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Richard Soulen: Sacred Scripture


Richard N. Soulen, Sacred Scripture: A Short History of Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), xv + 216 pages, ISBN 9780664232467.

There are numerous books presenting overviews of the history of biblical interpretation. This book belongs near the top in terms of readability—it can be read at a fast clip with hardly any loss of comprehension.

Soulen takes the reader through more than 2000 years of reading Scripture, beginning with a survey of how the later books of the Old Testament engage the earlier books. (This part of the book is basically an extended report on Michael Fishbane’s treatment of the subject.) Soulen briefly discusses how different Jewish groups and the NT writers interpret Scripture. He then moves on to the patristic writers, introducing the most important figures and describing their contributions to the field of biblical interpretation. Soulen then moves to a trio of representative figures from the twelfth century, and then on to Luther. In a work that seeks to give only occasional and representative samples, there are, at this point, some rather surprising omissions. One certainly would have expected some discussion of the Reformed tradition, especially John Calvin himself. Wesley is likewise completely skipped, as is the entire Great Awakening. There is also no discussion of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Princetonians (Warfield, etc.), an omission that perhaps accounts for the fact that the index to this work contains no entry for “inspiration”. I will grant that a work of this sort must skip some things, but the choices of what to skip and what to include often seem rather odd.

Another drawback of the book is that it attempts to promote the rather troubling (and poorly argued) views of Hans Frei. It almost seems, in fact, that the reason for the above-mentioned omissions is that the book’s real purpose is not so much to provide an overview as to serve as an apology for Frei. Soulen discusses Frei in two chapters, both times presenting him not so much as a historical subject but rather as a messenger of the truth regarding how Scripture should be read.

Readers who want an overview of the interpretation of Scripture should look elsewhere.

Reviewed by John C. Poirier


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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2011

About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), is an independent scholar who has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. He is the author of The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture (2021).

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