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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 222–223 

Book Review

Reading the Sacred Text: An Introduction to Biblical Studies

V. George Shillington. London and New York: T & T Clark, 2002. 322 pages.

Reviewed by Willard Swartley

Reading the Sacred Text combines theory of understanding with interpretation of Scripture in Parts I and III. Part II, the longest, presents factual data on the “history of the biblical text.” Each part contains four main chapters, in addition to an “Introduction” and “Conclusion.” The book contains sixteen pages of bibliography and three indices: Scripture, author, and subject.

Well-suited as an introductory course to biblical studies in upper-level university or seminary, the book is the fruit of Shillington’s teaching career as Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Written descriptively, Shillington also illumines his discussion with life illustrations, through which we learn of his Irish early years.

Shillington’s “Introduction” states his purpose: to inform the act of reading Scripture, assisting readers to make sense of Scripture. Bernard Lonergan is selected as one whose thought combines modern and postmodern dimensions of understanding, contra George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach that shortchanges modern period contributions. Chapter 2 continues the theoretical dive, initiating the reader into theologian Lonergan’s theory of understanding, consisting of four dimensions of human consciousness: empirical, intellectual, rational, and responsible. Acquisition of knowledge leads to responsible action, with moral components. Chapter 3 focuses on “Method Making Methods,” addressing the role of ideology in knowing, informing of tools and rules for biblical studies, and reflecting philosophically on method. Chapters 4 and 5 take up “Aspects of Meaning” and “Language, Speech and Text.” Topics include the relation between the “real world” and “textual meaning,” and the implied author and reader. Shillington illustrates with John’s use of logos, guiding readers to understand logos. {223}

Part II treats the usual topics introducing the history of the biblical text: writing of Scripture, canon formation, the history behind and of the printed text, and then “In Other Words,” an informative survey of translations, ancient and modern. Shillington draws on Bruce Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament and Ernst Würthwein’s The Text of the Old Testament. He treats content found in Paul Wegner’s The Journey from Texts to Translations and David Ewert’s From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations. His treatment is usually briefer, clear, and crisp. He uses tables of information helpfully: comparing the canons of Eusebius, Athanasius, and the Council of Carthage (116); comparisons of selected texts translated by NRSV and NLT (182).

Part III, influenced by postmodern theory, returns to the act of reading to analyze what actually happens. Chapter 10, “The Inter-Act of Reading,” diagrams at two poles the world of the text and the world of the reader, calling for engagement that “decodes” and then “mediates” to connect to the reader. The next two chapters survey modern and postmodern ways of reading Scripture, i.e., a history of interpretation. His final main chapter utilizes Vernon K. Robbins and Stephen E. Fowl to explain “negotiating” the text into our understanding and living (using comments on 1 Cor. 5 as sample). His “Conclusion” returns to Lonergan for the four stage process of “experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding” (292).

Overall, the book makes a fine contribution. Numerous questions might be raised: Is Lonergan a better guide for understanding than Gadamer (whom he mentions) with his fusion of horizons? In accepting Rohrbaugh’s social world analysis reflecting agrarian society—foreign to our more urban life realities—what about Paul who was the missioner to the cities? In listing criteria for canon formation (134), why not consider William Farmer’s compelling contribution that persecution of Christians was a major factor in determining which books survived—only those worth dying for, those that empowered believers in their suffering?

Despite these queries and some minor mistakes (sent to the author), Shillington’s contribution is significant, combining what normally appears in separate books.

Willard Swartley
Professor of New Testament
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana

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