R. W. L. MOBERLY. The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. Pp. 234. $22.00 US.
In this volume dedicated to his children, Hebrew Bible scholar and theological interpreter of Christian scripture Walter Moberly offers wisdom for all generations of Christians today on continuing to take the Bible seriously in a post-Christian society. In keeping with Baker Academic’s series “Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic,” the book consists of expanded versions of the Earle Lectures on Biblical Literature and Grider-Winget Lectures in Theology presented at the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri in November 2015.
The first chapter, “Posing the Problem,” raises the central question of the book: whether (and if so, how) the Bible ought to be privileged in a way distinguishable from other books. This way of putting the question returns to the seminal argument of Oxford classicist Benjamin Jowett, who, in 1860, contended that Scripture should be interpreted “like any other book” (13), that is, in the same way as any of the world’s classic texts (e.g., Plato or Sophocles), especially through philological investigation and without the overlay of centuries of commentary. In the second chapter, Moberly affirms good non-religious reasons to read (and ways of reading) the Bible: as history and as classic. As ancient history, this library of texts from ancient Israel and Judah is akin to works of literature from ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, which can be read for historical understanding without assent to their truth claims. Similarly, one can read the Bible as classic literature, attending how the Bible has shaped, and continues to shape, various cultures (what biblical scholars refer to as “reception history”) as well as asking how it speaks truthfully about human experience.
Throughout the four chapters, Moberly compares and contrasts Aeneid 1 with Daniel 7 to exemplify his argument. In each of these ancient texts, “a sovereign deity (Jupiter, the Ancient One) bestows sovereignty on earth, upon a specially favored people (Romans, Jews), a sovereignty that explicitly has no envisaged termination but is to be endlessly enduring” (34). This raises the question of why God’s dealings with the ancient Jews should then be understood differently from that of Jupiter’s dealings with the Romans. Before arguing for the reasonability of interpreting God’s dealings with the Jewish people as different from Jupiter’s with the Romans, in chapter 2 Moberly offers a nuanced assessment of how each ancient relates to the historical context of its emergence—Aeneid 1 to the reign of Virgil’s patron, Augustus Caesar, and Daniel 7, to the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE), who imposed Greek culture on the Jewish people of his kingdom, threatening their religio-cultural identity.
In the third and fourth chapters, Moberly develops an account of reading the Bible as Scripture. The third chapter concerns “a Christian privileging of the Bible and of Jesus for understanding God and the world,” which, Moberly argues, “is not in principle different from the privileging of something for understanding God and the world that people in general practice” (92). Christian communities provide for persons of faith “plausibility structures” (a concept adopted from sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann) in which Scripture carries special weight for understanding God, oneself, and the world, and in which faith claims continue to hold intellectual purchase for Christians in pluralistic societies. In the final chapter, Moberly takes up the nature of faith and religious knowledge. Richard Dawkins exemplifies an “evidentialist” approach to faith and the Bible, according to which the reliability (or unreliability) of the Bible where it can be tested (i.e., in historical matters) determines whether or not one trusts the Bible where it cannot be tested (i.e., regarding God and faith) (133). In contrast, Moberly argues from John 7:16-17 that the teaching Jesus offers has its origin in God, which is not to say that it isn’t also human, but that Jesus “is so open and responsive to God as his Father—that he is, as it were, so transparent to God . . .—that in his human words the word and will of God are accessible” (136). Coming to faith in God through reading Scripture requires “taking the Bible seriously as a key to making sense of the world” and “responsive openness to the God whom Jesus represents” (140).
In the final chapters, Moberly returns to the Aeneid 1 and Daniel 7 to analyze how power is envisaged in these ancient texts and their interpretations within communities that value them. Prudentius and Augustine exemplify Christian appropriation of the Aeneid following the Christianization of the Roman Empire, and T. S. Eliot understands its moral vision of empire that is not “merely military and mercenary” but noble, based on “justice and peace and the overthrown of human arrogance” (164). Moberly addresses Daniel 7 through Matthew 28:18-20, in which Jesus declares himself a fulfillment of Daniel’s vision in his resurrection and reception of authority from God the Father. Within Matthew’s gospel, this passage can be set alongside the third temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4, in which, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus rejects the approach of grasping power and authority for himself. Rather, he contents himself with obedience, even to the point of death, and in virtue of this, receives all power and authority from God the Father. Thus, divine sovereignty for Matthew is realized nonviolently, through love and mercy.
Christians of all traditions stand to benefit from engaging Moberly’s accounts of reading Scripture seriously in late modernity. Anabaptist readers may find particular resonance with Moberly’s discussion of the importance of the community of faith in Christian life as well as his searching reflections on the nature of power/sovereignty gifted by the Father/Ancient One to the Son/of Man. Yet, readers of this journal may find his account of faith somewhat dissatisfying. Moberly suggests that faith is openness to God, which necessarily involves the lived qualities of justice, faithfulness, integrity, goodness, wonder, and love; Jesus Christ is central because he was supremelytransparent to God, and so is exemplary of the kind of life Christians are to live. Those who are keen to assert the necessity of Christ’s person and unique work for human experience of grace might have questions.
Throughout this highly readable book, Moberly distills many thorny philosophical and theological questions and showcases his rare ability to draw out interpretations of ancient texts through incremental stages of adding color and texture to the readers’ vision of these texts. More technical points of the argument are printed in smaller font; one could skip these, and also the three excursuses between chapters, without missing the primary argument. I heartily recommend it for pastors, congregants, small groups, book clubs, persons on the margins of church life, and all who are interested in thinking about reading the Bible as Scripture in a pluralistic context.