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Scripture interpretation — genius and ‘dangerous’

Individual interpretation of Scripture has been a hallmark of the Stone-Campbell movement throughout our 200-year history.
Our contention has been that individual interpreters who are objective will inevitably arrive at the same interpretation of a given passage. A cursory glance at our history of division should be enough to convince us that there are inherent dangers in the method.
Alister McGrath’s latest book, “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea,” details the history of individual interpretation of the Bible in the Protestant era and demonstrates both its dangers and advantages.
McGrath is a professor of historical theology at Oxford University, author or editor of at least 60 books and Gifford Lecturer for 2009. He holds a Ph.D. from Oxford in the natural sciences as well as a Doctor of Divinity for his work in theology. Both the breadth and depth of his scholarship are fully on display in this book.
McGrath’s narration of the Reformation, written for the general reader rather than for scholars, is an engaging, though rapid, ride through the history of Protestantism. The book is divided into three main sections, the first dealing with the origins of Protestantism, the second with its historical developments and the third with contemporary challenges to its identity — all revolving around the issue of how we read Scripture.
McGrath focuses on the concept of individual interpretation of the Bible, which he claims is the most fundamental concept — and indeed the genius of the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
This genius, however, is also its greatest threat. Individual interpretation kept the initial reforming movements in Germany, Switzerland and England from attaining any organizational unity or even a minimal level of fellowship, and it has continued to splinter them into myriad sub-movements.
Protestantism has been unable to resolve the issue of authority, according to McGrath. “Since every Protestant has the right to interpret the Bible,” he writes, “a wide range of interpretations cannot be avoided. And since there is no centralized authority within Protestantism, this proliferation of options cannot be controlled. Who has the right to decide what is orthodox and what is heretical?”
“Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” also invites readers to see how cultural forces have shaped our reading of the Bible, our styles of hymnody and
worship, our church architecture and our support for economic and democratic structures of our nation. Though individual interpretation is the “dangerous idea” of Protestantism, it remains for McGrath its genius because it empowers religious entrepreneurship that enables Protestantism to negotiate cultural changes while clinging to the book that holds the core of the faith.
This book challenges us to ask ourselves difficult questions in light of our historical and historic failure to even promote, let alone attain, Christian unity.
For instance, does our traditional patternistic method of interpretation of the Bible arise out of the biblical text itself or out of a set of cultural influences? Further, what ties should we have to the Christian tradition of interpretation of the Bible — to the Apostolic Fathers, Augustine, and even Luther, Calvin and Campbell? How can we claim them as forefathers without being enslaved by traditionalism?
Alexander Campbell saw his efforts as a continuation of the work of the great 16th century reformers. McGrath’s volume can help Campbell’s heirs to see that deliberately ignoring pre-Campbell Christian history has not freed us from history or tradition, but rather has made us their victim.
Attention to this history of individual interpretation will help us recognize that others have credible insights, that our own interpretations are not infallible, and that we have been profoundly shaped by the same cultural forces that have shaped other groups.
McGrath’s book is in one sense a “hall of history” in which the historical development of our ideas is described. It is also a “hall of mirrors” in which we should see ourselves clearly reflected. Such a guidebook can help us recapture the semper reformanda (“always reforming”) spirit of the Reformation and perhaps continue the vision of Campbell.
Though the Stone-Campbell movement is not directly mentioned, the broader “Second Great Awakening” is treated. Church members and leaders who are struggling with our history of division and with the forces that have shaped our interpretation of Scripture will find this volume interesting and illuminating.
The book is a solid contribution to the field of church history and specifically to the history of biblical interpretation.
WILLIAM KOOI is an associate professor of theology at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City.

  • Feedback
    In regards to “Scripture Interpretation-Genius & Dangerous,” there are several useful improvements on the analysis. First and foremost, it would be useful to note that Mr. McGrath is an Anglican and not a member of the church of Christ. It is also instructive to note that all people who are baptized for the remission of sins are added by God to the church of Christ, we are not members of any movement. We may study Stone and Campbell for American history but RELY on the gospels, the Acts, the epistles and the Revelation for revealed truth. McGrath is a proponent of “natural theology” and has more in common with Origen’s multiple meanings and Aquinas’ “reason over revelation” than he does with our Lord’s expectation of correct individual interpretation of the Scriptures as he clearly stated in Matt. 21:42-43; Matt. 22:29-30 and John 5:46. I am excited that this subject is being covered!
    April, 29 2008

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