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The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation

, 2010
ISBN: 9780567569332
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In what one scholar called "a little gem of a book," The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation shows how interpreting the Bible against the background of various historical periods sheds light on the long and rich history of the church—and how it is relevant to events happening in the world today. Yet too often, the author posits, Bible students sidestep this information, which impacts how they interpret Scripture.

In The Use and Abuse of the Bible, Catholic Bible Scholar Henry Wansbrough explores why this matters and how it has affected the church throughout history.

Wansbrough demonstrates how the Bible is "performed" differently in different ages and how the various performances and their different emphases in the history of Christianity have significantly impacted how notable figures in church tradition have "used and abused" the Bible. The author also addresses sticky topics like the ever-present danger of fundamentalism and single-minded interpretation of the Bible. In the last chapter, he invites readers into his personal spiritual life with a "worked example" of Lectio Divina,

  • Examines the use and abuse of Scripture throughout the ages
  • Provides a “worked example” of Lectio Divina
  • Analyzes Frances Young’s The Art of Performance
  • The First Century: The Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New
  • The Second Century: Melito and Irenaeus
  • The Third Century: Origen
  • The Fourth Century: Jerome
  • The Dark Ages: Bede and the Bible
  • The High Middle Ages: Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas
  • Two Norfolk Ladies: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe
  • Martin Luther
  • The Bible in the Politics of Early Seventeenth Century England
  • John and Charles Wesley
  • Newman
  • The Bible and the State of Israel
  • Lectio Divina

Top Highlights

“Nor does the Catholic Church hold that these ‘special graces’ are distributed by the Holy Spirit only to those who are within the visible bounds of the Catholic Church. Insights into the divine revelation can be, and are, gleaned from everywhere, but especially from those of the three great Abrahamic faiths, including Judaism and Islam.” (Page xi)

“The important point, however, is that the words and images derive their meaning from previous prophecies” (Page 9)

“For instance, the New Testament Letter of Jude quotes and makes use of the Book of Henoch and the Assumption of Moses, books that were highly revered, but which were not eventually included in either the Jewish or the Christian canon of Scripture. By far, the most authoritative books were the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible or the Torah.” (Page 1)

“Melito’s attitude is, then, that the sole purpose of the Old Testament and the history of Israel was to provide a model for the work of Jesus.” (Page 24)

“More particularly, the New Testament authors regard the events of the life of Jesus as in some way fulfilling the meaning of the Scriptures, completing the meaning the original authors envisaged. In so doing, they were treating the Scriptures in a way attested by other writings of the first century. The only direct evidence we have for the understanding of Scripture at the time of Jesus comes from the Qumran scrolls. A number of the scrolls are biblical commentaries, called pesharim (interpretations). The pesharim show that the members of this eschatological community believed that the texts of Scripture had a hidden or secret eschatological meaning, which would be made clear at the end of time.” (Page 11)

The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation introduces readers to the Bible and Bible interpretation from a Jewish perspective and how consulting external sources—like the Dead Sea Scrolls and apocalyptic first-century writings—can help ensure more proper exegesis. The author explores this truth and how the early Jewish church was firmly eschatological and convinced God was about to bring history to its climax by a decisive intervention.

Readers will also consider various early church fathers' theology and how it impacted generations of Bible readers who followed in their "theological footsteps." The author includes a chapter on the High Middle Ages and prominent church fathers of that time, including Bernard of Clairvaus and Thomas Aquinas, and considers their scriptural writings and commentaries. In that chapter they'll explore Aquinas' role in the birth of universities.

Chapter 7 considers two Norfolk women, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp, and their deep, personal relationship to Jesus, the events surrounding his crucifixion, and how these women meditated on and cherished every detail. Then, taking a sharp turn to the seventeenth century, the author examines the use of the Bible in politics, the hymns and writings of Charles and John Wesley as well as their conversions that led to a mission of revival, how John Henry Newman sowed the seed for overcoming the awkward dichotomy of two sources of doctrine: Scripture and tradition, and much more.

They will also take a deep dive into the theology of Martin Luther, including an exploration of Luther's view on the justice of God and free will and predestination.

This is a little gem of a book, written accessibly with clarity and humor: a welcome relief from the flat and monochrome reading which often passes as ‘the plain sense of Scripture,’ particularly in popular debate. It reminds its readers of a Christian tradition of biblical interpretation that is far more sophisticated, challenging, and ultimately satisfying.

The Tablet

Henry Wansbrough’s vivid, pithy essays show consumers of Scripture—an apostle, theologians, doctors of the church, a venerable heresiarch, a medieval laywoman, modern politicians with secular agendas, Christ himself—understanding and often warping the text in the light of their own times and prejudices. He brings to life the intimacies and complicities of individual relationships with sacred readings.

—Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, William P. Reynolds Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

Out of his remarkable experience of the Bible as translator, theologian, and monk, Henry Wansbrough has provided a brilliantly readable and attractive introduction to the understanding of the Bible from the New Testament itself to its use in the present state of Israel.

—Benedicta Ward, reader in Christian spirituality, University of Oxford


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  1. Richard Aaron Thomas
  2. Richard C. Hammond, Jr.
  3. Akintoye AKINTUNDE
  4. Sheila Ransome
  5. Byron Samson

    Byron Samson


  6. John



Save on Publisher Spotlight through February 29!


Digital list price: $18.99
Regular price: $13.99
Save $4.20 (30%)