Religious Bible Criticism: Part 2

Michael Kotsch

Ever since the Enlightenment, more and more people are looking at science as a guarantor of objective, secure knowledge. Even today, the Bible is in doubt because its statements do not always correspond to the current findings of archaeology, history, or biology.

When in doubt, the enlightened Christian trusts the science and tries to adapt the biblical contents accordingly. In the end, the Word of God will depend on the perspective of the particular research.

For example, the corporal punishment of children (Prov 13:24; Heb 12:6ff.) is rejected, because modern pedagogy has proven the superiority of non-violent education. The biblical rejection of homosexuality (Rom 1:26ff.) is explained away by referring to the current findings of psychology and medicine. The subordination of women required by God (Col 3:18) is relativized by a reference to the long-accepted equality of the sexes. In the face of scientific psychology and psychotherapy, demon possession (Luke 8:26ff.) is regarded as a euphemism, misdiagnosis, or an issue that no longer exists today.

Although theologians usually formulate their statements cautiously in this regard, they distort the original intention of the Word of God instead of making it intelligible to the public.

One form of religious Bible criticism, therefore, consists of giving more confidence to present-day scientific discoveries than to unequivocal statements of Scripture. In the process, attempts are usually made to interpret clear biblical commands as symbolic in order to defuse the tension with current science. Occasionally, it is claimed that hidden behind a biblical account, there lies nothing but a timeless principle that should be taken to heart. Alternatively, the concrete behavior mentioned in this context is only to be understood as an example from the cultural environment of the time. In this way, Christians easily give up the Bible’s comprehensive claim to truth for a brief agreement with the accepted state of science. In doing so, they forget that science can never formulate absolute truth epistemologically, but is essentially always in search of a new, ostensibly even more accurate, view of things. The history of science alone shows that hardly any tenet of psychology, pedagogy [education], archaeology, etc., insofar as it fundamentally contradicted the Bible, had a general existence for long.

Over the past decades, much of Western Christendom has departed from many of the once-secure statements of Scripture. In most cases, it has tried to circumvent the parallel texts of the Bible in general, or to establish it as self-evident, without justification, that man must no longer comply with its commands. Occasionally, it is even celebrated as a sign of spiritual flexibility or advancement, that people have bowed out of biblical sexual ethics (2 Cor 12:21), principles of church leadership (1 Tim 3:1ff.), or the favorable assessment of suffering (Phil 1:29; 2 Tim 3:12). Thus, for example, it would be nonsensical to reject homosexuality, as no one is concerning themselves with the corporal punishment of children or the head coverings of women anymore (1 Cor 11:3ff.).

A certain plausibility with this line of reasoning can’t be denied. The question rightly arises of why the abolition of slavery is celebrated as social progress, although the Bible does not fundamentally reject this form of bondage. Similarly, one hundred years from now, one could also judge the absolute equality of women in the church as a desirable overcoming of outdated structures.

However, accepting this line of reasoning as the universal method of biblical interpretation raises many problems.

1. In the future, according to this pattern, one could put any statement from the Bible into perspective and finally throw it overboard, even if it concerns spiritually indispensable topics. For example, more and more people regard it as an unbearable expression of intolerance when Muslims are generally denied eternal salvation. Now, one might argue accordingly, “If we have already overcome the indissolubility of marriage, we should also correct the exclusiveness of Christian salvation.”

2. Rightly, one could also react in exactly the opposite way, and regard the reference to the departure of clear biblical statements as a spiritual warning. Maybe Christians should think again about whether they have not over-hastily and lightheartedly kissed the claims of Scripture goodbye. Then perhaps Christians would not give up more and more beliefs, but would return to the clear instructions of the Bible. Honestly, then, one would surely have to stand for the fact that God does not condemn slavery in principle (Philemon), nor the death penalty (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:4). But the Bible does condemn unjust working conditions and taking the law into one’s own hands (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1).

3. More generally, the argument, “Because you no longer do X, you no longer need to follow Y,” is logically inconsistent. Every single theological question has to be thought through separately and individually, and then answered, regardless of what conclusion one has reached on a completely different matter.

One form of religious Bible criticism is thus to disregard clear statements in the Bible, simply because one has already passed over other requirements of Scripture. One disobedience or misinterpretation obviously doesn’t justify another. Even more, evidence of failure to follow a biblical statement should lead to serious scrutiny as to whether a justifiable instruction from God may have been passed over and, if necessary, corrected.

Reference to the real or purported context of a particular biblical passage is particularly popular among evangelical theologians in recent decades. Often, there are lengthy explanations of the ancient or Near East environment, but in the end, a biblical statement that was actually clear is turned into the opposite. The church audience is regularly astonished by interesting details from the world of the Bible. And indeed, some Scriptural statements can be better understood by knowing their historical, geographic, political, cultural, and linguistic background. Thus, for some sections of the Bible, it’s profitable to know where the Moabites lived (Num 22:3; what the Judean desert looked like (Ps 63:1); why wine was poured into skins (Matt 9:17); or which doctrines were represented by the Sadducees (Mark 12:18ff.). In general, this information should serve to make the statements of the Bible easier to understand or to make certain details of an argument easier to relate to specifically. However, caution is advised if, with reference to the culture of that time, a clear statement of the Bible is suddenly turned into its opposite. In that case, it’s quite possible that the cultural reason was only sought in order to change the biblical command according to the wishes of the interpreter.

Generally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that every single statement in the Bible was spoken in a concrete historical and cultural context. However, in most cases this conclusion has nothing to do with the actual statement or even the temporal validity of the respective claim. According to a clear biblical self-understanding, God speaks to the people through the Scriptures, to the people of all cultures and times (Ps 119:89, 160). If a biblical text does not specifically mention a cultural condition or time limit, then the interpreter should by no means wrangle one into it with his historical explanations. Whether and to what extent a concrete biblical statement is related to historical or cultural contexts, does not say anything about its validity for the present. Beyond the cultural and historical context of their genesis, the doctrinal passages of the Bible claim a timeless validity anchored in the wisdom of God (1 Pet 1:25).

1. Obviously, the Ten Commandments were given in a very specific historical context, for a people with specific cultural customs. However, this integration hardly has any influence on the permanent validity of the commandments for all people. At least that’s how it’s understood in the New Testament (cf. Matt 5:17ff.).

2. According to biblical information, the Lord’s Supper is a reinterpreted Passover meal (Luke 22:15ff.). In the religious-cultural context of New Testament Judaism, the symbolism of wine and bread was well-known as the flesh and blood of a sacrificial animal. Despite this clear cultural and temporal context, it would be nonsensical to abolish the sacrament because the Jewish tradition behind it is largely unknown in the West today (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34).

Anyone who rejects the corporal punishment of children (e.g. Prov 13:24; Heb 12:6ff.) or the subordination of women, arguing that these behaviors correspond to cultural habits of that time and are therefore irrelevant today, does not do justice to the clear statements of Holy Scripture, which claim a timeless, permanent validity in these instructions.

One form of religious Bible criticism, therefore, is to use historical or cultural aspects from the Bible’s environment to fundamentally alter the obvious message of a Bible verse. Above all, such an approach is then illegitimate and inappropriate, if no historical or cultural reasons are given in the corresponding Bible text itself. Especially if the timeless reasons for God’s plan of salvation, the story of creation, or the nature of faith are given by the corresponding biblical author, reference to cultural factors is misleading and does not do justice to the Bible. It is particularly problematic that cultural arguments are now regularly cited by evangelical theologians when it comes to reconciling a demand in the Bible that is felt to be outmoded with the current zeitgeist (e.g. child rearing, the status of women, sexual ethics).

The historical or cultural background is only relevant to the validity of a biblical claim if it is mentioned in the direct context or in the author’s explanatory statements. However, if the biblical text refers to timeless principles, such as homosexuality or family order, then everything speaks for a permanent validity of the corresponding command. The real problem, then, usually exists in the willingness to trust God more than man and to endure the tension between a different culture and the present.

As shown by these examples, biblical criticism exists not only in the rationalist conception of the historical-critical method, but in every theological approach that reinterprets or even reverses the immediately clear statements of the Bible. Theology should help the Christian to better understand and apply the clear message of Scripture, not reinterpret it according to the prevailing zeitgeist. For example, if God criticizes homosexual behavior by pointing to marriage and creation, then all theological references to language, culture, and the environment must not lead to explaining these unambiguous statements as irrelevant to the present. This also applies to other socially controversial positions of the Bible, the neutralization of which is the goal, consciously or unconsciously, of religious Bible criticism.

Christians should refrain from every form of biblical criticism, and not just the historical-critical method. Any kind of Bible criticism destroys trust in God and His statements. Christians have to endure the fact that God’s Word doesn’t always correspond to the prevailing taste of the time. But it is precisely in its otherness that the Bible unfolds its necessary ideological-critical competence. Precisely where it goes beyond what every non-Christian believes, it gives the faithful much-needed guidance. “Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever” (Ps 119:160).

Midnight Call - 08/2019

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