Thoughts on Gillingham’s book, “One Bible, Many Voices” – Part 2

In the first chapter of her book, One Bible, Many Voices, published in 1998, Professor Gillingham explores “the biblical library,” i.e., the collection of texts that are included in the various anthologies we call “the Bible.” She concludes the chapter by stating,

  • The diffuse nature of the formation, composition, and collection of these texts poses a different sort of problem for the theological approach—especially if there is a concern to propose some overall systematic theological unity from within the texts themselves. Here the danger is indiscriminate selectivity, whereby verses are taken out of their original literary context, to be then used to support a different argument or to enhance a different spiritual lesson. Such a single-minded approach is not only highly tendentious but it is also insensitive to the literary complexities which lie behind the larger whole (p. 25).

In short, Gillingham concludes that the processes involved in the composition, editing, collection and canonization of the texts which ultimately formed the various biblical anthologies were so diverse so as to create a “book” that resists the creation of an overall and unified systematic theology. The many attempts to do so require the theologian to ignore, deny, and/or explain away those passages that are unsupportive of their preferred theological perspective.

More and more biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, speak now of biblical theologies (yes, plural) that can be found within the boundaries of the anthology they call “the Bible.” These theologies differ in how God’s nature, work, and will are portrayed. In my opinion, the interpretive gymnastics required to create a harmonious biblical systematic theology are hermeneutically indefensible. The “unity” of the biblical texts exists in its polyphonic nature—that is, in its consistently diverse perspectives. These texts do not testify with one unified voice as to God’s nature, work, and will, but they testify to the divine via diverse and even contradictory voices, holding opposing perspectives in obvious tension.

As Mark Coleridge[1] has noted,

  • Any totalising meta-narrative, any master-narrative which seeks or claims to be univocal, has had its day; and this is true of the Bible insofar as it seeks or claims to be a totalising or univocal master-narrative. But this allows, perhaps demands, the discovery of the Bible as a new kind of meta-narrative—a meta-narrative not univocal but polyphonic…not monologic but dialogic. Scripture may be the word of God, but the biblical God has many voices and they all speak at once; God speaks polyphonically (p. 147).

The polyphonic nature of the biblical texts is a direct result of the complex and long-term processes involved in their creation, redaction, collection, and canonization. Christian systematic theologies strive to simplify—or just ignore—the complexities and the impact of various historical contexts have had these processes. But these are a fact of virtually all Second Temple Jewish and Rabbinic literature, whose authors and editors were quite comfortable with diversity and tension in their texts. I think Rachel Held Evans[2] says it best as follows,

  • We have a Bible that depicts God as aloof and in control in one moment, and vulnerable and humanlike in the next, a Bible that has frustrated even the best systematic theologians for centuries because it’s a Bible that so rarely behaves. In short, we have on our hands a Bible as complicated and dynamic as our relationship with God, one that reads less like divine monologue and more like an intimate conversation (p. 13).
  • For Jewish readers, the tensions and questions produced by Scripture aren’t obstacles to be avoided, but rather opportunities for engagement, invitations to join in the Great Conversation between God and God’s people that has been going on for centuries and to which everyone is invited. … While Christians tend to turn to Scripture to end a conversation, Jews turn to Scripture to start a conversation (p. 23).

I share the same hope as Professor Gillingham, that believing Bible readers would not see the Bible’s polyphonic nature as “threatening and fragmenting our understanding of biblical faith” but that rejection of a totalizing Christian metanarrative “offers a more reasonable, open-ended, integrative, and ecumenical way forward” (p. 4–5). Surely, God knows, this is the need of the hour, not a systematic theology that isolates and excludes, but open-ended theologies that invite and welcome dialogue, discussion, and even respectful and humble debate.

[1] Mark Coleridge, “Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies,” Biblical Interpretation 2 (July 1994) 139–51.

[2] Held Evans, Rachel. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2018.

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