January 28, 2021

Review: Christian Theologies of Scripture edited by Justin Holcomb

Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative IntroductionIt’s interesting to watch American Christians scramble for cover from the Da Vinci Code phenomenon. It’s not like these questions don’t have answers. Lots of good writers are cranking out books with the answers to Dan Brown’s Weekly World News version of Jesus.

No, the problem isn’t the answers. The problem is the questions; in fact, the problem is the whole topic. American Christians just don’t talk about the history of the canon, the process of coming to creedal consensus and the interaction of heresy and orthodoxy in Christian history. What we get- want?- is a laundered, cleaned up and, of course, unanimous version of Christian history that implies little of any interest really happened until our own problems this past week.

Protestants are especially nervous about church history that starts getting close to the topics of “tradition” and “the Catholic Church.” One reformed blogger summarized Christian theology as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Macarthur and, of course, himself.

If it weren’t so true, it would be funny. Most of the mature Christians I know have no idea of even the general contours of Christian history, and very little idea of what historical theology contributes to the church. No, the majority of my evangelical lay friends believe a simplistic mythology worthy of the beginnings of Mormonism. It was all neat, clean, simple and everyone- except the Catholics- has always agreed with what they believe now. It’s been a short trip from Jesus to pastor Bob.

Enter Justin S. Holcomb’s excellent and interesting anthology Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction. Here is a book that will repair one of the biggest breaches in this wall of historical/theological ignorance: the challenge of developing a coherent and meaningful doctrine of scripture.

Holcomb’s book seems to be written for a college or seminary course, but it is easily accessible to educated laypersons who want to see how the map of Christian belief about scripture developed over time. After an excellent introductory essay, the book is divided into three broadly chronological sections, beginning with a survey of significant developments and followed by essays on two to four influential historical figures of the period. An additional fourth section takes a different approach, relating the Christian doctrine of scripture to particular contextual concerns, such as feminism, the African-American experience and Post-modernism.

An ecumenical list of contributors include Michael Horton, John Franke, Pamela Bright, Lewis Baldwin and Graham Ward. There are excellent chapters on the neglected and misunderstood Schleiermacher, the little known Hans Urs von Balthasar and the often overlooked Hans Frei- figures often neglected or avoided in many evangelical considerations of the doctrine of scripture. The fine chapters on Luther and Barth were particularly well done and helpful to those of us who want to hear more from the Lutheran tradition on the subject of incarnational understandings of Christian theology.

The book does an excellent job of mapping out the Catholic tradition and in helping the reader to understand how the protestant sola scriptura appears to the Catholic community. The survey chapters that begin the first three sections provide an excellent overview of the major questions answered by the particular theologians surveyed. For those who dislike the metaphor of a theological conversation, this book chronicles the Christian conversation on scripture through the big questions, both teams and the major players.

Some might criticise the book for stopping short of giving consideration to recent conservative understandings of the doctrine of scripture, particularly in the work of Carl Henry or the academic/ecclesial communities that look to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy as the best expression of the protestant doctrine of scripture.

The questions that come under the heading of the Christian theology of scripture are formidable ones: What do we mean by “Scripture?” How do competing notions of scripture come from the same text and the same Christ? How is Jesus related to scripture, both historically and theologically? How do protestants and Catholics use scripture differently? What have been the primary interpretative questions facing the church through the ages? What is Biblical authority? How is it related to God? How do we talk about the authority of the Bible in the public square? How can we use scripture to communicate with the postmodern generation and its’ view of texts and textualness?

For some, just the idea that there are “theologies” and not one theology will be threatening. Justin Holcomb’s book shows us how those who have gone before us had different contexts with different concerns, but we have all wrestled with the same Bible and the same implications of believing that God speaks to us in a book.

I highly recommend the book. It is available from Amazon and from NYU press. Justin Holcomb is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Virginia and a lecturer in Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. A complimentary copy of the book was given to this reviewer.


  1. pastorcarldixon says

    I particulary appreciated this book did not try to ‘convince’ me of anything but instead educated me. I studied the history of doctrine in seminary so this book was a reminder of much I learned back then. Most Christians do not have enough understanding of Church history to really appreciate this book. For instance I studied in detail the theology and life of Karl Barth. Without that knowledge it would be impossible to really understand even the chapter in Justin’s book. I am very glad for the Da Vinci Code. I have urged the people in my church to read it and go to the movie. We will be doing a special service to answer the questions. But one member of my church asked me a question that really stopped me. I was complaining about how little the average Christian knows about church history. He asked; “Pastor when did you teach us?” Every Pastor should have to ask that question. I now have to consider just how I am going to add a good deal of church history to the Biblical messages I study for each week.

  2. Many years ago, I learned the quick summary of a Protestant understanding of history from an Evangelical Covenant layman. He made the point sarcastically: For many of us, Christianity perished after the death of the last apostle and was resurrected on Halloween, 1517. In the intervening 1400 hundred years there was nothing but heresy and corruption. It’s a view one sees expressed often in not-so-subtle ways.

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