Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters

By Donald K. McKim, ed.
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2007). xxvii + 1107 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
19.2 (Fall 2008) : 276-277

In 1998 InterVarsity Press released the Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters also edited by Donald. K. McKim, a rather disappointing production. The publicity releases for this new volume announce it as a “revised and vastly expanded edition” of that work. The statement, however, on the verso said, “Some material previously appeared” in the Historical Handbook and is a much more accurate reflection of the reality of this much improved and valuable work. Though the publisher treats this as a true “second edition” (which is technically true), carrying the former works preface as well as a new preface; the fact that it has a new title demonstrates the publisher’s desire for this to be seen as an entirely new work.

McKim, formerly the academic dean and professor of theology at Memphis Theological Seminary and currently the reference editor for Westminster John Knox Publishing, has clearly grown in his craft. Some of his early editorial efforts were often heavy handed and reflected his own theological biases rather than furnishing the impartial and thorough work one expects in standard reference works. He clearly assembled a fine staff of assistants as well as a first-rate group of contributors. McKim himself contributed one full article (William Perkins, 815-19). The scope of the essays has a largely Western orientation, reflecting interpreters from Europe and North America as McKim admits. He states in his new preface that in this work, “there is a lack of sufficient entries on women biblical interpreters and on those from outside the predominant areas of Western Europe and the United States” (xii). This is an odd complaint from the editor, who seems to be criticizing his own editorial decisions (he stated one paragraph earlier, “the list of those to be included in such a volume has been my decision, in consultation with others”). Interestingly, the two women for whom there are entries (Fiorenza Elisabeth Schussler, 895-99; and Phyllis Trible, 989-92) also represent two of the five articles for living individuals, and two of the three for those who would be considered currently active scholars.

The first part of this volume consists of six introductory essays presenting a survey of “Biblical Interpretation Through the Centuries.” The periods are covered by different contributors and include The Early Church (1-14); The Middle Ages (14-121); The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (22-44); The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (45-66); Europe in the Twentieth Century (67-87); and North American in the Twentieth Century (88-102). Like the individual article, each section contains a useful introductory bibliography. The essays are well done, clearly written and logically presented; particularly in the more complex later essays. Also included are useful indexes of Persons, Subjects, and an alphabetical listing of the individual articles.

The selection of individuals for articles in a work like this is almost certain to solicit discussion on inclusions and exclusions. However, by and large this reviewer has few disagreements with the selection. One could argue that the omission of Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) is a decided mistake. Most certainly the omission of I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) is significant, considering the fact that another living scholar of the same era (Walter Brueggeman, b. 1932), along with the aforementioned Schussler and Trible, were included. Marshall’s influence among evangelicals in biblical interpretation is considerable. Of those included, the oddest entry is perhaps for John Locke (668-70), who though possessing a biblically derived foundation for his theories of politics and economics, his works on biblical studies were not unique and really made no lasting contribution in the field.

The selection for the articles was, however, largely even-handed and represents early Catholic, Reformed, evangelical, and even dispensational contributors. Those of varying denominational affiliations are also represented. All the articles are generally two pages or more and contain significant bibliographies. The articles are exceptionally thorough and do not shy away from pointing out negative aspects of writers’ lives, such as the Nazi affiliations of Gerhard Kittel (614-18), or theology controversy, such as the significant errors of William Barclay (144-46). In a couple of entries, two individuals are listed together because their work is more often considered in a united rather than an individual manner (Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, 606-8; and B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, 1038-43).

This work represents a major and welcome addition to the world of reference works in biblical and theological studies. It will be an excellent jumping off point for students beginning their research and will be exceptionally useful for pastors who would like a little background on various commentators and scholars whom they encounter in their studies but know little about.