>Biblical Signficance in the 21st Century: Criticism & Guidance

>This is the third post in a quick series of posts focused on reading the Bible. The first post asked What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions, and the second followed up, focusing specifically on Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible. If you haven’t yet, read them first, and then continue on here with a discussion of what significance (if any) the Bible can or should have for Christians today.

Christians’ understanding of the Bible began to change in the 18th century when historians and scholars of language began to analyze the texts in the Bible not for their theological, pastoral, and eschatological content, but as historical documents alone. What they slowly began to find was not only a series of texts that were far from inerrant, in a literal way, but also that the texts were heavily influenced by the political, theological, cultural, and personal biases of their authors. These two realities seriously challenged a Church that had become ossified and arrogant. The Bible had become an object of worship in itself, and the challenges that scholars were raising seemed to threaten Christianity itself. This worship of the Bible, or bibliolatry, is the central feature of contemporary fundamentalist Christianity, and is a serious error; in traditional Christian terminology, it’s nothing short of a heresy.

The earliest Biblical critics were all practicing Christians themselves, and were not seeking to tear down the faith at all, but rather to build it up with a more complete understanding of the Scriptures. It took more than two centuries, but today, the Roman Catholic Church and all the mainline Protestant churches accept and encourage historical criticism as central for a proper understanding of Christian history and belief. By admitting that the Bible was written by human beings, and is as susceptible to flaw as any other created thing, real Christian faith is strengthened rather than weakened. Bibliolatry, like any other form of idolatry, is mutually exclusive to the actual worship of, understanding of, and relationship with God. God is not contained by any book or creed. Any attempt to limit God in that way must be rejected as awful theology.

So biblical scholars can trace the arc of thought through the Judean prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. They can explain much of the language through historical context rather than resorting to some sort of inbreaking divine voice. Paul’s letters are brought into clearer focus. They quickly show themselves to be pragmatic, advising documents with a lot of theological loose ends. They leave a lot of questions unanswered, and they omit ideas and doctrines that will become essential later. The gospels are revealed to be differing accounts of Jesus’ life, whose content is drawn not only from oral accounts decades removed from Jesus’ death, but also from the theological and ecclesiastic opinions of their writers.

In short, any serious analysis of the Bible reveals imperfections and contradictions galore. Any attempt to hold it up as an inerrant document becomes utterly preposterous. But I’ve claimed that this strengthens rather than weakens Christianity. How can this be?

I’ve already talked about how insisting on literal Biblical inerrancy leads to the grave error of bibliolatry. But it also, as I mentioned in a previous post, actually strips the book of most of its meaning. Are we to read Jesus parables literally? When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, are we supposed to horde mustard in preparation? How are we to read the Song of Solomon, an intensely erotic poem from the Tanakh (the Old Testament)? How do we make sense of the intricate sacrificial demands laid out in the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh? A literal reading in any of these examples would yield all sorts of madness, and would prevent us from understanding the deeper truths being expressed, truths sublime enough that they cannot be expressed literally. That’s not to say that there aren’t verses, chapters, and even entire books that can’t be read literally. Jesus and Paul both have plenty of direct, pragmatic advice to offer, as do the writers of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. But it’s clear that each book and chapter must be read carefully and interpreted according to the sort of writing that it is.

So this recognition that not every book of the Bible can be read literally enriches Christian study by opening up all sorts of avenues of interpretation that were closed before. The fact that the Bible is far from inerrant doesn’t detract from its value. It’s a record of peoples’ struggles with God and attempts to both understand and serve God. It’s a messy book because it records a messy history. There are gems of knowledge there, but they have to be sought out. A facile, superficial reading will leave you empty handed if you come to the Bible looking for anything of value.

Recognition of the limited, created nature of the Bible also allows us to step back and see the struggles of its writers as part of a longer narrative of humanity slowly finding its way forward. As Paul understood things, Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t the end of history at all, but rather the “first fruits” of the coming justification (1 Cor. 15). Christianity is not a reassurance of smug complacency, but rather a call to join in the tearful, confusing work of bringing the rule of heaven to earth. The Bible shows can show is the way in both its truths as well as its errors, reminding us to be humble and thoughtful, and obedient to nothing–not a book, not a church, not a leader–but God alone.

>What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions

>A lot of Christians define themselves as “Bible” Christians. They seem to be contrasting themselves with other Christians, who presumably don’t center their faith on the Bible. But what does it meant to place a body of scriptures at the center of a faith? Is being a Christian simply a matter of reading the Bible and obeying whatever is found therein?

Modern American society is dominated by what is generally referred to as the “culture wars”. This analysis depends on polarizing society into two camps: conservative Christians and liberal atheists. The former are understood as reactionary, closed-minded fundamentalists and the latter as libertine, nihilist hedonists. As with any simplification of very complex matters, this narrative is wildly inaccurate. But this isn’t a post about politics; I want to dig into a specific question: what does the Bible mean? There certainly are fundamentalist Christians, and they would respond simply, saying that the Bible is literally and completely true, utterly inerrant, and that people achieve salvation through obedience to this book, which they often describe as an “owner’s manual” to the human soul.

But historians of religion see the Bible differently. Biblical scholars can dissect the text and expose the cultural, political, and economic forces that worked on the writers of the Bible. They can point out contradictions and inaccuracies, which abound: the first chapter of Genesis gives a different account of creation than the second; the major prophets denigrate the sacrificial cult of the Temple while the writer of Deuteronomy makes it a central aspect of Judaism. St Paul and the writer of the Gospel of St Mark seem to understand Jesus as a human being like any other who was elevated or “adopted” by God into divine status at his baptism by John the Baptizer, while the writer of the Gospel of St John describes Christ as the eternal, uncreated Word of God.

If one is honest with oneself, the conclusions to be drawn from Biblical criticism are inescapable. The Bible is a series of documents, written by humans, from their various human perspectives, and is subject to error just like anything else written by humans. Does this realization necessarily mean that Christianity is irrelevant, proven false through modern scholarship? I think to answer this question, we have to ask other questions. What do we mean when we talk about the Bible being “inspired”? How do we understand God as acting in the world? How do writers communicate in their work–is the literal interpretation of a text the only or best one? I’m going to give my own two cents on each of these in posts coming up soon.

Read the first post here: Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible
And the second post here: The Significance of the Bible in the 21st Century: Criticism and Guidance