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.

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"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.

1 comment:

Q said...

Thanks for posting your paper! Very interesting insights and wonderfully written. I'm glad that posting my paper inspired you to post yours.