Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Bible Tells Me So

A few years ago I wrote a series of posts on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and for a while after that I kept coming back to the subject.  I stopped eventually, partly because I ran out of things to say, and partly because it was like shooting fish in a barrel.  The idea of an inerrant Bible just doesn't make any sense once you've read it and realised what kind of book (or collection of books) it actually is.

However, at the risk of going over old ground and boring everyone, I've just read a fantastic book by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So...Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.  Don't bother reading my laboured posts on the subject, just read this book instead.

Enns is an Old Testament scholar.  He currently holds a chair in Biblical Studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania.  His book jacket also tells us that he has taught at Harvard, Princeton and Fuller.  Interestingly it doesn't mention Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1994 to 2008.

In 2005 he published a book called Inspiration and Incarnation, in which he brings biblical scholarship to bear, often critically, on various key Evangelical approaches to the reading of scripture.  He felt that Evangelicals often take a defensive posture when confronted by new ideas and research findings, and that this leads to significant cognitive dissonance.

He had been teaching his students this for years, but Inspiration and Incarnation created a storm among the conservative Presbyterians who run Westminster.  The Chair of the Board of Trustees asked the members of the faculty to investigate whether the content of the book violated his oath to uphold the Westminster Confession, required of all staff.  After a lengthy process and much debate the faculty concluded it did not but the Board, who had never intervened on theological matters before, overrode them and sacked him.

This shows you three things.  One is that his theology is orthodox enough that he was prepared to sign up for the Westminster Confession, and most of his peers didn't think he had strayed from that.  The second is that he is intellectually honest and serious enough about his scholarship to be prepared to take risks.  Thirdly, it's a bit sad that the college felt the need to shield its trainee ministers from his ideas - after all, if your education doesn't challenge you what's the point?

Anyhow the good news is that not only did Enns get another teaching job (presumably at a less conservative college), but he was free to write this book without further censure.

Enns is a serious Bible scholar with a PhD and lots of published papers in academic journals, but this book is very much for lay readers.  There's no jargon, no dense historical and theological reasoning, just a logical flow of ideas expressed in plain English.  It even has jokes - many of them are quite funny.

The heart of Enns' message is this.

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God's rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual - follow the directions and out pops a true believer, deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.

If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to "defend the Bible" against those anti-God attacks.  Problem solved.

That is, until you actually read the Bible.  Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag - fine as long as it's kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes....

When you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn't behave itself like a holy rulebook should.  It is definitely inspiring and uplifting - it wouldn't have the shelf life it does otherwise.  But just as often it's a challenging book that leaves you with more questions than answers.

His challenge to Christians is, do you want a tame Bible that answers every question clearly and simply, or do you want the one we actually have?

To get the party off to rollicking start, he begins at the most obvious point.  In the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua, God is portrayed not simply as turning a blind eye to genocide, but positively requiring it, even punishing his people when they fail to carry it out with sufficient thoroughness.  How do Christians square this away with the view of God as Love, of Jesus dying on the cross for all humanity, with turning the other cheek?

His answer is that, of course, you can't.  It's impossible to reconcile the two.  So how should Christians treat these stories?  Well, for a start we should understand that they come out of a tribal milieu, in which each tribe and nation was at war with its neighbours and each nation had a God who they saw as sponsoring them.  Israel was no different, and its God was Yahweh, the God of Israel.

These stories, then, need to be understood as the stories of a tribal people about their God, expressed from within their cultural milieu.  The evidence of archaeology is that they are not even true in a modern historical sense.  The Bible is written by real, ordinary humans, tied to their moment in history and their place on the globe.  It is not somehow removed from this, as cosmic message direct from God.

This means we are free to approach it critically, to learn from it what we can learn without being required ourselves to adopt this tribal mindset.  God, he says, likes stories and this is how he chooses to reveal himself to us.  Not all the stories say the same thing.  Often they are in tension.

This applies even to the parts of the Bible you might expect to be the clearest - for instance the Wisdom books, intended to provide practical guidance for how to live your life.  He gives the example of two successive verses in Proverbs 26.  Verse 4: "Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself".  Verse 5: "Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes".  So which is it?  Should you argue, or not?

Wisdom isn't about finding a quick answer key to life - like turning to the index, finding your problem and turning to the right page so it all works out.   Wisdom is about learning how to work through the unpredictable, uncontrollable messiness of life so you can figure things out on your own in real time.

Both of these proverbs are good, wise and right - the question is when each is good, wise and right.  And that "when" depends on the situation you might find yourself in.

This variability applies to a lot of other parts of the Bible too.  For instance, what is God like?  Sometimes he is all-seeing and all-knowing, while at other times, like in the Garden of Eden, he seems to be in the dark about our doings and requires explanation.  Sometimes he is so angry he lashes out, like in the story of the Great Flood or, more inexplicably, when he destroys Aaron's sons for offering the wrong kind of incense.  Other times he is "merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love".  Sometimes he us unchangeable, sometimes he regrets what he has done.  All these pictures of God convey something to us about his or her nature, but none is a complete picture.

When we come to the New Testament we can see that Jesus and the apostles understood this much more clearly than we do.  As Biblical Studies Professor Enns puts it, "Jesus gets a great fat 'F' in Bible".  He and his apostles, especially Paul, quote verses out of context, give them meanings no-one would have thought to put in there, and generally fail to treat the Bible like a good Christian should.

The result is that the stories of the Old Testament are given a radical new meaning, something no previous Jewish interpreter would have dreamed of, a re-purposing of the Old Testament stories to provide a universal human message based around Jesus the Christ in place of the tribal message about Yahweh and his people Israel.

Nor does this stop with the Old Testament.  The New also provides us with a collection of stories and points of view, different interpretations of the life and meaning of Jesus.  The Jesus portrayed in John's Gospel, for instance, is significantly different to the way he is portrayed in Matthew, Mark and Luke; and even though the Synoptic gospels are much closer to each other than they are to John they still present us with different viewpoints and emphases.  As Hans Kung said, there are already a number of different theologies present in the New Testament.

You can see, perhaps, why a conservative college wouldn't want their students hearing such stuff.  But then again, this is nothing new.  I didn't read anything much in The Bible Tells Me So that I hadn't read before.  Nor does Enns claim otherwise.  He is not trying to break new ground.  Rather, he is trying to reach out to people like the students at Westminster who study the Bible deeply and with the aid of the best scholarship, find the same disturbing things that Enns himself found, and find their faith (as he did) under threat.

Too often such people find no help in their conservative colleges because teachers like Enns who could have helped them are turfed out and replaced with those who will toe the line.  Bart Ehrmann is a good example of what can happen - the weight of scholarly doubt destroyed his faith and he is now one of the world's best known atheist Bible scholars.  Of course it's not always like that.  Marcus Borg, for instance, describes himself as having been a "closet atheist" for much of his career as a seminary teacher and Jesus scholar before experiencing a late life spiritual awakening.

What Enns is trying to do is leave these things a little less to chance.  He wants ordinary believers to know what they are getting themselves in for when they read the Bible, to be ready for it and to have some tools to cope with it.  His faith is alive and well.  When you get rid of illusions, what is real remains.


Hermit said...

This pushes my boundaries a little. It is probably a book I should read. But I'm not even sure the scholarly approach warrants any attention. We who believe read the Bible, and through it the Holy Spirit communes with us and guides us into and on in our relationship with God, and THAT's what's important. I think. Anyway, I believe the Bible.

Jon Eastgate said...

I think Peter Enns would agree with you, but the relevant question is, "what is the Bible?" What sort of book, how should it be understood?