Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In what way is the Bible authoritative? Part 2

This post continues a previous one on the authority of the Bible, examining two more ways of reading Scripture in addition to the first approach, viewing the Bible as the literal word of God.

Second, one can read the Bible as human words dictated by God. This does not equate God's words with the Bible. Instead, this approach emphasizes that the human words of Scripture were God's choice (i.e., the best available) for communicating God's will to people. Scholars can profitably study the original language (no original manuscripts exist), and then translate the text into other languages; commentaries and other resources can provide information about possible interpretations of the text, conjectures about the historical context of the text, etc.

Although this approach seems to value all Scripture, in fact the approach is rife with difficulties:

1.    Because no original manuscripts exist and there are thousands of textual variations, who decides what God intended? Many of the variations are trivial but some are major, e.g., Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus argues that all of the passages that have Jesus attesting to his divinity are late additions or changes reflecting the emerging and increasingly normative theory that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, the only begotten son of God.

2.    Similarly, written Hebrew originally had no vowels, punctuation, capitalization, or spacing. It consisted of an unbroken string of consonants. Who decides what God intended? Much of the time, deciphering the text is not too difficult. However, some key passages are unclear, e.g., the name of God is YHWH, but nobody knows the word or its meaning.

3.    If God intended the totality of the Bible, what is the justification for valuing some of it as history or no longer requiring obedience? How does one reconcile God telling Israel to kill all of the Amalekites and Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies?

Over the last thousand years, Christians (except evangelical Protestants in the U.S.) have generally moved away from this approach to Scripture. Similarly, Christians have almost completely abandoned what we now see as the obviously antiquated and failed attempts of prior generations to preserve this understanding of Scripture, e.g., allegorizing difficult passages to harmonize prima facie conflicting teachings in different parts of Scripture.

Third, one can read the Bible as a human text and study the text with all of the literary, linguistic, and historical tools with which humans study other human texts. This approach, known as the historical-critical approach to the Bible, gained momentum beginning in the late 1700s and by the 1970s when I was in seminary dominated Christian Scripture scholarship among all but literalists. Even many evangelicals, to some degree, relied upon this approach until the late twentieth century revolt against the moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention occurred.

But this approach also has a huge shortcoming: if the text is a human product, how can one hear or experience God's revelation in or through the text? Not having a good answer to that challenge led many clergy to develop a bifurcated approach to the Bible: they read the Bible devotionally to hear God speak (see the fourth approach discussed in my next post) and studied the Bible using the historical-critical methods. This bifurcation explains why generations of Christians remained almost completely ignorant of the historical-critical method, a phenomenon that prominent biblical scholar James Smart commented upon in his mid-twentieth century book, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church.


Michael Tymn said...

Rev. Clifford,

Guess what? I agree with you. But I would add to it.

For example, the word "nephesh" is used 754 times in the Hebrew Bible, but it takes on 30 different meanings, ranging from “soul” and “the dead” to “fish” and “dogs,” while the Greek word "aion" is found in the New Testament 108 times and is given 10 different meanings, including “forever,” “ages,” “occasionally,” and “never.” What we read in the English Bible as “everlasting punishment” meant “age-long pruning” in the original Greek. The modern English versions translate the Old Testament as saying “the dead know nothing” and that we should not be communicating with the “dead.” However, it is my understanding that the original Hebrew word referred to the “spiritually dead,” meaning low-level or earthbound spirits.

If the dead know nothing and we shouldn’t be talking with them, why should we or how can we “test the spirits, as to whether they are of God,” as we are instructed in 1 John 4:1? Why should anyone bother to “discern” what the spirits have to say, as we are counseled in 1 Corinthians 12:10, if they know nothing and we shouldn’t even be communicating with them?

How are we to interpret 1 Thessalonians 5:21, which says to “test them all and hold on to what is good”? Or 1 Peter 1:5, which tells us that we should add “knowledge” to our faith?

Christian leaders cite Revelation 22:18, in which John supposedly says that God will punish anyone who adds or takes away anything from the Bible. And, yet, in John 16:12-14, we are told that there is much more to learn but the world, at least then, was not yet ready for it. Are we to assume that the world is still not ready for it and will never be ready for it?

And how are we to reconcile Joel 2:28-29, which says: "It shall come to pass afterwards that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions, and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days I will pour out my spirit.”?

More modern revelation has come to us in the same way that the ancient revelation did – through mediums of one kind or another, even though those ancient mediums, whether clairvoyants, trance types, direct voice types, automatic writers, or even near-death experiencers, might have been called prophets, seers, saints, or even saviors (or were translated as such).

George Clifford said...

Michael, My next two posts on reading the Bible will hopefully clarify my approach to Scripture. I am not a biblical scholar and lack the knowledge required to discuss issues regarding translation. I’m quite happy to accept the understanding of nephesh that I learned in seminary and that outstanding scholarly resources, such as the Anchor Bible Dictionary, reinforce. Therefore, I do not need to sort out the ways in which the text uses nephesh or other particular words. Being a Christian is a communal rather than an individual endeavor.

Furthermore, as my next two posts will make clear, I find your approach to Scripture foreign. Humans wrote the Bible reflecting their own, now very dated, worldview, e.g., belief in ephemeral spirits. The Christian leaders who cite Revelation 22:18 as warrant for not changing Scripture simply reveal their own ignorance. The Bible did not exist when the Book of Revelation was written. In other words, that verse cannot mean what those Christian leaders claim. At most, the verse refers to the text of the book of Revelation alone.

Scripture is full of paradox, which often points to a reality not easily communicable in human language, i.e., to the infinite God. The spirit that God pours on the world, according to Joel, is God's spirit, the spirit of love, and not a self-existing spirit. Clairvoyants, mediums, and automatic writers are all most likely people whose experiences are psychological in origin. The spiritual is entirely naturalistic and not a separate dimension of existence.

Michael Tymn said...

Rev. Clifford,

Yes, human hands wrote the Bible, but those hands were controlled by spirits of the dead. As with all "automatic writing," the filtering process is sometimes flawed and the messages therefore distorted. They were further distorted by interpreters and translators, sometimes unintentially, other times intentionally, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all mediums, and indications are that Jesus chose his apostles based upon their mediumistic ability, which was much more common then than now because gross materialism has interfered with man's ability to receive messages from the spirit world.

One such distortion is the reference to "Lord" in Scripture. Orthodoxy takes it to mean God or Jesus, while the Hebrew word it is derived from meant "spirit." (However, I can't find my source for this at the moment.) Thus, when we read that the "Lord said this...," it was really a spirit -- sometimes an advanced spirit, other times not so advanced, who said it.

Countless passages in Scripture refer to "the Holy Spirit," whereas the Greek texts read, "a holy spirit."

George Clifford said...

"Lord" does not refer to the dead guiding the human authors of scripture. That is an idiosyncratic interpretation that I'm never encountered before. "Lord," in the scriptures is a form of address, either to a living person or to the deity. The use of the definite article (the) with respect to the Holy Spirit reflects Trinitarian theology and is not necessarily faithful to ancient manuscripts. However, the use of the definite/indefinite article has nothing to do with the spirits of the deceased. In general, Jews and Christians, and probably all of the authors of scripture regarded contact with the spirits of the dead as heretical or paganism.