Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thoughts on Respect for the Bible

I grew up being taught that the way to respect the Bible is to read it, believe it and obey it. That is certainly the dominant view among modern evangelicals. But it is not the only view held by the church. Nor may it actually be the most respectful. In this post I will consider different ways in which the Bible is respected.

How to treat and respect the Bible has historically lead to many disputes. These disputes included which language to use: the originals (including Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), or translations into Greek, or Latin or old English or modern English or other languages. Also in dispute is which ancient texts to use and which books to include, and who should read it and interpret it. Does respect for the Holy Bible require that the church be the caretaker of it, and explain it to the masses? Some certainly believed so.

Nowadays we look back to the Reformers (including Luther and Zwingli) as those who freed the Bible from the chains of the church and used printing presses to make it available to the anyone who wished to read it and in their own language. We take this for granted now, but this was considered dangerous, if not heretical, by the church. And indeed it did turn out to be dangerous as it surely was a major factor in the splintering of the church first into Catholicism and Protestantism, and then no longer constrained by a single church hierarchy, the protestants fought over interpretations of the Bible and split into numerous sects and denominations.

Even though this freeing of the Bible from its caretaker, the church, and its dissemination to all lead to much conflict and strife, it was surely the appropriate, right and respectful way to treat the Bible. It was a maturation or coming-of-age event. Once it was freed, there is no putting it back in the hands of the church. To do so would be like sending an adult to live as a child again.

Nevertheless, once the Bible was let loose, the reformers and their followers got nervous. It was not long before doctrines were established to contain and protect the Bible. These doctrines included "Biblical authority", "Biblical Inspiration", "Plenary Inspiration", "Biblical Inerrancy", and such like. These doctrines elevate the Bible above other books but at the same time they constrain how one can read the Bible. One must read it literally, or follow the intent of the author. One cannot question the veracity of its claims. So, while the Bible cannot return to being a child in the care of the church, neither could it be treated as an adult. Rather it was to be constrained like a teenager with strict rules governing it and its readers.

But if the Bible is a great book, which surely it is, it deserves to be treated and respected as an adult. How should we do this? Robert Price, in the introduction to his excellent book "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man," argues that the historical-critical study of the Bible is the new reformation. This approach starts with the Bible as an historical book, and seeks to discover how the Bible came to be, what factors influenced it, shaped it, who wrote portions and when, how reliable are the stories, and what can we know or surmise about the events it describes. The Bible is not placed on a pedestal. No questions are off-limits. It is not assumed a priori that the claims of the various authors or editors are true or false. Rather discovering this is one of its goals.

Historical-critical methods respect the Bible by treating it as an historical document and freeing it from dogmas and doctrines. What the text says is not sacrosanct. Rather the text is a window into the ancient world. It contains history and it contains propaganda. It also contains poetry, myths and conflicting stories that have been meshed together by later redactors. Through careful historical analysis, and by not imposing doctrines such as inerrancy, innumerable treasures of can be discovered in the Bible. For example, Richard Friedman's tracing the development and redaction of first five books of the Bible in his book "Who Wrote the Bible" is a fascinating account of religious history. Using critical analysis of the texts, rather than simply citing church tradition or special revelation, he reveals clues in the text that illuminate the authors and redactors of these books and reveals their goals and motivations.

There are various possible objections to this proposal. The first that comes to mind is this: "Doesn't the Bible claim to be inspired by God and so shouldn't one respect that claim?" The problem with this justification for inspiration is that it is circular. Only if one first assumes the Bible is fully true and inspired by God would one accept such a statement at face value. Here is a classic case of dogma driving the reading of the Bible. Another objection might be that the historical-critical method kills faith. I don't know if this is true or not as careful study certainly makes one more careful about what one believes, but this objection is irrelevant. It is not the role of truth to be constrained to fit our faith, but the reverse.

So, to conclude, the Bible is not a child that needs to be kept hidden away from general view. Nor is it an adolescent that must be constrained by religious dogmas. Rather, to respect it we must treat it for what it is: a complex historical document written and edited by many authors over hundreds of years. On a pedestal it becomes a god to obey, but under historical analysis it is a record of religious development and a window into mankind's search for meaning.