The Lungs of Jesus Christ: Postcritical Theological Interpretation of Scripture contra the “Historical” Way

There are people who want to focus on what the Bible actually says, in the way that it says it; and there are people who want to focus on barthglasseswhat they think the Bible says according to their canons of extraneous criticism developed under the pressures provided by their peers. Karl Barth was a Dogmatic theologian and biblical exegete who wanted to focus on the former, on what the Bible actually says, according to its ordained conventions and reality found in Jesus Christ.

I have noticed, maybe you have too, a movement taking hold within a demographic of younger (as far as biological age) and even baby boomer Christians who in the past would have identified as evangelical Christians, but who are now more in step with what has loosely been called ‘Progressive’ Christianity. But it isn’t just this demographic, it is also the tribe I grew up in; dispensationalists are just as participatory in this process of reading the Bible through prefabricated rules developed from a historist approach toward the Bible. We could blame all of this on an uncritical (or maybe even a critical) appropriation of Enlightenment engagement of Scripture, which indeed, focuses on the formation of the canon of Scripture, and its text latent contours through criteria that are external to Scripture itself. One consequence of this is that those who follow this trajectory end up having ongoing discussions about the Bible, but never really engage with the material theological content of the Bible. The Bible gets reduced to a text that is useful for reconstructing the history of religions, but not useful for encountering the living God reported upon within its pages (and its special history relative to its reality found in Jesus Christ).

George Hunsinger, a Karl Barth scholar, professor par excellence at Princeton Theological Seminary has written about how Barth worked as a postcritical interpreter of Scripture; recognizing that the critical scholarship I was speaking about above has its place, but it really isn’t all that enlightening toward actually engaging with the text of Scripture – whose context is ultimately the Triune life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Here is Hunsinger:

As understood by Barth, the function of biblical criticism was mostly preliminary (NS, 233). It pertained to history in them modern sense of the term. It allowed various elements of the texts to be distinguished, whether they be historical, or legendary, or conflations of past and present occurrences. Critical distinctions like these had to be made. But after they were made, wrote Barth, “they can be moved again into the background, and the whole [text] can be read, with this tested, critical naïveté, as the totality it professes to be” (IV/2, 479 rev.).

Historical and non-historical elements flow together at this point (cf. III/1, 80-81). Verifying the miracles historically ceases to be of great importance. What matters is the sort of events being reported: events that are incomparable and mysterious. “The ill-advised hunt for a historical truth supra scripturam [prior to Scripture] is called off,” wrote Barth, “in favor of an open investigation of the veritas scripturae ipsuis [the truth of Scripture itself]” (I/2, 494 rev.). What emerges as the sole object of exegesis, from a theological standpoint, is the texts themselves. No other option makes sense if the following is true: “Revelation stands, no, it happens, in the Scriptures,” wrote Barth, “and not behind them. It happens. There is no way around this in the biblical texts – in their actual words and sentences – given what the prophets and the apostles, as witnesses to revelation, wanted to say and have said.”

Theological exegesis is determined by this picture of the attested events (NS, 234). It tries to respect what it finds in the texts. It operates with a hermeneutic that allows them to correct our ordinary picture of what is and is not possible.

Scriptural exegesis rests on the assumption that the message which Scripture has to give us, even in its apparently most debatable and least assimilable parts, is in all circumstances truer and more important than the best and most necessary things that we ourselves have said or can say. In that Scripture is the divinely ordained and authorized witness to revelation, it entails a claim to be interpreted along these lines; and if this claim be not duly heeded, it remains at bottom inexplicable. (I/2, 719 rev.)[1]

A baby boomer scholar who is very popular among the progressive Christians, Peter Enns, just recently wrote this on his Facebook wall: “If I hear one more Enlightened One claim that source criticism of the Pentateuch is dead and buried and has been replaced by literary analysis, I am going to file a lawsuit for academic slander.” Enns is someone who is doing a good job revivifying something that I think Barth believes should be in the background, and not at the forefront of how exegesis of the text of Scripture ought to proceed. I am with Barth.

Hey, if you want to spend your time engaging in the never ending process of source, form, and redaction criticism, when doing Bible study, done under a naturalist-historist mode of operation that is up to you! But if you want to actually encounter the living Word of God in Scripture, then I suggest you accept Barth’s invitation to feast at the banqueting table of Holy Scripture and its compelling and breathing reality found from the lungs of Jesus Christ. Let Scripture impose its special and strange, and even foolish reality upon you, instead of you imposing your reality upon it.

[1] George Hunsinger, “Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation: Rudolf Smend on Karl Barth,” in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012) ed. George Hunsinger, 42.

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Scripture as Living and Breathing, It Has ‘Being’ and that Matters Peter Enns and Everyone Else Who Wants to Approach Scripture Naturally.

I have come to the conclusion that I have a major preoccupation with the ontology of Scripture; in other words: What is it? Scripture for me is so important, as I am sure it is for most of you who read here! As a Protestant Christian I am taken with what Karl Barth calls the Protestant Scripture principle, or what others have simply identified as a theology of the Word (instead of a theology of the Church) as the centerpiece of my theological authority base. I realize that none of this is unique to me, and that almost all of the chatter, online in particular, on theological blogs, and theological Facebooking, revolves, really, around an ontology of Scripture.

Furthermore, when I speak of an ontology of Scripture I am gesturing toward the discipline that I think is the most relevant towards establishing trajectory for this discussion; Christian dogmatics. If I am going to talk about Scripture’s ‘being’ or taxis (order), I am first presupposing that it has one, and that it comes from somewhere. It is somewhat strange to think of Scripture having an ontology, isn’t it? I mean how can something that is made up of paper, ink, binding, and leather have ‘being’? So I must be referring to its function, its instrumental place in relation to God. Yes, this is how Scripture must be thought of as having an ontology. When we understand that Scripture has a place it must have a place somewhere, not only in relation to God, but since it involves creaturely media, within an ontology of Creation. So maybe you get the picture a little. Scripture is something that is given by God to us, and as such this dictates the way we will proceed in our engagement with Scripture; not as if it is something that is merely profane, but obviously, as something that is sacred, but further, something that is not ours, but God’s. If we have this idea of an ontology of Scripture, a properly Christian one, as I was just noting, this will dictate how we ‘interpret’ Scripture; it will give us an ontology of hermeneutics. John Webster communicates it this way:

Much follows from this for a theology of Scripture. An immediate formal consequence is the necessity of a textual and hermeneutical ontology – parallel to a moral ontology in Christian ethics – which accounts for the activities of the production and interpretation of texts by referring them to divine revelation as their material, efficient and final cause. The Bible, its readers and their work of interpretation have their place in the domain of the Word of God, the sphere of reality in which Christ glorified is present and speaks with unrivalled clarity. As he speaks, he summons creaturely intelligence to knowledge and by his Spirit bestows powers of mind and will so that they may be quickened by that summons to intelligent life under the Word. This, in turn, suggests other matters of reflection in the theology of Scripture. Bibliology and hermeneutics are derivative elements of Christian theology, shaped by prior Christian teaching abou the nature of God and creatures and their relations. Again, bibliology is prior to hermeneutics, because strategies of interpretation will be maladroit unless fitting to the actual nature of the text which they seek to unfold. A common thread running through a number of essays [Webster in this paragraph is introducing what he will be developing throughout the rest of his book] is the restriction imposed on biblical study by theological inattention to the nature of Scripture, the resultant vacuum often being filled by some kind of naturalism. The cogency (as much political as hermeneutical) of this strategy was that it appeared to recall attention to the fact that the Bible and the interpretation of the Bible are human cultural activities. The recall, however, was often coupled to a kind of nominalism, in which human signs were segregated from the divine economy of revelation, as, once again, elements without principles. The misstep here is the supposition that the properties of natural realities can be grasped without reference to createdness, and that only when so grasped can natural realities protect their integrity. But in a well-ordered Christian theology, the divine movements of revelation, inspiration and illumination do not compromise the human movements of authorship and interpretation. Showing that this is so, however, obliges theology to attend to doctrinal work on creation, providence and the Holy Spirit, in order to demonstrate that divine revelation is not a unilateral cognitive force but a compound act in which the creator and reconciler takes creatures and their powers, acts and products into his service. God speaks from his human temple.[1]

I hope what I was articulating among is even a little clearer now, because of Webster’s insight.

The reason my spirit has been being stirred lately is because of what I perceive as the recklessness with which Scripture has been being engaged; in particular by folks in the mood of Peter Enns. Enns’ book, as far as I understand it (I haven’t been able to read it in full yet, but I just finished listening to an hour and a half interview he just did on the book) is reckless, for the very reasons I just opined upon. He has no overt ontology of Scripture informing his deconstruction of it; he is simply appealing to the naturalist approach to bibliology that Webster references. This is reckless, not just for him, but for the thousands (I hope that is all that his book will touch) of people who will come into contact with his book, The Bible Tells Me So. When the naturalist bible critic talks about the Bible he doesn’t talk about things like inspiration or illumination, why? Because this kind of critic has taken control of the text of Scripture, as if it isn’t something that is given, as if it is open to their handling from below; but it surely isn’t.

[1] John Webster, The Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012), viii-ix.

Peter Enns and ‘Natural’ Bible Reading

Peter Enns just wrote a blog post in response to Andrew Wilson’s Christianity Today’s review of Enns’ new and rather controversial book (for many) The jeromebibleBible Tells Me So. In Enns’ article he identifies twelve rhetorical strategies “evangelicals” like Andrew Wilson use when responding to critiques of the Bible, like Enns’, where the Bible’s historical and textual contradictions are emphasized; emphasized through a certain historist-text-critical lens. Here Enns describes the “why” of these rhetorical strategies–deployed by evangelicals as they are–and in his description what Enns believes about Scripture (in contrast to his “evangelical” interlocutors) becomes apparent:

These strategies—which are not necessarily deployed consciously—are aimed at protecting evangelical theological boundaries but do so at the expense of those evangelicals, who, through the course of reading and studying scripture, come upon legitimate questions for which they are seeking thoughtful answers. Issues like the tribal violence of God, true (not apparent) contradictions, and historical problems are quite real and cannot long be kept at bay through these strategies.[1]

For the rest of this post, we will survey (sort of) some of the history that has led Enns to become an “anti-inerrantist,” which is ironic, to say the least.

Some Of The History

People haven’t always thought of the Bible through the lenses that people like Enns and inerrantists (usually associated with evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity [being forwarded by today, most ardently, by neo-Reformed types like John Piper, Westminster Theological Seminary, et al]) do. Prior to the turn to enlightenment modernity, and the higher criticism of the bible that developed as a result (among other things), people used to think of the bible as the place where the God of history in Jesus Christ encounters and meets us; inviting us into his life which is history. Far from discounting the historical veracity of Scripture what was emphasized more was a participation of God’s people in the history of God’s life disclosed in Scripture which found its telos or ‘end’ (purpose) in his beloved Son, Jesus. Matthew Levering identifies this conception of biblical history (the one I just said that finds its ‘end’ in Jesus Christ) as a ‘participatory’ view of history; he labels the theory of history that Enns and the inerrantists follow (solely, as far as developing a doctrine of Scripture) as linear history. According to Levering (and others, many others) linear history by the eighteenth century had become the dominate way of thinking about the reality of Scripture and the way that people ought to approach it. Notice Levering (as he provides a brief survey and diagnosis on this very line of thought):

By the seventeenth century, the participatory understanding of historical reality was on its last legs among intellectuals, although the overall unity of the onward-marching linear-historical moments was still presumed.

Hans Frei finds a similar logistic conceptualism in Enlightenment biblical hermeneutics, although unlike Lamb he does not, so far as I know, draw the connection to late-medieval thought. Discussing the “supernaturalist” position on the Bible offered–within the context of the emergence of historical criticism–by the eighteenth-century Lutheran theologian Sigmund Jakob Baumgarten, Frei notes that for Baumgarten the accuracy of biblical history “ ‘be brough to the highest degree of probability or the greatest possible moral certainty in accordance with all the logical rules of a historical proof.’” By the eighteenth century, logical rules of historiography took priority over the Bible’s narrative as the ground on which Christians could understand themselves. These rules envisioned God’s action as radically “external” to human action, and thus extrinsic to historical accounts of Scripture’s genesis and meaning. In patristic and medieval hermeneutics, by contrast, not logical rules of historiography, but faith in a providential God grounded the assumption that the books of the Bible displayed the divine pattern of salvation. This faith nourishes and is nourished by the Church’s biblical reading, understood as a set of embodied and liturgical practices constituting the Church’s conversatio Dei.[2]

Just to reinforce Levering’s sketch of things, let me also refer to John Webster who writes similarly to Levering:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[3]

Conclusion

Peter Enns and the “Inerrantists” come from this same trajectory, the linear historical one that both Levering and Webster highlight for us. Whether you are Enns or the inerrantist, Scripture is reducible to linear-historical reconstruction and the way that sentences are syntactically structured, etc. Enns and the inerrantists might want to get to a point where Scripture can become a ‘spiritual’ thing (Enns says as much at the end of that blog post of his I linked to above; and the piety of the inerrantists bears testimony to this exceedingly so … there is a heart warmed feeling and love for God, by both Enns and the inerrantists), but the bedrock of their doctrine of Scripture won’t ever really allow them to; there are too many hurdles to jump prior to ever getting there (to living in a participatory depth in regard to the Bible and what it is in relation to its order as given by God). And so Enns and the inerrantists end up developing theories of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) that have taken shape by their acquiescence to the bible “as history,” natural history before it is supernatural history; and this ends up having a deleterious effect upon everything else.

It is because of this (and I am focusing on Enns in this post) that I see Enns as dangerous and not edifying to the larger evangelical body of Christ (the younger or millennial generation, so called, in particular).

I hope younger Christians, in particular, will turn to a more robust and participatory understanding of biblical history. Understanding that Scripture is part of God’s invitation to converse with him, the Triune God.

 

[1] Peter Enns, Source.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 21-2.

[3] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

The Critique I Should Have Written of Rachel Held Evans’ ‘Abraham and Isaac’

A couple of days ago I attempted to critique a blog post written by Rachel Held Evans, famous Christian blogger par excellence. In particular I was abrahamattempting to critique her seeming suggestions about how we ought to read the Old Testament, in particular, those troubling passages of Scripture that make it seem like God commanded his covenant people, Israel, to slaughter the Canaanite people groups that Israel was supposed to subdue and dispossess of their land. This part of Rachel’s post is the part that is most interesting and revealing to me, even though it is situated within a broader appeal, by Rachel, to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the sacrifice of Isaac that God was requiring of Abraham (the story can be found in Genesis 22). The reason that the issue of the Canaanites is more interesting to me is because this is where Rachel really begins to discuss the way she believes she must interpret these admittedly hard passages to deal with, ethically. And so for the rest of this post I am going to attempt to offer a material engagement with what Rachel wrote in her post, and attempt to offer some perspective on where, maybe, her apparent interpretive approach has come from, historically. Furthermore, I also will be addressing, briefly, Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns, and the impact that he has had upon Rachel Held Evans (even recently) through the publishing of his new book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Because I will be engaging with quite a bit of material, and some profound stuff in regard to biblical interpretation and theology (i.e. heremeneutics), this post is going to run long; hopefully it will be interesting enough to you to finish through to the end.

The God of Genocide Who Is Love

As I mentioned, Rachel Held Evans, among many others, is troubled with passages in the Bible (like what we might find in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, etc.) where we see God commanding his covenant people Israel to go into these Canaanite nations and wipe them out; for Rachel (and not just Rachel) this sounds like ethnic cleansing and genocide, she writes:

In the story in question, God leads the Israelites on a years-long conquest of Canaan, with instructions to kill every man, woman, and child of Canaanite ethnicity.  “When you enter Canaan,” God tells Joshua, “the land I am giving you, as I promised to Abraham long ago, do not offer terms of peace, but kill everything that breathes—including women, children, and livestock. Leave nothing alive.”[1]

She writes further,

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.”

According to this view, God is glorified in seeing swords driven through the chests of curly-haired toddlers, in pregnant women being stabbed in the belly before being murdered themselves, and in old men and women begging for mercy but being denied it—just as God was glorified in the death of all the firstborn Egyptian males (Exodus) and in the taking of twelve and thirteen year old girls as spoils of war (Numbers).

An endorsement of such actions raises about a million questions, the most pressing of which is: if God ordained ethnic cleansing in the past, might God ordain it in the present or future?[2] 

What we see Rachel doing, is the same thing that we all must do when confronted with texts in Holy Scripture; we must try and understand to make sense of this, and what appears to be a very brutal and bloody version of God, and how that jives with Jesus Christ, and his revelation of God as love (cf. I Jn. 4:8). We need to honestly work at bringing what seems to be an ethical dilemma in God’s own life into some sort of comportability with this picture of God as gentle like a Shepherd, but aggressive like a Warrior.

Getting a better grasp on the gravity of the biblical scenario that Rachel is attempting to get her head around is important as we move forward in critically engaging with Rachel’s article. Now, there are some alternatives that we have available to us, as we attempt to bring some sort of resolution to this grunewald_crucifixion_phixr-2.jpg‘apparent’ dilemma with who God is. Here are some alternatives off the top:

1) We could posit that God is God (as Rachel has already interacted with this approach herself), and thus what he says goes, no matter what (a la John Piper).

2) We could offer a view that I have heard over the years that: the Canaanite people were so miserably immoral, that wiping them out was actually an act of mercy (like putting a wild, diseased animal out of its misery).

3) We might want to not frame this as an ethical conundrum primarily, and instead focus on the covenantal and canonical reality of these ‘harsh’ stories by emphasizing God’s plan of redemption in action as forging a way for his ultimate salvation for the nations that he was mediating with particular focus through the nation of Israel. We might want to understand that God’s action in these “genocidal” stories through the lens of the salvation that he was bringing not just for future nations, but maybe even for these Canaanite people themselves (which would be an interesting way to understand this).

4) Or, we might want to posit, as many biblical interpreters of the late 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries have offered through a higher critical, historist, history of religions lens (in Peter Enns’ words):

“God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.”  … “is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time….The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” … These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time,” … “but not for all of time—and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up ‘explanations’ to ease our stress. For Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read—which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.”[3]

There are other ways to try and understand what God is doing (or not doing, as it may be according to Enns, and potentially Evans, insofar as she is willing to endorse Enn’s solution), but these, above, will have to suffice for now.

This is where things are interesting, and maybe even telling, in regard to Evans’ own approach, she writes in regard to the Joshua passage:

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.[4]

It sounds as if Rachel is not of those “who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions….” It sounds like she is choosing, along with Peter Enns, to see these stories as not ‘historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions,’ but instead as a story[s] that “looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.”[5] Evans makes her reliance upon Enns opaquely clear when she writes,

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, one of my favorite guides on this journey has been Old Testament scholar (and friend) Peter Enns. Pete’s books, blogs and articles just make sense to me—as a skeptic, as a literature lover, and as a Christian. The guy speaks my language, and he consistently writes with unusual wit, clarity and honesty.[6]

Further,

I’m not sure how else to describe this book [The Bible Tells Me So] except to say that reading it is an experience. Never have I encountered a book on biblical interpretation that manages to be as simultaneously challenging and funny, uncomfortable and liberating, intellectually rigorous and accessible, culturally significant and deeply personal. It’s a book that invites the reader to really wrestle with Scripture, and it’s not for the faint of heart.[7] 

Does this praise of Enns’ work mean, without a doubt, that Evans takes Enns’ solution to the dilemma of “God as love and genocide” as gospel truth for herself? No, not necessarily, but it does suggest it. Especially when Evans, in her article on Abraham and Isaac (the one I have been referencing throughout this little critique), takes this tact in response to all of this; she writes:

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. We have no moral justification for opposing Joseph Kony’s army of children, for example, because Joseph Kony claims God is giving him direction. If this is the sort of thing God does, who are we to question it?

This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition.   I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.[8]

It sounds like Evans needs a way out, or better, a way around the events recorded, for example, in our biblical book of Joshua. And it ‘sounds’ like, for Evans, Enns has provided a plausible alternative for Rachel, an alternative that allows the Bible to remain the Bible, but one that is compatible with Evans’ modern ethical sensibilities juxtaposed with who she believes God to be. My colleague, Kevin Davis has responded to this “apparent” mood at work in the hermeneutic of Evans in this way (at length):

I don’t disagree with the substance of that initial criticism [the one being made by both Evans and Enns], but it also must be said that I make God into my own image. Last I checked, I am a sinner. I harbor a whole host of assumptions, moral and aesthetic categories, which I bring to my theology and which still predetermine my conception of God. This is why our theology is always a work-in-progress — “theology on one’s knees,” to use one of Balthasar’s favorite images.

My disagreement with Evans (and Enns obviously comes to mind) is how the biblical portrait of God no longer operates in its authoritative capacity for the church. A certain treatment of Christ, which is itself selective, is given the sole normative status for one’s theology. The rest of the Bible is relativized through its cultural framework, with the peculiar christology of one’s own cultural conditioning serving as the norma normans.

While I invariably bring moral and aesthetic categories to my theology — categories which have been predefined apart from the covenantal activity of God and the inscripturated witness to God — these categories have to be rigorously tested, modified, or perhaps rejected entirely. God does not conform to my philosophy; my philosophy conforms to God, using “philosophy” in both its narrow (modern) and broad (ancient) sense. This includes the God of the conquests, just to be clear.[9]

Davis brings up the way, if I had space, that I would like to proceed further in offering a more pin-pointed critique of Evans’ apparent hermeneutic (reliant upon Enns, as the case may be). But I am going to have to leave the heft of that critique with Davis’ insightful words, and move on, in conclusion to suggesting where, in the history of biblical interpretation, Enns’ and maybe Evans’ approach to interpreting these Old Testament stories come from (and the desire to figure out how to still salvage the God of the Old Testament, in essence, as the Christian God of love that he is, without totally throwing the Old Testament into the garbage can). To this suggestion we now turn, and with this we will close (we are currently at 2200 words in this now mini-essay of mine).

 

History of Interpretation

This is where this critique must go, not just to the ethical concerns (that Davis kantimhas now helpfully alerted us to what is at stake in that regard), but what the antecedents are to the way that Enns’ (and Evans, insofar as she might rely upon Enns in her own thinking) ‘novel’ (but not novel) approach has developed in modern history.

Immanuel Kant signaled a paradigmatical shift into the ‘modern’ period (among other thinkers) in providing the building blocks for how people think (in general) about reality; inclusive of biblical reality and its ostensible historical accounts. It is interesting to consider the kind of impact Kant had when we apply that to the development of modern biblical studies and interpretation, and then how that impact gets played out in people like Enns (who was trained in the discipline of modern biblical exegesis at Harvard Divinity School). Murray Rae helps us understand what kind of impact Kant had, and interestingly, and to our point, how we can see this impact in the types of questions that Evans is asking, and in the kind of ‘solution’ that Enns is offering (pace a ‘Kantian’ turn). Rae writes in regard to Kant and biblical interpretation:

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone[10].

Remember when Evans wrote this previously in this essay?: “This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition….” And remember, Enns’ ‘solution’ (that Evans appears to resonate with)?: “The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” And now consider that, with what we just witnessed in regard to the impact that Kant (according to Rae) had upon modern biblical exegesis, and the desire for a ‘rational’ theology. What is interesting about Kant in relation to Enns’ ‘solution’ is the willingness, the necessity even, in order to be rational and in accord with modern sensibilities (ethically and epistemically), to discard the ‘husk’ of historical reality, in order to get to the ‘kernel’ and essence of the ethical reality of who the God of the Bible is. For Enns, thinking from a Kantian (among many others later) type of trajectory, it is perfectly acceptable to discard the historical event-ual reality of the biblical text as a faithful representative of who God is (because it does not comport with modern ethical sensibilities – remember Davis’ critique previously), in fact it is demanded by the rational among us, in order to be able to still affirm the gentle Shepherd God who is love that we find particularly revealed in the man from Nazareth, in Jesus Christ.

 

Conclusion

We have covered a lot of ground, and too quickly. This has turned into a mini-essay of sorts (of about 3000 words), way too long for a blog post, but if you stuck it out, thanks.

I have made lots of suggestions, and attempted to draw some connections that still wait to be connected through further development. But I hope that through this engagement, you can at least see some pitfalls that I believe are attendant with Evans’ probing in her post (that I have referenced throughout), and where that trajectory has come from in modern history. I also hope that the role that Enns is playing in all of this has become clear. For many of you that might be a good thing, but in a later post I would like to suggest (and somewhat argue) that reading the Bible through ‘rational’ categories (like those provided by Kant and others, and now deployed constructively by folks like Enns & co.) is not really ‘principled’ Christian or confessional way of reading Scripture. I will further suggest in that later post that this way of reading Scripture (‘rationally’) is not new, nor principally owned by Enns (he just has his own creative way of engaging it), but in fact serves as the basis for almost all of what counts as biblical studies today.

Stay tuned.
[1] Source

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Rachel Held Evans here.

[4] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[5] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Evans.

[6] Evans, Source.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[9] Kevin Davis, A Brief Response to RHE, accessed 10/21/14.

[10] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

The Bible and Science and Evangelism: A Boat Too Far and the Literality of the Biblical Stories?

I continue to do the work of an Evangelist; it is a challenge and gift of being a Christian that I thoroughly enjoy, and from which I draw personal telos or purpose in my ongoing adventure as a Christian person soli Deo gloria! One of my most recent contacts has an interesting brew (if I can say it like that) of beliefs about reality and his own personal purpose in this amazing complexity known as life. An aspect that seems to bother, this my interlocutor, is what appears to him to be an over-literal reading of, for one thing in the Bible, the Genesis account of human origins and the related stories therein—namely, and particularly troubling for my friend, the story of Noah and the Ark. He cannot even begin to fathom how any rational (vs. rationalist) person could suppose to believe that any modernly informed person could take this literal—he seems to think that this is not physically possible (see how Ken Ham seeks to answer this apparent conundrum here, this seems to be a very reasonable explanation—proviso, I am not generally a fan of Ken Ham). I would like to expand this conversation out a bit, for my friend, myself, and anyone else who is reading; and I will do this by drawing our attention to a recently released book by Brazos Press entitled: Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins by Peter EnnsHere is how Enns describes some of his gist in this book:

And here is how Sandra Collins of Library Journal synopsizes the general themes of the book:

“[Enns’s] basic argument is this: modern creation arguments that focus on either the literal historical truth of the Bible or evolutionary perspectives are wrong. The Bible, including its creation accounts, represents a comprehensive theological worldview. It’s neither a literal accounting nor is it science. And it was never intended to be either of these two things. . . . Academically minded Christians looking to bridge this intellectual divide will appreciate the tone and bibliographic references here.”

I have once written on this topic here; and my thesis, taken from former seminary professor Al Bayliss, sound very similar to the way that Collins describes Enns’ primary theses in his book. Yet, my sense is that my conclusions will probably end up differently than Enns; my conclusion would be informed by the idea that a ‘theological worldview’ and ‘literal reality’ correlate with each other. That there is a ratio that  inheres between the rational (and literal) uncreated reality of God, and that which has been given expression in the contingent, and ordered reality of creation itself; so created order and rationality is given its rationality by definition of its contingence upon God’s rationality that he built into creation through Divine fiat. My point, I can’t follow this dualism, that is often posited, between theological reality and created reality; if for no other reason, but because we have these two realities in the conjoined hypostatic union of the Non-contingent/contingent reality of the Divine/human in the person of Jesus Christ—or that I see all of reality conditioned by the primacy of this kind of ‘unioned’ life. I am digressing a wee bit.

So this issue of origins, and the literal nature of the Genesis account, in particular, and for my friend; the literal nature of Biblical accounting in general continues to be an ongoing issue. Enns’ latest book and the work of the foundation of which he is an integral part, Biologos, illustrates the ongoingness of this continued struggle (or not) between modern science and modern biblical and theological studies—in fact Brian LePort, a blogger here in Portland, Oregon has just recently posted on a very related question here.

I write all of the foregoing to come up against the question that prompted me to write this in the first place; do you think that evolution, one way or the other, should be an issue that hinders or in fact fosters the ‘intellectual’ space for someone to have the room to entertain a belief in Jesus Christ as the historic orthodox person of Christian proclamation? In other words, if evolution (neo-Darwinian) stands in the way, intellectually (whatever that means, theologically), of someone being able to give a hearing to Jesus, do you think we should be softer on this issue and allow for the fact that it is possible to both affirm modern scientific theories and claims, and the claims of Jesus Christ? I know of plenty of believing Christians (like Peter Enns, or even my beloved T.F. Torrance) who believe in macro-evolution, and also are thoroughgoing Christians—I shared this, briefly with my friend, I think he was encouraged by this.

Anyway, what do you think?