Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Secular Academia and the Bible

There's an interesting discussion around my last post. The question is essentially whether Christians should read the Bible in the same way that secular academics tell them to. So here's my perspective on that.

I think it's important for some Christians to understand how and why secular academics approach the Bible. It's important for them to be able to speak the language of secular academic study, and to learn what they can from it. I hope I've done a bit of that myself.

It's also important that they don't accept all of secular academic conclusions about the Bible without critically examining them. There is no such thing as a neutral viewpoint when it comes to human academic endeavour, especially in theology. Some of the conclusions are helpful and valid. For example, recognising that a large section of the book of Joshua is in the same genre as a lot of Ancient Near Eastern victory lists, and therefore it doesn't necessarily all need to have happened at the same time or in that order, is important and helpful for understanding the book and its relation to history.

But a large portion of secular academic study of the Bible rests on the presupposition that God does not act directly in this world, and God does not speak in the way that Jesus (for example) claims that he does. I disagree with that presupposition on philosophical and experiential grounds, and therefore I feel at liberty to disagree with those conclusions of secular academia that rest on that presupposition. There are other bad presuppositions too, but that's the biggest one.

Because of that, and because Christianity is not fundamentally about getting a first at Oxford in Theology (though it's nice when that happens, it's really not very important!) but about being in a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the priority of the Christian minister should be to teach what is true rather than just what the academics say.

That doesn't mean that what we do is at all academically irresponsible. The quotation I cited last time can be read as answering the simple question "Given the Christian understanding of Jesus as God, and the Apostles as inspired by God's Spirit, how should we read the Old Testament?" It was written by the former professor of Old Testament and hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia...

As a comment for my previous post, Speaker for the Dead made this good point.

If Jesus is the Son of God, our reading of the Old Testament should center around that fact... But if a Christian can demonstrate that the NT is an inspired document quite unlike any other, he is entirely justified in using it to analyze other inspired texts.


bcg said...

Does a Christian need to 'demonstrate that the NT is an inspired document quite unlike any other'? I sincerely hope not, because I'm not sure how we might go about doing that.

The point is, faith comes first, before understanding. It is only from the position of faith that we can appreciate fully the inspiration of the Bible, the reasons why it is 'the most valuable thing this world affords'.

Otherwise (i.e. without faith) what reason is there to treat the Bible differently to the Koran or any other sacred writings? Sure, it has probably has had more influence on human history than any other book - but that doesn't make it inspired! Statistically, there has to be a book that has had the most influence on history - perhaps it just happens to be the Bible?

Where your commenter is correct, is that, if Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh (which is the primary statement of faith for Christians), the Bible is inspired - all of it - and the OT should and can only be read in the light of the NT.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but bcg, surely a more accurate (and beautiful) way of putting it is Anselm's 'fides quaerens intellectum' - faith *seeking* understanding. By this, Anselm was not suggesting that eventually understanding should replace faith, nor that without faith no understanding at all is possible. Rather that the step of faith, and the honest, rigorous, humble process of study and analysis can, do, and must happen concurrently.

To me, there is a beautiful simultaneity required to really engage with scripture - or any precept of theistic faith. It's almost like an hypothesis - a set of ideas which one can 'test'. What would it mean to believe this statement? What light would this belief shine on the world? On me? On God? The answers to these questions are the fertile soil in which deep roots of faith really take hold.

I think statements like 'faith comes before understanding' oversimplify a complex situation which is (rightly) different for every individual and particular to every different aspect of the faith.

(In this case, for example, the question of how one should read the OT in light of the NT and vice-versa seems to be to be very much dependent issues such as
a) the person doing the thinking
b) the book/s involved (for there are many books in each Testament, all very different!)
c) the prayer of person involved)

Of course, a tiny mustard seed of what we might call faith is required in order for the human soul to say 'well, what if?', but apart from that, faith, in my experience and understanding, walks hand in hand with study, learning, questioning, and ultimately seeking Truth.

bcg said...

In 'faith seeking understanding' (which is what I was alluding to in my comment!) which comes first: faith, or understanding?

Faith comes first, but it must also seek understanding. And, understanding cannot be reached without the prior step of faith.

If you say that faith and understanding must happen concurrently, are you not denying children faith?

Rather, faith is what is important, and we then must seek what understanding we are able to.

Speaker for the Dead said...

Perhaps I misspoke (or mis-wrote) when I used the word "demonstrate." Although I didn't necessarily mean it in a rigid, syllogistic way...

Hypothetically speaking, one could accept that the Bible is inspired and believe that Jesus was the son of God and not really have faith. One could accept a Christian academic perspective on the NT and use it as a primary means of interpreting the OT - all without faith.

When it comes to faith and understanding, what do we mean by "faith"? (For the record, I don't think newborns have faith.) What does it mean to have faith in something you don't understand at all? (Obviously, our understanding is far from perfect - but at some point, some rational thought process must come into play to "jumpstart" everything.) Faith may be more important than understanding, but that does not necessarily mean that it can exist without understanding.

I think of faith as a conscious trust in God, to the point of being certain in our trust in Him (like in Hebrews). I feel that this definition requires at least a rudimentary understanding of who God is.

Daniel Hill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Hill said...

I recommend on this topic `Do You Want Us to Listen to You?' by Peter Van Inwagen and `Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship' by Alvin Plantinga, both in ‘Behind’ The Text: History and Biblical Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew, C. Stephen Evans, Mary Healy and Murray Rae, published by Paternoster Press and Zondervan. See http://tinyurl.com/59y4x4 and http://tinyurl.com/63do63 (in note form).

little2u said...

I am not a student of theology. I have not taken classes. But I do understand this. The label, "Christianity" is static. It does not change. And yet, how Christianity has been practiced thru the ages HAS changed. And it should! The Bible is called the Living Word of God. The word "living" by its nature means CHANGE! A book, ANY book is only as good as the reader can understand. As our level of consciousness raises, how we understand the Bible WILL change. For example, there was a time, when the church believed it perfectly acceptable to murder those that did not believe as the church taught. Now, that our consciousness has matured somewhat, we can see the error of that belief. The church today is losing people at a terrible rate. Why? Because the church has decided that it completely understands the Bible and no new revelations are possible so they do not examine the scriptures for deeper meanings. If anyone claims that they totally understand God, then He is no longer God because humans have put Him in a box of their making so they can fool themselves into believing they understand Him. I will be the first to say that I do not understand Him. So as far as how to "read" the Bible? I do not think it is as much by "rules" and "norms" that the Bible should be read. But with the heart and humility and faith that God will grant you the level of understanding that HE knows you can handle. But thats just my opinion.