the New Testament’, is by Alistair I Wilson, who was (and is once again) lecturer in New Testament at Highland Theological College. Once again, there is an emphasis on presuppositions. However, there is less of a focus on the relevant issues.

Chapter 3, ‘Encountering biblical interpretation’, is by Antony Billington, who is Head of Theology at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and who for many years taught hermeneutics at London School of Theology (then London Bible College). This is a masterly and wide-ranging introduction to the interpretation of Scripture. The only weaknesses are (1) it is no longer so up-to-date, and (2) it is of little specific relevance to the book’s implied readers.

Chapter 4, ‘For the Bible tells me so? The roles of faith and evidence in believing the Bible’, is by David Gibson, who is now the minister at Trinity Church, Aberdeen, and who previously worked with UCCF, supporting theology students. His chapter is mercifully shorter than the others. Like the (few) other things I have read by people who like John Frame, it is dense, and somewhat lacking in relevance to real life. The basic point is that belief in the authority of the Bible is like belief that one is loved by one’s spouse. It is something you ‘just know’, not because the evidence forces you to that conclusion, but not independently of the evidence either. But what if the evidence is lacking? In the case of his wife’s love for him, the author concedes that ‘if there were no material evidence whatsoever, my belief in her love could be questioned’. Could the same not be said for one’s believe in the authority of the Bible? What if the evidence seems to point towards problems and contradictions, both internally, and with external evidence? What then? How should the student deal with this? That, it seems to me, is the real question. But it is precisely this question that is almost studiously avoided.