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.
Today is part two of our look at Pete Enns’s take on some Protestant perspectives about reading the Bible both critically and religiously.
Pete notes a second problem for Protestants when it comes to accepting biblical criticism. They tend to view the Bible as a unified whole, whereas Jewish engagement with the Bible has looked at the scriptures differently. This extended quote explicates his point:
Throughout history, Christians have read the Bible as an unfolding and unified story of salvation, culminating in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—in other words, Scripture is read as a coherent whole. Traditionally, Judaism has not shared this same conviction, as noted Jewish biblical scholar Jon Levenson reminds us: “Whereas in the church the sacred text tends to be seen as a word (the singular is telling) demanding majestically to be proclaimed, in Judaism it tends to be seen as a problem with many facets, each of which deserves attention.”
Levenson’s comment points to an important and telling difference between how Jews and Christians view the Bible, and this observation goes a long way to explaining why Protestants have an uneasy relationship with biblical criticism. Throughout its history, Jewish biblical interpretation has been well aware of the tensions and contradictions in the Bible, and although they expended much energy in addressing them, those efforts were free of the dogmatic angst that preoccupies Protestantism. The Jewish Bible is complex, and its many peaks and valleys, gaps and gashes are invitations to engage the text and so to connect with God through conversation, argument, and struggle. Hence, biblical criticism—although historically still challenging for various strands of Judaism—is less of a problem, at least insofar as Judaism, too, points out the peaks and valleys, gaps and gashes of the Bible.
For Protestants—and indeed the Christian tradition as a whole—the Bible is not there to set the church on an exegetical adventure during which one discovers God through interpretive struggle. The problems of Scripture are minimized, because the Bible is ultimately a coherent grand narrative that tells one and only one story with a climax: the crucified and risen Son of God brings Israel’s story to completion. The New Testament authors go to great lengths to explain how Jesus of Nazareth completes Israel’s story and gives it coherence. Taken as a whole, the Christian Bible has a singular message. (pp. 133-134)
So then, what about what biblical criticism has discovered? For example,
- The two creation stories in Genesis 1-2,
- The alternate history given in Chronicles contrasted with the Deuteronomic history (Samuel-Kings),
- The different versions of Jesus’ life and teachings in the Gospels,
- The creative ways in which the NT authors use the OT.
Three primary challenges arose from biblical criticism in the nineteenth century that set the battle lines which continue today.
- Darwin and the emergence of the theory of evolution,
- The documentary hypothesis of Julius Wellhausen,
- The discovery of Babylonian myths that set Genesis in its Ancient Near East context.
Each of these forces was a handful by itself, but together they had a powerful impact on Protestant identity by challenging the basic historical reliability of Genesis in particular, and by extension the Bible as whole. In fact, there is no greater challenge to Protestant views of the Bible than this challenge to historical reliability. Conservative Protestants invested a lot of energy in battling these three attacks on the Bible, and the memories of those battles are etched in the minds of many Protestants till today. To read the Bible critically—which means engaging these three factors rather than fighting them—is too hard a pill to swallow for many Protestants. Maintaining pure boundaries against these forces was and is often a primary concern. (pp. 135-136)
One sentence by Enns summarizes the real issue that persists: “Initial resistance to these challenges led to the establishment of sociological boundary markers that persist until today.” (p. 138) [emphasis mine]
Sides were formed that remain in place today. To maintain one’s identity as a “Bible believing Christian” (whether fundamentalist or evangelical), one dare not cross the boundaries that had been erected. The mere suggestion that critical scholarship has anything to offer a faithful reading of Scripture is anathema. Any softening of hard drawn lines would be condemned as “compromise” with unbelief and heresy. As Pete Enns says, “Conflict will continue until engagement of critical thinking becomes part of the narrative rather than deemed as a threat to the tribe’s existence. (pp. 138-139)
Are we seeing any movement in this stalemate from the “conservative” side? Enns thinks so, but warns that it can only happen if evangelicals embrace critical self-reflection and see past the project of maintaining boundaries. If evangelicals can begin asking how they might learn from others, such as the Jewish talmudic tradition and the Roman Catholic contemplative and mystical traditions, and not simply hunker down within the trenches of our own “right” interpretations, then there is hope.
Searching self-evaluation is the first step toward a true synthesis between Protestant religious readings of Scripture and critical readings. The Protestant predicament, however, is that looking inward may also be the hardest step to take. (pp. 139-140)
20 thoughts on “The Bible and the Believer (5)”
Which will never happen.
Because Evangelicals have too much invested in the dopamine surge of Being Absolutely Right, the only Real True Christians.
“[For] in the Devil’s theology, the important thing is to Be Absolutely Right and to prove that everybody else is Absolutely Wrong.”
— Thomas Merton, “Moral Theology of the Devil”
Because Christians are just as screwed-up sexually as everyone else, and obsessed with Pelvic Issues.
There is only SCRIPTURE(TM).
“IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”
My experience with regard to the kindness of the celibate differs from yours, as I noted in my reply to you. As for the toothlessness of state statutes where they still exist regarding these matters, I’m happy for that; the Massachusetts Puritans coerced sexual morality with the stocks, whippings, and gaol, not unlike the Commonwealth of Gilead, and I don’t see that it made people or society more moral. Now if Jonathan Edwards had manumitted his slaves, and preached abolition, that might’ve made for a much more moral society than the New England Puritans ever achieved, but, alas, he and they did not rise to that high moral challenge; they chose to go after the low-hanging fruit, and punish sodomy instead.
Are you saying that those who practice sexual probity or celibacy tend to be compassionate and merciful?
I am going to cut across the grain of our propaganda machine which preaches sexual satisfaction as the primary engine of virtue, and say ‘yes, in my experience I find that to be true’. Touching your fears of people like me establishing the Commonwealth of Gilead over your head, I remind you that sodomy, as Merriam-Webster defines it, is still illegal in my state, although recent Supreme Court decisions have rendered state statutes in this matter powerless.
Adultery is also illegal in my state, although not in yours. I am not aware of any studies which have established whether Pennsylvanians are more magnanimous and charitable than Georgians. Most people have their understanding of the Puritans colored by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller, so I can excuse your unfair characterization of them, but their modern descendants in the conservative Presbyterian churches I found to be some of the most humane people i have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Are you saying that those who practice sexual probity or celibacy tend to be compassionate and merciful? My experience with the teacher-nuns in first grade counters that idea. I know little about starets other than Dostoevsky’s glamorization of them in the character Fr Zossima, but Puritans were certainly not known for their kindness.
What do you mean by sodomy? According to Merriam-Webster: anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex. Are you looking to have society regulate the actions of heterosexual married couples in their bedrooms as well as homosexual couples? How much cruelty would that involve? Jail? The stocks? Public humiliation? Your culture does not sound very compassionate or merciful to me.
greed, anger, hatred of enemies, apathy toward neighbors and the needy
Those are concupiscences as well. I don’t remember if it was a Puritan or a starets who said it, but our passions run in packs, like robbers. A culture that allows for the free expression of adultery and sodomy is not likely to practice much in the way of compassion or mercy.
“These ought ye to have done, without neglecting the other.”
When you look to the Bible for ways that it could govern our lives, why do you focus first on concupiscence? What about greed, anger, hatred of enemies, violent thoughts, apathy toward neighbors and the needy, etc.? It seems to me that to focus on the groin while short-changing everything else that Jesus and the Scriptures command is a widespread traditional way of reading the texts that sidesteps most of the ways that Bible should be shaping and governing our lives.
The mere suggestion that historiography has anything to contribute to a faithful reinterpretation of religious tradition is anathema.
I admire that the EO think of Scripture as ‘holy’ rather than ‘inerrant’. That word ‘inerrant’ has been much used to manipulate the interpretations of Scripture to fit man-made agendas; but what is ‘holy’ about the Word is something that can never be manipulated.
Once again, the central question is one that Dr. Enns asked at the beginning of his podcast “The Bible for Normal People” or something like that. He was talking to Rob Bell about something, and the question was asked ‘what can we extract from the Bible about how to govern our lives?’
It seems pretty easy to chuck the Bible over to one corner if there is something you want to do really badly but a tradtional interpretation of the Bible won’t allow you to. Rob and Pete hemmed and hawed for about ten minutes then basically settled on the idea that the most the Bible tells us is to support politicians who have a redistributive agenda.
What I’m trying to say is the same thing Miguel said a couple of days ago. If you’re going to have a Scripture that is that accomodating to your concupisciences, you better have a powerful pneumatology to accompany it, and yeah, it should be backwardly compatible. That, not “boundaries” is what conservatism is all about.
It was so refreshing for me to find out that none of these issues is a problem in the Orthodox Church. Yes, EO proclaims the Word, Jesus Christ (we very rarely speak of Scripture as “the word of God”, and that not until the 20th century), and we do believe Scripture is about one thing. But otherwise, we approach it leaning more toward the understanding of Judaism. The only difference from Judaism is that we believe that reading the OT through the lens of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ yields a consistent picture of who he is, and that that picture was revealed, first by Jesus on the road to Emmaus and later by the Holy Spirit as the disciples and early theologians did puzzle out some more to put flesh on that interpretation, so the Gentiles, particularly those who were educated Greco-Romans, would be able to approach it. The core of that revelation has remained the same, though.
In EO, all of Scripture is holy – and some parts are more important than others. We approach it looking for more than a literal surface meaning. Fr John Behr likes to quote James Kugel, another renowned Jewish scholar: Scripture is supposed to be cryptic, opaque; it has to be opened to us, and its inspiration is not to be separated from that opening. That’s why in EO we look back to the interpretation that came forth in the community of believers in the earliest years; it has not been improved upon, there are multiple layers of riches to be found therein, and an interpretation by any individual which is not consistent with that of the early community is not a safe path to follow. And often it has been laypeople who have corrected hierarchs in these matters.
I see a parallel with this NYT article about “complexity, peaks & valleys, gaps & gashes” in contemporary music:
Like Utopian Perfect Societies, from Citizen Robespierre’s Republique of Perfect Virtue to Comrade Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea to the Perfect Islamic State of the Taliban.
Since the Society is by definition Perfect in Every Way, any change is away from that Perfection and will destroy that Perfection. So Change Must Be Stopped By Any Means Necessary, leaving The One True Way in Perfect Unchanging Stasis, forever frozen in time.
Building an impenetrable wall in the mind, like that Army Intel type told me about working with Iraqis.
There was a point in their minds, beyond which you could not go. When you reached that point, you could see the wall in their mind slam down, after which there was only “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! AL’LAHU AKBAR! AL’LAH’U AKBAR!”
“””Are we seeing any movement in this stalemate from the “conservative” side? Enns thinks so, but warns that it can only happen if evangelicals embrace critical self-reflection and see past the project of maintaining boundaries.”””
The principle cause of Conservatism is, exactly, the maintaining of boundaries; that is what it means.
If Evangelicalism moves on this issue, it evaporates. Hence the intensity of the fight.
> isn’t it a bit of a stretch to say that biblical criticism “discovered”
No, not historically. It seems soooo obvious now, because we are on the B side, whereas on the A side it would have been heretical [and most people could not read it anyway]. The very amount of ink and electrons spilled on the issue gives evidence to the ‘problem’.
In letting them interplay with each other you are treating them more like Literature rather than History. This is a very B side perspective.
And then there are the five other Creation accounts in Scripture: Job 38-41, Psalm 104, Proverbs 8, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah 40-66
“I have heard that some among evangelical people are fearful of contemplative reading of sacred Scripture;
but actually there is one Gospel that was written contemplatively and that, of course, is the Holy Gospel of St. John.”
Unfortunately, the evangelical method of reading John, or any other Scripture – taking isolated verses out of context and reading them as literal truth needing almost no interpretation – is about as anti-contemplative as one can get.
Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but isn’t it a bit of a stretch to say that biblical criticism “discovered” two creation stories in Genesis 1-2?
I quite like the idea that Genesis 1 was ‘general creation’ up to and including humanoids, and Genesis 2 was the ‘creation’ of self-conscious humans. I especially enjoyed Jordan Peterson’s take on possible interplay between the biblical texts, evolution and psychology in his Bible series. Much food for thought.
” If evangelicals can begin asking how they might learn from others, such as the Jewish talmudic tradition and the Roman Catholic contemplative and mystical traditions, and not simply hunker down within the trenches of our own “right” interpretations, then there is hope. ”
I have heard that some among evangelical people are fearful of contemplative reading of sacred Scripture;
but actually there is one Gospel that was written contemplatively and that, of course, is the Holy Gospel of St. John.
So, if evangelical people who have been fearful of a contemplative study of scripture can focus on St. John’s Gospel, they might be more at ease by the simple reading of this Book which has led so many to the Christian faith and as many others to the experience evangelicals call ‘coming under conviction’.
It’s a beginning that is in keeping with traditional evangelical practice and yet provides the intense experience of a very powerful encounter with the Word, not unlike a sacramental experience that comes out of the Catholic tradition of mystical contemplation. Such is the unique quality found in the Holy Gospel of St. John which is known to transcend resistance to a mystical experience of the Holy.