Thursday, November 10, 2005

Zoobie Review: Living and Active by Telford Work

Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology for a Postmodern Age) by Telford Work [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (November, 2001), hardback, ISBN 0802847242]

Every once and a while, you come across a book that makes you say "See! I'm not the only one who gets this!" That was the rather delightful experience of reading Telford Work's Living and Active. Work is extremely well-read, but unlike many other extremely well-read authors, he actually understands what other authors are saying on some extremely difficult cross-traditional issues. This is by far the best Protestant handling I have seen of Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Avery Dulles, and Aidan Nichols, and that hasn't been for lack of trying on the Protestant side. To see someone who is actually able to not only confront the issues they raise but actually answer them is a thing of beauty.

Work's clever, tradition-spanning notion is to reverse the ordinary Protestant order of theology: to determine a theory of how Scripture acts based on systematic theology. In that respect, his approach appears Barthian, but where Work surpasses Barth is in incorporating the theological aesthetics of von Balthasar and the linguistic observations of Nicholas Wolterstorff to overcome Barth's reductionism. This allows not only Christ Himself in the flesh but also Scripture, conceived ontologically as having a divine quality, to serve as a true revelatory agent. By preserving the divine quality of Scripture, not merely in terms of authorship, but in terms of the action of Scripture itself, Work manages to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of Barthian reductionism on the one hand and linguistic reductionism on the other. Work's handling of Wolterstorff's divine-discourse theory in particular is masterful, and the only bit of disappointment I felt was that he reserved his sharp (and accurate) criticism of Wolterstorff to a footnote! Frankly, given the flood of bad literature that Wolterstorff's theory has spawned (see, e.g., Kevin Vanhoozer's execrable The Drama of Doctrine), I thought Work should have hit harder on the need for an ontological basis for justifying the ethical criteria that one applies to exegesis (e.g., the assumption of a loving God). At any rate, Work's analysis of St. Augustine is better than Wolterstorff's (although Wolterstorff candidly admits that he is departing from Augustine's regula fidei), and this enables Work to apply the exegetical principles of Augustine and de Lubac sensibly without foregoing his own Protestant position.

As a Catholic, it is just gratifying to encounter a work that takes both patristic scholarship and Catholic theology so seriously on its own terms. Work isn't citing sources randomly to support his point while dismissing the main thrust of their arguments. He actually takes responsibility for hearing what people say and making that position clear before answering it, often having the grace to admit that they are correct in the main in their demands on others. The only failing of this book is that he is not hard enough on his co-religionists, a courtesy they certainly do not extend in return. I think his brief assertion that most Evangelicals have a sufficiently sophisticated view of Scripture to qualify as a valid theory of revelation ("bibliology," as Work calls it) is simply wrong. It is implausible to think that the Warfield approach to Scripture, which Work criticizes as being doubly wrong for both emphasizing the inerrancy of the propositional truth of Scripture and for dispensing the necessity of Scripture as a means of revelation, hasn't had a pervasive influence on modern Scriptural theories. Work gives Moises Silva a pass for his retort that the accusations of "Docetism" by liberal scholars against conservatives simply increase the "slur factor" in the debate unhelpfully but fails to call Silva to task for being dismissive of the same Christological concerns that Work emphasizes, except to playfully note that Silva's own counter-charge of "Arianism" against those who deny the inspiration of Scripture, something Silva intended as an absurd example, was actually quite apt. I think that if Work is serious about his science of "bibliology" gaining traction, then he ought to cast a far more critical eye as to whether others on his side of the fence actually do employ a Christologically self-conscious method of exegesis.

Because he doesn't follow through on all of his punches, I can't give him a perfect score for metaphysical rigor. But this is an excellent book, one that I recommend quite highly for ecumenical Protestants. On a 5-point scale, I give it 4 Zoobs.

Final Score: +4 Zub