October 19, 2017

Peter Enns: Is there payoff for the church in reading the Bible critically?

94114-050-FB350E1B

Note from CM: In October, we reviewed Peter Enns’s excellent book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In that review I wrote, “Enns repeatedly encourages us to stop defending the Bible as something we want it to be so that we might read and benefit from the actual book we have before us.” This, writes Jay Michaelson, is part of “the task of religious adulthood.” A grown-up openness to truth with regard to the Bible involves taking seriously the kinds of critical scholarship that has shown genuine light on the sacred Book and its teachings.

A great deal of my time in the world of Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, on the other hand, was spent learning why we should NOT expose ourselves to such scholarship for fear of shipwrecking our faith. The story Pete tells at the beginning of today’s post resonates perfectly with my experience. In today’s post, Pete talks about why those who love Jesus and the Bible should not be afraid of critical scholarship. Indeed, it has the potential to open new vistas of truth and wisdom for all members of the Church.

Thanks to Pete for letting us re-post this piece today. He blogs at Rethinking Biblical Christianity.

Peter-EnnsIs there payoff for the church in reading the Bible critically?
By Peter Enns

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.

MedievalMonkBut 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 SoI’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.

Comments

  1. I’m all for academic insight. But when the goal of that insight is to create God into our own image…mold Him into the sort of God that we want…then academic insight is harmful to the faith.

    And that happens. A lot.

    • Christiane says:

      am wondering if that is what hard-core fundamentalists have done ? . . . isn’t their ‘God of wrath’ much more a mirror of their own harsh contempt for ‘other sinners’ than a portrayal of Christ the Lord, Whom we know from the witness of sacred Scripture as the most complete revelation we have of what God is like ?

      • Patrick Kyle says:

        Christiane,

        In some cases yes, this is the case, However, I can’t help but wonder when I hear comments like yours, how closely you have read the Gospels lately. I thank God for the Gospel of John and Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ person and work. The Synoptic Gospels portray a harsh Jesus, condemning people to hell, and setting up impossible moral standards, uncompromising in His judgements and pronouncements. I remember being shocked as a new Christian because the Jesus of the synoptics was nothing like the warm fuzzy Jesus we sang about in Church. John and Paul give us a much more gracious view of our Lord.

        • He was harsh and uncompromising mostly to those in authority, who abused their power.

          Remember the prodigal son, the workers in the field, the seventy-times-seven forgiveness. Reading the gospels closely, as you suggest, reveals these stories too.

          • flatrocker says:

            Thanks Ted for this reminder.

            We find what we are looking for.

          • Remember also, the woman caught in adultery. “Go…and sin no more.”

            The Living God is a God of wrath, and of mercy.

            No amount of sin will go unpunished. “The wages of sin is death.”

            But in Christ Jesus God sets aside His own law…that we might live.

          • Indeed, just read Matthew 23 to see who and what really pisses Jesus off. And here’s a hint: it’s we, the religious folks who should know better, and it’s the religious junk we do to make us look better.

        • I spent four years teaching an adult class out of Mark and Matthew back in the 00’s, and have just begun leading the class through Luke. I don’t find the Jesus in those gospels to be anything like what you say. I don’t ever recall thinking of Jesus as “harsh.”

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        “am wondering if that is what hard-core fundamentalists have done ?”

        Of course it is: and not just the hard-core fundamentalists. It is inherent in the hermeneutic of claiming to read scripture “literally,” and no less so in literalism’s younger brother of reading scripture for its “plain meaning.” They both assume that there is a single “literal” or “plain” meaning, that this meaning was the writer’s and/or God’s intent, and (the biggest whopper of the lot) that this meaning is readily apparent to a modern reader, even one untroubled by issues of the original language or the cultural context it was written in, or even the context of the scripture surrounding whatever snippet is being examined at this particular moment.

        For a recent–and funny!–example, Mark Silk, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a piece out complaining about Obama’s speech on immigration, in which Obama had the temerity to quote scripture: http://www.religionnews.com/2014/11/24/sorry-mr-president-youre-wrong-exodus-immigration-commentary/ Silk, to his credit, doesn’t indulge in the usual huffing and puffing about how dare a Kenyan-Indonesian extremely radical Muslim extremist radical radical quote the Bible. Instead, he complains that Obama is taking it out of context. Silk explains that it has no application to modern America.

        Now think back to Ye Days of Olde, in this case 2011. For that brief moment in history, the Republican Party was pushing immigration reform as a Good Thing, before it figured out that voting for immigration reform was a sure way to get primaried by the Tea Party. In this moment of history, the Southern Baptist Convention went along, as is its wont, with Republican policy, and passed a resolution in favor of immigration reform: http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1213/on-immigration-and-the-gospel In it, the SBC quoted the exact same verse as did Obama, for the exact same purpose. Mark Silk’s reaction to this seems not to have been recorded. If he complained at the time about the taking of this verse out of context, he was mighty quiet about it.

        Making fun of Mark Silk as a shameless hack is all good clean fun, but the important point is that this illustrates how the favored hermeneutic can be used to prove anything, which is to say that it can prove nothing. Whatever the failings of Biblical criticism, and I certainly don’t dispute that it has failings, naïve literalism or reading for plain meaning is an unqualified disaster.

        • Clay Crouch says:

          “Making fun of Mark Silk as a shameless hack is all good clean fun…”

          I think you mean Mark Coppenger. Mark Silk wrote the piece at RNS that exposed Coppenger’s not so long-tem memory loss.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Thomas Paine(?) wrote “Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man.”

        Yet the inverse is also true. A cruel man will redefine God into a cruel god to give his own cruelty the cloak of Righteousness.

    • George Christiansen says:

      It clearly doesn’t take academic insight to craft God into one’s own image.

  2. I can applaud the intent of Peter Enns’ book to reconcile “those who feel they have to choose between accepting academic insights or maintaining faith. I [Enns] don’t believe that is a choice that has to be made.” But I’m afraid it does. To use his own terms, once a church, or a person, has gone through “the acid bath of historical criticism,” “there is no going back to the way things were before.”

    You can’t unlearn what you’ve learned. You can’t unchop a tree. It’s down, and there it lies, withering and rotting, and not all your wishing is going to restore it.

    I can recall, with the pain almost as fresh today as half a century ago, when I became aware that the whole Christmas story – the trip to Bethlehem, the angels, the shepherds, the manger, the Star, the Wise men – all of it, was just a story, like any other fairy tale. Beautiful and symbolic, to be sure, but it never actually happened. The acid bath dissolved it, and the old belief will never come back. I have prayed, as earnestly and long as possible, for my youthful belief or naiveté to be restored to me. The answer I have always received was a gentle, inexorable, “No.”

    And my thought since then has been, as Enns quite rightly says, “source criticism won’t get you to theological reflection. In fact, it gets in the way.”

    After the Bible has gone through the acid bath of criticism, and we are left with critical reflections like, “these words that the writer of Mark puts in the mouth of Jesus reflect the Hellenic leanings of…” and so forth – really, what are we left with? Is anything left but the thin gruel of intellectual satisfaction and the bleak landscape of post-modernity?

    Or as I would put it, is this the faith for which the Saints have died?

    • Patrick Kyle says:

      Exactly.

      I think Enns, at least in this essay, is grasping at straws. Like you said, “You can’t unchop the tree.’ Then what’s left? How can your faith in the Lord be unaffected when you come to believe that the bible is a collection of religious fables? (Are these fables and myths somehow magically superintended to provide an accurate portrait of the Lord and what He wants us to know?) Then it truly is ‘every man for himself’ in the realm of Biblical interpretation. One man’s authoritative and definitive interpretation is viewed by another man as a ‘cultural concession’ by Jesus or the Apostles, or a myth with some esoteric point about the made up system contained in a collection of old books. Whatever…

      I honestly think most ‘higher criticism’ especially of the literary genre, is bullshit. It consists of academics faced with ‘publish or perish’ creating jobs and job security for themselves, so they churn out these theories and make pronouncements based on vocabulary and sentence structure. ( This revelation hit me when I dug up old term papers from my college years and realized my style, phrasing, and vocabulary were entirely different from my present writing. 1000 years from now, should any of my writing survive, like minded scholars could talk about how my later writings are forgeries by someone familiar with my thought.) They ignore the witness of contemporaries and proteges of the Apostles. ( Does anyone really believe we will find ‘Q’?) Then other scholars ensure jobs for themselves rehashing and parsing the ideas of the first group.

      I’ll give Enns credit for at least acknowledging the fact that once the genie of higher interpretation is out of the bottle, we have serious problems. However, I think his sunny conclusion is unwarranted. Really, if it didn’t really happen, we are wasting our time debating over pious wive’s tales. I have no interest whatsoever in such an endeavor.

      • One of the grandest, most undocumented hypotheses of higher criticism, is “Q”. Based on literary analysis, which is not anything like scientific investigation, scholars have postulated and reified what is really no more than a speculation, without a bit of solid documentary evidence. Even if Q was only an oral tradition, as some scholars say, it should rise at least to the evidential level of having left traces in the documentary record by way of references to it before being used by scholars as a central part of their analysis. But it doesn’t rise to that level. It seems like the longer in goes without evidence, the more it is believed to have existed. Talk about superstition.

      • Patrick, the problem is, I’ve been fed an equal amount of “bullshit” from those on the other side — those who were equally committed to their unsustainable positions of uncritical biblicism for the same reasons. That’s what led me into the wilderness: a pharisaism of “absolute truth” that, in reality, cared more for defending their version of “truth” than in actually proclaiming and following Jesus.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          i.e. a “Whose TRUTH?” situation.

          Where the TRUTHs totally contradict each other and the “DIE, HERETIC!”s fly.

        • OldProphet says:

          B****S****! That’s not a word that we Evangelicals are familiar with. Can you please give me chapter and verse of the Bible reference? Well, my grandpa warned me if you cussing, beer sailing, non-evangelical types Too bad I didn’t listen to him. Hey, time for a Evangelical joke. A fundamentalist boards a bus and spies an empty seat next to a lovely women. He asks her, “is this seat saved?” She replies, “no, it’s not”. He then replies, “well, are you?”

          • Wow, that’s a combination of evangelical lead-in and pick-up line at the same time!

          • Clay Crouch says:

            Hey OP, there are only 6 *’s in B***S***? :o)

          • Randy Thompson says:

            RE: B.S. in the Bible.

            You might want to look at the literal meaning of the Greek in Philippians 3:8, where the good old King James Version gets it better than the prissy translation of the NIV. Paul did not tell us whether this comes from a bull or not. Neither did the King James translators.

            Further: A Princeton philosophy professor has a whole book on this B.S. subject, called “On B*** S***.”

            Enough said.

          • That’s just ignorant book learnin’, men educated beyond their intelligence.

            You know profanity is wrong. Quit trying to justify sin.

            etc

        • Patrick Kyle says:

          CM,

          Then is the answer to question the text, or to question those that violate the letter and Spirit of the text?

      • Klasie Kraalogies says:

        On what basis do you claim it is bullshit – other than YOUR belief – because that can be countered by some other random person saying “but I believe”….

        In other words, can you substantiate by any other means that anathematizing ….

        • Patrick Kyle says:

          Klasie,

          This is a blog comment thread, not a forum for the point-by-point refutation of Ehrmann’s latest book, or a systematic take down of the of the Jesus seminar’s most recent pronouncement. A quick Google search and some poking around will find the work of much more able critics of this stuff than myself. I was sharing my observation that much of the higher critical stuff I have seen seems to be a naked emperor claiming to be well clothed. I don’t see a wealth of evidence offered in this article or thread to the veracity of higher criticism, just the assumption that the findings of higher criticism are true, and that it’s methods are intellectually and academically sound.

          • Klasie Kraalogies says:

            Fine – I’m just wary of blanket statements based on nothing other than belief based on desire. Which could very well be bullshit in and of itself.

            Unfortunately, real interaction with ideas cannot be done in quick statements, but has to be dealt with in lengthy arguments, with evidence etc etc. Maybe it is time we make peace with that. In my own fields of expertise, when engaged upon in blog threads, I m often frustrated by the idea that one can answer objections in telegram style – because it simply doesn’t work like that. The real world is complex, with many shades, and you need a lot of knowledge to enter many of the arguments.

            Wisdom and understanding simply isn’t democratic.

          • Patrick,

            I would note that the first person to use the word “fable” in the comments was you. No one else here including Peter Enns is claiming the Bible is a bunch of “fables”. There is a huge stretch of understanding of scripture between “100% literal not read in context”, and “fable”. I don’t think you will find Peter Enns at either extreme.

          • Richard Hershberger says:

            ‘There is a huge stretch of understanding of scripture between “100% literal not read in context”, and “fable”.’

            This is truth, and truth which people at either extreme often have trouble grasping. I have been accused by both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists of waffling, or even making up excuses on the spot, for stating centuries-old principles of exegesis.

          • Patrick Kyle says:

            Michael,
            The word ‘myth’ has appeared and is standard stock in trade for higher critics. I would argue the only functional difference between myth and fable is the importance we place upon the story in question.

            For a better treatment of the subject, Francis Schaeffer wrote a small book called ‘Escape From Reason’ which was a philosophical critique of the Higher Critical movement. In it he shows that those who embrace HC and wish to remain Christians are forced to make a philosophical and existential leap to an ‘upper story’ that contains a kind of ‘truth’ (a Religious truth) that is unlike the truth(s) we deal with in our daily lives. He perfectly describes the post modern dilemma years ahead of it’s embrace by the popular culture, and I think describes the kind of ‘post-critical’ view Enns is advocating.

            Call me negative or cruel (as was insinuated in some comments above) but I stand with the Apostle Paul. If Jesus’ physical body did not come out of that grave under His own power, we are of all men most miserable, still in our sins, and bearing false witness of God. Furthermore, we concern ourselves with myths and fables that have no power to save. What does most Higher criticism say about the resurrection?

          • Richard Hershberger says:

            “The word ‘myth’ has appeared and is standard stock in trade for higher critics. I would argue the only functional difference between myth and fable is the importance we place upon the story in question.”

            The critics are using “myth” in the sense directly from the Greek, ?????. It is a rookie mistake to assume that any and all extended senses that have since then accreted to the word apply in this context.

          • Richard Hershberger says:

            “The critics are using “myth” in the sense directly from the Greek, ?????.”

            And here I learn that the IMonk web tech can’t handle Greek letters. The word transliterates simply as ‘mythos’ but I was aiming for the original Greek to avoid the irrelevant semantic baggage that form has in English.

      • Faulty O-Ring says:

        That’s funny–I have the same impression (“bullshit”) of theology.

    • I think you will find, in Enns at least, a rather daring synthesis of evangelical faith and post-critical biblical interpretation. Which, as I myself am discovering, usually serves to make people on both sides unhappy.

    • -> “…there is no going back to the way things were before. You can’t unlearn what you’ve learned. You can’t unchop a tree. It’s down, and there it lies, withering and rotting, and not all your wishing is going to restore it.”

      This is only partially true. While you can’t go back to the way the things were before and you can’t unchop a tree, you can look for the NEW things and look for OTHER trees.

      When I was in my spiritual desert (5-7 years of a thin thread of faith), I wondered if I’d ever feel God’s presence again. In a way, the trees were gone, there was only bleak desert, no water. And when I came out of the desert after being in it for so long, it took me a while to realize there was suddenly some greenery around me. The presence I felt of God when I came out of the desert was different than when I went in. My understanding of Him, my understanding of deserts, my understanding of faith, was greatly changed.

      So while you can’t unchop a tree, that doesn’t mean there are no more trees. Trees of great beauty. Just go looking for them. And maybe it was time for that tree to die, anyway. Maybe God wants you to experience Him differently. That is my experience, looking back upon my desert time.

      • Thanks, Rick. Yours is a good and hopeful thought.

        • I was hoping it would be found hopeful and not critical, H. Lee. Trust me…there are other trees and other greenery. It might take a while to find it, but it’s out there. And if your experience ends up like mine, it’ll be like another layer of scales falling from your eyes.

          • I think Enns is saying something like this when he speaks of the mainline church seeking a second naivete, and then following that up with the personal judgment that he’d rather be post-critical and wounded than pre-critical and defensive. I didn’t have quite the same experience as it seems you did, Rick, but I did spend decades in the pre-critical /defensive camp. It was miserable. Taking critical scholarship seriously has been very freeing, and it seems God is far closer and more real now than ever before.

          • The thing about being “post-critical” is that it’s not a discrete phenomenon. It comes in levels, and at intervals. Just when you think you’re done, and have arrived at a place of relative stability, having passed through the acid baths and out the other side, you suddenly find that there are yet more acid-baths to pass through, and that you in fact are not post-critical but are swimming (or sinking) in a veritable sea of critical acid baths (and if my experience is the measure of anything, it’s not “The Sea of Love”). It doesn’t end, and if you think it does, it’s because you’ve embraced a second naivete that itself will inevitably be acid-bathed.

            • There is certainly a danger of “always learning, yet never coming to a knowledge of the the truth.” However, if the truth is the person of Jesus, crucified/buried/raised/exalted/coming again, then we need not fear pursuing accurate understandings about the nature of the biblical text. This is the daring synthesis Enns attempts, and I applaud it as the way forward for the future. Conservative scholars can only shut their eyes to facts for so long, and those who embrace faith-destroying aspects of some forms of criticism will find themselves without Jesus.

      • This comment makes me weep.
        Thanks for sharing your experience. I find that it eloquently describes my experience as well, I just had not realized it until I read that. I think I keep looking for the old tree and I am missing all the new trees that are surrounding me.
        I feel shaken in my core
        H

      • George Christiansen says:

        I think you touch on much of the problem many face: we are looking for comfort, not truth.

        There is huge frustration in knowing you don’t know that often turns into fear of further pursuing the truth, so many sit there trying to glue their idols back together instead of honestly pushing forward facing the possibility that there may be no resolution.

    • Christiane says:

      there’s a paradox here:

      on the one hand we see H. Lee’s comment, this:
      “I can recall, with the pain almost as fresh today as half a century ago, when I became aware that the whole Christmas story – the trip to Bethlehem, the angels, the shepherds, the manger, the Star, the Wise men – all of it, was just a story, like any other fairy tale. Beautiful and symbolic, to be sure, but it never actually happened. The acid bath dissolved it, and the old belief will never come back. I have prayed, as earnestly and long as possible, for my youthful belief or naiveté to be restored to me. The answer I have always received was a gentle, inexorable, “No.” ”

      and yet, is it not the fundamentalist-evangelicals that have removed themselves from the Church Year (specifically, the great reflective times of Lent and Advent)? Where are the lit candles, the singing of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, the ‘waiting in hope’ Scriptures read in community, the great beauty of the Church’s celebration of the moments in the life of Mary, when Gabriel came, her ‘Be It Done Unto Me’ assent, her Magnificat ? It’s almost as if it was the Fundamentalist-evangelicals who took the ‘acid bath’ and came out of it by celebrating a day they call ‘Christ’s Birthday’ and singing ‘Happy Birthday to Jesus’ . . .

      the paradox is, for me, stark and painful . . .

      what is left for fundamentalists after they have abandoned ‘the criterion by which we interpret the Bible is Jesus Christ’? I’m not sure of this, but I think that may have been the REAL ‘acid bath’,
      and it is the fundamentalists who now suffer the results

  3. Patrick Kyle says:

    And, I would add that I would have no interest in paying to learn about these fables and/or paying people to teach about. them

  4. I watch the documentaries on things like the history channel. I don’t want to put down the learning of such men. I am left with a smile on my face. I have hard time being so far removed from a time when these things took place thousands of years ago and the comments that are put forth as concrete knowledge.

    What i do read are words that speak to me today about love. How I couldn’t have ever lived anything like a Holy life without help from the one who created me. These things speak to me personally in a way I can understand them and I am sorry if it doesn’t fit for someone else. In my testimony I would encourage that what God is telling you or working with you on is something that fits you not me but that truth about love is basic and we will arrive at the same place some day.

    An Atheist once said if you knew I was going to hell and did nothing about it, it would only prove to me you don’t love as much as you say you do. We wince at the thought of the good news including your going to hell but Jesus in His honesty and love was trying to tell us something and I am glad he did. Having experienced what the nature of sin is and what the nature of the name of Jesus is I have much to be grateful for.

    Personally I am not afraid of the intellectual and academics of whatever. Those things have no problem changing some in light of something else. Paul was saying some open their mouths for this reason and some for that but every time someone opens their mouth about Christ His cause is furthered. He is the one calling and it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to the truth. I tell you I don’t have it all yet but i am going to keep going and when we meet I will have a smile for you.

    I am bothered about the twistings I see on TV for the sake of money and whatever is being rationalized for the sake of a kingdom that maybe IMO doesn’t need that help. I guess in my turning the channel and shaking my head it doesn’t change my walk any with the one I love. Only He can do that or my choice to just walk away. Where would I go and what would I do. I have experienced all the things of this world and have found them to be nothing. The only thing I have found worthwhile is Him and inside of Him everything else becomes worthwhile.

    • -> “An Atheist once said if you knew I was going to hell and did nothing about it, it would only prove to me you don’t love as much as you say you do.:

      I’ve heard that before and really dislike that atheistic argument. Truth is, our rebuttal to that is, “I do love you. I’m holding the life-line out for you. All you have to do is grab it.”

      And for those of us who are drifting toward some sort of universalism, another possible rebuttal is, “Jesus just might save you from hell anyway. Yes, he’s possibly that loving, and his victory might be that extreme.”

      • It’s just more bullshit from Penn and Teller.

        What? It’s the name of his tv show, I swear, mom!

        • Actually, to be fair, I really like Penn Gillette and think he’s an incredibly smart man and articulated despite his coarseness. I look forward to whenever he shows up in my regular podcast rotations.

          • Yes, I’ve seen some of Penn Gillette’s atheistic musings. I find the man fascinating. I wish I could share a cup of coffee or a beer with him sometime. He’ll have a great testimony to share and a great personality with which to do it when he finally figures out God loves him.

          • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

            Articulate. Unless he is an arthropod, I very much doubt he is articulated. 😀

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            You never know…

          • Richard Hershberger says:

            meh. He cops his attitude of “telling truth to power” even when he isn’t. The episode on second hand smoke is an example. In fairness I gather that he later recanted, but still… Yes, he is smart and articulate, but he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is (just like the rest of us) and he sometimes ends up using his articulateness to advance his personal prejudices. I might be interested to see what he has to say, but I want footnotes, and I’m going to check them carefully before I’m persuaded.

          • George Christiansen says:

            He is a great guy if what you see in interviews is what you get in real life. I appreciate his humility and the fact that he is willing to side against his own team when he believes they are wrong.

    • I am bothered about the twistings I see on TV for the sake of money and whatever is being rationalized for the sake of a kingdom that maybe IMO doesn’t need that help.

      This. There’s nothing to fear from intellectualism, but there is SO much to fear from the revivalists, hucksters, holiness types, televangelists, etc. They do the most damage.

      To quote an Irish prophet from 30 years ago –

      “I can’t tell the difference between ABC News, Hillstreet Blues, and a preacher on the Old Time Gospel Hour, stealing money from the sick and the old. Well the God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”

  5. turnsalso says:

    This is wonderful in its concept, and I admire Enns’ expression of a lack of fear of the historical-critical method. My question is, though, if the composition (rather than compilation) of the OT was a recasting of the Israelites’ story from a post-exilic perspective, and the NT was a recasting of it from the perspective of Christ and his newly-formed Church, what reason is there to stop at that point? What if a Third Testament is necessary, gold plates optional? How is one to evaluate claims like that, or that one ought to jettison the whole thing as having worn out its usefulness or appropriate context?

    • Well, there is the NT claim that Jesus is God’s “final Word” (Heb 1). IMO it is the task of those who follow to hear and respond to that Word, and not look for further revelation.

  6. Vega Magnus says:

    I’ll admit I haven’t read much Biblical criticism, but I am not bothered by what it has to say. I think it is because my faith, whether this is good or bad, is founded not on the Bible, but on what I want to be true. I prefer to think that there is a merciful God rather than that we are merely products of natural processes and nothing more. Therefore, I believe.

    • my faith, whether this is good or bad, is founded not on the Bible, but on what I want to be true.

      Simply put, I would never trust my own feelings as to what should or should not be true. I need something a little more concrete and external than that.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says:

      This is more insightful than what one might think. Indeed, you are just channeling the great Caesar here:

      What we wish, we readily believe, and what we ourselves think, we imagine others think also.

      This of course means nothing about the truth. For what we wish has already been shaped by our cultural and sociological environment. We have certain inbred biological desires, sure, but the shape of those desires, for want of a better image, we took in with out mother’s milk. Therefore, if our desire is the basis of our faith, we cannot judge the man born into the Taliban household, who would want to bring all the world in his theocratic worldview, even through bloodshed. This seems a perilous understanding of reality, one which lets go of everything that can be proven or investigated or dissected, for the drift-winds of desire.

  7. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    Inevitably, as already demonstrated, these posts draws criticism of the kind that says “you are trying to make God in your image”, or “you are making yourself the arbiter of the text”, and thus they display a rich irony, if not a delicious lack of self awareness. Even if you claim to stand in a tradition saying thus, having done something for 10 or a 1000 years does not make any more or less right.

    An honest, open minded approach to the text is to be applouded, not piled on to. Even if a few sacred cows are to be tipped. And if he is wrong, demonstrate why, withouth shouthing “God is Great!” and pile on the anathemas.

  8. Peter writes “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.”

    This section embraces and speaks from a viewpoint that the scriptures are a human product designed to achieve human goals and DESIRES. And they are in part human. But the church believes that they are also God’s word. So a faithful examination of the scriptures needs to also ask what they are as God’s product designed to achieve God’s goals and desires. This I have not yet seen done.

    I’ve started thinking about it, and may eventually get to serious analysis. What I’ve got so far is an illustration and single basic example via means of a counterfactual hypothetical. Imagine that instead of sending Jesus into the culture shaped by the Old Testament, Jesus had been sent into classical Greek culture, incarnated as the son of Maria, a lower to middle class Greek woman who was not yet married.

    The Greeks did have the idea of humans fathered or mothered by gods. (Think of all of Zeus’ seduction of humans.) Those people were special, and the heroes of Greek mythology were often men of a father that was a god and a mother that was a human. Heracles and Perseus were sons of Zeus. Theseus, a founder-king of Athens, somehow was son of two fathers, the god Poseidon and a human Aegeus, and a single mother. Achilles was the son of a divine mother and a human father.

    If Jesus had been born into the Greek culture, that culture would have shaped the view of him and his acts. That would have changed the message Jesus conveyed to his disciples and the message those disciples conveyed to others. So to convey the messages he did convey, he needed to be born into a culture that allowed those messages to be conveyed. Thus one of God’s purposes in forming the Old Testament is shaping the Judahite culture into one in which Jesus could convey the message of the New Testament.

    Holding and working from a view of the scriptures that treats them as a joint product of God and man must be as intellectually challenging as it has been to view, work, and preach from a perspective of Jesus being both fully God and fully man. Historically, there have been many errors and heresies due to failures in holding to this dual nature of Jesus. I think many of the challenges of addressing the scripture today arise from the challenge of holding to the dual nature of the scriptures. The characteristic error of the academy is to latch onto the human authorship of the scriptures and ignore the divine. The characteristic error of fundamentalism is to latch onto the divine authorship and ignore the human. What we need is an integrated view that respects and draws strength from both sides. I neither have it nor would know how to use it to teach and practice.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

      So a faithful examination of the scriptures needs to also ask what they are as God’s product designed to achieve God’s goals and desires..
      Hm. That sounds like a pretty tall order. Anyone on the thread care to speak for God?

      • Yes, it is a pretty tall order. You’d have to have a lot of temerity to think you could do this. But, is it any taller an order than this:

        “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?”?

  9. The Bible is a thing of mysterious beauty. The more I learn and read, the more I realize I don’t have to defend anything in it. I like what Luke writes at the beginning of his gospel account:

    “So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.” (Luke 1:1-4, The Message)

    What Luke is telling me and what Jesus is telling me in this short statement is, “Jesus/I can be investigated and found to be true.” There are many real-life accounts of atheists/agnostics who dove into the scriptures and historical documents and archeology expecting to disprove Jesus, only to find him and find he was real and true.

    So lately I just tell my agnostic/atheist friends, “Just pick the Bible up and read it. If He’s real, He’ll let you know.”

  10. Enn’s call for greater synthesis and dialog is important. I’m struck that the first move in several opening comments is not to raise a concern about a specific aspect of scholarship, but rather to dismiss Enn’s project outright.

    Some observations:

    1. When we’re talking about “critical scholarship,” we’re using a simple label to cover a tremendous amount of academic work. The idea that one has to accept everything in this pool of literature, or nothing, is a false dichotomy.

    2. If taken to heart, this dichotomy cedes all rhetorical ground and intellectual space either to fundamentalists or strident critics. This is unfortunate. The fundamentalists will tend toward insular thinking and building institutional bunkers, which may not be the best stance for the church to take, and they will tell us that all true faith brings one to compliance and confidence about all received formulations and ideas; the strident critics will relish the perception that all thinking and reflection must lead to one objective conclusion, which they will gladly outline for us. Lost entirely is the sound of these volleys of gunfire is a real value of the academy—which is to explore and test ideas, and to promote dialog. Also lost here is importance to any faith tradition of maintaining a lively dialog and wedding of the life of faith. There may be danger there; but there is equal danger of insularity.

    3. Scholars have suspicious motivations related to money and power; but so do religious leaders. Is that not reason to balance one off the other, to some degree? Plus, this is really only a confounding point to someone claiming that either intellectual or religious leaders ought to be trusted as absolute authorities—which is, I hope, not what anyone wishes to argue.

    4. If there is no rhetorical or institutional space within which people can ask the kinds of questions Enns asks, then a religious tradition is going to loose people who it didn’t need to loose. This includes evangelicals who understand the academy’s arguments and know how to use its tools. It also includes an unknown quantity of college students or voracious readers, who figure out these conversations exist and have no models for how to engage in them in a faithful way. There are very few spaces where these conversations can happen.

    This may not be a major blow to evangelicalism’s numbers. I think the number of people who are cognizant of this problem are a smallish percentage. However, these people are real people who are trying to work through questions and to find a faith they can affirm and live. They are often also the kind of accomplished people, thinkers, writers, and artists who would contribute to a faith tradition’s vitality.

    5. Related to point 4, is not the anti-intellectualism of the evangelical movement – especially it’s obsession with insiders and outsiders, safe thinkers and dangerous thinkers, faith vs. doubt, piety vs. learning, etc. are not part of what shoved a fair number of i-monk folks into the wilderness?

    6. Keep in mind that scholarship does attract people who have an ax to grind with received ideas–it is in the DNA of the modern academy. That community has produced tremendous insight, but sometimes the possession of common axes let ideas gain be hold axiomatically that deserve more scrutiny than they are receiving. All communities have that flaw. But nobody who is being honest in the academy is unaware of this flaw. Again, this is why dialog and debate is the engine of the university world — and it should function as invitation to people to learn the ropes and become a part of that dialog, if they have the inclination. Unfortunately, this is not always articulated clearly to the public, especially not in popular books that attempt summarize critical scholarship. History channel documentaries and popular books like “God: A History” tend to grab certain conventions in scholarship and proclaim them as thought they’re certain truths accepted by all scholars. They overstep, by telling the public what to think, when they should be equipping it to think.

    Personally I think there is a large and lively dialog to have over what ideas in the academy are useful or valid, and how we ought to reflect on them. That is part of the problem: there’s a lot to be explored, but there’s been so little space within which it has been encouraged, or even allowed. So it seems to me that Enns proposition—that a dialog is possible and healthful—is a heartening one.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says:

      Good comment, except point 3: If you want money, academia is the last place to go to…. 🙂

      • Oh, believe me, I know. 🙂

        The real temptation of the academic is reputation, influence, and the right not to have one’s socks match. But even those prizes are elusive.

    • Danielle, my hunch is that there is tremendous misunderstanding about the processes involved in scholarship – equally true of science and svientific research.

      I really wish that neither thing carried such negative connotaions among evangelicals, but then, revivalism has never placed ahigh premium on studiousness. Instead, it’s shifted to “personal experience,” so scholarship is suspect by default.

      Mark Noll’s book on the “evangelical mind” is a good title to check out re. all of the things under discussion here.

      • Numo, ditto on Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I just finished it.

        It was Christianity Today’s “Book of the Year” 1995, which makes their commitment suspect too.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

      It is a false dichotomy, and thanks for pointing that out – but seminaries everywhere are aware of that and actively teach students to be choosy. I think Enns’ point is the basis of our decision. For most confessional seminaries, the basis is “whatever lines up with our tradition”.

    • Faulty O-Ring says:

      Imagine re-writing your #2 to apply to the conflict between astrology and astronomy. Surely there must be some middle ground…?

  11. Part of immersing yourself in either fundamentalism or the academy is that you have to learn a new language for each. And those languages too often seem to be separated from what we experience as reality if we are seeking Truth with as open a mind as we can muster. Neither usually seems to take into account the reality of the Holy Spirit as guide and teacher.

    I don’t know much about seminaries today, other than my pastor’s observation that younger students in his classes seem to have as primary motivation finding out what is necessary to get a B in the course. I’m pretty sure I would not do very well if I had to go back into that milieu. Yes, it would be good to have a mastery of Hebrew and Greek, but for an overall basic seminary education I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be than here. Cutting edge while connected to reality as we live it. And the teachers and principal are learning and growing right along with the rest of us. Good stuff!

    • Faulty O-Ring says:

      The “language” of mainline seminaries tends to be borrowed from multi-culti, deconstructionist, lit-crit type rhetoric.

      • Might that not be the language of contemporary academia in general?

        • Faulty O-Ring says:

          Depends on the field. In some, you can get away with such bullshittery, others have more of a subject core. Some (like philosophy) are split down the middle between pro-bs and anti-bs factions.

  12. Thorough and insightful comment.

  13. I think Pope Benedict said it best

    POPE BENEDICT: I wouldn’t subscribe to so harsh a judgment. The application of the historical method to the Bible as a historical text was a path that had to be taken. If we believe that Christ is real history, and not myth, then the testimony concerning him has to be historically accessible as well. In this sense, the historical method has also given us many gifts. It has brought us back closer to the text and its originality, it has shown us more precisely how it grew, and much more besides. The historical-critical method will always remain one dimension of interpretation. Vatican II made this clear. On the one hand, it presents the essential elements of the historical method as a necessary part of access to the Bible. At the same time, though, it adds that the Bible has to be read in the same Spirit in which it was written. It has to be read in its wholeness, in its unity. And that can be done only when we approach it as a book of the People of God progressively advancing toward Christ. What is needed is not simply a break with the historical method, but a self-critique of the historical method; a self-critique of historical reason that takes cognizance of its limits and recognizes the compatibility of a type of knowledge that derives from faith; in short, we need a synthesis between an exegesis that operates with historical reason and an exegesis that is guided by faith. We have to bring the two things into a proper relationship to each other. That is also a requirement of the basic relationship between faith and reason.

  14. Randy Thompson says:

    I am currently reading and very much enjoying Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.” It seems to me that he does a superb job of modeling the kind of “post critical” Bible reading Enns is talking about. This is the most spiritually and intellectually stimulating book that I’ve read in a long time. I hope to read its “prequel,” which looks at the birth narratives, in time for Christmas.

  15. Chaplain Mike – Not sure if you (or others) would agree, but I thought Roger Olson’s recent articles on the role of experience in theology would serve as a good companion piece to Enns article.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/11/thoughts-about-the-role-of-experience-in-theology-part-one/
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/11/thoughts-about-the-role-of-experience-in-theology-part-two-with-special-reference-to-friedrich-schleiermacher-and-stanley-j-grenz/

    • Faulty O-Ring says:

      Patheos is just a perfect shit-storm of bullshittery. It’s Martin Luther King this, interfaith that, and Wiccan astrology the other thing.

    • George Christiansen says:

      Experience is always going to play a huge role driving in both theology and biblical interpretation.

      We constantly test the scriptures and our understanding of them when we try to actually apply them and the result is going to change what we think they are saying or our ideas about.

      Having not yet received a Porche is going to effect one’s view of prayer and what asking “in My name” and “believing” all really means. Likewise, not hearing the audible voice of God will effect how we read about when he “spoke” in bible stories.

      Sure our experiences, or rather our perceptions of them, cannot be fully trusted, but neither can the opinions of historians or our beliefs. Finding some continuity between the three does lend itself to being in the ballpark though.

  16. On this bit from Enns:

    “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.”

    Sometimes the fact that the message is articulated within a context – and was deeply important and transformative for people in that context – is taken to be threatening because it could have relativizing implications. If a text was for, and shaped by, a post-exilic Jewish community, what relevance can it have for me?

    Over time, however, I have come around to seeing this as an observation with deeply hopeful implications. What good is a self-revelation of God that is not contextualized in such a way that that it is understood and immediate to those to whom God is communicating? People are not ahistorical beings; they have all kinds of collective and personal limitations. An articulation of God that was ahistorical would not be intelligible or relevant. If it were possible to understand such a revelation, ordinary people are surely out in the dark here; you will need to be a philosopher or mystic of great accomplishment. But God shows up in an intelligible, personal way.

    Even better, the would expect a God who becomes known in this way would be able to keep appearing. Scripture seems to record just this happening again and again. And it gives us the stories of this encounters, which suggests a stories, collectively A Story, in which one is invited to participate and be imbedded.

    If that is the case, one would expect to find great meaning in what scripture said to the original audiences and much to reflect on in what we discover about this. But one would expect God not be limited to the original context, but rather to appear (in Scripture as it is being read, in the sacraments, and so on) to people now.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Very Jewish.

      Judaism emphasizes the here & now more than the Hereafter, Living Your Life instead of Preparation for the Afterlife.
      Judaism hashes out interpretations of the Holy Book as times change — more “Two Jews, Three Opinions” going back & forth than “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”.
      With scenes like Abraham haggling God down outside Sodom — “Fifty Righteous Men? How About Twenty? How About Ten?”; Jacob wrestling all night with God, getting his leg broken, yet still refusing to let go “Until You give me a Blessing!”

    • “If that is the case, one would expect to find great meaning in what scripture said to the original audiences and much to reflect on in what we discover about this. But one would expect God not be limited to the original context, but rather to appear (in Scripture as it is being read, in the sacraments, and so on) to people now.”

      And you would expect to find God operating outside all these mediums, too; in fact, completely outside Christianity, as well. One more bit of argument to put in my “Why I should become a Quaker (Liberal)” file.

      • “And you would expect to find God operating outside all these mediums, too”

        Not to be enigmatic, but I suppose one would expect to find God wherever God decided to be. I certainly hope that includes Christ becoming known to a person reading the Bible today, and the sacraments. I’m not going to complain if it were other places. I can’t climb into the heavens, so God can’t or won’t come to where I am, then I really am done. (Lord, have mercy.)

        “One more bit of argument to put in my “Why I should become a Quaker (Liberal)” file.”

        I take that it’s a bad thing this is going in the “Quaker” file?

        • No, not a bad thing. Only a difficult and painful thing, because of the dislocation it would involve for me and those others who have become used to my location in mainline Christianity. I don’t want to add that pain and difficulty to already painful and difficult lives, so I probably will remain where I am; but I’m very likely, at this point, to make an inner disengagement from traditional Christianity, and an inner emigration to Quakerism, even while I continue to sit in the pews, or more correctly, even as I continue to sit in the choir stalls of a mainline church.

          • George Christiansen says:

            I can relate.

            I have this uncomfortable combination going on of not knowing what to believe and not really wanting to know what I currently really believe.

            The latter comes with some potentially painful consequences, some of which would be due to my inability to keep it to myself, which would have effects on others.

          • Robert, the Quakers have much to recommend them — and I suspect there are fair number of mainline Protestants who dip a ladle into Quakerism.

            “Dislocation,” on the other hand, is a bear, even when merely an internal event. You have my sympathy about whatever toll it wants to exact in your case (hopefully not much). It is, to me, a very painful word that brings to mind much from which I wish I could finally get finally free.

  17. “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?”

    I wonder why this statement makes me think of Pentecostalism. I guess in this case the Bible is the unknown tongue, and the scholar (or scholars) is the interpreter. In addition, only the scholar (or scholars), the interpreter, possesses the necessary discernment, in the form of specialized expertise, to determine if a current expression of Christianity lines up with the correctly interpreted text. Only the scholar enables the community to know what God was actually doing then, and what he’s doing now. And what is currently being revealed about God, through the prophetic office of the scholar, is just as important as what was revealed in the past.

    I don’t believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible. I think that higher criticism is correct in asserting that the traditions that formed the Bible had a patchwork quality, though I’m less sanguine about any particular analysis of the writing and redaction of the New Testament documents provided by higher criticism. I think higher criticism claims to know more than it possibly can, and I don’t buy most of it, or most of what I’ve seen of it.

    So, while I share higher criticism’s skepticism about traditional ideas of biblical inspiration, I’m also skeptical of higher criticism to the degree that it claims to uncover the “original” intention of the writers and redactors of the biblical texts. When Enns goes one step further, and attempts to rebuild an edifice of faithful Christian biblical interpretation based on higher criticism’s probing of the texts, I become completely incredulous. To me, this has the appearance of a house of cards.

    Enns claims that this discussion needs to be at the popular level. I’m going to play the prophet and predict that Enns will gain no traction at the popular level, when the popular level is understood to be those who sit in the pews. This is the stuff of academia, not of everyday life; as a result, Enns audience will remain mostly in academia, and perhaps be rewarded by the recognition of his peers for his innovative scholarship, and a lifelong career in the academic circuit.

    As for myself, Enns’ ideas make me want to become a Quaker (Liberal).

    • Faulty O-Ring says:

      “House of cards”–yes, very true. Christianity as we know it cannot survive an honest study of its own texts. No matter how much we try to sugar-coat it and dress it up with moderating language, the religion is based on a pack of lies. Judaism can survive this, because its group identities are not based on belief. Perhaps some Christian groups can continue on in this way as well, due to cultural and institutional inertia (like Anglicanism). But fundamentalism is right to fear truth, fight against it, and work to corrupt it.

      • I know that some Christians avoid this issue of skepticism about the inspiration of the biblical texts by deferring to the authoritative interpretation of Church tradition, either in its Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox form. I think this is sleight of hand, wherein a moving and hard to deconstruct authority (Tradition) is substituted for a static and easy to deconstruct authority (Scripture).

        The real difference between the problem of the authority of Scripture and the problem of the authority of Tradition is that Tradition is harder to pin down, because it’s not located in a single place, as the Bible is. Tradition is diffuse: it’s spread out along a wide swath of time and space; even if the illusion of its authority is undermined in one or a dozen places, it has a thousand more places to retreat to and stage its defense. But defense, and rearguard action, it is.

        • Faulty O-Ring says:

          Catholics don’t necessarily have to take the rhetoric of authority seriously in order to perpetuate the religion–they just have to find some value in it as a social thing. (Think weddings and funerals.) So even if they turn up the bones of Jesus tomorrow, the church will do okay.

          • I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, and was very familiar with many Catholics who did not “take the rhetoric of authority seriously.” In my experience, few did take it seriously.

            Still, people in the United States are leaving the RCC in droves; they are less culturally attached to it than their forbears. I’m an example of that phenomenon.

          • George Christiansen says:

            That is because the people who stay in the shallow water and on the fringes are always safe from the issues that they cannot even know exist from where they sit.

            You have to have some expectations to be disappointed.

        • George Christiansen says:

          “The real difference between the problem of the authority of Scripture and the problem of the authority of Tradition is that Tradition is harder to pin down, because it’s not located in a single place, as the Bible is.”

          It is interesting that when the Bible is clearly “wrong” we put the blame on the readers humanity and when authority is wrong, abusive, or anything else unseemly we essentially do the same thing. And yet our own humanness is some how supposed to be reliable enough to know that either or both of these things is more reliable than said humanness…..because faith.

          Gonna need a bot more data than that myself.

    • wonder why this statement makes me think of Pentecostalism. I guess in this case the Bible is the unknown tongue, and the scholar (or scholars) is the interpreter. In addition, only the scholar (or scholars), the interpreter, possesses the necessary discernment, in the form of specialized expertise, to determine if a current expression of Christianity lines up with the correctly interpreted text.

      Strange, but I see it as the exact opposite. It means, maybe once and for all, that the correct understanding can be known. That it’s discernible, objective…and far from the subjective interpretations of my fundamentalist and pentecostal pasts.

      I want to know what the Bible says, why, how, and for whom. Let’s start there and trust the Spirit for the rest.

      • Let us just see if Enns reconstructions stand the tests of time as “objective.” I’m willing to wait and see, and I’d wager, if I were a betting man, that they are no more likely to stand those tests than they are to gain traction at the popular level.

        Besides that, maybe there is no one “correct understanding” of the text, maybe the text of necessity will always yield more than one equally valid interpretation. Maybe the Bible “says” more than one thing, maybe it has multiple messages, some of them contradictory, and multiple meanings. Maybe scholars can’t deliver us from this multiplicity because it’s embedded in the texts. From what little I know of it, a lot of scholars don’t even try to deliver us from the multiplicity of the text, because they have to come to believe that multiplicity is pervades the biblical texts.

        You talk about the Spirit as if it’s a foregone conclusion that we can rest there, all other things being equal; but the concept of “the Spirit” is a doctrinal one that Christians have interpreted from the Biblical texts. Scholars may have something to say about this, as well; I’m sure they do. And what they have to say may undermine any simple “trust the Spirit” piety that we would like to bring with us into the whole endeavor.

        • So the Bible is entirely subjective and we can pick and choose what we want to believe because it’s open to interpretation? Behold, we are as God!

          • George Christiansen says:

            That is not what was said.

            Picking and choosing is not the same thing as admitting that your own or some groups interpretations may not be standing on as solid ground as they’d like to think.

            The former is a moral failure. The latter is admitting reality.

            Big difference.

          • StuartB,

            What George said.

            And your fundamentalist/pentecostal/evangelical roots are showing in both your somewhat hysterical rush to defend the objective truth of the Bible, and the idea that only one interpretation of the text could possibly be morally responsible. You might want to get a touch up dye job. Otherwise it’s “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss….”

          • In a way, it’s important to acknowledge that the Bible may legitimately be read in a way that we wouldn’t pick and choose, but others would.

    • “I guess in this case the Bible is the unknown tongue, and the scholar (or scholars) is the interpreter. In addition, only the scholar (or scholars), the interpreter, possesses the necessary discernment, in the form of specialized expertise, to determine if a current expression of Christianity lines up with the correctly interpreted text.”

      I’d probably be as just as incredulous, if I thought this was a necessary implication of what Enns is saying. However, I don’t think this is what he is aiming for.

      It sounds to me like Enns is making the point that critical scholarship can furnish insights that can can enrich a larger conversation that includes people beyond tweed-wearing interpreters. This is not the same thing as saying that criticism is the only tool that can derive meaning from the Bible, or that only the scholar can know anything of importance. To get to the second statement, you need to layer on some rather extraordinary additional claims. But those claims are at strong cross-purposes with what Enns is trying to accomplish.

      I imagine that what Enns would like to see is theologians make use of critical scholarship, so that it is one tool (not the only tool) that informs the theological conversation within church communities, which is then disseminated and discussed more widely. Another avenue of communication are commentaries – which exist for the sole purpose of digesting what specialists do for the use of sermon preparation, or anybody trying to dig a little deeper into interpretation. Another avenue is to write books specifically for use by readers who are not trained in your field. Enns has done this. I would also think that implicit on what Enns is saying is also that scholars should be thinking about the role they play within larger communities, and viewing what they do as a way to serve, equip, and empower those communities. This is starkly different from expecting scholars to derive only obscure and unusable interpretation from the text – and then claim this is all the text can do.

      Put another way, when Enns says that at different points communities have rearticulated or even reinterpreted their traditions, and that communities are doing this even now, there is no reason to imagine that this is a feat accomplished unilaterally by only a select group of leaders. It can be a larger communal project. It should be a larger project. And if it cannot connect to people–particularly readers like you, who can drop Barth into a conversation without effort–then it really is project dead out the gate.

      • All you say makes much sense, Danielle. But, if you look above these comments to the one by StuartB, you will see that Enns’ project has engendered the notion in at least some intelligent iMonkers that the objective is to finally arrive at one “true,” “correct,” and “objective” understanding of Scripture. This means, at the very least, that Enns’ views will contribute to the general divisiveness that claims to exclusive interpretation have caused in the Church; and, if this occurs among even in an intelligent and informed audience, you can bet that it will be multiplied if Enns’ ideas were ever to actually gain traction at the popular level. This is what I prophesy. If he were really to be successful, one day there could even be a First Church of Enns Scholar to add to the list of denominations.

        • >But, if you look above these comments to the one by StuartB, you will see that Enns’ project has engendered >the notion in at least some intelligent iMonkers that the objective is to finally arrive at one “true,” “correct,” >and “objective” understanding of Scripture…

          I should go read all Enns books before I testify to his view of objectivity. However, current and former evangelicals may ping-pong violently from evangelical certitudes to modernist ones and back again, because those are still the two rhetorical poles that exist is a lot of evangelical argumentation. It may not relate to what Enns has said.

          If Enns is interpreted as you suggest, I am not sure this would make this ecclesiastical situation substantially worse. I suspect the root problem isn’t particularly what tools theologians are using – although that may be a catalyst for controversy – but rather people value ecumenism, and whether there is any institutional basis for it. There are plenty of intramural Catholic debates, and no shortage of scholars using critical methods, but that is unlikely to split the RCC. Protestantism’s difficulty in this area isn’t any particular controversy, but rather the lack of institutional ballast.

          On a related note, it seems like you are seeing critical methods and scholarship as the basis, in themselves, for a total reconstruction of theology. Certainly there have been critics and theologians who have tried to do this. However, criticism can also be regarded merely as one tool available for use – and its use or non-use would depend on whether the tool fits the job. Moreover, it may be regarded as just one tool in the kit.

          Viewed as a tool, and not as the sole or final arbitrator of truth, this or that critical method or insight can be deployed merely as a way to understand the text or the early church better. A certain kind of critic wants to strip away layers in order to throw some out; maybe other people just want to understand how something was formed.

          Since two people have mentioned him already, Pope Benedict’s Life of Christ [which I think is where David’s quote was taken] is an example of someone with scholarly muscle might deploy both the lens of tradition and the lens of critical scholarship to assemble what is rather seamless and even devotional narrative. Clearly Faulty O was not impressed; however, I did use to read myself to sleep on that book.

          • Increasingly I’m in the unfortunate position of feeling that when all these lenses are put at a certain angle and moved to a certain distance, the subject disappears.

    • George Christiansen says:

      “So, while I share higher criticism’s skepticism about traditional ideas of biblical inspiration, I’m also skeptical of higher criticism to the degree that it claims to uncover the “original” intention of the writers and redactors of the biblical texts. When Enns goes one step further, and attempts to rebuild an edifice of faithful Christian biblical interpretation based on higher criticism’s probing of the texts, I become completely incredulous. To me, this has the appearance of a house of cards.”

      +1

  18. I read this article when it first came out last week, and I still find it confusing. What may be helpful would be some definitions, i.e. “academic” and “historical criticism”. Is this criticism that of eighteenth and nineteenth scholars, which defined a “historical Jesus” which is unrecognizable to that of the scriptural accounts? Is this criticism a study of the Bible texts and identification of later editions or edits? For my current study of Isaiah, I am using a commentary by an author who points out sections which were unlikely penned by the prophet Isaiah or text borrowed or inspired by non-biblical sources. It is actually helping understand the text better.

    By calling the bible 100% inerrant and treating every jot and tittle (in the original KJV, of course), don’t we create a filter over scripture which shields us from its original meaning?

    Both sides seem like they can’t get their agendas out of the way. I have read “liberal” commentaries which shed no insight into the meaning of a passage, except for the inconsistencies and probable later additions to the text. Conservatives do the same, e.g. handling scripture to defend young-earth creationism rather than plumbing the depths of the meaning behind the creation story.

    • George Christiansen says:

      “By calling the bible 100% inerrant and treating every jot and tittle (in the original KJV, of course), don’t we create a filter over scripture which shields us from its original meaning?”

      Is there any tactic that can avoid us putting a filter on the Bible?

      We are in need of authorial intent to even approach the Bible as what it truly IS, before we can manage meaning. Certainly there may be clues within it, but it it is like any gift.

      I can buy you a very expensive gift that would certainly indicate that I loved you simply due to the gifts nature, but it could in fact turn out that I am bribing you are just trying to get you to lower your guard so that I can take advantage of you.

      The only way to know for sure is to hear it from me directly. And even that would require me to be honest.

      It is rather clear that, even in the best circumstance, not everyone wanting such knowledge has got that phone call.