Brief Book Review: The Church’s Book

The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context

by Brad East

Why should you read this? For readers of Pray Tell, East focuses on scripture’s central context as the mission and worship of the community of Jesus Christ. The scriptural canon is for the church and for the upbuilding of the church.

What’s the main point? As East himself writes, “How one answers questions about the nature, authority and interpretation of Scripture follows from and depends on one’s understanding of the nature, authority, and mission of the church” (6).

Why is this book significant? Two things: 1) East is trying to break down disciplinary divisions between historical criticism and theology, and 2) East’s comprehensive study of the “bibliologies” (his word) of theologians John Webster, Robert Jenson, and John Howard Yoder.

What intrigued me the most? Prior to his analysis of Yoder’s work, and ancillary to his central argument, East provides an excursus in which he explores why, given Yoder’s history of abusive sexual behavior toward women, Yoder’s theological writing should continue to receive any attention and why East has chosen to do so. The frankness of his discussion invites reflection on how, in our current social and ecclesial context, “we ought to relate to artistic and discursive works whose creators or authors have acted in ways that we, as their interpreters, rightly judge abhorrent” (181).

What will get you thinking? This is not an easy read; the analysis of the three theologians, while accessible, is dense. That said, the central premise of East’s argument and his analyses will push you to think about how Scripture functions and is interpreted in your own ecclesial contexts and traditions, especially in his concluding typology that describes church and Scripture as deputy, beneficiary, and vanguard.

Quibbles. East builds his argument, and his choice of theologians, on a typological framework of church division in which he distinguishes between three major forms: catholic, reformed, and baptist. That he then chooses a Lutheran theologian (Jenson) as the representative voice for the catholic form will seem odd to many readers. However, if you are willing to take each of these labels as a shorthand reference to a broader set of ecclesial traditions, which East carefully defines, the typology works. The typology becomes important in his conclusion, where he describes the church’s relationship to scripture as either that of deputy (catholic), beneficiary (reformed), or vanguard (baptist).

Kudos. While dense, the book is thoroughly researched and well-argued. East provides an appreciative yet critical inquiry into the relationship between scriptural interpretation and ecclesiology as represented in the theology of Barth and in three late-20th century Protestant theologians who built on but “repurposed” Barth’s theological legacy regarding the relationship of Scripture to the church: John Webster (Anglican), Robert Jenson (Lutheran), and John Howard Yoder (Mennonite).

Applications. I used this book in a graduate seminar on scripture and liturgy, a purpose it served well. It might also serve in graduate seminars on biblical theology, biblical hermeneutics, or theology as a focused introduction to protestant theologies of the interpretation of scripture.

East, Brad. The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2022. 408 pages. $49.99. ISBN: 9780802878151.

REVIEWER: Ron Anderson
E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is the Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Worship
at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.