In this monograph Williams makes a valiant effort to review changing approaches to the Bible. After a brief introduction, he compares representative examples of classic and modern approaches. Origen and Thomas Aquinas represent the classic approach while Spinoza and Troeltsch represent the modern. While differentiating between Origen and Aquinas, Williams presents their essential point of agreement: they share a belief in inspiration, that is, they possess the conviction that Scripture is from God in a unique way. For Origen, God through the Spirit is the author of Scripture; for Aquinas the Holy Spirit is the principal author while humans are instrumental authors. Both Origen and Thomas presume the importance of the spiritual sense of Scripture, though they understand it differently. For Origen the spiritual meaning is less dependent on the literal and narrative meaning than it is for Aquinas. Both of these classic scholars assume that the text speaks to the present, and that it contains insights beneficial for contemporary thinking and behavior.
Williams presents Spinoza and Troeltsch as representatives of modern approaches to the Bible. Unlike the classic approach the modern approach takes history rather than God as the ultimate source of the biblical texts. Like Origen and Aquinas, Spinoza and Troeltsch have more in common than differences. For both Spinoza and Troeltsch the Bible is seen as an assemblage of diverse texts from diverse historical circumstances that convey the concerns and thoughts of their authors from within their own particular situations. Understanding a given biblical passage depends upon the ability to recover its historical context and read the text in that light, just as it does with any other historical text. Consequently, for both Spinoza and Troeltsch Scripture is dispensable. For Spinoza Scripture is better replaced by a rationalist philosophy that focuses on the eternal principles of Nature; for Troeltsch it is better replaced by the ideal of progress and development within history.
In the second part of the monograph Williams examines the intellectual frameworks of four modern interpreters and in the third section he distinguishes and evaluates how each of the scholars studied appropriates both history and theology in their exegesis of the Bible. Raymond Brown, Brevard Childs, Juan Luis Segundo and Henri de Lubac have in common that they acknowledge the importance and usefulness of the contributions of modern biblical scholarship, especially historical criticism, while also receiving the Bible in faith. Williams sets forth the unique contributions of each interpreter even as he points to the inadequacy of their approaches. He clearly values the work of Brown and deLubac over that of Childs and Segundo. While Childs locates the proper object of biblical study in the canon rather than in the history behind the text or in the multiple parts that comprise the text, still, Williams faults him for not showing more explicitly how and why the canon makes an interpretive difference. While supporting Segundo's liberation stance, Williams criticizes that it is insufficiently based in the historical particulars of Jesus as these are made known through the biblical accounts. Williams lauds Brown's historical-critical work and his commitment to Roman Catholicism. He quotes Brown's article co-authored with Sandra Schneiders in which Brown asserts that no one methodology is sufficient, and lauds Brown's ongoing interest in the difference between what Scripture meant and what Scripture means. Williams commends Brown's efforts to focus on the literal sense of the text while allowing for the development of doctrine. Yet for Williams, de Lubac is the most successful of the four modern interpreters because of his ability to affirm both the indispensable role of history and to defend the traditional approach to biblical interpretation that makes the Bible a unique voice in a new time. Brown is slightly more weighted toward history, while de Lubac is slightly more focused on spiritual exegesis.
This book is difficult for me to evaluate. I must evaluate the book Mr. Williams has written, not the book I would have written. What he does in Receiving the Bible in Faith is commendable; he struggles, as a theologian, to study those modern biblical scholars who have self-consciously tried to bring together their historical scholarship and their faith. It is unfortunate that he did not have many scholars from whom to choose. While there are many excellent Catholic biblical scholars who are both historical critics and people of faith, rarely do they bring these two dimensions of their lives together formally in their work. So for Williams' purpose, his best representatives include Childs, a non-Catholic, Segundo, whose primary area of expertise is not Scripture, and de Lubac who is not contemporary with the others.
My book would have included scholars who use modern literary approaches to biblical interpretation. I would have done so because the scholars who employ these approaches assume historicity; many choose literary or narrative methods to stay close to the text as revelatory and to find a way for the text to speak in the present. Finally, I would have addressed more explicitly the historical context out of which the biblical interpreters that Williams highlights come (especially Brown and de Lubac) and I would have considered the types of audiences to whom they speak. De Lubac should be contextualized among French biblical scholars and Brown's ecumenical context should be taken seriously. But that is my book, not Williams'. Williams' own book is well worth a read. The issues with which he struggles are critical if we are to move forward valuing the particularities of history, including the specificities of Jesus of Nazareth and our own contexts, as well as the faith that convinces us that the Bible is unique, revelatory and very relevant.