The context for this study is set in two scenes: the 1998 Anglican Lambeth Conference where bishops struggled to speak as one about what the Scriptures say and the church should consequently do in regard to homosexuality; and Pope John Paul II and the Pontifical Biblical Institute and key theologians (e.g. Karl Rahner) who hold divergent views about what Scripture says and the church should do about the ordination of women. This book, Bryan promises, is what he would say to the Anglican bishops if asked. He factors the relevant questions about Scripture and belief at the end of the book's introduction and then moves to address them in two large sections: Part I: What Do We Believe? And Part II: What Should We Do?
Bryan enunciates clearly in Part One, with nine concise chapters, what comprises (Anglican and Roman Catholic) belief about Scripture. Grounding his exposition in the rich story of the conversion and baptism of Cornelius (Acts 10), Bryan affirms that it is not usually immediately obvious what Scripture means and teaches; people of good will likely vary in their assessment, and we can learn more than we knew earlier. Good interpretation requires skilled effort; though meaning is not obvious, neither is it hopeless to come to an understanding of biblical teaching. The proper interpreter of Scripture is the Church--the whole church, ideally, not this and that denomination or subgroup; properly understood, "sola Scriptura" does not exclude extra-biblical tradition. Bryan then explains Scripture as revelatory: it is God's self-disclosure, God's meeting with us. The Church came, in time and not without controversy, to understand both testaments as revelatory. Though revelation can be in Jesus Christ, in nature and in experience, Scripture's language is literary and thus has the benefits and deficits of literary language, notably that it helps humans to articulate our experience (benefit) but does not render its communication with the precision of a language like numbers (potential deficit). The Scriptural revelation of God is, most foundationally, an invitation to a relationship; it is not an answer book to moral problems and ought not be expected to function in that way. The "how" of God's self- disclosure in Scripture has been called by theologians "inspiration." That Scripture, influenced by the Holy Spirit, is uniquely and adequately revelatory of God is a matter of faith and not of scientific explanation. Bryan concludes this first section with a review of what the canonicity of the Bible entails and implies, both in general and with some sketching of both the commonality and also variety of the canon from one Christian group to another. And he then names Scripture's authority as appellatory (as distinct from coercive), rooted in Scripture's character as revelatory, inspired and canonical.
Part Two addresses the appropriate response to the points Bryan has just offered so succinctly. If believers hold the truths he has just summarized, then the response will be threefold: members of Christian communities will listen attentively as the Church (which comprises many such communities) interprets and appropriates, lives and prays Scripture. Biblical riches are best unfolded in prayer, sacrament, ritual and preaching--good preaching, of course. Second, believers will study the Bible, boldly, alert to and appreciative of its various historical and literary facets, willing to engage some hermeneutical theory. Third, those committed to Scripture will make decisions in light of the Bible, which brings Bryan back to his original hypothetical confrontation with the Lambeth Conference. In this final chapter, Bryan addresses the pastoral leadership problems facing the assembly, not to give an answer but to review and summarize what he has said about Scripture. The book concludes with a brief note on some technical terms (e.g., "the rule of faith"; some sorting of "literal," "literary," "literalist") and suggestions for further reading.
The book is well-written, moves efficiently and logically across its topics, speaks directly and simply with ample use of example and analogy--notably from Western literature (e.g., Shakespeare). The component topics are presented clearly, offering a helpful overview of what is actually a vast set of topics and occasionally adding helpful detail. If there is fault, it is perhaps in that the book is more a summary than a pioneer. Bryan is at his best at presenting the issues in a way that makes them clear and compelling; but he does not engage the problematic parts, where generalizations falter and no longer serve adequately, where people of good will clash over specific and vital issues. As he returns to the Lambeth Conference, it would have been useful had he spoken directly to the topic they were struggling with: homosexuality in the Church. I understand that the point of the book is not to address specific topics but rather the importance of Scripture for those topics. But that Bryan rests content with generalizations about leadership and conflict, wonderful though those are, somewhat shadows all he has said about Scripture's urgent relevance for the church and its members.