Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew
by Hans Boersma
IVP Academic, 180 pages, $20
From the opening declaration that “biblical interpretation is not a historical discipline,” it is clear that Hans Boersma is addressing scholars committed to viewing the Bible as Scripture. Many biblical scholars do not share this commitment, and many who do were not trained in graduate school to interpret the Bible theologically. In this slim volume, Boersma calls into question the division of labor between the normative task of the theologian and the descriptive task of the historian with a “single-minded emphasis on authorial intent.”
The five “lessons” Boersma would have his colleagues in biblical studies master are expressed in five pithy phrases: “No Christ, No Scripture,” “No Plato, No Scripture,” “No Providence, No Scripture,” “No Church, No Scripture,” and “No Heaven, No Scripture.” Each phrase serves as the title of a separate chapter, amply illustrated with examples from the Church Fathers. Historical approaches can prevent the anachronistic projection of contemporary sensibilities onto the Bible. At the same time, historians sometimes forget that the “historical-critical method”—along with the assumption that it comes with a veto over what a text can mean—itself emerged out of a specific, early modern historical context. Keeping Boersma’s principles in view will forestall the establishment of what might be called a parallel magisterium in the academy alongside the Church.
Evangelicals may balk at certain metaphysical categories and concepts employed by the author, an Anglican, while Catholics may pause at the claim that “the Bible is a sacrament,” even as they take for granted the notion that the biblical text has a sensus plenior. But Boersma’s warning that our hermeneutic risks treating Scripture “as an inert, lifeless object” or amounts to “the substitution of a book for God in Christ” will find a receptive audience in both camps.
The prayers of the Eastern Church are among the most beautiful in Christendom, transporting one to the very throne of God with each insistent repetition of the Trisagion. Yet Western Christians have, until recently, suffered from a lack of access to the bulk of Orthodox prayer life, with major texts remaining untranslated into English, or else haphazardly published in severely edited form. With the publication of The Anthologion, this situation has finally been remedied.
First, a word about the book and its contents. The black leather cover, adorned by a Byzantine cross, binds together nearly a thousand cream-colored pages with gold gilt edges. Herein, readers will find a detailed table of feasts, an introduction to Orthodox liturgy, every hour of the daily office as found in the Horologion, selections from the Lenten and Paschal offices, the Octoechos, a selection of topical prayers for various occasions, and short morning and evening prayers.
In the introduction, the editors state that their aim is to make possible a rich prayer life for Orthodox Christians beyond the Divine Liturgy, an aim all the more urgent as serv ices are suspended or limited by the pandemic. In this, the editors have certainly succeeded, giving English-speaking Orthodox something comparable to the breviary. This reader, a Roman Catholic, found that his own life was deeply enriched by the direct, simple language of these prayers, which recall the blunt force of Cranmer’s English: “Look down with mercy on the soil of our heart, which is dried up with countless sins, overgrown with the thorns of hatred and self-love.” A treasure intended for the monolingual Orthodox, this prayer book just as well merits the attention of Westerners. May these prayers be said both now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
—Hunter V. McClure
The Popes Against the Protestants:
The Vatican and Evangelical Christianity in Fascist Italy
by Kevin Madigan
Yale university, 368 pages, $35
If you stumbled across a description of Kevin Madigan’s book in a catalogue or an overview of forthcoming books, or even if—blessed to live near a bookstore with a generous selection of university press titles in which to browse—you pulled it from the shelf and glanced at it quickly, you’d be likely to form a false impression of The Popes Against the Protestants. However impressive Madigan’s scholarship, you might think, this is a book of potential interest only to a very small cadre of readers. You’d be wrong on two counts.
First, the story he tells should be of interest to any Christian who has meditated on the divisions between different bodies of the faithful—Catholic and Protestant, yes, but also Orthodox, not to mention innumerable smaller factions, including intra-Catholic divisions, the endlessly ramifying branches of “Protestantism” with their own squabbles, and so on. What Madigan gives us is a case study in which neither the zealous Protestant missionaries (including Italians who had emigrated to the United States and converted there) nor their powerful Catholic adversaries in Italy (beside themselves with the threat of a Protestant “invasion”) come off very well.
Second, this meticulously researched chronicle, dealing with a much-studied slice of the twentieth century—the heyday of Mussolini and Italian fascism—from a very unfamiliar angle, is fascinating simply as a narrative, loaded with surprise and incongruity. I hope some enterprising novelist (adept with stories of espionage, knowledgeable about Catholics and Protestants alike, and possessing a strong sense of irony) will be inspired to recount some of this history in fiction.
The Heart of Being Human
by Victor Lee Austin
Baker, 192 pages, $22
A self-described “missionary into friendship,” Victor Lee Austin embarks on his mission by depicting friendship as the highest relational good—even over marriage, as the apex of being human, and as central to the nature of heaven.
Austin draws upon an array of sources to demonstrate how those within and outside Christian traditions and across the centuries have wrestled with the phenomenon of friendship. He invokes Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Aelred of Rievaulx, Plato, Socrates, Cicero, and even Twain, Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, and lesser-known writers to clarify the nature of human friendship. He grapples with hypothetical implications and possibilities for friendship between humans and clones, nonhuman creatures, and mechanical entities (AI). Each writer or scenario raises crucial questions about friendship and makes a partial, anticipatory contribution to the profile of friendship that culminates in the composite biblical narrative with Abraham, Job and friends, Jesus and the Twelve, and with God as the pinnacle of friendship.
Anthropologically, for Austin, “When God stated it was not good for the original human to be alone, God was stating that human flourishing is found in friendship.” Soteriologically, “He is ‘at-one,’ and his offer of atonement (‘at-one-ment’) is an offer of friendship.” From the most central theological standpoint, human friendship is grounded in God’s intra-trinitarian friendship. Having addressed practical and perplexing dimensions of friendship such as quantitative capacity for friendship, sexuality, and celibacy, Austin fittingly closes the loop with autobiographical examples and suggestions for cultivating friendship on both horizontal and vertical planes. Friendship is an unquestionably worthwhile read for all thoughtful audiences. Informed by solid scholarship without being tediously academic, Austin leads us on an accessible, thoughtful, inviting, provocative, and genuinely friendly journey.
—Don J. Payne