Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Response to 'The Once and Future Scriptures' - Part 1


The Once and Future Scriptures – Exploring the Role of the Bible in the Contemporary Church (OFS) is a collection of essays recently circulated to the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane in a public consultation initiative. It invites Anglicans in Queensland to submit their responses, so here is mine. I have prepared this response with the assumption that the reader has access to OFS; if you, dear reader, don’t, you may find this post difficult to follow.

OFS raises a legitimate concern; how should we, as a Christian community, regard the Bible? It’s an important concern to address in an age and a culture which increasingly considers the Bible to be “bollocks” (as a sweet young person put it to me this week). To the Christian, however, the question is akin to asking “how should I love my wife?” The danger is that it can easily be truncated to “should I love my wife?” In preparing this response, I have operated under the presumption that the questions raised in OFS are inclined more to the former than the latter.

As my time is limited I don’t know how far I’ll get in responding to the whole collection by the time allowed for receiving responses. My response is necessarily selective, but I hope to cover the important ground. If I have misrepresented any of the views and opinions expressed in OFS, and there is an appreciable risk that I have, I unreservedly apologize and ask for correction from those who might know better.

Essay 1 - The ‘Problem’ of the Bible

By Gregory C. Jenks


My reaction to this essay starts with a cautious, qualified agreement with much that Jenks has to say. He is alarmed that many Christians have claimed far more of the Bible than they should. In defending the “inspiration’ of the Bible, they have marooned themselves in a rising tide of academic criticism. In other words, they have set themselves up as cannon-fodder for the counter-claims of an unbelieving generation and, in doing so have pushed the Bible out to the lunatic fringe of modern, enlightened, respectable society. I agree, to the extent that certain streams of fundamentalism refuse to enter into the dialog between vision and observation (the dialog between religion and science, if you like), and that they actually ignore the content of the ancient texts that they seek to defend.

However, Jenks promulgates his own fundamentalism. To him, there appears to be no legitimate alternative to his own humanistic, post-enlightenment reading of the Bible. Not wishing to jettison the Bible altogether, he ties himself in knots over his church’s claim that it could possibly be ‘inspired of God’, and suggests that we consider it not as an expression of divine authority, but as a mortally wounded peer that deserves our pity, not our obedience. Worryingly, Jenks calls us to uncritically accept Biblical criticism, while developing a natural skepticism to whatever the Bible says about itself. Whereas I can agree with his impulse to seriously address Biblical criticism, his position is as imbalanced as the fundamentalists he despises.

Jenks is what I would call a pre-Johannite. He is thoroughly knowledgeable on matters of religion, but appears unable to discern the contours of God in the fog. He appears to me to be in the position of the believers who first heard John’s Gospel. They, no doubt, were thoroughly experienced and learned in religion; even being fully conversant with the sacred writings that now make up the majority of our modern Bible. Yet John was able to open his Gospel by telling them that “No one has ever seen God …” (John 1:18), which was an audacious claim to make to a people who lived and breathed scripture and religion. John’s Good News, though, was that the contours of God could be seen in the fog in the tangible form of Jesus Christ "... but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known". All the stories, psalms, oracles and teachings up to this point came to their culmination and full expression in this one, unique, human individual. This, I think, is what Jenks misses. Without it, we Christians have nothing more to offer than a revelation of our own souls. With it, we have the canonical revelation of God, which, by divine appointment, is also the revelation of the canonical man.

What he says and what I say

“… Christianity was born with the Bible in the cradle …” (page 8). The picture I get from this remark is that the careless midwife accidentally dropped something into the crib – the inference being that the Bible is a mere adjunct to the Christian church. My reaction is that the Bible is the product of the Church, but the Church is also the product of the Bible. Whilst it has variously expanded and contracted it’s formal writings and expressions, the Bible remains the Church’s raison d’etre. Without the Bible the Church is no longer the Church, it might be something, but that something is something that is not a Church.
“There seems to have been no debate within earliest Christianity about the content, form, or authority of the Scriptures inherited from Judaism” (page 9). Whereas I don’t take issue with this statement on face value (it appears that the scriptures were commonly accepted until Marcion in AD 140, as Jenks notes), Jenks appears to miss the way in which the New Testament Authors mined the scriptures as they formulated and explained their perception of Jesus to each other. Perhaps the question was not so much one of canonicity, but where they could find the narratives they needed to communicate the meaning of their encounters with the Son of God.

“In the Western Church, the Bible was reinvented as a tool for shaping the life of the Church and the pious individual at the time of the Reformation” (page 11). Jenks offers no evaluation of this as either a move in the right direction or not. Just prior to the Reformation, European commoners were separated from the Bible by literacy and language, but that was not always the case. The Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek speakers of the ancient world had access to the scriptures, and they used them for shaping the life of the believing community and believing individuals. It was an imbalance of access that the Reformation sought to correct.

“Since the Reformation, grassroots Christian views of the Bible have become increasingly exaggerated and naïve, claiming far too much for the Bible. In this uncritical attachment to the Bible (known as ‘Biblicism’) the Christian Scriptures are defended as uniquely authoritative, inerrant, infallible, historically correct, self-sufficient, internally consistent, self-evident in their meaning and universally applicable” (page 11). Jenks names his bogey-man – it is the fundamentalist who stridently believes the Bible. In so far as many of these fundamentalists actually stridently believe their strident beliefs, contrary to the Bible, I agree, but Jenks appears more than eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“While ascendant religion tends to cling to power and protect its privileges, prophetic religion operates from the margins of respectability…” (page 12). Thus Jenks muses on the similarities of his own guild with ancient Biblical prophetic traditions. He even talks of the academics emerging from their isolation to engage in this conversation. I find these comparisons somewhat ironic, given that the traditional prophets, whilst emerging from their own wildernesses to deliver a disturbing rebuke to respectable society, moved in an entirely different direction to that of Jenks.

“As a result of our increased knowledge of the ancient past, the historical character of the Bible has been seriously compromised” (page 13). Jenks makes no qualifications here, not even to the historical narratives in the Bible that are well attested in extra-Biblical archaeology and other extant sources. I know that’s not always the case, particularly with much of the Biblical historical narrative prior to and 7th Century BC, but Jenks appears to regard the Bible as a homogeneous block such that he even questions those more ‘recent’ passages that can be demonstrated to be historically reliable.

“At the same time as the historicity of the Bible has been challenged, we have been able to gain a much more accurate understanding of the cultural and social dynamics of the ancient communities who first created and used those texts.” (page 13) Jenks assumes he knows who these communities were, which is a difficult position to hold when you challenge all knowledge on authorship. I don’t object to finding a good fit to a particular community and agenda, but unless you acknowledge your own uncertainties (and there are many) you end up building dogma on supposition.

“Not only are the events represented in the Bible more often fictional than historical, but the texts themselves have an uncertain pedigree as well as a confused history of copying and transmission. Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and David did not write the Psalms.” (page 13). Dogma and conjecture. Unfashionable as it is to say so in the current academic climate of scepticism, it is possible that Moses and David made their contributions to these works, though Jenks does not appear to be interested.

“Critical investigation of the world behind the biblical texts has established beyond reasonable doubt that the origins of the Bible were very different than Christians like to imagine.” (page 14). Which Christians is Jenks thinking of? What does he mean by 'beyond reasonable doubt' if it not an uncritical acceptance of Biblical criticism. Jenks appears to be intoxicated with this own authority in this area.

“More confrontational still, what of the unacceptable values and immoral practices encoded in the text? Even if God did not command the ethnic cleansing of ancient Palestine, the Bible seems to have been written and approved by people who liked to imagine that God did. These sacred texts are increasingly recognized as artefacts created by persons with particular cultural and religious agendas in the ancient world, and the modern reader can find herself an intruder in an unfamiliar landscape when exploring the world of the text.” Jenks allows his modern agenda to judge the directives described in the historical narratives of the Bible. He does not allow for the possibility that these directives were actually given and carried out in desperate times, but that the grace of our Lord Jesus means that we no longer have to repeat them. He does not allow theology to inform his perspective, which is remarkable because he identifies himself as a person of faith.

“To remain significant, and especially to continue as a site for divine-human encounter, the Bible may need to be read contrary to its literal and historical significance.” In other words, Jenks holds it up as an object lesson in how not to do stuff.

“We note the abuse of creation implicit in many biblical texts and much Christian theology …” If it weren’t for these Biblical texts and Christian theology, we might not even have a concept of creation, much less a theology for how we relate to it and to its creator. Where there has been an abuse of creation by us Christians, we have the Bible to correct us.

“The mono-cultural assumptions of the Bible seem radically incompatible with the realities of life in the twenty-first century” Has Jenks never read about the crowd of every tribe and tongue and people and nation in Rev 5:9 and Rev 7:9, or how Christ is reconciling all of creation to himself in Col 1:20. The New Testament is remarkably vocal in its opposition to mono-culturalism. Jenks appears to dismiss these Biblical voices from formulating his understanding of the Bible.

“The more we know about the Bible, the worlds from which it derives, and the dynamics of reading any text in our own time and place, the less the Bible is able to live up to our expectations. For its own sake as much as for ours, the role of the Bible needs to be reimagined.” (page 17). It appears that Jenks hopes to save us from our reliance on the Bible as an authoritative voice that informs our expectations.

“The value of our religious traditions will not be their assumed superiority of the traditions of other religious communities. Nor will we make the mistake of thinking that the validity of our tradition is derived from either its historicity or the capacity of earlier generations to express themselves in ways that we moderns find cogent or convincing. Rather, the value of our tradition – and ultimately of the Bible itself – will be generated by the capacity of Christianity to facilitate human transformation and ecological justice; taking us beyond ourselves for the sake of the larger web of life at whose centre we find God” (page 19). Here is Jenks’ version of the Great Commission. I have two responses;

Firstly, I don’t object to initiatives that seek human transformation (hopefully, for the better) or ecological justice. However, these honorable goals regularly degenerate into fads, only to be replaced by the next agenda. My concern here is that by re-centering the mission of the Church on the felt need of the time, it will find itself forever chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is better, in my view, to centre on Christ’s commission, but to contextualize it to meet the needs of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Only then can the church properly address human transformation, ecological justice or whatever other challenges arise, secure in the knowledge that we have a strong home-base from which we can face the new challenges that we have yet to face.

Secondly, the ‘place’ we find God is not in some metaphorical web of life, but in the person of Christ Jesus. We find Christ in the scriptures and in our experience, but we calibrate our understanding of Christ by the Christ we see in scripture. Our traditions, including and especially the Bible, do their best to point us in this direction. They are better than other traditions because other traditions point us in other directions. It’s what the Christian canon is all about.

“The God celebrated and proclaimed by this kind of Christianity will draw us beyond the Christian Scriptures, but we shall never leave them behind.” What arrogance to think that we can somehow ascend higher than the canonical revelation of God in the Bible. No student is greater than his teacher (Matt 10:24).

“Not only will we need to learn how to read the Bible differently, we shall need to rewrite so much of our creeds and liturgies.” Thus turning our backs on all that historical Christianity offers. We shall, for all intent and purposes, dishonour our fathers and mothers.

“As ancient oriental literature, the Bible comes to us from times and places that are profoundly foreign to us, and will forever remain strange; even when we delude ourselves into imagining that we are comprehending and practicing ‘biblical values’” (page 18) To me, it seems obvious to overcome this perceived difficulty by educating Christians in reading the Bible within its own frame of reference, or to put some work into understanding what it says. Jenks seems eager to capitulate to modernism like an over-indulgent parent capitulating to a truculent child at the first sign of a confrontation.

“Instead of rehearsing the mighty acts of God in times past, we shall focus on discerning the wisdom of God for the present times.” (page 19). Who defines this present wisdom? Presumably, Jenks himself and those made in his image.

In his closing arguments, Jenks squirms over the Anglican Church’s Constitutional claims that the (Biblical) scriptures are “given by the inspiration of God” (Articles of Religion, 6). Like a lawyer trying to impute meaning into a statement that was never the intention of its author, he challenges (page 22) the question put to candidates for ordination in the Australian Prayer Book, “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?” [AAPB 786] To Jenks, the "many and varied ways" of the Prayer Book could be reconstructed to include the outright rejection of any and all faith in the reliability of the Bible.


In understanding the relationship between the Bible and the Church, I suggest a different paradigm than Jenks'; we are the witness of the word. We are shaped by it, and we give it finite, tangible form and dimension as we express it to the world. We don’t just carry it around; we live it and we let it live in us. Jenks seems to grasp some of this in his consideration of the "world within the text", but he baulks at suggestions of its authority.

In response to Jenk's apparent willingness to elevate other religous traditions to that of the Bible, I look to what I call the Canonical Man. The Canonical Man is the one against whom we measure up, and He is Jesus Christ, our God. It is axiomatic that all our canonical scriptures and traditions point to Him, and that gives us the criteria that we can use to address issues of canonicity and authority.

Yes, Mr Jenks, it is all about Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. Love it, great work Martin, very insightful and thoughtful read. sometimes a bit emotional but what these guys are getting at is the core of who we are as Christians