Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. By Hans Boersma. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021. 152 pp. Paper, $15.59.
Boersma is a deacon in the Anglican church. In general terms, a Biblical scholar is seen in the book as one who uses historical-grammatical exegesis to find the authorial intent of the Biblical author. He attempts to determine the meaning of the text apart from church traditions. Boersma says this is the incorrect way to use the Bible. Exegetical work must include Christology, metaphysics, providence, ecclesiology, heavenly contemplation, as well as philosophical and doctrinal presuppositions. These other considerations are used by theologians. The primary task of theologians is not to explain the historical meaning of a particular text in the Bible, but to use the Scriptures as “a means of grace in drawing the reader to Jesus Christ” (p. 5). The theologian sees the Bible as a sacramental means that is used to enter into the mystery of God and then is able to impart divine life. The soul is able to see God and have communion with Him through intuition and not inductive study (pp. 6-7). The Bible is not to be seen as a mere source of historical and doctrinal truths.
The study of the Scriptures must take into account the church fathers, as well as Catholic and Anglican traditions. This teaches us to move past the historical level of the text to the allegorical, moral and eschatological level. It is only then that we can see the Word of God, which is Christ. Boersma specifically states that the Scriptures are not the Word of God itself (p. 8). Evangelical Biblical scholars often substitute knowing a book for knowing God in Christ.
In keeping with the title of the book, Boersma has five chapters. In chapter one he wants the Biblical scholar to realize “No Christ, No Scripture.” Only when we see Christ as Scripture’s true content does it become Scripture (pp. 13-38).
Chapter two is entitled, “No Plato, No Scripture.” We all approach the Bible with a metaphysical lens and Christian Platonism is the only way we can see Christ as the sacramental reality in the text (pp. 39-63).
Chapter three is “No Providence, No Scripture.” Providence speaks of the care and guidance of God. Through that care God has given us the Scriptures, in which the Word of God is seen more clearly than in any other human witness (pp. 64-86).
At the same time, the interpretation of the Scriptures must involve an ecclesial mode of reading it, allowing for canon, liturgy, and church creeds to shape how we understand the Bible. This is the only way to uphold the high position the Scriptures have as a witness of Christ. Chapter four discusses this and is entitled, “No Church, No Scripture” (pp. 87-111).
The fifth chapter is “No Heaven, No Scripture.” Boersma says that Scripture is sacramental and does not present itself as the ultimate end. Its truth is contemplative and heavenly. We study Scripture to obtain the beatific vision of God in Christ. This keeps us from using the Bible for political and social justice concerns (pp. 112-34).
A few comments in each chapter caught this reviewer’s attention. In chapter one, Boersma says that those who rely on sola scriptura do not treat exegesis as a spiritual discipline (p. 37). In addition, since Jesus is not specifically mentioned in the OT, Biblical exegesis cannot lead to seeing the presence of Christ in those books.
In chapter two, the author says that without the metaphysics of Plato, one cannot retain the teaching of Scripture (p. 39). It is a metaphysics with the characteristics of antimaterialism, antirelativism, and antiskepticism (p. 43). Boersma claims it is only through this metaphysics that the church fathers were able to develop the doctrine of the Trinity and a proper Christology. The Macedonian call in Acts 16:6-10 shows the necessity of combining Biblical faith and Greek inquiry (p. 62).
Concerning providence, Boersma says we need to recognize that the Spirit is linked to books other than the Bible (p. 84). For example, the writings of the church fathers, the decisions of the councils, and the canons of the church are also inspired.
Chapter five maintains that we cannot understand the Bible without the guidance of the universal church (p. 87). Our exegesis must be open to how the church has understood the doctrine being discussed. Biblical exegesis is communal and takes place in the liturgy and creeds in the church. Boersma says that Evangelical exegesis that focuses on authorial intent places the church at the mercy of intellectual elites, Biblical scholars, who tell us what the Bible says (p. 111). These scholars have replaced the authority of the church.
Furthermore, Boersma complains that the rise in historical-grammatical exegesis has resulted in the neglect of contemplation and turned our focus from heaven. In other words, Biblical exegesis leads to the Bible losing its divinely given purpose (pp. 132-33). In Boersma’s view, Evangelical Biblical scholarship does not require a relationship with God since it is mechanical and does not operate in an otherworldly way (p. 134).
The vast majority of the readers of the JOTGES will reject most of what Boersma has to say about the role of the Bible in the Christian’s life. They will find it strange. However, the principles he espouses have found their way into much of Protestant Evangelical thinking. He says that our chief aim is not to find the intent of the authors of the Scriptures and their historical meanings, but the contemplative life. Through this contemplation we see God in Christ and heavenly realities. Many Evangelicals have indeed called for us to develop a contemplative life modeled after Christian mystics of the past.
It is also common to hear Protestant Evangelicals argue for what Boersma is promoting. We are told that to understand what the Bible is saying we must consider what the church fathers said. Free Grace theology is often rejected because we cannot find it in the teachings of the patristic church. We are told that dispensationalism and the doctrine of the Rapture cannot be true for the same reason. We should not put too much emphasis on the historical context of the texts we are studying. Biblical exegesis cannot lead to a single meaning of a verse. Christians must be able to discover their own meaning, especially if it agrees with what the universal church of the day, or the majority, is teaching.
The bottom line for this book is authority. Is the Bible the Word of God, or, as Boersma maintains, is it a means by which we can catch a heavenly vision through the teachings of the church and contemplation? In a postmodern world, the latter view will become more and more appealing. I recommend this book to better understand that trend.