biblical scholarship

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:

In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…

This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.” Continue Reading..

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Guest post by David Schell.

NO_LEFT_TURN_signPeople think I moved left because I wanted to compromise with the world, because I wanted to fit in better.

People think I moved left because I was deceived by the devil.

People think I moved left because I’ve been reading the Bible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

People think I moved left because I just stopped reading the Bible.

Continue Reading..

Reading the Bible: The Driscoll Effect

A Conversation About Understanding the Bible

Awhile back someone posted this tweet of Mark Driscoll’s on their Facebook page:


I decided to comment. This led to quite an exchange about the nature of interpreting and understanding the Bible. I share this because I wonder if you can relate, and perhaps, you may have an insight to add. I also do so to highlight the nature of this conversation between an evangelical approach that leans on inerrancy and those who are more willing to allow recent biblical scholarship in on the conversation. Finally, you can let me know if I was ever inappropriate (or inaccurate in my own approach!), so I can do better next time in such engagements. To protect the innocent, I will name my Facebook acquaintance as ‘Driscoll Fan.’ (Excuse the typos, I kept the interchange verbatim).

It’s quite the back and forth, so buckle up.

Bryan Berghoef: One of the biggest mistakes people make is to confuse their interpretations of the Bible with the Bible itself. To come to a new understanding of a text or a passage than a traditional view of it, due to study of language, context, history, archaelogy, etc., is not to change the Bible, but one’s understanding of it, and perhaps to be more faithful to it. Not sure of anyone who seeks to actually ‘change the Bible’.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan, Unfortunately the epistemological and ontological assumptions of the postmodern emergent movement clearly seems to be enamored with reconstructing the Bible rather than reinterpreting it. There is for example a disregard for the objectivity of Scripture that leads language, history and archeological analysis to be more a deconstructive process than honest research. In this context I do believe that Driscol is absolutely right. There are always those who seek to “reinterpret” the Word in their own image rather than being willing to humble themselves before an immutable God.

Bryan: I don’t disagree with your last sentence – in fact, we are all at times capable and culpable of this. But to assume any of us can infallibly interpret the text is simply not the case. We *always*, invariably interpret the text when we come to it. There is a lens through which we see it (as in a glass darkly). Driscoll’s comment seems to presume that there are some who see directly (without this lens), or who have “the” lens. I have to disagree. Again, its not a matter of changing the Bible, but one’s interpretation of it. There’s a vast difference.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan – As I read your critique of Driscol it seems to me that you are saying something like this: “Those (Like Driscol) who say that we can have confidence in absolutes are absolutely wrong.” In other words you are claiming to be sure that anyone who claims to be sure is surely wrong. Kinda like saying You know that nothing can be known. This is the problem with postmodern epistemology. It is self-refuting at every turn. Even your disagreement with Driscol (and me in this Facebook) exchange assumes there is a measuring rod outside of those things being measured (to quote Lewis) and that your argument is measured to be more accurate than Driscol’s or mine. Without objectivity there is no reason to debate with anyone about anything. Disagreement would literally meaningless for there would be no basis or even any desire to engage in it. I would argue that you are basically proving Driscol’s point by saying that he is wrong for in doing so you claim to be more closely aligned with reality of what Scripture is than he is. So – when you respond and challenge me on my posting remember that the desire that pushes you forward toward such a challenge is the very thing you are claiming has no merit.

Driscoll Fan: One more word – Indeed, “we ‘always’ interpret the text when we come to it” but that doesn’t mean we are “always” right in our interpretations. In fact we could be wrong. As Os Guinness says “Truth is true even if no one believes it and falsehood is false even if everyone believes it. Truth is true and that’s just the end of it.” Interpretations, i.e. opinions, are irrelevant to accuracy. Some people interpret the Bible rightly and some do so wrongly. So – the goal should not be to settle on a view of the Bible that suits our culture or our egos but to find out what it Truly says and what it Really means.

Bryan: Actually I wasn’t saying nearly what you’re implying I was. My point was simply that no one changes the Bible (it’s a nonsensical thing to say), and that we all approach the Bible with a hermeneutical lens. I don’t know a single biblical scholar who would say otherwise. You’re doing a nice job of avoiding what I’m actually saying while reading into my comments a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t say. It appears you’re more interested in fighting a caricature of postmodernism than discussing this issue.

Driscoll Fan: Not at all Bryan. In fact I would disagree completely with your contention that I’m avoiding what you’re saying. To the contrary I have addressed it head on and quite specifically and repeatedly.

Here it is again –

1. You disagree with Driscoll’s tweet and with me for posting it.

2. You are saying repeatedly that “everyone” interprets the Bible (i.e. changes it) through their own “hermeneutical” lens and life experience.

3. You say over and over again that no one reads the Bible with any hope of an objectively accurate understanding because we all bring our subjectivity to the process.

4. You therefore by definition align yourself with a “hermenuetic” that is postmodern rather than modern or premodern for the only way a person can hold your epistemological and ontological position is to say that anthropomorphic change and personal subjectivity always supersede the objectivity of natural law and the immutability and knowabilty of Divine revelation.

5. I have pointed out repeatedly that your above position is circular and self-refuting and that the very argument you bring to the table proves Driscoll’s point and mine more than yours because in arguing that you are right and that I am wrong you are appealing to the very objective standard of truth that you are attempting to deny.

6. I have highlighted the fact that in your efforts to disparage the absolute statement of Driscoll that you find it impossible not to use absolute statements of your own such as “all”, “everyone”, “no one”, “nonsense” etc.

7. I have suggested that the above is proof that you cannot disagree with someone who believes that there is an ultimate measure of accuracy and rightness without you yourself implicitly appealing to that same “measuring rod” of rightness that you at the same time seek to dismiss.

8. I have said that the fact that you are even taking the time to debate me right now proves my point. For you obviously believe you are right. Therefore, you believe I’m wrong.

9. Finally you contend that I am not interested in a “discussion” of the issues while at the same time you seem to not want to discuss the issues unless I agree with you. In other words “discussion” is great (I guess) as long as makes you feel comfortable but it’s not “discussion” anymore if it doesn’t.

I do have to admit to be smiling a bit at the claims of searching for “depth” while at the same time not being willing to acknowledge that one may be standing in water ankle deep – and in fact being offended when a fellow traveler even suggests that such shallows even exist.

Bryan: Yes, of course I think I’m right. I never said there were no absolutes. There are. If we couldn’t know anything, there wouldn’t be much point in talking about it. There are things that are true about the world.

But that does not imply a leap to knowing everything exactly as it is. You seem to be making a false dichotomy here that is unhelpful. Either there are absolutes *and* we can know them perfectly, or there aren’t any absolutes and we can’t know anything, which as you noted is self-refuting (and not the stance I was taking).

You’re confusing several realms of knowledge: knowledge about what Bible passages mean, knowledge about what we are able to know about ancient texts, and knowledge about what we can know in general. The same standards/limitations aren’t going to apply to all. The first category is limited by the second, which is limited by the third, and so on.

From the start, I was taking issue with Driscoll’s choice of language, which to me, doesn’t make sense. He (and you) are apparently conflating a change in the text itself with a change in how it’s being interpreted. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING! (And I think it is misleading and unhelpful to talk that way, which is why I responded in the first place).

The text of the Bible has been more or less stable for quite some time (setting aside minor translation issues and Dead Sea Scroll stuff). What is changing is how people are interpreting it.

There are clearly interpretations that are more right than others, and certainly plenty of wrong interpretations. I’m just cautioning a little humility in assuming we know in every case whether I or someone else has the right or best interpretation. If you think you’ve arrived at the best understanding of every text you should publish a commentary – I’d love to buy it.

There are things that are true. There are ways the world actually is. The question is which of those things can we know and how sure can we be whether we know them.

An analogy might help.

In clear sunlight we’re good at identifying the colors of things. In the dark we are not. Interpreting the Bible at times is like trying to identify colors at night. There is some light, but it is limited. More and more sources of light are becoming available (e.g., archaeology, history, linguistic discoveries). But we don’t all have equal access to those sources. Nor are we all equally good at seeing under low light.

Under these circumstances, we could still be in a position to say that this object before us is definitely not yellow (No one is saying there is no object, or no color!). It might be red or violet or indigo, but it’s not always totally clear. In all of this, reliance upon the Holy Spirit, one’s faith community, and historical witness all play a role, in addition to what’s already been mentioned.

We are also in a position to say that anyone who denies that there is insufficient light or who claims to be able to see perfectly clearly is extremely unlikely to be telling the truth.

On a different topic, I’m also not sure – given what appears to be your position – what need there is for faith. Where there is perfect and complete knowledge, faith is beside the point. Faith comes in when there is an element of doubt, when things are not obvious. If it was all clear cut and obvious, everyone would have that perspective.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan, I am going to try to be brief as I can for i fear I am risking becoming a bit pedantic in my responses to you.. So I am simply going to respond to several of your contentions in you last posting on a point by point format below.

Driscoll Fan: Opps – I copied your entire text and tried to respond to the first point and it reposted the entire thing… Sorry :- ) [he reposted my entire previous response, deleted here for brevity] Here is my basic response (probably better this way because I will REALLY be brief now 🙂 First, you say I am guilty of presenting a false dichotomy because I contend that you either have absolute knowledge or no knowledge – Not sure where you see that in my writing. Must just be your “interpretation” of what I am saying. Or is it possible my words and intent are being “changed” to suit what your experience and unique context leads you to want them to mean? Just because I am arguing that absolute reality exists and that it is knowable doesn’t mean I am arguing that I am always know that reality without error. What it does imply however is that reality exists and that it can be known and that arguments to the contrary are actually self-refuting and circular attempts to claim that you know nothing can be known and that you are sure that nothing is sure and that you are confident that we can have no confidence. Feels a bit like I am watching my dog chase his tail 🙂 Your obviously think it is REAL that I am wrong and that it is REAL that you are right in this debate. You also clearly think you KNOW what this REALITY is. Therefore you are essentially admitting to KNOWING Driscoll’s point while trying REALLY hard to claim you KNOW no such thing. Third, I disagree with you that Driscoll doesn’t make sense. In fact I think he makes more sense than those who argue that there is no “sense” that is common to and thereby anchored to a knowable absolute. Fourth, I agree with the caution for humility. The irony here is that history shows us that bowing to the knowability of Scripture Truth is the only way man has ever actually humbled himself before God and others. The elevation of ourselves to the position of “grand interpreter” is perhaps the quintessential example of the original sin where we don’t need God to tell us what is right or wrong or good or evil because we are fully capable of “knowing” this on our own. The Bible is clear and it should be read, heard, and “interpreted” in the context of such clarity. This is Driscoll’s obvious point. We have no right to “change” or “interpret” its meaning beyond the obvious. Doing so is the ultimate hubris and the antithesis of the humility you call for. Fifth, I don’t think you need buy one of my commentaries for I doubt (in all humility) my “interpretations” and “subjective” views would lend themselves to the “depth” of “authenticity” and “openness” you cherish…

Driscoll Fan: On your analogy of light – It appears that you are taking the same position of Jones, McClaren, Bell et al in claiming that ontologically there indeed is ultimate reality but that epistemologically such a reality can’t be known by flawed humans. I guess I can only respond by asking how do you KNOW this to be REAL and true? Or perhaps you are saying that you don’t know this??? Or perhaps you are conflating your opinion of what is true and real with what really is?? Or maybe … Oh never mind — my dog almost just caught his tail but watching him has made me real dizzy – or maybe not! Maybe dizziness is merely my interpretation and not real after all..

Driscoll Fan: Finally, forgive all the typos – I am rushing in between duties for the day and I haven’t had time to review and edit… But if it all boils down to your interpretation of what I am saying then it really doesn’t matter anyway because you can never REALLY KNOW what I meant in the first place anyway and it frankly doesn’t matter… Take the text and, in humility, make of it what you want.

Bryan: My guess is that we are both guilty of misunderstanding each other at some level, which actually illustrates my point about how communication works in reality. If you and I can struggle to understand each other clearly, imagine getting a point of view from people who have been dead a couple thousand years, spoke and wrote in languages no one speaks today, and lived in a culture that is in many respects different from ours!

I love the Bible, and study it a lot because of that, and because I think we can know things, and because I believe God is still speaking to us through it.

The simplest understanding is not always the most accurate, because we do not live in the ancient world and culture in which these texts were written. What seems simple and obvious to us in English may not always have been the author’s intent. The very fact that every pastor has multiple commentaries, and many, if not most, study the original languages – illustrates the exact point I have been making. All are unnecessary if it was always simple and clear.

Finally, I’m not sure why a mocking tone seems to follow all your comments about my approach and intentions. It detracts from the substantive things we are discussing.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan.

Frankly I’m saddened (but not surprised) that u just aren’t seeing that even in your last note you are essentially proving my point and Driscoll’s.

What difference does it make of there is no measuring rod of accuracy by which to judge the veracity of competing claims.

It is the ultimate in arrogance for man to place himself above this immutable scale.

This is what Driscoll was saying.

This what I’m saying.

Only subjectivity and sin would dim this light

Bryan: Yes, we do live in a subjective and sinful world. So my point stands. God may have such a rod, but we, this side of glory, are limited by the aforementioned, and get along by his grace.

Bryan: None of us stands where God stands, it’s a pretty basic point, really.

Bryan: In any case, appreciate the chance to discuss – I hope people can learn something by reading our exchange.

Driscoll Fan: Yep.

I guess if God’s measuring rod exists as you claim but that we are “limited” in our ability to ever truly know it then we are indeed a sorry lot.

Doomed to be oppressed by the power, popularity and pretensions of man –

Doomed to be subjugated to the bondage that always comes from opinions rather than being set free by the absolute Truth that Christ himself tells us we SHALL KNOW.

Doomed to political arrogance and ecclesiastical hubris.

Doomed to being given over to a reprobate mind –

Doomed to follow in the footsteps of the arrogant young professor of the Great Divorce where we never really had an original thought but simply kept parroting the opinions that seemed popular.

Indeed I hope people do read and learn and think about the consequences of their ideas.

Bottom line – At the end of the day all people will plead to be judged by God’s truth rather than yours or mine.

Thus Driscoll’s point.

What do you think?  I let Driscoll Fan have the last word.  Did he use it well?  In the end, after a later engagement, and despite my attempts to be as cordial as possible in the interchange—I was unfriended by Driscoll Fan, who, it turns out, is the president of an evangelical university.

The Intimidating Task of Bible Study, Part 1

Taken from Wes Howard-Brook’s introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, Becoming Children of God:

Attempting to read a biblical text challenges us in ways that quickly threaten to sink us in a quicksand of questions.  Which translation is “best” if we don’t read ancient Greek or Hebrew?  And even if we try to learn something about these long-dead languages, how do we move forward in our language to talk about the text?  Once we start getting enmeshed in inquiries about language, the paradoxes of words and their relationship to reality “out there” can become powerfully mind-boggling.  Linguistic and literary theory are minefields in which much heat is radiated but precious little light remains after the explosions.

it's all Greek to me

At the same time, the biblical texts – like almost no others still widely read in our time – confront us with worlds confoundingly foreign.  Names of people and places seem unpronounceable, and locations are obscure.  People behave in ways strange to our “normal” practice, but we cannot easily discern whether their behavior is strange to those with whom they interact in the stories.  Much of the context involves situations with which we have absolutely no experience or concern.  Furthermore, few sources of information from the ancient world are available to enlighten us on these crucial matters.  A few pieces of broken pottery or tablets and miscellaneous scraps of documents are hardly sufficient to recreate for us a sense of the long lost world of Israel.  What would future cultural historians do with a couple of our daily newspapers and a handful of random paperbacks from the best-seller list?  Would such artifacts allow for reasonably certain inferences about our daily lives and concerns?

What Is One To Do?

Beginning to consider these questions and the infinite corollaries that cascade from them can lead to several responses among prospective biblical readers.

First, we can attempt to close our minds to the questions and, like fundamentalists, pretend in effect that the Bible was written in English in the recent past, interpreting its “plain words” according to our (unspoken) cultural assumptions.  This is the de facto reading “method” of most people of goodwill who have grown up with the Bible as a book on the shelf to be read among other selections from history or literature.  Whether because the questions are threatening or simply because they have not occurred to us to ask them, we read the Bible naively and come up with naïve – and often dangerous – interpretations.

A second option is to allow the questions to take us over and move toward becoming biblical scholars at one level or another.  One can very easily be swept up into methodological questions – for instance, questions of form criticism and hermeneutics – and never return to the Bible itself.  Or one can attempt (impossibly) to consider all that has been written on a particular biblical text in an effort to cull the wisdom of “better” and “more qualified” readers than oneself.  This project runs into the barriers of one’s own linguistic competence (biblical scholarship speaks many languages) and the supply of periodicals in local theological libraries.  Not to mention the financial and social costs of giving up one’s job and family to create the time to read such a mountain of material!

A third possibility in the face of the mammoth nature of the undertaking is to give it up altogether.  The Bible is too arcane, too distant, too complicated to be of much practical use for those of us struggling to discern the Creator’s path for humankind in our troubled era.  Why bother to conjugate lost languages to figure out how to act in the face of racism, poverty, and the infinite oppressions of everyday life in the American empire?  The very act of attempting to dig out from under the mound of questions is evidence enough of the privilege we should probably be about the business of renouncing.

approaching the text

Each of these options avoids in a different way the challenge and opportunity to learn from our ancestors what the Bible offers.  Whether one chooses fundamentalism, ivory-tower academia, or some “new” religious approach disconnected from the biblical tradition, the result is to deny the invitation to acknowledge that we stand on the pinnacle of the mountain of human experience.  Our “age” – whether we conceive of that term as signifying the baby boomers, generation X, millenials, the period of technology, or the era of democratic capitalism in the West  – is only the most recent chapter in a human story spanning many millennia.  The simple fact remains that the Bible is the deepest echo of our ancestors’ own cries of “Who are we?” and “What are we to do with our lives?”

So, if we are to choose an alternative to abandoning or getting lost in the search for biblical wisdom, we must begin with a humble acknowledgement that our efforts are limited by many factors that cannot be overcome.  Rather than denying either the invitation to learn or the existence of barriers, I urge us to name our limits and continue to move forward.

Who We Are Matters 

This very process has also been taking place from within the formal institution of biblical scholarship.  Where once professional Bible readers (are there such things?!) claimed “scientific” methods that obviated the need to claim the personal positions and limits of the interpreter, more and more we find scholars admitting what has been true all along.  That is, each reader or community of readers comes to the Bible with a panoply of prejudices and commitments that necessarily play a powerful part in shaping how one hears the word of God speaking.  Poor peasants in Latin America can connect with Jesus’ parables drawn with images of farming far more readily than clean-fingered university professors in the United States or Europe.  Women can hear both the pain caused by the patriarchal mind-set that permeates the Bible and Jesus’ shocking invitations to reshape that mind-set in ways that men such as myself can never do.  People anywhere committed to the transformation of unjust social structures into God’s realm of shalom will pick up the pervasive political context of the gospels when readers satisfied with the status quo find only “spiritual” messages.

This is not to suggest that one particular cultural perspective or sociopolitical ideology is “better” for reading the Bible.  Rather, it is to call all prospective readers to the enlightening and humbling task of paying attention to how who we are affects who we believe the God of the Bible to be.  At the same time, it is not to succumb to a trackless pluralism in which anyone and everyone can read the Bible and find their “opinion” equally valid.  Criteria do exist for distinguishing among readers, just as distinctions between faith in Yahweh and faith in Baal, Marduk, or Caesar are not mere tricks of the text.  Our image of God and sense of God’s will for us and for creation powerfully influence our sense of what makes for a “right” world.  Are we simply part of a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest struggle to survive, or ought we to aim together for a harmonious interconnectedness that respects the dignity of all life?  Our biblical interpretations are crucial to answer this eminently practical inquiry.

Beginning the Journey

This getting to know ourselves in order to get to know the Bible can, of course, produce the same avoidance of the question as does the attempt to get to know the Bible “directly.”  We will never completely know ourselves any more than we will completely know the Bible.  But just as we should not allow our ignorance of Greek or Pharisaic practice to prevent our encounter with the sacred texts, we should not stop reading the Bible simply because some unrevealed prejudice may be affecting our reading.  Instead, we can, like the Hebrews in Egypt, courageously accept the invitation to leave our captivity behind and begin the journey toward liberation.

Stay tuned for Part 2!