The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously
by Mark Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, Daniel J. Harrington
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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)