Monday, January 19, 2015

I have not written about the the Newsweek article on the Bible written by Kurt Eichenwald, The Bible: So Misunderstood It's A Sin. There is so much in it not worth a response or the time needed to write a response that I have left others to do so (more on the others below). The major reason such an essay is not worth a point by point response is that it is an essay that adheres to what I call "the Screedal Formula." 

What is the Screedal Formula? The formula is this: make over-the-top, unbalanced, un-nuanced, naive claims about the Bible. Allow no room for alternative views, or consideration of modifications of your positions. The louder you proclaim it, the truer it is. The more angry you become about people who disagree with your position on the Bible, the better you have proved your position. It is also important that you make vast generalizations about the Bible and the people who hold positions which disagree with yours. This is important because rather than alert people to the fact that the Bible is a collection of documents written over hundreds of years in a variety of genres in various historical, social and cultural situations, just sum up the whole Bible, and the history of its interpretation, in one handy essay or blog post. Try also to ignore the vast majority of scholarship that has been written about the Bible over centuries, whether modern, medieval or ancient, and just focus on a couple or few authors who agree with your point of view.

This formula for fundamentalism works whether you are a devout believer in the Bible or whether you disavow the inspired nature of the texts, though Eichenwald presents himself as firmly on the side of those who reject the inspired nature of the biblical texts and so that is my concern in this post. The important thing is to jettison any sense of humility in interpretation and recognize that you know it all and need to correct everyone else's interpretation of the Bible. If you are a believer, everyone but you (and your coterie of believers) has it wrong, wrong, wrong -but you can set them straight. If you reject the truth of the Bible, then it is important to reject it completely and let everyone who reads it for truth, insight and guidance as believers know how wrong, wrong, wrong they are - and you can set them straight.

Important in all of this is to make generalized interpretive claims not just about the content of the Biblical texts, but about the writing of the texts, the people who wrote them, the history of the texts, the history of the formation of the canon, and the means by which they were compiled. Once all of this is in order, you can write your screed.This appears to be the approach Eichenwald took and he managed the process with perfection: he wrote a screed.

There are many decent responses to his essay out there, such as from the scholars listed below, who respond to many of Eichenwald's points directly. I have linked to each of their responses for those who would like to read them:

Darrell Bock;

Robert Gagnon;

Michael Brown;

Michael J. Kruger;

James White;

Albert Mohler;

Daniel Wallace;

Ben Witherington.

There is nothing problematic about the responses, which are certainly better than the original article, in that they correct facts and data which cry out for correction, but the reason why I do not believe these responses are valuable, except for the people who agree with their points of view even before they start to read them, is that Eichenwald's original article and the responses are basically speaking at cross-purposes to one another.

The responses are defenses of the integrity of the Bible, its inspiration, and the truth of what it proclaims, but they do not get to the heart of Eichenwald's screed, which is pronouncing a counter-narrative to that of fundamentalist or evangelical Christians, or just Christians who believe in the basic inspiration and truth of the Bible. His reading of  the history of the canon and individual facts regarding Scripture may be bad - it is - but his is not a narrative corrected simply by trotting out facts and data.

It is the narrative that matters, not the facts. The narrative is that the Bible cannot be trusted historically and that Christians only follow the Bible selectively anyways and often misconstrue the parts they do follow.

The narrative Eichenwald is proposing is one in which the antiquity of the sources, the problems of translation, the selective reading of the Bible, and improper interpretation obviate the Bible as an authoritative source. It seems, however, that even prior to performing his literary surgery, he never considered the Bible an authoritative source. His reading, when not outright wrong, seems geared toward finding only the problems and not toward solving them. At the end of his essay he admits,

The Bible is a very human book. It was written, assembled, copied and translated by people. That explains the flaws, the contradictions, and the theological disagreements in its pages.
Eichenwald, that is, sees the Bible as a human construction.

In the same way the responses come from their own narratives, which take seriously the truth and inspiration of the Bible, and so read the evidence in that context. Most Christians also see the Bible as a human construction, but inspired by God, either directly or indirectly. It is this inspiration of the texts which is why Christians continue to guide their lives by the Bible. So, the respondents listed above are certainly right, for instance, to correct Eichenwald on the number and early date of manuscripts which support the NT text, his (mis)understanding of the translation process, the process for the choosing of the canon, the translation and interpretation of particular words (such as morphe in Philippians 2), etc., and on most other issues as far as I could see, but the responses seem beside the point to Eichenwald's larger narrative: he does not see the Bible as an inspired, authoritative collection of documents for guiding one's life as the respondents certainly do.

The respondents listed above, whose training in the Bible is so much superior to Eichenwald, dismantle most of the problems he raises with ease. But there are some problems which are more difficult to dismantle, such as the tensions between the two Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke or between the two Creation and two Flood accounts. There are ways to deal with all of these accounts literarily and theologically, but this takes us beyond the realm of facts and data and into the realm of interpretation and theological argument. For those, in whose camp I include myself, that accept the Bible as inspired, there are ways to make sense of these problems, but for someone who does not accept the Bible as inspired, these theological, literary and allegorical interpretations will just seem like special pleading and an avoidance of the facts and data.

St. Augustine, in Confessions, 3.5.9, speaks of how he viewed the Scriptures before his conversion and after his conversion. The difference is night and day, but it was not due to anyone explaining the facts in a new way. He says,

I resolved, therefore, to direct my mind to the Holy Scriptures, that I might see what they were. And behold, I perceive something not comprehended by the proud, not disclosed to children, but lowly as you approach, sublime as you advance, and veiled in mysteries; and I was not of the number of those who could enter into it, or bend my neck to follow its steps. For not as when now I speak did I feel when I tuned towards those Scriptures, but they appeared to me to be unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Cicero; for my inflated pride shunned their style, nor could the sharpness of my wit pierce their inner meaning. Yet, truly, were they such as would develop in little ones; but I scorned to be a little one, and, swollen with pride, I looked upon myself as a great one.
Augustine admits that he thought himself above the lowly Scriptures and their style. Cicero was worthy of study not the Bible.It was only when he started making his own move to the Church that St. Ambrose's preaching started to impress him:

I rejoiced also that the old Scriptures of the law and the prophets were laid before me, to be perused, not now with that eye to which they seemed most absurd before, when I censured Your holy ones for so thinking, whereas in truth they thought not so; and with delight I heard Ambrose, in his sermons to the people, oftentimes most diligently recommend this text as a rule—The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life; while, drawing aside the mystic veil, he spiritually laid open that which, accepted according to the letter, seemed to teach perverse doctrines— teaching herein nothing that offended me, though he taught such things as I knew not as yet whether they were true. (Augustine, Confessions, 6.4.6)
Augustine, that is, moved from being "offended" by the Bible and thinking that it taught "perverse doctrines" to finding that he found "herein nothing that offended me," but he was still not certain "whether they were true."

Still later in his life, though Augustine had not yet converted and entered the Church, his response to the Scriptures was becoming even more favorable.

Most eagerly, then, did I seize that venerable writing of Your Spirit, but more especially the Apostle Paul; and those difficulties vanished away, in which he at one time appeared to me to contradict himself, and the text of his discourse not to agree with the testimonies of the Law and the Prophets. And the face of that pure speech appeared to me one and the same; and I learned to rejoice with trembling.(Augustine, Confessions, 7.21.27)
Augustine states that "those difficulties vanished away, in which he {Apostle Paul} at one time appeared to me to contradict himself," but was this caused by argumentation about data and facts or due to his own spiritual movement? I think it is clearly the latter.

This is not to say that responses to faulty facts and data is unnecessary, but to acknowledge that often a different reading of data is due to a more foundational issue, namely, does one consider the Bible an inspired document which teaches the truth or a series of writings, faulty in many ways, cobbled together by human beings in an erratic manner over numerous centuries? How one answers that question more than any other will guide how one reads and interprets the Bible, the many tensions in it, and the way one makes sense of the many questions which arise from the tensions in the Bible. A screed, unfortunately, is not usually rectified with better facts alone. Augustine, too, at one time thought the Bible unworthy, full of perverse doctrines, and offensive. And then he did not. It was not the Bible that changed.

John W. Martens
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