Why Read the Bible?

That’s the question Pete Enns doesn’t answer (unless you are like him and get paid to read it).

He thinks biblical scholarship gives a good answer to the question, “what is the Bible.”

In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. . . . All of us on a journey of faith encounter God from our point of view. . . we meet God as people defined by our moment in the human drama, products of who, where, and when we are. We ask our questions of God and encounter God in our time and place in language and ideas familiar to us, just like the ancient pilgrims of faith who gave us the Bible. . . . This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions, and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. ~ The Bible Tells Me So, pp. 23-24

But I read of encounters with reality, the sublime, the stuff God created, even religious inspiration in Shakespeare, Wendell Berry, and Orhan Pamuk. So why does one set of writings qualify as the Bible when we see so many “religious” “experiences” in so many other places?

This is why the higher critics, as hard headed as they appeared to be on the old theories of divine revelation, were still as sentimental as Sunday school students when it came to offering a reasonable account for the uniqueness of a certain set of religious writings by Jewish people over almost two millennia. Can you really put the Bible up again the Norton Anthology of British Literature unless you think it’s God’s infallible word?

Which Bible, Whose Public School?

Are U.S. Christians really comfortable with bringing prayer and Bible reading back to public schools? If so, what do they do with this passage (which was part of yesterday’s Scripture readings)?

As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.” But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.

And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up, let us be going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home. And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.” (Judges 19:22-30 ESV)

Or are those who want more Christianity in the public sector more comfortable with Mr. Jefferson’s Bible, the one that leaves parts like Gibeah’s crimes on the editing room floor?

Has the Bible Become So Common that People Don’t Go to Church for It?

One of the questions I raised in my review of John Fea’s book on the American Bible Society was whether making the book so widely available, even more common than Wifi, has undermined its uniqueness:

What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial? Hollywood, after all, lost its glamour when Americans could watch movies not only in palatial theaters but also on television in their living rooms. Perhaps, as well, this riddle is connected to the nationalistic dimensions of ABS history. By linking the Bible’s greatness to American exceptionalism, the American Bible Society was attempting to counter how ordinary the Bible would become through over-distribution.

The recent Pew survey on what people look for in going to church underscores this point. Do people go to church to understand God’s word — because it is in Scripture that he reveals himself — or are they looking for ways to be a better Christian that may or may not involve understanding Scripture? They may say that look for a church with good preaching, but the content of that preaching is not in view in the survey:

“Of the country’s largest religious traditions, evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to say they have looked for a new congregation,” Pew wrote. “For Catholics, this may reflect that choosing a new congregation (after a move, for example) can be as straightforward as determining which Catholic parish they reside in, removing the need for a more extensive search. Members of the historically black Protestant tradition move to new communities less often than other Protestants, which may be one reason they also are less likely to have ever looked for a new congregation.”

When evaluating a new church, top-quality sermons are the most important thing both evangelicals (94%) and historically black Protestants (92%) are looking for. They also want to feel welcomed by leaders (82%).

Evangelicals put slightly more emphasis than historically black Protestants in the style of worship services (80% vs. 76%) and location (69% vs. 62%).

Is that preaching or ministering God’s word or merely the pastor’s thought about religious matters in a sermon?

But if Glenn Paauw thinks Christians need to encounter bigger passages of Scripture than the McNuggets they generally read for personal edification, wouldn’t a worship service or two on Sunday with exposition of Scripture be a good place to start?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

Going to church for the word read and preached is a two-fer — worship your maker and hear his word.

The Major Prophet Speed Bump

I have long wondered whether the reason why covenant youth don’t understand the sacraments comes from the placement of material in the Shorter Catechism. Many young people master well the ordo salutis, but fail to answer with any precision or comprehension the catechism’s teaching on baptism and the Lord’s supper. The reason for this, I suspect, is the intervening material between justification and sanctification and the means of grace, namely, a long section on the Decalogue.

Now having spent several weeks reading through Jeremiah with the missus I wonder if the major prophets are the hill on which read-the-Bible-in-a-year practitioners die. I mean, what do you do with relentless passages like these:

“Judah mourns,
and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
Her nobles send their servants for water;
they come to the cisterns;
they find no water;
they return with their vessels empty;
they are ashamed and confounded
and cover their heads.
Because of the ground that is dismayed,
since there is no rain on the land,
the farmers are ashamed;
they cover their heads.
Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
because there is no grass.
The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights;
they pant for air like jackals;
their eyes fail
because there is no vegetation.

“Though our iniquities testify against us,
act, O LORD, for your name’s sake;
for our backslidings are many;
we have sinned against you.
O you hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?
Why should you be like a man confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot save?
Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not leave us.”

Thus says the LORD concerning this people:
“They have loved to wander thus;
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the LORD does not accept them;
now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.” (Jeremiah 14:2-10 ESV)

It tempts me to think I’d rather read Pope Francis on marriage:

243. It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. These situations “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity”.

But then Jeremiah brings me quickly back to reality:

And the LORD said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who prophesy in my name although I did not send them, and who say, ‘Sword and famine shall not come upon this land’: By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed. And the people to whom they prophesy shall be cast out in the streets of Jerusalem, victims of famine and sword, with none to bury them—them, their wives, their sons, and their daughters. For I will pour out their evil upon them. (Jeremiah 14:14-16 ESV)

Turns out those who claim authority (even infallibility) to speak for the Lord need to be cautious.

Interpreting the Bible

Tommie Kidd and Gerald McDermott try to salvage providential history. Of course, such an exercise is dangerous:

Over-readings of God’s providence were relatively easy targets of ridicule for the new skeptics and deists of the eighteenth century. For them, Edwards’ kind of interpretation raised obvious questions with no easy answers. Does an absence of drought or worms mean that people are without sin? What did it mean when non-Christians around the world enjoyed abundant harvests, and heavily Christian regions went without? And what of Matthew 5:45’s statement that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”? Many traditional Christians abandoned close providential readings of current events because, with all due respect to Edwards, those interpretations are easier to defend when no one is asking difficult questions about them.

But we lose something without it:

Yet Gerald McDermott suggests that we also lost good things when we gave up on providential readings of history. Christians certainly believe that God is the Lord of history, and that all things have meaning and purpose within God’s economy. No ruler comes to power, and no nation falls, without God’s sovereign permission. Providential interpretations of a nation’s suffering and turmoil remind us that we stand under universal moral standards. No matter how powerful and wealthy, no nation (perhaps especially those with high rates of professed Christian faith) can expect to provoke God forever with no consequences.

We didn’t already have those assertions from simply reading the Bible? And if we read the Bible and cogitated on its status as God’s word, we might notice that God is the one who interprets history, which is what happens in the pages of Holy Writ — something happens, and we learn its meaning from the apostles and prophets. When things happen and God doesn’t interpret, why would we ever think we have the capacity to fill the void?

Even so, Kidd will not relent:

The most appropriate occasions when we can make modest assertions about God’s historical interventions are when we detect dynamics of reaping and sowing. For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 was clearly connected to irresponsible practices and products, like the infamous “credit default swaps.” At a minimum, we can say that in 2008, God let our nation reap what we had sown financially. We are still trying to recover from the disaster that ensued.

Well, knowing that you reap what you sow is something that farmers understand without the aid of providential history. The challenge for arguments like Kidd’s is the dark side of providential history (and the fall more generally). If God let the nation reap what the banks had sown, isn’t it also the case that God let the banks sow?

Are providentialists really up to tackling the problem of evil? I don’t think so.

The Bible Thumper in MmmmmeeeeeeEEEE

So it turns out that Tim Keller has recommended to his pastors in the Big Apple that they use a Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher as part of their preparation for reaching Manhattanites:

Dr. Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian has built his ministry very much on confronting the challenge. His books include “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.” He periodically teaches an adult-ed class titled “Questioning Christianity” and sometimes holds question-and-answer sessions with attendees after Redeemer’s Sunday worship services.

His decision to open a branch of Redeemer on West 83rd Street in 2012 — the first new church built in the neighborhood in decades — was a brick-and-mortar way of meeting nonbelievers where they live. And he prepared his young ministers and staff members for the Upper West Side by studying together such books as the philosopher Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.”

Imagine how hard it would have been to plant a church in Ephesus. Imagine also if Paul had recommended Lucretius to Timothy:

Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:2-5 ESV)

As wise as 700-page tomes may be, sometimes you need to dance with the date that brought you. That goes double for Protestants who minister God’s word.

Have You Guys Heard of Assemblies?

Maybe not among the Eastern Orthodox bishops or the Anglican ones, but it’s not as if Protestants don’t regularly meet to find a consensus on what the Bible means. Even so, Alan Jacobs and Rod Dreher repeat the Roman Catholic charge that you need tradition to augment Scripture (when in fact tradition comes all balled up in the magisterium — read bishops).

Jacobs worries:

The elevation of method to magisterial principle was supposed to make it possible for scholars to discern, and then agree on, the meaning of biblical texts. Instead it merely uprooted them from Christian tradition and Christian practice — as Michael Legaspi has shown in a brilliant book — and left many of them unequipped to understand the literary character of biblical texts, while doing nothing to promote genuine agreement on interpretation. In fact, the transferring of the guild of interpreters from the Church to the University, given the University’s insistence on novelty in scholarship, ensured that no interpretative consensus would be forthcoming.

But if Christians are supposed to take their cues less from the university and more from churches, the latter still exist and provide interpretive consensuses. Maybe the mainstream media and scholars who identify with the academic guild are not impressed by church synods and councils (though they sure were attentive to the Ordinary Synod of Rome; maybe you need special get ups to gain journalists and scholars’ attention, or you need to meet in buildings suffused with Renaissance art — so much for poor church for the poor). But it’s not as if those assemblies even among Protestants have gone away. Given a recent reminder about the illusion of respectability, maybe the work that existing churches still do could receive more credit.

Rod makes Jacobs’ point with flair:

what Protestant churches and organizations are really doing in these debates are trying to find out if its membership wants to change, and if so, how much change will it accept. The truth is, says Beck, is that Protestantism is a “hermeneutical democracy,” in which the individual consciences of believers determine what is true and what is false. This, he says, is the “genius of the tradition,” and having to do all this “relational work” is a key part of what it means to be Protestant. The Bible doesn’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and for Protestants, that means that everybody gets a vote.

“Own your Protestantism,” he says. “The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn’t the Bible, it’s the individual conscience.”

Well, it’s not as if hermeneutical democracy doesn’t afflict churches that have episcopal authoritative structures (where exegeting the Bible is not as important as reading the times’ signs). All churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox are in the same boat of having members who regularly pick and choose, cafeteria style, what they believe and that they don’t. Having tradition, bishops, or councils doesn’t fix any of this. What would fix this is having magistrates who enforce religion and where civil penalties are bound up with religious teaching and practice. But wouldn’t that be Islamic?

At least give Protestants credit for trying to discern what God revealed through the prophets and apostles. Adding tradition to Scripture has generally meant the dog of tradition wagging the tail of the Bible.