Why conservatives & liberals have both learned to read the Bible wrong

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In his new book, The Bible Tells me So, Peter Enns writes,

“You’ll never read Israel’s story on its own terms and “find Jesus” on the surface.
To see Jesus, you won’t get there by sticking to the script. You will only see Jesus there in hindsight and under the surface, where your reading of the Old Testament is driven by faith in Christ, where Jesus has become the starting point for re-understanding Israel’s story, not the logical conclusion of Israel’s story.

Here in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is not telling his disciples to stick literally to the script. He is telling them to reread the script in light of his death and resurrection.”

Enns writes this after demonstrating over several chapters that the way that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament interpreted scripture was not to “look to the Bible as a collection of unchanging information about God” but instead to recognize how “the reality of Jesus necessarily transforms Israel’s story” which meant that they “adapted and transformed their sacred story to serve the story of Jesus... Scripture became more of a jumping off point” (emphasis in the original)

In as much as the subtitle of a book indicates its central thesis, the main point Enns wants to make here is to show us “Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it.” This is directed at a fundamentalist biblicist way of reading, and I certainly agree with Enns on this point.

What I’d like to draw our attention to in addition to this is a second problem with how we read our Bibles which is not restricted to conservatives, and which Enns also clearly recognizes: Pete writes, in his typical tongue-in-cheek humorous style of how as a Bible professor, if a student were to interpret the scripture the way Jesus & co. are doing, he would whip out a big fat red marker and proceed to “dip his paper in a bucket of red ink, give him an “F” for the assignment.”

That’s because from a scholarly perspective, the goal of biblical interpretation is to report as objectively as possible what the biblical author is intending to say. The assumption here is that if we can just understand what is being said then the work of interpretation is done. This of course involves taking into account such things as context, genre, language, culture, and so on. But we still land on the same spot: Once we find out “what St Paul really meant” and such we will have unlocked to key to a correct and authoritative reading of the Bible.

The problem with this is that is not at all how Jesus reads scripture, nor is it how any of the NT writers do. This is a lesson Enns demonstrates over several chapters in his book (and if I can toot my own horn something I also cover in my forthcoming book as well). So if you are unconvinced, go read his book.

Once you can recognize that this is indeed what Jesus is doing over and over again, and what the NT writers are doing it’s a real game changer. For starters, it begs the question: Since when should we as followers of Jesus prioritize the way scholars approach a text over the way our Lord does? Could it maybe be that Jesus is on to something in how he reads scripture that these scholars are missing?

I hope you are thinking like me: Yes, yes it does.

So then the problem is not just that many of us have learned to read our Bibles in an unthinking way due to our fundamentalist assumptions that questioning and thinking are bad. In really big ways, that way of reading is supported and upheld by the way students (including those who became your pastor) learned to read the Bible in seminary, and by how we have somehow made biblical scholars the authorities who are uniquely qualified to write Bible commentaries.

There is a huge blind spot in the assumption that the way we should interpret scripture solely involves reporting what it says (which is pretty much the definition of what the word “exegesis” means!). When we do that, we cannot go further than what is on the page.

Think about that for a minute.

Imagine if the developers of the iPhone only attempted to make their phone exactly like other phones had been made in the past. On a larger scale, imagine if scientists sought only to conclude what other scientists had concluded in the past. So Einstein would only have repeated what Newton did about physics, the end. That would indeed be the end. It would be the end of scientific progress, the end of growing and learning. Newton in fact famously said “If I have been able to see farther it is because I have sat on the shoulders of giants.” which captures the scientific spirit, and I would add the spirit in which we should read our Bibles so they do not tether us to the past but open our minds to go further in the way of Jesus.

That’s how we’ve been taught to read the Bible, and this “conservative” approach means that we say today that -- despite all the evidence we may find to contrary, despite how much it is deeply hurting people we love to maintain this view, despite the fact that our conscience is screaming at us “this is wrong, this is hurtful!” -- the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination, the Bible says so, that settles it. That same logic led Christians in the not so distant past to uphold the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it seemed inhumane and wrong to them, again with the simple logic that “the Bible says so.” The point that I hope you can see in these examples is that this is not merely a matter of private religion but about how the Bible and religion can be applied in ways that are deeply hurtful, in ways that can devastate and crush. That matters.

Now progressives will typically enter into this and instead maintain that the Bible does not really say that about slavery, and that maybe Paul wasn’t actually opposed to homosexuality. They do this, once again, because -- just like their conservative brothers and sisters -- they too hold to the assumption that all we need to do is uncover what the Bible really says, and we’re done. See there's no problem, everything's fine!

Not so fast. There really are problematic things in the Bible and the liberal tendency to whitewash over that is not helpful. More to my point, this is not the approach that Jesus takes. So why must we? What Enns points out is that our focus on reading the Bible so as to uncover the correct reading of what the biblical authors were saying is simply not at all what Jesus and the writers of the NT are even attempting to do. 

Jesus is constantly changing and contradicting the Old Testament. He does this so much that the religious leaders call him a “blasphemer.” The writers of the Gospels draw out this point over and over. Jesus does not understand faithful reading of scripture to entail simply reading what the text says and unquestioningly applying it. Nor does he think it involves digging to find “what Moses really meant.” What Jesus says is new. He is innovating, he is showing us version 2.0, and not staying forever at version 1.0 as if that were a good thing. 

There's a reason it's called the "new" testament, right? As Jesus saw it, faithfulness to scripture does not mean rigidly adhering to the laws of the past even when we can see people are being hurt, as the Pharisees were doing. As with the approach of science, Jesus builds on the shoulders of those before him. His aim in doing this is not to simply parrot back what Abraham or Moses or David said, but to go further which at times can involve bursting the old wine skins with an "I know the Bible says to do it this way, but I say to you..."  

As Enns writes, “explaining Jesus drove the early Christian writers to read their Bible in new, sometimes radically different, ways.” The NT is all about how the first followers of Jesus re-thought the biblical story to make sense of what God was doing in their time. Our task today is to learn how to do that in our time. Scholarship gives us important tools to get to what the writers of the NT were saying then. But that is not where the work of interpretation ends, it is only where it begins. We need to go from that beginning and engage morally with the text. We need to think morally. We need to question. We need to build. That is the fuller work of interpretation that we see modeled in Jesus and the NT.

A big part of this involves developing a way to engage the Bible with our moral brains intact, rather than thinking that “faithfulness” to scripture requires shutting them off. This entails a huge shift in how many of us have learned to read scripture as scripture, and there are a growing number of scholars like Enns who are recognizing this and calling for a shift in approach. This is not just a minor adjustment we’re talking about here, but requires completely re-thinking how we read the Bible, including how we have been taught to interpret the Bible in seminary. That’s of course a task that’s way too big for a single blog post (or even several), but one I address at length in my forthcoming book. It's a major paradigm shift -- not only for us as individual followers of Jesus, but also for biblical scholarship especially as it is understood as a tool to aide in Christian discipleship. I'm glad that there are folks like Pete Enns who are calling for that much needed conversation to happen.

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The New Testament and Violence: Pt 2 (Paul & State Violence)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Last time, I began discussing violence in the New Testament. In particular, I am initially focusing on human violence done in the name of God (I’ll get to the question of God’s violence later, I promise). It’s critical to begin here if we want to read the Bible morally. A person saying that a hurricane or cancer was caused by God is one thing, but a person killing others for God is quite another. So we need to begin by focusing on what we do in the name of God, justice, and the good—especially when those “good” actions cause profound hurt to others.

The focus of violence in the Bible is often placed on the Old Testament, which is certainly understandable since this is where we find things like divine commands to commit genocide. Even those who defend the violence there commonly make the claim that these were commands specifically for the Israelites at the time and that for Christians today this would be completely out of the question. The New Testament clearly teaches us not to retaliate violently, but to “leave room for God’s wrath” so the problem of people killing in the name of God is really just an academic question, a thing of the past, perhaps part of another “dispensation” and Christians today don’t kill in God’s name. So we're good, right?
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The New Testament and Violence: Part 1

Saturday, September 06, 2014

On this blog we’ve been spending a lot of time wrestling with violence in the Old Testament. Beginning with this post, I'd like to turn our attention to the issue of violence and the New Testament.

There are two key issues here: human violence, and the violence of God. Both are important issues, but the obvious place to begin is with ourselves and what we do. So in this post I'll address the issue of human violence in the New Testament, and I save the issue of God's violence for a future post.

Now, while the Old Testament clearly does command human violence in the name of God, most people (including the vast majority of New Testament scholars) recognize that the central teaching of Jesus and the New Testament is enemy love, which entails a rejection of violence as a means of bringing about God's will.
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What is the Greatest Sin?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Let’s talk about sin. This gets at one of the most basic questions we can ask: What is wrong with humanity, and how can we fix it? What leads to all the hurt in our world? What is the root cause of our problems?

One popular way to define sin is separation from God. This brings out an important aspect of sin that is often overlooked: We can be separated from God, life, and love in two ways. One is by our doing hurtful things, and the other is by hurtful things done to us. In short, we all do hurtful things, and we all have been hurt. A full understanding of sin needs to take both of these into account.
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