January 11, 2013

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

The Bible as Dialogue?

Over the holiday, I read Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation. (Enns also writes an excellent blog.) I have also been reading Brevard Childs' commentary on Isaiah. These two books have set me off on an interesting train of reflections. I'll first summarize the relevant points from each book, then proceed with my own reflections.

The central point of Enns book is a familiar but important one: the Bible simply isn't the sort of book the fundamentalists want it to be. That is, fundamentalists (and, interestingly, certain atheist polemicists) have a certain a priori conception of what a revelation from God would have to be like (it ought to be some sort of textbook or how-to guide or something which magically fell from heaven) and, because they are convinced that the Bible is a revelation from God, they try to cram it into that box. (Or, in the case of the atheist polemicists, they show that the Bible can't be crammed into that box, and then think that Christianity - or perhaps even theism or religion more generally - has thereby been thoroughly debunked.) Now, more moderate Evangelicals do tend to make the point that the Bible is not a history textbook or a science textbook, but they tend to persist in thinking that it is a how-to guide for life, and that it is a theology textbook, when in fact it is clearly neither of these things. (None of this is to say that the Bible does not contain information about history and theology as well as useful practical advice - it contains all of these things.) What Enns wants to argue is that our thinking about what sort of book the Bible is has not undergone a sufficiently radical reorientation. He presses the need for this reorientation by means of three main points: the Old Testament's relationship to earlier Near Eastern literature, the theological diversity of the Old Testament, and the often rather odd or seemingly questionable uses of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Enns attempts to deal with these issues by means of what he calls the 'incarnational analogy' (an idea drawn, in part, from B. B. Warfield): as Christ is both fully God and fully man (not half and half or anything), so the Bible is a fully divine and fully human book. In becoming a man, God took on himself all sorts of needs and limitations. The Bible, although a fully divine book, must be understood as being limited by its historical and cultural context. In particular, we need to pay more attention to the human authors and where they are coming from if we are to understand the Bible properly.

Childs advocates an approach to Biblical interpretation which he calls 'canonical criticism.' The background is this: most scholars now believe that (most of) the individual books of the Old Testament were assembled from preexisting sources, and some of those sources may in turn have been assembled from preexisting sources, and so forth. The individual books were then assembled into the canon at an even later date, and perhaps there was some more editing then. Source criticism is the attempt to understand the text by peeling away the layers to get at the original author of that particular piece of text and understand that author's historical context and concerns. (In the case of the prophets, it is usually thought that at least some of the texts can be traced to an earlier oral delivery by an historical prophet, but the historical prophet might not be the one who wrote it down.) Often there is a special concern with the author's political and/or religious agenda. Redaction criticism focuses instead on the redactor or redactors responsible for putting the book together from the earlier sources. Because the redactors are typically thought to be much later than the authors, they will typically have widely different concerns, aims, and interests. This, the redaction critic holds, is the really important thing for Biblical interpretation. Of course, what the original author meant by the text is often going to be relevant to how the redactor understood it and why the redactor put it here in this book, but understanding what the text meant to the redactor is the real aim.

According to Childs, these are both, at least sometimes, interesting and worthwhile things to do, but if we are trying to engage in interpretation of the Bible out of religious, rather than purely academic, interest, neither of these is the ultimate end. The ultimate end is canonical criticism, or understanding what the text ends up meaning in the context of the canon of Scripture, which might, in some cases, turn out to be different from what it meant to either the original author or the redactor. This approach can help explain some of the New Testament uses of the Old Testament: in the context of the Christian canon, Old Testament texts can bear meanings which they could not have borne absent that context. (Enns says some similar things about the apostles' readings of the Old Testament - in light of what they have now seen God do, the texts take on a new meaning for them, quite different from the original human author's intent.)

Now let's turn to my own train of thought taking off of Enns and Childs. As indicated by the question mark in the title of this post, this is a train of thought I'm still evaluating, and am not yet prepared to endorse. I won't take time to write 'maybe' or 'perhaps' over and over again below, but it should be taken as implied. (This is true of much of what I write on this blog, but I feel the need to emphasize it here.)

Here's the idea: what sort of book is the Bible after all? It is a sort of dialogue. For comparison, consider Plato. All of Plato's published works were dialogues. Plato never speaks to his audience in propria persona, but always through the mouth of some character, and this creates considerable complexity in trying to understand Plato's views. Usually, Plato endorses whatever Socrates says, but this doesn't seem to be true everywhere. For instance, there are dialogues where Socrates appears to endorse opposing conclusions, and it's not clear whether Plato changed his mind or whether he has done this to us on purpose. It doesn't help that Socrates, both in history and in Plato, was notoriously cagey about his views. In addition to the cases where Plato might not endorse Socrates' words, there are times when it's pretty clear that Plato is endorsing words spoken by another character.

Now, the words spoken by a character in a fiction, such as a dialogue, are properly attributable both to the author and to the character, but the character must be taken as endorsing those words (unless it is part of the fiction that the character is insincere, or quoting someone else, or something), whereas the author merely endorses the utterance of those words by that character, which is fully consistent with the author's being unwilling to utter those words herself. The author might be writing a character who is evil, or deceived by misleading evidence, or not particularly bright, or whatever. We need, therefore, to take care in how exactly we attribute the character's words to the author. If one picks a random passage from Plato and says "Plato says..." what one says is, I suppose, strictly speaking true, but it is certainly deeply misleading. It is a particularly bad way of taking words out of context. Imagine Obama saying, "My opponents claim that I am out to destroy America" and Fox running the headline, "Obama: 'I am out to destroy America.'" (Sadly, this is not hard to imagine.) If you pick the wrong passages from Plato, matters can get this bad.

Now this last thing is indisputably true of the Bible in at least some cases. Consider, for instance, 2 Kings 18:30: "Don't let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord." You better not go around saying that God said that. But considering the ideas of Enns and Childs suggested something more radical to me. You see, nowhere in the Bible does God speak in propria persona. Sure, there are lots of places where it says "thus says the Lord:" or "and God said:" and so forth, but note that in every one of those cases, someone else is reporting what God said. Even the words of Jesus in the New Testament are always presented as someone else's report of the words of Jesus. In other words, there is no book of the Bible written from a first-person divine perspective. Now, imagine a human author doing this. The author is writing a book apparently aimed at making a serious point, but does it by adopting a pseudonym and inventing a fictional character around that pseudonym, then having the pseudonymous character quote the author himself by name. This would have me thinking, what could he be up to?

Well, why did Plato make things so hard on us? The standard answer is that the primary aim of his work is not to promote his philosophical ideas, but to teach people how to do philosophy, and philosophy, for Plato, is done primarily in conversation. The way to use a book to teach people to do philosophy is, therefore, to write a book that illustrates philosophical conversation. Plato, of course, also sometimes hopes that we will end up endorsing certain views, but he wants us to get to them by the right path, by doing our own, genuinely philosophical, thinking, which we do by following along with the characters in the dialogue.

Now back to the Bible. Here we've got a collection of books written/compiled/edited by real historical human beings. Sometimes, the books are in the first person as coming from a particular voice. Sometimes that voice is the real historical author (e.g. clearly in Paul's epistles); other times the adoption of this voice is a literary device (this seems to be the case at least in Ecclesiastes). And we want to say that God was speaking through these humans. My suggestion is that God may have been speaking through these humans in much the way Plato speaks through his characters. If this is right, then all Biblical words are God's words, just as all the words in the (genuine) Platonic corpus are Plato's, but just understanding the words is not enough to get at the point God is making. We have to understand the (historical or fictional) character God is speaking through, and think about the reason why God would want to call our attention to those words of that person. We should be open to the possibility that the reason might be something other than because that person got everything exactly right. This perspective would say, in general, that those words are there because considering them in the appropriate light - that is, as the words God wanted this particular human to speak in this particular context - will help us to think about and relate to God in appropriate ways.

One further interesting thing about this approach is that it opens up a logical gap between verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy. Verbal plenary inspiration is essentially the doctrine that every word of the Bible is precisely as God wanted it. It's usually thought that this entails that the Bible says nothing false, for if a speaker says something false then the speaker is either dishonest or mistaken, but God can't be either dishonest or mistaken. However, from the fact that a character in a dialogue says something false, it cannot be concluded that the author of the dialogue is dishonest or mistaken; before we could draw a conclusion like that, we would have to know what the author of the dialogue wanted his readers to take away. If that was something false, then we could conclude that the author was either dishonest or mistaken. But this is not strong enough to be recognizable as a version of the doctrine of inerrancy. (Incidentally, this consequence is one of the reasons why I put this idea forth so hesitantly; Enns, however, seem already to have concluded that we'll have to reject inerrancy, so he, I suspect, would be happy to be able to do that without having to reject verbal plenary inspiration.)

This also has consequences for New Testament interpretations of the Old Testament for, in light of further evidence about an author's aims and intentions, we may sometimes conclude that what the author means by a particular line goes beyond what the character means. This may be a helpful approach for understanding what the apostles are doing when they 'spin' the prophets with meanings so obviously different from the prophets' intentions.

So, for now, I'm trying out this approach to the Bible. Instead of asking myself, "what Isaiah is saying here?" and blithely assuming that what Isaiah is saying is what God is saying, I'm asking myself: "in light of what else we know about God, what might be the point he is making by putting these words in the mouth of Isaiah?" Even if it turns out that much of what I've said in this post is false, I think this approach may still be fruitful.

Posted by Kenny at January 11, 2013 11:59 AM
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I have never attempted to read the whole bible. Well, at least I tried to read the first several pages and really get lost in it but unfortunately, I couldn't do it. Maybe I felt too restless or that I just didn't have the focus to do it.

Posted by: Matt at January 25, 2013 5:26 AM

Good thoughts, Kenny! (just discovered your blog)

In case you want to follow up and get a fuller sense for Childs, check out this short intro to his approach:


Posted by: Collin Cornell at April 28, 2013 9:39 AM

Thanks, Collin. I found your article very helpful. I don't have any formal background in Biblical studies, so the barrier to entry on these methodological debates is pretty high!

Posted by: Kenny at April 29, 2013 10:33 AM

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