Did biblical writers understand their past? (Mark Smith part 2)

Today’s post is based on another idea I found interesting in Mark S. Smith’s article “God in Israel’s Bible: Divinity between the World and Israel, between the Old and the New.” The meat of it gives an overview of the evidence for the “early history” of Israel’s God Yahweh according to the biblical and extrabiblical evidence. The article is published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (issue 74, 2012). My first post on this article is here.

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Like most (all?) biblical scholars, Smith considers Judges 5 and Psalm 68 to be among the oldest writings of the Israelites contained in the Bible. They depict Yahweh as a divine warrior of old, who marched up from the south, with the earth quaking and the rain pouring, to battle for his people, Israel.

Smith’s point is that, even though these are the oldest texts we have in the Bible, they still do not take us back to the origins of Israel’s belief in Yahweh as their God. That information is hidden from scholarly gaze. And on that point, Smith makes the following observation, that the “early history of God” was hidden from the writers of the biblical texts, too.

Our ignorance [of the early history of God] is an important datum. In this aspect, Israel’s God—and ours—is something of a mystery to us. Like modern scholars, the Israelites who composed these relatively early pieces worked with a certain ignorance of their own about the original profile of their God. In fact, their understanding of God, which may have included a lack of knowledge of the old profile of their God, was sufficient for them. It may have been the very mystery about these old depictions that made them all the more attractive to later tradition. Moreover, for the biblical composers, the truth of God in the prior time was not merely subordinate to the God as known in their present; the present understanding of God from the composers’ perspective was presumed to be consonant with this prior profile, whatever was known of it. The truth of God for the religious tradition of Israel did not depend on full knowledge of origins. It is tantalizing to search for and discover new evidence for anything of interest, and especially for evidence of origins. Furthermore, learning about origins may contribute to the tradition. At the same time,  for the biblical tradition, the order of the human discovery of God is not the order of the reality of God for humanity. The early biblical tradition formulates its understanding of this old inherited tradition of God in terms of its own concerns, as seen in the Bible’s first glimpses of God in Judges 5 and Psalm 68. (10-11)

Translation: The earliest Israelite writers wrote of God from the point of view of their experiences of God in their time and place without a fuller historical understanding of how those present beliefs had developed from murky and ancient origins (see also here and here).

Perhaps it is important here to take to heart Smith’s own cautionary comment: the deep past remains a mystery to us. Smith and others are left to fill in the gaps on the basis of the available, later, data.

However you might feel about how Smith depicts the specific issue of Yahweh’s origins, how does the general idea strike you–that biblical authors assumed that their present point of view was a “historical constant,” how things are is how they have always been?

What we’re dealing with here is the age old problem of anachronisms in the Old Testament–things that are out of time and place. We have other, perhaps better known, examples:

  • Israel’s ancient ancestors, beginning with Adam and on through Abraham and even Moses–speak in Hebrew even though Hebrew did not exist then.
  • The presence of Philistines is a given in the period of Abraham and his descendants in Genesis even though they did not make their way onto the biblical world until 1200 BC or so.

Of course, things like the Hebrew language and Philistines might not be that crucial an issue compared to the early history of God, but the idea of anachronisms is common enough to at least put all this on the table.

Biblical writers wrote from where they were at the moment–how they saw themselves, the world, and their God. Whether that understanding reflects the past “accurately” (at least from the point of view of modern historical studies) is another question.

For serious students of the Bible, this question cannot be avoided for long.

Is God restricted by what the Bible says?

Today we feature another guest post by Carlos Bovell, a third in what we might begin calling a series on Yahweh’s “evolving” character in the Old Testament (see here and here, and his earlier posts on Scripture here). His most recent book is Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012). (Click here for complete book list.)

Kent Sparks’s God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship is classified by Robert Yarbrough as a “shift story” (in his contribution to Do Historical Matters Matter to Faithan edited volume aimed at critiquing Sparks’s book). A shift story is presented as an account of a biblical scholar changing his/her view of scripture over time.

According to Yarbrough, biblical scholars have basically two incompatible bibliological positions to choose from: one that acknowledges “the results of biblical criticism” and another that accepts “the high view of Scripture upheld by Christian scholars over the centuries” (329). He claims that Sparks’s book is an example of the former, going “from a high view of Scripture’s veracity to a reduced one” (331), “from greater affirmation of Scripture’s truthfulness to lesser” (334). By virtue of Yarbrough’s stark contrasts, one would be forgiven for concluding that he thinks a “high view” (i.e., inerrancy) is a sine qua non of faith.

Are there really only two bibliological positions available to believers who are involved in biblical studies? To say the least, Yarbrough’s rhetoric tends toward oversimplification. His essay is a good illustration of the polarizing ideology that conservatives like to use.

I think Nicholas Wolterstorff did a great service for evangelicals when he drew attention to this common, inerrantist strategy in his book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks. Wolterstorff begins by observing that in order to make sense of the Psalms, believers—and it doesn’t matter whether they have Yarbrough’s “high” view of scripture or not—understand that God is not the one lamenting in the psalms of lament. If God is speaking through these psalms, therefore, it must be by appropriating them for other purposes than the ones the human authors had in mind.

Yarbrough, however, would force one to choose between the results of biblical criticism and the trustworthiness of scripture. But there is no compulsion to choose. The results of biblical criticism can be accepted as interpretation of what the human authors were saying, which leaves the task of discerning what God “says” to a more synthetic theological and hermeneutical discussion.

If there is a difference in approach between inerrantists and non-inerrantists, the difference can be traced back to what Wolterstorff calls the exceptional principle. The exceptional principle holds that “false and unloving speech is never attributed to God.” Inerrantists appeal to the principle in an effort to protect the human authors of scripture from teaching error. Non-inerrantists appeal to the same principle but their main concern is to protect the divine author (228).

In other words, all readers who are believers make exceptions for biblical texts that attribute to God false and unloving speech. The difference is that inerrantists protect God by protecting the human authors.  Non-inerrantists don’t see a theological reason to do this since what the human authors say is not always the same thing as what God is saying.

So, let’s tie this all back to our recent posts on Mark Smith’s historical research on the early history of Yahweh. There is evidence that the biblical picture of Yahweh was updated late in post-exilic times by priest-scribes. Does accepting that this happened mean that we are succumbing to a shift story?

Not necessarily. From a hermeneutical standpoint, it only means that in this area of biblical studies the human authors might be saying something different from what God is saying. What God “says” he says through appropriation.

The natural inerrantist response is to do what John Oswalt does in The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? He asserts that a straightforward reading of the OT as history is “the biblical explanation” and that “Smith’s explanations for the way in which the Yahwism of the Bible arose simply have too many unanswered questions in them” (184). Oswalt is trying to protect the biblical authors from “false and unloving speech” by insisting that priest-scribes did not update Yahweh: it was the Israelite perspective “from the beginning” (97).

Another way forward—a more fruitful way, I might add—would be to remain genuinely open to Smith’s evidence suggesting that Yahweh was updated by post-exilic priest-scribes while remaining confident that this research does not attribute to God false speech. Much rather, God appropriated Israelite propaganda for the purposes of revealing himself to the Israelites and the world. Thus God was (and is) speaking in the OT but not “saying” exactly what the biblical writers say.

Yarbrough’s main concern is that “a ‘believing criticism’ [what Sparks embraces] as such will do [little] more for us than adulterate the ‘believing’ that is necessary to keep discerning, rigorous thought from devolving into apostasy” (340). On one level, this is an understandable pastoral concern. But we should also remind ourselves that how we use the exceptional principle is not an indication of whether we trust God. In the present case, it is an attempt to interact fairly and honestly with the evidence irrespective of what it indicates about the human authors of scripture. What we conclude about the human authors will not impugn God.

As a part of the cultural world and literature of the ANE, we have a responsibility before God to “assimilate the useful methods and reasonably assured results of biblical criticism to a healthy Christian faith” (Sparks, 356).

Showing the Bible to be human and accepting the extent to which it is human does not in and of itself constitute a shift from belief to unbelief as Yarbrough would have us believe. The shift could also be one that moves from faith to faith, i.e., from a faith in scripture as the ground for our salvation to one that trusts in God as surety for our faith.

Did ancient scribes update Yahweh? Probably. (and that’s OK)

Today’s guest blogger is Carlos Bovell, whom many of you know from some previous posts here. Carlos is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is also the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

In a recent post reflecting on Mark Smith’s book, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Pete shared with readers how the “mainstream view” holds that “the Hebrew scriptures reflect Israel’s later beliefs (i.e., after the return from Babylonian exile), further along on their spiritual journey, though their writings also preserve earlier, more diverse religious stages, where exclusive worship of Yahweh was not a given.”

In the next two posts, I would like to reflect on how this mainstream view might be incorporated into an evangelical view of scripture.

In another of his books, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (see here for a review), Mark Smith develops the following six points:

(1) In keeping with its scale and relatively local relations with other polities, Israel deployed a form of local translatability during the period of the monarchies, if not earlier [“translatability,” Smith explains, refers to the cross-cultural identification, equation, and recognition of other people’s deities (6)];

(2) This translatability took the form of a worldview that could recognize other national gods as valid for Israel’s neighbors just as Yahweh was for Israel;

(3) Israel’s loss of translatability represented an internal development that corresponds with its experience of the initial stage of the international age emerging under the Assyrians and the Babylonians;

(4) The conceptual shift in this period involved a sophisticated hermeneutic that retained older formulations of translatability within expressions of non-translatability and monotheism;

(5) The hermeneutic of theism within ancient Israel and Yehud [i.e., the land of Judah as it was called after the return from exile] was an ongoing intellectual project involving various forms of textual harmonization;

(6) If [the Hebrew Bible’s “Mosaic distinction” between the one true God and all other false deities] is to be maintained, it would be during the late biblical and post-biblical reception of the Bible than generally the Bible itself (much less ancient Israel) when it comes into focus.

To take just one illustration of what effect Smith’s research might have on one’s view of scripture, let us consider Deut 6:4, known as the Shema, which Smith translates: “Hear, O Israel! Yahweh our god, Yahweh is one” (143). He explains that although modern translations opt for “Yahweh alone” at the end of the verse, Deut 6:4 arguably meant that Yahweh was “the one main God for Israel,” i.e., among the pantheon.

In other words, the monotheistic reading of the verse that we apply to the verse today reflects cultural and political developments in postexilic Israel. A latersecondary, interpretation began to attach itself to the verse, deliberately promulgating Yahweh in a monotheistic fashion, i.e., to the effect that Yahweh is the true god and all others are false.

A common evangelical response that I find inadequate is to downplay the need to fit scripture into its ancient Near Eastern contexts. This reaction is exemplified, for example, by John Oswalt in The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?who writes:

The fact that the entire Bible as it now stands is written from the perspective of the transcendent God breaking into human history and revealing himself through unique events and persons cannot be gainsaid. Either this was the perspective from the beginning of the nation or there must have been some cataclysmic experience that would have caused the systematic rewriting of all previous traditions. Outside the exodus, I see no such events (97-98).

A better way, I propose, is to think again about whether “the entire Bible as it now stands” is chiefly interested in reporting a redemptive history that involves a unique series of events where God intervenes in history. Given developments in critical scholarship, it might prove fruitful to disagree with Oswalt and begin wondering whether there are other ways to construe the Hebrew Bible (as it now stands).

Smith, for example, analyzes cases of biblical censorship where the biblical writers, over time, had become more and more concerned about “protecting God” from longstanding, polytheistic conceptions of Yahweh. According to Smith, many post-exilic priests were also scribes who composed, harmonized, edited, and revised scriptural texts in an effort to promulgate their understanding of monotheism and particularly the special relationship that the single deity had with the Israelites.

These priest-scribes cloaked their scribal activity “in the august robes of hoary antiquity, precisely the hallmark of the religious traditioning process” (224). By deliberately weaving into scripture an overarching, monotheistic description of the past as if it were the divine perspective they successfully politically sanctioned a monotheistic prescription for both Israel’s present and future (215).

In my book, Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, I tried to help students work through some of the difficulties evangelicals have with the Bible’s compositional history. In my follow-up post, I will suggest a way to accept the mainstream view and integrate it with the belief that the Bible is God’s Word.

Damage Control Made Impossible: Craig Blomberg Reviews Christian Smith (Guest Post)

Carlos Bovell is our guest blogger today, and has written numerous posts for us over the past few months on the topic of evangelicals and the Bible. His most recent book is Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

Here he interacts with Craig Blomberg’s recent review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Blomberg is distinguished professor of new Testament at Denver Seminary, and Smith, a former evangelical, is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at University of Notre Dame.

Craig Blomberg recently reviewed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. To summarize, Smith argues that evangelical “biblicism” crumbles under its own weight, but continues to survive because of its historical role in establishing evangelicalism’s sociological boundary markers, which explains evangelicalism’s well-documented history of protecting their doctrine of Scripture against perceived attacks.

Smith defines Biblicism as “a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that

Christian Smith

is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function” (p. 4). Smith lists ten assumptions or beliefs about the Bible that will be familiar to evangelicals, and include: inerrancy, clarity (perspicuity), “commonsense” hermeneutics, internal harmony, and treating the Bible as a sort of handbook for Christian living.

Smith’s central contention is that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” renders moot evangelical presumptions of the nature and authority of Scripture. Smith means that since the Bible clearly “teaches very different things about the most significant subjects,” and since highly competent biblical interpreters come to very different conclusions about the same texts, evangelical assertions about the Bible’s inerrant authority ring hollow (pp. x-xi).

One of Smith’s most important claims, as I read it, is that in much the same way that biblicism was at the heart of the fundamentalist approach to faith, it has also come to define contemporary evangelicalism. If fundamentalism failed in large measure because biblicism became the main theme of their obscurantist, fundamentalist self-understanding of Christianity, evangelicalism has also condemned itself to failure because it too constructs its identity around more or less the same forms of biblicism, which, in Smith’s analysis, makes the Bible “impossible.”

Craig Blomberg

Blomberg is among a number of evangelical scholars who have recently taken up the cause of giving a fresh defense of the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy (see Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture), and so one would certainly expect Blomberg to take issue with Smith’s thesis.

Blomberg contends that Smith has created a straw man. Biblicism only describes the approach of “grass-roots pure fundamentalists.” It does not describe the fully up-to-date hermeneutical teachings of the best evangelical colleges and seminaries (the appearance of doctrinal commitments to an inerrant Bible in the majority of colleges’ and seminaries’ statements of faith, notwithstanding).

Blomberg’s response to Smith echoes his recent review of my latest book, Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear. Blomberg addresses my concerns regarding the damage inerrancy has done to evangelical culture by observing that “a disproportionate amount of the witch-hunting that [Bovell] and I alike rue has come either in truly fundamentalist circles, especially in the South, or in thoroughly Reformed circles.” He goes on to carve out a geographical niche where his vision of a healthy, sophisticated evangelicalism is flourishing, a niche that is “North or West of the Mason-Dixon line or in less reformed circles.”

Blomberg approvingly mentions schools such as Gordon-Conwell, Dallas, Bethel, Talbot/Biola, Wheaton and his own Denver Seminary, while chiding Westminster Seminary and Southern Baptist schools for being too rigid in their thinking. Related to this is an observation Blomberg makes in his review of my first bookInerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals: “For a variety of reasons, systematic theologians and philosophers tend to get more ‘bent out of shape’ on such issues than scholars who specialize in the original historical contexts of the different books of Scripture.” He also points to the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society as prime examples of non-biblicism in the evangelical mainstream.

I appreciate some of Blomberg’s points, such as the existence of some latitude in some evangelical institutions. I also agree that the theological agendas of certain Reformed and Southern Baptists elements are a problem. Nevertheless, Blomberg’s assessment of true evangelicalism being more sophisticated is more damage control than a fair assessment of the evangelical landscape.

For one thing, one wonders who is left once these less-than-true-evangelical systematic theologians and philosophers are taken out of the picture and biblical scholars south of the Mason-Dixon Line or Reformed are also removed. Blomberg’s answer seems to be that there is a remnant of biblical scholars out there who have not been unduly influenced by systematic theology or philosophy and who happen to teach in the Northeast or out West.

But does not Blomberg’s rejoinder rest on as selective a population as he accuses Smith of doing? Is this not a straw man of another sort?

Is Smith’s attempt to provide empirical evidence for his claim that evangelicals on the whole are good, old-fashioned biblicists a straw man as Blomberg claims, or is the straw man rather in Blomberg’s appeal to a diaspora of biblical scholars scattered throughout the northeastern and western United States who truly get it? Who really represents a minority view? Smith’s biblicists or Blomberg’s biblical scholars? Readers will have to decide for themselves, but as for me, Smith’s analysis is far more sober than Blomberg’s.

Readers might also take note of one element of Blomberg’s argument that I found to be quite curious and somewhat self-defeating. He lists a number of evangelical scholars who are doing non-biblicist work (“P. Enns, K. Sparks, C. Bovell, C. Allert, and N. T. Wright, to name just the most prominent.”). His point is that, if Smith were more familiar with the evangelical landscape, he would not give such a reductionistic analysis. Blomberg is forgetting, however, that Smith, although now Roman Catholic, is hardly an outsider to evangelicalism, having spent most of his life in such an environment. And the scholars Blomberg lists Smith not only cites but actively incorporates into his book. This indeed indicates that one side is not seeing what the other side claims to see.

More importantly, though, Blomberg is clearly bothered by the type of non-biblicism offered by Sparks and others. He may cite them as examples within evangelicalism when writing against Smith, but Blomberg is part of a larger movement to show that Sparks and others have wandered off the reservation (again, see Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?). Blomberg can’t have it both ways. He can’t use Sparks, etc., against Smith as examples of the breadth of intellectual evangelicalism and then take part in a volume seeking to defend evangelicalism from the likes of Sparks, et. al.

I urge Blomberg and other evangelical leaders to recognize that the damage caused by biblicism is not confined to the back waters of evangelicalism. It has seeped into its very drinking water with some even mistaking it for the living waters of life.

 

Guest Post: Is Inerrancy a Fundamental of the Christian Faith?

Today’s guest post is written by Carlos Bovell, who has recently written several posts for us, the most recent of which is here. Carlos is the author of four books that critique biblical inerrancy as intellectually problematic and (therefore) spiritually debilitating.

In Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series), we read a contemporary portrayal of fundamentalism by Kevin T. Bauder (former president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis):

The gospel is always doctrinal. Without doctrinal explanations, the death and resurrection of Jesus would be without significance. Those explanations, presuppositions, and implications on which the gospel depends are called fundamental doctrines, or simply fundamentals. Fundamental doctrines are essential to the gospel. . . . Some of the fundamentals certainly must be known and accepted, while others are presupposed within or implied by the gospel. No fundamental can be denied, however, without implicitly denying the gospel itself (p. 29).

There are, indeed, fundamentals to the Christian faith. The death and resurrection of Christ, for example, is the event complex around which the earliest followers of Christ constructed the faith we now call Christianity.

The problem with fundamentalism is not that it declares elements of the faith to be fundamental, or even that it has built up their system of fundamentals in response to specific attacks by nineteenth century liberal scholars. The problem is that fundamentalism’s list of essentials (as the quote above implies) got rather extensive and were seen as equally ultimate.

Like a house of cards, all of the “fundamentals” needed to be in place. If one is removed, that is, if any one fundamental is not affirmed by Christians everywhere, the gospel topples to the ground. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll lists “the distinctive teachings of Dispensationalism, the Holiness Movement, or Pentecostalism” (p. 142) as examples, along with inerrancy, which “had never assumed such a central role for any Christian movement” (p. 133).

An overemphasis on inerrancy is emotionally unfair to students. “Undue influence” comes to mind. Fundamentalists have become masters at making it all but impossible to critique this rhetorical ploy without being accused by others that they’re “denying” any and all fundamentals, including the resurrection or the deity of Christ.

It goes without saying that without a certain amount of doctrine, “the death and resurrection would be without significance,” as Bauder says above. On the face of it, such a claim makes sense, but the fundamentalist culture is prone to abuse it, taking it beyond both its theoretical and existential limits.

What nineteenth century fundamentalism did for evangelicalism today was to tie inerrancy into this “fundamental” framework:

The significance of the gospel cannot be known apart from revelation. To understand why Jesus died and why he rose again, humans require an authoritative explanation. That explanation has been vouchsafed to them in authoritative Scriptures that claim to be God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Such inspiration necessitates inerrancy, because a God-breathed but errant Scripture would imply a God who was either mistaken or untruthful. A God who could make mistakes or who would knowingly mislead people is certainly a lesser God than the God whom the Bible presents. Such a God would not merit the kind of ultimate trust that Scripture requires for the salvation of the soul (p. 28; emphasis added).

Here Bauder has effortlessly woven inerrancy into the historic definition of Christianity itself. No, actually, he does more than that—he deliberately constructs inerrancy into the evangelical gospel itself (upon which we rely and in which we presently hope) as well as our notion of God, that is, the kind of God suitable for the salvation that we believe we possess.

We now have sufficient historical distance to appreciate how inerrancy really has become a kind of über-fundamental and an intrinsic part of the slippery slope dynamic that needs to be addressed. What I am trying to do now when I write is encourage students to brainstorm and help evangelicalism work through this phase of its cultural development.

I have come across individual believers here and there who have outgrown the fundamentalist-inerrantist dynamic of faith over time. Between their efforts and those of “younger evangelicals,” I am hoping for a reformation, a reformation that will work to leave this paralyzing aspect of fundamentalism behind.

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