The Bible and Authority (RJS)

The Bible and Authority (RJS) May 27, 2009

A few years ago NT Wright published a short book on the authority of scripture: The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God–Getting Beyond the Bible Wars.

Scot posted on this book when both the book and his blog were new (about 3 1/2 years ago), but it is worth a revisit in the context of our current discussion of the nature of the Bible as the Word of God. As we discuss an understanding of Scripture using terms such as “story” or “light” or “incarnation” or “accommodation”  we would do well to consider yet another feature of Scripture – the Authority of Scripture – and the purpose of Scripture. Wright’s book deals specifically with purpose of Scripture and the nature of Scripture as authority by asking the following questions (among others):

1. In what sense is the Bible authoritative?

2. How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted?

The central claim of Wright’s book is that all authority belongs to God – and thus scripture is authoritative only in the sense that the authority of the triune God is exercised through scripture. In fact, Wright goes so far as to say that scripture itself points — authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority! — away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God, now delegated to Jesus Christ.(p. 24)

And a great line — When John declares that “in the beginning was the word,” he does not reach a climax with “and the word was written down” but “and the word became flesh.” (p. 23).

The Bible is story. According to Wright the bible is not a list of rules – although it contains commandments. The bible is not a compendium of true doctrines – although it declares great truths. And the bible transcends revelation – it doesn’t convey information from or about a mostly absent God, rather it is self-revelation for and about relationship – the relationship of God with his creation for his mission. Scripture is best described first and foremost as Story.

 …the shorthand phrase “the authority of scripture” when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community. … We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be. (p. 114)

We are to read scripture with tradition in communion with the saints, and with reason attentive to context, to sense and to wider knowledge of all sorts.

“Reason” will mean giving attention to, and celebrating, the many and massive discoveries in biology, archaeology, physics, astronomy, and so on, which shed great light on God’s world and the human condition. This does not, of course, mean giving into the pressure which comes from atheistic or rationalistic science. … “Reason” is more like the laws of harmony and counterpoint: it does not write tunes itself, but it forms the language within which tunes make powerful sense.

In all this, “reason” will not constitute an alternative, or independent, source to scripture and tradition. It is the necessary adjunct, the vital tool, for making sure that we are truly listening to scripture and tradition rather than to echoes of our own voices. (p. 120)

Wright also makes the point that our relationship to the New Testament is not the same as our relationship to the Old Testament. The Old Testament is a crucial part of scripture, but it is the New Testament that is the “foundation charter of the fifth act;” the act within which we, ourselves, are actors.

We honor the authority of scripture when we read it properly. We should read scripture in a totally contextual manner. “All scripture is “culturally conditioned.” It is naive to pretend that some parts are not, and can therefore be treated as in some sense “primary” or “universal,” while other parts are, and can therefore be set aside.” (p. 128)  According to Wright even the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of justification by faith are culturally conditioned and must be understood in their biblical and cultural contexts.

Such a contextual reading is in fact an incarnational reading of scripture, paying attention to the full humanity both of the text and of its readers. This must be undertaken in the prayer that the “divinity” — the “inspiration” of scripture, and the Spirit’s power at work within the Bible-reading church — will thereby be discovered afresh. … Genuine orthodoxy needs both, and in proper mutual relationship. (p. 129-130)

We should also read scripture liturgically, privately, refreshed by scholarship, and as taught by church leaders (through studied, biblical sermons and teachings).

This is a great little book – well worth reading and discussing. We err when we make scripture the foundation of our faith.  Our foundation is God alone, the rock on which we stand is God alone – and his work in this world, including the atoning work of Christ. The authority of scripture is a shorthand for the authority of God – revealed by the Spirit. Scripture illuminates God, his nature and his interaction with his creation – it tells his story, and it does so reliably. But it does so in a fashion that may tell important theological truths in mythic form.  The humanity of the authors and their points of view and cultural contexts played a role in the nature of the text we inherit. Reading scripture with a hermeneutic of trust and faith in the light of scholarship, biblical, scientific, and more will, through the power of the Spirit reveal God in our context today.

What do you think? Is the “Authority of Scripture” an important concept? Do you think this authority is undermined if Genesis appropriates ANE myth, Exodus is an embellished history, Job is story, John rearranged events in his Gospel to make theological points?

What elements are necessary to faithfully and reliably tell God’s story?

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  • Diane

    Of course, the authority of Scripture is enormously important. If you come at the Bible with the idea of it being authoritative–that is might know more than you or your culture, that it might in fact critique your culture, that it might be right and your knowledge in some way skewed (instead of rejecting the Bible for challenging your culture’s “wisdom”)–it becomes fruitful, powerful and alive.
    I have no problem with reading various parts of the Bible in terms of genre, keeping in mind the caveat that today’s archeological gold is tomorrow’s dross. The problem comes when people try to force an either/or proposition (which I have seen done on, uhhmm … other parts of Beliefnet.) between the Bible as myth and as fact. When Genesis, eg, is presented as either ANE myth OR literal fact, “no other option, pick your side,” I have a problem.

  • “John rearranged events in his Gospel to make theological points”
    How curious. I wasn’t even aware that was a fact that some people found even slightly disturbing. It’s obvious. That’s why, among many other things, we find John’s eucharistic teaching in chapter 6.
    However, the other Gospel writers do the same thing to lesser or greater extents. I remember (vaguely since it wasn’t a matter of real importance to me) reading about an event in the very early centuries of Christianity where someone tried to produce a harmonized single gospel from the four gospel accounts. The church soundly rejected the attempt with, as I recall, some pretty lively rhetoric. In the ancient church, again as I recall, I believe it was only the first three gospels that were proclaimed to those outside the church. John was used to instruct the newly baptized. And the letters were typically considered instruction to the church to be read in and to and by the church.
    I’m thinking back through all the modern Orthodox voices I’ve read or heard and I can recall at least a small handful mentioning at one point or another that the gospels are not strict chronological accounts and that John is particularly not chronological at all.
    I just find it strange that that fact actually disturbs some people. How odd.
    I own and have read this book of Wright’s. Jesus, the logos, is the cornerstone of the church. We are not Muslim. The foundation of our faith is not a book. I was and still am a bit disturbed since I discovered that many Baptists refer to themselves as “the people of the Book”. Somehow I went for more than a decade among them without running into that fact. I had thought of that phrase as associated only with Islam before that discovery. I have a hard time finding any place in Scripture where “Word of God” refers to a written text. In the NT the “logos” is Jesus, which in a Christian hermeneutic suggests we should interpret the OT use of “word” through the same lens. Even without that, though, “word” in the OT typically refers to the speech-acts of God.
    And the interpretive authority for scripture is and has always been the community of faith – even when a given community has tried to assert otherwise. We see so many competing and often contradictory interpretations today because we have multiple, competing Christian communities. There is no interpretive unity in the church today, even on the matters once upheld in the ecumenical councils. The question is really not whether or not that is true, but rather what do we do now? That reality is much more corrosive and deconstructive than whether or not Job is a story or John was even trying to write a chronological account.

  • Rick

    Is the “Authority of Scripture” an important concept?
    Yes, because God Himself has raised it to a level of importance.
    “Do you think this authority is undermined if Genesis appropriates ANE myth, Exodus is an embellished history, Job is story, John rearranged events in his Gospel to make theological points?”
    It is not undermined if they do not impact the key elements of the overall theme (acts of the play, essentials), including the fact that God has and does work in real time and space.
    The Exodus “emebellished history” could potentially cause the most problems on that front, since it may be seen as important part of that theme and history.
    Perhaps it is the word “embellish” that raises red flags with me. It indicates that God’s work in history was really not so grand, so it needed help from cracked eikons in the PR department.
    “What elements are necessary to faithfully and reliably tell God’s story?”
    A faithful and reliable God, and a reliable story.

  • Phil

    I think much of this comes under the “reason” category stated above. Does the melody still ring out loud and clear? Does the harmony and counter-point enhance or hinder the music?
    I have run across some similar things within my circles of people trying to raise up or hold a high view of scripture to the point of saying that a disciples priority is to follow the Scripture or believe in the Scripture, rather than follow Christ. It seems many people believe that if you don’t look at the Scripture in that sense, you can’t believe the Jesus from Scripture. It’s sad…

  • RJS

    We need to keep a critical eye toward all scholarship – it is always a mix of data and interpretation. I read everything with a critical eye – science, history, and biblical studies and on. But I think that it is unmistakable that there is a trajectory to history and a trajectory to our understanding and view of God’s creation – history, archaeology, anthropology, science. Because of this statements like today’s archeological gold is tomorrow’s dross always raise a red flag for me. They are usually intended as an excuse to dismiss consideration of scholarly conclusions and hard data.
    But the world is not going to become flat, the heavens do not contain spheres with water trapped above, we are not going to discover that there were no humans in North America more than ten thousand of years ago … and we are not going to find solutions for all of the “human” features of scripture. I don’t see how we can avoid the conclusion that some of Genesis uses myth to tell theological truth, or that revelation in Genesis accommodates to an ANE cosmology.
    The “patchwork” repair approach for dealing with the issues common in evangelicalism convinces many that there is nothing to save. It is because of this that I think it is critical that we move forward with productive proposals for a “synthesis” – a coherent understanding the nature of the authority and inspiration of scripture. I am trying to work toward such a synthesis – which I think must be founded on the God alone – Father, Son, and Spirit. A key component here is the idea that scripture is inspired to illuminate our understanding of God – not to provide our sure rational foundation.

  • In light of this kind of understanding of the nature of Scripture, both “sola scriptura” and the recently espoused “prima scriptura” both go up in smoke and out the window.
    This is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. But it is something most Protestants aren’t ready to accept or embrace.

  • I’ve read, well scanned, this book too. Thanks for adding the reflection. I don’t want to be a pest, Scot, but in these online contexts I’m trying to encourage people to be more explicit about what they don’t believe about the Bible. In real life ministry contexts, there’s a huge price to pay if we don’t. People still think the Bible is a road map, a code book, and compendium of something or other. And if we’re not willing to name what the Bible isn’t — infallible, inerrant, independently and inherently authoritative — we empower some people to keep throwing the Bible at other people. Ok, now I’m moving toward pest-hood. I’ll watch the conversation. Thanks for the post.

  • Jay Wermuth

    “I don’t see how we can avoid the conclusion that some of Genesis uses myth to tell theological truth, or that revelation in Genesis accommodates to an ANE cosmology.”
    I agree with the majority of your points, however, this one – while I do not disagree – stood out to me.
    First, I would not simply reduce the Genesis creation account to myth outright, without acknowledging that it is in itself not attempting to give all of the details of creation but an overview or summary of the basic events of creation. If this is myth, then there is much mythology in the Bible, even the Jesus tradition is but a summary of some of the things Jesus said and did (certainly an oversimplification!).
    Furthermore, if the creation account is indeed an over-simplification of the event, it points to the wonder and grandiosity of the actual creation event. This does not make the story any less factually accurate, but rather testifies to the immense complexity of creation. Also, in my view, the text itself does not require that we see creation as a six day literal creation. That the author of Genesis 1 uses his own language and way of describing the events is apparent but does not make the story, as a summary, any less accurate if we see the story in its proper context(Gen 1:6).
    Finally, if the creation account and other parts of Genesis are myth, then God chose myth as the vehicle for his message to his people and that should not shake us – it should open our eyes to the world around us to see that “the echo of a voice” can be found in all of creation: in myth, in stories, in the wind, in movies, in the crashing of waves… and certainly within the pages of Scripture.

  • Kyle

    I loved this book. I read once that Wright couldn’t stand the American title of this book. It’s something like “Scripture and the Authority of God” elsewhere in the world. Anyways, I picked it up awhile back, but it set on my shelf. I picked it up to read, amusingly, after finishing “Jesus, Interrupted” by Bart Ehrman. It was almost comical how all of Ehrman’s concerns about the gospels were outlined by Wright as being the primary interests of his short little book.
    Anyways, I think he did an exceptional job of answering my remaining reservations about the relation of God and Scripture. I’d suggest anyone reading this thread to spend the $15 and go out and pick this one up.

  • Is the “Authority of Scripture” an important concept?
    Properly understood, yes.
    Do you think this authority is undermined if Genesis appropriates ANE myth, Exodus is an embellished history, Job is story, John rearranged events in his Gospel to make theological points?
    Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. A story draws you into itself much more than a mere list of rules. Though I’d echo Rick’s concern about Exodus. The significance of this hinges greatly on the proportion of history to embellishment. Finding out it’s all embellishment wouldn’t be as significant as, say, finding Jesus’ bones somewhere, but it would matter a lot. Though it would still be true that, if a people group made up an origin of slavery and faithlessness (theirs, not God’s), that would be pretty remarkable in itself.
    What elements are necessary to faithfully and reliably tell God’s story?
    Just what we have. The story tells us where we came from, why the world is how it is, what God is doing about it, how we can participate, and what the final result will be.

  • dopderbeck

    I’m not sure it’s exactly as saying “our authority is God.” Yes, that is of course true — and God “inspired” the scriptures and delegated some authority to the Apostles who passed along authoritative teaching to the Church in the scriptures. In this sense, the scriptures are indeed “authoritative,” and have always understood to be so, even before there was a formal canon (the Patristics always referred to various scriptures as authoritative when confronted with theological disputes). I don’t agree with Jim (#6), who seems to misunderstand what “sola scriptura” means. The Bible is the final source of authoritative teaching from God given to the Apostles and passed along to the Church. This needs to be affirmed.
    The better questions are, (a) for what purposes and in what ways is the Bible authoritative teaching; and (b) what other sources of authority can assist us, and how can they assist us, in sussing out the answer to (a)? Approaching the problems presented by the natural sciences, archeology, etc. through this lens seems much more productive to me than to diminish the Bible as the Church’s final authority for faith and practice.

  • Scott Morizot

    “The Bible is the final source of authoritative teaching from God given to the Apostles and passed along to the Church.”
    Of course, the Holy Scriptures nowhere says that about themselves. So from where do you draw that conclusion?
    I’m not saying they are not a source of authority or even the most prominent source of authority, at least rightly interpreted. Most traditions would have an issue with any teaching that contradicted their traditional interpretation.
    But if you’re going to make an assertion like the one about scripture, shouldn’t you be able to find it in scripture?

  • Diane

    I agree with you that scholarship is important and I would say very important, but to push back, metaphors like “hard” data are red flags for me. Usually, this means people who disagree with the “hard” data are “soft” (another uhmm “interesting” metaphor) with all the negative implications of that term in our culture … we could certainly sidetrack for hours into what makes “data” “hard” versus “soft “and why raising questions about “hard” data creates concerns about anti-intellectualism. (I say this all with a big smile; I’m not after you!:))
    Our different reactions may simply be indicative of the religious subcultures we inhabit: Mine tends to be filled with (over?) educated people who seize the scholarly flavor du jour of Biblical studies (especially if the writer is politically liberal) often uncritically and whole-heartedly—until a new year and a new theory roll around. They tend to evaluate Scripture wholly in light of science–ie, if “scientific studies” show that prayer “works,” well, it works. If Scripture says that prayer works, well, OK, they say, but you know, the Bible is “mythic”– show me the scientific study and THEN I’ll believe- I also keep thinking back to this site and the thread that said that until the Holocaust, Bibilical scholars were reading the NT as a product of Greek culture and underemphasizing its semitic roots because of unconscious prejudice or how Kant so wholly twisted things through his strange cultural lenses … so what baggage do we carry? However, while I push against mindless reliance on scholarship (some so flimsy as to be ludicrous), if your religious subculture is more evangelical and literal, of course, you want to push for a fair evaluation and appreciation of scholarship.
    And the bottom line is, I’m conscious I have to constantly correct my own bias towards scholarship and science as idol (I do idolize it and I fight that, as it’s so prevalent in the culture) and to understand that I live in a culture that is distorting my perceptions in ways I can’t always distance myself from. But I can try! These forums help!

  • RJS

    At least Wright got the subtitle of the paperback and kindle editions changed to Scripture and the Authority of God…
    Amazon hasn’t figured it out though – so they consider the paperback and hardcover to be separate books and don’t link them to each other.
    On any possible “embellishment” of Exodus … one issue that comes up is the extent of the plagues. It seems hard to imagine a series of plagues culminating in the death of every firstborn son in every Egyptian family not leaving a trace in recorded Eygptian history. Could the story of the plagues be embellished history?

  • dopderbeck

    Scot M (#12) —
    First, I think scripture does make plain reference to this notion in a variety of places: e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3 and 2 Tim. 3:16.
    Second, no, I don’t think you necessarily need to find this direct assertion in scripture. The Tradition is another source of authority and instruction. From Apostolic times (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3) and in the Patristic period both prior to and after the settling of the Canon, the Church has always understood the scriptures to encode the authoritative teaching of the Apostles about Christ and salvation. Indeed, the very criteria used by the Church to settle the Canon (apostolicity, orthodoxy, and consensus) reflect this universal understanding of the Fathers. As Bruce Metzger notes:

    the scriptures, according to the Early Fathers, are indeed inspired, but that is not the reason they are authoritative. They are authoritative, and hence canonical, because they are the extant literary deposit of the direct and indirect apostolic witness on which the later witness of the Church depends.

    Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, at p. 256.
    If you try to elide the notion of “authority” with reference to the scriptures, I think you’re cutting to the heart of the Christian Tradition. And I think this quote from Metzger touches on a confusion in our present discussion: the issue of “inspiration” is a different question than the issue of “authority”; and, the issue of “authority” is a different question than the issue of “inerrancy”; and, the issue of “inerrancy” is a different question than the issue of heremeneutical application. Obviously, how you suss out any one of these questions will impact your stance on the others, but they are not all the same question.
    The Bible can be “authoritative” and “inspired” without that necessarily entailing detailed inerrancy; and the Bible can be “inerrant” without that necessarily entailing a “literal” hermeneutic concerning Gen. 1-11 or elsewhere. As tiresome as it may seem, and despite the prospect of disingenuous use of language, if we want to theologize I think we need to do so using careful distinctions so as not to inadvertently trample on what has comprised the heart of our faith for millenia.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#14) said: It seems hard to imagine a series of plagues culminating in the death of every firstborn son in every Egyptian family not leaving a trace in recorded Eygptian history. Could the story of the plagues be embellished history?
    I respond: Yes, that is hard for us to imagine. But then, here we are, neither nobility nor royalty, able to leave an instantaneous written record of thoughts shared electronically across thousands of miles. It’s hard for us to imagine that precious little of anything that happened even to royalty in ancient Egypt was recorded and preserved for posterity, or that the lives of common people nearly always passed without any historical record at all. The absence of evidence here certainly should give us pause, but is it enough to completely override the testimonial witness of the Hebrew people contained in scripture?

  • Kenny Johnson

    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – Kithcen
    Here’s my problem with jumping on the secular consensus bandwagon. If we, for instance took the consensus view of scripture (outside of the Evangelical/conservative scholarship view), we would be left with:
    The Deuteronomical books were all written post-exile n avout 700bc (about 500 years after the “events”
    Events is in quotes, because everything in Genesis to Joshua is made up myth.
    The stories of the Israel kingdom are not reliable. There is no evidence outside the Bible that Solomon even existed.
    The New Testament only 4 books were written by who they’re attributed to (4 books to Paul). Most of them were written in the late 2nd century. Jesus didn’t say or do most of what was written. His resurrection was either myth or not bodily, etc. etc. etc
    So are we going to base our faith on modern scholarly consensus?
    And what happens, as Diane points out, when those views change? For example:
    Scholars questioned large parts of Luke as being historical, because they thought he was wrong on many points, but the Gospel as been vindicated (historically) time and time again.
    Scholars believed John was written in the late 2nd century… until they found a fragment that dated to about 125AD, meaning it was likely written by at least 90 AD
    Scholars believed David was a myth, until they found external evidence of his existence..

  • RJS

    Kenny and dopderbeck,
    I don’t actually want to get into a debate about Exodus and evidence or absence of evidence. I would rather concentrate on a slightly different question.
    Is the authority of scripture undermined if the plagues of Exodus are embellished history? (Note I did not say myth or fiction.)

  • Kenny Johnson

    I think it depends on what is meant by embellishment then. Did God deliver Israel? Was God acting in history? If God was not acting in history, then yes, I believe the authority of scripture is undermined.

  • Derek

    I think the key issue we have to wrestle with is whether Scripture is true. If it is not true then it cannot have any authority since as has been premised earlier, authority only comes from God and if it is not true then obviously it could not have come from God. Yet even granting that the plagues are embellished history (don’t know that I agree but will concede) the key question is whether what is written is true. Could ANE genres have allowed for the purposeful embellishment of history to prove that one nation’s god was greater than all others? If so, then something can absolutely be embellished history and still be true which would then still provide authority to the text since it can come from God, in that it is true. I think if we ever get to a place where Scripture is not true (allowing for genre, language etc.) then it no longer holds authority since it can’t be breathed out of God since nothing false can be found in him.
    All this to say, that there is a lot of issues we have to wrestle with when we come to Scripture but as some have expressed we can’t give up its truth or we have given up far, far too much and have nothing left to stand on as revelatory of God, salvation and humanity.

  • RJS @ 14 (and dopderbeck) “Could the story of the plagues be embellished history?”
    Sure. Especially since they tend to line up with the Egyptian pantheon, if I recall. The theological point is that YHWH is sovereign over the gods of Egypt in a cosmic battle.
    But still, the rhythm of Passover and the centrality of the Exodus narrative for OT ethics makes me shy away from the suggestion that Exodus is made up out of whole cloth (I realize this isn’t what you’re saying).
    I think that the Trojan War and Arthurian legend and so forth are also based on some kind of history as well, although those are obviously more academic questions than those relating to Scripture. I’d like to avoid the twin mistakes of:
    1) rejecting science/archaeology/anthropology that would interfere with my pre-conceived notions of what Scripture should be and
    2) the chronological snobbery that dismisses ancient stories as pure confabulation and ancient storytellers as ignorant/foolish/liars

  • dopderbeck, Your statement that I quoted did not state that Scriptures were “authority”, but rather “final authority”. Those are very different claims. The first I do not disagree with. The second I do. It’s not in Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16 says nothing directly about “authority” whereas 1 Tim. 3:15 does say a bit more about where we look for truth and several other places tell the churches to hold to what they have received from the apostles either orally or in writing) and it’s not in patristics. In fact, when faced with divergent interpretations of Scripture by the heretics, the rejection of those interpretations was that that was not what the church had always believed and taught.
    The “final authority” (or however you want to phrase it) idea did not surface until the Reformation and was an effort to reseat authority away from the Roman Catholic magisterium. (Given the situation at the time, not particularly unjustified.) But this principle cannot itself be found in Scripture. It is rather a foundational assumption that forms the lens through which some attempt to read scripture.
    The Scriptures are a primary portion of the tradition received by the church from the apostles. But they only have authority insomuch as they are held and interpreted within that tradition. I understand what the Reformers were attempting to do and I don’t even think I have any real beef with their goals. But their effort to make Scripture the authority simply failed. That’s obvious. Just look around. The various “truths” proclaimed by the many divergent churches who claim scripture as their final authority paint such radically different pictures of God that sometimes they don’t even much look or sound like the same God at all. Some of those groups paint a picture of God I could worship. Others portray a God I would never worship under any condition whatsoever. But they all assert they are operating under the “authority” of scripture.
    Of course, the reason the effort failed is self-evident to me. Absent an interpretation a text really says nothing. That’s even more true for a text that is culturally and linguistically and temporally removed from the one attempting to read it. Really, the only thing I am capable of doing is to weigh various interpretations to see which seems to hold greater weight since without interpretation Scripture is nothing but scribbles to me.
    This question is also complicated by the fact that the Reformers decided to toss the “old testament” the Church had used for 1500 years and replace it with the masoretic Jewish canon. That’s the text we find Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (and probably others, but don’t recall of the top of my head) complaining that the Jews of their time were changing to remove or alter texts that pointed to Jesus. That’s often struck me as an odd choice.

  • Travis Greene

    Kenny @ 19, “Did God act in history?”
    That’s a good way to put it. I agree. His acting in history can have been embellished or told in a specific way for storytelling/theological purposes, but something needs to have actually happened.

  • Travis Greene

    Scott @ 22,
    The choices for the OT are between earlier texts in translation or later texts in the original language. The Vulgate is even a translation of a translation in some places. I can understand the decision to stick to original languages.

  • RJS

    I agree – something had to happen in history … which is, of course, true of the gospels as well.
    I think we err when we consider Exodus and, say, Mark on the same plane as “history” (of some form). I am currently reading Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (a very readable book, although not short and with footnotes). The idea of the gospels as containing and consulting eyewitness accounts gives a foundation of history we simply due not have for Genesis or Exodus.
    Genesis and Exodus are, I think, better described as anthologies assembled by an editor at a much later date. Inspiration can cover many levels – including editing to final form, but the genre need not be the kind of factual reporting of history we often assume. Rooted in history sure – but the final forms we have are not eyewitness reports; at best they are assembled from fragments of eyewitness and other reports many centuries after the fact.

  • Travis, I wasn’t thinking of the vulgate. I was thinking of the Septuagint. That’s the text quoted throughout pretty much all the NT. It’s certainly the text Paul used on his journeys because it’s the text used in the synagogues of the hellenistic Jews and it’s the text the gentiles would have been able to understand. And it’s the text relied on by all the Greek patristics. There are problems with the Latin translation. In fact, it’s some of those issues that led Augustine astray. I understand the reformers not wanting to rely on the vulgate. I don’t understand why they didn’t go back to the foundational Greek text for the OT as they did for the NT. Instead, they selected a text that had never been canon for the church at any point in its history. That’s the decision that makes no sense to me.
    RJS, having delved into ancient history a lot, I wouldn’t find it at all surprising that an event such as the Passover actually happened without any surviving record from the Egyptian side. I’ve found that people tend to seriously overestimate the record and artifacts we have from the ancient world. It’s not at all unusual to have an account (or fragments of an account), of even significant events from only a single source or pieced together from very scattered evidence. We actually know (in the modern historical sense) an awful lot less about the ancient than many seem to assume. It’s often a big puzzle. So that’s a non-issue to me. I see no reason not to treat the story of the Exodus as the actual account (probably embellished some – but that’s true of all the truly ancient traditions).
    However, it’s also not a particular issue for me if the reality were much less than is pictured in the story of the plagues. As long as the overall arc of the story of God’s interaction with humanity is true, the only historical events that deeply matters down to the details to Christians are the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus along with the subsequent spread of his church.

  • Travis Greene

    I agree. The Torah, at least, was oral tradition for a long long time before being written down.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I think that’s fine… I think it’s when we start questioning it’s truthfulness that we get into trouble. That’s why I asked. What’s an embellishment? When are we no longer dealing with truth? Basically, how far can we take it before it crosses the line?

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#18) said: Is the authority of scripture undermined if the plagues of Exodus are embellished history? (Note I did not say myth or fiction.)
    I respond: As others have noted, “embellished” seems like a troubling word. And I would say “undermined” is a loaded word as well. I think the problem is that the question still approaches the issue of “authority” from the “top down” — i.e., it assumes that the “authority” of scripture could be in question based on the relation of external data (or the lack of external data) to apparently “historical” narratives in the text.
    I’d rather approach the question from the “bottom up”: scripture is “authoritative” precisely and only because it is “scripture,” given by God to the Church through the Apostolic witness. This simply is so, a given, in a sense like a fact of nature, and I receive and affirm this in faith as a central tradition of the faith.
    Having affirmed that faith presupposition, I’d then ask, in what way is the Exodus narrative of the plagues “authority” in relation to the reasonable inference, drawn from the lack of archeological evidence for such cataclysmic events, that any such events occurred as narrated in Exodus? I don’t believe this is a simple question with an easy answer, much as I dislike the tension that creates.
    On the one hand, I would say that the Bible is not “authority” in the modern academic disciplines of history and archeology. The Bible may or may not contain data useful to those disciplines, but it is not “authoritative” over them. Rather, the Bible is “authority” for the faith and practice of the Church, particularly for the development of theology, including doctrine and ethics. In this sense, then, the conclusions of the modern academic disciplines of history and archeology cannot undermine the “authority” of scripture.
    On the other hand, I think it is a fair inference to suggest that God, being truthful and not a deceiver, would not cause the story of the plagues to be enscripturated, particularly in such a central place in the overall Biblical story, if those events “never happened.” And it would likewise be fair to question one’s presuppositions about Biblical “authority” if one concludes that the modern disciplines of archeology and history show that these Biblical events never happened. So, in this sense, the conclusions of the modern academic disciplines of history and archeology can undermine the “authority” of scripture — or at least they can cause us to doubt the Bible’s “authority.”
    And — even aside from the question of “authority,” we have to consider how whether the theology of God and of scripture that the Church develops in accordance with scripture suggests that the Bible can provide general epistemic warrants for beliefs about the “historicity” of events described in the Biblical narratives, and, if so, how those epistemic warrants can be considered in an interdisciplinary fashion with warrants drawn from the modern academic disciplines of history and archeology.
    I would suggest that my faith presuppositions about the authority of scripture, and the doctrines of God and of scripture that I derive in part based on scripture, provide me with very good warrant for believing that the plagues did, in fact, happen, notwithstanding the lack of corroborating evidence from history and archeology, and granting that the narratives may not be “simple” or “literal” accounts of those events.

  • Notably, Travis (and others), over what text do you think the Berean Jews were poring?

  • Travis Greene

    The Septuagint is still a translation of the Hebrew original. There were clear interpretive choices made to the text when it was translated (I can’t think of any examples right now, but some seem to have truncated the original text, and some expanded it, and sometimes it’s hard to tell).
    I realize it’s what the NT writers and early church used. And I do think we should (and do) use both the LXX and Masoretic text to illuminate each other, since we’re stuck with choosing between older/translated and later/untranslated.
    But another step of translation is just more distance and more interpretation between us and the text. Since I don’t read Hebrew or Greek, if I have to choose between [Hebrew > English] and [Hebrew > Greek > English].
    Of course, this does bring up the problem of canon, which could use more discussion, and which I’m still trying to figure out. Does the Bible’s inspiration extend to its Table of Contents? What about the Apocrypha?

  • Actually, Travis, we do know something of the history of the masoretic from both Christians of that time and from other sources. It is not “untranslated”. In a number of instances, it was actually Hebrew translated back from Greek since most of the surviving scrolls a century and more after the destruction of Jerusalem were scrolls from synagogues in the diaspora who used the Septuagint. We also have charges and examples by Christians of that era that those assembling what became known as the masoretic text had as part of their goal the desire to lessen the impact of the messianic texts. Do we ignore them and simply assume the masoretic was unaffected by such things?
    Anyway it’s not just a choice between older and translated and later and untranslated. The later masoretic text was translated as well. We know that’s true in some places. And the rest we simply don’t know. We do know that the church was founded using the Septuagint and appears to have relied on it (probably in a number of its variations) pretty much exclusively. So by rejecting it and selecting the later masoretic text, you’re basically rejecting the “Scriptures” referenced in the NT everywhere it talks about “scriptures”.

  • At least we all agree on the NT canon. 🙂 OT? Not so much. But since the NT references the Scriptures constantly, it’s not a minor issue. Oh, there also wasn’t just a single variation of the LXX. But that didn’t seem to bother either the NT authors or the later Greek fathers. Of course, they came from an era where oral tradition was considered more reliable than written tradition. (If you hear it, you know who told you and you know it’s what they said. If it’s written, how do you know it came from them and how do you know it hasn’t been changed. That’s why the messenger who carried a written communication was so important. It’s not insignificant at all that Phoebe carried the letter to the Romans or that Onesimus was part of the group carrying probably more than one letter to Philemon and the churches.)
    Nevertheless, the charge from the early Christians is that on key texts (to Christians) the early versions of what became the Masoretic were actually not faithful to Scripture. I think that matters when we consider these things.

  • Travis Greene

    I’m not rejecting anything. I’m in favor of using all the texts we can get our hands on. I’m just saying the decision to use the Masoretic text because it’s Hebrew rather than Greek isn’t nonsensical or without reason.

  • With all that said, I do think it’s useful and illuminating to check the Hebrew to find nuance of poetry (such as Psalm 119 (118 LXX)) and wordplay such as creating adam from adama. There’s a lot of richness in the Hebrew which we’ll lose if we never consider it. I realized that what I was saying could be taken too far and seen as a total rejection of exploring the Hebrew text for its treasures, which are many. For that matter, where they understood Hebrew (which was certainly not as common as knowing Greek), the apostolic and patristic writers did exactly that.
    My issue is one of canon. Where they differ and the differences are substantial not just incidental, to which should we turn as Christians? I don’t get the justification for taking a later developing text and making it authoritative over the text used by the Apostles at the foundation of the church.

  • Travis Greene

    Like I say, I still haven’t figured out the canon. I come from a tradition stuck in a self-referential feedback loop (The Bible is inspired because the Bible say so. What’s constitutes the Bible? Well, here it is. How do we know it’s inspired? It says so…)

  • RJS

    Of course Scot could always jump in and tell us (…well me) that “Authority” is the wrong word to use to describe scripture.
    See this on his side bar: Catalyst Scripture

  • ah. I’m probably in one of those traditions too. But I came into it as an adult already thoroughly conditioned by some version of postmodern culture, so it never had much impact on me. 😉

  • I did realized early on that while some enjoyed engaging the sorts of questions that seemed obvious to me, others seemed to be seriously rattled and sometimes even close to what I can only describe as some sort of fear reaction. So I learned to try to be cautious of what I say and to whom I say it. I’m less so here.

  • Travis Greene

    I enjoy engaging these sorts of questions.
    That’s why I’m no longer…well, it rhymes with “Mouthern Laptist”.

  • Aslan Cheng

    Once I read the following passage then I have a question. What is the base for the authority of the Bible?
    “The question gains impetus from modern study of the Bible, for many of us within the churches have changed our minds about the importance of history for understanding any number of scriptural books. We no longer, for example, look to Genesis if we are seeking to gather facts about the cosmological or geological past but rather consult geologists and cosmologists. Similarly, we learn about human origins not by reading the Bible as a handbook of nature science but by acquainting ourselves with what anthropologists and scholars of prehistory have to tell us. Adam and Eve have ceased to be historical individuals and are now purely theological figures. This does not mean, however, that Genesis has ceased to function as Scripture. We have learned how to read the text as theology without reading it as history. We can believe in God as creator and profess the world to be good without worrying about the location of Eden or how it is that a snake could speak. ……at times to deny its history without denying its theology, modern critical scholarship gives us additional reason to do the same, We now know Noah’s ark come from imagination, not memory: there was no universal flood and there was no ark full of animals. One may indeed doubt that any of the stories in Genesis reflect historical events. Similarly, we no longer know, the experts now inform us, that there was a real live Moses;maybe there was, maybe there was not. And if there was a bona fide Joshua, the bibical account of his activities must, given what the archaeologists currently tell us, often stray far from the facts. And so its goes. Much of what people once took to be history is now known to be, or suspected to be, something else. So if meaning is stay after history has gone, the former cannot inevitably depend on the later.”
    The Historical Christ and the Thelogical Jesus by Dale C. Allison Jr. p.34-35

  • RJS

    dopderbeck (#29)
    Great response – I like the “bottom up” approach.
    Embellish may seem troubling – but is accurate I think.
    Embellish: to make an account or description more interesting by inventing or exaggerating details
    So in my usage embellish assumes a historical account or description behind the text we have, but does not assume that all details in the final version are factual historical reporting.
    Undermine of course comes from the mindset where the authority of the Bible and its function as “inerrant” foundation of the faith are inseparable.

  • Jjoe

    Why would we not take the word of Archaeology over the word of the Bible?
    The Egyptians left great records. If half, if even 10% of the population had left Egypt, preceded by a catastrophe that took every first-born son, and then those million or so people wandered around a desert smaller than the state I live in for 40 years, there would be a record. Written or in the ground or probably both.
    If you’ve got one of the latest issues of National Geographic, they caused a storm of reader letters when an article on Herod noted that he didn’t cause all the first-born children to be killed. NatGeo didn’t budge from the scholarly consensus. I just finished trying to wade through Josephus, Herod’s biographer, who goes into excruciating detail, and there’s no mention of any such massacre.
    About 10,000 years ago, a people called the Dalton culture lived here. They numbered in the thousands, at the most 10% of the number who supposedly left Egypt. I can buy artifacts all day long that have been excavated. I’ve found several myself. A cemetery of theirs has been found (the oldest in the New World). We know much about their tool-making technology, what they ate, where they lived, etc.
    I don’t deny the Bible is true, but I would never use it as a source of greater accuracy than modern science. Because at some point absence of evidence does indeed mean evidence of absence.

  • editnetwork

    Brainstorming briefly in response to Aslan Chang’s question and lengthy quote at No. 41: The base for the authority of the Bible, if the text is not necessarily to be understood as literal, may not be metaphoric at all points, etc., may in fact be primarily mythical, in the modern (Jungian, etc.) sense of that term — depicting archetypes as a way of transmitting an awe of God and God’s acts, both in history and in other domains. One implication is that, if we have stripped it down too far, demythologizing after Bultmann’s prescription, we may need to “remythologize” it to make sure we have not removed perhaps its most important dimension — even or especially in the Gospels. — A secondary base of its authority may be its trustworthiness, in the sense that a discerning reading of the whole Bible points toward a depiction of God that harmonizes with historical experience and helps shed light on a worshiper’s interaction with God.

  • Steve

    I’m lost. Where is the hermenutical guidebook for being able to make Scripture this complicated? Who found it? When was it found? How do we know it is true?

  • Percival

    Steve #45,
    Hey, I agree! I for one never wanted to make Scripture this complicated. (I also never wanted my LIFE to be as complicated as it has turned out to be – but that’s another story.) I keep looking for a guidebook that will make scripture simple again, but all I ever find are guidebooks that make it simplistic.

  • editnetwork

    “Being able to make Scripture this complicated”? How about: Being able to recognize that it IS this complicated? — It is a collection that has been braided, layered, edited, often even inside individual books, a phenomenon discerned and described over the last 200 years. It’s not a monolithic message from on high but a humanly assembled multifarious testimony to the grandeur and goodness of God. If our eyes are open, the challenge is to pursue the fullest possible understanding of the Bible as a textual artifact if we are to interpret it properly instead of conforming it to a creedal guideline — letting it inform our faith rather than bringing our beliefs to it for confirmation. Therefore, the hermeneutical guidebook does not precede but rather follows the (sorry, but this is the word) critical understanding of the text, which one hopes never stops growing.