The following is an extended excerpt from Addison Hodges Hart’s new book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World, specifically, chapter 3 “Saying Yes to the Bible, and No to Biblicism” (part 1, pages 57-63). Eerdmans was kind enough to send me a word file of these pages, lest my wrists fall off typing it all out.
Hart’s articulation of the nature of the Bible will immediately ring true to some of you, I’m sure. It is, however, clearly intentionally provocative, which may be a barrier to some. But let me encourage you to try and listen anyway.
The excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher; all rights reserved. (I only highlighted some portions for you skimmers out there.) More information on the book can be found here at the Eerdmans’s website. Hart also echoes themes that I have addressed on this blog and elsewhere (here and here).
[The Reformers’] creed has been described as a return
to the Gospel in the spirit of the Koran.
The Very Rev. W. R. Inge,
The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought, 1926
When interpreted like any other book, by the same rules of
evidence and the same canons of criticism, the Bible will still
remain unlike any other book; its beauty will be freshly seen,
as of a picture which is restored after many ages to its original state;
it will create a new interest and make for itself a new kind of authority by the life which is in it.
It will be a spirit and not a letter; as it was in the beginning, having an influence like
that of the spoken word, or the book newly found.
Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” 1860
Whether or not one sees Dean Inge’s remark above, regarding the biblicism of the Protestant Reformers, as a fair appraisal of their adherence to the doctrine of sola scriptura, it does highlight a problem that faces us still, one that should particularly concern Christians as we pitch our pilgrims’ tents in the post-Christendom epoch.
That problem is biblical fundamentalism or literalism. It is a mistake to think that “biblicism” (the term I will be using here for biblical fundamentalism) is just a Protestant phenomenon. We find it cropping up here and there throughout Christian history. We can come across it today among Catholics and Orthodox (especially, though not exclusively, in the United States). But the Bible, as Dean Inge was trying to get across, is not supposed to be received by Jews or Christians in the same way that Muslims receive their Koran. The Koran, according to Muslim faith, is simply and literally “the word of God.” Thus, every individual word of it is holy — “sacramental,” if you will — directly communicated by Allah. A truly faithful Muslim is supposed to learn Arabic, in fact, because the text should really be read as it was given, in the very language in which it was given. That’s what Inge meant by the phrase “the spirit of the Koran.” And, regarding the fundamentalist strand in Christianity, he was correct to make the comparison and the contrast.
The Bible is not the Koran, and Christians (and Jews) are not Muslims. We do not read the Bible as “a book,” for example, but as a collection of books. The Bible is better described as a library. Nor do Christians receive the Bible as the Word of God. That may come as a surprise to some, especially since we are often referred to — wrongly — as “people of the book.” But, we are not; and the Word of God is not a book. For us, the Word of God is God himself. We call him, in theological language, “the Son of God” and “the Second Person of the Trinity.” We say of him that he “became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, for Christians, the Word of God is Jesus. He alone “defines” for us fully the character of God; he is the divine writ small, in fleshly, human terms we can see, “read,” understand, and follow in our lives. We could not know the divine in its uncreated being, but we could know it in Christ.
When we refer to Scripture as “the word of God,” we mean it in a different sense. We mean that, in these books of the Bible, we find a collective testimony to God’s existence and interaction with a specific historical people, leading us finally to the one, who, from among that people, we receive as God made man. The Bible is the word of God in the sense that it brings us the word about God; but it isn’t to be worshiped or venerated as more than a collection of books that give us an outline and a direction for our faith.
It isn’t an end in itself, nor is it an authority in itself. It is, like dogma in the last chapter, an indicator and a signpost for what lies beyond its pages. It is “inspired,” we believe; that is to say, it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16; theopneustos), but not dictated word-for-word. One memorable line in 2 Peter puts it like this: “Men moved by [or “carried along by”] the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1:21). For Scripture to be “God-breathed” means that writers were swept up and borne along, if you will, by a compelling insight, which they expressed in words according to their best abilities and lights. It is, taken as a whole, a grand, epical testimony to a historical community — in fact, two historical communities — evolving in an unfolding understanding of God. That evolution is, for the Christian, brought to its fullness with Jesus and the kingdom of God. Christ is the culminating revelation who sheds light on the adequacies and inadequacies of all that came before him in the scriptural record.
One way to describe “biblicism,” in contrast to “Bible,” is to say that what the former does, in effect, is flatten all the biblical books. It makes the rough places plain, certainly — just as plain as a checkerboard. But what happens in the process is that the mountains and valleys of the Bible disappear entirely, the variety of its landscapes goes unperceived, and we are left with the wholly mistaken notion that the Bible is a single book by a single author (God), in which every passage is to be received as of equal value and understood literally. In other words, a Biblicist reading of the Bible could conceivably require one to regard, for example, a passage in Leviticus (let’s say one that gives instructions about the high priest’s undergarments) as of equal worth as the Sermon on the Mount. Both are, it is believed, “God’s word,” and therefore must be treated with equal seriousness.
Another difficulty, one frequently raised by friends and foes alike of biblical religion, is how we can line up the violence and bloodshed of the Old Testament, sanctioned supposedly by God himself, with the message of Jesus, who preaches non-violence and love of one’s enemies, in the New Testament. A fundamentalist will have many unconvincing ways to hold such things together, never admitting that they simply can’t be held together in any rational fashion (and, if pushed, a thoroughgoing fundamentalist may go so far as to deny the value of “human reason” itself in this matter).
Reading these ancient texts literally, a fundamentalist will anachronistically insist on the scientific and historical accuracy of even the most transparently poetic and mythological portions. By any standard, of course, the Bible can be a confusing mixture of genres: fable, legend, history, parables, sayings, prophecies, letters, hymns, and so forth. Shockingly (for some), it includes irreverence (Ecclesiastes, Job), humor (Jonah), and even a dash of eroticism (the Song of Songs). In one unexpected instance, for example, it tells an intentionally hilarious tale about a “wise man” scolded by his talking donkey, right in the middle of a book of law and sacred history (Numbers 22). In another, even more familiar story, all the woes of human history are traced back to another talking beast, the serpent in the Garden; and — at the other end of the Bible — the end of the world is depicted in a dizzying display of apocalyptic images. One thing the Bible most clearly is not: it is not a single, flat book with a single, flat picture of God.
The Bible, as already said above, is really a collection of many books written and edited over a span of centuries. In Christianity the “canon” is made up of two canons, that of the Old Covenant (the Hebrew Bible) and that of the New. The word “canon” literally means “measuring reed,” which is a standard of measurement like a yardstick. In this instance, the canon of Scripture provides the dimensions of a revelation as it evolved over time, so that those who carry on its legacy into their own times may do so faithfully. The Bible isn’t the entirety of the revelation. It is a standard that sizes up the authenticity of the life and tradition of a community of Christian disciples. The two canons within the overall biblical canon define the identity of the communities that gathered, preserved, edited, and published them in the forms we have received. This is a vital feature to which we shall return. For Christians, both canons taken together provide the essential conceptual context for understanding Jesus and his message. For us, then, Jesus is the key to unlocking the Scriptures, and the Scriptures — in all their variety and occasional contrariness — lead us to a more lucid interpretation of his teachings.
Biblicism will undoubtedly be with us for some time to come. Despite its intellectual bankruptcy, it is tenacious. I don’t wish to belabor the issue; it is enough here to reiterate that it doesn’t genuinely represent classical Christianity, nor can it ever be a part of the sort of Christianity likely to impress intelligent people in the post-Christendom age. At the risk of sounding elitist (which I don’t believe myself to be), it isn’t viable or credible for thinking persons. Anyone who insists upon the accuracy of the “science” in the Bible, for instance (there isn’t any), or unquestioningly takes the Bible’s ancient form of historiography as being as accurate or scrupulous as post-Enlightenment historiography, or fails to acknowledge the variety of literary genres which can at times show up in even a single book of Scripture, or who refuses to believe that the Bible includes fable, or contains noticeable contradictions, is someone who simply misunderstands profoundly the nature of the holy book he holds dear. That person may love Christ and mean well, to be sure; but he is wrong about the Bible and its place in Christian faith. It may also be impossible to convince a determined biblical fundamentalist just how wrong he is. Fundamentalism is a tough nut. Nor is it, as I said, my wish to argue against such people in these pages. All I will add, then, before moving on to a larger discussion of biblical themes, is that a post-Christendom Christianity, if it is to have any positive influence with intelligent and informed people, will require a renewed intellectual appreciation of the Bible on the part of disciples — one which reveres the Scriptures as integral to our identity as Christians, but which is equally committed to an unflinching critical appraisal of all its constituent parts. Biblicism really must be avoided, on the one hand, for the sake of our credibility before a watchful world, and on the other, because it ultimately dishonors God and misidentifies the community of believers.
We need to read the Bible “like any other book,” the Victorian Master of Balliol College, Benjamin Jowett, wisely advised, so that we might rediscover in our own age why it is truly “unlike any other book.” He goes on, in the quotation given above, to make a comment suitable for serious reflection. The Bible, he says, when critically interpreted by those who do so carefully and caringly, not those who merely have a bone to pick with it, “will be a spirit and not a letter; as it was in the beginning, having an influence like that of the spoken word, or the book newly found.” So, it isn’t a Bible “in the spirit of the Koran” that Christians honestly need, but a Bible that will become for us “a spirit and not a letter.” We will surely need that wise and reasonable spirit in the post-Christendom age whenever we approach or present to others our Scriptures.