The history of Christian theology, and thus the history of Christianity, is inextricably linked with the history of the way that Christian have read the Bible. This has not been consistent over the course of the last few millennia, and having a grasp on this history of Biblical interpretation is essential for anyone who wants to keep up with or make sense of the rapid pace of change in the field of biblical interpretation today.
Perhaps at no other period in history has the number of ways the Bible can be read, interpreted, and used been as varied as it is today. This can be easily seen by a simple examination of the table of contents of Donald McKim's 'Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters'. The number of major interpreters from just the nineteenth and twentieth centuries outnumbers the interpreters from the preceeding 18 centuries.
A word on the word interpretation -- this has become a dirty word of sorts by some denominations, who pride themselves on not interpreting the Bible, but taking it literally. However, as one can see by examining the history of biblical exegesis, taking the scripture literally is in fact an interpretation. McKim doesn't (nor do I) discount the historicity or validity of literal interpretation as an expression of biblical interpretation.
Christianity has been interpreting scriptures since the very beginning; even Jesus interpreted the Hebrew scriptures for disciples and others. As the canon of the Bible came to be solidified in form, the work of interpreting this centuries-to-millennia-old texts for the emerging Christendom took on major importance, and was seen for the longest time as the primary (and sometimed exclusive) responsibility of the church.
However, there has always been a give and take between academic and formally-trained interpretation and more personal avenues of interpretation. 'The practice of biblical exegesis takes place at a host of levels by a wide array of people. Indeed, whenever anyone reads the Bible and explicates its meaning, biblical interpretation is taking place.'
McKim's volume focusses on the most significant interpreters, as defined by those who have had impact on others following and the raising of important issues. Alas, as McKim comments in the preface, there are many other interpreters who might be included, but for space considerations. As it is, this is a lengthy, 630+ page reference volume with relatively small print, presented in a double-column format.
The sections are arranged in chronological order, so that for the 'sit-down-and-read-it-straight-through' reader, the development over time of biblical interpretation will be seen easily (however, it is not a strict chronology -- the individual articles in the sections are arranged alphabetically by interpreter). Attached to each article is a bibliography, broken into two parts: Works of the interpreter being highlighted, and Studies which focus on or analyse the work of the interpreter. The book is also cross-referenced for easy use to see developmental strands that do not occur in direct chronological succession.
Nearly 100 contributors, major scholars in the study of the language, historical period, or person being highlighted, have been included in this work. Interpreters are divided into the following broad categories:
Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church
Biblical Interpretation in the Middle Ages
Biblical Interpretation in the 16th and 17th Centuries
Biblical Interpretation in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Biblical Interpretation in 20th Century Europe
Biblical Interpretation in 20th Century North America
From Athanasius (an early church father in Alexandria) to contemporary interpreters such as Walter Brueggemann and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, essays on interpreters includes a short biography, and proceeds to give critical descriptions of the major aspects of their work.
This is not only a valuable reference for students and scholars, but an ideal volume for the arm-chair theologian, or really anyone who is interested in learning more about the Bible and how it has been viewed through time.
With such a large number of contributors, it is difficult to find a 'representative' example of writing to illustrate. However, McKim is no stranger to the editing of major reference works, having been editor also of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms and the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, both of which are highly regarded for their authority, comprehensiveness and clarity.
McKim does address the need for further volumes which expand beyond the scope of this work. 'Studies of women interpreters are underrepresented, as are studies of those who are not Western, white males. This volume is clearly oriented toward those who have produced significant work in the Western branch of the Christian church and whose writings have, on the whole, emerged from Europe or North America. This is where predominant writings have been produced since the Middle Ages. Further books should one day be created to highlight the contributions of those not represented in this volume.'
Despite this limitation, this is nonetheless a necessary volume for the understanding of biblical interpretation issues, and can serve both as a handy reference or a narrative study.