What Christians Believe About the Bible – by Don Thorsen and Keith Reeves (Review)

It is sometimes pointed out that, while the Apostles’ Creed is obviously based on Holy Scripture, it makes no statement about Holy Scripture. So, what are Christians supposed to believe about the Bible? And how does “what they believe” direct and effect their study of Scripture?

These are questions that are at the heart of Don Thorsen and Keith Reeves’ new book What Christians Believe about the Bible (Baker, 2012). Their concern in the book is not so much to settle the matter once and for all on inspiration and authority, but rather to think through the broader philosophical and hermeneutical questions for those committed to Christian belief.

The ten short chapters of the book are divided into four sections: Introduction (chs 1-2), Interpretation of the Bible (chs. 3-5), Theology of the Bible (chs. 6-9), and Conclusion (ch. 10). In the first two chapters, the authors provide a quick discussion of the broader concerns of the book as well as a brief history of the formation and reception of the Bible (all done in less than 4o pages!). Chapters 3-5 give succinct and basic guidance for how a text should be interpreted in historical and literary context, as well as with the textual genre in view. Nothing in these chapters was especially new. In fact, I am not sure they were necessary at all in this book, but they do no harm, so I have no serious complaints.

The “meat” of the book is found in chapters 6-9 which address religious authority, inspiration, the broader question of “truth,” and views on the trustworthiness of Scripture (with Thorsen as the primary author of this section). Thorsen’s purpose is not to pave a new path, but to summarize and analyze the various Christian approaches to these subjects, and he does this very capably.

I found particularly helpful his taxonomy of views on inspiration: Dictation, Verbal/Plenary, Dynamic/Concursive/Sacramental, Partial/Limited, Dialectic, and Human [only]. Thorsen’s description of these groups are extremely insightful and he offers sample representatives for most of them. My only quibble would be that he seems to (consciously?) avoid categorizing some of the modern Biblical scholars who have written extensively on these matters, namely Greg Beale, Peter Enns, and Kent Sparks. Perhaps they are hard to put in one category, though so is Barth and Thorsen does give him his own category (dialectic). Also, people like Bonhoeffer would seem to fit multiple categories, so maybe they are not exclusive?

Not only is Thorsen’s discussion of inspiration helpful, but he also outlines various approaches to “truth” by Biblical interpreters. This is very useful, because often one group will accuse another of discarding the pursuit of truth. However, various people may pursue truth, but their disagreement is about what “truth” looks like and how it works. So, again, Thorsen offers a set of categories on “theories of truth”: correspondence, coherence, pragmatic, constructive, and “other.” I had never thought in this way, so I think readers like me would greatly benefit from this philosophical discussion.

One of the best insights of the book comes in the last couple of pages:

Even if readers think that they understand conceptually the various views and their implications, they still may not be sure of what they believe about the Bible’s trustworthiness. In such instances, we sometimes encourage people to ask of themselves not what they believe in theory but how they practice. What does their practice or use of the Bible tell people about what they really believe? (pg. 180).

One lingering concern I had with this book, despite its many attractive features, is that I think students might still need a bit more direction. I commend the authors for wanting to be objective and not set up any straw men or misrepresent any views. However, because this is such a convoluted subject, it may have been profitable to have a postscript or appendix that offers the views of each of the authors. I am certainly curious!

So, what can we say about this book? I felt that this is a timely book, well-written and I appreciate the authors are not driven by dogmatic “my-way-or-the-highway” motives. The chapters on the theology of the Bible, in my opinion, are the most helpful and illuminating. I am not sure I would use this as a textbook, but I will certainly borrow the very handy categories that Thorsen uses for discussing inspiration and truth.

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