Confidence in understanding God's word
At first glance, this book might seem to have little to offer most Christians today. Useful perhaps for those studying the specialist subject of Biblical hermeneutics (how we interpret the bible) but pretty irrelevant to the non-specialist in the pew. But that would be a mistake. One of the most common comments in conversations with non-Christians and even with some who process faith, is that ‘the bible can be made to say anything’. Or ‘The Bible has been interpreted in so many different ways, who knows what it really teaches?’
Sometimes, church denominations can give credence to this view, as the reaction to the House of Bishops response recently to civil partnerships being opened up to heterosexual couples showed. That led to an apology by the Church of England archbishops which left no one satisfied. Many were left wondering that if it is possible to develop opposing views within the same church on such an important matter as marriage, can Holy Scripture say anything clearly to us today?
Sargent asks four basic questions, the answers to which form the structure of his book. Do texts mean anything? Do texts mean a single thing? Does the text’s author matter? Weren’t things so different in those [biblical] days?
His underlying argument is that if we believe in ‘polysemy’ (multiple meanings of the text) rather than ‘determinacy’ (a single meaning) we rob the Scriptures of their power to speak to us. One comment grabbed me: ‘If polysemy is assumed by a congregation, preaching is perceived as an interpretation’. How true! We can think ‘that is just the preachers view’ and so we end up with the current mess the Church of England, and post-Christendom western Christianity generally, is in.
Whilst reading As It Is Written, I realised that Sargent’s argument is very important to avoid being sucked into a vertiginous morass of reader-response approaches to the biblical text. If the reader individually decides how scripture is interpreted (ironically a Catholic criticism of the effects of the Reformation) we can end up living out the old adage ‘a text out of context is a pretext for just about anything’. We can abandon the plain meaning of scripture, indulge in mental gymnastics with the text to support our pet subjects, cover our favoured sins and ignore Jesus’ challenging commands (and those of the rest of scripture). Reader response in biblical hermeneutics dethrones the heavenly author and makes the human creature the creator of her own religion.
Sargent has done all the background reading, into both philosophical and literary theory on hermeneutics, as well as Christian writing on the subject, and distils his knowledge well, with footnotes giving all the further reading necessary. One of the riches of this book is that Sargent’s arguments are all developed by looking at the earliest known Christian hermeneutics; how the NT uses and interprets OT scripture. Finally, just as I was trying to be as critical of the book as possible and wrote in the margin - ‘I want to hear more of God as the divine author of the text - when talking of authorial intent’ Sargent finishes off the last chapter with a whole section on that divine authorship.
As It Is Written, is a particularly vital book for anyone who works with the bible text and wants to be ‘a workman who does not need to be ashamed and correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Ti 2.15). Bible preachers, Sunday school teachers, bible study leaders, lay readers and those who disciple others would all benefit hugely from having more confidence that we can understand God’s word as it was written and therefore apply it with boldness to our contexts today. In this Benjamin Sargent has done us a big favour to help us ‘preach the word & be prepared in and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction’ (2 Ti 4.2).