The Bible and the Believer (4)

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:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. 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)

32 thoughts on “The Bible and the Believer (4)

  1. I always wondered WHO got the final word concerning ‘what the Bible says’ in a denomination where a passage of Scripture could be taken literally or figuratively. And WHY that person had that power to decide.

    “GOD Spoke to ME…”?


  2. wise words, Robert, but only if you put them in the context of hope

    maybe the goal isn’t to ‘escape’ or ‘avoid’ but to confront that which troubles our souls with a hope anchored in Christ that helps us to reject what is offends our souls and move towards what is good

    ‘He Is Risen’ . . . of all the words spoken by the first Christians to the wounded world, these words made the most impact and the most conversions

    Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart
    Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
    Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
    Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light

    Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word
    I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord
    Thou my great Father, I Thy true son
    Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one

    Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
    Thou mine Inheritance, now and always
    Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
    High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

    High King of Heaven, my victory won
    May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun
    Heart of my own heart, whate’er befall
    Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all?


  3. Hello Robert F

    Then you may find some meaning in this, from G.K. Chesterton:

    “After one moment when I bowed my head
    And the whole world turned over and came upright,
    And I came out where the old road shone white.
    I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
    Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
    Being not unlovable but strange and light;
    Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
    But softly, as men smile about the dead

    The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live. “


  4. There is a great swath of people in all branches of Christianity who don’t have any idea what it means to have a “better concept” of the Trinity, and who, as a result, don’t give it much thought, don’t talk about it with others, and for whom it does not inform prayer life — I’m one of them. The Church has spent too much time focused on “better concepts”, and not enough time focusing on loving God by loving neighbor the way Jesus did.


  5. Hello Robert F

    maybe the idea ‘trust the Church’ refers more to having a trust in the Church as it spanned the centuries, the millenia . . . . especially on the great doctrines that were dealt with by the early councils and were written about by the Doctors and Fathers of the Church (and here I include both Eastern and Western Christianity).

    I expect that the Reformation was started for a good purpose, but it quickly was affected by political agendas by those in power and that led to much more division and separation than had likely been the objective of the original reformers. . . . .

    but even now, the children of the Reformation are going back to study and explore the writings of the early Fathers and the details of Church history and the liturgical ways of praying; and the result is stunning and varied.

    It might be wise for us ‘modern’ Christian people to take a page from the ways of the early Councils who researched and determined which books among the thousands offered to put into the ‘canon’ of the Bible by examining what WAS accepted and used widely throughout Christianity over a long period of time:

    there is something to be said for ‘tradition’ because the very way that the canon of sacred Scripture was formed was to consult the earliest and most widely accepted traditional readings used during the Service of the Word among all the known Christian Churches prior to the Council’s determination of what was ‘Scriptura’ in the first place . . . . . the canon was chosen USING evidence from the consistent traditions preceding its selection

    I like to think the Holy Spirit helped the early Church in the selection of the canon.
    I like to think that the Holy Spirit STILL operates among the Christian people who come together to discuss and share ideas concerning issues of the whole Church in a way that can be described as a ‘collegial consensus’ about what is mutually accepted.

    There is a great swath of evangelical people who will tell you that Jesus Christ is not God, but that He is ‘the son of God’. They speak of God the Father only as ‘God’. They have some trouble fitting the Holy Spirit into the concept of being also ‘God’. . . . I don’t think that the ESS trouble would have happened at all if these good people had had a better concept of the traditional Doctrine of the Holy Trinity that evolved in the early Church councils, as the Church confronted the first heretics who challenged the Trinity and who also challenged ‘who Christ was’.
    (my opinion here) 🙂


  6. Actually, in the fight that is currently happening between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow over the rightful Church in Ukraine, there is the possibility of a major schism happening in Orthodoxy unless the fight is settled. And the fight is indeed over how to apply some ancient Traditions.

    I cannot imagine women ordained to the priesthood, but I can imagine the ancient order of deaconesses being brought back. That has already started in the Patriarchate of Alexandria. For those of you who do not know, the Early Church had an established order of deaconesses. For instance, we have several letters from St. John Chrysostom writing as bishop to the deaconesses under his care.

    But, when I speak of Tradition, I mean something more than current fights or future (unlikely) possibilities. You have heard the old saying, “For want of a nail the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost.” That is how we see Tradition. Notice, for instance, that it is not until somewhere between Athanasius to Origen that we have begin to see the authoritative list of New Testament books that we now have. This is already the mid-3rd century to late 4th century. By the end of the 4th century the New Testament, as we know it, was accepted in the West, but not in the East until near the end of the 5th century.

    Before that there was a sensibility that there was a canon of Scripture, whatever it may have been, since some lists featured The Didache or 1 Clement, while other might feature 3 Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas, even the Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Thomas featured in some lists. This means that what we know of as the New Testament was a development of Tradition over the first four some centuries after Christ. Had you spoken to various Christians of even the second century, in various parts of Christendom, you would have found no one New Testament, only various disperate collections.

    Thus, to reject Tradition is to begin the process of rejecting the New Testament for it is the product of a Tradition-process. If you beat upon the Early Church Fathers too much, if you suggest that the Church fell in the year 100 AD, or even when Constantine’s son finally declared it the official Church, then you cast doubt upon the New Testament since the final collection is clearly well into the time of Empire. And there is where the nail and shoe start coming off. Why should not the Gospel of Thomas be part of the New Testament? Why should not the Didache be part of the New Testament? Why should the Protoevangelium of James not be part of the New Testament? After all, if you discard the reliability of the Fathers, do you not then discard the reliability of the New Testament?

    To answer this dilemma, Reformed Christians came up with the novel doctrine of the testimonium of Scripture. That is, Scripture was so protected by the Holy Spirit that the Church was bound to end up with the correct New Testament. I call it a novel doctrine in that the Church is called the pillar of truth in the New Testament, while the doctrine changes the pillar of truth to a set of writings. Once that happens, and once you solve the problem of the Early Church Fathers by removing them from the process of the collection of the canon and transferring it to a set of writings that were ensured to be collected by the Holy Spirit, you have then also created the attitudes about the Bible that you have in the problem of sola scriptura written about above in the original article. For, if the Fathers are that unreliable (not that they are always fully reliable, that is a different issue) then there is no choice but to have a Bible that is so reliable and perfect that the findings of the various types of biblical criticism call the faith into question.

    But, once you doubt the accuracy of the Early Church Fathers, such that you have to remove them from the process, you also open the door up for a look backward. After all, if the Early Church Fathers were so unreliable, why should the Apostles have been reliable? You catch this in some of the scholars who will talk about Paul or Peter or Luke saying something different than what Jesus said. Or you hear it when you hear talk about how Paul invented Christianity. These are statements that question even the epistolary tradition, and eventually may even cast doubt on the gospel traditions, since they were written by four men and not by Jesus.

    You see for want of Tradition, the horse is lost, or you end up in the dilemma above. You cavil against the Church and Tradition but end up with no interpretation. The horse is lost.


  7. My old Zen teacher would’ve said that the “total void of unknowing” is not such a bad place to be — that is, in fact, our home.


  8. I have recognized a principle in life that cannot be gainsaid by authoritative Church or Bible: You cannot escape or avoid your own experience.


  9. Some of us have also heard, “Trust the Church — it understands Scripture better than you,” only to find out that in certain important cases it didn’t, and we shouldn’t have.


  10. I remember contending with tremendous angst in college thinking, “How can I positively assert ANYTHING?” Studying philosophy can lead you quickly down that path. I think in retrospect that it was a good angst. It shades my thinking to this day and now I feel like I’m in good company. I no longer feel lost in a total void of unknowing any and every thing but I do feel a similar skepticism about my knowledge as has been described. It no longer shakes my confidence to the core but it hopefully keeps me from being the horse’s ass I once was. There is considerably more mystery than certainty!


  11. –> “Neither Sola Scriptura nor an authoritative Church are capable of adequately straightening either of the messes out.”

    But boy o’ boy, it is sure used that way. Who here hasn’t heard…

    “God is good — all the time! And all the time — God is good!”

    …to arm-wave away all the messiness?


  12. Life is messy; Biblical interpretation is messy (and inexact). Neither Sola Scriptura nor an authoritative Church are capable of adequately straightening either of the messes out. Humility and a feel for their own limitations is required of individuals and the Church as a whole when interpreting Scripture, though both are often in short supply.


  13. It becomes all too easy to turn Chapter-and-Verse into a deified Party Line.

    Wahabi Islam has done the same with their holy book the Koran; that’s what’s given us Saudi/Talibani/ISIS Shari’a.

    And it becomes just another merciless ideology of POWER forcing conformity — Or Else!


  14. Fr. Ernesto, could you give some examples of recent interpretations in EO that have rubbed up against or maybe even countered long held traditions that could bellwethers? I know I’m swinging for the fences, but could you imagine a time in the future when women would be ordained to the priesthood?


  15. This post is as clear and succinct a discussion of the issues as I’ve read. I can’t think of anything to add that’s not simply repeating what was already said. So I can only offer a personal opinion.

    “sola scriptura” is fundamentally incoherent and self-contradictory.


  16. I find that I have mixed feelings as I read this article. As an Eastern Orthodox, our view of Tradition is closer to the Jewish view. Like the Talmud, we have no one clear authority, but do have a lot of common inherited interpretations, as well as the Ecumenical Councils. I do not believe in sola scriptura precisely because there is no one interpretation of Scripture when one engages in sola scriptura. It is only when one is willing to accept a very strong role for Tradition that Scripture takes its rightful place of guidance.

    Among the Orthodox, like the Jews, there is no one interpretation of every Scripture. We are not Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, there is a body of inherited Tradition that guides and limits our interpretations. Tradition goes hand in hand with Scripture. Scripture is not and was not meant to be self-interpreting. Rather Scripture did indeed grow within an interpretative community. But that community had been given an interpretative key when the 12 Apostles were trained, and a Holy Spirit to generally guide the Church.

    Obviously, this is a longer subject than these couple of paragraphs, but I thought I would give you a small summary.


  17. Christiane, the ESS discussion came and went during the male-elder episode (which failed) at my church, and we didn’t really talk about ESS except myself and my pastor, and it wasn’t really on his radar at the time. It seems to have been an attempt to justify the complementarian view of male/female roles. Jesus willingly and joyfully submits to the Father, not only during his three years on earth, but eternally. Yada yada. Therefore, it was implied, women should do so to men.

    I’m very glad this was discredited at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting. It’s an old idea, and although it may not have had depth of scholarship, as you say, it had some influential theologians behind it—Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. It probably got attention recently because it was gaining traction within the whole complementarian mess.

    As for Paige Patterson, he was ousted ostensibly for mishandling cases of sexual abuse while he was president of seminaries, and for sexist remarks made in jest; but these events are ancient history, years or decades earlier, and on record for anyone who cared back then. Why now? It may be that because he was one of the old-guard NON-calvinists in the SBC that the others seized the opportunity of the sexism card to get him out of the way. That’s unproven, but I remember it talked about over at Wartburg Watch. It does seem fishy to oust him now for what had been well-known for years. Nothing new there.

    I don’t know what to make of this calvinism business in our baptist churches. Baptists don’t seem to know what to do with it, and most of the membership is unaware or unconcerned. It’s really complementarianism that’s driving the shift, most notably in the form of male leadership. In a time of increasing awareness of sexual abuse, I think our baptist churches may be contributing to the problem of abuse by setting up church structures that enable it. Read some of Jeri Massi’s work about independent fundamental baptist (IFB) churches and the inherent problems in them. Turns out, it’s not just the Catholics.

    I’m encouraged by the rejection of ESS, and like you and Isaiah I’ll try to remain optimistic about the church. But my own people have made it difficult.


  18. –> “…the Bible’s variety of portrayals of God are not always sufficiently appreciated or struggled with…”

    So true. Shoot, as much as I hate Neo-Calvinism, I can’t deny that God is portrayed in the Bible as a bit Calvinistic. But–and this is a big “But”–putting all one’s eggs in that basket ignores all the other aspects of God in which He isn’t.

    To me, this seems to relate to the classic Michael Spencer article you most recently posted–“Shopping the Mall”– in which Michael wrote this:

    “The work of bringing unity in the body of Christ isn’t a work of structure and institution. I doubt if God cares how many different ways we gather, worship, work or do mission. The work of unity is a work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, bringing me to love other Christians and to see Christ in them and for me.”


  19. Add to that, the Bible’s variety of portrayals of God are not always sufficiently appreciated or struggled with, so that the real authority becomes one’s systematic theology rather than the Bible alone.


  20. –> “Protestants have placed what may be an unfair burden on the Bible as their sole and supreme authority.”

    So true. And the problem with this “burden” is that it ultimately puts God in a nice, tidy box. God is exactly what the Bible says He is: nothing more, nothing less. That, to me, is the real issue with the Sola Scriptura belief: it puts God in a box that limits Him to precise interpretations of scripture. Well, to heck with THAT!

    (Come to think of it, didn’t Satan use “precise interpretations of scripture” in his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness?)


  21. Hello TED,

    I always wondered WHO got the final word concerning ‘what the Bible says’ in a denomination where a passage of Scripture could be taken literally or figuratively. And WHY that person had that power to decide.

    for me, an example of a portion of a denomination in trouble over their (mis)use of sacred Scripture is the group that made up a whole new doctrine to support their own man-made interpretation. Then, after working for years pushing that new doctrine, to see it rejected FINALLY by voices in the denomination that were respected and listened to.

    I speak of course of the Eternal Subordination of the Son doctrine which attacked the Church’s ancient doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the early Councils’ work on ‘Who Christ was’ (two natures , one Person) . . . . the group that tried to push ESS needed it to shore up their own agenda but they did not have the depth of scholarship nor the gravitas to accomplish attacking two thousand years of mainline Church beliefs and in the end, their ESS took a big hit from the weight of rejection . . . . . I only wondered why it was not rejected sooner by people who had integrity. (?)

    Another sad situation was the abuse of women scholars in the SBC by Paige Patterson, who EMPHASIZED certain portions of the Bible according to himself over the command to follow the Royal Law of Christ . . . . finally, he was also rejected and his harsh behaviors towards innocent women was repudiated by the denomination.

    My own opinion is that the blatant abusers who attempt to use sacred Scripture to do harm in this world eventually ARE rejected and outed as ‘wrong’ . . . maybe not so much by the ‘wisdom’ of their peers and of something more powerful than that . . . . when the ‘fruit’ of what they have pushed on others begins to rot, people who are familiar with sacred Scripture take note, pause, and rethink their interest and allegiance to the new ‘leader’ in their midst who has run foul of the Holy Spirit.

    I think there is a force in the whole Church of CONSENSUS that is guided by the Holy Spirit that works against evil and for good in that the sacred Scriptures cannot be corrupted for the wrong ends without exposure eventually and the whole Church, as a people, by a sort of acclamation, finds its voice against the wrong doing of a few.

    In the meantime, with all of our man-made efforts, we overlook this:
    “So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)


  22. “ I used to tell my students that at least 20 percent of what I was telling them was wrong, but I didn’t know which 20 percent it was…”- NT Wright/Common Denominator


  23. Ted wrote:

    “We insist that the “clear meaning” of scripture should be straightforward, and that settles it; but when it’s not straightforward, who decides what the clear meaning shall be?”

    This brings a quote from Mark Twain to mind:

    “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”


  24. Ted, excellent response and insight. I have found that whatever my personal opinion may be I have to hold it loosely as I might just as easily be wrong.


  25. Two groups may both hold to the authority of the Bible while coming to polar opposite conclusions with regard to how to interpret it.

    This is exactly what I was thinking as I read the post.

    In churches that insist on “sola scriptura” we often get surprised and disappointed when something comes under stress. We insist that the “clear meaning” of scripture should be straightforward, and that settles it; but when it’s not straightforward, who decides what the clear meaning shall be?

    The elders, of course. It’s in the by-laws.

    So now we’re talking about something more than sola scriptura. Now we’ve added Church Tradition, Church Authority, some of the very things the Reformation, and our newly reformed churches, stand against. The clear meaning of scripture becomes what the elders say it is.

    This became evident during a shake-up in our church a few years ago, when the same verses from the bible were used to argue opposite viewpoints. What was considered “biblical” over here (and therefore we must do it, or we’re disobedient) was also considered to be “unbiblical” over there in another part of scripture. An insistence on 1 Timothy 3 as a commandment (thou shalt have male elders, or be damned) was seen by others as legalism, a return to works of the law, as in Galatians 2 (“I opposed Peter to his face, for he stood condemned”). Verses that I had used in my argument against a draconian reshuffling of church politics were used in a sermon to the opposite effect. In a private meeting with my pastor, I was told that my interpretation “misses the mark.”

    All of this underscores one of my go-to verses, Romans 3:4, “Let God be true though every man be false.”

    So, can the bible be true and authoritative when good and serious Christians disagree on the meaning? Yes, and they both had better be prepared to consider that they may be wrong, and that maybe this isn’t really a gospel matter after all. A gospel matter is a hill worth dying on, literally. The cross is the gospel, not our petty church power struggles about who gets to choose what the clear meaning is. All of this proves that “sola scriptura” isn’t what we’re practicing anyway, it’s really legalism, and pride, and power.

    But that’s one interpretation.


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