Book Review: Beyond the Bible

Since I’ve been away from computers this summer, I’ve spent more time reading. One of my main priorities was I. Howard Marshall’s Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Beyond the Bible is actually only 60% Marshall (three essays)–it also contains responses from Kevin Vanhoozer and Stanley Porter.

In essence, Marshall’s book is an outline that attempts to answer how we move from the Biblical text to doctrine and application. If we are going to move “beyond” the Bible, then we must do so “Biblically.”

Marshall spends his first essay outlining the state of evangelical theology with respect to hermeneutics, and endeavors to show that areas of interpretation and application where there is no longer consensus poses problems for our method of theology. He primarily interacts with JI Packer’s approach to application, who contends that the practice of exposition involves detaching timeless principles from their contingent situations, and reapplying them in our own situations. In essence, Marshall contends that this approach to hermeneutics suffers from being too simplistic. In many cases there simply are not specific scripture passages that produce principles that are applicable to many of our situations (see bioethics). Additionally, there is widespread disagreement about the principles (see the role of women in the Church). Additionally, the stress on finding what the human author intended doesn’t adequately account for the senus plenior, the fuller meaning that can result from the inspiration of the Spirit.

In his second essay, Marshall identifies two approaches to Scripture–one conservative, and the other liberal. The conservative approach is to take the plain sense of Scripture as “authoritative unless it is manifestly not universifiable.” The second approach is to treat Scripture as contextualized and its commands as relative. This means that we need to move “beyond” the Bible. In the case of ethics, the New Testament gives commands to slaves within the context of slavery, yet the Christian tradition has been overwhelmingly against it. Again, in worship the same two approaches exist. The Anglicans permitted what Scripture did not explicitly condemn. The Puritans permitted only those practices that had Biblical justification.

In the case of doctrine, Marshall contends that we all go beyond Scripture when we formulate doctrines. The Chalcedonian Formula represents a development of doctrine, in that it is not found in Scripture. Contemporary issues of development in doctrine involve the question of Open Theism. Perennial contenders for their status as developments include infant baptism and universalism. Everyone moves beyond the Bible, Marshall contends, but we have no criterion for determining which moves are permissibile. How do we decide which developments (in ethics, worship, or doctrine) are legitimate?

According to Marshall, doctrinal developments are (generally) of four kinds: progress in knowledge in areas that need Biblical guidance (science), the need to explain various statements in Scripture on a subject, texts that are in tension with each other, and the tension between what Marshall calls “insights of minds nurtured on the Gospel” and some Scriptural passages. For instance, Marshall rejects the unending punishment of hell on the grounds that it conflicts with a “Biblically based, christian understanding of love and justice.”

Marshall then engages in a tough task–showing that Scripture develops itself. He argues that the New Testament represents a development of Old Testament theology in that it moves concepts that are on the fringes of Jewish thought (like Yahweh’s interest in other nations and the afterlife) to the center. These shifts radically transform Jewish theology. Additionally, Marshall argues that there is development in the expression of the teachings of Jesus and also in the apostolic interpretation of Pauline theology (here his case rests on the Pastorals, which he does not think are Pauline). There is continuity within these developments, “but also there are shifting emphases with corresponding shifts in character. Thus, they exhibit a certain untidiness in which not everything is cut and dried.” Here we get the first hints of Marshall’s plan: “The closing of the canon is not incompatible with the nonclosing of the interpretation of that canon.” The canon is fixed, but interpretation is not. But we must go beyond the Bible Biblically. Hence, we must identify a canon of interpretive principles from within Scripture. This is the task of his third essay.

Marshall identifies three such principles. The first is that the Old Testament is always to be interpreted in light of the New, as the New Testament interprets the Old in light of the revelation of Christ. The second is that because Jesus’ teaching was before Easter, it has a limited range of application. The Easter-event changes how we interpret Jesus’ words in the gospels. Finally, Marshall contends that the concept of the gospel becomes fixed by the early Church–there is a real “apostolic deposit” that is used to detect and root out error. This is clear in Paul’s letters, and becomes explicit in the Pastoral epistles. The Marshall plan is twofold: (1) use this “apostolic deposit” as an interpretative grid for doctrinal developments. Marshall views “the gospel” as basically christological. The “apostolic deposit” is teachings about Christ, and hence Christ becomes the “canon within the canon.”

In order to avoid the nefarious problem of making Christ or the gospel in our own image, Marshall suggests the second principle for developing doctrine: (2) the canon should be “understood in light of our own Christian mind and illumination by the Spirit, and to recognize that this term ‘our own Christian mind’ uses ‘our’ inclusively to include other Christians past and present, near and far.”

In other words, the criterion by which we measure developments are the apostolic deposit and “minds nurtured on the gospel.” If we have these two in place, then we will be equipped to expose doctrinal error and to develop doctrine appropriately. This means that proper Biblical exposition is a matter not only of rigorous inquiry into the meaning of texts, but a matter of personal sanctification. We must actually have the mind of Christ if we are to properly “do theology.” This is the Apostolic position–the Apostles, Marshall contends, taught on the basis of the word and insights from the Spirit.

Marshall’s essays are instructional and engaging, but Vanhoozer’s is worth the price of the book itself. Though he does not fully develop his own criterion for going beyond the Bible Biblically (he agrees that this is the task and briefly suggests “the mind of the canon” as an alternative), he outlines relevant objections and questions for Marshall’s answer–“the mind nurtured on the gospel.” Specifically, he objects to Marshall’s claim that God’s judgement of the world through hell is “intrinsically wrong.” Marshall, Vanhoozer contends, “is bringing an already developed doctrine of God to the table” and this is coloring his approach to Scripture. Furthermore, Vanhoozer lists three other concerns: Marshall skips over what doctrine actually is, and more importantly fails to specify what it actually means to move “beyond” Scripture. Is the Chaceldonian formula actually moving beyond Scripture, or is it simply restating Scripture in a different language?

Marshall’s plan for moving beyond Scripture is compelling–the mind nurtured on the gospel, however, seems to need clarification and might also beg the question about how we actually know what the gospel is (this approaches Vanhoozer’s objection). What actually constitutes the apostolic deposit? For instance, Marshall writes: “In such ways the New Testament writers go beyond the apostolic deposit to combat error and to find fresh ways of expressing the gospel. Orthodoxy is not tied to specific vocabularies and forms of words.” Here he begs the question by assuming that the grammar of Scripture is not itself a part of the apostolic deposit–if the doctrine of inspiration obtains, however, then Marshall’s claim might be incorrect. Orthodoxy may be tied to some vocabularies–patriarchal vocabularies come to mind as the obvious choice. Here again we have a tension between the mind nurtured on the gospel and what constitutes the gospel itself. As such, I am not sure that Marshall’s principles for moving “beyond” the Bible are adequate.

However, the book is well worth the inexpensive price. It is readable and instructive, and brief to boot! Marshall, Vanhoozer, and Porter are learned men, and their writings indicate that. Beyond the Bible is well worth the little time and effort it takes to read through.

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