(Posted by Paige Britton)
It’s been in my mind for some time now to write a summary review of John Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic, 2009). I’ve found the book a fascinating read, though provocative on several counts, and I have been looking forward to hearing Reformed reactions to it. But since it’s quite a tome (612 pages) and somewhat tedious in a ramblingly scholarly way, it isn’t exactly something you would grab for a good beach read; and as Sailhamer is writing from outside Reformed circles (he’s currently a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary), it may yet be a while before it registers amongst Reformed critics. So I thought to speed things up a bit with some chapter summaries, which I hope to offer here over the course of this winter and spring.
Meanwhile, though, I wanted to open the floor to thoughts (and soapboxes) on Sailhamer specifically, and also on the more general question of how we evaluate whether a Christian writer is worthy of our time and attention, particularly when we find that their thinking differs markedly from our own. When, I wonder, do we decide someone is just plain not worth listening to? When, on the other hand, do we decide to take a writer (whether scholarly or popular) “with a grain of salt,” sifting his work and gleaning real profit while also setting aside (or arguing with) the less helpful bits? I suspect we each end up answering these questions in our own way; still, it’s likely there’s some basic wisdom we could share around.
My controlling metaphor for this sort of decision is putting theologians on the proper shelf. Now, I know my theological collection is small potatoes compared to, say, Lane’s; but hey, already it boasts a shelf of Annotated Volumes! These are the books that have irked me so much that I’ve talked back in the margins and all the other blank spaces, books that I would never recommend to others, books that have narrowly missed defenestration.
Most of my AV’s so far are easy targets, read because somebody ought to do so with a critical eye – Beth Moore’s Breaking Free, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (perfect example of how one should not write a serious book – 70% speculation largely supported by hefty quotes from one’s own works of fiction), etc. The need for foils in an article on elder-led churches brought me some startling works by Frank Viola and George Barna, and curiosity to some dreadful things by Ruth Haley Barton and one Groothius or another. You get the picture.
As my own theological awareness has grown, so has the shelf, as I’ve applied myself to critical reads of more scholarly things. But now the job is trickier. Sure, some books practically shelve themselves: I have an old copy of Daniel Day Williams’ The Spirit and the Forms of Love, given to my parents when he baptized me (and kudos to you if you know what brand of theology he promoted in the late ‘60’s!)…a more Annotated Volume than Pete Enns’s Inspiration & Incarnation I do not possess…and N. T. Wright’s Justification would be there, if I hadn’t had to return that copy to my pastor (marginal notes and all).
But other works and authors are not so straightforwardly “bent,” to borrow Lewis’s word: Do I re-shelve Stott for his soft stance on hell? Packer for signing ECT? Willard and Foster for caring overly much about individual spiritual formation? Willimon for being Methodist? Lewis himself for suggestions of Purgatory and “anonymous Christianity”? Bauckham for pleading a non-apostolic author of John? Do all of Wright’s works have to go the way of Justification, or may I yet weigh each one’s merits individually?
Obviously our bookshelves are going to be full of volumes that are, like our churches, “more or less pure” and “subject both to mixture and error” (WCF 25.4f). It’s no surprise that we’d have to take along some salt in our pockets whenever we sit down to read. (And I find I’m much more likely to reach for the salt than I am to pan a writer for a particular theological quirk. Though maybe that’s just my own theological weakness!)
So it will be, I think, with Sailhamer. I’m not nearly ready to put this tome on my Annotated Volume shelf; but you might wish to suggest otherwise, based on his past writings or whatever you discover about this one. Go for it.
And tell us what’s presently on your “AV” shelf (whether it’s a virtual or a real one) – which books and writers are you ready to pitch through a window? Wisdom, passing thoughts, and soapboxes welcome.