Thoughts on Gillingham’s Book, “One Bible Many Voices” –Part 1[1]

In the very brief introduction to her 1998 book, Professor Susan Gillingham makes several key points about the nature of the Bible that are essential to its proper interpretation and application.

She writes…

  • The phenomenon we call ‘the bible’ is too diversified and complex a work to be subsumed under historical categories or under a systematic theology or under modern literary theory. … For the Bible is indeed a very disparate work (p. 2).
  • In calling the Bible a “book,’ we misunderstand what it is really about. The English designation ‘bible’ comes from the Greek, biblia, which is in fact a plural noun, describing the number of books rather than the collection as a whole (p. 2).
  • Encompassing at least a thousand years in the making, the Bible offers as many different world-views as the cultures it represents. It is, we might conclude, one of the most pluralistic texts we possess (p. 3).
  • As a ‘collection of collections,’ the Bible is a pluralistic text, made up of many parts with many divergent views about God and his relations with the world (p. 4).

From my studies, over the past fifteen years, I couldn’t agree more. To use a term that is becoming more popular and more acceptable among the majority of biblical scholars is that the anthology we call the Bible is polyphonic in nature. It speaks with many, and often, divergent voices and thus holds in tension diverse theological perspectives that cannot be easily, if at all, reconciled as if the biblical texts present a unified systematic theology—though many, mostly evangelical scholars, insist that it does.

Efforts such as those of Brevard Childs with his “Canonical” hermeneutic, Gregory Boyd with his “Cruciform” hermeneutic, or even the much used “Christological” hermeneutic, fail to take into account the totality of biblical texts by either ignoring or explaining away the clear understanding of many texts and even whole books of the Bible that do not support a particular theology. As Rachel Held Evans notes, in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood[2]:

  • When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage, and even equality), we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our tastes. In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says. (p. 294)

When the Bible is respected for what, to me, it obviously is—that is, a polyphonic anthology of diverse theological perspectives—“ [f]ar from threatening and fragmenting our understanding of biblical faith” what is offered is “a more reasonable, open-ended, integrative, and ecumenical way forward” (p. 4). I would add that such an approach to the biblical texts leads us to practice hermeneutical humility—rather than arrogance and self-righteousness—and thus to relational acceptance and inclusivity—rather than spiritual tribalism with all its divisive and dismissive inferences and practices.

[1] Gillingham, S. E. One Bible Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies, London: SPCK, 1998.

[2] Held Evans, Rachel. A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012.

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