Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, Book Review

Title: Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation
Author: Scott R. Swain
Publisher: T&T Clark, 2011
Price: $27.95 (amz)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 153
Is reading your Bible part of God’s redemptive plan? Scott R. Swain teaches systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida. In this volume, Swain seeks to lay the groundwork for answering this question in the affirmative.

Swain seeks to provide “a theological introduction to the Bible and its interpretation” (1). He asks, “What roles do Holy Scripture and the reading of Holy Scripture play within the unfolding drama of the commerce and communion between God and humanity?” (1). Swain begins with the assumption that the nature and function of Scripture must be understood in relation to a host of theological realities (e.g., Trinity, revelation, providence, anthropology). His goal, though, is not to treat these areas comprehensively but rather to demonstrate their coherence. He aims to articulate a “coherent vision of how these themes fit together within the larger evangelical reality of God’s relation to his people” (2). “The entirety of this book,” Swain writes, “is devoted to tracing the place of Holy Scripture and its interpretation within the economy of trinitarian, covenantal self-communication and communion” (8).

Accordingly, the first part of the book focuses on the nature of Scripture within the context of God’s “unfolding purpose for creation” (13). The God portrayed in the Bible is one who speaks; one who reveals himself to his creation. The biblical narrative conveys a drama of “kingdom and covenant” that rehearses God’s creation of humans and his purpose for them, mankind’s rebellion in sin, and God’s subsequent plan of redemption through a promised redeemer. In this drama of redemption, God extends a word of covenant to his people. Swain thus outlines God’s covenant with Abraham, David, and the promise of a new covenant that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. “By his covenantal Word,” Swain reflects, “God creates, redeems, and consummates the world” (33).

Two major features of this divine communication are “double agency discourse” and “covenant discourse.” As Swain puts it, the former aspect highlights that God himself communicates and the latter emphasizes that God communicates himself (35-36). To explain double agency discourse, Swain notes that “the history of God speaking is the history of God speaking through authorized agents or representatives, preeminently his prophets and apostles” (35). When the prophets and apostles speak, God himself speaks. The content of that speech involves a word of covenantal communication. In other words, “by means of his prophetic and apostolic word, God binds himself to his people and his people to himself” (40). Through God’s written words, he “transmits and communicates his covenantal-Christological discourse to his people” (53). Scripture, in other words, is “the divinely authorized literary means whereby the living God continually speaks to his people” (56).

Regarding the nature of Scripture itself, Swain argues that because the written Word is communicated by means of the Holy Spirit (inspiration), it bears the qualities of divine perfection. It has authority because it communicates a word from a sovereign God. It is true and trustworthy because God is true and trustworthy. It is sufficient because “God has revealed all things necessary to know him in a saving way and to serve him in a pleasing way” (83). It is clear because “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (87, 1 Jn 1:5). Swain also reflects on the impact these attributes have on the interpretation of Scripture.

After this discussion of the nature of Scripture, Swain next outlines the nature of Scripture reading. Because the “commerce and communion between God and his people is an inherently textual phenomenon,” the actual reading of Scripture is an integral feature of the life of the church. For Swain, the act of reading is an “act of covenant mutuality,” as God’s ordained means of communing with his creatures. The reason Christians are a “people of the book” is because “Scripture is the supreme locus of God’s self-communication in the world” (95). In this light, the authority of the church and its interpretive traditions (e.g., the rule of faith) are “aids” in the pursuit of “renewed reading” (100ff). Swain urges that within the context of this interpretive community there must be both public and private reading. Swain ends his volume by arguing that the “characteristic shape of biblical interpretation” that should mark this community includes the practices of prayer, explication, meditation, and application (125-36).

Recent work in the field of bibliology has focused on the “role” or “dogmatic location” of Scripture within God’s plan of redemption. Swain’s volume represents a succinct synopsis of and contribution to this area of emphasis. Swain’s overall argument is to the point, and progresses in a clearly discernable fashion. On the whole, he provides a compelling articulation of Scripture’s integral function in God’s saving purpose in the world. This work will aid those with a high view of Scripture to account more fully for Scripture’s function in both personal and corporate contexts.

In his introduction, Swain outlines a number of elements that have shaped his thinking on biblical interpretation (10-12). He writes within the Reformed tradition, is sympathetic to the concerns of the Theological Interpretation movement, and is willing to utilize “critical interpretive methods” when needed in the interpretive task. Indeed, Swain seeks to appropriate key insights from past and present thinkers in the Reformed tradition (e.g., Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Webster). Swain’s discussion of the “covenantal context” for reading Scripture is also tied to the Covenant Theology of the Reformed Tradition (e.g., 7-8).

However, most of his exposition of the covenantal language in Scripture and the covenantal nature of Scripture is drawn from an exposition of the biblical covenants themselves (e.g., Abrahamic, Davidic, New) rather than the theological constructs of Covenant Theology. Thus, those from other theological traditions will still be able to benefit directly from Swain’s substantive insights about God’s covenantal purposes. Further, on the whole, this volume presents an accessible entry point into the Reformed tradition’s robust doctrine of Scripture.

One of the most helpful aspects of Swain’s volume is his emphasis on the act of reading itself. Having shown how reading is an act of “covenant mutuality” for the believer, Swain observes that “the best way to become a good reader of the Bible is to become a reader of the Bible” (120). Taking note of the importance of God’s Word, Swain urges believers to mediate on the words within that Word. In the way he structures his work, Swain also draws attention to the theological significance of the careful and consistent reading of Scripture. By reading these divinely given words, believers commune with God himself. 

As Swain concludes, “Reading, is therefore a living conversation between an eloquent Lord and his attentive servants, a conversation in which the reader is summoned to hear what the Spirit of Christ says to the churches” (139). In the end, Swain provides a theological context for and a fresh impetus to the readerly mandate tolle lege (“take up, and read!”).

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