Monday, December 08, 2008

Book Review: Dale B. Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible

Dale B. Martin
Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal
Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2008.
Available at Amazon.com in the USA
Available at Albans Books in the UK

Every academic dean, principal, provost, president, head of department, lecturer in biblical, or anyone interested in the role of the Bible in theological education should read this book by Dale B. Martin (Yale University). Regardless of what end of the theological spectrum one comes from, this is a genuinely interesting and thought-provoking book about how to educate people about the Bible and how to educate people with the Bible. The book is structured in five chapters: 1. The Bible in Theological Education, 2. Readers and Texts, 3. Premodern Biblical Interpretation, 4. Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and 5. Curricular Dreams.

Martin interviewed persons from 14 theological schools (Candler School of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary, Chicago Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Interdenominational Theological Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Moravian Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, and the University of Chicago Divinity School). He makes six conclusions about the state of biblical teaching in the USA (but I know from experience that it certainly applies elsewhere):

1. Historical criticism of one type or another is the dominant foundational method taught to theological students (esp. in conservative schools!).
2. Most students are not being taught to think critically about textuality and intepretation in general.
3. Students are not being taught theological hermeneutics sufficiently, meaning that they are less likely to function as well-equipped guides for teaching responsible and creative theological interpretation of the Bible in their own religious communities.
4. Students entering seminary/collges lack Bible knowledge and the ability to think theologically.
5. Students are not being helped enough to integrate the different disciplines learned in a typical ministerial education, i.e. too much compartmentalization.
6. The modern theological school is not doing enough to help train church leaders to interpret the Bible in creative, imaginative, and theologically sophisticated ways.

I won't review or survey the contents here, but I will note a few highlights I found in the book. First, Martin is very big on "integration", that is, bringing together the sub-disciplines of Bible, Theology, and Ministry (or other names). I've heard D.A. Carson say that he would, ideally, like to see a course on Genesis taught by an OT professor, a geologist, and a scientist (or something like that combination). Personally, I would like to see a course on OT use of the NT and/or Biblical Theology co-taught by two OT and NT professors working together. Theological Interpretation could be taught by a triumvirate of an OT professor, Patristic Scholar, and Systematic Theologian. Sadly, it is usually time-tables, hectic teaching and admin demands, plus budget contraints that prevent this kind of interdisciplinary activity from taking place (although I wonder if lavishly rich seminaries like Princeton and Harvard could afford to do it?). Second, while Martin is acutely aware of the value and need for historical-criticism, he is acutely aware also of its limitations and he decries its hegemony in biblical studies education. (Those familiar with Martin's work know of his use of postmodern hermeneutics and reading stragegies esp. in his Sex and the Single Saviour). He offers a few objections against historical-criticism: (1) historiography can neither confirm nor deny the reality of the incarnation; Christians do not need the confirmation of historiography in order to believe in or makes sense of the incarnation; (2) While Christian theologians have recognized the literary meaning of scripture to be primary, they have also recognized that typological or allegorical readings of scripture also have their place; (3) Historical-Criticism, esp. it's post-19th century influence, is a relatively recent innovation and we should try read scripture in closer methological promixity to how it was read before the nineteenth century. (4) Martin includes a joke about Yale Theologians in the 1980s: they didn't actually do theology, they just sat around talking about what theology would look like if one were to do theology (I put that joke in for Ben Myers)! (5) On rejecting the modernist approach to the Bible: "The idea that the instability of the Greek wording of the New Testament throws up an insurmountable obstacle to faith in the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation is the product of a particular modern view of books and textuality" (p. 79). (6) I like the remark of Margaret Mitchell (Chicago Div School) who said that she feared the ideal of the learned clergy is gradually being replaced by the idea of the therapeutic clergy, oh yeah, I know that feeling (p. 94). (7) His own strategy is: (a) teach historical criticism, but as one way among other ways of reading; (b) Retain the expertise of different disciplinary scholarship and scholars, but integrate the disciplines together; (c) Teach theology of Scripture before teaching different methods of interpreting Scripture; (d) Teach theology first by teaching theological thinking and interpretation; (e) Early in the educational process, introduce theories of interpretation, literary theory, and philosophies of interpretation and textuality; (f) Include and integrate aristic, literary, and musical interpretations of Scripture; and (g) Introduce practical disciplines along the way, perhaps concentrating on them towards the end.

Interesting stuff and this gives everyone something to digest and think about. I don't want to offer too many critical thoughts, but just a few areas that I'm more cautious on. First, I think deliberate canonical, theological, and even ecclesial readings of Scripture have their place and they have not really been given that place in the classroom. Yet let's not forget that one of the triumphs of the Reformation was the preference for the story of the text over and against allegorical readings that use the text, and I'm not prepared to give up that victory in order to stand a bit closer to Aquinas and the Bede, and for good reason if we remember why the Reformation began. Second, I have real big reservations about teaching a theology of Scripture prior to teaching about Scripture. I say that because, in the more conservative circles in which I move, certain theologians are given to constructing a doctrine of Scripture that contains many a priori assumptions about how they think God should have given us Scripture, and then you end up with a doctrine of Scripture that will not survive contact with the phenomenon of the text (i.e its origin, transmission, reception, and interpretation). Or else, it is demanded of us biblical scholars that we re-write or even invent a history of the text to line up with theological articulation of what Scripture is, how it came into being, and how it relates to its own context by some theological magisterium. Third, meaning is arguably created by fusing together the horizons of author-text-reader which justifies a modest reader-response hermeneutic in my mind, but anyone thinking of embracing in it total should read Kevin Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in this Text? Thus, I'm less optomistic than Martin about the virtues of reader-centred approaches.

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