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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

1700 to the Present

Ronald Clements

The beginning of the eighteenth century witnessed a significant turningpoint in the interpretation of the Bible, initially largely determined by the controversies and conflicts which had dominated the previous century. From the perspective of the English church, set against the background of the wider European scene, the concern to secure the position of a truly national church was of paramount importance. This entailed a clear and firm rebuttal of Catholic claims and the strong assertion of truly Protestant principles of biblical interpretation. Europe was itself now divided between Catholic and Protestant, with correspondingly distinct traditions on the subject. In Great Britain the differences between Lutheran and Calvinist approaches were further challenged by the concerns of the philosophical Deists to render the biblical revelation conformable to straightforward rational principles of universal religious truth. Yet it was just such a reasoned and reasonable defence of religious truth which held out promise of bypassing the extremes which had generated past conflicts.

What was needed was a balanced acknowledgement of the authority of the Bible, a reasoned methodology in its interpretation, and a politically stabilizing endorsement of the claims of the English crown against Catholic pretensions. Consequently, to show how the biblical revelation was in accord with the dictates of reason was clearly a primary task for biblical interpretation.

Within such a concern a number of major themes dominated discussion, each of which gradually blossomed into an independent subject of theological research by the middle of the nineteenth century. Each developed appropriate goals and methods of enquiry which, to an increasing extent, began to stand apart from the others. Foremost was a concern with the relationship between the Bible and the ever-enlarging body of scientific knowledge. The need to harmonize the biblical world-view with the new scientific understanding which was giving rise to an entirely new cosmology set the primary task. Alongside this historical, rather than cosmological, issues began progressively to become the centre of biblical research. Theology itself became historically oriented to such an extent that historical reconstructions shaped the form of theological enquiry. Central among such questions were those relating to the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth. In line with this the preparation in the Old Testament for the advent of the Messiah became increasingly focused on its historical, rather than its theological, character. Instead of messianic prophecies the idea of a historical preparation—a ‘salvation history’—became the central theme.

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Oxford University Press

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