Is biblical Christianity possible, or even desirable, in a 21st-century American cultural context?
I hear many popular Catholic speakers talking a lot about biblical Christianity. Catholicism is the biblical Christianity, they claim. Dr. Scott Hahn is a significant proponent of this. He even has an audiotape serious entitled, “Calling Catholics to be ‘Bible Christians’ and Vice Versa.” Hahn and his friends believe that his neo-orthodox style of Catholicism is the biblical Christianity.
But is biblical Christianity even possible? And if so, would it be desirable? Can Americans really “live according to the Bible”? How would one go about doing this? Ultimately, does one have to be “biblical” to be Christian? We explore these questions in this video presentation—
Scott Hahn on Biblical Christianity
When asked why Catholics should study the Bible, Hahn responded thus—
“There is only one God, and he inspired only one book. We face so many questions as we go through life, and it seems like this should be the most reliable source for answers.”
Let’s break that down. In typical reactionary fashion to the critical study of Scripture, Hahn thinks the Bible (from the Greek τὰβιβλία, meaning “the books,” plural) is but one book. His idea of monotheism seems antagonistic—one genuine God among many false claimants?
But what follows is both revealing and tragic. Hahn says we—Catholics living in the 21st-century—face many questions. But that is where the Bible comes into play. Thus, for Hahn, the Bible is the most reliable answer-book for our 21st-century Catholic lives. Including English-speaking U.S. Catholic lives.
Catholic Fundamentalism & Biblical Christianity
That answer alone should be damning enough to prevent anyone treating Hahn, a Catholic fundamentalist, as a genuine Scripture scholar. But the tragedy is this popular speaker appeals to U.S. Catholics who enjoy feeling triumphant and superior about their faith tradition. “See? Dr. Hahn proves we were right all along! Jesus Christ is risen, He is Risen Indeed! Choose Life! All Lives Matter! Make America Great Again! Go Tom Brady! Kaepernick is a bum!” and on and on.
Hahn tickles ears, so his fundamentalism gets missed. He re-affirms the masses of Scripturally-ignorant Catholics by misinforming them that “Catholics do know the Bible. They know the stories. They know the overarching story. They know their place in it.” Hahn says we Catholics hear much more Scripture on 52 Sundays throughout the year as if attending more at a liturgy equals grasping what you hear.
Here is a painful fact, folks. American Catholics often misunderstand and misappropriate Mediterranean Scripture in anachronistic and ethnocentric ways. As we have discussed innumerable times, spurious familiarity drives this. In fact, boilerplate homilies and endlessly repeating the same stories without challenge or sensitivity to sacred texts’ cultural background cements the pool of our ignorance.
So Hahn is either overconfident or delusional because we Catholics don’t really “absorb Scripture” In fact, we are not Bible Christians, whatever that means. Yes, the Bible is the inspired and normative literature of the Church, but there is no biblical Christianity.
What Biblical Christianity Means
What does it mean to be a “bible Christian,” anyway? Again, Hahn and friends would have us believe being an ultraconservative Catholic would suffice. Would it? Not by a longshot, my friends.
A simple comparison of contrasting features between U.S. and biblical (Mediterranean) society should suffice to show that an American “biblical Christianity” is untenable in our cultural setting. Again, I invite you to observe the video presentation.
Hahn claims Jesus understood his mission in a historical context that spans from the opening line of Genesis to his own coming. Did he? What Jesus are we talking about? Are we talking about Jesus, the Galilean peasant from Nazareth, nothing-place of nothing-people? Or are we talking about the Jesus of the Synoptic Tradition, written about by elite scribes distant from the Galilee of decades-past by a colossal socio-economic chasm? Or are we talking about the superhuman “Sky-Vault Man” Jesus of the Gospel called “John”?
In all likelihood, aren’t we talking about a culturally-congenial Jesus to Western values, the quasi-Docetic “Intellectual Sage” or “Great One”? This one, of course, peppered with verbal orthodoxy to Nicene and Chalcedonian Christological compromise.
Thinking Like Jesus Thinks!!??
Hahn says we Catholics think the way Jesus thinks. Do we? Can we? If we take the incarnation seriously, I have serious doubts. We are reasonably sure that Jesus was socialized and enculturated by an eastern Mediterranean society, one vastly different than ours.
For example, does our globalism square into thinking the way Jesus thinks? How about our universalism? What about our reliance on science? Or how we understand post-Industrial cities, or for that matter, life after the watershed Industrial Revolution?
Did Jesus think about nation-states? The Enlightenment? International law? Arab-European scholasticism? Justinian’s Code of Ethics? Constantine’s (often cruel) Christendom? Strict Monotheism? The Talmud or the Jewish religion? Could Jesus think anything remotely like the thought of a William Buckley or a Noam Chomsky? Did any of this kind of thinking influence Jesus?
If we say Jesus is fully human, he must have been influenced, impacted, and developed by and in a particular culture at a specific time. To dance around this with verbally orthodox lip-service to his humanity is just Docetism in disguise. “Clark Kent” isn’t human. He also isn’t a good analogy for Jesus.
Promoting Biblical Christianity
Hahn claims to promote biblical literacy for all Catholics and biblical fluency for clergy and teachers. I’d like to believe he means well. Regardless, Catholic fundamentalism fails to produce biblical Christianity or whatever Hahn aims for.
Hahn thinks he discovered in the Fathers a Church that perfectly corresponds to biblical religion, which he claims is the “Roman” Catholic Church. But the Body of Christ we call “Church” evolves and has evolved. While Catholics can see a continuity between their Church and the earliest Jesus Movement, it can only be continuity-within-development. And sorry, Dr. Hahn, the Jesus Movement, the second-wave Pauline Jesus-groups, or third and fourth-wave groups looked quite differently from later Constantinian Christianity.
That doesn’t make our way of being Christian illegitimate. It just evolved and is still evolving. Fundamentalists have a big problem with the word evolution.
For one thing, we are Catholic and Christian. That means, among many things, we are Trinitarian Monotheists in belief. It’s doubtful any first-century Jesus group believed that way. The theology hadn’t yet been developed. Besides, the New Testament documents were ethnocentrically-particular to Israel—this is visible once we expose our spurious familiarity with Paul. Even the post-Pauline “sort-of” letters open to Gentiles (like “Ephesians”) are Israelite documents. The New Testament was written for, by, and about Israelites.
Then things got messy. Evolution is like that. So too is God.
Concerning many things, New Testament people did not speak to the same concerns we have today. The salvation Paul wrote about was something comparable to escaping a Mafia-style hit from the Patron God of Israel (henotheism alert)—that’s biblical wrath. Unlike Paul, we do not belong to an honor-shame culture. Therefore, how can we speak of salvation the same way as Jesus and Paul, who were both ethnocentric to Israelite concerns?
To our biblical ancestors in the faith, “sin” meant shaming God. Be a client to Don Vito Corleone and (publicly) shame him and see what happens to you. When Lucca Brasi comes and pays you a visit in the night, you’ll have a better understanding of what “the mind of Jesus” and “the mind of Paul” was concerning biblical (i.e., Mediterranean) wrath. Ultimately, New Testament people saw “sin” and “overcoming sin” differently than later Medieval times and way different than us 21st-century Christians do.
Hahn believes that early Christianity (which he wrongly thinks exists since New Testament communities) spread like wildfire. That’s simply not true. Until Constantine, evangelization (different from proselytizing) went at a snail’s pace. With Constantine, many joined in “overnight,” and the Body of Christ rapidly turned almost entirely Gentile. That’s what happens when a king converts in the ancient world, folks.
If Biblical Christianity is Impossible, Why Read the Bible?
The Bible is the Church’s normative literature. We read it in the Church—the Body of Christ—to grapple with the Mystery of God breaking into our lives. Just as God did this with our ancient Mediterranean ancestors in the Faith, God does with us, always in culturally messy ways. By looking at our ancestors grappled, the hope is to see better how we grapple, and by doing so, see God.
The Bible is the first Word where we come to meet the Word. For us Catholics, Scripture is not the final Word, and indeed not the only Word. In the same way, Mediterranean culture is the first reading of Scripture. And it too is not the final reading of Scripture or the only reading.
Sorry Dr. Hahn and friends, but Bible reading and study are not looking for marching orders for daily life. And these do not looking for proofs why our tradition is superior to all others—the best, and the first, and the pure, and the only! It’s much deeper than that. And there is no biblical Christianity. Be thankful for that, my friends.