Tim Meadowcroft, The Message of the Word of God (The Bible Speaks Today Biblical Themes Series). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. 284 pp. $20.00.
I have found this a tricky book to assess because the author regularly discusses in his applicational sections issues that, at the beginning, he says are not really the concern of the book. The effect was to leave these discussions somewhat free-floating, without a full sense of what he was intending to assert or deny in them. You’ll see what I mean as we proceed.
What’s in This Book?
The Message of the Word of God is the latest installment in the expanding “Biblical Themes” strand of InterVarsity Press’s “The Bible Speaks Today” series. It is made up of 20 short exegetical essays, each focused on one passage of Scripture and related in some way to the theme of the Word of God (Meadowcroft is a biblical studies specialist). The essays are grouped under four headings, which collectively summarize Meadowcroft’s basic assertions: (1) God speaks; (2) God speaks in his written word; (3) God speaks in Christ; and (4) God speaks today. He aims to offer not so much “a set of doctrinal proposals” as “appreciation of the impact on the reader of the amazing fact that God has spoken and continues to speak” (27). He explains that his title is “The Message of the Word of God” and not the “The Message of the Bible” because he does not want to get into the question of the extent of the canon, and not “The Message of Scripture” because the “word of God” is a “wider and more important concept” (23-24).
Along the way, Meadowcroft makes contemporary applications, which the editors’ preface sets as a mark of the series (9). However (and here’s what I meant in my opening paragraph), those applications are quite regularly doctrinal in content (e.g., where he thinks certain kinds of doctrinal statements about Scripture go wrong; the relationships between Scripture, tradition, and reason; and so on) rather than being more general applications to life.
The highlights of the book for me were some illuminating pieces of exegesis on certain passages of Scripture. Among other instances, I was instructed and edified by his analysis of the encounter between God and his people at Sinai (Exod. 19-20), in which God’s word both spoken and written is a wonderful gift from him by means of which sinful people may safely encounter a holy God—and how the written and scriptural account of that encounter itself becomes part of the means by which subsequent generations may similarly encounter him (99-111). The book made me read some texts more closely than I have before, and for that I’m grateful.
However, there is a caveat here. On a number of occasions I found that the text did not convey the meaning Meadowcroft claimed. I can’t, for example, see how Romans 10:6-7 has any major bearing on the (alleged) tendency of some Christians “to domesticate Jesus to our own ends rather than to trust the dangerous winds of the Spirit” (190). In any case, I’m not exactly sure what he means by this phrase, and since he doesn’t say I was left with the sense that it is functioning for him as a useful way to castigate those he thinks are too far to the right in their view of Scripture. To slightly misquote the British journalist and broadcaster from the 1980s, Derek Jameson: “Does he mean people like me? He surely does. Or if he doesn’t, he doesn’t say so.”
Structure and Purpose
The book’s four-part structure is fine and instructive, but the key question left hanging is: why these biblical passages and not others? The obvious “biggies” in relation to Scripture are included (2 Tim. 3 et al.), yet with the theme set as widely as “the word of God” a great deal of authorial selection had to be exercised to reduce the list to 20 passages. There’s no problem in that, except Meadowcroft never tells us why these passages rather than others made the final cut. Of course the primary reason he’s chosen these texts and not others is presumably because these passages best allow him to say what he thinks needs to be said from the Bible about the word of God. That’s perfectly understandable and unavoidable, but it does imply having a thought-out doctrine of Scripture which one takes to be a good summary of the Bible’s teaching on the matter.
A problem arises, however, when one does not come clean, as Meadowcroft does not, on what doctrinal convictions have guided the selection and presentation of the material. No godly reader should wish to read in “heresy hunting” mode, but one has no choice but to start snooping with suspicion when a book contains, as this one does, regular sideswipes against the inherited Reformed doctrine(s) of Scripture while itself pretending not to be offering doctrinal conclusions.
Exegesis, Application, and Doctrine
Meadowcroft may legitimately plead that the scope of this series precluded extended doctrinal musings; as he mentions early on, his treatment of the topic aims to be coherent but not systematic. Fair enough, but that being the case, he ought to have restrained himself from so regularly making pointed comments about doctrine. Regrettably, the comments he does make: (1) appeal to people who want to be evangelical in constituency but who don’t like the classic evangelical doctrine of Scripture; (2) confuse and mislead students; (3) lead the educated reader to be uncertain whether Meadowcroft’s understanding of Scripture has departed from orthodoxy. I labor this point because the exegetical applications he offers are often essentially doctrinal in intent. A few examples will help to bear this out.
(1) Several times Meadowcroft tells us “the Bible is not the sum total of the word of God.” Okay, but again, which of the many possible expositions of that assertion does he have in mind? It’s quite hard to know, which is a problem in a book featuring that as a primary topic. This “sum total” obviously includes the uncontroversial stuff such as “the heavens declare the glory of God” (33-45), but it also gets into much hotter topics like interpreting Scripture in the light of Christ (Part 3). That principle, as Meadowcroft is surely aware, is used by a range of writers to justify practices all the way from reading the Old Testament in light of its fulfillment in the supreme revelation of divine love in Christ to erasing vast swaths of Pauline theological and ethical teaching. Meadowcroft hints that he’s on the evangelical end of this spectrum, but having introduced the principle, he does not give the reader much help in steering a way through.
(2) Meadowcroft ends up saying things I’m not sure he means. The discussion of the Spirit in 2 Peter 1:19-21 moves swiftly and without nuance from the role of the Spirit in the biblical authors to his activity in contemporary interpreters (see esp. p. 95). I fear for students who will take that seriously, especially since the promised subsequent distinction between the “inspiration” of Scripture and “the inspiration required for interpretation” does not materialize. All we get is a statement, from 2 Timothy 3, that the Scriptures “are soaked in the Spirit of God, are God-breathed, in a way that no other text is” (242-43). An unexplained metaphor of “soaking” is not going to clarify any issue for anyone, especially when you have been throwing the word “inspired” around in a loose way.
(3) Regarding Matthew 5:17-48, he suggests that the kind of interpretation Jesus practices on those Old Testament texts is what we should do with Scripture now in order to hear God’s words and experience his action more clearly (185-86). Meadowcroft does admit this doesn’t allow us to shelve certain parts of Scripture, but fails to give examples of what he does mean in practice.
Many of these comments arise from frustration with this book. Since they might seem uncharitable, let me end this way. First, further conservative evangelical writing on Scripture needs to do better exegetical work on more than just the obvious texts, and books from biblical specialists who are frustrated with conservative doctrinal writing ought to be a spur in that direction. Second, any book written for an evangelical publisher by a biblical studies specialist on the nature of Scripture, which contains critiques of the standard evangelical formulation of the doctrine of Scripture, sends warning signals.