I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving From Scripture to Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 136 pp.
As has been pointed out by another reviewer of I. Howard Marshall, here is a man who goes to great pains to be charitable and thorough in his explanations of both the problems surrounding the faithful reading of the biblical texts, and those who endorse different methodological approaches.
After my first, albeit brief, encounter with Marshall i have to agree. One of the strengths of this book is how hard Marshall works to be clear about the difficulties surrounding biblical interpretation. This short book only contains three chapters written by Marshall, with an additional chapter each by Kevin Vanhoozer and Stanley Porter, where they interact with Marshall’s proposals and make suggestions from their respective views. Despite the short page total, Marshall’s proposal could have taken probably less thean 50 pages had he not been so thorough in some respects. While, as i mentioned earlier, i appreciate his concern for thoroughness, it sometimes makes his work overly drawn out and actually serves to confuse the reader.
It is important to note at the outset that Marshall’s goal is to understand primarily how to use scripture in theological work, although the importance of his approach for the church and ethics isn’t discounted. This focus has both its strengths and weaknesses, which i will mention below.
After chapter one surveys the last several decades of evangelical thought and progression regarding how to interpret texts, Marshall gets to his central thesis in chapter 2: since we see a clear progressive development in doctrine, the authority of the bible cannot be limited to merely what is says. How scripture interprets itself should have interpretative authority for us today as well. Since there is theological progression throughout revelation, then we must be willing to act in a similar manner in our theological and exegetical work.
This claim is defended in chapter 3, where Marshall sets out to show how scripture itself contains principles from going “beyond the bible.” Here, what Marshall discerns as principles given by Scripture for moving beyond it are somewhat unsurprising. For example, the old/new covenant distinction is vital when trying to read the Old Testament and viewing the teachings of Christ occurring as within a liminal period is necessary. Also, reading the New Testament with special attention to the basic theological “deposit” of the apostles is to be commended, and not fearing receiving the same “spirit-given insight” that the apostles received are all principles is adovcated. All of these ideas have been put forth before, and Marshall affirms them. One of Marshall’s main points in this book, that the Scriptures demonstrate new categories of thought and progressive doctrinal understanding, is ably demonstrated.
For Marshall, it is vital that Christians have a Christocentric filter in reading the Bible, but only one that is understood in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is not to say that Marshall rejects compatibility between parts of Scripture, but rather seeks to discern the continual movement of Scripture throughout its pages to what God is doing at the time of writing. For Marshall it is better than to hold apparent tensions together at times rather than always try to make them fit together. Doing so makes room for God’s Spirit to move and take an individual or church in the direction God desires.
A few of the book’s weaknesses should be mentioned. Marshall at times seems to simply filtering out parts of Scripture He doesn’t like. To cite one example, Marshall comments on the parables which speak of torture, and although sees them as in continuity with the OT, condemns the imagery as horrific and wouldn’t be used by Jesus today. One can detect, at the very least, a possible hint of Marshall’s modernist sensibilities being read into these texts. His rationale for this view is that since we have minds that have been “nurtured on the gospel,” we would never be able to stomach such imagery. Such a response seems to merely beg the question of what exactly a “mind nurtured on the gospel” should or shouldn’t be able to stomach.
The other major criticism i have of Marshall’s work is that he very noticeably ignores articulating a theory of inspiration. This is very harmful to the work. Many of his basic ideas of inspiration can be read inbetween the lines, but without a clear understanding of how Marshall views the texts as inspired, one sometimes wonders why he is handling scripture like he does.
Vanhoozer and Porter’s chapters are worth reading, but some of the critiques of Marshall’s view in their writings have already been put forward here. Also, if one is already with the canonical-linguistic approach of Vanhoozer, or the application of translation theory to biblical interpretation of Porter, then nothing new will be gained by reading of these chapters. That being the case, i will not delve into their thoughts here.
Marshall’s book is a very useful primer on how to relate Scripture to doctrine and everyday life. It is full of little insights that are useful for both the interpreter and the theologian. Marshall tries to walk a fine line between taking today’s culture and God’s work within it seriously and being faithful to Scripture. While at times Marshall seems to be doing little more than reading his culture back into the bibilical text, one has to appreciate the goal of his project, which is to simply let Scripture be what it actually is, a time-conditioned revelation of God that shows signs of development within it. How to faithfully read and apply the bible isn’t conclusively demonstrated by Marshall, but his book is sure to get many people to think about these issues in new ways.