Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Biblical Criticism Is Important For The Church

Here are some quotes from James F. McGrath's recent post: Exploring Our Matrix: Review of Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted:
In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them), Bart Ehrman seeks to introduce a wider audience to important aspects of the New Testament. The contradictions, tensions and diversity of viewpoints in the Bible which Ehrman highlights, and the historical-critical approach he outlines, are common knowledge to Biblical scholars, as well as to anyone who had studied in a mainline seminary in the past half century or so. Yet more often than not, such information seems to fail to filter through to the wider populace. The information Ehrman presents is not at odds with Christian faith, although it is at odds with the claims that some Christians make about the Bible. Yet ironically, those Christians who affirm the Bible’s importance seem to put no greater effort into familiarizing themselves with the details of the Bible’s contents, much less scholarship that might aid in understanding it.

Ehrman recounts in the book how he entered seminary as a conservative Christian, ready to resist the attacks liberal scholars would wage against the Bible. Instead, he discovered that this scholarly way of viewing the Bible in fact made better sense and did more justice to what one actually finds in the Bible (p.6). And so Ehrman, like many other students of the Bible from conservative backgrounds (including myself), found his view of the Bible being challenged by the evidence itself (p.xi).

Because of his experience of conservative Evangelicalism, Ehrman is able to address not only the New Testament and other ancient writings from the same period, but also the strategies some Christians have developed for avoiding the natural implications of the Biblical evidence – for instance, “harmonizing”, which usually involves creating one’s own Gospel out of the four found in the New Testament, combining them so that one ends up with a version that isn’t what any of the canonical Gospels say (pp.7, 69-70).

Through the chapters of his book, Ehrman shows how the view of Jesus evolved with time in early Christianity (pp.73-82, 245-247, 260), showing in the process what is wrong with C. S. Lewis’ famous “trilemma” that Jesus must be either “liar, lunatic or Lord”: it assumes that Jesus made the claim to be divine attributed to him in the Gospel of John and only there among the canonical Gospels. A historian cannot have this confidence, and thus must add a fourth option, namely that this claim attributed to Jesus is a “legend” (pp.141-142). The nature of historical study, and its inability to affirm miracles as probable since they are by definition improbable, is also explained (pp.175-177).

In relation to this here is a post by Tony Cartledge: Baptists Today Blogs: Biblical criticism, when the new becomes old. My friend Justin's comment is of particular interest here:
Joshua Brown said...
Dr. Cartledge,

I'm looking forward to class today to hear how you handle the issue of biblical criticism. Those of us fortunate enough to study Religion, specifically Christianity, are well aware of the true nature of biblical criticism. However, as you stated, today's negative connotation of "criticism" makes it difficult to bring such scholarship into the church. Perhaps today's church often feels that scholars desire to tear down their faith instead of enlightening it. Whatever the reason, it's clear that the "older" (and newer)critical methods are lost on the largest population of Christianity: the congregation members. In a time where we give the people in the pews such power by telling them they can read and interpret the Bible for themselves, many ministers have made our congregations fear the very tools meant to help them in their task. Shame, shame, shame.
January 12, 2009 12:02 PM

Justin said...
Joshua said:
"it's clear that the "older" (and newer)critical methods are lost on the largest population of Christianity: the congregation members."

You have captured perfectly why I have feel called to the Church and to education (in the broadest sense of the word). There needs to be more and more people helping bridge the gap in responsible Bible Study!!! You've hit the nail on the head. Its not that they CAN'T do it, its that no one has (will) teach them how!

good comment!
January 12, 2009 1:43 PM

Anyways, while I agree with my pastor that from a pastoral level---historical criticism isn't helpful when dealing with congregational needs---however, I do believe that on an instructional level that pastors that are aware of biblical critical methods should at least make clear how these critical methods are of no danger to the congregations' faith and how biblical criticism can inform our faith. Also, I believe this is necessary to prevent the kinds of bibliolatry and abuses of the bible that is rampant in all types of churches, nowadays. This is also one of the reasons that I like Justin "have feel called to the Church and to education (in the broadest sense of the word)" and another reason why I started blogging. Also like Joshua, I have experienced first hand how "today's negative connotation of "criticism" makes it difficult to bring such scholarship into the church" when I tried to inform a small group I participated in about biblical critical methods. Most wouldn't hear of it as they believe the bible is clear and literally says what it means in a literal/face value sense. Most in the laity are also unaware of all the complexities and subtle nuances of the transmission/collation/translation/interpretation processes within an academic/scholarly hermeneutical framework of the bible. I think this all goes back to something Justin once said that there seems to be a disconnect between academic theology and the church. I agree and that's why we need more people like William Barclay and Bart D. Ehrman to make academic theology accessible to the church.

1 comment:

Christian Beyer said...

Good post. Although not having gone to seminary, my experience is similar to Ehrman's. Coming to faith in a very conservative (reactionary?) congregation, I was warned constantly to not be led astray by 'liberal' theologians - that I was at all costs to avoid their work. In fact, the local Christian bookstores (with the exception of the Methodist Cokesbury) are highly censored with this view in mind.

Once I overcame my fear and started reading scriptures critically, armed with more knowledge of the history and culture surrounding their writings, the more my faith was strengthened. In retrospect I can see that the fear of objectivity that I was prone too was suffocating my faith.

Good stuff. Keep up the good work.lo