Book Review: Seized By Truth by Joel Green

Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.

There are numerous books on how to read the Bible, ranging from books which are devotional in nature to books that are scholarly. Usually the there is a gap between the type of readings that these books advocate for; devotional books usually emphasize that reading is for formation and scholarly books tend to emphasize reading for the sake of acquiring information. Joel Green however presents the reader with a way to read the Bible that is for the sake of formation yet is informed by biblical scholarship. In Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Green argues that Christians must not simply read the biblical writings as texts but as Christian scripture. “To take biblical texts as Scripture has to do with the aim of Scripture” which is to “shape persons’ identities so decisively as to transform them” (5). Throughout the book, he takes this notion that the aim of Scripture is formation, and provides the reader with lessons as to how they should read Scripture in light of its aim.

Green begins the book by asking what “what kind of book is the Bible?” He concludes that it is not like any other book; it is Scripture. To say that the Bible is Scripture is to say that it finds its origin, role, and aim in God’s self-communicative purposes and that the people who receive Scripture are formed in light of God’s self-communication. Although Scripture’s aim is to form the reader, there are several barriers to reading Scripture for the sake of formation. For instance, there is a language gap between the text and reader, often the language of Scripture is ambiguous and culturally embedded thus it is difficult for the reader to understand let alone be shaped by scripture. However, perhaps the most significant barrier to being formed by Scripture is that sometimes readers have a wrong disposition to scripture. If the reader is not willing to be shaped and molded by Scripture, formation will likely never occur.

In the second chapter Green addresses the aims and assumptions that guide the reader’s engagement with the text. One of the most important assumptions that readers have regarding the text is that the Scriptures speak not only to the original audiences but to people today as well. By examining this assumption, Green shows how this assumption helps the reader read for the sake of formation. He begins by looking at how the Old Testament speaks to readers in fresh ways even today. He also looks at how a converted mind is essential to reading the Bible as Scripture. Without conversion, that is allegiance and humility towards God, one cannot truly read for formation. Finally he looks at who the Bible is addressed to. Green suggests that we take the position of the Model Reader when it comes to reading the Bible. By using this notion, as it is articulated by Umberto Eco, he shows how readers today can be formed by a text written thousands of years ago.

In the third chapter Green looks at how readers who read for the sake of formation will approach the interpretation of the text. He argues that a reading of the Bible as Scripture must be ecclesially located. That is the reader must read within the context of God’s people. The reader must be situated within a local church context as well as the context of the church as global and historical. Second, the reader must allow theology to inform her reading. She must be informed by the grand narrative of scripture, by the rule of faith, and by her theological tradition. Third, the reader must have a critical reading. That is the reader must come to the text open to new possibilities and perspectives regarding the significance and use of the text. Finally, a reading of the Bible as Scripture must necessarily involve the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, transformation will not occur.

In the fourth chapter Green works through how the reader can interpret the text. He does this by examining three categories which have been used to classify methods of interpretation: behind the text, in the text, and in front of the text. He brings up difficulties with all three was of interpreting texts and concludes by saying that the best way forward is to take seriously “the concerns and emphases of all three, (but) priority belongs to one – the text itself” (140). Keeping this in mind he points out that there is no fixed formula for how to use these three methods, there is only a process for how to interpret, thus interpretation is not a science but an art. As an art, there are no right interpretations, only better and worse interpretations.

The final chapter deals with the authority of Scripture. He points out that there is crisis in understanding the function of Scripture. Some readers understand the function of Scripture as a bearer of propositional truths, when in reality its function is the formation of the reader. There is also a crisis in seeing the Bible as irrelevant, once again this crisis arises from a view of Scripture that does not prioritize formation. Finally there is a crisis in understanding the authority of Scripture. As readers begin to see that Scripture is the narrative of God’s story, and begin to see themselves as a part of that story, they will come to realize that God is inviting the reader to be transformed to be better actors within that story. As they allow themselves to be transformed by Scripture, they will realize that the Bible’s authority relies upon the one who invites us into his story.

In examining this book critically I would like to make two observations. First, this book should be commended for its originality. In the beginning he states that people often experience the reading of Scripture as a dry, boring, and uninspiring exercise; for some it even seems like a chore. It seems as though approaching the Bible with better interpretive skills or greater knowledge of the narrative and background could alleviate this problem. Yet this is rarely the case, it is often the case that the more one knows the more dry the text becomes. For this reason many Christians have avoided any scholarly discussions of the Bible; they are afraid that scholarship will hamper their experience of reading the Bible. This is precisely the point that Green’s book is original, Green shows the reader that Biblical scholarship can and should help the reader’s experience with the Bible come alive. By making use of philosophy, social science, and cognitive theory he shows the vital role that reading the Bible plays in spiritual formation. He also shows that having a theory of interpretation, in Green’s case a theory which prioritizes the text but takes seriously the stuff in front of and behind the text, can help the reader get beyond themselves and read scripture in a way that forms them. Green’s originality lies in the fact that he presents the reader with a fresh way to read for the sake of formation that is informed by scholarship.

Yet there are also shortcomings in this book. I have in mind certain points in which he is ambiguous with what he is trying to argue for. Green points out that most hermeneutical theories today argue that in order to understand the meaning of the Biblical text we must first come to understand the ancient world and what the text meant in the past and then translate those truths into language which is in line with contemporary thought and language of the modern world. This method assumes that we are not the audience; the people in the past were the audience. Yet, recently new models of interpretation have been proposed, ones in which the reader and the text together generate a meaning. Among these models for reading and understanding the text is reading as a Model Reader. Umberto Eco articulates this concept. Eco speaks of reading as a model reader “as the practice of those who are able to deal with texts in the act of interpreting in the same way as the author dealt with them in the act of writing” (57). By doing this, the reader is not making a pilgrimage into the past to understand the meaning back then, but is making herself at home in the strange world of the text (60). Green thinks reading as a model reader will help with formation, yet it is not clear how it is even possible to read as the model reader. How can a reader interpret the text in the same way the writer is writing the text? Just as in the first model of interpretation there is a linguistic gap, and therefore a gap in conceptual schemes. Secondly, it is impossible for anyone to understand what its like to think the thoughts of another person; so how is the reader supposed to interpret the text this way? Thus it seems as though it is impossible to read as a Model reader. Either this notion is incoherent or there is something missing in Green’s argument for making use of the Model Reader.

Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives; Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture is a worthwhile read. It provides a great introduction as to what it would look like to read the Bible for spiritual formation while making use of good biblical scholarship.

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