Many Christians today simply have no functional doctrine of Scripture. We may affirm that Scripture is “inspired” or “the word of God,” but we don’t fill these terms up with very much content. Some Protestant traditions affirm biblical inerrancy. Roman Catholics have a well-developed set of doctrinal statements on Scripture. For many of us in the mainline, though, and increasingly in evangelicalism, we have learned to be “critical” of Scripture without a clear sense of what Scripture is (its ontology) or what it does (its teleology). We may disagree with the position of inerrancy that some of our brothers and sisters in the faith hold, but we have little to offer in its place.
I was particularly happy to see, then, a new volume by two Free Methodist scholars, Daniel Castelo and Robert W. Wall. These two professors at Seattle Pacific University have produced a helpful book called The Marks of Scripture: Rethinking the Nature of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2019).
I won’t provide a full review here, but I will note some of the book’s more interesting features. Castelo and Wall take issue with what is called the “incarnational analogy.” The incarnational analogy holds that, like Christ, Scripture has both divine and human qualities. It is inspired by God, but it also comes to us from particular historical and cultural contexts and bears the marks of its original settings. Some writers have found this analogy helpful for communicating God’s work in the production of Scripture without diminishing Scripture’s historically conditioned nature.
Castelo and Wall, however, argue that the humanity and divinity of Christ are simply too different from the “humanity” and “divinity” of Scripture to be useful. When we speak of Christ’s humanity and divinity, we are speaking of two natures brought together in the hypostatic union. Christians claim that Christ is truly human (taking on every aspect of our nature) and truly divine (of one substance with the Father). No one would make this claim about the Bible (we hope). The specificity and uniqueness of our claim that Christ is both divine and human means that the incarnational analogy is likely more misleading than helpful.
In place of the incarnational analogy, Castelo and Wall offer the “church-Scripture” analogy. Scripture was born of God’s work in the church. Its proper setting is within the church. Its purpose is to lead people into salvation, which is also the purpose of the church. Like the church, Scripture is “thoroughly creaturely.” Because of Scripture’s intimate connection to the church, Castelo and Wall suggest that we understand Scripture according to the nature of the church, rather than the nature of Christ.
According to the Nicene Creed, there are four marks of the church. It is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Castelo and Wall spend one chapter on each of the marks, first explaining how each mark properly describes the church, and then suggesting what it might mean to apply each mark to Scripture. Scripture’s oneness is intimately tied to the church’s oneness. Scripture’s holiness is tied to the church’s holiness. You get the idea. The result is a fruitful theological analysis of the nature and function of Scripture.
A couple of ideas in this book stood out to me. The first is that Scripture is a key means of grace intended for the sanctification of the body of Christ. This is a theme the authors emphasize repeatedly. As they put it several times, Scripture is “an auxiliary of the Holy Spirit” given over to us for our salvation.
Second, the writers utilize what they call a “messianic hermeneutic,” according to which Jesus provides coherence for the entire canon of Scripture. All of Scripture–every jot and tittle–points to Jesus. This will rattle the cages of historical critics who locate the meaning of biblical passages within historical contexts. Castelo and Wall are not content, however, to allow historical criticism to control our understanding of Scripture’s meaning. Academic study of Scripture can be informative and helpful, but historians don’t get the last word. Scripture is not simply an artifact. It is a means of grace, and its purpose is soteriological. We thus have the freedom to interpret it in light of God’s ultimate soteriological action, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I will say that this isn’t an easy read. The prose is a bit heavy and sometimes technical. I could see this book being quite useful in a seminary classroom, but most undergraduates would really struggle with it.
While I found myself in disagreement with the authors on a couple of points, on the whole I found this book refreshing and clarifying. I highly recommend it. We Methodist types have a lot of work to do when it comes to our theological understanding of Scripture, and we certainly aren’t alone in this regard. This book will help us as we try to think more deeply about Scripture and its application within the life of the church.