Can the Bible be read both critically and religiously? (RJS)

Can the Bible be read both critically and religiously? (RJS) December 2, 2010

On my commute recently I listened to the audio of 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,” with Marc Brettler (Brandeis University) giving a Jewish perspective, Daniel J. Harrington (Boston College) giving a Catholic perspective and Peter Enns giving a protestant perspective. The audio of the panel discussion is available on Pete’s blog 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 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 in the past. 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.  In the post today I would like to put up some ideas from Pete’s paper, some reflections of my own, and open a discussion once again.

In his comments Pete identifies 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)

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. (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.

What does it mean to read the Bible religiously?

Is the Bible a book we submit to and proclaim?


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

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.

When Protestants sing hymns in church about the Bible, it is indicative of the problem. The Bible is not the center of the Christian faith: God is. And there is more to knowing and encountering this God than carefully reading a book, even an inspired one.

I think there is much Protestants can learn from some contemplative traditions that have been part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Needing to get the Bible right, and fretting over whether one is getting it right, and what God thinks of us should we get it wrong, stem from spiritual and emotional dysfunction, not health; from a false and wounded self, not mature piety. Spiritual masters, not only of Christianity but of other faiths, are quick to remind us that living in your head and controlling others and God through a text hinder communion with God and spiritual  growth. It is a great Protestant irony that one’s devotion to scripture can wind up being a spiritual barrier.

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.

Pete’s right, or so it seems to me, when we sing hymns in church about the bible it is indicative of the problem. I’ve posted on this before, but it bears repeating. In the reformation view authority is vested in scripture and our faith is founded on scripture. In the context of modernist thought this foundation is only secure if scripture is inerrant. If any piece of scripture is questioned and found wanting – all is open to question and we start down the slippery slope … Our belief in the historicity of the resurrection depends on the historicity of Noah  or Exodus. Many feel that no distinction is possible.

This is something of a caricature I admit, but the image I am left with is a house of cards faith.  We have a construct built by taking the pages of scripture and assembling an understanding of the faith and church.  If any page, any card, is removed the whole structure is shaky and may collapse, some would say will collapse. The foundation of faith is Scripture – but more than this, the foundation of faith is every jot and tittle of scripture.

We need to realize that our faith is founded on God alone. God is the center of our faith. The rock on which we stand is God alone – and his work in this world, including the atoning work of Christ. Scripture illuminates God, his nature and his interaction with his creation. It does this through a variety of forms including the failings and struggles of his people as they wrestle with truth. The purpose is not to provide the right answers for a rather tricky multiple choice exam.  If scripture provides answers for a test, the test is an always changing open-ended essay test with practicum. To meet this kind of challenge we need to enter into dialog with the text we have, and wrestle with the whole text – the easy passages and the hard ones.  After all, the call is to discipleship not book knowledge.

In this view of scripture as lamp our questions about scripture do not shake the foundation. The idea that the story of Gen 3 tells important theological truths in mythic form; the suggestion that the story of the exodus from Egypt may (likely does) have elements that are not exactly historical in the modern sense of literal – factual reporting, even the redaction of Matthew and the authorship of 2 Timothy, the way Jesus, Paul, and the NT writers use the OT, wrestle with the OT to gain theological insight  … these are ideas, questions, suggestions that we can consider and discuss without fear, but with reverence.

In this view we require that scripture be reliable  (the lamp must give off light),  but we can use modern biblical scholarship and the study of archaeology with discernment and prayer to help us better understand the text and the message. Ancient Near East studies identify elements of ancient science and cosmology in the text. This helps to put a perspective on the nature of the text and the relationship of the text to the culture in which it was written. We can also allow scientific discovery to inform our understanding of scripture including the relationship between our physical bodies and such ideas as sin. We need to wrestle with the text.

It is also important to realize that the church is on the rock, but it is not the rock on which we stand. Our traditions are not foundational but paths blazed before us on the rock.  This includes Protestant traditions and ironically Protestants are in many ways worse here than Catholics.  No confession or statement nailed the truth. Every tradition Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant has gotten something wrong, often many things. Sometimes errors are the result of sin (pride, arrogance, racism, …) but more often the errors arise from sincere wrestling in possession of incomplete knowledge and understanding (true of all of us today as well).  We do well to take seriously the wrestlings and conclusions of those who have gone before us and those who stand alongside us, but we also do well to consider when and where and why the church has and does go astray.

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. So what do you think?

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

How do the fields of  biblical studies, science, and history play a role in the understanding of the text?

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

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"Hi, Does anyone know how this translation relates to the translation JG did called "The ..."

The First Testament: A Pastor’s Take
"To consider the bible as history would require a very disturbed mind."

Approaching the Bible (RJS)
"Definitely the Blue Parakeet. I'd also highlight that when we read 1 Tim 2 today, ..."

Weekly Meanderings, 18 May 2019
"I think Christians--Reformation Christians particularly--idolize the Bible too much. Three or four other Sources--the Urantia ..."

Approaching the Bible (RJS)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • EricW

    When I began reading the Biblical text itself in Greek (and some in Hebrew), I found I had no choice but to confront and deal with the problems and questions in and with the text, via both “lower” and “higher” criticism. Before I could say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I had to know what the Bible said, and in doing so, I have found that the fundamentalist/evangelical responses and answers sometimes avoid or ignore things that touch upon or question or threaten doctrines of Sola Scriptura and inerrancy and infallibility and canon. If one can’t just accept “We don’t know, that’s just the way it is, don’t question it” for an answer, one must look elsewhere.

    James L. Kugel’s book, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, wrestles with the question you ask: It would have been good to have had him on the panel as the Jewish scholar. I haven’t watched the video yet; maybe Kugel is mentioned.

  • The elephant in the hermeneutical room is the polyvalence of language. Medieval Christians could in theory hold together the literal meaning of the text (here read critical) with “religious” meanings (here read allegorical, anagogical, moral) because they accepted the possibility of multiple legitimate meanings.

  • Jim

    I remember having a conversation with a NT scholar once over this question of reading the Bible analytically versus reading it religiously. He said: “why do we suppose that to read it analytically is NOT to read it religiously?” i.e. perhaps the distinctions are overdrawn.

    It does seem odd to me that we take what we say to be the word of God and tend toward dissecting it like a frog in a biology lab. Odd perhaps but necessary. However, I have not found that to be particularly useful when I try it with my wife.

    do we only stand over the word (as with the frog) or do we like Job, stand under the word?


  • John W Frye

    I am uncomfortable with the either/or assumption of the post, RJS. I believe that the Bible is a book to wrestle with (in all the categories defined in the post) as we as a salvation message in Christ to proclaim. I do agree that the *sola scriptura* emphasis of the Reformation relegated the Living God to the margins and placed a Reformed-centered book at the center of Protestantism. We’re still struggling to get the Living God back to the center of the evangelical Protestant faith. And when scholars like Enns and others try to help us, all hell breaks loose from the bibliolatry crowd.

    Words do mean things. I don’t think Paul’s words that there in “one mediator between God and humanity” means that there are “two or three mediators between God and humanity.”

  • rjs


    It is good to hear from you again – its been a while.

    I agree, the either-or is too strong. There is certainly a message to be proclaimed. Maybe this is why “we” as evangelical Christians prefer Paul to the rest of scripture – Paul makes the message to proclaim quite clear. But there are so many forms in scripture – and many of the other passages, equally inspired, are passages with which we must wrestle as we consider the nature of God and his work in the world.

  • John W Frye

    RJS #5,
    I have been working in a new writing project. I agree with you about the need to better understand the other forms of Scripture beyond Paul’s more didactic letters. That’s where learning from the Jewish interpreters of the OT and the Catholic hermeneutical use of Scriptures may help our evangelical stream very much…as well as the scholarship of Christian scientists as yourself.

  • dopderbeck

    Great post! Ken Schenck (#2) — good comment, always good to hear from you on this! John Frye — quite right, I think — we both wrestle with the Bible and submit to the authority of God’s revelation, which includes the Bible.

    I need to listen to this talk, but I wonder if Pete is a bit too restrictive in how he describes “Protestant” readings of scripture? Today there is a very robust movement of “theological interpretation” that is spearheaded by Protestants such as NT Wright, Joel Green, Richard Hays, Beverly Gaventa and so on. It includes evangelicals such as Kevin Vanhoozer and others at Wheaton, and of course Scot McKnight! It even has its own journal: The Journal of Theological Interpretation

    In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say that most Protestant scholars today, including most Evangelical scholars (and particularly non-U.S. Evangelical scholars) accept critical methods as a starting point and then move into “theological” interpretation. Only a minority — unfortunately a very loud and very influential minority — do otherwise, I think. (Of course things are different for the “average person in the pew” but I think this has more to do with interest and education than many other factors).

  • Rick


    “I think it’s probably fair to say that most Protestant scholars today, including most Evangelical scholars (and particularly non-U.S. Evangelical scholars) accept critical methods as a starting point and then move into “theological” interpretation.”

    That was something I had considered. From what I read, including professors I studied under, critical methods are certainly considered and utilized with Evangelicalism.

    Is this really as big a problem as it is being made out to be? Is this a scholar issue, or is it more of a church leadership issue?

  • Susan N.

    I believe it is and should be both — that we wrestle with the truths to be discovered in the Bible, and that it is a message to proclaim. Some truths I take as absolute truth — like the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ; He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Other teachings in the Bible, especially when taken as a *whole* story and not as isolated passages or books, aren’t so cut-and-dried, for me at least. I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have a corner on biblical truth. Not so much that God’s truth in scripture is dependent on cultural relativism, but that we in the Body are always learning and growing — “I have not ‘arrived'” (Phil 3:12). God’s Word has been such a gift to me, and the longer I know Him, the more I treasure the knowledge, comfort, and edification I derive from Scripture. Sometimes a “hard” passage will drive me nuts as I wrestle with it, on the other hand! Personally, I need to be given this “space” to question and wrestle with the scriptural texts, or it is difficult for me to function within a church body. To me, this is needed in order to truly mature in one’s faith. Just my very simple, layperson view of the situation…

  • To John’s point (#4) – ie. it is not wrestle with OR proclaim but wrestle with AND proclaim, agree completely. I’d go so far as to say that if we choose one or the other, we are sure to get messed up theologically sooner or later.

    As to the Evangelical focus on Paul, that is true, but in relation to science, history, biblical studies etc., personally it is Paul’s letter’s where the wrestling / proclamation issue is toughest for me (eg. Rom 5). In the OT it is pretty clear that – well – things aren’t always that clear (eg. wisdom writers). We are forced, with the writers, to wrestle with really big issues. So, RJS, maybe I’m saying the opposite of your #5. But maybe I don’t understand your point.

  • smcknight

    Such a good sketch RJS; such a profound topic.

    Some thoughts:

    Pre-critical (and even a-critical and anti-critical) readings of the Bible are no longer genuinely possible for the one who studies. 200 years of post Enlightenment study has turned up conclusion after conclusion that cannot be denied unless one chooses to avoid the most probable conclusions.

    For those of us who grew up in a more pre-critical or a-critical (and anti-critical) form of Bible study, critical study can penetrate so deeply our faith can be seriously challenged. That kind of faith, however, has been shown over and over to be too often a castle of cards.

    We can’t return to the pre-critical days.

    God chose to make his redemptive, covenant grace known through clay pots, through ordinary means, and with ordinary categories.

    Once we come to terms with this, we have walked through Feuerbach’s “fiery brook” —

    And we are never the same again. We can’t go back.

    But what I have found is a second naivete, a second joy in listening to God speak to us — and I find Pete Enns’ metaphor of Incarnation to be spot on. God chose to make himself Incarnate in a particular context, and that context shaped both what Jesus did and what he said — so it spoke then to that people.

    That discovery forms the paradigm for how God has always spoken and always will speak.

    Critical studies enable us to see how it is that God uses ordinary people to speak extraordinary truth/grace/love/redemption to us.

  • A former NT professor of mine, Richard Longenecker, once wrote and presented in class a short paper entitled, “On Reading a NT Letter – Devotionally, Homiletically, Academically” that may help to answer some of the questions and concerns expressed here. While the article deals almost exclusively with matters surrounding the reading of NT letters, its basic ideas can easily be used for most any reading of scripture. The entire article can be read online at

    I found the entire piece to be very helpful. However, his concluding remarks provide wise counsel and may push the conversation along in a more inclusive, and helpful, direction.

    “To urge a bringing together of a devotional, homiletical and academic reading of the NT letters, both in our own lives as Christians and in the life of the church at large. It is very easy to become myopic, whether as laity, ministers or scholars. So while we may have our own special interests and particular expertise, we need to be reading the NT letters in all three ways: devotionally, homiletically and academically. Our mental health and spiritual vitality as Christians individually and as a church corporately depend on it.”


  • rjs


    Paul is proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Among other things saying For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures We too are called to receive and proclaim this message.

    It seems to me that Paul comes at the “according to scripture” part of this from a variety of angles in the various letters using the scriptures in a fashion consistent with his day, age, and context (first century second temple Judaism). So – on the science/faith issue today one of the big questions is whether the way Paul used the text of Genesis in his context reflects a level of “perfect” inspiration (historical concordance) that goes beyond what we see in so much of the rest of scripture. A letter perfect transmission of God’s message to Paul reflecting a letter perfect transmission of the Adamic Fall to the author of Genesis 2-3.

    But I don’t see the nature of Adam as so tied up in the nature of the message Paul proclaims (and I know that others disagree – I am willing to listen to all sides).

  • Pat

    I agree that Scripture is both/and. The disagreement though is over what we are proclaiming. Are we as Protestants proclaiming that the truth is once and for all settled according to the Holy Writ or are we proclaiming faith in a God who is Truth and whom we as finite creatures are endeavoring to know more and more through our critical study of His Word? I opt for the second choice.

  • smcknight

    Pat, what we are proclaiming is a Who.

    When we proclaim the Who and not our Whats, Scripture speaks and sings and stings. When we proclaim our Whats and forget the Who, we get tongue-tied or we start yelling.

  • Tim

    Rick (8),

    I think it’s both, in addition to a congregational issue.

    It’s a scholarship issue in that scholars at fundamentalist Evangelical institutions (which have no small amount of influence and representation among Evangelical colleges and universities) restrict the acceptable application of critical research. Some of this is improving at places such as Wheaton College, but even there scholars such as Peter Enns would be fired from tenured positions due to their being perceived as straying too far from the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy.

    As a leadership issue, many pastors either go to seminary at fundamentalist institutions hostile or dismissive to critical research – I know Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is a safe haven for aspiring fundamentalist pastors wanting to uphold a strictly inerrant view of scripture – or are hesitant (even afraid) of sharing with their congregants the Biblical knowledge they did acquire at seminary when it conflicts with commonly held literalistic Biblical views.

    On the congregational side, I think the threat exists that many church-goers would exert substantial pressure or express disapproval toward a pastor that “deviated” from what they “know to be true” about Scripture. Of course, the body of fundamentalist Evangelical church-goers also have a lot of influence with the Evangelical colleges and seminaries as well, as if they begin teaching Biblical scholarship in such a way that when Jill and Tommy come back for Thanksgiving dinner, poor aunt Sally’s jaw drops into her into her sweet potato dish when she hears what Jill and Tommy have been learning, you could see enrollment threatened, donations drying up, and significant pressure placed on the president of that institution to “reign in” his faculty.

  • DRT

    In many ways it is fun being me in this all since I am relatively new to the debate. Several months ago in a thread here on JC I characterized more or less literal interpretations as being anti-intellectual. Scot corrected me and said that those folks feel their approach is the most intellectual and rigorous. Since then I have had to wrestle with that thought since their approach seems to be decidedly anti-intellectual. It has taken me months to internalize this.

    I have come to realize that my view of intellectualism is that those who engage in it recognize that there usually is a very large answer set to most problems depending on the level one thinks. As a crude example, one can talk about what happens when a ball rolls off a table and it falls. At the next level as the ball was acted on by gravity without support. Or the next level where the ball followed a curve in space-time, or where the individual atoms etc etc. On another level the ball became free for a time. On another level the ball showed the temporary nature of or existence. The art in being an intellectual is in applying the appropriate level of analysis to achieve a result applicable to the situation.

    As I have become more familiar with the bible I see level after level of meaning in the text. There are texts where I have been shocked when I find 5 levels then go on to approach 10 levels. My guess is that there more than I will ever be able to discover there. This is particularly true in the gospels, as would be expected.

    To me, it is the tapestry of meanings that bring out the religion. To even think that there can be something one dimensional like complementarianism or being saved by attesting to belief in the deity of Jesus is missing the point of the relationship we are to have with God. What makes this even more mind boggling to me is that those who profess these linear beliefs are often the same ones who also profess concepts like total depravity. Total depravity, imo, would naturally lead one to realize that there is no right answer, yet they even reduce that to a one dimensional rule that again totally misses the point. How can someone attest to total depravity yet feel they can analyze the bible to determine the Truth?

    So it seems to me that those who feel they are looking at the bible critically are looking at the bible simplistically and unrealistically in many cases. Sure, their critical look is one perspective. But it is like analyzing a symphony to determine the emotions one should feel at certain points in the music. It is missing the point.

  • DRT

    Thanks for #15 Scot. A Who.

  • dopderbeck

    It also seems curious that Pete seems to mention “Protestant” perspectives without including Barth? The most important (whether you like or agree with him or not) Protestant theologian of the 20th Century developed a fascinating and nuanced approach to scripture that tried to hold together its religious authority and the crossing of the “fiery brook” Scot mentions (#11).

    As I’m reading the Church Dogmatics right now, I’m struck by the extent to which the current “Theological Interpretation” project is in a sense commentary on Barth. This is too simplistic, but I would say the seam Pete is exposing is not a “Protestant” issue, but an issue of Protestants who (a) follow after Schleiermacher; (b) follow after Barth; or (c) follow after the conservative evangelicals who rejected Barth.

  • Tim


    “So it seems to me that those who feel they are looking at the bible critically are looking at the bible simplistically and unrealistically in many cases.”

    Perhaps for some (I’m thinking Bart Ehrman perhaps (at least insofar as he presents his views publicly), but for the body of Biblical Scholars and educated laity who accept critical research, I feel it is more typical than not that they view critical analysis as only one tool in their toolbox.

    Critical analysis attempts to answer the questions “when was the work authored?”. “by whom?”, “what was the meaning the author intended?”, “how would the author’s contemporaries have understood what he had to say?”, etc.

    But there are other questions one could ask of the text, such as “how did the receivers of the text interpret it over time?”, “how was the text used in religious practice and worship?”, “what are the literary qualities of the text?”, “what meaning does the text currently hold, as well as historically held, across various religious traditions?”, “what does this text reveal concerning humanity’s journey with respect to God?”, “how does this text inform my own journey with respect to God?”, etc.

    So, I think most responsible scholars and educated laity would refrain from using such a unidimensional approach as one defined solely by a critical interpret ion.

  • Richard

    “the image I am left with is a house of cards faith. We have a construct built by taking the pages of scripture and assembling an understanding of the faith and church. If any page, any card, is removed the whole structure is shaky and may collapse, some would say will collapse. The foundation of faith is Scripture – but more than this, the foundation of faith is every jot and tittle of scripture.”

    This reminds me of the imagery Rob Bell uses in describing two approaches to Scripture/theology: one approach is to view each doctrine (or each jot and tittle) as a brick with each succeeding brick laid on top of the previous. The approach he advocates is similar to the Jewish approach mentioned here, that the doctrine (or jots and tittles) is meant to be like the springs on a trampoline that help us bounce higher and push us deeper. (I think I remembered the analogy correctly).

    The challenge for anyone, including the scholars who are analyzing the text, is that to do so and hold it in tension with devotional reading/reading for transformation is that we live in a very dichotomous culture right now and it takes a lot of shepherding to help this trickle down out of academia and into the pews. Bleeding over from another post, I think this is where European minds like Bonhoeffer and Wright can help us. Good scholarship doesn’t mean jettisoning faith and faith doesn’t mean jettisoning good scholarship. Jesus is Lord of the academy and Lord of the pulpit.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#20) – good comment. And if as a theological / religious matter we’re committed to the truthfulness / infallibility / final standard / inerrancy or whatever term you want to use of what scripture teaches, then we must dig in to the historical contexts of the production of the texts in order to undertand what they likely meant to the original hearers. If critical study tells us, for example, that some of the Biblical histories were compiled for polemical purposes during the Exile, then that matters quite a bit for the message we should take from them today.

  • Greg Teegarden

    Joshua 1:7 Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. (8) Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

    I might not be as intellectual as most of you gentlemen, but I think Joshua did pretty well following God’s instructions for his life…

    With all your intellectual prowess it sounds to me that you and others are suggesting that you or anyone else has a keener ability to discern God’s will beyond the boarders of God’s word…

    I caution this premise with… Proverbs 14:12 There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

  • This may seem like a hostile question, but it’s not intended to me. I’m honestly asking.

    What hymns do (we) Protestants sing about Scripture?

  • Rick

    Mark #24-

    “What hymns do (we) Protestants sing about Scripture?”

    I wondered about that as well.

  • rjs

    Perhaps Pete or someone else will chime in. The only song I can think of off hand is the kids chorus I (and likely many of us) was raised on.

  • Alan K

    Spot on dopderbeck (#19). Scot, perhaps you can help us mediate here the differences between, say, NT Wright and Richard Hays. They are two “evangelical” scholars who nevertheless had their sharp disagreement in Boston a couple of years ago regarding the task of the biblical scholar. Correct me if I am wrong, but one of them for the most part has chosen dopderbeck’s “b” option while the other has chosen “c”.

    It seems to me that we all suffer (I know that I have as a pastor) from the separation of theology and biblical studies into different disciplines. For my own mind it has taken years to try and bring the two together with a meaningful and profitable integration for my faith and for my service to the church. It has been like trying to forge one language out of two.

    I know I’m putting you on the spot, Scot, but would you be willing to share what you as a biblical scholar think would most improve the discipline of systematic theology for the sake of a healthy theological interpretation of scripture?

  • RJS,

    And what “kids chorus” are you talking about?

  • In an attempt to answer my own question, “Jesus Loves Me” comes to mind, but even that’s not *about* Scripture in any meaningful way. It may be simplistic, but the use of “the Bible” in that song is pretty explicitly pointing to Jesus (or, at least, the fact that “Jesus loves me”).

  • Rick

    Mark #28-

    “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me….”

  • dopderbeck

    Re: hymns, here’s one:

    How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
    Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
    What more can He say than to you He hath said
    Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

    But the last verse is nicely Christocentric:

    The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
    I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
    That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
    I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

  • dopderbeck

    Alan K — you think Wright rejects Barth? Notwithstanding his disagreements with Hays over historiographic methods, I’d still put Wright into my category (b) — particularly his little book on scripture (I forget the title, something about getting beyond the Bible wars…)

  • Thanks for the very insightful and useful post RJS.

    For me, I think I grew up building my faith on the Bible more than on the actual person of Jesus/God. I’m starting to see the difference now, but there are still a lot of issues. The reason I used to be so passionate about inerrancy of the Bible was because it was only through the Bible that I could know/understand/access God, it was the revelation of Jesus Christ. If the Bible could be proved to be inerrant, then Christianity was real. If the Bible was errant, then Christianity falls. The stakes were high.

    Thought I’m not so hung up on it, it’s still unclear to me to me how to really know Jesus outside of the Bible. To use RJS’s lamp analogy, if our lamp is faulty, how do we know that what we think we see via the lamp is really real? Or maybe tapping into smcknight #15, how do we know the Who or proclaim the Who if we can’t trust the Whats?

  • dopderbeck

    Jordan — I think we truly come to know Jesus when we are encountered by the risen Christ. How did Paul come to know Jesus? His elite study of the Torah didn’t get him there. What got him there was Jesus himself knocking him to his knees on the road to Damascus.

    I think Luke’s introduction to his Gospel is really interesting here. How did “Theophilus” come to know Christ? Through the community which led him to meet Christ. Luke’s enscripturated testimony was designed as a confirmatory source of what Theophilus already knew through experience.

  • Pete Enns

    dopderbeck, etc.

    Very good points about theological exegesis and Barth. In my own defense, I had 20 minutes and defined my term very quickly–too quickly. Because there is no “Protestant perspective” on anything, the “Protestants” I had in mind were those who have a problem with higher criticism. Certainly many protestants have made their piece with higher criticism.

    Brettler, Harrington, and I are close to signing a book deal to develop these thought over 15,000 words each, not 20 minutes (about 2500 words).

    As for hymns to the Bible, the late Jim Boice wrote at least one. It was in the cycle of hymns we sang in a PCA church I went ten years ago. There are others, dopderbeck mentioned one. Flip through the Trinity Hymnal and there are others. It rubs me the wrong way theologically.

    Thanks fro your insightful comments, all.

  • dopderbeck,

    For the fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, especially the cessationists, the idea of knowing through experience is very very difficult. I guess it’s the modernist/post-Enlightenment thing, but an inerrant, supernaturally inspired revelation is much easier to believe than a vague, un-intellectual, subjective experience.

    I think you’re right, I just don’t know how to know that you’re right. Consequently, I don’t know how to really proclaim the Who, as I’m not sure how to proclaim an experience.

  • RJS, thanks for the OP. I especially appreciate the House of Cards analogy. I’m curious, it looks like you named the individual cards; what were they and which appear to be the most foundational to you.

    Many years ago I underwent a significant crisis of faith where I had to choose either to put my faith in God or in my understanding of scripture. My house of cards collapsed and I was left with a more simple, even simplistic, faith in God.

    And over the last year or so, I’ve undergone another crisis of faith where one of my core beliefs, a foundational level card, was challenged and collapsed.

    To answer the OP questions, I now see God’s revelation of Himself as a bull’s-eye target with Jesus being the center, scripture commonly accepted by Protestants and Catholics as the 2nd ring. 3rd ring – Dueterocanonical books and writings of church fathers. 4th ring – the writings of other widely respected believers (Calvin, Luther, etc.). 5th ring – modern well respected theologians. 6th – the living Body of Christ. 7th – other non-Christian inspirational writings. 8th – Creation itself (General Revelation).

    The closer to the bull’s-eye, the brighter the light! The further from the bull’s-eye, the more shaded the light by human frailties.

    Thus I seek to hear God speak to me through scripture, other literature, and even through creation itself.

  • Rick

    Jordan #33-

    I am not hung-up on the inerrancy issue, partially because it is defined in various ways. However, that being said, I am not yet convinced that people (including scholars) cannot both hold that view and yet study Scripture with critical methods. Again, part of that would depend on how one defines inerrancy.

    I also am wondering if some claims of people not being critical is dependant on the conclusions those people reach. If one does not like certain conclusions, does the claim of simple, non-critical scholarship start to come up too soon?

    John Walton once wrote over a Biologos:

    “In my mind, inerrancy is best served if we understand the words of Scripture in the way that the ancient author and audience would have understood it. This is what readers will have to sort out.”

    Would anyone accuse Dr. Walton of not using critical methods in his work?

  • Jordon @36,

    It’s been said that a man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man who only has a theory. And the word “testimony” itself speaks of experience, not just belief. It’s only reasonable to recognize that experience is a foundational element of faith for all of us. Paul came to faith in Jesus because he saw Him. I was just reading this morning of a town in China that came to faith in Jesus because Jesus appeared to a dying man and healed and saved him – though no one in that town had ever even heard of Jesus and no one have ever even seen a Bible.

    We believe in the Living One. The Word became flesh and dwelt amoung us. And I do not believe that “The Word” then submitted itself to residing only in the written cannon of scripture.

  • johnfouadhanna

    Dave [opderbeck] and Pete, hi. Interesting that you guys pick on “How Firm a Foundation.”

    I dont’ read this hymn necessarily speaking to the issues we’re discussing here. What it is saying is that God has spoken in a way that is reliable and trustworthy. I don’t think we’re now denying that, right? Significantly, it then goes right to the one who is the subject of the Scriptures, Jesus. It immediately in the first stanza connects the word spoken to the Word Who became flesh. It doesn’t fall into the trap we can sometimes fall into of having two separate confessions – one about the bible and one about God/Jesus.

    Here below, we find an excellent use of this hymn. Jordan, I hope and pray you find encouragement and restored confidence from this presentation:

  • nathan

    A great article on this is “Why Study the Bible” by Brueggemann and Douglas Knight.

    They speak of responsibly moving people beyond pre-critical naivete and other people into a post-critical confession.

  • Tim

    Rick (38),

    “Would anyone accuse Dr. Walton of not using critical methods in his work?”

    I would suggest that Dr. Walton uses a great deal of ANE critical scholarship, but there are definitely lines in the sand that he will draw concerning what he will accept and what he won’t.

    His position on the Genesis 1 text being a temple creation text is a great example of good appropriation of critical scholarship.

    His position on denying a 2nd century (at least partial) authorship of the Book of Daniel is a great example of excluding a priori a lot of really good critical scholarship.

    Another example is his exegesis of Genesis 1:7. He allows critical scholarship to inform him that the ‘firmament’ was in fact seen by the ancient Israelites as a solid material dome. However, due to his inerrant hermeneutic, he then contorts the Hebrew word ‘asah’ in Genesis 1:7 to mean something other than ‘make’, as he states that “no one believes there is actually something material there – no solid construction holds back the upper waters. If the account is material as well as functional we then find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist.”

  • AHH

    While I can’t think of a hymn about the Bible, a friend told me once about his fundamentalist-leaning church where they added an additional “verse” about the Bible to the end of the Apostles Creed: I believe in the Holy Bible …
    So that’s in the same category, or maybe worse.

    Very much agree that the Bible as a foundational “house of cards” rather than as a key means to the end who is Jesus is a serious problem in modern Evangelicalism.
    And agree that healthier, more nuanced views of Scripture are marginalized or worse in the power structures of conservative Evangelicalism, despite the good work of many scholars. The ouster of Pete Enns from Westminster Seminary is testimony to that, as is the derision that the name Barth evokes in those circles.

  • smcknight

    Alan K, I’ve got a book I’m reading on this topic and I want to read it before I blog about these ideas; that book will be a good context starter.

  • rjs

    I look forward to those posts

  • dopderbeck

    John (#40) — I don’t think I “picked on” that hymn — I even mentioned the last stanza! The entire hymn is quite lovely.

    But that first stanza does seem to me appropos. If the Bible is “the foundation” of our faith then any sort of critical study of the Bible will undermine faith. Oddly, folks who insist on this sort of foundationalism often respond to critical study not by referring to the Bible itself, but by defaulting to a priori doctrinal, epistemological, and hermeneutical positions that aren’t in the Bible and don’t reflect the real phenomena of the Biblical texts!

    So perhaps such folks should sing,

    “How firm a constraint
    ye confessors of our creed,
    is laid on God’s Word
    by what we believe”

  • Chip Fields

    I can’t think of one thing I know about God apart from Scripture.

  • #46,

    Of course, part of the problem (in multiple senses?) might be that “Word” (as used in “How Firm a Foundation”) seems to be referencing Scripture, yet “Word” is also a very well-used understanding for Jesus himself.

  • Tim

    Does anyone else notice the irony of Michael’s exhortation to “stay on topic” not just two days ago with this thread somehow becoming focused on hymns rather than how we read the Bible? Just saying…

  • dopderbeck

    Chip (#47) — really? You’ve never learned anything about God through prayer, fellowship in the community of the saints, family, preaching, corporate worship, the sacraments, literature, meditation, art, music, reason or nature? Really? For Protestants scripture is the norming norm — not the only norm.

  • rjs

    Well Tim, I’ll continue the irony now that I’m home with the hymnal before me; but it is sort of on topic.

    How Sure the Scriptures Are (312)
    For Your Holy Book We Thank You (316)

    There are others that carry dual meaning of “word” – both Christ and Scripture – Wonderful Words of Life and O Word of God Incarnate for example.

    And more that contain a verse that is sung of scripture although the structure of the hymn is not completely about scripture. How Firm a Foundation mentioned by Dave above, God Has Spoken by His Prophets is described as trinitarian – describing the three ways God speaks, Scripture, Christ, Spirit. Thanks to God whose Word Was Spoken has some great lines but is written for the 150th anniversary of a Bible Society to highlight the Word – the written Word.

    If we run through more songs there are phrases and allusions to the written word as “foundation,” “sure” and “true”.

    It isn’t really surprising – this is our heritage. But to those of us raised on “The B I B L E, Yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B I B L E” the implicit message is quite clear. How we read the Bible, or think we should read the Bible, is formed by the implicit and explicit message.

    And finally, some of these are songs I have really liked through the years, and still do. Although styles in most churches have moved on to other things, I don’t think they are necessarily inappropriate.

  • DRT

    Sort of off topic (well, off topic). Hearing Peter say about his 2,000 word essay vs. a 10,00000 word essay makes me appreciate how much I don’t think like the academics. I think the last time people told me how many words to write was when one of the Catholic nuns told me to write “I will not chew gum in class” 100 times.

    Just kidding all, brings back memories.

    God Bless you Academics!

  • The Bible should be read in as many ways as there is life. What I’m trying to get at is that scripture mirrors all of life in a sense, all of life in its complexity and mystery. And yet ties it all together, a sense we get from life, at least that life should be that way. Of course the answer is “in Jesus,” not in the Book itself.

    I hope we study it in every way, but with the knowledge that the Absolute who holds it all together, who holds life all together is God and nothing else. Of course God in Christ. We need Lectio Divina or something like that if this is the word of God. But we also need to accept the humanity with whatever possible errors that brings. The Book is human as well as divine. I like what Scot says in one of the comments. Through earthen vessels.

    Good post, RJS, and comments here.

  • Rick


    “I would suggest that Dr. Walton uses a great deal of ANE critical scholarship, but there are definitely lines in the sand that he will draw concerning what he will accept and what he won’t.”

    But that is not necessarily a bad thing. He sees critical scholarship as a helpful tool, not the goal/end-game. Truth is the goal, and critical scholarship does not equal truth.

  • Tim


    I agree that critical scholarship is not the goal/end-game. However, as a tool, let’s take the metaphor of a hammer, Dr. Walton often decides “I’ll whack this nail with it but not that one” based on an inerrantist hermeneutic that, for most believing Biblical scholars, is seen as being thoroughly discredited. I am arguing that commitment to defunct Biblical hermeneutics such as inerrancy, rampant (even defining) in the fundamentalist community, place undue limitations on the proper use of tools such as critical scholarship – and truth suffers as a result. What I am NOT arguing is that critical scholarship should be the only tool, or even the primary tool, employed in discerning truth in the Bible.

  • Rick


    Good metaphor. The key appears to be the “undue limitations” aspect. Evangelical scholars that use critical scholarship as a tool differ on where those limitations are.

  • Tim


    Agreed. Fundamentalist Evangelical scholars have historically set far stricter limits than virtually every other community of Christian scholars out there. And in addition to this, they typically address the tool of Biblical criticism in a far more hostile and caricatured manner in many premier fundamentalist seminaries. Non-Fundamentalist Evangelical scholars, however, have far fewer limitations in how they use this tool and far more positive attitudes in terms of how it is represented at university and seminary. So this is a fundamentalist issue, not an Evangelical one in general terms.