Biblical Truths

The Meaning of Scripture in the Twenty-First Century

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Dale B. Martin
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     2017.
     408 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300222838.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Dale Martin provides a theological approach to the interpretation of Christian scripture, especially the New Testament. As Martin notes in Biblical Truths, historical methods and historical criticism are useful for the interpretation of the Bible, but other approaches—literary, social location—can be employed to the great benefit of those seeking a theological understanding of scripture (5-6). He claims to pursue a “nonfoundationalist, postmodern, Marxist, orthodox, ecumenical, and provisional” theological reading of the New Testament (32). While it is apparent that Martin is well versed in historical criticism and in a wide range of hermeneutical approaches, the theories themselves are not the focus. Instead, the application of such methods and the ways in which they are theologically productive in reading the New Testament are his main concern. After the introduction, Martin moves through seven categories common to systematic theology, each with its own chapter: knowledge (epistemology), Scripture, God, Christ, Spirit, Human (anthropology), and the Church (ecclesiology). Unfortunately, there is no conclusion. It would have been helpful to summarize and systematize his insights after moving through this unique contribution to a theological appreciation of the Bible—especially the New Testament—on each of these major theological concepts.

Martin begins with knowledge or epistemology: what we know and how we know it. Moving through various examples from the New Testament—especially the letters of Paul and the Gospels—Martin concludes that the traditional dichotomies between “general and specific,” or “natural and revealed,” or “innate and learned” knowledge cannot be supported by recourse to the Bible. Instead, the biblical witness is to affirm these tensions, and to recognize the validity of each, rather than the validity of only one or the superiority of one over another.

This “both-and” approach in the first chapter can be readily seen throughout the book as Martin investigates other topics. Both in this chapter and in the ones that follow, Martin uses clear, direct, uncomplicated language in addressing complex theological ideas—with attention to the text of the New Testament itself—crafting an extremely readable and accessible argument with which there is little to disagree.

In the second chapter, Martin discusses the nature of Christian scripture. Martin begins with defining the text itself as the concept of canon before turning to a host of examples illustrating the ways in which the New Testament itself interprets the scripture it was trying to make relevant—namely the Old Testament. Martin emphasizes the often-unexpected ways that the New Testament reads the Old Testament, especially for those who argue for the primacy and superiority of historical criticism. Rather, he contends that the New Testament itself demonstrates the viability of other approaches to theological interpretation, which may be successfully used by current readers of the scripture. This is not intended to dismiss historical criticism, but to build on it, expand it, and validate other approaches used in tandem with it.

The third chapter on God covers a range of topics including transcendence, immanence, apophatic (negative) theology, divine simplicity, idolatry, the “name” of God, faith and doubt, a “personal” God, God’s gender, and God is Love. Martin argues the “both-and” approach seen in the first chapter for each of these concerns—refusing to collapse tensions or to privilege some interpretations in favor of others. Of particular interest are the sections on God’s name and gender, which helpfully outline arguments for feminine language as appropriate in describing the deity—without dismissing the masculine language—but recognizing what each does and does not contribute to our (always incomplete) understanding of the Divine.

The fourth chapter on Christ begins with the statement that historical criticism alone cannot lead to “fully orthodox doctrines of the nature of Christ” (169). As Martin demonstrates, Christology requires our moving beyond these historical approaches in our understanding of the person and work of Christ. As part of this concern, Martin chooses an extended example: how the Gospels themselves and Paul disagree on the resurrection and subsequent appearances of the risen Christ in terms of who, what, where, when, and what Jesus looked like, and the nature of the body (198-215). Throughout this chapter, Martin works diligently to hold the twofold tension of the “orthodox” view together—Christ is fully human and fully divine—something that is difficult to do with historical criticism as the primary means of analysis.

The fifth chapter on Spirit discusses the depiction of the Spirit in the New Testament by understanding the connotation of the word pneuma in other ancient Greek writings and how the New Testament itself presents a multi-faceted theology of this concept, rather than a systematic theology of the Spirit. After providing the complexity of the New Testament’s view of the Spirit, Martin picks up the discussion of God’s gender from chapter three, and directly discusses the “gender” of the Spirit. He concludes that grammatically and metaphorically the Spirit appears in both the Bible and the Christian tradition as feminine, neuter, and masculine (259), meaning that God is understood as beyond gender but also as potentially queer—having multiple genders and ones that co-exist, especially as manifested in the terminology and language for the Spirit used by the Bible itself.

The sixth chapter examines the human person with an emphasis on the holistic nature of our existence, including the human as a constructed self, bodies with parts, the social self, human finitude, sex and desire, sin, salvation, resurrection, and divinization. Martin again argues for a multivalent approach to the claims of the Bible concerning the human person and our relationships to one another, the world in which we exist, and to God. Martin examines carefully each of these topics, drawing out the various views contained within the New Testament, and celebrating the recognition of such complexity in understanding what it means to be human. Rather than providing us with simple answers, the Bible helps us to ask questions, and to see ourselves anew in relationships beyond ourselves.

The final chapter addresses the nature of the Church. Martin presents the confession “we believe in the church” as worthy of particular explanation given the divisions within Christianity and the dangers of making the Church itself into an idol. He begins by distinguishing—correctly—between the Church and the Kingdom of God before exploring the image of the “household of God.” Martin claims with minimal argument—citing his previously published work on the topic for the details—that we misrepresent the Bible’s understanding of “family,” and we should be cautious in appropriating it without critical reflection (316-319). Martin briefly remarks this is correct given that the function, composition, and values of “family” or “household” were very different in the ancient world(s) when compared to our own construction of the concepts today. Martin also explores the image of the Church as the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, as a place of refugee, and the term ekklesia in its ancient Greek context. He briefly addresses the relationship of the Church and Israel, warning against supersessionism and anti-Semitism, while noting the New Testament’s witness to the idea that the Church includes Israel, and that Israel includes the Church.

Martin provides a helpful and extremely readable theological interpretation of the New Testament, as it relates to the chosen themes. While one may wish for additional theological topics to be explored or to be examined in more detail—such as eschatology or atonement—Martin’s book is a welcomed treatment of the various voices contained within the New Testament on the selected categories. The diverse landscape of the New Testament is well articulated by a scholar who values the text theologically, providing an effective means of interpreting it while appreciating its complexity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schweitzer is academic dean and professor at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dale B. Martin is Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His numerous books include New Testament History and Literature. He lives in New Haven, CT.

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