Saturday, January 9, 2010

Thoughts on Issues in the Theology of Scripture Part 2: The Idea of the Bible

Greetings, faithful readers!

Welcome to Part 2 of my new blog series discussing the course I'm currently taking entitled "Issues in the Theology of Scripture." If you would like to know what this series and the course are about you can check out the introductory post linked below. If you would like to read Part 1, which reproduces an essay I composed for the course on the topic "What do we mean when we say that the Bible is true and what methods of interpretation help us to appreciate its
truthfulness," check out the link for Part 1 below.

This second post will address a few ruminations I derived from the lecture and presentation given by my professor, Shane, this past Thursday. The topic for the day was "The Emergence of the Idea of the Bible in the Second Temple Period." Let me give you a brief overview of the material Shane covered in order to then create some linkages to my own thought.

As our assignment for the previous night, Shane had us read a few texts from what is known as the Second Temple Period. With a little wiggle room for scholarly debate in Jewish/Biblical History, the Second Temple Period is the time stretching from the Israelite return from exile (approximately 537 BCE) until the destruction of the eponymous second temple by Romans quelling a Jewish Revolt (70 CE).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thoughts on Issues in the Theology of Scripture Part 1: The Initial Essay

Greetings again, faithful readers. Reprinted below you can find my initial essay for my course in Issues in the Theology of Scripture. If you want to know more about the impetus behind this series of posts and the course that inspired them, please read this post.

Our professor assigned us a 1500 word essay (approximately 4 and 1/2 pages) addressing the topic "What do we mean when we say that the Bible is true and what methods of interpretation help us to appreciate its truthfulness" as if we were discussing it with an educated layperson. This assignment, to be blunt, was agonizing. So many thoughts ran through my head, I didn't know where to start. How could I address this huge topic in four pages?

I ended up starting with a blank slate, as it were, answering the question by simply picking up the Bible and looking at it, then slowly weaving in historical and theological questions as they arose from my ponderings. This ended up producing what I think is a coherent, self-contained essay, but it also left me feeling strange. Only after being in conversation with others this morning in class did I realize that I had left out two of the most important things about the Bible to me: a) story and b) a relationship with Jesus Christ, the cornerstone and primary revelation of God. Wow! What an oversight. But somehow they didn't arise in the flow of the essay and, as I had already written 1900 words and had to cut down, I couldn't shove them in without breaking the essay. I will write a post, possibly this weekend, containing my thoughts on these two very, very important things to me and I also might include them in my final paper for the course, which is a revision of this initial essay. I will post that final paper here as well.

For now, peruse my thoughts as derived from a broad-based view of just picking up the Bible and thinking about it organically. Please leave comments below. (Be nice if these comments happen to lead to strenuous discussion).

Thanks in advance faithful readers! Oh, and if you want another version of this essay, please read the one posted by my friend Jeff over at his blog: Theological Mishaps.


"What do we mean when we say the Bible is 'true,' and what methods of interpretation help us to appreciate its truthfulness?"

This question is difficult because it would be so simple to answer: it is true because it is true and people have said so for centuries. Yet this is not satisfactory for skeptics who are unsure of the Bible and historians who analyze it. The Bible has been used to perpetrate horrible wrongs: slavery, torture, war. The observable fact of denominationalism demonstrates that different people also find different truths, or different slants on the same truth in the Bible.

Perhaps it would be helpful to begin by describing what we can accurately say about the Bible through cursory observation and reading of a Bible most people could obtain. Firstly, it is a book, words written on a page. This indicates that someone wanted to preserve its contents in a medium more permanent than one person’s memory, either for personal reasons, or for the benefit of others. Secondly, it is a collection. Its table of contents attests to two testaments and sixty-six books. It is not a single piece of literature written from one person’s imagination, but an assortment of writings gathered together either by one person or a group of people who think that its various parts relate to each other. This book was gathered for reasons involving preservation and relation. Whether or not the original authors of each book intended their works to be read by others, those who have maintained the collection have copied and distributed it, indicating that their reason for its preservation is that it might be shared. So, how do its disparate parts relate?

The Bible professes to span from the creation of the world and the history of a single family, through a nation, to the life of a particular man and the community he started. It contains history, biography, narrative stories, aphorisms, poetry, and letters. Its larger setting is Earth, though some scenes occur wherever God resides; its more immediate setting is the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Its cast numbers in the thousands. The most common thread in this complex collection is that every book gives an account of either human encounters with God or human relationships with other humans. Though each book was composed for a different reason, mostly unknown to us, we can at least say with confidence that this common thread runs throughout.

So, this collection of works has been preserved for thousands of years in order to share its thoughts on human-divine and human-human relationships. A working definition of whether or not the Bible is true, then, might involve asking whether or not it accurately portrays human-divine and human-human relationships or describes ways in which these relationships might be improved. Now a host of other troubles appear. Some people do not believe God exists. For them, the Bible cannot be true in our definition because it describes something that does not exist. They might speak of its truthfulness by noting the usefulness of its thoughts on morality and ethics. Certainly the Bible contains much about morality, setting forth both good and poor examples of right living. Yet leaving God out of the book would mean cutting out more than half of its contents. So, though morality and ethics are certainly an integral theme of the Bible, they are not its primary theme.

Other people attempt to prosecute or defend the Bible’s truthfulness based upon its historical accuracy. Yet, not only do there seem to be contradictory accounts in the Bible (two chapters on creation in stark contrast; two accounts of monarchies in 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles that differ in a few details; four gospels with similar traits, but which are also wildly dissimilar), but also the copies that we have of the Bible contradict each other. Some words differ; some grammatical markings have been altered. It was also written in several different languages, most considered “dead,” and one (Hebrew) that was originally written without vowels. It is difficult to tell, sometimes, what the Bible is attempting to express, much less judge its historical accuracy. Yet, in larger ways, and in comparison with other documents from the Mediterranean area, it does describe many historical things accurately: places, people, events. In this way also, it can be spoken of as true, but not without qualifications

Most, however, when speaking of the Bible as true, would describe in a way harder to pin down with facts, figures or laws. For them, its truth lies in how it can speak in their lives. When they view the world through the Bible, things fall into place and their life makes sense. It helps them to grasp onto something outside of themselves; it draws them together with others in community; it gives them a purpose in life; it gives some explanation, or at least comfort when nonsensical and painful things occur. They have tested its claims about divine-human and human-human relationships in the field of life and found them to be accurate. It improves their relationship with other people and with the God in whom they believe. This is the primary sense in which many people say that the Bible is true.

Yet, the Bible has been used to break relationships and cause pain. How can the Bible’s adherents speak of its truth in the face of this misuse and how can they avoid these mistakes themselves? Careful attention to several points previously mentioned might provide clues. Firstly, they must remember that it is a collection, and this includes understanding its seeming contradictions. A better word, with a different connotation might be inserted here: not contradictory, but complementary. Certainly those who gathered the Bible could see with four gospels and two creation accounts side by side that there were differences. We can assume that they intended to include multiple voices and points of view. Another way of saying this is that one of the things the Bible expresses about divine-human and human-human relationships is that various people describe these relationships differently and that these different voices must not be sidelined, but considered together. If this is so, we cannot ignore reading the Bible as a whole, and where contradictions occur, we must try not to force a unified answer, but see how the accounts interact and to comprehend the song that the chorus of voices is singing.

We also cannot ignore the particularity of the Bible. It was written by particular people in particular settings in a particular time in history. Mostly, these people were not the majority. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, marginalized. Even when they escaped and began their own country, they were always surrounded by greater powers that eventually conquered and enslaved them. As Jews, Jesus and his followers were also in the minority, under the rule of the Roman Empire. Jesus often disagreed with the Jewish authorities, putting himself and his followers on the outside. As Jesus’ followers began spreading his word to Jew and Roman and everything in between, they eventually created a new religious group, one not tied to nation or ruler, something unusual in the Roman Empire, making them once again a minority. In order to understand what the Bible says about relationships, we must understand its context and how it is different from ours. This also entails trying to grasp the languages in which the Bible was written and the cultures that gave it context, despite the difficulties of doing so.

Finally, these works were read in gatherings, discussed in groups, commented on by many. Though the Bible can be read for personal spiritual nourishment, it is best read in conversation with others. Again, its complementary nature encourages this. The surest way of avoiding misinterpretation of the Bible is by reading it in conversation. These conversation partners, as the previous paragraphs subtly imply, include the skeptics and historians, who force us to pay attention to its context and moral and ethical themes, to look at it closely and carefully.

Much more could be said about the Bible and its truthfulness. We have not even touched upon the books known as the Deutero-canonicals that are included in some Bibles and not in others. We have not discussed the ways the Bible has been and continues to be a driving force in culture and the abuses and interpretations that arise from this. We have not mentioned the differences that crop up in speaking of the truth of the Bible as it is translated into multiple cultures and languages. Yet, in each of these cases, the overarching lessons of reading the Bible carefully, contextually and in conversation and community are useful in mitigating some of the thornier issues and allow us to say with confidence that the Bible truthfully and accurately portrays divine-human and human-human relationships.

The Beginning of a New Blog Cycle: Thoughts on Issues in the Theology of Scripture

Well, it has been a long time since I've blogged. Life became extremely crowded last semester, what with a 15-hour a week job, a 15-hour a week internship and three intense classes (oh, and living life and loving my wife as well). Right now I'm taking a month-long course on Issues in the Theology of Scripture, which meets for three hours in the morning, leaving a little bit more time on my schedule. I've decided that this class, which so far has been wonderfully thought-provoking, might provide some good fodder for blogging. What I'm proposing to do is to post thoughts on the course (which began on Monday and so far has involved writing a 1500 word essay) every day that I can. I've asked my professor -- who will be referred to as Shane in the posts -- if I can quote him, or refer to his ideas if they are the seeds of my thought for these posts, and he has agreed that I can refer to him as long as the references are not wholesale transcriptions of his lectures or audio files (which they won't be) and that I accurately represent his views.

I hope to ponder the theme of the course, which Shane put before us on Monday, of wandering around in the gap between theology and biblical studies. I will go more into detail of what this gap entails and why it exists as Shane explains it to us in class, but in brief, let's just say that in higher education there exists a separation of disciplines. In most higher ed institutions divisions are placed between the sciences and the arts and the humanities, and also within each of these between history and english or philosophy, for instance. In Seminary, you often see this division of disciplines into: Biblical Studies, Practical Theology, Theology and Church History. The difficulty that sometimes arises in pursuing these studies is that the folk in the Biblical Studies department take very seriously the questions that have come from a historical-critical way of looking at the Bible: reading texts in original languages, studying their cultural, historical and political contexts, trying to work out how the texts were written, formed, passed down, etc. This method is a product of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the Theology department spends perhaps a class period on a theology of scripture, often avoiding questions that deal with the difficulties presented by the historical-critical method. These problems sometimes involve the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible, the contradictions that can be found in the Bible (or seeming contradictions, I'm sure we'll get into this later), the grammatical differences between different copies of the Bible, what it means for the Bible to be divinely inspired and how this bears out when the Bible gets into human hands or when it is translated into different languages. So, the Biblical Studies department takes these questions seriously, but they are often in the background and understanding why these questions are important and what they mean for the life of faith and everyday living is not considered. Or, on the other hand, the Theology department discusses briefly a theology of scripture but does not consider how this might come to bear in practice or what a theology of scripture that takes into account the questions might look. This course tries to put these background questions into the foreground and to address them in a thoughtful and sensitive way.

It also attempts to equip students with tools to read what Shane calls the "Barnes and Noble School of Theology and Ancient Scriptures." By this he means the popular books that are widely available in major bookstores and have entered the general culture and conversation: Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, or Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, for instance. While these books bring up interesting points that speak to the Historical-Critical method, the outcomes of their discussion can be misleading and they do not always speak to the theological or practical outcomes of the difficulties they mention. If you want a good introduction to this debate, check out Stephen Colbert's interview with Bart Ehrman, which Shane used as a catalyst for his initial lecture. The video is embedded below:

So, now that you know a bit about the course, you can follow along on this blog for the next few weeks as I share with you what I'm learning and what I'm thinking. I'll begin with the essay that we had for the course, which answers the question: "What do we mean when we say that the Bible is true, and what methods of Biblical interpretation help us to appreciate its truthfulness." This essay will be revised at the end of the semester. I'll post it in a separate post from this.

Thanks, as always, for sticking with me faithful readers!