Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Critical Interpretation of the Bible Shapes Meaningful Theology

Regardless of which Christian tradition we call our own, the sacred texts of the Bible are always central to that tradition. While we may affirm different canons of scripture, all families within the Christian faith have great reverence for the scriptures and view them as having a vital place of authority in shaping Christian belief and practice.

Yet, we must realize that the texts of scripture never stand on their own. The Bible does not interpret itself, but must be interpreted by those who read the text; those situated in various times and places who seek to grasp what these texts say about God.

There are many reasons people may read the Bible, e.g., historical or literary, but the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological. Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity.

Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity. In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world.

But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters, and times of their own era. These stories extend beyond their own frame of reference to communicate an eschatological belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.

So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live? Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God? Answering these questions fully would take more space than allotted here, but I want to offer at least a rudimentary approach to reading the scriptures theologically.

One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation. Fundamentalist Christians and some conservative believers refuse the findings and methods of modern biblical scholarship, believing them to be human created methods of refuting what the Bible says. But a critical approach to reading scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.

A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations. Reading the Bible critically means giving close attention to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them. These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours. They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently. Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have.

This means that we cannot always read the Bible literally. While developing our theology from the scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.

Yet, as we read and interpret the text of scripture to this end, we must also recognize our own presuppositions. Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us. We approach the biblical text with these ideologies, which often leads to our reading our presuppositions into the texts of scriptures without realizing it.

Moreover, we often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and in not doing so, we cling to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation.

Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside. They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything. If we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.

A primary step in doing this is to read the text of scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings. A text of scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of scripture. A scriptural passage may have a multiplicity of valid theological meanings, and reading in community can help us see other meanings.

Yet, while we can read them in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions. Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us, and are from the same social and economic situations.

Reading the text with people from other races, other cultures, other social and economic conditions, and other ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly different. Moreover, reading the text with those both inside and outside our community can offer the Spirit a way of leading us to fresh interpretations that shape our theological thinking.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Whose Bible is the Authoritative Canon of Scripture?

In my last column I raised questions concerning the range of the canon of scripture and who determines what constitutes the Bible. These may not seem like essential questions for many of us, for most of us are probably Protestants who have lived all of our lives knowing one Bible that includes thirty-nine books we call the Old Testament and twenty-seven books we refer to as the New Testament.

But the questions are relevant from both a theological and historical perspective, for various traditions within the Christian faith differ in the books accepted as holy writ. Indeed, throughout the history of the church, the canon of scripture has been debated and has never really been conclusively settled except within each specific tradition.

Space prevents an extensive discussion of the differences between canons across time and space spectra of Christianity, and so I will mostly concentrate on the variations between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles. However, we should be aware that churches in the Eastern Church also differ in what they view as canonical.

For example, early in its history, the Syrian Church accepted as scripture a writing known as the Diatessaron, an amalgamation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into one, and fourteen letters associated with Paul, including a third letter to the Corinthians. Later, this tradition would accept the four Gospels, along with the Pauline corpus, but it rejected II Peter, II and III John, Jude, and Revelation.

The Ethiopian Church, which has existed since the early centuries of Christianity, recognizes forty-six books as the books of the Old Testament and thirty-five writings as their New Testament, which includes the twenty-seven traditional books as well as eight additional writings not found in other Christian canons.

These examples may be insignificant to many of us, for many of us are unaware that these other Christian traditions exist. But they should raise questions concerning who determines the scope of the Christian canon. However, in the history of the Western Church, the most significant differences between two canons of scripture involve the variations between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments.

The Roman Catholic Old Testament follows what is known as the Alexandrian Canon, which is associated with the Septuagint, an ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. This canon consists not only of books accepted by Protestants, called protocanonical by Roman Catholics, but also additional books known by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical. Protestants do not accept these additional books as canonical and refer to them as apocryphal.

The Roman Church affirmed its canon long before the birth of Protestantism, and has reaffirmed it at the Council of Trent in 1546, and in more recent history at Vatican Councils I (1870) and II (1960s). Yet, Protestants deny this canon and only recognize the shorter number of books. What brought about the difference between the canons of these two Christian traditions?

The deuterocanonical books came under serious scrutiny and were rejected as scripture by leaders of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. This was due in part to the popularity, brought on by the Renaissance, of reading ancient texts in their original languages. Protestant Reformers, who were greatly influenced by the Renaissance, sought to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, thus favoring the Palestinian Canon, which contained the shorter list of books.

But the most significant reasons for excluding these deuterocanonical or apocryphal books were theological. Most Reformers attacked central theological teachings of the Roman Church, and so they dismissed certain books as teaching such false doctrines. From the position of attacking these doctrines, they then determined that these books were not divinely inspired, and thus should not be considered scripture.

However, although some Protestant leaders refused to see these books as canonical, they did include the deuterocanonical books in their translations, designating them as useful for devotional reading. Even the Authorized Version of 1611, better known as the King James Version, included these books and placed them between the Old and New Testaments.

In 1647, however, the Westminster Confession of Faith declared these books as non-canonical in the Protestant Church stating that they, “not being of divine inspiration, are not a part of the Scripture.” Eventually these books would be omitted from Bibles published by Protestant Bible Societies, forever sealing the fate of these books in the Protestant tradition.

It should also be mentioned that some Reformers, most notably Martin Luther, also questioned some of the New Testament books. Luther doubted the canonicity of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, but he was particularly troubled by James due to its emphasis on salvation by works, which was in direct opposition to the central tenet of his theology.

Once again we see that looking into the historical process of the acceptance of some books and the rejection of others raises certain questions for us today. First, although we hold to our own canons of scripture within our traditions, are we willing to admit the validity of other canons to other traditions? Following this, we must ask what we mean when we say that scripture is inspired by God and how we determine which books are inspired and which are not. Finally, and perhaps more seriously, we must once again come face to face with the question over the Bible as the sole source of Christian faith and life.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Human Decisions were the Force behind the Formation of the New Testament

It was inevitable that Christianity would become a religion with a sacred book. Inheriting a collection of texts from their parent religion, Judaism, early believers in Jesus not only read Israel’s ancient books differently than their fellow Jews who did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah, they also began to develop their own set of texts, some of which would eventually become the New Testament. This was an historical process that involved human decisions that would define the Christian Bible.

Over the period of time between the life of Jesus and what I would cautiously refer to as the “closing” of the New Testament canon, texts were written, copied, and passed from church to church. Because of the flux intrinsic to such an historical process, we cannot say with any degree of certainty that what would eventually become known as the New Testament was known by these early Christians. Indeed, for centuries there was no such thing as a New Testament in the shape we know it today.

What was the historical process that led to 27 books becoming the New Testament? Step one of this progression was the writing of texts in response to what early followers of Jesus believed about him. This does not mean complete uniformity, for as Christianity grew, different Christian communities developed different understandings about who Jesus was, and they wrote texts that reflected their views.

A vitally important step to follow was the reading of texts in worship. We know that Paul’s letters were being read in the congregations to which he had written. Moreover, the Gospels give evidence that they were addressed to particular Christian communities, which would mean that they were read in these churches. This public reading of these texts caused them to be viewed as authoritative scripture, which led not only to the copying of these texts, but also to their dispersal to various Christian communities.

Public reading and the sharing of writings with other churches also led to some books becoming authoritative for some churches, while other books would not be viewed as scripture by these churches. As Christianity spread away from Jerusalem, Christian texts became more diverse, so much so that it would have been impossible for wide-ranging agreement on the Christian canon to take place across the vastness of the Roman Empire.

Indeed, there were books, such as Hebrews and 2 Peter, which were not necessarily viewed as scripture by many churches which would become part of the New Testament. There were also other writings, such as 1 and 2 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermes, that were viewed as scripture by many churches, and yet they would not be included in the books of the Christian Bible.

Therefore, we have little evidence that a universal New Testament existed before the fourth century. Rather, various Christian communities held their own canons as authoritative. But for many church authorities, this kind of pluralism would not do, and they sought to bolster what they determined as orthodox.

While there were always those on the fringe of this orthodoxy, the popularity of the teachings of a man named Marcion (85-160 C.E) presented a significant threat to the church authorities. Marcion excluded the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and included in his scriptures only ten letters of Paul and a particular version of Luke, free of any references to Jesus’ Jewish heritage.

Marcion’s influence was significant enough to gather a large following and the attention of church authorities. The popularity of his teachings, even long after his death, as well as the beliefs of other unorthodox communities, convinced church leaders that a defined canon of scripture needed to be finalized. This would be the only way to root out potential challenges to what church authorities considered orthodoxy.

But it was not until 367 C.E. that a list of the 27 books was affirmed as the canon of the New Testament. The canonical list appears in a letter written by a bishop named Athanasius and excludes those books considered heretical by the church, as well as some books that were popular even among orthodox Christians. By the time of this letter, the Council at Nicaea (325 C.E.), which was called and influenced by Emperor Constantine, had already decided what orthodoxy was, and thus teachings outside of their definition would be deemed heretical.

Why should all of this matter to modern Christians who have lived all of their lives with a complete New Testament? Primarily, this historical process demonstrates that as Christianity developed some Christian groups, in response to what they believed about God and in reaction to opposing views from other Christian groups, made decisions about what would be called the New Testament.

More importantly for shaping theology today, looking back on this process raises certain questions about the range of the canon of scripture, about who determines what the Bible is and says, and to what extent the scriptures serve as the sole basis of authority for Christian faith and living.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Honest Questions about the Origin and Nature of the Bible

The Bible has a long and rich history in Western society; no one can deny this fact. Its wisdom has brought many people comfort in times of sorrow, distress, and confusion and its stories have spoken to the hearts of believers for generations. Yet, the Bible is also often misunderstood, whether by untrained lay persons or by misguided pastors and scholars. In fact, I would be willing to say that many, if not most people, who read the Bible may not be familiar with some critical issues surrounding its origin, the differences in one Bible from another, the complexities of interpreting the Bible, and the problems inherent in trying to make the biblical material applicable to our modern world.

While I cannot answer fully all of these questions, and many more we could ask, over the next few weeks I will attempt to address these issues as best I can. My intent is not to prove conclusive evidence on any of these issues, but is rather to open honest discussion about these issues. In my view, a serious and robust faith is not based on intellectual apathy, but grows from asking the most difficult and troubling of questions.

My first question concerns the origin and transmission of the Bible. If we are to come to some understanding of the Bible as a source of faith and belief, then we must also become aware of the Bible’s origination and development.

Many well meaning Christians believe the Bible consists of the very words of God. That is, each word of the Bible was inspired, or breathed by God, through human scribes who simply recorded every word that God spoke to them. Theologians know this theory as verbal plenary inspiration.
While such a view still seems very prevalent in many churches, this opinion does not take seriously the historical setting of the Bible, or the history of the Bible itself. If we are to read these texts faithfully, then we should come to understand them as historically situated texts written by historically situated human authors who had their own views of God, humanity, and the world.

In my mind, this is the only way we can explain the many diverse views we find throughout the Bible. Humans who wrote these books did so from their own perspectives of the world and how they thought God was working in the world. Moreover, they had their own assumptions about the world, and the texts they produced are not always timeless truths that apply to our lives.
Indeed, the authors of the biblical texts were so limited to their own space and time, as are we, that their claims about God do not fit other claims about God from other biblical authors. We can even see that some parts of the Bible come into conflict with other texts in the same canon.

Honestly admitting this reality raises the issue of whether or not the Bible is inerrant, a term meaning without error. I have chosen not to see the scriptures as inerrant, for the word inerrancy calls for so many qualifications that the term looses any real meaning.

Any knowledgeable scholar of the Bible can tell us that the variety of manuscripts of biblical texts that we now posses demonstrate errors made by copyists, whether they were intentional or unintentional. While most of these errors, known as variants, are minor, and none of them present serious challenges to the most important doctrines of Christianity, there are some among the New Testament manuscripts that are quite significant.

For example, while most English Bibles continue to include Mark 16:9-20 at the end of Mark’s Gospel, a reader of the narrative should see a note that informs her that this ending does not appear in some of the most ancient manuscripts. Indeed, I know of no serious expert on Mark that thinks that these verses were part of the original text of Mark.

We also find that many important manuscripts do not contain the famous story about the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. This does not mean the story did not happen, but it does mean that the passage was most likely not in the original text of John. There are other important variants that we could discuss, but the mention of these two is enough to raise serious questions about the inerrancy of the Bible. Moreover, these errors also demonstrate that the Bible has a history that has been influenced by humans from its origins, through its transmission, down to its translation.

What does this historical reality mean for people who read the Bible to find theological truth and encouragement for faithful discipleship? First, it means that we must admit that the complexities involved in explaining the origin of the Bible are numerous. Second, reading the Bible faithfully means we must do the hard work of deconstructing, as best we can, the historical, social, and political assumptions of the author in order to find the heart of the gospel that is meaningful for our world.