I have been distracted from posting by a couple of other books I had to read relative to other deadlines, and finally thought “Why not mention the books here?” Indeed why not? They both are relevant to the cause.
The first is the English translation of part of the classic medieval biblical commentary known as the “Glossa Ordinaria on Romans” (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2011). The Gloss, as it is known, covers the whole Bible, though the portion recently translated by Michael Scott Woodward was the section on Paul’s letter to the Romans. The great thing about the Gloss is that it shows how medieval people encountered the Bible–not just with their own personal reflections, but in the midst of a conversation that spanned centuries. Even the layout on the page showed the church embracing the Bible: A little bit of the biblical text was in the center, or in the middle along one side, and the comments of various interpreters (say, Augustine, the Venerable Bede, Jerome) are in the margins all around, each comment linked to a particular sentence or phrase. Of course it is a fantastic thing to have this for Romans in particular, the single most influential book of the Bible theologically speaking–now today’s readers can see more easily how this crucial text was interpreted before the Reformation.
There is a great historical irony in the way this kind of thing has been left behind and picked up again over time by Protestants. In the Reformation the Protestants wanted readers to encounter the Bible personally and in its own context, not with interpretations swayed in advance by the more or less official voices of the church. Some editions of English Protestant Bibles, notably the Geneva Bible, did give much interpretive guidance in the margins, with the voices of approved Protestant theologians. But still the text itself was prominent. Even more so in the Authorized “King James” Version, where the anti-monarchial Geneva comments were intentionally left behind, even at the risk of ordinary Christians of all stripes interpreting the Word for themselves. Then there came many and varied “study Bibles” with commentaries of the same theological stripe as the editors or publishers packed in right on the page. The readers had to be tuned in as to whether the commentary would convey the views of higher criticism or dispensationalism, or something else. But then came our time, and a couple publishers have begun to bring out remarkably fine commentary series that provide for every text a range of Patristic or Reformation voices–we have reinvented the Glossa Ordinaria just before the original reached us in English.
The second book occupying my time has been Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective by David Steinmetz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Steinmetz is a hero of mine, and this book is a treasure. As always he mines the past to understand it fairly and in context, and as always wisdom for faithfulness in the present results. He argues (in a collection of essays rooted in past lectureships and publications of various kinds) that Christians need to understand our past, lest we act like we’ve been knocked on the head and lost our memory–losing our past we do not even know who we are, so we cannot function in the present.
The essay on “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis” is a classic, and I hope its presence here introduces another generation to the gains to be had in studying the history of biblical interpretation. The essay “Miss Marple reads the Bible” is worth the price of the book–a century or two after our ability to see the Old Testament through the New was wrested from us Steinmetz gives a winsome metaphorical exploration of how it might just make sense to do so again. The short piece written in the wake of the massacre of Amish schoolchildren a few years ago moved me to tears. A wide range of absolutely current issues in theology are treated well and richly because they include the past as part of the living conversation.