The Bible and the Believer (RJS)

A couple of years ago Pete Enns, along with  Marc Brettler (Brandeis University) and Daniel J. Harrington (Boston College) participated in a panel discussion at The University of Pennsylvania on “The Challenge of Reading the Bible Today: Can the Bible be read both Critically and Religiously? Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Perspectives.”  The audio of the panel discussion is available on Pete’s old blog (before the move to patheos) a time to tear down, A Time to Build Up. Pete also has made available a written copy of his opening comments here (or for direct link to pdf here).

The audio is well worth listening to – the discussion was fascinating for many reasons. All three of the speakers have written popular level books dealing the scripture – Pete’s book Inspiration and Incarnation has been discussed here extensively. About the same time (2005) Marc Brettler wrote How to Read the Jewish Bible and Daniel Harrington How Do Catholics Read the Bible?. All three of these scholars have thought seriously about the interpretation of scripture, both religiously and critically, and all of them have thought about the importance of entering into this conversation with a general audience.

A new book, The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically & Religiously by Brettler, Enns, and Harrington, has now come out of the conversation that began in the panel discussion at U Penn. This book consists of a short introduction on the historical/critical reading of the Old Testament, and then follows through with an essay by each of these scholars, and a response by each of other two.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will look at each of the principle essays and responses in the book, starting with Brettler’s Jewish view, then Harrington’s Catholic view, and concluding with Pete’s Protestant view.  For today however, I would like to point back to Pete’s original comments at the panel discussion to set the stage for the posts to come.

In his opening comments Pete identified three factors that figure into the Protestant difficulties with scripture.

The first factor is the reformation refrain sola scriptura. Scripture is seen as the foundational authority and the stakes are seen to be very high.

The second factor is the conflict of the 19th and even early 20th century that set into place a social narrative that needs to be rewritten – for many even thinking about the nature of scripture critically is seen as a step toward rejection of heritage and tradition.

The third factor is the nature of scripture in Christian thinking about scripture, here Pete quotes a professor of his at Harvard and reflects on the Christian view:

A few years back, one of my doctoral professors, the noted Jewish biblical scholar Jon Levenson, wrote an article on Judaism and biblical theology. In it he commented on the overarching difference between how Jews and Christians view the Bible. It struck a chord with me that still resounds. He said, “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved; for Christians it is a message to be proclaimed.” This is an important distinction that helps explain why Protestants have an uneasy relationship with higher criticism. (p. 8-9)

For Protestants—and I should broaden this to all Christians—the Bible is not there to set us on an exegetical adventure where we discover God in the problems. It is there to proclaim what God has done in Christ. The Bible is a grand narrative that as a whole tells ultimately ONE story with a climax: the crucified and risen Son of God. The NT authors model this on virtually every page: they go to great lengths to explain how Jesus of Nazareth completes Israel’s story and gives it coherence. Taken as a whole, the Christian Bible has a point—a message to be proclaimed. (p. 9)

I highlighted this last factor because an understanding of this factor – and some serious thought about the purpose of scripture may help to point the way forward, out of what has become for many something of a serious problem. This leads to an interesting way to frame the question.

Is the Bible a book we submit to and proclaim?


Is the Bible a book we wrestle with – critically, theologically, practically – to discover God?

One of the important things I think we learn from the Wisdom books, (not to mention the Law, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles)  is importance of wrestling with the Bible critically, theologically, and practically, to discover God. This is really a major driving motivation behind the series of posts on Job. The book of Job is profound in what it tells us about ourselves and about God – but only if we read it for all its worth and wrestle with the content of the text on its own terms. The “typical” rather flat evangelical reading of Job (if there is such a thing) leaves much to be desired, and often squeezes the life out of it to force conformity with the expected proclamation of scripture.

As Christians we certainly do believe that we have a message to be proclaimed – a message to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. A message that is, at its core, Good News. But does this mean that the Bible is simply focused on this proclamation?

The final section of Pete’s talk deals with the way forward (p. 10-12).

This middle group of Protestants—shaped by sola Scriptura and deep sociological factors—must try to create a culture where critical self-reflection is valued rather than being a threat. They must take steps to come to peace with the Bible as it is, not as it has been for their tradition.

The way forward may be a willingness on the part of Protestants to evaluate how well things are working and to make changes where necessary. Some might say that such a program would compromise the very Protestant spirit. I disagree. I think it calls upon the true spirit of the Reformation, but now turned inward, not simply on the enemy lurking outside of the walls. Critical self-evaluation is the first step to answering the question before us in the affirmative. The Protestant predicament, however, is that it may also be the hardest step to take. Where all this is headed is beyond me but will certainly be interesting to watch unfold.

Back to the The Challenge of Reading the Bible Today. The whole panel, including the comments by Marc Brettler and Daniel Harrington, as well as the Q&A with the audience are well worth listening to and considering. Insights from many perspectives can help us see more clearly. The book with its more extended interaction should be interesting.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • scotmcknight

    RJS, when I read this the first thing that came to mind about the Jewish reading is the Wisdom literature; it really is a record of humans strivings with God, discerning, probing, learning, growing. It’s a good model for the big picture of what our Bible reading needs to be … probing and learning and not just pulpiteering. Good post…

  • EricW


    Totally off-topic, but I couldn’t find an email address link for you. Before you next take up the topic of origins and evolution, you might want to read this interview with Stuart Kauffman about the Origin of Life Summit/CERN Collaboration:

  • EricW

    (Note: The article starts down the page past the Annual Fundraising Appeal info.)

  • RJS

    Eric W,

    There isn’t a link – but there is an address at the bottom of the post. “rjs4mail” at “” A few people, mostly from out of the country, seem to have trouble with this address. I am not sure why.

  • “Is the Bible a book we submit to and proclaim? or Is the Bible a book we wrestle with – critically, theologically, practically – to discover God?”

    Why would that be an either/or question? Yes, we must wrestle to be sure we have the correct interpretation of the Bible. Then we must submit to and proclaim that message.

  • Chuck:
    ‘“Is the Bible a book we submit to and proclaim? or Is the Bible a book we wrestle with – critically, theologically, practically – to discover God?”

    Why would that be an either/or question? Yes, we must wrestle to be sure we have the correct interpretation of the Bible. Then we must submit to and proclaim that message.’

    When I got to that portion of the article, I had a similar thought, but I believe the point is that it isn’t an either or proposition. As the author rightly points out “The NT authors model this on virtually every page: they go to great lengths to explain how Jesus of Nazareth completes Israel’s story and gives it coherence. Taken as a whole, the Christian Bible has a point—a message to be proclaimed.” but I believe the point is this isn’t where it ends. Or maybe better yet, this isn’t where it ought to begin. The Christian Bible as a whole ought to be proclaimed, but it ought too to be an unfolding revelation to be discovered, pondered, and hopefully that helps bring those on that journey to a greater understanding of the God of the revelation, at least to the extent He wishes to reveal Himself.

  • Andrew

    But Chuck, how can we ever know for SURE that we have the CORRECT interpretation? How can we ever be CERTAIN that it’s time to stop wrestling and questioning?

  • Norman

    Possibly one of the challenges of reading the scriptures was the idea in 2nd T period that its interpretation generally required “special insight and secret knowledge”. We often mistake these ideas with Gnosticism but Jewish Scribes and Priest appear to buy into this idea of the “mysteries” embedded within the scripture (long before Greek influenced Gnosticism came of age). This matter required those in the know to impart their understanding when called upon to do so to the uninitiated.

    In my personal evaluation of looking at scripture and the NT interpretation of the OT, this “special” revelation may simply indicate a veiled hermeneutic that goes over the head of those not in the inner circle of scribes and Priest. Therefore it was not expected for the common person of Judaism to read scriptures in the manner that was hidden or embedded within them. There are many reasons for this veiling of the “mystery” of scripture, one of which was that it was countercultural literature calling for the messianic overthrow of the ruling elite. Some ideas more veiled than others. Maybe scripture wasn’t expected to be read like a newspaper and in 2nd Temple period it seemed to require an aquired skill and mindset.

    For an interesting paper on the subject one might want to read Margret Barker’s paper from her web site (The Secret Tradition). ( Margaretbarker dot com ) For those not familiar with Margaret here is a brief intro found on Wikipedia.

    Margaret Barker (born 1944), a Methodist preacher, studied theology at the University of Cambridge, after which she has devoted her life to research in ancient Christianity. She has developed an approach to Biblical studies known as Temple Theology. She was president of the Society for Old Testament Study in 1998, and in July 2008 she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    Also recent news: Margaret Barker delivered the Fr Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, New York on 29 January 2012 ‘Our Great High Priest. The Church as the New Temple’.

  • Andrew, I’m not suggesting that we ever stop wrestling, but we must submit to and proclaim whatever our current understanding is.

    We have the promise of the Spirit to lead us into all truth. I believe that means that God will give us all the truth we need to submit to at a given time. As a more accurate understanding is needed, God will mature our understanding, and we may then submit and proclaim more accurately.

    But if we wait to submit until we are sure we have a 100% accurate understanding, then we will never submit at all. That is post-modernism speaking, and that is clearly not what God has called us to.

  • Andrew

    I see what you are saying, Chuck, but as a child of post-modernity, I then have to ask: if any sect of Christianity I proclaiming and submitting to an interpretation, say the Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses, are they in your view being just as faithful to god in their wrestling and submission as a Calvinist or evangelical or Unitarian? I feel Loki the spirit is leading me into all truth and I interpret the bible in such a way that confirms that I am being led…. But I’m an lgbt open/affirming quasi-universalist quasi-hell denier. Countless have told me I am grieving the spirit and countless have told me the spirit is clearly leading me….

  • Andrew, only you know whether you have truly submitted your life to God, and whether you are truly seeking to be led by the Spirit.

    On some of the issues you mention, I do believe you are wrong. I also believe, if you are truly submitted to God, that he will eventually lead you to a correct understanding.

    In the same way, I believe that those in the Mormon or JW church who have truly submitted themselves to God will eventually be led out from there.

    It may not all happen in this life. Obviously, we all die with some errors in our thinking. But I do not believe God judges us on theological accuracy.

    “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2b, ESV)

    On an unrelated note, what do you mean by a quasi-universalist? I’m sincerely curious. Do you believe that some men are eventually saved out of hell but not all?

  • BTW, Andrew, I’ll also grant the possibility that I am the one who is wrong, and that God will eventually lead me to a correct understanding in the areas you bring up.

  • Patrick

    IF I were an Orthodox Jew, I’d agree with the Jewish view. If they believed Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah, they’d change that view, IMO.

    I don’t have the view myself that the bible is so difficult to grasp. It is a consistent narrative that makes good sense to me.

  • Jon G

    BTW…on the subject of being wrong (thanks Chuck and Andrew for the lead in)…this was a brilliant TED video on being wrong:

  • RJS

    Nice video link Jon G.

  • Bill P

    Agree, great video Jon G.