Curse you, John Hobbins! You’ve tagged me with Ken Brown’s challenge to list the five books or authors who have had the most immediate and lasting influence on how I read the Bible. How am I supposed to settle on a mere five?
First, I’ll have to eliminate those whose influence has not centered specifically on how I approach biblical texts. So away with the likes of Robert Webber (who taught me more than anyone else the meaning of worship), William Shakespeare (who understood the human condition about as well as anyone in any century), C. S. Lewis (reasoned apologetics), and Richard Foster (prayer and spiritual disciplines, as well as general ecumenical awareness).
Next, for purposes of this meme, I’ll stick to twentieth-century scholars. Sorry, J. B. Lightfoot—not to mention Homer, Plato, the author(s) of the Didache, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Athanasius of Alexandria.
Finally, As much as it pains me, I’ll remove from the list anyone I have ever personally heard teach or preach. After all, the point of the meme is to highlight the literary contributions of influential writers. That eliminates James D. G. Dunn, George R. Beasley-Murray, David E. Garland, and R. Alan Culpepper.
Having thus trimmed my list to within an inch of its life, I think that by squinting and keeping my fingers crossed I can just about manage to share the top five literary influences on how I read the Bible:
A. T. Robertson (1863–1934)
“Dr. Bob,” as his students affectionately knew him, was a giant in the study of the Greek New Testament. His “Big Grammar” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research) is a compendium of grammatical and philological knowledge probably better than anything else published at the time, and his Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament are a treasure trove for preachers and scholars alike. At least as influential for me, however, was a little book he wrote for seminary students called The Minister and his Greek New Testament. Here, more than anywhere else, one sees the depth of Robertson’s commitment to being a scholar in the service of the church.
Watchman Nee is another writer who captures the importance of reading the Bible devotionally and with an eye toward service to the church, although he can’t hold a candle to Robertson’s scholarship and tends to see broad systematic patterns in Scripture that simply aren’t there. Still, he occasionally delivers a nugget of genuine spiritual wisdom that makes the Bible come alive.
Joachim Jeremias (1900–1979)
Joachim Jeremias was a “gateway” scholar for me into the world of early Judaism. In my first semester of seminary I was required to read his The Parables of Jesus. That same semester, Dr. David Garland suggested I pick up a copy of Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. I have since become acquainted with others of his works (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, The Lord’s Prayer), always to great benefit. His encyclopedic command of early Jewish sources and his close attention to the details of the biblical text opened new vistas for me in terms of a kind of biblical interpretation that, although unashamedly conservative, was also academically rigorous.
I would also note James Michener’s The Source as an excellent imaginative introduction to the biblical and Jewish worlds. Not many writers would dare tell a story that begins with the Neolithic Revolution and ends with the modern state of Israel, but Michener may be the only one who could have pulled it off.
Joseph Campbell (1904–1987)
Having hopefully established my orthodox bona fides, let me now turn to a scholar who wasn’t even a theist! Joseph Campbell was a student and scholar of world mythology. Through books like The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the multi-volume The Masks of God, and The Power of Myth (a popularization of his thought in the form of an interview with Bill Moyers), Campbell sets the stories and symbolism of the Bible in a broader, global and transcultural context. To be sure, he often saw connections that weren’t there and was rather frank about his misgivings about how (conservative) Christians have misunderstood or misappropriated their own stories and symbolism by failing to recognize their character as mythology. Sorry about that, Dr. Campbell, but perhaps Christianity is supposed to subvert the old myths! At the same time, I find that his speculations about the importance of myth, symbol, ritual, and religious experience can shed fresh light especially on the earlier portions of the Old Testament.
Mircea Eliade has made a similar contribution to this sort of approach to the Bible as well as proponents of the Scandinavian school of religious phenomenology such as Helmer Ringgren and Åke Ström.
Morton Kelsey (1917–2001)
This liberal Episcopal priest and Jungian psychologist was influential to me in raising the whole issue of worldviews. He wrote extensively on subjects related to spiritual formation, meditation, and religious experience. Some of his better known titles are Companions on the Inner Way and Prophetic Ministry, and Healing and Christianity. This last was a true eye-opener for me that I have discussed previously. You don’t usually think of an Episcopalian having positive things to say about Pentecostalism or chastising his own coreligionists for disregarding the overwhelming amount of data in the New Testament concerning dreams, visions, glossolalia, angelic visitations, and other forms of “supernatural” occurences. Kelsey does this while attempting to ground his reading of Scripture in the lived experience of the church throughout the ages.
At the same time, Kelsey is quite candid that modern people are not in a position to accept the ancient biblical worldview without some serious adjustments and re-interpretations. Kelsey seeks to bridge the gap between the world of the Bible and the world of today by means of the categories of Jungian psychology, and readers will decide for themselves whether he was successful. At the very least, however, he acknowledged the problems and refused to settle for naïve or simplistic readings of the text.
If Morton Kelsey didn’t exist, this spot would probably go to Walter Wink for his Powers series.
Thomas C. Oden (1937– )
Oden was a mainline liberal divinity student who “saw the light” and fell in love with the Christian tradition. Now he seeks to bring that tradition to bear on the task of Christian theology. He is the editor of the multi-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture—a resource without which one must not be!—and the author of a three-volume systematic theology, The Living God, The Word of Life, and Life in the Spirit. This work is a virtual encyclopedia of the patristic, medieval, and reformation theological consensus. His influence on how I read the Bible is simply to make a firm, passionate case that it matters how past generations of believers have read the Bible and to make available source materials by which it becomes possible to answer that question. Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy contains a final chapter on “Rediscovering the Classical Ecumenical Method” that is well worth the price of the book.
Dan Williams has served a similar role in expanding my appreciation for consensual hermeneutics. I would especially commend his Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism and Evangelicals and Tradition.
That is my list, and I hope I didn’t take too many liberties with my honorable mentions along the way.