Five Models of Scripture

Phil King

When one thinks about Scripture, particularly reading this sacred text, many think about what a passage or the whole canon says. One might also question how Scripture’s content informs how to read it. In Five Models of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2021), Mark Reasoner, a Protestant-trained-turned-Catholic theologian based in Minnesota, captures the importance of intentionally wrestling with multifaceted approaches to reading Scripture. By describing five distinct models of interpretation, Reasoner argues that more robust scriptural interpretation and tending to Scripture more carefully in the church occurs when readers use a full gamut of interpretative approaches to understanding the Bible.

As he develops his core thesis, Reasoner includes references across Christianity’s three major traditions (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) to show a concern for the whole church. He also articulates how these models operate in the classroom or congregation.

Reasoner presents the what of his argument in four distinct subsections. Part One begins the conversation proper by describing “the contours of what we mean by Scripture” (2)—that is, the place of canon and inspiration across the traditions. Part Two encompasses the meat of the book, laying out what Reasoner takes to be the five models (or interpretive textual descriptions) of Scripture. Part Three turns to three key historical developments in understanding scriptural interpretation: literal and spiritual senses, Sola Scriptura, and metanarrative construction. Finally, Reasoner closes the text in Part Four by examining the use of Scripture in key areas—that is, in liturgical, devotional, and professional arenas. An introduction and conclusion contextualize Reasoner and the book’s goals, the significance of the church as the site of interpretive meaning-making, and reconfirm the hope of cultivating a love of the Scriptures in his readers.

A whistle-stop outline of the book hardly does justice to the keen insight Reasoner lays out in the book. To start, note the comprehensive attention given to each of the five models proposed by Reasoner. Giving a summative definition of each model helps to differentiate each approach.

  • The documents model closely aligns with the historical critical method of understanding Scripture, taking it as a text to be analyzed for historical accuracy.
  • The stories model sees the text as primarily composed of narrative pieces that coalesce into grander storied arcs
  • The prayers model suggests that Scripture primarily gives guidance to the reader on how and what to commune with God
  • The laws model posits that the scriptural text functions to convey ethical and moral truths to guide the life of the believer and church
  • The oracles model understands the Bible as a trove of prophetic engagement in the specific situations present in the believer’s life, or by predicting the future

In each instance, Reasoner describes signs of knowing when a particular model might be in play, Old and New Testament examples of the model, the strengths and weaknesses of each model if taken by themselves, and how to navigate the appearance of these models in the classroom and pulpit.

Perhaps the second most significant section, measured in terms of sheer quantity, Part Three tracks the methodological and doctrinal developments in scriptural interpretation from the church’s foundation to modern renderings of approaching Scripture. Here, Reasoner urges a return to a multi-sensual, diverse-meaning-making approach to reading the Scriptures as opposed to a staunch adherence to an individualized, atomized rendering of Sola Scriptura devoid of traditioned understandings of the text. Diagrams like the “Bible Positioning System” (188) describe where each model sits in relation to each other, in terms of their literal or spiritual sense, and whether they focus on the human or divine aspects of the text, complementing the hermeneutical argument Reasoner makes.

The historical development of scriptural interpretation, covered in these two broad foci, themselves support Reasoner’s claim of utilizing a multi-faceted, multiple-model understanding of the scriptural text. This argument extends beyond the confines of Reasoner’s own typological formulation of modeled reading. The historical and theological claims put forward encompass the need to reevaluate Scripture in conjunction with other modes of revelation, most acutely tradition, according to Reasoner. Aside from the historical and contemporary forays into hermeneutical development, the bulk of each model description shows the larger wisdom of Reasoner’s argumentation style. Rather than leveling evidence after presupposition in a heavy-handed fashion, Reasoner prefers to convey the content of his models and developments, letting the reader discover the necessity of multiple models. Those willing to invest time and energy into Reasoner’s book may find that the medium is the message.

Part of the joy of reading this book comes from the capacity of the prose to sing in a way that captivates those attending to Reasoner’s words and captures the theological import of why he says what he says. Take the closing paragraphs of the prayers model chapter. Suggested by Reasoner as the most important model for readers to hold on to, part of his argument here reads like a sermon, reminding us that the core of reading and studying Scripture, no matter the model, is “to learn about Christ and deepen our relationship with him” (129). One more example: Counter to the historicist’s propensity to focus on the text’s immanence, Reasoner urges his readers to remember that Scripture bears witness to an encounter with the transcendent. These are just two examples of several exhortations that provide a welcome application of his hermeneutical argument in real life.

The broad usage of resources from all three major Christian traditions conveys not only a well-read and articulate hermeneut in Reasoner (a comprehensive bibliography showcases this too), but equally an individual and argument immensely concerned with an ecclesially minded approach to reading Scripture. Perhaps most deftly conveyed in his treatment of Sola Scriptura, and the evolution from its foundations in the Reformation, Reasoner resolutely believes in the church’s significance as the site of communal scriptural interpretation, and the role that such interpretation provides in building up the body of Christ.

Rather than detract from Reasoner’s overall thesis, any shortcomings in Five Models of Scripture provide an opportunity for further exploration. For one, simply comparing the length of his treatment of each model, one discerns a significant amount of time dedicated to unpacking the document model, as well as the historical-critical method inherent to this model. One can only hope to spend more time examining the application of the other models in a way that builds on Reasoner’s exploration here. Some may take issue, and perhaps rightly so, with the depth of engagement offered in considering metanarratives, or what Reasoner might articulate as the logic of holding together the entire story of Scripture. Although providing individual accounts for four separate metanarrative constructions (redemption, election, liberation, and creation) makes a certain amount of sense, it might suit the reader, and ultimately Reasoner’s thesis, more to consider how these four metanarratives intermix and mingle in live interpretation.

These comments are minor compared to Reasoner’s success in capturing the significance of approaching the text of Scripture with a plethora of interpretative approaches. A broad audience, articulated by the author as ministers and theology students alike, will appreciate the comprehensiveness of Reasoner’s analysis. Indeed, the book would function well as a supplementary text to other material in an introduction to hermeneutics class or provide material for small groups in congregational settings to talk about how they read the Bible. Yet, let the reader understand, while the models themselves provide important content, the book’s soul resides in savoring the feast that is Scripture, something only faithfully possible within the church using the whole counsel of scriptural interpretation.

Posted Nov 15, 2021

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