Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible
Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010
Demonstrating that one can be both faithful and modern in the practice of Christian faith has been the driving concern of John Polkinghorne’s large publishing record, which has mainly centered on the relationships between science and religion for several decades. As a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, the bulk of his work has skewed toward the academic end of the spectrum. His new book, however, is a welcome turn to the popular.
In this book, originally published in the UK by SPCK (2010) under the title Encountering Scripture, Polkinghorne offers a simple, accessible understanding of the key themes and contents of the Christian Bible that is at once faithful and modern.
Testing Scripture is laid out straightforwardly, with opening chapters giving an overview of just what is meant by Scripture (chapter 1) and a short argument that the Bible initiates and contains a process of theological development that did not end with the closure of the Christian canon. Even the highest view of Scripture as a species of divine communication must admit, says Polkinghorne, that Scripture has to be received and interpreted, that that process is always ongoing, and as a result the results of reading are never entirely fixed. So it is that a modern reader can have a very different understanding of Genesis 1 than a pre-critical one, and yet both are faithful readers of Scripture.
The remaining chapters turn to the Scriptures themselves, beginning with a reflection on the creation accounts, continuing with good advice on how to acknowledge the presence of ambiguity and even darkness in the pages of Holy Scripture, and concluding with chapters on the Old Testament, the Gospels, Paul’s letters and the later New Testament. Here, readers will find—among other things—sensitive and straightforward suggestions about how to understand the two creation accounts, how to deal with much of the violence that permeates the pates of the Old Testament, and sensitive treatments of both the virginal conception and the resurrection of Jesus.
Testing Scripture is an important book because it represents a challenge to a very unlikely set of bedfellows, namely, the New Atheists and those biblical obscurantists who together agree with David Hume’s insistence that one has to choose between reason and faith. While there is very little in the book that will be regarded as controversial by most readers, the fact that it is Polkinghorne—whose CV will survive the sneers of the most dogged Ditchkins disciple—who writes does give it considerable weight.
That Polkinghorne writes to a popular and broad audience is also to be commended. Hopefully, his book will remind many that in the midst of an increasingly shrill shouting match about the relationship of religion and science, faith and reason, a reasonable faith can be embraced.