Those close to me might grow tired of hearing me sing the praises of a Professor R. W. L. Moberly. He is little known in the Christian circles I grew up in – Reformed, Evangelical, Protestantism – but since I attended his lectures on the Old Testament at Durham University, my thoughts about the Bible and theology have been greatly influenced by his approach(es) to the Christian Scriptures.

I recently finished reading his latest book, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, in under a week and have been blown away by how relevant this book is in the current cultural climate as well as in my personal Christian journey. In this review, I talk about how the book is structured, say why you should read it, and offer some caveats about it.

1 thesis in 4 stages

He has a straightforward goal which he sets out in his introduction:

In this book I offer a fresh (I hope) account of the nature of the Bible and of appropriate attitudes towards it and ways of reading it. (p.1)

Of the book’s four chapters, the first (Posing the Problem) offers a snapshot of how the Bible has gradually lost its ‘privileged position’ in Western culture. Its impact and influence in a ‘disenchanted age’ is called into question: why should the Bible be given special treatment today?

Based on how this chapter reads, I’d say that Prof. Moberly’s target audience is (on the surface) anyone who regards the Bible ‘like any other book.’

The second chapter (Approaching the Bible) answers that “a first step (to state the obvious) is to recognise the legitimacy of reading the Bible in secular as well as religious ways” (p.42), and he proposes “a typology of three primary ways of reading the Bible: as history, as classic, and as Scripture” (p.42).

The third chapter (Towards Privileged Perspectives) develops how one might choose to take the Bible as Scripture. Here Prof. Moberly introduces the concept of a ‘plausibility structure.’

[It] is the idea that the social and cultural contexts within which people live regularly make a difference to the understandings of life that they hold to be true; among other things, to be surrounded by a consensus can encourage people to adopt that consensus for themselves. (p.93)

This chapter first argues that we see and understand (interpret) the world through particular perspectives. He then argues that whether we adopt a particular perspective is heavily dependent on the community(ies) within which we find ourselves.

To put it differently, and bearing in mind Prof. Moberly’s ‘disenchanted’ audience, a community that gives credence to (i.e. privileges) the Bible and takes it seriously is indispensable to encouraging others to do likewise. The following quote is helpful:

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible […] I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. (p.100, quoting Newbigin_, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society_)

The fourth chapter ties things together and argues why and how “coming to have faith in God through the content of the Bible” (p. 140) “should be a good thing” (p. 131). The following excerpt summarises the how question:

First, there needs to be an openness to taking the Bible seriously as a key to making sense of the world, an openness that is usually best fostered through the persuasive impact of the life and thought of other Christians, both past and present […] Second, there needs to be an existential engagement, a responsive openness to the God whom Jesus represents, as the only way in which words relating to God […] convey a living divine reality. (p.140)

Regarding the why question? Prof. Moberly’s answer is Jesus (of course), but his formulation is distinct from what I term the ‘gospel-centred camp.’ In the Christian community I’m a part of, here would be the perfect place to talk about the ‘Gospel’ – which is usually focused on Jesus’ penal substitutionary atonement. That’s not the path Prof. Moberly takes; but it does not necessarily mean that he does not hold to that concept, rather his focus is on (for lack of a better word) Jesus as example(?).

Why you should read it

Scholarly depth

I’ve noticed that one of Prof. Moberly’s unique approach to his writings (and lecturing) is that he dedicates a significant portion of writing space to ‘set the scene’ before offering his own thoughts and explanations. Thus the first three chapters serve as the building blocks for his main argument which is fully articulated only in the chapter four and there is a clear sense of progression from chapter to chapter.

He engages with differing viewpoints in a respectful manner and is sharp in his analysis and critique. Despite being a relatively short book (around 200 pages), it has depth, but the trade-off is breadth. Because he gives careful thought to the ideas he introduces, or for the point he is making, he is quite selective with what he puts into the book (the key Bible passages he engages with in the book are Daniel 7, John 7:16-17 and Matthew 28:18-20).

A key feature of this book is that in the second half of each chapter, Prof. Moberly offers a reading of Virgil’s Aeneid and Daniel 7. Even here, his reading ‘progresses.’ Thus the first two chapters’ interpretation focus on “the world within the text” (the world of the story) and “the world behind the text” (original context of writing). The latter two chapters focuses on how the Aeneid and Daniel 7 were received and understood (“the world in front of the text”).

Sensitivity towards lived experiences

Prof. Moberly has his finger on the current cultural pulse. His pop culture references and engagement with popular authors (like Richard Dawkins) means that the book isn’t a dry theological treatise. Instead, this is an extremely personal book that is sensitive to the complexities of human life. Throughout the book, Prof. Moberly effectively (to me) relates theological notions to everyday scenarios.

Given that a core element of the book is that the lived experiences of Christians who take the Bible seriously is vital to engage those who do not share the same view of the Bible, it is a breath of fresh air that a robust theological book is not out of touch with the difficulties and challenges of ‘daily life.’

Some caveats

Prof. Moberly’s sentences can be long at times and I found it difficult to follow some of his ideas in a number of places. Besides that, the book is readable, especially because he draws on other non-biblical/theological disciplines to make his point.

Some might want a lengthier exposition of the Bible passages that he uses, but I think his primary concern is to get those ‘outside the church’ to consider stepping inside the building. And he wants to ‘meet them where they’re at.’

Trusting the Bible in a disenchanted age

Overall, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age reads like a Bible scholar’s personal exhortation to value the Bible as “the word of God in human words, which can give incomparably valuable wisdom and guidance for life in this world” (p. 10).

For me, this book has enlightening moments of theological insights as well as stirring moments that tug at the heartstrings. As a Christian, I found Prof. Moberly’s point that the trustworthiness of the Bible shouldn’t be derived from an evidentialist approach especially helpful given how often I’ve heard reductionistic arguments for why the Bible should (or shouldn’t) be trusted. Prof. Moberly has a nuanced and rare perspective that is illuminating and adds so much to the conversation.

I’d like to end this review with an excerpt from the last paragraph of the book which speaks of the individual and communal elements necessary for trusting the Bible and the God to which it reveals:

Ultimately […] the truth and trustworthiness of the biblical witness, and of its possible origin in God, cannot be known without a readiness, alongside other believers past and present, to respond, to enter with faith into the content of that witness, and to live and die accordingly. (p.196)

See also: Does Faith Precede Facts? | Benedict Tan