‘How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens’ by Michael Williams (Book Review)

This post is part of a blog tour for a new book called How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams, who teaches Old Testament at Calvin College. When I saw the announcement for the book and the blog tour I was very much intrigued due to my interest in both philosophical and theological hermeneutics (specifically Paul Ricoeur) and what is called the ‘theological interpretation of Scripture’ (TIS) movement which seeks to read the Bible as specifically Christian Scripture and even according to a Trinitarian ‘rule of faith.’ The TIS movement has been vigorously opposed by some who favor a more ‘scholarly’ historical-critical approach to biblical studies (with its various criticisms – textual, source, genre, literary and so forth) which ask in true modernist fashion for readers to lay aside their presuppositions, theological or otherwise (as if that were even possible) in the name of modern objectivity. To read the Bible through the ‘Jesus lens’ seems to call for a specifically theologically driven reading of Scripture and so would be opposed by a great many advocates of historical-critical scholarship. I wanted to see if William’s book could add anything to the conversation between the TIS and historical-critical camps.

An Overview of How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

Williams offers brief chapters on all 66 chapters of the Bible with each one being only four or five pages in length. His opening chapter, itself only about 2½ pages, begins with his central (theological) presupposition that all of the Scriptures testify to Christ and that to read the Bible well is to read it as a picture of Jesus. As he says, “Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended. It keeps our reading, understanding, teaching, and preaching properly focused on God’s grand redemptive program that centers on his own Son.” (9) With his cards laid on the table he moves on to the main chapters which are all outlined in similar fashion. Each chapter begins with what Williams takes as the main focus or theme of the book in question, the second part provides a memory passage that demonstrates the main theme, the third part (which forms the center of each chapter) takes up the Jesus lens for which the book is titled, the fourth part deals with contemporary implications, and the fifth section provides hook questions that can be used for group discussions.

I signed up for Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians as the chapters that I was to take a look at for my review. Here is how he lays out his chapters for these three books.

Ephesians: Williams gives his one word summation of the theme of Ephesians as shalomshalom that undoes the brokenness of sin. His sentence summary is “God establishes the church as the firstfruits of his shalom.” “Through Jesus Christ, the brokenness of sin is undone. It is God’s will ‘to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’ (1:10).” (198) He gives the memory passage as 2:17 and links the Jesus lens to Christ himself being our peace (2:14). “Christ is our peace. He alone is able to mend the greater-than-Grand-Canyon-size rift between us and God and between us and other human beings.” (200) His section on contemporary implications center around the responsibility of those who have been restored in Christ to demonstrate the shalom of Christ to a world full of broken people.

Philippians: For Philippians Williams gives the standard one word theme: joy. His sentence summary is “God gives resurrection power and joy in the face of persecution and heresy.” (203) Here I might say that instead of joy the theme of Philippians revolves more around the faithfulness of Christ or Christlike cruciformity – those things that give our joy grounding. The memory passage is 3:10-11. The Jesus lens section pulls again from the word ‘joy’ drawing a connection between Philippians and Luke 2:10 and Hebrews 12:2. The contemporary implication section can be summed up thusly, “We can be sure that God will give strength, and even joy, in the midst of challenges to come.” (205)

Colossians: The phrase that Williams sets as the theme for Colossians is ‘exalted Christ.’ His sentence summary is “God has exalted his Christ above all human wisdom and tradition.” (206) The memory passage is 1:18 and Williams summarizes “if the teaching presented to the Colossians was not based on Christ and did not ultimately lead to a deeper relationship with Christ, that teaching was worthless and harmful. Christ provides the lens through which both the truth and its cheap imitations come into focus.” (207) The Jesus lens section explores the reality that the ‘extras’ offered by the Colossian false teachers have all been accomplished in Christ. Spiritual mysteries, spiritual wisdom, and spiritual life are all to be found in their fullness in the exalted Christ. The contemporary implication section emphasizes that the exalted nature of Christ will manifest itself in practical ways in relationship to others.

Overall Williams has given us a great resource for Sunday School teachers, Bible Study leaders, and those that host small groups that can help anchor their discussions in the larger picture of Scripture. As with any book, I found much to appreciate and also some disappointment but before I get to those I’d like to comment on some issues Williams’ book may raise in regards to typical evangelical hermeneutical methods.

An Interlude on Hermeneutical Methods (or going down the interpretive rabbit trail)…

Williams’ book actually stands in a series with two other books that I have read. The first of these is How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart. I remember having to read this book for my undergrad biblical interpretation course. Fee and Stewart cover many of the same ‘criticisms’ of historical-critical methodology but of course do so from within the tradition of contemporary evangelicalism. I remember being dramatically affected by the discussion of genre in the Bible and how genre affected the task of interpretation. As an undergrad it was the first time I had ever encountered a serious discussion that poetry may be different from prose may be different from narrative and so on. The second book is How the Read the Bible Book by Book with proposes a basic four line narrative structure for reading Scripture of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation with an emphasis on the story of God becoming the story for our lives. I would quibble a bit here or there since the four line narrative seems to have some gaps but overall I applaud a narrative approach to the Bible. Surely, this type of a narrative approach and reading the Bible through the Jesus lens fit hand in glove!

However, going back to How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, there is an aspect to Fee and Stuart’s initial proposal that disturbs me (despite the fact that Fee remains to this day one of my favorite New Testament scholars). There is a common feature of evangelical hermeneutics in Fee’s proposal that I feel is troublesome and that ultimately doesn’t jive well with the Jesus lens of Williams’ book. I am pulling from memory here since my copy of How to Read the Bible for all its Worth is packed in a box in storage (my family and I just moved) and I can’t give exact quotes (there was no preview available on Google Books) but here goes. Fee and Stuart have a good discussion on the need to interpret and that the answer to bad interpretation is not no interpretation at all (which is impossible) but good interpretation. But then they say that proper interpretation of Scripture involves the ‘plain meaning’ of the text uncovered by an ‘enlightened common sense’ reading of the text. The call for the plain meaning and an enlightened common sense reading indicate Fee and Stuart are squarely within the realm of typical evangelical hermeneutics.

Now they recognize that the ‘plain meaning’ and ‘common sense’ approach can too easily simply be reduced to MY meaning and MY common sense reading so they seek to protect and guard against this sort of abuse by grounding the hermeneutical task in three interrelated aspects of the text – the original context, the original authorial intent, and original meaning. This is the basics to the grammatical-historical approach that developed in evangelical camps as an alternative to the historical-critical approach. The motto of this approach as Fee and Stuart state it is – a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or original hearers. Or the shorter version that I learned in my early days in seminary – a text can never mean what it has never meant. So, as we are told, the scriptural text has only one meaning but multiple applications. The net result here is that meaning gets split from application in much the same way that theory and practice were split apart in theology under modernity (modernity had a way of doing this with just about everything it touched). But does this mean that with this methodology in regards to a great many Old Testament texts in which the original readers would not/could not have seen Jesus in them that Jesus is merely the ‘application’ of the text and not its full meaning? Something about this doesn’t sound right to me. Of course to resolve this and other such tensions there is always the tactic of simply overruling human authorial intent whenever needed with divine authorial intent. However this only seems to succeed in bifurcating the human and divine authors and points us towards a sort of scriptural docetism.

Perhaps it is time that we recognize that the biblical authors as specifically ancient writers would not be able to pass our seminary courses in either historical-critical or grammatical-historical methods. Additionally, we ought to recognize that the church Fathers (often slammed by evangelicals for their many hermeneutical faux pas) employed hermeneutical methods much closer to those used by the biblical authors themselves than those typically taught in our seminary courses these days (whether liberal or conservative). As it turns out both the historical-critical and grammatical-historical approaches were forged in the Enlightenment, modernist worldview and as a result both fail to adequately deal with the ‘surplus of meaning’ (to use a Ricoeurian term) in the biblical story! Ironically I have seen both advocates of the historical-critical method and the grammatical-historical method feel uneasy about Christological readings of Scripture. Sometimes it seems to me that some evangelical approaches operate with an economy of scarcity in regards to ‘meaning’ as if there won’t be enough meaning in the Bible to go around, or perhaps even an economy of fear in which we won’t be able to control where all this ‘meaning’ will go.

But when it comes to the activity and revelation of the triune God in the person of Christ its not a scarcity we are dealing with. A surplus should not be a surprise to us! And yes, the surplus of the biblical narrative is not something that we can control. But good news, hermeneutics is not about control after all, but about wisely discerning where the biblical story is pointing us. Additionally, to posit a surplus of meaning is not to discard historical-critical or grammatical-historical approaches in wholesale fashion. Nor is it to ignore the original context, original authorial intent, or original meaning of a text … the hard work of exegesis must still be done. Neither is the positing of a surplus of meaning the removal of all interpretive controls such that we grant ourselves unlimited interpretive license and end up with a hermeneutical free for all. To posit a surplus of meaning is not to say that the biblical text can meaning any and everything at all, but simply that the text can mean all that it can mean. With regards to Williams’ book it seems to me that without something like a surplus of meaning that Christological and Jesus lens readings of much of the Old Testament simply won’t work. Because of this Williams’ book seems to stand in some tension with How to Read the Bible for all its Worth and those who would privilege historical-critical or grammatical-historical approaches. I think however that the surplus of meaning inherent in the biblical text itself is precisely what 1) a narrative approach to Scripture 2) coupled with the Jesus lens can help us to uncover. (For an introduction to the surplus of meaning see Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church by Merold Westphal which covers the hermeneutics of Gadamer along with a discussion of Ricoeur).

Final thoughts on Reading the Bible through the Jesus Lens

With my compulsion to chase rabbits appeased here are briefly some things I appreciated about the book as well as some disappointments.

Appreciations: As I stated above, Williams has give us a great resource for church leaders to anchor their teaching in the bigger Christocentric picture of the Bible. Also, as I flipped through the various chapters I found that most of the themes he assigned fit the biblical books in question (although there were a few I would quibble with, but that is to be expected). The length of the chapters is not so long as to overwhelm readers and the lay of the book enables readers to find what they need quickly. This book makes a good reference tool for lay readers. And of course, I appreciate the fact that Williams leads readers through the Bible by means of a specifically theological interpretation of Scripture (though he doesn’t call it that) by using the Christologically focused Jesus lens. Basically what we have with How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens is introductory Christological hermeneutics for lay readers instead of the grammatical-historical method for lay readers.

Disappointments: There are two main disappointments I have with the book. First, the length of the chapters (which above formed a strength) also becomes a liability in many places where more depth is really needed. Also the uniform four to five pages for every book of the Bible doesn’t seem to correspond to the greatly varying lengths of the biblical books themselves. Second, the contemporary implication sections (which seem to function as Williams’ practical application section) seem too broad and seem to suffer from their shortness. For instance in both Ephesians and Colossians Williams is only able to say that the shalom of Christ and the exalted nature of Christ have practical import into our lives. But then, for instance, there is no comment whatsoever on how the shalom of Christ and exalted nature of Christ affects the particular issues of submission and marriage relationships in everyday life. Realizing that this may be due to the length of the chapters this becomes another indication that while a strength in some ways the length of the chapters form a deficit in other important ways as well.

Overall, I give my recommendation for this book. While including no in depth discussion on the hermeneutical questions I raised earlier I am encouraged that Williams is bringing a specifically theological hermeneutic to the table.  While those hoping for deeper discussions will need to use this book as a springboard to other resources, I think this book will be a great reference for readers who are willing to take what the book actually gives them and accept it for what it is – an introduction and beginning guide to a Christological reading of Scripture.

In order to fulfill all legal righteousness you should know (in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”) that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of a blog tour. I was not required to write a positive review. I hereby swear that the opinions I have expressed are my own, that I am solely responsible for any typos that appear, and that no animals (rabbits or otherwise) were harmed in writing of this review.

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