Can We Trust the Bible?
This has been a longstanding question for people within academia. Much ink has been spilt on it in the last century. I have hesitated to weigh in because I personally am not a biblical scholar per se, but realize that we do have some excellent scholarly resources to draw on. I also have much training in theology and Bible. Of course, there is much expertise at Regent College and ACTS Seminiary in Langley, Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, TEDS in Deerfield, Illinois and many other schools across North America as well as the UK and around the world. But there is no conservative scholar greater than N.T. Wright from the UK (St. Andrew’s University); he is a giant in his field of New Testament Studies and especially his work on Jesus of Nazareth, but also Paul’s writings. Wright has spoken on campuses all over North America and the UK (most recently at Harvard University) about this subject, and debated with people who strongly disagree with him like liberal scholar Marcus Borg. So I will begin with his work and then build out from there. We’ll build this post over time. I last heard him in New York City in April, 2013. You should also check the profile of N.T. Wright on this blog.
The Bible is made up of history, poetics, wisdom, eyewitness gospel, letters to young churches. It is important to understand the genre of the literature one is reading. One of the tragedies of our day is that so many take a superficial reading of Scripture and refuse to test it with those who know more.
How is the Bible Unique, according to René Girard?
It is a disclosure of culture from the perspective of the victim. Under mimetic rivalry, it refuses to allow the victim to be labelled as the guilty one, to take upon themselves the evil of the community. God takes the side of the victim in Old and New Testaments. For example, see the Joseph story, where the victimized does not become the victimizer, but the saviour of his brothers. The Psalms are often an outcry of the person being persecuted. Job is the apex of this defence: his comforters, representing the crowd, make him a scapegoat.The Bible identifies human tendencies to violence, but does not legitimate it. It does not legitimize the sacrifice of human beings. Jesus’ death was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the violence to end all violence, the supreme victim to end all victimization–he exposed the satanic mechanism of scapegoating behaviour (blaming the other) and broke the back of anthropological evil. It brings grace into the picture is order to help people take responsibility for their actions and their world, in order to stop the contagion of violence.
Wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man.
The divine quality of the Bible is not on display, it is not apparent to an inane, fatuous mind; just as the divine in the universe is not obvious to the debaucher. When we turn to the Bible with an empty spirit, moved by intellectual vanity, striving to show our superiority to the text; or as barren souls who go sight-seeing to the words of the prophets, we discover the shells but miss the core. It is easier to enjoy beauty than to sense the holy. To be able to encounter the spirit within the words, we must learn to crave for an affinity with the pathos of God.
To sense the presence of God in the bible, one must learn to be present to God in the Bible. Presence is not a concept, but a situation. To understand love it is not enough to read tales about it. One must be involved the prophets to understand the prophets. One must be inspired to understand inspiration. Just as we cannot test thinking without thinking, we cannot we cannot sense holiness without being holy. Presence is not disclosed to those who unattached and try to judge, to those who have nor power to go beyond the values they cherish; to those who sense the story not the pathos; the idea not the realness of God.
The Bible is the frontier of the spirit where we must move and live in order to discover and to explore. It is open to him who gives himself to it, who lives with it intimately.
Biblical Training.Org: World-class Educational Resources http://www.biblicaltraining.org/ Here are a couple YouTube discussions with Tom Wright to give you a flavour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hVVNYIPK_Q http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSPJD9fp_lM http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHyWEnc4kaM http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTaRVDv30xQ
Nicholas Thomas Wright is an Anglican Bishop who has held numerous positions at various churches and universities, including McGill, Oxford, St. Andrew’s. He is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews in Scotland. Earning his Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University, he has authored numerous books & articles including, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. His educational scholarly expertise are in the Historical Jesus and New Testament Studies.
Other Excellent Resources on this Question:
Kevin Vanhoozer is one of the brightest and most sophisticated students of text and interpretation. He is very in touch with contemporary language debates. He goes back and forth between Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. Recommended Reads by Vanhoozer: Is There Meaning in this Text? (1998); Faith Speaking Understanding (2014)
John Webster, The Domain of the Word of God: Scripture and Theological Reason. London: T & T Clark
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Eerdmans, 1989) Chapter 8 “The Bible as Universal History”
“The business of the Christian Church in any situation, is to challenge the plausibility structure in light of God’s revelation of the real meaning of history.” (96)
“What is unique about the Bible is the story which it tells, with the climax in the story of the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of the Son of God. If this story is true, then it is unique and also universal in its implications for all human history. It is in fact the true outline of world history.” (97)
“The important thing in the use of the Bible is not to understand the text but to understand the world through the text.” (98)
“The Christian life [is] one in which we live in the biblical story as part of the community whose story it is, find in the story clues to knowing God as his character becomes manifest in the story, and from within that indwelling try to understand and cope with the events of our time and world about us and so carry the story forward…. I am suggesting that to live in this way means to inhabit an alternative plausibility structure to the one in which our society lives.” (99)
The Horizon: “The New Testament speaks of hope among the great enduring realities–an anchor of the soul entering in beyond the curtain which hides the future from us, something utterly reliable…. The absence of any sense of of a worthwhile future is one of the marks of our present culture. By contrast, one of the marks of the biblical counterculture will be a confident hope that makes hopeful action possible even in situations which are, humanly speaking, hopeless. That hope is reliable, because the crucified Lord of history has risen from the dead and will come in glory.” (101)
“The Bible is about human beings, human families–in comparison with other ancient literature the realism of the Bible is remarkable–so we can bring our own feelings to bear in the reading of it.”
~Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books. (126)
Top New Testament Scholars: Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington;
Can We Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questionsby Craig Blomberg (Brazos);
The Searchers: a Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt by Joseph Loconte (Thomas Nelson)
Charity: the Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition by Gary Anderson (Yale University Press)
Eugene Peterson writes, “ The Bible is not a book to carry around and read for information about God, but a voice to listen to. The word of God that we name Bible, book, is not at root a word to be read and looked at and discussed. It is a word to be listened to and obeyed, a word to get us going. Fundamentally, it is a call: God calls us.”
Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘The Bible showed man/woman his/her indispensability of nature, superiority to conditions, and called him/her to realize the tremendous implications of simple acts. The degree of our appreciation of the Bible is, therefore, determined by the degree of our sensitivity to the divine dignity of human deeds. The insight into the divine implications of human life is the distinct message of the Bible … To deny the divine origin of the Bible is to brand the entire history of spiritual efforts and attainments in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the outgrowth of a colossal lie, the triumph of a deception which captured the finest souls for more than two thousand years … If there are moments in which genius speaks for all people, why should we deny that there are moments in which a voice speaks for God, that the source of goodness communicates its way to the human mind?”
See also John Dickson DVD, Life of Jesus, on the historicity of Christian documents. As an established Australian scholar of ancient history, he makes good sense of some of the complexities. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/10/miraculous-witness Craig Keener Miracles: the Credibilityof the N.T. Accounts.
Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation Kevin Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text? Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: what the Old Testament really says and why it matters. (Baylor, 2013) Interview with Dr Craig Evans, Acadia University Bible 101 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_D_7z5xvyX8 Dr. Evans on Jesus & the Gospels Apologetics 315 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2cx9iVCbwU
Postmodern Self & Judeo-Christian Scripture
This is not a simple or straightforward reflection; it proceeds more by way of an upward spiral. It draws on the school of thought that looks at the self as text, beginning with Wilhelm Dilthey. Nietzsche also loved the language of text; perhaps to an extreme degree, he claimed that interpretation goes all the way down—there are no facts, only interpretations. There is a sense in which we humans are a text, that is, open for interpretation. We are not reducible to mere factuality. How do we read our life experience, we the self-interpreting creatures who are obsessed with making sense of our lives? Do we not interpret ourselves as we tell our story even as we share with a colleague or a friend?Journaling is one vital way to grapple with our lives as text; amazing lessons and patterns emerge from this writing one’s life and thoughts. One PhD student filled ten large journals with his thoughts and ruminations during his program. One might challenge one’s colleagues that the un-interpreted life is not worth living (allusion to Socrates).
Drawing his line of thought from Dilthey, the brilliant English New Testament scholar and hermeneutics philosopher, Anthony Thiselton (Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, pp. 63f), shows how the written text of Scripture interprets and shapes us. The objective pole or backdrop against which the self is interpreted, for Dilthey, is the text that is the public domain or institutions and patterns within society. For Thiselton, the Bible offers a text to mirror and encounter the text of the self. Both recognize the uniqueness of each individual self and the need for a larger context by which to illuminate the self and build one’s identity. Thiselton mentions five ways in which selfhood and self-identity reaches understanding through encounter with biblical Scripture, the interface where meaning comes alive. It is not totally under our control. We are drawn into the awe and the epiphany (discovery) of this experience through a dialectic.
A) Firstly, there is illumination of the life and selfhood (theology, perspectives, experience, character and context) of the biblical author as one attempts to interpret the text. There is indeed a genuine authorial encounter, which is a form of inter-subjectivity. We are privileged to have fellowship/dialogue with the ancients; the Apostle Paul is to some degree our interlocutor, our mentor. The horizon of the biblical author offers us a challenge to our identity; we don’t know it all nor are we necessarily the wisest people who ever lived; the ancients can teach us through dialogue from the horizon of their life context and experience of the Living Word. I am aware that Foucault and Barthes announced the death of the author, but I want to resuscitate the importance of the author. I find their views too cynical as does Kevin Vanhoozer at Wheaton College. Yes there is mediation, but the whole weight of ancient scholarship is connected to the author. It makes all the difference that we are in dialogue with Plato or Virgil, Cicero or Moses; we want to lean in and see what they have to say to us.
B) Secondly, as Word of God, the biblical text potentially has the ability to give identity and significance to the self through connecting it to the voice of the divine, the voice of its Creator. The self is animated and invigorated by being addressed by a loving God who is presence, one who approaches us and invites us to reason or dialogue. What occurs here is a naming of the self, a calling into meaningful existence in some sense; this borrows from John Searle’s speech-act theory. The Word of God through the biblical text refuses to leave us alone, to our own devices; it addresses, confronts, and challenges the reader’s and the reading community’s selfhood. The attentive, humble reader cannot get away with mere empiricist scrutiny of text as object of inquiry. The text of the self is confronted by a Transcendent Text or real presence of the divine. We have much to grapple with here; we begin by entering into a study of Scripture and suddenly the tables are turned on us and the Word of God begins to interrogate us: we do not come out of this encounter unscathed, resting in the comfort of our self-perspective.
C) Thirdly, the encounter with text is necessary to reveal (put in relief) what would otherwise remain opague or hidden in the self, including those deceptive sub-texts, or twisted motives, the shadows of the false self which theologians identify as sin. We are called out on our deceit, our games, our lack of authenticity. Thiselton employs French intellectual Paul Ricoeur with his interpretation of Freud, and Roland Barthes with his critique of mass culture and its double-layered meaning at this point. Ricoeur, while realizing a level of deception and the existence of sub-text, urges that we work with a hermeneutic of suspicion alongside a more constructive hermeneutic of retrieval (Thiselton, p. 68). It need not all be negative, but there is a definite mirror-effect. The biblical text has a way of exposing the falseness of self in ways that are often uncomfortable, however healing.Thiselton shows how this approach is compatible with the biblical vision of the deceitful heart in Jeremiah. The possibility here is to recover responsibility together with freedom under a restored relationship to norms, virtues and goods. This does the effective work of redemptive exposure of the false self with a view to liberating robust living in one’s true self for the common good.
D) Therefore, the ways in which different people interpret the Bible can reveal much more about them than the texts they interpret (their manipulative purposes or blind biases, refusal to hear). Think of how texts were manipulated by Apartheid ideology or racist superiority in some corners of the world. This is sensitive to the insights gained from reader-response theories of hermeneutics. The state of the reading or interpreting community has a lot to do with the way text is allowed to engage it, and therefore the fruitfulness of such a reading. In their midst, a lone reformer/dissident might be able to point out their reading brokenness and introduce a healthy self-critical attitude (e.g. a Mandella or Martin Luther King Jr.). One thing that happens in an interdisciplinary community like GCU is that people ask you tough questions from another discipline that you have never before imagined. As part of an interpreting community or sometimes communities plural, we need to choose our fellow readers carefully, so we don’t get in a loop of self-fulfilled, one-sided or self-deceptive interpretation.
E) Finally, most significant for Thiselton is that encounter with biblical text has the effect of transformation. This is also a major theme in his book, New Horizons in Hermeneutics. “Transforming purpose entails a hermeneutics of the self, a new understanding of self’s identity, responsibility, and future possibilities of change and growth” (Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, p. 66). He also records the David Kelsey and Frances Young comment that “when biblical writings function as ‘Scripture’, they shape the identities of persons and transform them”. Transformation offers a much superior answer to the problems of today’s fragmented, deconstructed or de-centered, protean self. There can be the newness of self without mere radical self-determination approaches to freedom (Jean Bethke Elshtain agrees). Biblical text has a way of rethinking us, healing our false perceptions and renewing our narrative self. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in his Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Chapter: “Bible as Universal History”), encourages us to find our home in Scripture, to so indwell the biblical story and text that it shapes our whole outlook on life, fires our imagination, and gives us fresh eyes to see the world, fresh motivation to live out its promise for life—to shape our very lifestyle within a richer textured horizon of meaning.
See Anthony Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: on meaning, manipulation and promise.
Interview with Anthony Thiselton on Why Study Hermeneutics http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1UY7_KA8L0