Dale Martin – Biblical Truths [Feature Review]

May 25, 2017 — Leave a comment


Reading with Creative Anachronism 
A Feature Review of 

Biblical Truths: The meaning of Scripture in the 21st Century.
Dale Martin

Hardback: Yale UP, 2017.
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Reviewed by Jordan Kellicut
Biblical Truths: the meaning of Scripture in the 21st Century is billed as a ground-breaking book which seeks to give a framework for how to think theologically in light of our postmodern world. From the first page Martin lays out intriguing and frequently scandalous methods of interpretation. His introduction is a critical introduction to his thesis and methodology. Martin argues, rather persuasively, that there is a difference between pre-modern and modern Biblical interpretation. Namely the pre-modern Christian assumed that everything in the Bible was written to that person, in that place and that time. Thus the meaning of the text was not necessarily what the author meant. This is striking since the prevailing thought in both academic and popular understanding is the meaning of a text is located not “in” but “behind” the text – what I learned to call “authorial intent.” A substantial amount of Martin’s introduction is dedicated to tracking how this hermeneutic progressed into modern theology. He then contends that the division between Bible and theology is a modern invention and not a helpful one.

What is his methodology and solution then, in terms of his attempt at a “Biblical Theology?” My criticism of the book is that he doesn’t seem to have one. In fact paradoxically he insists that Biblical Truths is not a “Biblical Theology.” By this he seems to mean he is not interested in trying to decipher a systematic theology or a “theology of the New Testament.” Indeed such a system is neither possible nor was ever intended. (30) He explains his thinking like this:

I often offer readings of biblical texts to convey theological truths though I know that the “meaning” (here meaning authorial intent) I am taking from the text would not have been even understandable to the original author or readers. I practice creative anachronism. I read into the text all kinds of views I would not say are simply in the text. This is creative, Christian interpretation that uses the text of the Bible as something with which I “think theologically.” (31)

I offer this lengthy quote because it is the very heart of his methodology, and thus the rest of the book. It is with this “creative anachronism” as the book progresses through a fairly standard set of topics: Knowledge, Scripture, God, Christ, Spirit, Human(s) and the Church. This creative anachronism is applied widely and freely, producing interesting results.

Yet the Achilles heel to such a methodology is that this position makes it difficult to criticize. Indeed Martin has no interest in making apology neither for his position, nor for Christianity in general. This position makes the book’s title, which seems so propositional, almost miss labeling. Indeed Martin says that anything he has to say is utterly provisional. Perhaps the book would better be titled Provisional and Possible Truths Loosely Based on the Bible. I mean this not as a slam, because Martin proves he is incredibly conversant with both theology and the Bible, but rather simply to summarize what Martin is actually proposing. He is radically positional in his theology and terms this book as “a non-foundationalist (this means the Bible is “interpretation all the way down”), postmodern, Marxist, orthodox, ecumenical and provisional theological interpretation of the New Testament.” (32) This is completely born through the book, and seen in various ways, though it is in no way systematically approached.

Martin achieves, in a fresh and interesting way, exactly what he set out to create. If what I have quoted above sounds interesting to you, then you will enjoy this book. His one claim that caused difficulty was his claim to be “orthodox.” This is a loose term and I struggled to see where he was proposing anything orthodox. While scripture can be re-interpreted quite freely he holds fast to the idea of the Kergyma of the Gospel, which to Martin is the message of salvation through faith in Jesus as seen in texts like John 3:16. (78-79) Similarly he seems to believe generically in the Trinity and the creeds, though in a far less literal way than one might assume. These seem generally to point toward “love” or toward the human experience. For example, he takes Jesus’ descent into hell in the Apostles Creed as a reference to our own dark experiences. (197)

In this way, Martin’s hermeneutic is seeking to maintain a certain kind of Kerygmatic orthodoxy in a post-modern world. This is in fact much of Martin’s project. Yet he jettisons so much, re-envisions so much, and essentially undercuts any ability to defend that position. I would find it difficult to call his position orthodox, but it could easily be a starting point for an ecumenical theology, namely because there would be very little to actually believe or practice. To quote him: “I have no interest in offering reasons to believe in God… faith in God is taken as a starting point.” (111) Thus it might be helpful for anyone willing to take such a loose view of scripture and orthodoxy, but it would likely leave many out.

Biblical Truths will be of interest to anyone who actively starts where Martin does, not of course just with God, but with his other presuppositions. If you start somewhere from a different place you will likely find this book less helpful and unconvincing.