Thursday, 18 June 2015

A whole library of books?

"The Bible is not a book, but a whole library of books."

In recent years it has become more and more common to say that the Bible is not a single book, but a whole library of books. This assertion is sometimes put as if it were a new insight, and it is put strongly, combatively, as if it were very important, crucial to the battle for Christianity in the post modern world. 

At the heart of the assertion is the idea that the Bible speaks with many voices that are to some degree in disagreement with each other.  Human authorship in its diversity leads inevitably to discordant voices, especially given the cultural, linguistic, chronological and geographical spread involved. 

The immediate effect of this is that the authority of any part of the scriptures can be waved away relatively easily. Not long ago, in a paper aimed at showing, say, that Romans 1 had nothing to say regarding modern homosexual relationships, attention was paid to the exact Greek words used and their interpretation. Now, with an acceptance that Jesus and Paul have essentially different messages, it is sufficient to classify the latter as the author of some "letters from 2000 years ago" and ditch him without further debate. If this is true of the Pauline corpus, how much more so of the older Testament...

The first thing that can be said about all this is that an awareness of diversity within Scripture isn't actually new at all. All careful students of the Bible, from Chrysostom to Calvin and up to the present, have observed that diversity of genre, cultural background and theological emphasis of the various writings. Indeed, good exegesis has been in large part precisely the struggle to interpret scripture in a way that does justice to its historical and diverse nature. It was understood that God had spoken through history in a progressive way and in diversified forms - a conviction that perhaps had its roots in Heb 1:1? - and that respect for that diversity was an essential key to hearing his voice. 

If there was a sea change in the thinking about the nature of scripture, it wasn't particularly recent. It was in the 19th century that scholars began to teach the human authorship of the Bible  in a way which downplayed or denied the divine element. It was in that period that the idea of incompatible theologies, of discordant voices, of irreconcilable differences between texts began to come in. Although lone voices had said some of these things before, the 19th century saw a new acceptability and broader consensus, at least in the universities, that scripture must be read in a way that effectively ruled out looking for a common thread of truth from a self-consistent God. Human authorship, not divine, became the sole principle governing interpretation. 

The recent development has been that such thinking has started to come into parts of the church which have been regarded as evangelical, and some of which still wish to regard themselves and be regarded as evangelical. That is new. It is part of a trend that has been going on for a while, with the goalposts continuously on the move, but this element represents a further stage of the outcropping of 19th century liberalism into mainstream, evangelical church life.  

This is a disaster. It would be hard to overstate the corrosive, poisonous effects of such a line of thought. It is destructive of Christian Faith at its very heart, makes preaching all but impossible, and leaves the church adrift on the chaotic cross-currents of postmodernity. Or, to put it another way, it is the intellectual leaders' desire to appease and to live happily with the postmodern world that is stealing the bread of heaven from the mouth of the congregations of believers. 

It doesn't square with Jesus' attitude to Scripture. 

If we allow that the gospel narratives paint in any way a coherent and authoritative picture of Jesus, then we have to take on board his attitude to the OT scriptures if we want to be his disciples.  (I am aware that there is a school of thought which denies any such coherence or historical authenticity to the gospels, but if we can't believe in that Jesus, then there is no Jesus who we can believe in and Christianity slips through our fingers completely.) 

One repeated motif of the gospels is Jesus' self-awareness as both being and achieving the fulfilment of the scriptures. Although at times it is the gospel narrator who sees an event happening "in fulfilment", at others the idea is put on Jesus' own lips. Perhaps the classic passage is Luke 24, where the resurrection is explained as being the fulfilment of Jesus' own words (6-8) but also as fulfilment of the OT scriptures. These are classically, Jewishly, classified into their three great divisions - Moses/Torah, Prophets and Psalms/Writings.  

Jesus sees those divisions as speaking with a united voice, and he sees himself as the subject of their message. He does not give a hint that Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms have different voices, or that they are of unequal value, or that one part speaks of him but others don't. He affirms that all the sections - indeed, "all the Scriptures" v27 cf. 45 - speak of him. In fact, in the light of v45 we can arguably go further - for Jesus and then for his disciples, to understand the scriptures is precisely to understand how, with one voice, they speak of him. 

Undergirding this understanding is the awareness that behind the human authors, in all their diversity of content, culture, genre and style, is a single Author, who reveals himself in a coherent, self-consistent and progressive way through the writings of many human authors. When Jesus speaks of the "Word of God" in Luke 11:28, whatever Christological resonances we may be tempted to find, our primary understanding must be that, like any Jew of his time, he is referring to the scriptures and to the  the Torah specifically. 

Such an attitude continues through from Jesus into the rest of the NT. For Jesus, "what Scripture says, God says" and his followers show the same attitude. To take just one example: the interplay of "authorship awareness" in Hebrews 3 and 4 is well-known. Here "it is said", "David said", "the Holy Spirit says" and "God spoke" swirl around one another in reference to the same texts. There is no felt clash between human authorship, in its historically conditioned singularity, and divine authorship, in its overarching coherence. 

The point is that Christian faith, being the faith that is centred on the person, words and work of Jesus, includes at its heart his own attitude to the OT scriptures. For Jesus to describe the OT as "a library of books" with a denial of a singular, overarching Authorship is simply impossible to imagine. This view parts company with Christian Faith because it parts company with Jesus himself. 

This "library of books" attitude to the Bible is more pervasive now than at any time I can remember. Its effects are all around us, even in the lips and in the behaviour of believers who might hesitate to articulate it directly. The impact can be seen in various, interlinked ways. 

1) With regard to the Bible itself, we are distanced from the weight of the text. 

The authority of scripture may still be affirmed in our Doctrines, but in practice it is now wholly absent. This is a direct outworking of this view - if the Bible has no one voice, no one message, then it really has nothing to say to us that we have to hear and heed, trust and obey. Any part can be set off against any other part, and we have become the final arbiters, ruling over the text and deciding what we want to obey. 

2) With regard to God, we have never been freer to shift our understanding of who he is.

I remember a young woman in Brazil telling me that her God was "fofinho" - fluffy and cuddly. That kind of view of God now pervades the church and even its candidates for ministry. The God who is "consuming fire" can be marginalised and then lost completely, for the texts that speak in that way are surely contradicted somewhere else! With a multi-voiced Bible we have a voiceless Bible, and we are free to redefine God in whatever way we like. Not for nothing did Don Carson title his great book on postmodernism in the church, "The Gagging of God" - a self-contradictory, multi-voiced book gives no voice to the Lord at all. Suddenly "God" is sounding strikingly similar to the rest of the flood of politically corrected, social-media-ready material. The God of scripture has been silenced, to be replaced by the filtered, sickly-sweet quotes from meme-gurus. 

3) With regard to ourselves, it makes us arrogant and intellectually lazy

The traditional task of the Christian teacher/preacher was a challenging one. The Bible is a complex book, and its interpretation is hard work. Our calling to that hard work began in faith, as we receive Christ and receive his understanding of the way the Scriptures speak of him. Believing that all Scripture is God-breathed and that it is able to make us wise for salvation in Jesus is a matter of faith, of course, but having taken that step of faith, hard, humble work lies ahead as we attempt to sit under the text and work out how it is speaking of him. Down through the centuries preachers and believing scholars can testify to the sweat and satisfaction of toiling at the Bible, and finding, in fellowship with great exegetes who have gone before, that there really is one message, one coherent Voice, one Subject, one Speaker.  

But now, we don't need to do that any more. We are at liberty to ignore - simply never read or refer to - whole swathes of the Bible that are deemed sub-christian. Our work is now easy, for all we have to do is regurgitate the attitudes of the politically corrected gospel week on week and never be disturbed or disturb anyone with tougher or more uncomfortable passages. 

What claims to be a movement driven by intellectual honesty ends up being the exact reverse. It is the excuse for not grappling with the book of God. And it is far more honest to say, "I don't fully understand this section" than to take on the lofty tones of the "scholar" and tell your congregation that a passage has nothing to say to us for it has nothing to do with Jesus or his message. The former way is humble ignorance; the latter is the height of arrogance. 

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We need a return to the Bible. To the Bible as a book that - yes - is complex and historically, culturally, geographically and humanly diverse, but which is also One Book for it comes from One God and speaks of One Saviour. And we need to rediscover that united text not as an intellectual curiosity but as the unique bearer of the Message which calls us to faith and obedience to Jesus Christ. May God help us!