Before you ask, no. No, I did not and will not watch “The Bible” on the History Channel. If you want to know the story, read the book (rather, the books). Putting aside the fact that the trailer alone contained several errors, it’s probably not a good idea to get your information from the channel that has shows about “ice truckers.” If you want to get some serious information about the Bible, read it. Or I could point you towards some lovely people in many great universities who study the Old and New Testaments for a living.
I’ve been wanting to write about the Bible for a while now and the History Channel production’s premiere is just a coincidence.
To be a little bit more specific, I want to write about “higher” (or academic) criticism of scripture and what it means for the average Christian. Whether most believers know it or not, the History Channel’s artistic interpretation (I say that lightly) is based on at least some higher form of critique of scripture. And even though I won’t watch it, but I feel comfortable venturing a guess, the production is also based on a particular view of the Bible itself – that the Bible is to be taken first and foremost as a basis (if not the basis) for the Christian faith. It is a source of knowledge. It is a source of revelation. Whether the writers and scholars who worked on the production agree with the idea that the Bible is true or not is irrelevant. The point is that the Bible is seen as a ground (or the only ground) for Christianity itself.
Before I go any farther, I want to briefly unpack what I mean by “higher” or “academic” criticism of scripture and then I’ll explain how I nearly lost my faith because of it.
To put it as plainly as I can, the idea behind academic analysis of scripture was (and is) to provide us with greater insight into some of the burning questions surrounding the Bible. Who wrote the books? When? What was life like when the books were written? What was going on in the broader historical context of the time when the authors penned their work? And what do we know about the literary styles and/or rhetorical techniques of that time?
All of these questions have been broken down into various schools of analysis. Some scholars focus on literary technique and style, while others focus on historical context, etc. The broader questions involved in academic analysis of the Old and New Testaments have blossomed into very important, but more specific questions – such as the so-called quest for the “historical Jesus.” On that specific question, some scholars have spent the greater part of their careers trying to find out what Jesus was “really like”; they try to move beyond the “myths” that have been built up around Him in the New Testament. It is important to note that these scholars who dedicate their careers to studying the Bible often approach the texts as functional atheists. This is more or less the standard practice for most scholars of the Bible.
While there have been some invaluable insights gained from the work of these biblical scholars, I will offer a word of caution in approaching this kind of information. This warning, I should say, is directed more towards Protestants (especially evangelicals with a penchant for fundamentalism). If you take these scholars seriously (as you should, generally speaking), you may be in danger of losing your faith. That is to say, when one learns about historical and literary criticism, it becomes clear rather quickly that there are, in fact, several errors and contradictions in the Bible. We don’t even know for certain who the authors are for each book or letter in the New Testament, much less the Hebrew scriptures. More to the point, the argument for sola scriptura – that the Bible is the only source of divine revelation and authority for Christians – falls apart like a sand castle hit by a tidal wave.
My own faith was nearly totally lost when I first learned about what we know (and don’t know) due to the efforts of biblical scholars over the last several decades. As a Southern Baptist, my faith was based entirely on sola scriptura and how could I believe any of the doctrines of Christianity if the basis for my faith was kicked out from under me? But in His mercy, it was at that point that God began to lead me towards the Orthodox Church and my faith is now stronger than ever.
Maybe the simplest way I can explain my point is to say that if the Bible is indeed inerrant, infallible – the Word of God (inspired or dictated), one would imagine that there would be no contradictions or errors in science or history. But what we’ve learned from higher criticism of scripture cannot be undone; we know that the Bible is not perfectly inerrant. The information is out there. The question is, what should Christians do with it?
Would it be right to dogmatize ignorance – double down on fundamentalism and bury one’s head in the sand? Or should the core doctrines of the faith be abandoned altogether in favor of the social gospel – turning Christianity into a political ideology bent on soaking the rich in favor of the “poor, oppressed, and marginalized?” Sadly there are all too many who have chosen these and other wide, destructive paths.
The point is that if one builds his or her entire belief structure on one point – say, the inerrancy of scripture and its place as the sole authority for Christianity – that person is open to disaster if that foundation for belief is swept away. And what can we learn from that? Ultimately, we see that the doctrine of sola scriptura leaves Christians in a vulnerable position and forces a person to have faith in a set of books instead of the Living God. Real faith, after all, is an orientation of the heart towards God. It’s not coming into accord with a set of facts and it certainly has nothing to do with idolizing certain ancient texts, which is ultimately a move to canonize a certain epistemology or a certain way of knowing what we know about God. This is a critical mistake.
Instead of looking at scripture as, primarily, a source of knowledge and authority, we should look at scripture existentially. What I mean by that is we should figure out what the text means for our actual lives today. I tend to think the best way to learn about the real (existential) meaning of scripture is to look to the Fathers of the Church, who received Apostolic instruction and spoke the language(s) that the scriptures were written in. If we do this, the scriptures will make us “wise unto salvation” as John Wesley said. This is truly the primary purpose of scripture: if we absorb the meaning of the text and allow the Holy Spirit to use it to change us, we will live a full and authentically human life now and ultimately take on the divine nature. The Holy Spirit, through scripture, transfigures us and makes us like Jesus Christ so that we will be ready at the end of time to stand in the divine Presence of perfect love, glorifying God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the ages of ages.