17 October 2007

apologetics study bible

Yesterday I went to my campus mailbox to find a hefty, more than 2000 page tome entitled The Apologetics Study Bible - which claims to provide "Laser Surgery for Blind Faith" - "Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith."

The book was accompanied by a letter singing the praises of the publication as a "thinking edition of God's Word" that "will become an important tool," helping us "by tearing down the obstacles of disbelief," which will "prompt a rewarding experience at every reading." The letter goes on to suggest that I, as a person with a website, might want to mention it or post a review.

While there are 130 articles in the study Bible "written by today's leading Christian thinkers" dealing with pressing issues of our day and "life's ultimate questions," I searched in vain for the one on the church's captivity to marketing-driven consumer culture. Alas.

My first question when encountering a new study Bible is, "Why another one?" Certainly there are some very worthwhile study Bibles out there (the HarperCollins, New Interpreters, and Oxford ones come to mind), but there is also a glut in the market.

A brief browse through Amazon.com or Christian Book Distributors reveals a plethora of niche study Bibles: inductive, literary, Catholic, archaeological, life application, comparative, teen, Reformation, Hebrew-Greek key word, kids, quest, Spirit, prophecy, methodical, inspirational, student, adventure, life recovery, everyday living, boys, life principles, women of faith, open, starting point, Spirit-filled, Scofield, rainbow, journey, leadership, serendipity, discoverer's, teen guys, dating, praying woman, men, girls, Jewish, illustrated, African heritage, faith in action, emphasized, evidence, defenders, legacy, recovery, spiritual formation, ultimate, treasure, preacher's, Orthodox, teacher's, all about Jesus, hands-on, quick, living water...and I'll stop there out of sheer exhaustion.

Sometimes I suspect we might be better off simply getting back to the biblical text itself, perhaps with a bit of textual gloss, but without all niche-marketed accoutrement.

Still, granted the nature of study Bibles as such, one can ask whether The Apologetics Study Bible stands out in any way or offers a unique contribution. In some respects, it certainly does.

The introductions and notes for each book in the Scriptures attempt to provide evidence of their reliability and truth. Interspersed throughout the text there are the aforementioned 130 articles, accompanied by "Twisted Scripture" notes addressing how various sects distort particular passages, along with biographies of "great Christian apologists" from throughout church history, from Justin Martyr to Cornelius Van Til. At the back of the volume there are a variety of charts and maps showing archaeological discoveries, manuscript evidence, comparisons of various world religions and sects, and so on.

Much of the information and many of these tools are helpful. Still, I have some serious qualms about the volume.

First, I harbor a general suspicion of those who position themselves as professional "apologists." Perhaps this is due to various encounters in recent years with self-appointed "apologists" who inhabit the Internet and produce a steady stream of materials. A number of these individuals strike me as anything but an attractive commendation of the Savior, more irritating than inviting.

Frankly, I have no idea who some of the contributors are, so cannot vouch for them and for their vocation as "apologists." Others are important and respected theologians and Christian philosophers (e.g., John Frame, William Lane Craig). Several I have difficulty seeing as serious "apologists" (e.g., Chuck Colson, D. James Kennedy).

Add to this my general suspicion of "apologetics" as a distinct theological discipline. As a Christian philosopher, I'm certainly all in favor of a discursive unfolding of the riches of the faith in a way that is attractive, reasonable, and true to the contours of the biblical story.

Yet, I've become increasingly convinced over the years that Christian persuasion requires a rhetorical form that is inseparable from the beauty of Trinitarian life. Moreover, the faith we commend has an irreducibly communal, liturgical, and sacramental form, seeking peace and justice - this praxis is intrinsic to its defense.

Moreover, I don't think Peter's call to "be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in you" (1Pe 3:15) is a mandate for every Christian to be an "apologist." In context the issue is bearing witness in the midst of suffering, ministering God's blessing in love and tenderness even when persecuted. By having a good conscience, living in hope, suffering without shame, confident in our baptismal identity in the risen Christ who also suffered, our lives become an apology for the faith.

None of these general observations, however, necessarily renders the book unprofitable. Many of the annotations are helpful and several of the articles are very balanced and solid (e.g., Frame on Open Theism; Horner on Aquinas).

Still, on the level of specifics, I would offer several criticisms.

First, the outlook tends towards the very conservative wing of evangelical theology and piety. Salvation tends to be reduced to "going to heaven when you die." Textual and historical issues pertaining the ancient Near East are often dealt with on a superficial level. Views of creation are limited to young earth creationism and "day age" views of the Genesis 1 chronology. Universalism is dismissed out of hand as obviously unbiblical. Pacifism is barely addressed in the article on just war theory. Oddly, passages dealing with the role of women seem poised somewhere between complementarianism and egalitarianism.

Second, the organization seems a bit odd. Some articles accompany passages that are evidently related (e.g., addressing evolution in connection with Genesis 1-2), but most seem entirely randomly placed (e.g., a discussion of postmodernism in the middle of Zechariah). Much of the article content could be helpfully gathered into a separate book, leaving the Bible itself with its annotations.

Third, there are a number of articles which I think are on the wrong track or tackle the issue from an unhelpful direction (e.g., Groothuis on postmodernism, Draper on denominationalism). On the whole, the notes seem to have a bent towards literalistic interpretation of prophecy, pre-millennialist understandings of eschatology, and reductively historical-grammatical hermeneutics - though given the different annotators, this is not always consistent across books (not to mention other inconsistencies, e.g., Craig's views on middle knowledge alongside Ware's Calvinistic compatibilism).

Fourth, I'm surprised by a number of the issues that are not addressed by articles (e.g., ancient slavery, though it is mentioned in the notes), as well as some that are included. General articles included on "the 3 laws of logic" and a thumbnail sketch of epistemological theory strike me as out of place.

While some readers might find The Apologetics Study Bible a useful reference, given the drawbacks of the volume - not to mention its cost, size, and weight - I suspect it would prove to be only an very occasional reference tool for many potential purchasers. On many issues, one would do better to read more in-depth resources readily available online or at a seminary library.