Monday, 6 May 2013

The Once and Future Scriptures - The problems (pt 1)

The Once and Future Scriptures is edited by Gregory C Jenks and is about how the modern church is to approach and interact with the Bible. Before starting this book I thought the title reminded me of The Once and Future Church. Based off that book I assumed the tone of this book would be something like "we are in the most important time in the history of the church" and that the content of this book was going to be a defense of the Scriptures and how we are to handle the text today. After reading (some of) this book, and making a few notes, I realised that in order to engage with this book properly I will have to use more words than first intended and so this review will span over a few posts. Since this book is a collection of essays by different academies from St Francis Theological College (Brisbane) I don't think that will be a huge issue and not feel too disjointed.

Forward by Phillip Aspinall
The forward of this book is good as it lays out the issues facing the Anglican Brisbane diocese. They have discovered that people are not reading their Bibles which is concerning as Aspinall correctly notes that "the Bible is the bedrock of the faith" and it "has inspired and sustained Christian people" for two thousand years (p ix). Sadly I don't think the Brisbane diocese is alone in this discovery, and it is good that they have flagged this as an issue. Steps should be in place to help more people read the Bible for themselves. Aspinall suggests that it is the the Enlightenment and biblical criticism (the academic study, not general criticism) are to blame for people not reading their Bibles and we can't undo what we know now (although I think we can learn new things that undoes old scholarship). There are hints in this forward that might suggest that scholarship and the Bible are on par with each other: "We must approach Scripture informed by the best scholarship on offer and in dialogue with everything other fields of endeavor have discover of the truth" (p xi). I do agree with this, we should listen to the best scholars. But what happens when one disagrees with the other? Who rules over who? Do you go with the best scholars, or with the One who made the best scholars? It's a worry when that last question is hard to answer.

From looking at the list of authors in this book it seems that both Gergory Jenks and Nigel Leaves were fellows of the Jesus Seminar and Cathy Thomson has co-authored a book with Muriel Porter, so already you can know that the following articles are going to be written by the best scholars. (If only Barbara Thiering was added to this book; then we would definitely have the best Australian theologians have to offer... - Yes, that was mean).

Gergory C Jenks - Introduction
Jenks starts out strong:
"Each time we distance ourselves from a historical or theological claim in the Bible that we no longer find credible, the authority of the Scriptures is eroded" (p 1). 
Yes! Keep this opening point in mind for chapter 1. If we distance ourselves from the history of the Bible, the authority of the Scriptures is eroded. But just over the page we are to take the Bible "seriously while refusing to take it literally" (p 1-2). Well, that depends. The Bible is made up of literature so we should take each bit in it's own context on its own terms. When the Bible is dealing with imagery it would be bad to take it literally, but when it is deal with literal thing, we should probably take it like that and not mystify the text.

After summarising each chapter Jenks closes with the book's goal of contributing to the "necessary conversion about how Australian Anglicans might best understand our own reception of the Bible" (p 5). This is a a necessary conversation, to which I hope to somehow add my response to, as and Anglican in Canberra who is currently studying theology at St Marks.

Gergory C Jenks - Chapter 1 The 'Problem' of the Bible
In this chapter Jenks seeks to "identify and explore selected aspects of the problem posed by the Bible in our time and place" and to "set an agenda for the rest of the book (p 8).

A Brief History of Reception
Jenks gives a quick overview of how the Bible was received and states that:
"since the Reformation, grassroots Christian views of the Bible have become increasingly exaggerated and naive claiming far too much for the Bible." 
This results in an uncritical assessment that "the Christian Scriptures are defended as uniquely authoritative, inerrant, infallible, historically correct, self-sufficient, internally consistent, self-evident in their meaning, and universally applicable" (p11). And that "in formal religious statements it often remains sufficient simply to cite a biblical reference to settle a theological point."

I'm not sure why that is an issue. Jesus after all used scripture to settle an argument with Satan (Matt 4:4, 7, 10), frequently quoted and read from Scripture to make points (Mark 12:10-12, 36; Luke 4:16-18) and after His death and resurrection Jesus explained His actions in light of the Old Testament and indicated that it was all about Him (Luke 24:27, 44). Peter compares Paul’s letters to “other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:15-16) and Paul quotes Luke’s gospel referring to it as Scripture (1 Tim 5:18). Scripture is after all is God breathed and useful to teach, rebuke, correct and train people for righteousness (2 Tim 3:16) (see what I did there with my points :).

Citations are good. Surely any academic would be happy with ideas containing citations rather than not. Maybe it depends on the quality of the citation. Hopefully as Christians and Anglicans we can agree that the Bible is a pretty good source to cite. If theological points are not made from the Bible, then by what other standard? Do we all just anonymously vote on an idea and declare that to be true, until the next generation comes along and votes again to see which way the democratic dice falls? Peer review is good and all, but a quick survey of ideas should show that that is not infallible.... if only God revealed Himself to us in some way that was recorded for us...

Points of Confrontation and Challenge
After the quick survey of the Bible's reception in history Jenks points out three general areas of problems for the Bible. These are "the world behind the text, the world within the text, and the world before the text" (p 12). Jenks points out lots of problems, and I too have lots of problems with what he says. Believe it or not, I am not going to deal with everyone of them due to length, but I will mention some to give you an idea of my thoughts.

The world behind the Biblical text is looking at the historical setting the text are dealing with. Jenks sees this as a problem:
"We find ourselves knowing more about what life was like 'back then', and yet also being less certain of the historicity of the biblical narratives" (p 13). 
It is true we are learning more things about what happened "back then" and one thing we shouldn't overlook is that people "back then" thought the things in the Bible happened. Why do we think that the people who are a few centuries removed from the events knew less than those who are a few millenia removed from the events?

Jenks states that that events in the Bible are "more often fictional than historical" and points out that:
"Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and David did not write the Psalms. More seriously, the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that only Psalms 1-91 were finalized by the second century BCE..." (p 14). 
The page before Jenks is right to say that "historical reservation have significant religious and theological implications" (p 13). So what does this mean if David didn't write the Psalms or if the Psalms really only stopped at 91? Simply put it means the Bible is wrong and so by extension we shouldn't trust it. 73 Psalms are directly ascribed to David and Psalms 2 and 95 in the New Testament are said to be composed by David. Jesus said that "David himself, in the Holy Spirit" said something in Psalm 110:1 (Mark 12:36 & 37; Luke 20:42, 44); Peter says David wrote Psalm 16 (Acts 2:15-28) and Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25-26) and Paul says David said Psalm 69 (Rom 11:9-10).

The Psalms stopping at 91 is a curious. The LXX which also dates back to the second (and even third) century BCE has all 150 Psalms. Since the LXX is in Greek and is commonly known to be a translation, means that before the LXX there must have been Hebrew texts that contain all 150 Psalms in one collection. Also the New Testament quotes lots of Psalms that are greater than 91. Psalm 110 is the most quoted one(!), Psalm 118 is also up there. See this list for more references of the New Testament using Psalms and note how many are over Psalm 91. So yes, the Dead Sea Scrolls may have a copy of the Psalms that ends at 91, but that is not the only (tiny bit of) evidence that we have.

When dealing with the world within the Biblical text Jenks makes the statement "These writers were shaped by Homer" (p 14). Really? Which ones? The Jewish ones? Are we talking Old Testament or New Testament writers? All of it or maybe a few passing phrases? We could say that Paul is shaped by Aristotle or Plato because he uses an "if", "then", "therefore" argument and those guys also used logic, but that is hardly worth mentioning. There is not citation to back this Homer point up, we just have to take it on face value and trust this historical statement...

In the section of the world before the text Jenks is right to say "a text without a read is a document that has no significance" (p 15). If the wider issue is that people in Brisbane are not reading their Bibles then perhaps we should read the Bible and treat it significantly. I would suggest you read to Bible to be true for this to happen, but not so. To remain significant:
"the Bible may need to be read contrary to its literal and historical significance. Only then can it serve as a source of wisdom for readers in context beyond the imagination of its authors and previous readers" (p 16). 
Unlike this book and all texts, Jenks doesn't think the historical context  is important. So much for authors intent and original meaning. I wonder if Jenks would appreciate if portions of this chapter was used in a first year uni course as a demonstration of how not to cite your essays? Or if this was used by the communists to make points about the oppression of the bourgeoisie academics? Context is important.

Jenks gives an example on how we can read the text contrary to its literal and historical significance:
"What matters most to me now is not whether Abraham and Sarah trusted YHWH, but whether I am going to spend my allocated span of human existence in an act of trust akin to the of Jesus" (p 16). 
Reading the text this way reduces everything to be some sort of moral thing we much now do, and writes us in as the main character of the story. Sometimes that is OK, but most of the time that is not Christianity. We need to see the characters in God's plan for salvation and sometimes reading ourselves as Abraham misses the point that we need a Savior as we do not have faith like Abraham, but Jesus did. What matted to Paul was that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness, not because of what he had done but because God was faithful to His promises to Abraham (Rom 4). James 2 also deems the demonstration of Abraham's faith important. Why can't the historical setting be the spring board for us finding meaning in the text?

Jenks also point out that "the Twenty-third Psalm can be read at funerals as well as at weddings. The text has not changed, but the readers and their contexts certainly have (p 15)". This is true, but also the original historical, grammatical context hasn't changed either. You can read 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding, but that doesn't change the fact that Paul was writing to a messed up church and the original intent of the passage was for a church to get along with each other. There are such things as timeless truths (such as those in Psalms 23 - God is faithful and loving) that can be applicable in many and varied ways.

Implications for Theologians, Churches and Believers (skipped over much for space)
The Bible is in trouble because it is "not capable of sustaining all the demands made of it" and so it  "isn't able to live up to our expectations" (p 17). Jenks is right to point out that how we see modern history is different to how people in the ancient world saw and used history. So, because I am crazy and think we should read the text in it's historically setting, we should then deal with the text in the same way to original authors did, in the same way I should read Jenks' writings.

Jenks explains to us why the Bible is deemed so important: "They are sacred texts for us because of their religious value, not because of their historical worth" (p 18). Even though,
"Each time we distance ourselves from a historical or theological claim in the Bible that we no longer find credible, the authority of the Scriptures is eroded" (p 1). 

The Anglican crisis over the bible (I will try to be brief - promise)
In this section Jenks is at least consistent. Not only are we to read the Bible removed from it's historical context, Anglicans are to read the Thirty Nine Articles and the Prayer Book for Australia from it's context.

It is good the Jenks sees the Anglican church as deeming the Bible inspired by God and an "authoritative revelation from God" (p 20) but then he raises the question as to what books in the New Testament are canonical. After quoting Article 6 Jenks comments that "constitution begs the question of which books are 'canonical'" (p 21) because Article 6 "simply  refers to the 'canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testament'" (p21). Here, an understanding what the "canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testament" in it's original context means would shed light on what it means. Instead Jenks is scratching his head wondering what is in and out, without regard for what was meant when it was written.

In A Prayer Book for Australia, in the ordination as a Deacon the following question is posed:
"Do you wholeheartedly accept the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testament, as given by the Spirit to convey in many and varied ways the revelation of God which is fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ?"
To which Jenks asks "what are the many and varied ways...Are metaphorical and non-literal readings of Scripture part of that diversity?" (p22). Well, it could be... if you remove the original meaning from the intent. So what does the "many and varied ways" mean in this question? Hebrews 1:1-2 should help:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (NRSV)
Hebrews opens with explaining that God has spoken to us in "many and various ways" by the prophets which was fulfilled by God's Son (our Lord Jesus Christ). The "many and varied ways" are the different writers/voices in the Old Testament, which has nothing to do with the "many and varied ways" we can remove the text from it's historical content.

So I point you back to what Jenks said on page one:
"Each time we distance ourselves from a historical or theological claim in the Bible that we no longer find credible, the authority of the Scriptures is eroded". 
I am left wondering at the end of this chapter if this was a goal that Jenks set out to do, or if it was it a warning that we should avoid. Sadly, I have a feeling that it was the former, not the latter.

I do hope that the rest of these reviews don't blow out to be this long. Seriously, thank you for reading this far.


  1. Have you ever read any "liberal" or "progressive" text that you thought made a fairly consistent and logical framework that could justify its existence (even if you didn't agree with it)? If so what was it?

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for posting.

    I am not sure how tightly knit the "liberal" camp is, but if it is anything like other groups, there is dissension over who really is in or out. When Rob Bell wrote "love wins" he maintained that he was an evangelical, even when others were calling him liberal. Who is right? Bell or his opponents?
    My issue with Jenks (I don't want to paint everyone with the same brush) is that when approaching texts (like bits from the Bible, the 39 Articles and the Australian Prayer book) he had no regard for the original intent and historical context. My issue is that all texts should be read on their own terms, especially if we deem the text significant to study in depth and to help regulate our lives. Here is a basic example:

    It is one thing to read The Wizard of Oz with a child and enjoy the story on face value, but if you are really going to study the text and deem it worth living by I think it would be a gross mistake to not understand The Wizard of Oz in it's own context. You may discover that it is an allegory of the economic situation in American in the early 1900's. You might see symbols in that "Oz" is the measurement for gold, the yellow brick road could be a golden part could show that America should be following the gold. The scarecrow could represent farmers, the tin man might be the steel workers etc.. Now you don't need to know this historical context if you just want to read the story with your daughter. BUT if you were going to study the text, especially at an academic level, I think knowing the original intent would be very important to learn the meaning. Otherwise you would miss the point of it entirely.

    I don't think we can read anything "contrary to its literal and historical significance" in order to get the correct meaning from the text.

    On people I have read, just three weeks ago I read some stuff by Karl Rahner (wikipedia says he is a liberal, not me) on the Trinity and I was impressed with that. So much so, I made a note, that if I have more time this year I will go back and try and read some more of his stuff.

    Is Fred Craddock a liberal? Last year I got into him. I even tried to write a blog post inspired by his method of inductive preaching:

  3. Thanks for your reply.