One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies

By Susan E. Gillingham
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1999). xx + 280 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 113-116

 Gillingham is a lecturer in theology at Worcester College, Oxford, England. Her volume incorporates elements from a distance-learning course for students of St. John’s College, Nottingham, and elements from a later theology course for undergraduates at Oxford University (xiv). The work is for those who as adults have a relatively new interest in theology or biblical studies (xv).

The spirit of this age, if we are to believe Gillingham, is postmodernism united with pluralism. In One Bible, Many Voices she pleads for such an approach to biblical studies (4-5). She seeks “to show that pluralism, as one of the hallmarks of postmodernism, can serve more as friend than foe in relation to biblical studies. Far from threatening and fragmenting our understanding of biblical faith, it offers a more reasonable, open-ended, integrative and ecumenical way forward” (5).

The book has two parts: “Plurality in the Making of the Bible” (7-113) and “Plurality in the Reading of the Bible” (115-244). In the first part, four chapters present the author’s view of the “disparate and diffuse nature of the biblical accounts … with different versions and different texts being used variously by different communities” (4). Throughout these chapters Gillingham presents as fact that both testaments have undergone substantial editing (cf. 17, 20-21). Out of her conclusion that the Bible contains a diversity of theologies (cf. 31, 34), she identifies three complementary approaches to biblical studies: the historical, the theological, and the literary (44). Inherent in this system is a conviction that “it is impossible to give any biblical text absolute meaning” (45). This conviction produces the opportunity “to create new interpretations, properly controlled” (45). What is meant, however, by “properly controlled”? Theologians in a variety of traditions would offer the canon itself as one necessary control. However, Gillingham eliminates that control by arguing that “it is impossible to draw up clear boundaries for the inclusion or exclusion of particular books” (46). Therefore, there is no single authoritative canon. All of chapter 3 (“A Biblical Corpus? The Canon and the Boundaries of Faith,” 46- 71) develops the author’s view of the canon.

Gillingham argues that a variety of translations (both ancient and modern) prove that “a pluralistic, open-ended way of reading is again the only way forward” (72). In the discussion of “The Qumran Scrolls” (77-79), she claims, “One of the most important aspects about the Scrolls is that they have many affinities with the Septuagint, and seem to suggest a Hebrew prototype somewhat different from that used for the Masoretic Text” (77). This is a popular exaggeration running contrary to the evidence as presented by Emanuel Tov (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. [Fortress Press, 2001] 114-17), one of the most highly regarded experts in that field of study.

Contrary to its title, One Bible, Many Voices, the conclusion of Part One announces that no single, coherent Bible, no uniform biblical theology, no universally recognized biblical canon, and no standard biblical text exist (112). Gillingham presents Part Two as more positive in its agenda (113). The three major approaches are each granted a chapter: “Theological Approaches to the Bible” (117- 43), “Historical Approaches to the Bible” (144-70), and “Literary Approaches to the Bible” (171-86). The first of these three approaches is a survey of the hermeneutics of Jewish tradition (the Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Targums, Dead Sea Scrolls, Pesher, and Midrash) and Christian tradition (Paul and Hebrews in the NT, a variety of church fathers from Irenaeus to Augustine, Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Richard Hooker, a variety of 17th-century and 18th-century approaches, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, and “biblical hermeneutics”). The author’s conclusion is that “theological pluralism holds the key” (143).

In Chapter 6 (“Historical Approaches to the Bible”), Gillingham first presents five problem areas: myth, biblical contradictions, miracles, religious language, and the historical Jesus. Scholars have come to these problems in two different ways: a diachronic approach and a synchronic approach. The diachronic approach, or historical-critical method, can be exemplified in six different methods: biblical criticism, source criticism, form criticism, tradition criticism, redaction criticism, and canon criticism (157-69). The descriptions of these six methods are brief, but fairly objective. For example, Gillingham observes that source criticism is anti-authorial and hypothetical (162), form criticism is not science (164), tradition criticism is the most attractive approach for the pluralist (166), and redaction criticism is theologically biased (167). A very helpful set of charts (170) illustrates the diachronic relationships of these six methodologies.

The synchronic approach involves six examples of the literary-critical method: literary criticism, narrative and poetic criticism, structuralist criticism, rhetorical criticism, reader-response criticism, and holistic criticism (176-86). Again, charts (172) and a table (173) help the reader to visualize the relationships between these methodologies. The concern that is paramount in the literary approach is the readers’ contemporary setting (173, 174). Gillingham argues (quite unconvincingly) that the historical, theological, and literary approaches can be integrated so as to offer “some control and constraints on … open-ended pluralistic readings” (185).

The final two chapters of the volume apply the three approaches to the Psalter as a whole (187-231) and to Psalm 8 in particular (232-44).

Ironically, although Gillingham argued for controls and constraints to prevent abuse of the text (45, 185), in her formal “Conclusion” (245-47) she accuses all twelve methodologies in the diachronic and synchronic approaches of being attempts to control the text and its interpretation. Where does that leave her? She confesses that it “leads us with a sense that we should be as critical of pluralism per se as we should be critical of any exclusivist approach which assumes that it alone has the key control” (247). Her final paragraph’s call for recognizing a “fixed” text and “open” voices in the text rings hollow. All she has left is “something of a mystery; and herein lies the challenge of biblical studies as an academic discipline” (247).

An adequate knowledge of contemporary theories and schools of thought in the realm of biblical criticism is a necessity. In the first decade of the 21st century new methodologies continue to arise and the conservative theologian finds himself ever on the defensive due to his adherence to biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and authority. What Carl E. Armerding wrote in 1983 still applies two decades later:

The issues persist today. They affect not only the evangelical scholar seeking to preserve viewpoints which radically separate him from his more liberal colleagues, but virtually every student of the OT as well. University lectureships are given on the basis of adherence to critical thought, and textbooks are judged by the extent to which they affirm the current brand of critical orthodoxy, while popular television programs disseminate the latest theories to the waiting masses (The Old Testament and Criticism [Eerdmans, 1983] 2).

Conservative evangelical theologians cannot sit idly by, twiddling their thumbs, hoping that the madness might somehow end without their entering the fray. Vital issues are at stake. How we approach the Scriptures determines our theology. Year by year evangelical scholars continue to give up valuable ground to liberal biblical critics by adopting their methodologies. Evangelicals attempt to baptize such theories in evangelical waters without realizing that those methodologies have never been converted. Pressured by publishers and “Christian” academia, evangelicals borrow the cloak of critical terminology to clothe their work. Though valuable kernels of truth exist in contemporary critical studies, evangelicals must take great care to irradiate the material with the unadulterated Word of God so as not to become infected by the Trojan viruses that saturate its thinking.

Gillingham’s volume should be read by conservative evangelical scholars in order to understand that the critical methodologies are part and parcel of an overall philosophy and system driven by a variety of unbiblical concepts. If a pluralist like Gillingham can see the bankruptcy of critical methodologies, what does that say about the thinking of evangelicals who continue to dabble in critical methodologies, attempting to convert them for evangelical use?