Monday, August 24, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part IV: Some Solutions

In my last post, I discussed the low view of the Bible held by many scholars in my field, Biblical Studies. This view raises a number of questions for me, which I’ve grouped into two broad categories: questions about the reliability of the Bible and questions about the value of academic Biblical Studies. Here, I’d like to present some of the answers I’ve come to.

First I’d like to examine questions related to the truthfulness and consistency of the Bible. I have three ways of dealing with them, which I’ve summarized in phrases starting with r words, because I can!

The simplest step is to reject the assumptions of materialism held by some scholars. Jon Collins, whom I quoted above, made the argument in his introduction to the Old Testament that the stories about Elijah and Elisha must be fictional because they include miracles, which don’t really happen. Similarly, he wrote concerning Genesis 3, “The appearance of a talking snake should alert even the most unsophisticated reader to the fictional nature of the story.” But if you don’t presuppose that supernatural answers are impossible, there’s no reason to assume that these narratives can’t be historical. Those who believe in miracles do not take the mere fact that something is a miracle as evidence that it didn’t happen.

This is a pretty straightforward solution, but it doesn’t solve every problem, because not every event in the Bible is a miracle. We need other approaches to deal with questions about the natural events it records.

It helps to recognize what exactly is at stake in the specific question we’re dealing with. There are some traditions about who wrote what in the Bible that go beyond what the Bible actually says. For example, tradition says that Moses wrote Genesis, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, but Genesis never says it was written by Moses. So if it were proved that Genesis was written by someone other than Moses (a question I am not currently taking a position on), that wouldn’t mean that the text itself is in error.

It’s pretty common for Biblical scholars to consider Biblical books to be composed of multiple books. The most common example of this is the Documentary Hypothesis, which says that the Pentateuch is actually composed of five sources identified by the letters J E D and P. But scholars make similar moves with other books, too. We don’t necessarily have to oppose all of these moves. If 1 and 2 Samuel, for example, are composed of multiple sources, this doesn’t really affect our faith. God can inspire several writers and editors just as easily as a single one.

But there is still a problem. The reason why scholars see a need for multiple sources is because they think the text as it stands is contradictory. And while a true document can be composed of more than one source, a real contradiction does mean that at least one of the conflicting statements is false. So the next and most difficult way to deal with questions about the Bible’s accuracy is to try to resolve those contradictions. This is the approach I took in my earlier series on 1 and 2 Samuel. There, a superficial reading showed the texts to be contradictory, but looking at them in more detail showed that they not only didn’t conflict but also complemented each other well.

The second set of questions I raised was, if academic study of the Bible does not promote faith, why bother with it? Two reasons come to mind.

First, academic study can deepen our faith, make us more confident that the Bible is in fact God’s word and lead to applications.

I discussed this with my father a few months ago, and he compared it to music theory. When performers are playing or singing, they are not usually thinking about music theory, but their knowledge of the theory does improve their performance. Similarly, knowing theology might not directly change your Christian practice, but it will do so indirectly.

For example, my understanding of the idea of kingship poses a potent challenge to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace,” an idea that is sadly prevalent in many churches today. Israel’s problem, as I understand it, is that they want a messiah (remember, the word “messiah” means someone who is anointed, such as a king) who will deliver them from the consequences of their sin without asking to repent. Sound familiar?

And the second reason why evangelical Christians need to engage in theology, particularly Biblical studies, is that other people who don’t take the Bible seriously are doing so. C.S. Lewis’ comments about philosophy apply equally well to theology.

 “If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” 

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