I think it is hilarious that Mike Bird referred to me as the “Lady Gaga of the biblioblogosphere.” But if I’m a Liberal/Progressive Christian, it isn’t because I was “born this way.” The views I now hold are ones that it took me a while to reach, and while I wasn’t born into conservative Evangelicalism either, once there, I took the usual steps to resist “sliding” into “liberalism.”
And thus the depiction of the stereotypical college professor offered by Collin Hansen, which Mike linked to and which mentions my blog post, certainly doesn’t describe me well. Hansen writes of “the relish university New Testament professors display when they expose the Bible’s supposed errors for wide-eyed college freshmen”. I find that description problematic, not only because he describes them as “supposed errors,” but also because sometimes it takes recognizing errors to begin treating the texts in question not as a supernatural code to be cracked, but as texts to be understood using at least the full array of tools at our disposal. Be that as it may, I took no delight in discovering errors, and devoted all the intellectual effort to harmonizing them and explaining them away that any good conservative Evangelical was expected to. Yet with hindsight, I take delight in the fact that I have stopped defending my doctrine of Scripture from the evidence the Bible itself provides, and can now simply do my best to make sense of those problematic parts of Scripture, rather than feeling obliged to explain them away lest my theological house of cards come crashing down.
What kind of humility prefers the whims of modern, Western interpretation over church tradition extending all the way back to the men who walked and talked with Jesus and recalled his very words? Here is true arrogance, to suppose we enlightened few truly understand. What may appear to us the less likely interpretation of a troubling passage may in fact reflect the very different time and place where Jesus walked and talked among us. A host of alleged discrepancies vanish when we shed our Western blinders.
There certainly are errors and difficulties that evaporate when we place the Bible’s texts in their historical context. There are also many which come into focus through the same process. Reading Genesis 1 as though it were written today is problematic, but recognizing that it reflects an ancient worldview which believed that there was a dome over the earth does not simply make all the problems go away, in particular for conservative Evangelicals. And shedding the blinkers provided by our annual Christmas pageants, and instead reading each Gospel on its own terms, only brings the contradictory geographical movements and chronologies of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke into sharper focus, to give one example.
The notion that it is conservatives who are consistently offering such a contextual interpretation, over against liberals who are simply out to find problems, is not a viewpoint that anyone who reads widely in Biblical studies will find credible. But it certainly is true that, like the Reformers whose approach to church tradition is allegedly part of Hansen’s heritage, Biblical scholars are open to challenging the assumption that later Christians always understood texts faithfully and accurately. If there is a difference, it is that mainstream scholars do not suddenly shift to appealing to church tradition when we do not like where critical investigation is leading.
The caricature that scholars remake Jesus in their image, while conservative Christians simply accept his words, is likewise inaccurate. Marcus Borg once commented how he had and has no particular interest in finding a Jesus who is a Mediterranean peasant, and would much prefer that he were a middle class guy who drives a Mitsubishi. John Dominic Crossan found a Jesus that, at least initially, didn’t seem to be one that he could follow. And going back a ways, Albert Schweitzer’s experience also runs counter to the caricature – although it is perhaps worth noting that in some important sense each of the above has found a way to follow the uncomfortable Jesus that historical investigation presented them with. But to quote an Evangelical scholar, Tom Wright once wrote the following (N.T. Wright, “The New Unimproved Jesus” Christianity Today Sept 13, 1995, p.26):
For me, studying Jesus in his historical context has been the most profoundly disturbing, enriching, and Christianizing activity of my life. As a historian, I meet a Jesus the church has unwittingly hushed up–a more believable Jesus, a Jesus who challenges me more deeply than any preacher, a Jesus who evokes my love and worship by what he is and does, not by the sentiment or hype that some preachers fall back on.
Scholarship can be an aid to faith – as long as you are willing to allow it to change and transform your views, and not merely try to use it to justify views you already hold. It disturbs me that conservative Evangelicals time and time again emphasize the detailed careful study of the Bible and the authority of the Bible, and yet time and time again resist following the route or drawing the conclusions that many of us reach, not because we set out with a desire to reach them (often, quite the contrary), but because careful study of the Bible’s contents leaves us with little choice. We must either be honest about what the Bible is and what we find in it, or uphold a dogmatic view of Scripture in spite of evidence to the contrary in Scripture itself. And if you are willing to do the latter, presumably you’ve lost all plausibility to a claim to be a Bible-believing Christian anyway, and so I don’t see the point.
These thoughts relate to Mike’s comments and even more so Collin Hansen’s comments on my recent post about inerrancy, the Bible, and Sarah Palin (with a dash of Paul Revere thrown in). Since the present post seems long enough, I’ll leave talking about the other subject Mike mentioned, penal substitution as a theory of the atonement, for my next post.