Liberating the Bible is Linda MacCammon’s response to what she describes as three serious obstacles that prevent students from engaging scripture in an authentic way: an intimidating lack of accessibility for the “Bible-curious,” use of the Bible as a “divinely-sanctioned rulebook,” and Christian interpretations that limit and distort its revelatory message. A Christian ethicist teaching at St. John Fisher College, MacCammon seeks to overcome these problems by examining what she calls the “pedagogical dimensions of God’s redemptive activity” and then assessing their value as a model for constructing contemporary Christian ethics.
Using Paul Ricoeur’s concept of the “economy of the gift” to organize the book, MacCammon argues that each period of Biblical history reveals a divine plan for creation that is governed and maintained by God’s unconditional love without an expectation of equal exchange. Five chapters are given to a detailed exegesis of each of the major “gifts” revealed in the Biblical texts — creation, covenant, the Law, the prophets, and Jesus as the prophet-Messiah. These middle chapters are supported by an introduction to Biblical background and interpretation, a presentation of Genesis 1-11 as an ethical foundation for the Biblical gifts, a review of intertestamental history, and a concluding discussion of how this analysis “liberates” the Bible. Each chapter includes a few reflection and discussion questions, some of which engage a hermeneutical reading of the Bible, and several recommended readings cited in the chapter. The presentation includes occasional sidebars on topics like “Who were the prophets?” and “Why a golden calf?,” as well a very readable synopsis of “Cultural History and the Development of the Biblical Texts.” The endnotes are helpful for following MacCammon’s line of research.
Among the pedagogical strengths of this book is MacCammon’s skillful exegesis which combines close reading with a detailed understanding of the historical and cultural context and on-going scholarly debate. Her emphasis is on the text itself, using long excerpts and intertextual connections to draw the reader deeply into the Biblical language, style, and theology. Interpretive concepts such as the documentary hypothesis and two-source theory are introduced in small doses as they apply to the text at hand, allowing them to be absorbed slowly and concretely.
Different from a more typical Biblical survey, MacCammon is intent on correcting what she sees as a misappropriation of the Bible that excludes people from its salvific message — non-Christians, women, gays and lesbians, for example. Of greatest concern to her is “supersessionism,” the belief that with the coming of Jesus Christ, the Christian Church replaces Israel in God’s plan of redemption, consequently excluding Jews from salvation. She cites the evangelical “Jesus Camps”, the politics of the “Christian Right,” and even the Catholic Church’s teachings found in Dominus Iesus as examples (141). To counter this “exclusionary theology” MacCammon connects the narratives of Abraham and Jesus to claim that Jesus embodies an Abrahamic form of faith that is central to salvation. Using Paul’s Letter to the Galatians she argues that “…faith in God’s salvific intentions — as modeled by Abraham and witnessed in the Sinai covenant and the Christ-event — is the necessary condition that enables both Jews and Christians to obey God’s commandments in both letter and Spirit, thus making them righteous before God” (241).
MacCammon’s theocentric interpretation may, as she herself acknowledges, draw the criticism that such a reading weakens both Jewish and Christian religious identity. Her view of God’s revelation as an on-going, dynamic, and open-ended process also has implications for moral theology that may be perceived as relativist or insufficiently attentive to the role of tradition in Biblical interpretation. Despite such resistance, her approach is likely to appeal to that broad audience of the “curious and perplexed” and even disaffected who want to understand the Bible’s significance for today’s needs and problems. MacCammon argues that Scripture does provide some universal values that can and should be used in ethical reflection, but it also contains much moral content that is too culturally and historically conditioned to be useful in contemporary times. Thus, we must temper specific Biblical teachings with other moral sources and recognize that new gifts of the Spirit may appear that require us to revise some traditional understandings of Biblical morality. This view uncovers the riches of the Bible for all faiths and times by balancing knowledge of its traditions with openness to its new revelations. Such an approach would be refreshing for an undergraduate course or adult study group.