This is the second of a series of articles titled, A Skeptic's Guide to Bible Study for Christians. For background, please see the Introduction.
A Critique of Common Reasons Christians Study the Bible
If you are a Christian you have probably been told the virtues of daily Bible study. Among other things, you have probably been told that doing so will teach you how to live and/or grow in your faith (1 Peter 2:2), that you will be equipped to answer questions (1 Peter 3:15), you will learn to discern whether others speak spiritual truth (as exemplified in Acts 17:11), and perhaps most importantly that it pleases God (2 Tim. 2:15). In simpler terms, Bible study is supposed to teach you how to live, think, and judge the truth. Plus, it will make Him happy.
These results certainly seem worthwhile. As confusing as this world can often be, a bit of focus and guidance is appealing. If in the process we ingratiate ourselves to a God with the power to give eternal glory or damnation, so much the better.
Yet what if those reasons are flawed? Is it possible that a student can be completely earnest, yet become misinformed due to his purpose for study? To put it another way, would a student learn anything about the world by studying the Lord of the Rings, regardless of how intently it is studied or how much he wanted to learn how to behave based on that text? The point is that the student gains nothing if study is approached in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. Historians don't learn about ancient Greek culture from Homer's Iliad or Odyssey by assuming the mythical beings interspersed through those pages are real. They are critical, careful, and compare the text to other writings to extrapolate aspects of ancient Greek society.
Assumptions and Problems in the Basic Christian Approach
There are certain assumptions implicit to the results listed in the first paragraphs. Among them is the assumption that the student is already familiar with Christian teaching, and is to look for ways in which to apply it to daily life. Another is the assumed validity of the Bible. Yet another is its assumed relevancy today. It could be easily argued that these assumptions also reduce the quality of the scholarship itself, as has already been suggested.
While still a Christian, I was often told to approach Bible study in a certain way. I was told the proper approach is one of prayerful consideration, that we can be assured of its divine origin, and that problematic passages or apparent contradictions have a resolution in light of progressive revelation or context. Contradictions were redefined as 'tension,' and I was told that the Holy Spirit would guide me to the truth. Other advice, some of it sound, was offered in the form of specific recommendations for determining whether a doctrine was intended for us today, methods of harmonization, and contextual evaluation. As reinforcement I was directed to several sources of apologetics materials.
Paradoxically, the Bible was also likened to a newspaper in the sense that it should be considered as meeting journalistic standards (a high ideal, seldom accomplished even today). Of course, this also implies accessibility and relevancy. Really though, the metaphor is misplaced because nearly all of us would agree that many newspaper reports have turned out to be false, or at least suffer from bias. It is perhaps a stroke of poetic irony that the same people who gave me this advice wouldn't trust a newspaper for anything except as a tool for housebreaking their pet. But I digress.
Chances are you've had similar experiences.
Part of what these recommendations do is to preclude the type of probing questions we might ask in other circumstances. This is understandable to an extent. The average American has not been educated in ancient near eastern cultures or languages, making the Bible difficult to understand even in English. However, the problem is that by failing to question those things we don't understand, we short-change ourselves and can easily fall into the trap of blind faith. Even while still a Christian, I felt this was a bad idea, particularly in light of the great commandment (see Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27). If the Bible is truly the work of God it should stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny. That is, we should not have to resort to special pleading to make a case for the Bible (e.g., God is hidden, God does what He wants, progressive revelation, God's ways are not men's ways, and so on); it should stand on its own.
And I believe it does - as a historical study of ancient Hebrew history and philosophy. The Bible is a fascinating set of writings, and worth studying for no other reason than it is rich with history, poetry, and ancient philosophy. Some of the principles expressed therein are even worth emulating. Others, sadly, are not. Though it is possible to learn the former principles elsewhere - from the writings of contemporary philosophers, for example - the Bible lends historical weight to these principles as functionally absolute. Unfortunately, if one approaches the Bible in the manner suggested previously by church leaders, it seems almost inevitable that the student will become a walking contradiction; asserting the love of God for mankind even as He condemns us for our failure to measure up to an impossible standard. Therefore I suggest that Bible study is worthwhile, but it should be done with the attitude of a student seeking to learn, not just emulate.
Brief Review of Christian Attitudes Toward the Historical Method
Many Christian authors decry the type of rigorous study suggested as misguided at best. Today these types of studies fall under the heading of textual criticism, scientific exegesis, or some variant thereof. Indeed, there is no shortage of attacks on these methods, which range from mild rebukes to charges of heresy. Though a few apologists do adopt some of the methods of textual critics, they ignore others or draw sweeping conclusions not warranted by the results of this kind of study. Essentially, apologists use these methods to shore up a priori beliefs concerning their faith, rather than as a vehicle for gaining knowledge. Yet even this is an improvement over the past.
Beginning well before the Reformation, studies of the Bible using the historical method usually met with harsh criticism. In fact, many otherwise innocuous books on philosophy, science, and so on were denounced - even banned - as heretical. As early as 496 C.E., books not considered complimentary were officially banned by the Catholic Church. Pope Gelasius I is traditionally credited with writing the Decretum Gelasianum de Libris Recipiendis et Non Recipiendis, which contains a list of books considered either acceptable or apocryphal. In the early 16th century, Pope Julius II convoked the Fifth Lateran Council, among whose decrees included a prohibition of the printing of books without the approval of the diocese, on pain of excommunication. At the Council of Trent in 1546, ten rules were developed concerning prohibited books. Notably, the rules allow for nearly any book provided the text contained nothing contrary to sound doctrine (which we can safely assume meant 'Catholic' doctrine only). Naturally, this includes any analysis of the Bible proceeding from a non-spiritual standpoint.
Just over ten years later, the Catholic Church issued the first of several editions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or, "List of Prohibited Books" (interesting recent articles on this document can be found here and here). Over the centuries, the works of many theologians, historians, biblical translators, and others were added to the list. Among those listed were the works of Richard Simon and Alfred Loisy, both of whom arguably inaugurated the study of the Bible in a modern (and critical) context.
Early Protestants adopted a similar attitude, and attacks both direct and indirect were leveled at the kind of reasoned study suggested. In addition to being considered the traditional father of the Reformation, Martin Luther is famous for his attacks on reason, saying "Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding," and "Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has." With regard to books, he said "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing." Others also expounded on the evils of knowledge that doesn't originate with the Bible. John Calvin, for example, once stated that "Knowledge of the sciences is so much smoke apart from the heavenly science of Christ." These examples serve to illustrate that Christians have long been averse to anything that challenges their faith, including the historical method of Bible study.
As has already been mentioned, these attitudes yet prevail in some circles. Time, however, has wrought changes in those attitudes. Modern apologetics is often couched in language suggesting that the historical method supports the magical aspects of scripture. Writers such as Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel have successfully marketed their works to a broad audience eager to hear how science and history confirm the Bible. Meanwhile, the Vatican has also adopted a less stringent attitude. In the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the use of the critical approach to Bible studies was affirmed, yet it also warned of spiritual dangers considered inherent to such an approach.
In spite of the change in attitude toward the critical method, its application still runs afoul of the credulity usually required of students, and has caused a great deal of misunderstanding of what constitutes evidence, the rules of logic, and honest questioning. For example, apologists sometimes point to the remarkable attestation of the Bible as evidence of its divine origin. However, simple logic and an understanding of evidence reveal that attestation does not validate that idea, for many reasons. It is not uncommon even today to find well-attested reports of current events having been reported inaccurately in the news, influenced by not only notoriously unreliable witness testimony, bias, difficulty in obtaining facts, and other challenges. Moreover, the Bible also reports several miraculous and magical events which simply cannot be trusted solely on the basis of thousand-year-old writings. Modern claims of UFO sightings, ghosts, fairies, and others fall into the same category. Regardless of how well-documented these phenomena may be, the documentation alone cannot bear witness of itself.
The standard Christian apologetic approach to Bible study is problematic in that it favors faith over reason. Any approach that a priori assumes a text originates with a supernatural author restricts the student to only a few possibilities, thereby leaving out a host of others. The same, perhaps, could be said of a completely naturalistic approach. What we should strive for is an understanding in today's context, for that's where we find its application. Moreover, it makes no sense whatsoever that a critical study of the Bible should be eschewed in favor of blind faith. Nor should this type of study be encumbered by sweeping and unfounded conclusions. If indeed the Bible is the product of divine authorship, it should be able to withstand such scrutiny with ease, without the need to resort to special pleading.
Some may be still be wondering what exactly is being proposed. Am I suggesting that we all go back to school and earn degrees in anthropology, archaeology, theology, linguistics, and so on? Not at all. With the resources now commonly available we can perform a reasoned survey of the Bible that can yield profitable results. In the end, only you can decide what to believe, and you have nothing to fear by asking questions. After all, Abraham questioned God concerning Sodom (Gen. 18:23-32) without suffering consequences. Thus, we should not fear to question the Bible and learn what it means for today's world.
In upcoming posts, we'll examine several aspects of Bible study. From basic materials, to the rules of logic and evidence, to suggested questions and resources for finding answers (both friendly and unfriendly), I'm going to do my level best to provide you with additional tools to add to your study arsenal. For illustrative purposes, I may sometimes propose alternate answers to some of the questions, but will refrain from drawing final conclusions.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)