Friday, April 17, 2009

Defending Ourselves Against the Bible

My blogging friend and clergy colleague Greg Jones has posted some critical reflections on Bart Ehrman's new book Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them). Here's how he begins:

University of North Carolina religion professor Bart Ehrman writes in the first paragraph of his new book Jesus, Interrupted that while the Bible "is the most widely purchased, extensively read, and deeply revered book in the history of Western Civilization" it is also likely the most "thoroughly misunderstood, especially by the lay reading public." This sentence, while in some sense factually true, bears within it a seed of what's wrong with Bart Ehrman's entire project.

Among Greg's many helpful observations, he notes the following:

... the notion that modern Western scholars somehow better "understand the Bible" is likewise predicated on a definition that frankly is unacceptable to any believing Christian (or Jew.) For we who believe in the God of the Bible -- "the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord." In other words, "understanding the Bible" is a goal which can only be reached (however partially in this life) by prayerful study of the Bible from within the community of faith.

That's right: no individual, no matter how scholarly - can "understand the Bible." The Bible belongs not to the 'public' or the individual reader, but to the Church (or in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures to faithful Jews.) It is the Church which together -- with one heart and one mind -- engages the Bible. We use the God given gifts of memory, reason and skill in this pursuit. We recognize that from time to time we will have to accept tensions, disagreements and what logical inconsistencies. We do this trusting that the goal is Spirit-inspired Wisdom, not 'man-based knowledge.'

For Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestants, and Jews, the Bible is much more complex and inspiring than the paper-thin, literalistic book of straw that Ehrman likes to knock down. We don't deny the many inconsistencies between the two testaments, three original languages, multiple literary genres and sixty-six individual books which comprise the sacred library of Scripture. Rather, we uphold these in tension, just as we likewise uphold the incredible depths of intrabiblical harmony which also cohere these many pieces of writing together into something we recognize as inspired by God's genius.

And here's how he concludes:

I have said this before (the last time he wrote a book with almost the exact same content), but I'll say it again: Ehrman is a fundamentalist who's lost his faith, but has found nowhere else to look but back, and there with a bitter and critical eye.

Read it all.

I think that in addition to the issues Greg raises, scholarship like Ehrman's also fosters the illusion that we can be biblically literate when it comes to the New Testament without confronting a central thrust of its writings: the call to discipleship in community. Bracketing that call reduces biblical study to an armchair exercise - an intellectual venture divorced from commitment and obedience to anything higher than one's own theological preferences and perhaps also to prevailing academic standards (which, like all fashions, change over time).

What a strikingly different mindset this is from what we find when we turn to those predecessors in the Christian faith we call the Church Fathers. Echoing points made by Greg Jones above, Christopher A. Hall notes the importance of the context of reading, studying, and interpreting scripture for the Church Fathers:

The fathers affirmed a deep connection between the spiritual health of biblical interpreters and their ability to read the Bible well. For the fathers, the Scripture was to be studied, pondered and exegeted within the context of worship, reverence and holiness. The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through grace and power of the Spirit. The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the text itself. Character and exegesis were intimately related. ...

Neither Athanasius nor Gregory [of Nazianzus] envisioned exegesis or theology as the academic activity of biblical scholars or theologians divorced from the life of the church or personal spiritual formation. Rather, the fathers believed, the best exegesis occurs within the community of the church. The Scriptures have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard and comprehended within the community of the church, and are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession and other means by which Christ's grace is communicated to his body. That is to say, the fathers argue that any divorce between personal character, Christian community and the study of scripture will be fatal for any attempt to understand the Bible [Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 41, 42; emphasis added].

Viewed through the lens of this perspective, agnostic and atheistic scholars like Ehrman are, at best, unreliable guides to understanding the New Testament.

All of this reminds me of a passage from the 19th Century Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard found in the anthology Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (see the section entitled, "Kill the Commentators!"):

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament (emphasis added; e-book "Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission." ).

If Kierkegaard were alive today and had the opportunity to peruse the works of scholars that line the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble such as Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, etc., and if he also took note of just how popular such scholars are among so many within the Episcopal Church, he would no doubt file that information away under the heading: "Defending Ourselves Against the Bible."


Joe Rawls said...

Ben Witherington has a multi-post series on his site which absolutely picks Ehrman's book apart almost line by line. A good antidote even if you don't read them all.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for calling attention to Ben Witherington's multi-post series, Joe. I saw that a week or so ago and just haven't had time to read through it all. But I'm hoping to get around to it.

Don C. said...

I think my NT professor summed up Ehrman's thesis even more succinctly, "knowing what the Bible is (a historical, sociological glimpse into the first Century) is more important than knowing what the Bible says." Oh the joys of higher learning!!