Divine Scripture in Human Understanding

A Systematic Theology of the Christian Bible

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Joseph K. Gordon
Reading the Scriptures
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame
    , March
     458 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many Western Christians today might struggle to identify the authoritative or normative value of scripture for Christian belief and practice. Broadly speaking, mainline traditions in particular have failed to teach scripture well in either one of two ways: by overemphasizing the historical-critical method as the only “right” way to approach scripture, or by avoiding scripture altogether as a valid form of divine revelation.


Drawing on the theological method of Bernard Lonergan, Joseph Gordon seeks to respond to these challenges. Erudite and brimming with ethical sensitivity, Gordon’s Divine Scripture in Human Understanding develops a systematic theology to help contemporary readers better understand the nature and purpose of scripture, how it shapes the Christian imagination, and how it gives rise to new understandings of God’s saving work in human history. In chapter 1, Gordon traces the general contours of the argument he makes throughout the rest of the book, supplementing them with references to Lonergan’s “functional specialties” for arriving at understanding and judgments in systematic theology. For Gordon, it is crucial that contemporary readers of Christian scripture maintain a sense of continuity with the exegetical and theological understandings and judgments of the past, without simply adopting those same judgments wholesale.

Historically, then, what sorts of understandings, judgments, and interests have delimited Christian theologies of scripture over the centuries? In chapter 2, Gordon investigates the ancient “Rule of Faith” and the variety of its articulations in the works of Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. Gordon’s analysis of these three early exegetes reveals something that modern readers frequently overlook: The composition and canonization of Christian scripture was not the beginning of Christian reflection on the triune God’s work in human history, but rather the culmination of it.

In short, scripture was understood as a written expression of the basic Christian gospel proclamation that through the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, God is reconciling the world to God’s self. Early biblical exegesis was thus shaped by the rule of faith, rather than the other way around. Yet none of the authors Gordon discusses in chapter 2 articulate the rule of faith in precisely the same way. He therefore concludes that Christian readers today need our own clear articulation of the regula fidei in order for contemporary scriptural exegesis to maintain its coherency. But what would such a contemporary rule of faith look like?

In chapter 3, Gordon suggests that a contemporary expression of the rule should incorporate the following broad features: First, it must be attuned to the fundamentally ecclesiastical nature of the ancient rule. That is, the Christian proclamation exists by and for the believing community. Second, as with ancient forms of the rule, a contemporary regula fidei should also attempt to synthesize Christian theological judgments about the saving work of the triune God in narrative form. Third, this synthetic narrative should also preserve the realist character of the church’s constitutive confessions regarding God’s saving acts; rather than the simple reproduction of symbolic myth, Christians affirm that God has decisively acted (and continues to act) immanently in human history. Finally, any contemporary articulation of the rule must remain open to future advances in theological understanding.

In chapter 4, Gordon outlines a theological anthropology that can account for the human and material aspects of the “production, redaction, dissemination, canonization, reading, exegesis, meditation upon, and study of Scripture” (115). Such an anthropology includes an engagement with ancient Christian theological understandings of human nature, but once again must not—indeed, cannot—be reduced to simply adopting ancient perspectives tout court. Just as early Christians appropriated Greek metaphysics in their task of describing God’s activity in the world, so must contemporary Christians look to our current context to help us reimagine and rearticulate a cogent anthropology. Gordon sees the human capacity for self-transcendence, our eternal quest for meaning, and our desire to overcome personal finitude and failures by means of inner transformation as signature characteristics of the human condition.

Gordon argues in chapter 5 that any contemporary theology of Christian scripture must account for the material realia of scripture, including its reliance on evanescent and contextually dependent language, as well as the messy textual history of the Christian canon(s). These brute facts, however, are by no means stumbling blocks for divine providence and God’s engagement with human meaning making. On the contrary, this pluriform evidence itself holds theological significance: The God one encounters within the various Christian expressions of the rule of faith is precisely a God who works “in, with and under” the cultural exigencies and chaotic avenues of material human history.

Lastly, in chapter 6, Gordon reaffirms his commitments to traditional judgments that scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that it constitutes the written Word of God in which readers may authentically encounter the Living Word (i.e., Christ), and that it is instrumentally useful for instructing Christians about the saving acts of the triune God in history.

Although Gordon repeatedly stresses the indefinite article in his book’s title, insisting that his work represents merely a systematic theology of scripture, this act of humility sells his work short. For those seeking to reconcile a Christian view of holy writ with contemporary advances in philosophy and science, or with the seemingly infinite number of methods and interpretations that have only multiplied with the advent of digital communication, Divine Scripture is quite possibly the most important work on the subject in decades. Gordon’s prose is a bit wordy and requires slow and attentive reading; those without prior experience in systematics may find the path through the book steep and difficult.

At the same time, however, each of Gordon’s concepts builds upon the previous one, so that—in a feat rare for academic writing—not a single sentence is wasted. Divine Scripture in Human Understanding is a bold attempt to articulate a meaningful systematic theology of Christian scripture for our own time, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be cited and debated for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Paul Smith is a doctoral candidate in the University of Denver / Iliff School of Theology Joint Doctoral Program in Religion.

Date of Review: 
November 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph K. Gordon is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Johnson University.


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