- Sian Brookes
Interpreting the Bible
A review of Ben Sargent's book 'As it is Written: Interpreting the Bible with Boldness'.
Ben Sargent’s book, As it is Written, manages to distil one of the most complex and contested areas in Christian tradition into an accessible and coherent argument for the importance of allowing Scripture to speak for itself in the task of interpretation. Sargent sets the scene well by convincing his reader of the importance of the issue – this isn’t just a debate that matters for those looking to use Scripture to legitimate or prohibit certain lifestyle choices; in fact to argue for a proper way of interpreting Scripture is fundamental for upholding the value of the Bible as the place we go to find truth, where we go to inspire and inform our sermons, our Christian thinking, and our central questions of faith. At the outset, Sargent also makes clear that this isn’t another practical book to help preachers think about how to preach, instead it is a theological underpinning for the way the evangelical tradition approaches Scripture and how to read it. It is therefore important for those who preach to consider why they do so in a specific way. This aim is a valuable one – in a world where preaching and deeper academic thought are unfortunately too often divorced, this book offers a way of drawing the two together, and in a manner that preachers who may be less steeped in the academic world can easily access.
As we delve into the detail of the book’s main content, Sargent manages to cover a large amount of ground in a succinct and clear manner. Challenging the value of a secular method - historical criticism - for its assumption that Scripture should be interpreted through a technique which gives no reference to God or Christian insight, Sargent reveals this common approach to Scripture as inadequate, also correctly showing how historical criticism will never be as subjective as it perhaps claims. Instead, Sargent’s approach in this book is to show how Scripture itself can show us how to interpret Scripture. By using the various techniques used by the New Testament writers of interpreting Old Testament passages as a guide, we are given a number of helpful pointers as to how the NT writers (and therefore how we today) can come to an understanding of what the Bible is saying. Although a well-tried method, he explains this approach well as a way of developing a basis for how Scripture can be read. Sargent goes on to use this approach to show how the NT can inform our approach to contextualisation, the reader’s role in interpretation, the role of author’s intent, along with discussions around determinacy (that Scripture holds a single meaning outside of human interpretation), and the relevance of Scripture today given its age and different culture to which it originally spoke to. Throughout, Sargent is clear that the Bible is not just any form of communication but is a unique genre of writing that is addressed uniquely to God’s people – both today and thousands of years ago. Authorial intent matters, but it is yesterday, today and tomorrow the Word of God with its own inherent truth, never to be owned or bent to human will.
This book has many strengths. Yet there are two areas where perhaps the argument could be improved. Firstly, at various points, Sargent refers to the power of Scripture to act upon the reader in a manner which many schools of Christian theology would understand to be the work of the Holy Spirit. He writes, for example, about Scripture moving hearts (p18 with reference to Hebrews 4:12-13), and asks if Scripture can be thought of “as something active, something that drives us towards a conclusion and action we could not have arrived at ourselves?”. And yet, despite quoting a passage in 1 Peter which refers to “Christ’s Spirit” (p28) and highlighting the Spirit’s role in keeping Scripture as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago (p59), Sargent stops short of developing a strong methodology for understanding the role of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps it is Sargent’s concern that use of the Spirit in Scriptural interpretation often leads to subjective approaches and forms of polysemy which leads him to steer clear of the Spirit’s role, but this feels even more reason to delve deeper into the topic – to offer a pneumatology for interpretation of Scripture would have been an interesting theological move to make, especially if this book were to appeal to, and indeed bring challenge to, those outside of the conservative evangelical tradition.
Secondly, Sargent is strongly critical of overly “theological” readings of the Bible which run the risk of pinning too much on a doctrinal or traditional approach to a passage and therefore not allowing Scripture the freedom that it should have to possess its own meaning outside of our pre-conceived perceptions and expectation of what it will say. Sargent’s insistence that we need to continue to be surprised and challenged by what the Bible has to say is helpful and will be more challenging if we hold a clear and rigid overarching view of the wider story. However, this does feel like an idealistic and overly cautious understanding of the issues at play. The reality is that as Christians who stand upon the shoulders of those who have read the Bible before us, we all interpret Scripture with a framework taught us by those who initially shared the faith with us. Aside from the mythical inhabitant of a deserted island who has discovered the Bible for the first time, none of us come to Scripture without at the same time being formed within a certain tradition or way of thinking about the Bible. To imagine we can read the Bible un-“theologically” is unrealistic. Perhaps more importantly, Sargent is right to suggest that we should always to allow Scripture to challenge our doctrines and traditions, but in bringing this challenge, he underestimates the value that the frameworks of past readings of Scripture can bring. Again, concern appears to be at the heart of his argument – that should theological interpretations be too prominent, Scripture can be interpreted in any way the individual desires. But Sargent is perhaps too quick to throw the baby out with the bath water. Instead of this, it would be more profitable to offer some thoughts on how theologians could properly use orthodox doctrines and creeds and how to do so as they interpret Scripture.
Overall, As it is Written is a valuable book for evangelicals living within a post-modern pluralistic culture which suggests truth is relative and there is no single meaning in and for anything. Sargent is courageous in defending a high view of Scripture and its power to speak over and above our human abilities. It offers a helpful underpinning for all who want to understand better why and how Scripture should be read, and will raise healthy and stimulating questions to whoever takes up this short but thought-provoking read.