Revelation, Scripture and Church: Theological Hermaneutic Thought of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur and Hans Frei. By Richard R. Topping


Pp. x, 239 . Aldershot : Ashgate , 2007 , £55.00/$99.95 .

No two hermeneutical frameworks are equal. With respective strengths also come respective weaknesses. However, sorting through these differences is not simple and can rarely be accomplished in clear relief – especially if the sense of relief one is seeking is one that is theologically informed. To his credit, Richard R. Topping, Senior Minister of The Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montreal, Quebec, provides scholars who find themselves mired in the conflicting morass of hermeneutical frameworks with a way forward. This way forward is cut by virtue of the theological explorations that Topping offers of three divergent frameworks – the frameworks offered by James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei. Despite the formulaic nature of his own work, Topping's comparative study provides invaluable insights that one can only see when these three frameworks are placed next to one another. Ironically, the result of such a study yields a space Topping declines yet to fill – one which I sense he most certainly could fill given the insights he brings to bear in this study. Although the critiques themselves are worthy of our attention, Topping's project is one left unfulfilled.

The unfulfilled nature of this project emerges by virtue of the fact that what is implicit fails to become explicit. For example, Topping offers that ‘While the dominant tone of this essay has been expository and analytical, the general shape of a constructive proposal for the deployment of doctrine (revelation, Holy Scripture and church) in the depiction of the hermeneutic field has been implicit’ (p. 213). In essence, the space he opens through the critiques he offers of the efforts of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei allows Topping to argue that ‘the implication of Holy Scripture in God's revelatory/salvific action is fundamental to what the Bible is’ (p. 213). However, details concerning the fundamental relationship Topping seeks to establish are sparse. Topping rightfully argues that ‘interpretation takes place in prayer and as penultimate human work with hope, because God has demonstrated that in sovereign freedom God is for us in the Gospel’ (p. 215). What is needed is for Topping to offer details for this effort that prove to be comparable in some manner to the details he offers in relation to the efforts of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei. However, beyond the details offered in an implicit fashion, those details are simply not present in this volume.

The outline for the details that Topping offers in this volume is divided into three chapters which are then divided into three subsections. What this structure lacks in an engaging style it gains in thoroughness. The three chapters themselves are defined by the key places that revelation, the Bible, and the church each hold within various hermeneutical frameworks. Making this point, Topping argues that ‘God's disclosure and salvific initiative is generative of inscripturated witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which by the illuminative work of the Holy Spirit constitutes and sustains the church’ (p. 4). As a result, exploring the hermeneutical frameworks of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei through such interlocking categories yields strengths and weaknesses (but mostly weaknesses) that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Likewise, Topping selected the hermeneutical frameworks of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei for a particular set of reasons. These frameworks have, indeed, yielded significant forms of influence in both the church and academe. However, Topping also has an interlocking set of rationales for selecting each one in relation to the weaknesses he brings to bear. In particular, Topping offers that ‘Any interpretation of the Bible requires the coordination of at least three loci of meaning – the world ‘behind’ the text [Barr], the world ‘in front of’ the text [Barr & Ricoeur] and the world ‘within’ the text [Frei]’ (p. 6). The emphasis here ‘is not to provide a complete overview’ of all possible hermeneutical frameworks (p. 7). In contrast, Topping offers a representative range of possible options through the work of Barr, Ricoeur, and Frei.

In his chapter on the Bible, Topping offers that ‘The focus of attention is given to the manner in which the Bible is implicated in the revelatory and saving action of God in Jesus Christ by means of which Scripture is generated and to which it bears witness and is made effective for faith in the power of the Spirit’ (p. 9). In essence, Topping argues that these hermeneutical frameworks are not only individually insufficient but together they also lack an appreciation for ‘God's communicative action in Jesus Christ made luminous and effective in the power of the Spirit’ (p. 9). For example, James Barr suggested that one's ability to interpret the Bible should necessarily be freed from theological belief. Following an elaborate discussion of Barr's position, Topping comes to the conclusion that ‘Barr operates throughout his critical analysis of doctrines of revelation (and inspiration) with an extrinsic understanding of God in relation to creation and the human tradition about God’ (p. 25). In essence, Barr's emphasis on the horizontal nature of the witness of the Bible between human beings occludes the vertical nature of its witness and thus God's role as an operative and even an initiating agent. Topping goes on to repeat this exercise in this chapter in relation to the work of Paul Ricoeur and Hans Frei. Subsequent chapters concerning Scripture and the church follow the same pattern.

Inherent in this exercise of critique is Topping's own theological genius. He clearly sees what is at stake when one accepts the hermeneutical frameworks of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, or Hans Frei without critical reflection. However, this genius does not come without inspiration. While no one theologian typifies the full-nature of the critique Topping offers, the voices of several different scholars do help to inform the perspective he brings to bear. For example, in the critique Topping offers of Barr's work, one also finds the influence of Kevin Vanhoozer. Echoing Vanhoozer, Topping notes that:

Although Barr is not a theologian, he nevertheless ventures into theological territory with what appears, at first, to be a fruitful proposal for speaking of God's ongoing and active presence among his people, and even of God's generative priority to the human tradition about God, only to withdraw from theological description altogether (p. 26).

Such an observation eventually leads Topping to assert that Barr limits God's presence to the immanent or the horizontal dimension of human relations. Nicholas Wolterstorff provides Topping with similar forms of insights. However, the work of John Calvin and Karl Barth may prove to be most present in Topping's critique of the hermeneutical frameworks of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei.

Despite the genius present in Topping's critique, the formulaic nature of its structure often leads one to miss the larger issue that is at stake in favor of the smaller, yet significant, details. Early on in his work, Topping decides that the most profitable form of critique is to work through these frameworks one at a time in relation to the larger themes of revelation, Scripture, and the church. On a micro-analytical level, the depth of detail is penetrating and defines the real strength of Topping's book. However, on a macro-analytical level, one is tempted to lose the larger point of Topping's project. This dilemma is compounded by the fact that what Topping offers in the place of the hermeneutical frameworks of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei is scant by comparison. Topping obviously possesses the insight needed to develop such a constructive offering. Instead of leaving us with a completed project, Topping leaves us, at best, with the hope that his critique is but the first volume of a two-volume project.

In Revelation, Scripture and Church: Theological Hermaneutic Thought of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur and Hans Frei, Richard R. Topping offers a valuable critique of a wide-range of hermeneutical frameworks. Anyone seeking a penetrating critique of the frameworks offered by Barr, Ricoeur, and Frei will find Topping's work to be necessary reading. In addition, the larger theological vision which guides Topping's work has real potential. However, this project ends on that note and is thus one that is still unfulfilled. Again, we can only hope that Topping will continue with his efforts and offer us a full treatment of his own efforts. Reading between the lines of this present volume, I would venture to guess that a second volume would be worthy of our attention as well.