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Towards a dumb reading of the bible

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 25 June 2004


Historical criticism of the bible (pdf, 8.3KB) has been with us now for several hundred years. Briefly, this is an attempt to examine the biblical texts using standard methods of historical research. Indeed there has developed a whole range of methods which allow us to analyze and dissect these texts: literary criticism, form criticism, tradition criticism and redaction criticism. Since the earliest texts may be dated several hundred years BCE and the latest a hundred years or so AD the texts that have been collected into the canon of the present bible span a large range of cultural contexts. Methods of biblical criticism strive to reach the meaning of texts by understanding who wrote them and where and how they were collected and transmitted.

While this activity is all very useful and explains, for example, why the four gospels are so different from one another and the diversity of Old Testament texts, there has been a fatal result in that these texts become objects of investigation rather than, as is said in the liturgy "the Word of the Lord". The act of examination, while revealing hidden nuances and meaning, also changes our attitude towards them so that we no longer view them as sacred texts that hold vital keys to the way life runs. For example, study of the creation stories to be found at the front of the bible reveals, first, that there are two accounts of the creation of the world, the so-called Priestly account in seven days and the Yahwist account that includes the garden of Eden legend. We learn that the Priestly account was written by the old men of Israel who lived in captivity in Babylon after Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and that the Yahwist account probably had an earlier and more agricultural provenance.

Fundamentalist Christians protest that such analysis weakens faith and they are partly right. For once we know the provenance of the creation stories we find it hard to take a robust theology of creation seriously. Liberal Protestantism is the result.

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Robert Jenson has written an excellent article: What if it were true that approaches this problem. Jenson explores the consequences of taking fundamental Christian doctrines to be true in what he calls the "dumb" sense. By "dumb" he does not mean naïve or foolish but rather in a way that strips them of their apologetic accretions by which we make them acceptable to the modern mind. That is, in a way that, after all of the analysis and dissection of biblical criticism, still comes to us as the Word. What I think Jenson means is that, for example, when we look at the creation stories through the eyes of biblical criticism we pare down our understanding that God created the world. Our ideas of modern cosmology and creation collide and creation comes off worst because what could the old men of Israel know about modern physics?

We tend to put modern physics and the creation stories in separate baskets. It is then that we lose the "dumb" reading that does not have to be fundamentalist (which is just another way of saying modern) but we lose the sense that God sustains the whole creation and our theology takes a blow that weakens it. Rather than putting modern cosmology and the creation stories side by side, never to interact, a dumb reading of the latter would mean that any scientific cosmology will only exist under the authority of the theology of creation. Indeed any scientific theory in evolution, physics or whatever that contravenes the theology of creation must be deemed either wrong or a dead end.

The academy will be scandalised by this proposition because it contravenes the separation between theology and natural science established way back in the 16th Century with the founding of the Royal Society in London. Do we have to go back and make all the arguments again that were hard-won through Galileo and Newton and Darwin that science and theology are separate disciplines? What Jenson is saying is that the creation narratives are not only true for human beings existentially, but actually rub up against scientific theory even though the academe has largely assumed otherwise. The offence of this is softened when we realise that those old men of Israel said precious little, if anything at all, about the nature of nature. They did not propose that the earth was flat or that it was at the centre of the solar system. They were not concerned with mechanism and it was therefore easy for them to include in their narratives a God who intervened in the world. There will not therefore be a conflict between the bible and natural science about how the world works. But there is likely to be conflict when the purpose of things is discussed.

In order to discover the mechanism of things the teleological or purpose-oriented explanation of Aristotle had to be overcome. Science is therefore a value-free activity. However, when biologists speak about human beings as "just another species" and psychologists talk about the purpose of human life in terms of self-realisation and when the medical fraternity talks about the last mortal generation, we know that something is amiss. Similarly when science is understood to be the salvation of the world and the only path to the future, we know that ideology has infected what is necessarily a value-free activity. These are narratives of the human that run across the one we find in scripture and we have grounds to denounce them. This is not a matter of taste or choice, it is a matter of a wrong narrative of the human leading us into chaos.

In the Medieval university, theology was the queen of the sciences. It was understood that all other forms of enquiry could only exist under the auspices of the church. For us moderns this is an outrage because it stifled independent thought and the Enlightenment was the time in which we threw off the shackles of ignorance and the modern age was born.

I recently became aware that my scientific colleagues adhered to a view of world history that understood humanity to pass from light to darkness as Greek culture gave way to the church only to emerge again into the light with the 17th C Enlightenment. But what if matters were in fact the other way around? What if the scientific view of the world as mechanism represents a narrowing of our view of the world, particularly of the human? This narrowing is particularly evident among scientists whom, in their search for objectivity, reduce the human to mechanism. Certainly a person's depression may be correlated to changed brain chemistry but that in itself may be caused by the fragmentation and chaos of the modern world. To recognise that we are bodies is not necessarily to dismiss us as souls in search for meaning and community. There is no doubt in my mind that deep worship leads to changes in brain chemistry, but that does not reduce the profundity and truth of the worship. The state of my brain chemistry says little about my connection to the Christian story and how that forms and informs my life.

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It is an offence to the modern mind to suggest that ancient texts, which purport to represent human experience and which often include the miraculous, tell us more about ourselves than modern psychology. Scientific method cannot deal with and seems not to be interested in the three psychic realities that define human life: faith, hope and love. These are properly only incorporated into the great narrative of the human that is the Christian story. This is why the theology of creation is of utmost importance to us.

Jenson reminds us:

To create, in Scripture, is not to make a thing, not even a big and beautiful and wonderful thing like a cosmos. It is rather to initiate, sustain and fulfill a history. Thus, as the fathers understood, even the beginning of the creation is not accomplished except as history, of the seven days. And what is posited at the beginning is not a container or platform for a history that may then commence, but simply the first and enabling event of a history that then continues. What God creates is narrated from beginning to end as Scripture.

When we, in our arrogance, dismiss these ancient narratives because they do not fit with our mechanistic view of the world or because they are just too old to be true, we turn our back on the wisdom of the ages. In theological terms, we turn our back on God and fall back on our own meagre devices. We do not have to subscribe to the assertions of the fundamentalists that God actually created the world in seven days and that the bible is an accurate description of what actually happened to take theological dogma seriously. This takes some effort because we are all people of the modern age and as such do not see as clearly as we might. If postmodernism has a meaning for the Church it is that it describes such a process.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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