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Theology of the Bible Reads?


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Hello, all!

 

I was contacted by a friend from undergrad yesterday who wanted to get back in touch. I recently completed an M.Div. at Vanderbilt and between that any the angry, sanctimonious rants I post on Facebook about the hypocrisy within my faith (with which he agrees), he thought it could be helpful to him to reestablish communication, as he finds himself in that chaotic place between belief (of a Christian variety) and non-belief. 

 

Anyway, he asked me how I made it past what seems to be the bumping point for everyone: the Bible. He didn't know how it could be a foundation for one's faith without its inerrancy, yet he couldn't affirm its inerrancy. 

 

My own theology of the Bible is a low(er) one, mostly because I am cautious of bibliolatry. I want to recognize the limitations of human knowing, including the fact that human language is insufficient to fully capture God. However, I also want to affirm what we do know (i.e. through science) and not willfully ignore things that conflict with my sacred text while attributing it all to a "test of faith." I don't see a problem with this, but I do see the room for a slippery slope: "How can you not eventually rule out the whole thing altogether?" or "How can you not say Beethoven's 9th or Martin Luther King Jr's 'I Have a Dream Speech' were inspired by God?" I could easily say that Beethoven and MLK Jr were inspired by God, but that to me doesn't mean their works serve as the foundation of the faith.

 

My friend is a philosopher, though, where I was a religion major. He needs something more systematic than a phone call to sink his teeth into. I told him how about in my church (the Episcopal Church) we have the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason that check and balance one another, and so beyond reading I encouraged him to experience the way scripture is used liturgically, etc. so that he's not leaning too hard on one leg.

 

Anyway, all this to say, can anyone recommend some good reads on theologies of the Bible? Most of what I got in divinity school came from online articles that were taken from books, but the theologians and the titles of the articles all run together in your mind when you don't have hard copies.

 

Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time suits the issue at hand, but my friend is an intelligent fellow and I think Borg targets that book at a lay audience. 

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You're asking a really nuanced question that no single answer is probably going to be able to cover. For instance, if your friend believes that the Bible must be the foundation of faith, that's going to eliminate whole groups of texts. If he's open to understandings that don't take the Bible as the foundation of faith, that would argue that, in general, searching for a foundation is a bad idea, he might have an easier time understanding the question: "How can the Bible be the foundation of faith if it isn't inerrant?" That can be answered with, "It can't, but the Bible doesn't need to be the foundation of faith in order for faith to be robust and real."

 

I don't have Bible-specific recommendations, but I can recommend some texts on theology that might help. Something like George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine, in which he employs Wittgenstein to talk about theological language, would be good. Lindbeck doesn't really focus on the Bible, but his discussion of the philosophy of language with regard to theological language applies to the Bible. It's also sort of passé among contemporary theologians, but for someone who is trying to understand how one could dismiss inerrancy and still argue for a robust theology, it's a good starting point. Fergus Kerr's Theology After Wittgenstein is good, and more recently, Kevin Hector's Theology Without Metaphysics. All of these treat Wittgenstein and theology. Another older book that treats Derrida and Karl Barth together is Graham Ward's Derrida, Barth, and the Language of Theology.

 

If those seem too progressive or too liberal for your friend, James K.A. Smith might be a good person to turn to. Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? might be helpful (he discusses Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucalt.) It's a fairly loose reading of those three, but it's a good, more conservative introduction to some answers to your friend's questions.

 

I'm heavily invested in critical theory and postmodern philosophy of language in my own work, so those are the sorts of things I've recommended, but I'm curious to see what others have to say.

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There are lots of great resources out there on this topic. You could look at how the Roman Catholics have handled this approach. For a Catholic approach, Dei Verbum is a good place to start. It came out of Vatican II and provides a nice, short overview of Catholic teaching on scripture. It's arguably quite Barthian, i.e., influenced by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. Barth would also be a great place to look. I think he struggles more deeply with scripture, biblical criticism, and theology than just about any other theologian.

Here's the link to Dei Verbum: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html

Here's a link to a one-page bibliography on Barth: http://www.academia.edu/1738449/Karl_Barth_and_Scripture_A_One_Page_Bibliography

Dei Verbum introduces some necessary distinctions like the four senses of scripture (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical). You might also want to look at Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative for an account of how scriptural interpretation has changed in the modern period.

On Barth, I would read the recommended primary sources in the bibliography and stuff by George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack; they're both excellent Barth scholars.

I would also suggest Karlfried Froehlich's Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church.

These resources are just a starting point for thinking deeply and theological about scripture.

I think it's important for your friend to see that views on scripture and scriptural interpretation haven't been static. They've changed quite a bit throughout history. For instance, the contemporary view that the literal sense is historical hasn't always been the case. The best way to get beyond our contemporary categories for scripture is to look at how it has been handled by theologians throughout church history.

Edited by Lux Lex Pax
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I have encountered a lot of (various) Protestants who run into this problem. I sympathize, being that I became an atheist, in part, because of this 'problem.' Though I admit there are better avenues to approach Judaism/Christianity than saying 'if the bible isn't inerrant then it's all false.'

 

Though I just have to ask: At what point do you abandon all of it? Is that even a possibility for you/him? There seems to be a lot of 'leg work' just to make it all work together. But I feel if you were presented with the 'evidence' (that is, modern textual-criticism which shows that it clearly can not be inerrant) you likely would not buy into much of it, if any.

 

On the flip side my Catholic seminary friends never ran into this problem. It's just something that rarely came up (though BC is liberal, perhaps that's why). But I'm still confused. All of the theology which they lean on (instead of purely biblical material) was created by a bunch of biblical exegetes who quite clearly did not understand the pluriformity of biblical material that we now know today.

 

Anyways, I don't want to dissuade you or him from furthering whatever particular faith you/he holds. I'm merely trying to 'preach my own gospel' ;)

 

ps - when did the gradcafe become confessional?!?!  :D  :lol:

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I think the major problem here, and in Western philosophical and religious thought generally, is the desire for certainty. The story begins with Descartes and his battle to overcome radical skepticism, and reaches new heights with Kant's philosophy. They want absolute assurance that what they know and believe is true, in an absolute, indubitable sense. This lead to Descartes's cogito and Kant's transcendental philosophy, both of which were primarily epistemological and metaphysical projects. In their own ways, both Descartes and Kant wanted to provide room for faith in a world dominated by scientific knowledge. In other words, they want to reconcile religion and science. It's important to note that both assume that science sets the standard. If we fast forward a little in history, we see fundamentalists, who sought certainty as well, making arguments from scripture that basically take for granted that science sets the terms of the debate, so we see them making arguments about how parts of scripture don't conflict with scientific knowledge and making scientific claims about scripture.

The problem with all this is that it presupposes that we need absolute certainty to combat radical skepticism and that science provides such certainty. We see this fear of skepticism and resort to scientism everywhere today: People assume that scientific studies settle arguments, the humanities are trying to model themselves on the sciences in order to have purchase in the public square and legitimate their place in a capitalist system that squeezes out non-utilitarian values, etc. But is that the right way of thinking about our standards for knowledge and conduct? I doubt it. Once you accept this way of thinking, you're left with no recourse but to look for inerrant foundations either in the bible, as some Protestants do, or in tradition, as some Catholics do.

As people of faith, we need to question these moves and the assumptions underwriting them regarding skepticism, foundationalism, and scientific knowledge. Theological liberals and theological conservatives, rather than questioning the rules of the game, have joined right in. Liberals assume scientific knowledge is basically the most accurate picture of reality and try to reinterpret theology in light of those claims, which ends up leaving very little room for theology and traditional doctrines. Conservatives also assume scientific knowledge is basically right, but, rather than jettisoning theology, they attempt to argue for traditional theological beliefs in the idiom of modern science and foundationalist epistemology. Postliberals have tried to get beyond these constraints by using Wittgenstein. Others have tried to turn back the clock as if the Enlightenment had never happened. At this point in my studies, I don't have a definitive answer, and I'm not sure I will ever have one or if one is even desirable. But there are other options out there besides conservative biblicism with its doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration and liberal secularism with its abandonment of religious faith in favor of scientific faith.

Edited by Lux Lex Pax
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I think the major problem here, and in Western philosophical and religious thought generally, is the desire for certainty. The story begins with Descartes and his battle to overcome radical skepticism, and reaches new heights with Kant's philosophy. They want absolute assurance that what they know and believe is true, in an absolute, indubitable sense. This lead to Descartes's cogito and Kant's transcendental philosophy, both of which were primarily epistemological and metaphysical projects. In their own ways, both Descartes and Kant wanted to provide room for faith in a world dominated by scientific knowledge. In other words, they want to reconcile religion and science. It's important to note that both assume that science sets the standard. If we fast forward a little in history, we see fundamentalists, who sought certainty as well, making arguments from scripture that basically take for granted that science sets the terms of the debate, so we see them making arguments about how parts of scripture don't conflict with scientific knowledge and making scientific claims about scripture.

The problem with all this is that it presupposes that we need absolute certainty to combat radical skepticism and that science provides such certainty. We see this fear of skepticism and resort to scientism everywhere today: People assume that scientific studies settle arguments, the humanities are trying to model themselves on the sciences in order to have purchase in the public square and legitimate their place in a capitalist system that squeezes out non-utilitarian values, etc. But is that the right way of thinking about our standards for knowledge and conduct? I doubt it. Once you accept this way of thinking, you're left with no recourse but to look for inerrant foundations either in the bible, as some Protestants do, or in tradition, as some Catholics do.

As people of faith, we need to question these moves and the assumptions underwriting them regarding skepticism, foundationalism, and scientific knowledge. Theological liberals and theological conservatives, rather than questioning the rules of the game, have joined right in. Liberals assume scientific knowledge is basically the most accurate picture of reality and try to reinterpret theology in light of those claims, which ends up leaving very little room for theology and traditional doctrines. Conservatives also assume scientific knowledge is basically right, but, rather than jettisoning theology, they attempt to argue for traditional theological beliefs in the idiom of modern science and foundationalist epistemology. Postliberals have tried to get beyond these constraints by using Wittgenstein. Others have tried to turn back the clock as if the Enlightenment had never happened. At this point in my studies, I don't have a definitive answer, and I'm not sure I will ever have one or if one is even desirable. But there are other options out there besides conservative biblicism with its doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration and liberal secularism with its abandonment of religious faith in favor of scientific faith.

 

Well said. I hope I didn't appear insensitive. And to be clear, as an atheist, I do not uphold the tenets of science anymore than I do religious ones, to be honest. I have followed, as I feel it, the 'logical' conclusions of my secularism that life has no meaning, ultimately, and that I have no moral foundation. This depresses me and to be honest in order to live day to day I must pretend as if I have a reason. And to even attempt to justify any opinion is a contradiction (for my worldview). Perhaps I was influenced too much by Christian (Catholic) philosophy as an UG. I try to be responsible with the 'evidence' as I see it, which includes your (correct) summation of modern philosophy. Anyways, good chat, friends.

best

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