3W Series: Reading the Bible in the 21st Century (Part 2)


In part one of our series, we looked at N.T. Wright's thoughts in "Scripture and the Authority of God,"and examined how the Bible is the Word of God that points to the Word of God--Jesus.  It is an inspired, Holy book, but it is also challenging to interpret the Bible correctly.  One one hand, it is often more difficult to reach the original meaning of the text than some Christians would like to believe.  On the other hand, the Bible is not all over the map--as some secular people would like to claim.  There is such a thing as orthodoxy, but we must realize that it is Christ we worship,  not the Bible text.

Today, we look at some common misconceptions or "misreadings" of the Bible from the Left (Liberal Protestants or secular people and academics).  Let's not use the word "Liberal or Conservative." Let's call this the skeptical view of the Bible.  And when we discuss the "conservative" or "fundamentalist" view of the BIble, let's call it the "uncritical" view.  More on that later.  

The SKEPTICAL VIEW has mainly been influenced by modern, enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking.  It would suggest that what we've learned from science, history and technology can lead us to logically believe that the Bible is just a book: not perfect, not infallible, and certainly not written by God.  Some common, but wrong beliefs of the Skeptics are these:

1)  The claim to "objectivity" or to a "neutral" reading of the text is possible for the modern, scientific mind.  In other words, we skeptics can read the Bible without any prejudice, while Christian believers read it with an agenda.

2) The claim that modern history or science has "disproved the Bible" or made some of its central claims redundant, undesirable, or unbelievable.   

3) The "cultural relativity" argument.  "The Bible is an old book from a different culture, so we can't take it seriously in the modern world." 

4) Rationalist rewritings of history, which assume as a fixed starting-point what the Enlightenment wanted to prove (that, say, some aspects of the story of Jesus "couldn't have happened") but has not been able to.   

5) The attempt to relativize specific and often-repeated biblical teachings by appealing to principles like "tolerance" or "inclusivity."  In other words, putting enlightenment thoughts and modern-day political agendas into the Bible's meaning.  

6) Making biblical teaching on some topics seem unreasonable (like slavery, or women's issues) in order to discredit other parts. 

7) Putting political meanings over religious ones after reading the text.

8) Suggesting that the New Testament picks and chooses what it wants to use from the Old Testament in a way that is non-sensical. 

9) The claim that the New Testament writers did not think they were writing Scripture so as to make the Bible less authoritative (Remember, the authors didn't know they were writing "the Bible" as we know it today, but they did believe their teachings carried authority for the church). 

10) Pointing out that the church took a while to settle on the precise canon (books of the Bible), and then elevating books and writings that were not chosen for inclusion.   

11) A skin-deep-only appeal to "contextual readings."  

12) The attempt to reduce "truth" to "scientific" statements on the one hand, or to deconstruct it altogether on the other. 

These are some of the talking points that skeptics use against the Bible.  While it's true that sometimes Christians have read the BIble in a simplistic way divorced of context (we will discuss that next time), skeptics have gone to the other extreme and made it seem like there is no cohesion or objectivity in the Bible or orthodox Biblical studies at all.  This comes out in a variety of ways:  In the teachings of many seminaries, in the scholarship of many skeptical academics, in popular books like the Da Vinci Code or Reza Aslan's new book on Jesus that is causing controversy, and in cover stories of Time Magazine, Newsweek, and other popular publications  ("Who was Jesus?" ).

There is an attempt (believed by some, intentionally skewed by others) to show that the Bible and Christian theology is really stacked on a house-of-cards.  Once you examine the history, archeology, anthropology, and textual issues, you can begin to see that the whole thing is fabricated, non-sensical, pre-modern, and inconsistent.   

Many-a-friend-of-mine, lost their faith in the Bible in the Bible or Religious Studies department of a Christian college, university, or seminary.  The message that they got was that "this is a book like any other, except that this one is more dangerous."   

Others felt so attacked in their Christian university or seminary, that they gave up on the life of the mind entirely; or at least came to distrust academics and secretly fear that the Bible can't be defended.  Often times these seminaries and Bible colleges that plant doubt and skepticism will assign books that are aligned with the 12 steps above.  So, when studying the Historical Jesus, you will get assigned John Dominic Crossan's skeptical work on Jesus, but no one will even mention that N.T. Wright's 3 Volume Christian Origins and the Question of God is also an option.

I saw this happen many times. 

The skeptical mind is not as clever as it thinks it is, as N.T. Wright points out.  But he also has some warnings for non-critical readers of the Bible such as Fundamentalists, who are, themselves, a product of modernity and the skeptical mind--although they don't realize it. 

That will be a good point to follow-up on in Part 3. 


Introduction to the Series:  "Reading the Bible in the 21st Century" is here 

Reading the Bible in the 21st Century Part 1 is here