The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously
by Mark Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, Daniel J. Harrington
• • •
One of my tasks this year will be to work on answering the two questions that Pete Enns raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:
- What is the Bible?
- What is the Bible for?
First, we are taking up this theme by considering a book Pete co-authored with Mark Brettler and Daniel Harrington (a Jewish and Catholic scholar, respectively), called The Bible and the Believer.
It remains to Pete Enns to talk about Protestantism and its perspectives on historical criticism and its relation to a religious reading of the Bible. By no means is this an easy task, for the term “Protestant” covers a lot of ground, and the nature of Protestantism does not lend itself to a straightforward analysis. As Enns notes:
Today, Protestantism includes American young earth creationists, liberal German Lutherans, mainline Methodists, Chinese Pentecostals, Korean hyper-Calvinists, Moral Majority Baptists, emergent church hipsters, and many others.
There is certainly no single Protestant perspective on how to read the Bible. In fact, the history of Protestantism is marked by conflict over what it means to read the Bible “correctly,” and the plethora of theological traditions and denominations are a testimony to that conflict. (pp. 126-127)
Because of the vast ground we have to cover with regard to Protestants and this subject, we will devote more than one post to Enns’s contribution.
In terms of Protestantism’s relationship to the discipline of biblical criticism, Pete Enns observes that there is a spectrum of responses. On one end is fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, which “has a long history of spirited, nonnegotiable opposition to biblical criticism as an enemy of the Christian faith.” Arising in the 19th and 20th centuries specifically as a response to what they saw as the dire threat of the critical method, fundamentalism drew dogmatic lines in the sand and essentially claimed that those across those lines was something other than genuine Christian faith.
The other end of the spectrum is populated by those commonly called “liberal” or “modernist.” These are primarily identified with mainline Protestant denominations. For them, the results of the critical method are assured. They have moved past feeling angst about combining faith with critical scholarship.
In between is a broad swath of views.
Even when limiting Protestantism to this multidenominational middle group, we are still left with a spectrum of attitudes about what it means to read the Bible faithfully vis-à-vis biblical criticism. Some appreciate the need for the conversation but may also tend toward a default position of suspicion regarding critical readings of the Bible, and thus their appropriation of critical scholarship may be more piecemeal—addressing the issue only when forced to do so. Others are more deliberate in synthesizing faith and critical scholarship but with various degrees of dis-ease. For example, some may experience discomfort over specific issues (Did the exodus happen? Is Adam a myth?). Still others may experience a general cognitive dissonance—a constant background noise or discomfort that may eventually come to the foreground. (p. 128)
The issue, of primary concern for those on the conservative side of the spectrum, is a particular view of the Bible’s authority, one which a careful study of the Bible may not in the end support. Because of Protestantism’s roots in a doctrine of sola scriptura, and the lack of either a magisterium (like the Catholics) or a talmudic tradition (like the Jews), many (not all) Protestants have placed what may be an unfair burden on the Bible as their sole and supreme authority.
Here are some of the problems biblical criticism causes for those who hold such a view.
- For Scripture to function authoritatively as Protestants required, it had to be seen as revelation from God to humanity and therefore qualitatively different from any other sort of communication. Biblical criticism, however, pointed out that Scripture was not unique among other religious texts and ideas of the ancient world.
- Protestants expected this God-given Bible to be generally clear and consistent in order to guide the church, but biblical criticism introduced ambiguity and diversity to biblical interpretation.
- Protestants assumed that Scripture must be truthful and trustworthy, because it is God’s voice speaking, but biblical criticism pointed out errors and contradictions.
- For Protestants, some conformity in interpretation with the grand tradition of the church was vital, but biblical criticism privileged no ecclesiastical tradition and instead critiqued tradition in light of intellectual and scientific discoveries.
- Protestants valued the role of reason, though chastened by Scripture and the guidance of God’s spirit, but biblical criticism valued human reason unaided by supernatural or ecclesiastical interference.
- The Bible could not function as the church’s final authority, as Protestantism required, if biblical criticism was correct. (pp. 131-132)
One of the main problems of the sola scriptura position, however, is the fact of what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Making the Bible the sole authority for the church has demonstrably not led to ecclesiastical unity formed around the clear teaching of scripture. Two groups may both hold to the authority of the Bible while coming to polar opposite conclusions with regard to how to interpret it. The Bible, as it has come to us, is just not that simple and easily understood. It is open to a plethora of interpretations, and the history of Protestant schism proves this convincingly.
Another irony of the sola scriptura view is that the Protestant instinct behind it is what inevitably led to higher criticism in the first place.
Surely it is no accident that the same soil from which the Reformation sprung, Germany, is also where biblical criticism was nurtured and fed one hundred years or so later. The same iconoclastic spirit that drove Martin Luther and others to reject Catholic authority was applied in later European scholarship (under the influence of Enlightenment philosophy) to all ecclesiastical authorities. And Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, thus putting the Bible directly into the people’s hands, was surely a two-edged sword. Once everyone has access to Scripture, its interpretation becomes a matter of personal inquiry, not monitored by the church, and interpretive chaos ensues. Hence, the Protestant Reformation had a hand in opening the door to the secularization of biblical studies. (pp. 132-133)