Book Review: The Bible and Epistemology
Thanks to Paternoster for a review copy of Parry, Robin, and Mary Healy, eds. The Bible and Epistemology: Biblical Soundings on the Knowledge of God. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007.
In the midst of what the editors understand as a 'renewal of Christian epistemological reflection' there 'lies a curious black hole. The unaccountable void to which we refer lied in the world of biblical studies' (xi).
While not attempting to cover all of the ground, this small volume of essays makes a helpful contribution to plugging up that aforementioned hole. In the first part, a team of scholars (both Catholic and Protestant) examine epistemology in Deuteronomy (chapter 1), the Prophetic literature (chapter 2), the Psalms (chapter 3), Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (chapter 4), Luke-Acts (chapter 5), the Johannine literature (chapter 6), and Paul (chapter 7). Part 2 discusses theological and philosophical issues, reflecting on the principles of biblical epistemology (chapter 8), and biblical epistemology as it engages philosophical trends (chapter 9).
Interestingly, a number of features repeat themselves in almost all of the chapters in part 1, namely they all perceive biblical epistemology in relational terms. Knowledge of God comes through relationship with God, through self-involved commitment to God. In other words, rather than mastering the object of knowledge in a disinterested manner, as in popular caricatures of modernity, biblical epistemology proceeds on the basis of 'the risk of self-engagement which is the sine qua non of personal knowledge' (Mary Healy in her essay on epistemology in Paul, 144). A number of the biblical scholars point out how this relational understanding of epistemology, through its participatory nature, rejoins ethics with knowledge, driven asunder in many forms of modernity. And Barthians (among others) will rejoice at the emphasis, seen in the analysis of the biblical texts in part 1, placed on the necessity of the divine initiative in all knowledge, of the self-revelation of God that makes the knowledge of God possible.
Writing a doctorate on relational Christology, I was unsurprised by Mary Healy's proposals in her chapter on Paul, and gladdened to see the subject formulated in a relational manner with such clarity. While her confessional bias was at times acutely felt, her judicious treatment on Paul was especially helpful. I was also struck by the boldness amongst the contributors to contrast biblical epistemology with that found in modernity. All the while modernity held sway, it was as if many theologians, apart from a notable few, were scared to admit the differences between the two epistemologies (exemplified in a remarkably consistent way throughout the biblical texts on the one hand, and modernity on the other). Now that theologians have been emboldened by the supposed demise of modernity, or at least the modernity-critical thrust within late or post modernity, it is refreshing to see more honesty about the discrepancy between the bible and modernity in terms of epistemology. Indeed, the developing affection for relational and interdisciplinary models of knowledge in late modernity allows the biblical texts to be engaged with fresh appreciation, a task in which this book revels.
I end this short review with a passage that grabbed me at an existential level. I read it and heard the point with unusual force.
'We need to be constantly reminded ... that theological knowing is inseperable from the life of obedience and faith. It is fostered through worship and prayer – those practices by which we submit ourselves to the Word and Spirit of God – and is borne of humility before the Word' (Murray Rae, 163)
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