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Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew

I purchased this volume and its companion, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew, looking for a lively interaction between biblical scholars and theologians, which would expose holes in each approach leading to a better comprehension of God’s truth. Unfortunately, such was not the case. The publishers chose not an evangelical theologian to represent theologians but a Catholic/Anglican mystic who thoroughly embraces the historical-critical method as well as higher criticism. Scot McKnight, who wrote the second book in this short series, captured the essence of Boersma’s thesis in his foreword:

In the last two decades or so something has arisen that is call the theological interpretation of scripture, that reading the Bible isn’t simply about authorial intention… Boersma’s theology is at work in advocating for a kind of theological, christological reading of Scripture in a sacramental sense (p. xi) (emphasis his).

Boersma structured his book around five themes, each given its own chapter: no Christ, no Scripture, no Plato, no Scripture, no providence, no Scripture, no church, no Scripture, no heaven, no Scripture. The author believes the task of theology is mystagogical, meaning that the aim of theology is not to unearth truth but to “attend to Scripture as a sacramental means of entering into the mystery of God” (p. 6). “It is through intuition rather than induction that the soul has immediate communion with God,” Boersma claims (p. 7). Historical exegesis plays a subservient and secondary role to the sacramental function that Scripture has (p. 80). By that statement he means contemplation, or the love of God, is the goal of Bible reading (pp. 111-113, 134). “Only if we have been to heaven do we know how to live on earth” (p. 114). Augustine is quoted in support as stating “that someone who is truly loving no longer needs the Scriptures… except to instruct others” (p. 129).

Hermeneutics is foundational to Boersma’s theology. He consistently belittles and criticizes grammatic-historical hermeneutics, the search of authorial intent, and sola scriptura (pp. 8, 9, 21, 38, 93, 100, 111, 130, 137), replacing them with the sacramental hermeneutic of the patristics and Catholicism (pp. 7-9). This means that Scripture is to be…interpreted…allegorically (pp. 29-37, 76-77, 92, 96-97), and christocentrically, since “Christ is present on every page” (p. 13). Boersma uses the early church fathers to support his views and recommends The Ancient Christian Commentary series, which demonstrates the patristics allegorical interpretive methodology (p. 92). In order to rightly comprehend Scripture the three-legged interpretive stool composed of Scripture, tradition, and the church is necessary (p. 94).

To come to the conclusions Boersma draws, a Christian Platonist metaphysics is required (p. 11), thus no Plato, no Scripture (chapter two). This is surely the most shocking statement in the book, but the author goes to great extent to attempt to prove his point (and, in my opinion, failed miserably). Boersma contention is that the early church read Scripture through the metaphysical lens of Platonism; therefore without Plato and his metaphysic we could not retain the teaching or Scripture (p. 39). We need metaphysical scaffolding (pps. 51, 61, 63).

Closer to evangelical debates, Boersma leans on the “rule of faith,” the Creeds and ecumenical councils for authority, even trumping Scripture (pp. 18-108). He writes, “A Sola Scriptura approach that rejects credal guidelines as authoritative for interpretation” goes astray (p. 19), and, “over time [the] councils attain authority” (p. 95). The issue of creedal (and council) authority is alive and active in conservative theological scholarship today, and participants would do well to observe where creedal authority ultimately lands, as per Boersma’s example.

The author recommends what he calls a canonical reading of Scripture as an antidote to scholarly individualism (pp. 98-99). Canonical reading is post-liberal, does not seek authorial intent (p. 100), and makes copious use of Christocentric and allegorical hermeneutics. Such reading seeks to uncover universal moral lessons more than the meaning of the narrative itself (p. 98).

Boersma states his aim in the introduction, “My aim is simply to offer a reminder of the theological focus of biblical exegesis. The unfortunate divide between biblical and doctrinal theology will disappear, I am convinced, wherever Christ is the theological starting point, center, and goal of our biblical engagement” (p. 12).

If this was his aim he completely failed, as the divide between biblical and doctrinal theology becomes a chasm if one follows his approach.

by Hans Boersma (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2021) 152 pp + xx, paper, $14.69

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel