The way we read the Bible can affect what we get from the Bible. And since there are five ways to read the Bible there are five ways to feast on what the Bible offers. Find out more in today’s episode.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Five Models of Scripture” by Mark Reasoner. 311 pages, published by Eerdmans in August 2021. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD19.17 and it was free last month via Logos. If you missed the free book, shame on you, but you can always make up for it by getting this month’s free book from Logos and Faithlife. I’ll tell you more about it at the end of the review.
Roman Catholic and the Elephant
It has been said, “Seminary is where faith goes to die.” There the Bible ceases to become a fount of comfort and becomes a document to dissect. Take heart, Mark Reasoner has written today’s book to help everyone understand the five models of Scripture to nourish the faith.
And when I say everyone, I am thinking of Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox.
Mark Reasoner got his MDiv and MA in New Testament from an evangelical Protestant Seminary. Then, tragically or fortunately, depending on where you stand, he became a Roman Catholic and is now teaching Scripture to undergraduates at a Roman Catholic university.
I do my best to respect readers’ diverse ecclesiastical affiliations. It would have been easier to write this book simply for Catholic seminarians. But Scripture is too sumptuous a feast to limit a book like this to one branch of the family.
Later he writes:
Yes, I actually regard the Catholic hermeneutic, in which the Catholic Church’s teaching office provides the boundaries and referees on the field of exegesis, as preferable to the hermeneutic popularized by the Anabaptists during the Reformation, in which the individual believer marks the boundaries and functions as both player and referee. I also regard the Catholic hermeneutic with its millennia of tradition and conversations across time and cultures as preferable to approaches that have selected a single individual or limited body of believers as the arbiters of exegesis. And so there will be places where I point out the ecclesiastical stakes in a given approach to Scripture. It is better to name the elephant in the room than to proceed as if the church question does not matter in exegesis.
That is a big elephant and one that jumps up every so often in this book. We will talk more about it in the second half of this review.
Canon and Inspiration
This is my first Roman Catholic book review. I just generally don’t come across them in my reading radar. And I’m happy to read what they believe straight from the horse’s mouth.
For example, we know that the Roman Catholic bibles have extra books, the Apocrypha. Protestants removed them because they are not inspired. Roman Catholics and Orthodox know they are not inspired but have left them in. Why?
Reasoner goes through the history of the biblical canon, how the early church dealt with the Apocrypha and amongst many points, he notes how a familiarity with the fantastic, fictive elements helps readers to:
identify more non-historical elements in other narratives, such as the narrative of Jonah and the great fish or various episodes within the book of Daniel.
We’ll come back to what Reasoner calls fantastic and fictive elements in the Bible later.
After explaining what is the Bible canon, Reasoner turns to the matter of biblical inspiration. And I like how he explains what biblical inspiration means for the Protestant (he was one before), the Catholic (who he is now) and the Orthodox. Reasoner wants to unite all Bible readers together. Is he successful? There are good reasons to be hopeful.
Five Models of Scripture
Having established what is the canon and inspiration from the perspective of Roman Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, we go into the essence of the book: the five models of Scripture, which are:
Without knowing it, you actually employ one of those models every time you read the Bible. Reasoner tells you which model you are using. I quote:
You know that someone is using the documents model when they seek to identify and argue that a specific human authored a book of the Bible …, when they emphasise that eyewitness testimony is behind a given book of the Bible …, when they seek to discover and prove the date(s) when a given book of the Bible was written or edited …, when they seek to discover and prove what sources were used in the composition of a biblical book …, when they seek to harmonise Scripture’s differing accounts of the same event.
Isn’t that how everyone reads the Bible? No, that’s how scholars read them. Children read the Bible as a story. Not just children but adults too!
When you read the Bible as stories, which is the second model, you pay attention to the plot or the literary style. Even if what you are reading is not a story. What do I mean by that? The models Reasoner describes are not genres. Genres are categories of literature, they are fixed, e.g. Genesis is narrative, it is not poetry. Psalms is poetry, it is not narrative.
Reasoner’s models are about the way you read, while genres are about what you read. Adopting a Stories model, you can read Psalms as part of the bigger story of Israel relationship with God.
The third model makes this quite clear. Everything in the Bible can be turned into prayer. If you read the Bible with that frame of mind, then you are using Reasoner’s third model, the prayer model. You are not asking who wrote Psalms, when and where (that would be using the Documents model) nor are you wondering what is the plot (that’s the Stories model) but rather you read the Bible in order to pray, to evoke the gift of God’s revelation to touch the divine.
Next is the fourth model, the laws model. Here, you think about what is right and what is wrong, you look for the moral lesson in what you read.
The fifth and final model is oracles. The Fortune Cookie model. You open the Bible and a verse pops up and that verse is the answer to the problem of the day. Yes, it smacks of superstition and it breeds a consumer mentality. Initially, I rejected this as a valid model to read Scripture.
But Reasoner addresses the abuses of this model. And he gently corrects me by pointing out that we all, at some point, read Scripture using the oracles model. Augustine’s life was changed by one verse. You and I have stories of how that perfect verse was the answer in our time of need. I appreciate it when a book changes my mind, especially when it’s backed by strong reasoning.
These five “Models of Scripture” chapters are models of clarity. For each chapter, Reasoner starts with a definition and characteristics and specific applications of the model. If you still fail to understand what the definitions and characteristic means, his examples from the Old Testament and New Testament will clear everything up. Then he discusses the key issues of the model, the strengths and limitations of the model, before concluding the chapter with helpful suggestions, making a helpful distinction between the classroom and ministry.
But that’s only half the book! He then spends a chapter to discuss about literal and spiritual senses, another chapter on Sola Scriptura – a Roman Catholic speaking about Sola Scriptura, so much to say here but I will resist the temptation – and another chapter on metanarratives. There is – surprise, surprise! – more than one way to outline the grand story of the Bible. But these are controversial chapters.
The least controversial chapters are the last, chapters 11 and 12. Scripture in Worship and Devotional, Academic and Professional Uses of Scripture. These are mild chapters in comparison and most of the time easily agreeable to all Christians.
As he wrote in the introduction, Reasoner did not set out to write a book to defend the Roman Catholic faith but rather to share different ways of reading the Bible to enrich all Christians. Nevertheless, he does not shy away from asserting Roman Catholic views over Protestant’s.
I Beg To Disagree
I wonder whether does his interpretation of certain verses reflect the official Roman Catholic view or whether his views are even within the boundaries of acceptable Roman Catholic thought.
Reasoner says that there was no big fish in Jonah, there are events in Daniel that are fictional, there was no conquest of Canaan and the list goes on.
Let me pick an easy one to dismiss. Reasoner empathises with Origen’s dilemma with Matthew 5:39, which reads “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Consider the problem. Since most people are right-handers, a slap would land on the left cheek, not on the right. Origen concludes that this means the command was not meant to be taken literally but spiritually.
But I ask you, wouldn’t it be easier to interpret the slap as a backhand slap, or that Jesus was looking at a left-hander when he was preaching, or maybe people that time used their left hand because they sneered, “you don’t even deserve to be slapped by my right hand.” Why take this command in the spiritual sense when the rest of the sermon is understood in the literal sense?
At another point of the book, he writes:
But once one has learned of some of the historical questions behind Scripture, such as the lack of any evidence for camels in the land of Canaan during the time of Abraham, the lack of any sign of military conquest of Canaan in the Iron Age, or the fact that Quirinius was not governor of Syria when Jesus was born (cf. Luke 2:2), then it is difficult to read the Bible simply as a compilation of time capsules. Indeed, if we are to love God with all our minds, then for those of us who have studied the Bible academically, we must read it both as scriptural time capsules and as artifacts of others’ faith. If we turn our minds off and seek to read it only as scriptural time capsules, we are not fully loving God with our minds (Deut 6:5).
In Reasoner’s mind, this is the best way to handle the difficulties in the Bible. If it doesn’t make sense, just change the way we read it. The documents model does not fit so read it with a stories model. But Luke writes his gospel claiming it is an accurate historical record. We can’t just ignore his claim, can we?
So many seemingly historical inaccuracies in the Bible were later proven to be accurate! Archaeologists dig up pots, jugs and bullas, a shepherd boy throws stones into a cave and together they silence Bible sceptics everywhere.
Who Shall Come To Our Aid?
Looking at my long list of disagreements with Reasoner, how can we resolve this? The best way is to refer to the Roman Catholic Church.
Listen to this:
The Council of Trent responds to Protestant developments, and so begins its section on Scripture with an insistence that the gospel Christ proclaimed, described as “the source of all saving truth and rule of conduct,” is “contained in the written books and unwritten traditions that have come down to us, having been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself.” Thus there is an emphasis that the inspiration of Scripture is not sufficient as a guide to all truth but is complemented by the traditions that have come down to us.
Trent also emphasized the significance of reading Scripture with the church, instead of trying to interpret it on one’s own in ways that depart from what the church, including the church fathers, has taught.
To me, this begs the question, if a church father or a pope flatly dismisses Reasoner’s interpretation, what will Reasoner do? Does he meekly submit to tradition even though those people in the past never thought of or considered Reasoner’s points? Or does Reasoner hold on to his convictions that depart from what the church, including the church fathers, has taught? Come on, did the early church believe that the conquest of Canaan was fiction, or that Jonah’s big fish was a fisherman’s exaggeration for spiritual effect?
Reasoner mentions at one point that everyone, including Protestants have their own body of authority, their own traditions and church fathers to appeal to. Yes, but Protestants are brought up to believe that if any of our authorities got it wrong, then they are wrong! Are popes infallible?
Smart Enough to Solve a Jigsaw Puzzle
Although Reasoner does not say so in this book, I think Roman Catholics believes so. And Roman Catholics have a reason to believe that people in the past got things perfectly right. After all, they were wise enough to assemble the Bible together.
It was the church that selected and canonized Scripture. And as we will see in the sola Scriptura chapter, the church is necessary for guiding our reading of Scripture.
Catholic and Orthodox theologians are more likely to include the church in their discussion of the origin of Scripture’s authority. They emphasize that it is the church that has recognized Scripture as inspired and therefore invested it with authority. This leads to a more tradition-conscious way of reading Scripture. If one views Scripture as simply falling out of heaven, there is more of a tendency to use one interpretation of it as the only legitimate interpretation, which all people must heed. If one by contrast views Scripture as the church’s book, one will not accept only one interpretation as legitimate until one has considered how the tradition has handled the passage.
Both Catholic and Orthodox churches view Scripture as the creation of the church. In their consciousness, Scripture was composed by, collected by, and canonized by the church. Protestants by contrast, …, are more prone to treat God’s word as its own category, closer to the doctrine of God and not inside the doctrine of the church.
Later on Reasoner writes:
Catholic and Orthodox theologians prioritize the church over Scripture, emphasizing that this priority occurs in history and in logic. By “history” I mean the fact that the church came into being first, and then centuries later defined its canon of Scripture. By “logic” I mean the idea that the text of Scripture only functions as Scripture when it is read and interpreted within the church.
In response, I quote Charles Spurgeon who said, “The church does not determine what the Bible teaches, the Bible determines what the church must teach.”
To illustrate, I ask that you imagine in front of you a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces. A big glorious mess. Your job is to assemble the puzzle but there are some pieces that don’t actually belong there. So you set to work. And you solved the puzzle.
You deserve some credit for solving the puzzle, but you could only solve it because you recognised the colour, the lines and how each piece connects to one another, so that you can assemble it the whole thing, right? So the key to assembling the puzzle is because there was a final picture fixed beforehand, correct?
Imagine another person who grew weary solving the puzzle. He decides to glue the pieces together, oh never mind if it doesn’t fit, or if the picture doesn’t make sense, just as long as I get something to fit the picture frame. At the end, he declares, “This is the final picture because I got it to fit into the frame!”
If you believe that people can be smart enough, wise enough, to put together the Holy Word of God, then of course it is reasonable to give weight to tradition.
But if you believe that God first established the Bible and it is a miracle of the first order that the early church recognised the pieces for what they were, the same Holy Spirit wrought miracle that got us to recognise the Word for what it is, then you would also believe that priority goes to that shining beacon of Truth, Scripture, not the Church. And we would be less inclined to see the Church and tradition as infallible or even as helpful as others do.
A Better Book?
How did we get here?
We started with the problem that people only knew how to read the Bible in one way and didn’t get the full nourishment it offers. Reasoner gives us five models with some discussions on how to read the Bible.
Alongside the good, he gives what I think are bad interpretations. I make a list.
He says interpretations should be subject to church and tradition. I say, “Oh dear”.
He says it was the church who established the Bible. I say “Ah, that’s why everything is wrong.”
Would this be a better book if Reasoner wrote it without these Roman Catholic hot takes? You see, anybody could have written a book on the five models of Scripture and gave it a different spin.
Instead of saying, “We should consider changing the model when things don’t make sense”, we could say, “Let’s consider the genre of the book, does the genre demand from us to take it as a historical document?” By the way, this book really needs a discussion on literary genre.
Instead of saying, “This doesn’t make sense let us read it allegorically or spiritually”, we could say, “Have we dug deep enough? Are we humble enough to wait?” Science, history, linguistics and divine intervention have made Bible skeptics eat humble pie.
In conclusion, Reasoner’s book is great as an introduction to this five models of Scripture. He seeks to unite but the thoughtful Protestant will meet resistance. What I tried to do in today’s review is to identify the root cause of this resistance. It’s ironic that the reason we differ so much is, ultimately, we hold to a different model of Scripture.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “Five Models of Scripture” by Mark Reasoner. 311 pages, published by Eerdmans in August 2021. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD19.17 and it was free last month via Logos.
For the month of June, the Logos free book is “The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World” by R.C. Sproul. And in Faithlife, their free book for June is “Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs” by Mark Devine. I’m a big fan of Sproul and of Bonhoeffer so I really hope I can review these two books before the deal ends. But really, why take that risk. Just get the two books now and figure out later whether you will actually read it. Go on. This episode is finished, so that you can get those free books. Bye bye!