At this year’s annual “help me I’m wearing tweed in San Diego” conference (a.k.a. Society of Biblical Literature) I was part of a panel discussion on “Reading the Bible in the 21st Century: Exploring New Models for Reconciling the Academy and the Church.” On the panel with me were N. T. Wright, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Lauren Winner. John Dominic Crossan was scheduled to be there but his flight was delayed.
At any rate, we were each given 10 minutes to address the topic and here is what I said.
About 10 years ago a friend of mine, who teaches systematic theology at an evangelical seminary, told me of a faculty meeting held to discuss my recently published book Inspiration and Incarnation.
During the faculty discussion, a biblical scholar pointed out, “You know, there’s really nothing new here”—which, of course is not only true, but largely the point of the book: well known and widely accepted things like the presence of myth, contradictions, and numerous historical problems in the Old Testament, not to mention the New Testament’s midrashic use of the Old, have not been handled well within evangelicalism.
My friend chimed in, “Wait a minute. There’s nothing new here? I never heard of this stuff—and I graduated from this school and had you as a teacher.” The Bible professor replied, “Our job is to protect you from this information.”
Or consider the following: it’s been known within the evangelical community to encourage promising seminary students to pursue doctoral work at major research universities, but for apologetic purposes: infiltrate their ranks, learn their ways, expose their weaknesses. Or, related, they are told to “plunder the Egyptians”—a phrase actually used. To appropriate whatever in critical scholarship can aid the cause and either ignore or fight against the rest.
And so you have three postures by this faith community toward the threat posed by the academic study of the Bible: gatekeeper, spy, or plunderer. What lies beneath these postures is a deep distrust of the academy.
But the academy isn’t just a problem for evangelicals or other conservatives. On the other end of the spectrum we have the mainline church and theological interpretation—which is a movement to recover scripture for the church (the mainline church) in the wake of the historical critical revolution, which has not always been friendly to life and faith.
This is no rejection of the academy, though. What’s done is done. We’ve passed through what Walter Wink calls the “acid bath of criticism,” which has done the necessary job of stripping us of our naïve biblicism. But now, what’s left? What do we do with the Bible? How does it function in the church? What does it say about God? What should we believe? So, whereas evangelicalism distrust the academy, the mainline has felt a bit burned by it.
What binds both groups together is the problem of the academic study of scripture for the church—though there is also an important difference between them that goes beyond simply their different attitudes toward biblical criticism. Let me explain.
Evangelicalism’s suspicion of the academy appears to be justified by the mainline church’s embrace of historical criticism at first only to wind up advocating for theological interpretation as a corrective to it. “See, I told you so. Biblical criticism is a dead end. Look at the mainline churches and their shrinking numbers. They’re on life-support. Let’s learn from their mistake, not repeat it.”
I can see the point, but not so fast. Evangelicalism can’t simply adopt as its own the mainline response to historical criticism. The mainline embraced historical-critical insights; it’s had its acid bath and is working toward, as Gadamer and others put it, a second naiveté that acknowledges the critical revolution. In other words, the mainline church is postcritical, and there is no going back to the way things were before.
Evangelicalism, by contrast, hasn’t gone through the acid bath of criticism, nor does it seek the second naiveté. They are certainly willing to acknowledge that critical scholarship has shed some light on scripture, but the overall critical “posture” as it were is largely a mistake that one should be suspicious of, guard against, infiltrate, or plunder. In a sense, the evangelical reading of scripture is more at home in the precritical world, lamenting the slow erosion of biblical authority and inerrancy at the hands of biblical criticism.
If I had to pick, I’d rather be postcritical and wounded than precritical and defensive, but this is not to say that the mainline project of theological interpretation holds the key to binding together church and the academy—at least I don’t see it yet.
For example, I remember 25 years ago reading Brevard Childs’s excellent commentary on Exodus, but feeling frustrated. He acknowledges throughout the undeniable insights of historical critical methods, and even explains the text’s incongruities on the basis of source critical analysis. But when it comes to the theological appropriation of Exodus, all his learned critical analyses is left behind—because source criticism won’t get you to theological reflection. In fact, it gets in the way.
A lot has happened since Childs, and I respect the larger project championed by Walter Brueggemann, for example, but my experience of theological interpretation in general is that the relevance of biblical criticism for the church’s life and faith can be hard to discern. It’s not always clear to me how the academy is brought constructively and intentionally into the theological life of the church.
In fact, at times I see little more than a bare acknowledgment of the “importance” or “necessity” of biblical criticism, but when it comes to theology, it’s sometimes hard to see the importance or necessity. Biblical criticism seems to be more of a negative boundary marker to distinguish the mainline from the religious right—“We’re not fundamentalists; we embrace criticism”—but where’s the payoff?
As I see it, the academy and the church have at best an uneasy relationship when it comes to the Bible, whether for evangelicals or mainliners. In my opinion, true reconciliation of academy and church must strive for a more intentionally a theological synthesis of the academic study of scripture and how that contributes theologically to faith and life, to seeing—perhaps in fresh ways– how God speaks to us in and through scripture today.
As I tell the story in The Bible Tells Me So, I’ve been captured by this synthetic idea since my first few weeks of graduate school—and some of how I put the pieces together has made its way into the book, albeit on a popular churchy level (which is exactly where it needs to be). For me, one payoff of this synthesis is a Bible that is remarkably dynamic and therefore personally meaningful.
For example, when I understand Deuteronomy as a layered work that grew out of the late monarchic to postexilic periods, I get happy. I see canonized a deliberate, conscious, recontextualizion, actualizion, indeed rewriting of earlier ancient traditions for the benefit of present communities of faith.
The same holds for Chronicles—a realignment and reshaping of Israel’s story for a late postexilic audience. Or taking a big step back, we have the Old Testament as a whole, which has woven into it the exaltation of the tribe of Judah, a theme that reflects the present-day questions and answers of the postexilic Judahite writers that produced it. Scripture houses a theological dynamic that is intentionally innovative, adaptive, and contemporizing.
Scripture’s inner dynamic provides a model for our own theological appropriation of scripture. As Michael Fishbane reminds us, within scripture the authoritative text of the past is not simply received by the faithful but is necessarily adapted and built upon. And this is a noble quality of the Old Testament that continues in Second Temple Judaism and, for Christians, the New Testament, where Israel’s story is profoundly recontextualized, reshaped, and re-understood in light of present circumstances.
And what the Christian Bible does is continued as soon as the church got out of the gate in the 2nd century and beyond: reshaping the ancient Semitic story in Greek and Latin categories, giving us creeds; and then through the entire history of the church, where everywhere we look people are asking the very same question asked by the Deuteronomist, the Chronicler, and Paul: how does that back there speak to us here?
And answering that question is a transaction between past and present that always involves some creative adaptation.
I don’t see this dynamic as a problem. It’s a gift. What more could the church want from its scripture? Don’t make a move without it, but when you move—you may need to move, not just remain where things have been. This is what I mean throughout The Bible Tells Me So when I say that the Bible is not an owner’s manual or an instruction guide.
It is a model of our own inevitable theological process, because the question is never simply what did God do then, but what is God surprisingly, unexpectedly, counterintuitively, in complete freedom, doing now?
Historical criticism doesn’t get a free pass—and I’m thinking here for example of Brueggemann’s critique. But it has nevertheless helped us understand something of this dynamic.
If I can put this in Christian terms, scripture bears witness to the acts of God and most supremely to the act of God in Christ. But scripture bears witness in culturally and contextually meaningful ways. This is where historical criticism comes into the picture—not as an enemy to be guarded against or plundered, and not as an awkward relative you don’t know what to do with, but as a companion, a means of understanding and embracing the complex actualizing dynamic of the Bible as a whole.
This is what I am aiming for in The Bible Tells Me So, albeit at a popular level, because that is where this discussion needs to be—with those who feel they have to chose between accepting academic insights or maintaining faith. I don’t believe that is a choice that has to be made, and miss out on a lot when we feel we need to.