Amy Peeler on reading the Bible today
Biblical Studies is changing.
This is not news; the discipline has been undergoing methodological shifts for decades, but the cracks in the edifice of historical criticism’s unquestioned dominance continue to widen. Many—if not most—scholars still draw from the method’s insights, but only a few unquestioningly embrace the underlying commitments to the necessity (or even the possibility) of distanced objectivity or to the once prevalent disdain for pre-Enlightenment insights. Biblical scholars R. W. L. Moberly in The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith and Dale B. Martin in Biblical Truths: The Meaning of Scripture in the Twenty-First Century approach the discipline from different vantage points, but they agree that if Biblical Studies is going to survive, it must adapt. That adaptation includes abandoning some of these largely unquestioned assumptions of the erstwhile dominant methodology.
Moberly begins his historical critique with Benjamin Jowett’s 1860 essay, “On the Interpretation of Scripture.” Concerned with the disparate trajectories of biblical study, Jowett argued that readers should “Interpret the Scripture like any other book.” This injunction would clear the accretions of misinformed tradition, and then the Bible, having been exposed to rigorous questioning, would stand the test. With simple philological and historical work it would be “freshly seen, as of a picture which is restored after many ages to its original state.”
Things did not quite work out that way. Such focus on the Bible in an age of scientific discovery revealed how very different the authors of the Bible imagined the world from the increasingly accepted and celebrated approaches of the modern person. Eventually, those original authors and their distinct perspectives became the sole focus. “It became less a matter of ‘What did God say, or what does God say, through Jeremiah or Paul?’ and more a matter of ‘What did Jeremiah or Paul think about God, and what does this reveal about the situations they were involved in?’” These are not bad questions to ask, but neither are they sufficient for the survival of the discipline in, as Moberly’s title puts it, a “disenchanted age.”
For Moberly, the problem with treating the Bible like any other book is that Biblical Studies exists because it does not treat the Bible like any other book.
One major difficulty, however, that has generally been too little addressed, is that most Christian scholars who advocate approaching the biblical documents “like any other book” nonetheless still take for granted the (in one way or another) privileged status of the biblical documents and see no need to make a case for this privilege. . . . [U]nless some account is offered as to why the Bible is not like any other book, it becomes ever less clear that one should continue to value and privilege the Bible and its content in the first place.
This assumption of historical criticism saws off the branch upon which the discipline sits, and in a culture that no longer privileges the Bible, there remains nothing to break the fall.
Moberly’s answer to the conundrum is to allow the opposite assumption as well, namely that the Bible is different than any other book. It contains not just words about God, but “words from God that convey a living divine reality,” and trusting in that reality is a good thing. The best way for someone to embrace these now counter-cultural assumptions is through community. The people who believe this, and have believed this for millennia, provide the plausibility structures for others to trust the Bible as well. Historical questions are not dismissed, but they no longer stand alone. Moberly argues that Christians should study the Bible because they trust that it is a faithful word from God, and they have come to do so because they stand alongside “other believers past and present, to respond, to enter with faith into the content of that witness, and to live and die accordingly.” Other approaches to the text through history or the sciences can stand “without prejudice,” but they must not stand alone.
Martin’s critique and answer are strikingly similar, even though his focus is a bit narrower, treating not the discipline as a whole, but the production of “Biblical Theologies.” He therefore unsurprisingly begins with Johann Philipp Gabler’s 1787 address. A quiet beginning to a mighty revolution, the address only later was appreciated as the fountainhead of the idea that scholars must begin with “history first, theological application second.” As Moberly also noted, under this rubric investigation begins with the original author. “The meaning of the text,” writes Martin, “increasingly became not ‘what is the meaning of the words of the text as they would be read by a competent reader?’ but, instead, either ‘what happened?’ or ‘what did the human author intend to say?’ This was such a subtle shift that most modern readers failed to discern it, assuming, instead, that the meaning of a text is necessarily what the author meant.”
Martin’s problem with such an approach is that it can yield bad historiography, bad theology, or both. It is impossible, in his opinion, to know exactly what the author meant. Modern interpreters cannot interview these writers. When contemporary readers try to discover “what was meant” by the author of the text, they often produce results commensurate with their own opinions. If, conversely, historians limit themselves to the results within the boundaries of historiography, they cannot produce Christian theology from the New Testament. It took several centuries for orthodox theology to develop. The “what it meant, to what it means” mantra of biblical theology is a fool’s errand, according to Martin. In response, he seeks not to dismiss the insights of historical work, but neither will he be subservient to them. In addition to asking what the biblical authors meant, he also asks what the church has meant throughout time, including his own congregation. Faith in community is again key to producing meaning, the reason for thinking seriously about and living out of these documents.
With these common diagnoses and suggestions, Moberly and Martin still produce very different books. After “posing the problem” in his first chapter, Moberly treats throughout the book two texts, the Aeneid and Daniel 7, as examples of the different ways the Bible can be read as similar to and different from other books.
He reads them first as historical documents, texts shaped by particular contexts. From this position, he discovers similarities between them. Both texts exhort “faithful endurance,” in light of a “sovereign deity (Jupiter, the Ancient One) [who] bestows sovereignty on earth (imperium, sholt–an) upon a specially favored people (Romans, Jews), a sovereignty that explicitly has no envisaged termination but is to be endlessly enduring (sine fine, ad-alma’).” His reading detects differences as well, specifically as it pertains to the deity in question. The sovereignty of the Lord is unparalleled whereas Jupiter’s is constrained, and the former “plays a role for the Jewish writers that Jupiter does not play for the Romans,” namely as “the fundamental constituent of their identity.” In short, even a historical and classical reading of the texts, one that does not arise from a faith perspective, points to distinctions between the deities about whom the texts speak.
Moberly develops this implication further. He has no pretense that he will offer “irresistible arguments for ‘believing the Bible’”; he seeks only to show that if people do believe the Bible, the ways they do so matter. Appealing to the theories of historian Jonathan Z. Smith and the life experience of Darwin, he first argues that a Christian approach to the Bible begins with granting a privileged focus to Jesus, “especially as framed and interpreted by the whole biblical canon.” Second, an individual grants this privileged perspective because a religious community has made this option plausible throughout time and in their own space. They have seen others trust, and they have been convinced to do the same.
Then he turns to read the Aeneid and Daniel as classics, texts that have influenced peoples after their original setting. The differences become even more apparent in this approach. While both talk of a sovereign deity, “the ‘unending dominion’ of Daniel 7 is of a different order than the ‘limitless empire’ of Aeneid 1, because Daniel 7 is not speaking of any prospect of power in the same way.” This is a sovereign God who grants authority to humans who do not win it for themselves.
The argument continues: “more needs to be said about what the persuasive force of Christian witness in the world requires if a person is to become, not just in name but in reality, someone who believers the biblical witness, and supremely its witness to Jesus—and why such a belief should be a good thing.” He is asking not just why someone would believe the Bible, but why she would believe it above other things. In addition to an openness to the Bible and the community that trusts in it (having created the biblical canon), there must also be a “responsive openness to the God whom Jesus represents, as the only way in which words relating to God can cease to be just words about God but can also become words from God that convey a living divine reality.” It is not just about trusting the Bible or the church—it is ultimately about trusting God.
His textual method for making this move is to return to his primary texts, but to read them in light of Matthew 28. There he argues that Jesus’ enactment of power shows belief in God not just to be plausible but to be good. Jesus is given sovereignty he does not take and enacts his sovereignty and asks his followers to do the same in ways that show a “concern for others that takes precedence over all concern to further his own well-being.” To follow this God, this deity, this sovereign, is to conceive of and live out power in a way that encourages human flourishing for all. Christians can find good in the world around them, and can critique institutions that do not line up with the biblical vision of God’s goodness and grace.
In the final section, Moberly tackles the problem of biblical literacy. He urges careful reading from the side of those whose tendency is to critique the trustworthiness of the Bible. Careful attention reveals that flippant dismissal is unwarranted. On the other hand, he is not embracing the language of inerrancy that would be “at home in the contest of an evidentialist approach to the Bible.” It is not clear to him that history produces faith, especially when the history is recorded in a way different from contemporary understandings of historiography. He argues, instead, for an approach to the Bible that views it as trustworthy, namely free from deception.
The “how” of this approach to the Bible involves 1) reading canonically, 2) reading in continuity with—yet not identically to—the tradition of the faith, and 3) reading the Bible as history as well as a greatly varied narrative. Even in this disenchanted age a person open to faith can read the Bible as the words of the living God, persuaded by a community to believe in an all-powerful, good God disclosed in the biblical account centered around Jesus.
Martin sets out to do much the same as Moberly, namely to show “how statements of faith and belief can be seen as rational, sensible, and coherent.” At the same time, he takes up other arguments. In addition to arguing that theology need not be subservient to history, he consistently argues two other key points: 1) “no doctrine or theological proposition is always and universally true. . . . any Christian statement, even if true in some sense, will necessarily also be false when interpreted in a different sense,” and 2) “Readers make meaning when they read texts.” Meaning for him does not reside in the history behind the text, the original author, early interpreters, or a grand narrative. Meaning is in the reading of the scripture itself, hence the impossibility of universal truth. The meaning of a statement will depend upon the person reading that meaning into the text. His treatment of the gender of God provides a salient example. The rather uncontroversial claim that “God is beyond gender” supports his apophatic theological claim that “God cannot be ‘defined’ at all, if by that we mean ‘delimited’ or ‘delineated.’” Conversely this statement would not be true if by it someone meant that “God has nothing to do with gender or doesn’t care about the meaning of gender for us.” Theological propositions must be interpreted. They do not stand alone; they are presented by readers in particular ways.
Readers who embrace the idea of universal truths may balk at his relativism, but Martin is difficult to conscript to only one side of any ideological divide. He is certainly clear about the values he brings to the reading of the text, such as nonfoundationalism, postmodernism, and Marxism. Love, health, and anti-hierarchicalism repeatedly appear as criteria by which he interprets the text. At the same time, he is unabashedly “orthodox [and] ecumenical” in the presentation of his theological interpretation of the New Testament. He refers to the doctrine of sin as “an indispensable one” for Christian theology, including the ideas of original sin and predestination. He is strongly tethered to Christian faith, and throughout the book presents soaring homiletical treatments of theology that would be at home in any contemplative devotional guide. Finally, though at times it is clear he has an ax to grind against fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity, he seeks to remain true to his assertion that his theology is “provisional.” He displays a willingness to be wrong.
The most valuable lesson the discipline has to gain from Martin may well be this stance of humility. Biblical scholars, and I acknowledge my own complicity in this lot, are often guilty of thinking that if other people would simply pay close attention to the biblical text everyone would agree with a particular position. Martin describes this as a position of arrogance: “what they ‘see’ in the text is simply what is objectively ‘there’ after all and that if others do not take the text to ‘say’ what they believe it says, those others are simply disingenuous or deluded.” This is a “more hegemonic epistemological position,” by which scholars “are attempting to mask their own interpretive agency—often even from themselves in a practice of self-deception—by insisting that the interpretation of the text they are advocating is not their own but comes from the ‘authoritative’ agent of the text itself.”
Might Moberly succumb to Martin’s critique? His argument for the goodness of believing in the God of the Christian Bible is that this God encourages service and non-violence. It sounds like a comfortable God for a twenty-first-century, liberal academic. Other Christians throughout the centuries have not seen this kind of God by reading the same Bible, a fact Moberly himself recognizes. Has he constructed the Bible and therefore God in his own image? Possibly, but it is a reading I myself find convincing in light of the similar kind of work I do with the language of family in the biblical canon. It seems clear to me that the God of the Christian Bible construes power with surprising humility. Maybe I, too, see it this way because of the plausibility structures in which I exist—not only the historic church, but also the academy and evangelical feminism.
But Moberly is not fully guilty of Martin’s chief sin because Moberly is not claiming that his is the “theology of the Bible.” There is no “firm evidence” of this reading, only an invitation that people of faith shaped by their communities could see a God who is not power-hungry. Not all have, not all will, but such a reading is plausible in light of the community that worships the crucified and risen God. Hence I see Moberly in line with Martin’s admonition. The position of humility does not relinquish the ability to say anything. Martin himself can write 350+ pages about what the New Testament means, but he never fails to recognize his own agency, and such a recognition makes for much more teachable conversation partners.
In that vein of humble conversation, I must voice questions that remain for me about Martin’s work. His disentangling of theology from history, in some ways, makes good sense. Theologians need not wait around for biblical scholars to decide what the text meant before they can say what the text means. Faithful scriptural reading is shaped by more than just history. In some places, however, Martin drives the wedge deeper than it should be. A chief example is his treatment of the resurrection. He balks at the idea of a physical body raised and in heaven as impossible to establish by the rubrics of modern historiography. “A postmodern Christian confession of the resurrection of Jesus will probably take a more theological rather than scientific, literal, or historical shape.” It is not clear to me why these are presented as an “either/or.” A historical affirmation of the resurrection confirms the importance of the flesh of a Jewish man as the first fruits for the renewal of all creation. I take his point that the Christian hope is not built upon a fact “propped up by modern historiography” but is instead a faith in what God has done, however mysterious it might be. Yet those two things, history and faith, need not be—in fact on this point, must not be—so separated. This historical fact may not be sufficient for faith—a person could believe Jesus was raised from the dead and not follow him as Lord—but this historical fact is, it seems to me, necessary for faith. It is right and good to affirm, through the resurrection, God’s “gift of life after death,” but I worry that such an affirmation untethered from some kind of “historical fact” may not be enough to sustain a “way of life.”
Second, a question pertaining to the divide between New Testament authors and theology. I take his point that Christian theology cannot be limited to the thoughts of the original authors. The easiest example is that they did not have in mind the full-blown doctrine of the Trinity. On points at which their thinking is underdeveloped when compared with the tradition, this difference poses no major problems. The seeds of doctrines are there in the text, allowing at least the development of the tradition in its particular trajectories. What to do, though, for issues where the New Testament authors might have had the opposite opinion from theologians, especially modern ones? Martin’s treatments of gender, for example, bring this question to the fore. We need not share all the opinions of the New Testament authors, but what about the words they have recorded? What warrants not just a development of their ideas, but a disagreement with them?
These books at the cross-section of biblical studies and theology stir up deep questions. If our discipline is to survive, we must learn to “give a reason for the hope that is in us,” to justify the resources employed to study this book in a time when many no longer see its value. Moberly and Martin show a way forward, in community, with humility, which invites others to converse about the way of life this unique book inspires.
Amy Peeler is Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, IL, and Associate Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva, IL. Author of “You Are My Son”: The Family of God in the Epistle to the Hebrews(T&T Clark, 2014), she continues to research and write in the fields of Hebrews studies and Gender and Theology.