The Spirit and critical study (1)

RoleHSThere is a widespread view that the work of the Spirit and the work of critical study of the Bible are like oil and water—they simply don’t mix. This is reinforced from both directions. People who read the Bible devotionally often look distinctly nervous when the subject of ‘academic’ study of the Bible comes up. Where mosques and other places of worship have a rack by the entrance where you can take off your shoes and leave them outside, it feels as though for many churches there is a similar rack by the entrance where you can leave your brain as you come in. (It might be metaphorical, but it is there!) On the other hand, there are many in the academy who see ‘committed’ reading as polluting the ‘objectivity’ of the academic process.

The general nervousness about all this is sometimes expressed in relation to university courses. Christians shouldn’t study theology because it will undermine their faith. I have seen the (ironically) unthinking imposition of a liberal ‘fundamentalism’ imposed on Christian students in a very damaging way, but this is less likely today, not least because of the growth of evangelical critical thinking. In fact, it is vital that we connect head and heart in our articulation of faith, for our own wellbeing but also to be effective in an increasing sceptical and post-Christendom context—though there is still a question as to whether a university course is the right place to do this for everyone.

However, the most compelling reason for holding together the work of the Spirit and the task of critical judgement together is because this is just what the Bible does. The Spirit and judgement are brought together explicitly in John 16.8, where Jesus expounds the Spirit’s role in discerning the difference between what is holy and what is not through a process of critical discernment. (The Greek for ‘judgement’ is krisis from which we get the word ‘critical.’) We see the Spirit at work in explicit actions of judgement in Acts 5, in the (baffling to the modern ear) account of Ananias and Sapphira. And against the Corinthians’ superficial ease with judging each other, it is striking that Paul does not reject the notion of judgement as such, but reconfigures it through the lens of the work of the Spirit. Early on, in 1 Cor 2.15, Paul asserts that ‘The spiritual person makes judgements about all things’, and in context we should understand this as being ‘the person with the Spirit’ which is Paul’s definition of a follower of Jesus (1 Cor 12.3). In fact, discernment between people and the ‘spirit’ in which they are operating is one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12.10), the word being again a compound of krineo ‘to judge’.

So why have we ended up ourselves with seeing a gulf between the ideas of judgement and discernment, a discriminating evaluation of different viewpoints on the one hand, and the work of the Spirit on the other? In part, the answer is rooted in the Enlightenment paradigm of rational enquiry that has shaped our intellectual life. Discernment is the work of the autonomous, sensing self who sits at the centre of his or her world, and needs no outside agency to help in this process. Indeed, any outside agency is just that—outside the individual, and therefore not to be trusted until sifted and evaluated by the individual.

But another reason is the way we have configured our expectations of the work of the Spirit as we read Scripture within our pietistic spirituality. As I reflect on the pattern of Bible reading I was (helpfully) inducted into, I see four strands to it:

1. Immediacy. We expect to open the Bible and immediately to hear God say something to us. Some years ago a joke was doing the rounds about someone who read the Bible by opening a page and sticking a pin in it. First he read Matt 27.5 ‘Judas went and hanged himself’ and thought that that couldn’t be right. So he did it again and read Luke 10.37 ‘Go thou and do likewise’, and was sure there was some mistake. So he did it a third time, only to read John 13.28 ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.’ The reason that this is funny is because it reflects a lot of people’s approach to how to read the Bible devotionally. We don’t expect to have to wait for an answer or to do any work in listening for it.

2. Clarity. We not only expect God to speak to us, we also expect God to speak clearly, without ambiguity. A popular Christian poster once depicted Abraham hearing God’s call and responding by asking a series of questions, each of which because a question mark that he then had to carry. At the end he has more to carry than he can cope with, and the final slogan was ‘It is hard to be a disciple with all these questions.’ The moral was clear: if you are uncertain about what God is saying, then you lack faith. A vicar of a church I used to attend had a motto: “If God asks you to jump, the only question you ask is ‘How high?”‘ I didn’t find it helpful.

3. Relevance. When God speaks, immediately and clearly, we often expect it to have a direct bearing on our world. One of the things dogging the debate about same-sex marriage is just this question: it is asserted that the Bible has nothing to say, because it does not directly address the context we are in and the questions we have. But the same is true on every issue! It is assumed that, if the Bible is not immediately relevant to our context, it has nothing to say.

4. Familiarity: For many of us, when we first came to faith and the Spirit of God breathed new life and understanding into our lives, it was a strange and wonderful thing that this God continued to speak to us through the pages of Scripture. But often an odd thing then happens. At some point or other, this becomes ‘our’ book, and we feel we know it. It is reassuring and familiar. We know what it says, and it no longer surprises us. I notice this most clearly when I am looking with people at familiar passages and pointing out that (as in the case of John 3.16) most people misunderstand what the text is actually saying.

There is a sense in which all these things are true; God does speak clearly to his people (note the plural!) and form them through the faithful reading of scripture. But I cannot help thinking that these expectations are formed as much by Romanticism (as a reaction against the aridity of rationalism) as they are by Scripture itself. And when we engage in critical study of some sort, there is a rude awakening, because we experience four quite different things:

1. Delay. Spending the best part of a decade in a theological college, where we read the Scriptures in chapel before studying them in class, was instructive. At the end of the reading, when the reader said solemnly, ‘This is the word of the Lord’ there was quite often a collective sense of wanting to respond ‘What is? In what way? And what does it even mean?’

2. Ambiguity. It is quite difficult to be confident in the clarity of God’s word to us when there are 18 possible interpretations of this particularly verse, with three main contenders who have a strong case but are mutually contradictory.

3. Distance: The more I read and study the Scriptures, the more I am clear that the biblical writers lived in a very different culture from ours, and so begin and continue with some very different assumptions about the way the world works. Of course, they share the same humanity and the same faith in God, but it is expressed in ways that are at a distance from our own world.

4. Strangeness. Richard Dawkins has got at least one thing right; the Bible is a strange book, and we should worry when we feel it is too familiar. When I was driving a lot a few years ago, I listened to a recording of John’s gospel read by David Suchet. When I had listened to chapter 6, 7 and 8 my overwhelming feeling was that this Jesus was a very strange person indeed. It might have been the context I was in, or my mood, or David Suchet’s voice—but I have a feeling that it was really something to do with John’s gospel and Jesus I found in it! There is a wonderful short essay at OnFaith explaining why it is best to categorise the Bible as fantasy literature, because it is so strange.

Prophet_Elijah_on_Mount_Horeb.Daniele_da_Volterra-2Before we try and resolve these things, we need to note one point of encouragement: these latter four have been the widespread experience of the people of God, and they are the things which prevent us domesticating God and making him in our own image. Think of Elijah on the mountainside in 1 Kings 19; if ever anyone should think that God was clear and unambiguous in what he was saying, it was Elijah, yet here he is baffled and bemused. Or think of Daniel wrestling with Jeremiah’s prophecy in Daniel 9. Or of John the Baptist trying to make sense of Jesus in Matt 11.3. Or the Council of Jerusalem wrestling with God’s new work in Acts 15. If we experience these four things in our reading of Scripture, we are in good company!

Having explored the problem, in the next post I will look at ways in which we can, in fact, hold these two sets of experience together, and how doing so actually meshes with the work of the Spirit in our formation and learning.

If you find this blog of value, would you consider becoming a patron to support my work?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

29 thoughts on “The Spirit and critical study (1)”

  1. The problem with what I’ll term devotional analysis is that it must stay within doctrinal parameters.

    The Bible *must* harmonize; Jesus and Paul *can’t* have been wrong about an imminent eschaton; the pastorals *have* to be written by Paul of Tarsus. And so on.

    If conclusions are off-limits, it may be thorough, but it isn’t critical. Critical thinking challenges all assumptions, including doctrine itself.

    • ‘The problem with what I’ll term devotional analysis is that it must stay within doctrinal parameters.’ Yes, in some ways that is true, but in others not.

      When you move from one devotional tradition to another, often very different rules apply. And my observation is that, for many ‘ordinary’ readers, their reading does not reach the point where they are really confronted with the issues of coherence of the text. It is usually much more atomised than that.

      Often what ‘critical’ thinking *doesn’t* do it critique its own assumptions.

  2. “Critical thinking challenges all assumptions, including doctrine itself.”

    ‘Critical thinking’ gives us a vast trail of hypotheses, each one modifying or discarding the one before.
    It’s a method (or set of methods), not a conclusion, and each method has its own built-in assumptions and bias. This is not bad in itself, but it should at least be open about these assumptions, many of which can’t be proved: e.g., anti-supernaturalism, parallels with culture.

    Form criticism dominated Gospel studies for the 20th century. It gradually died the death of a hundred qualification before Bauckham fired the coup de grace (‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’) – or so it seems to me.

    • Brian, has ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ made any substantial impact in biblical studies? If it has, it shouldn’t. Its hypothesis boils down to “onomastics proves the gospels are eyewitness accounts, and if you deny testimony, it’s like denying the Holocaust” (Bauckham seriously draws the comparison at the end).

      Ian, what “assumptions” does critical thinking need to look at? I agree with Brian that it’s a method, and that methodology is to produce the best hypothesis possible by testing the evidence. Whether in historiography or science, the proof lies in the results.

      • James, it takes several years for ideas to percolate through. I think Bauckham’s argument is a good deal more sophisticated than your ‘boiled down’ version. It is paralleled in arguments about Acts’ historicity (local titles etc). From this distance, we can see that Bultmann’s ideas strained credulity.

        • Problem is that, at heart, Bauckham’s motive is confessional (he says as much in his book). That’s a whopping conflict of interest. When I read, say, Dale Allison, I can be confident that his theology isn’t shaping his history. Without a similar confidence when it comes to Bauckham, however smooth his writing, there’s nothing to percolate.

          • This raises these questions in turn:

            1. Can a writer’s methods by considered on their own merits, separate from his own convictions?

            2. What assumptions do people begin with in reconstructing the remote past? How do test the validity of these assumptions?

            3. Do you start with a hermeneutic of suspicion or assent?

            4. What kind of writing do you think the Gospels are?

          • Brain, a writer *can* separate method and belief: Allison certainly does. Bauckham openly (to his credit) takes a confessional position. They can likewise list and try to counter their assumptions; Bauckham instead uses his talents to buttress them.

            As for whether the hermeneutic ought to be one of “suspicion” or “assent,” the evidence should be followed wherever it leads, which sometimes gives rise to suspicion. Research certainly shouldn’t assent to religious doctrine, as that presupposes the conclusions.

            I’d describe the gospel as theological hagiography. They’re first and foremost devotional works.

          • ‘They’re first and foremost devotional works.’ But devotion to what? So much 19th and 20th C scholarship assumed there was this thing called ‘Christianity’ which needed explaining, and the gospels were (more or less) made up to explain it.

            But that does not account for why the movement started in the first place.

            The idea that Bauckham is prejudiced by his devotional approach is odd—as if other scholars (like Ehrman) are not influenced by their prejudices or presuppositions?

      • James, Eyewitnesses has made a massive impact on scholarship; perhaps ‘paradigm shift’ is an overused term, but might be useable here.

        I really don’t recognise your summary of his thesis—which is actually founded on a wide-ranging critique of a good number of assumptions which have been rather uncritically swallowed by scholarship. Chief amongst these are that there were distinct, rival Christian groups in the first century who did not communicate with one another but developed doctrine independently. Another is that there was a long period of oral transmission in which the gospel stories were freely formed.

        He offers a scholarly and thorough critique of such ideas in their own terms.

        • D’you have examples of its impact?

          Bauckham may be right about early Christianity being more interconnected than previously thought. Given the paucity of the evidence (a problem common throughout ancient history), this will, absent new discoveries, be informed guesswork.

          His overriding and stated is devotional: in Jesus, he wants history and theology to harmonize.

          When it comes to the historical Jesus, Ehrman is more of a popularizer. Allison and Sanders have clearly worked to identify and set aside their biases. Allison even wrote a book on how his Christian faith finds the millenarian prophet he reconstructed to be alien.

        • D’you have examples of its impact?

          Bauckham may be right about early Christianity being more interconnected than previously thought. Given the paucity of the evidence (a problem common throughout ancient history), this will, absent new discoveries, be informed guesswork.

          His overriding and stated motive is devotional: in Jesus, he wants history and theology to harmonize.

          When it comes to the historical Jesus, Ehrman is more of a popularizer. Allison and Sanders have clearly worked to identify and set aside their biases. Allison even wrote a book on how his Christian faith finds the millenarian prophet he reconstructed to be alien.

  3. Thanks, Ian; very timely. I am in the throes of composing a reply to a correspondent who has objected to the stance taken in some devotional notes produced by an agency to which I act as consutlant. For him it is axiomatic that the book of Isaiah as we have it was written (sic) by one individual operating in the 8th century BC. The writer took the view that chs 56-66 were delivered to a struggling group of returnees after the exile. This, for the correspondent, is the consequence of ‘secular bible scholarship’ as opposed to a true spiritual understanding. My challenge is to help him see that there are scholars who have a high view of Scripture and sit under the authority of both Scripture and the Spirit who see it differently. I think this illustrates the tension about which you write.

    I look forward to the next instalment. Will there be further comment on the indequacy of the ‘Enlightenment paradigm’? I hope so.

  4. I love this – brilliant, and very timely. I find it exciting, allowing the Spirit to lead us into truth – so often, Christians don’t allow this to happen because they are afraid that they will get it ‘wrong’. For me the main axiom is to respect the text, taking it seriously as having something to say to us. But expect to have to work at it. And even when we do, we will find that we never exhaust its potential to lead us.

  5. ‘Liberal suspicion’ of the historicity of the Gospels arises chiefly from their miraculous element. If you grant the possibility of the miraculous, you take a different view of their possible historical worth.
    I see the gospels as first century bioi.

    • Historiography isn’t equipped to assess miracle claims, Brian.

      Even if you allow for miracles, textual analysis shows the gospels to be copied from one another decades after the events described. Comparison with other sources show that the authors weren’t above flat-out invention (such as the supposedly careful historian “Luke” fulfilling the dictates of prophecy by cooking up a census to get Jesus born in Bethlehem — something that’d come as a surprise to both “Matthew” and Josephus).

      • ‘Historiography isn’t equipped to assess miracle claims’ is an oft-repeated comment…that does not stand up to scrutiny.

        Let’s take a contemporary example. A friend of mine had a skiing accident as a teenager which left her with one leg shorter than the other. A couple of years ago she was prayed for, and her shorter leg lengthened.

        It would be perfectly possible to assess the claims made before and after, to interrogate witnesses about what happened. Sure, you could not conclude ‘a miracle happened’, but you could certainly conclude that the situation afterwards was different from the situation before, and that the change that came about had no known scientific explanation.

        The same is true, in principle, with the resurrection and the miracles of Jesus. To suggest otherwise is to make an a priori exclusion of what is possible.

        • “Sure, you could not conclude ‘a miracle happened’, but you could certainly conclude that the situation afterwards was different from the situation before, and that the change that came about had no known scientific explanation.”

          Exactly what I mean, Ian: all evidence-based medicine could say is that “the leg lengthened, and we currently lack an explanation.” Out of interest, has a peer-reviewed paper been published on the lengthening in question?

          On the resurrection, E.P. Sanders summarizes the historiographical perspective nicely: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” I wish someone had informed N.T. Wright of the categorical issue before he wrote his doorstop: would’ve saved him much labor!

          • But that just betrays Sanders’ own prejudices. The ‘fact’ that gave rise to the experience was an empty tomb.

            To suggest that a well-testified example of healing like the leg lengthening can merit the comment ‘No known scientific explanation’ requires a prior commitment to limiting reality to that which science can explain, and that alone.

            That might or might not be a justifiable assumption (if it is, I pity your friendships or relationship with a spouse!) but it is just that: an assumption.

        • For one, Josephus, unlike “Luke,” wasn’t anonymous. Josephus was certainly capable of bias, but that doesn’t apply here. He has no apparent motive to fabricate the census date; “Luke” clearly does. On the balance of probabilities, I’d go with Josephus.

          • Josephus has plenty of reason to make his own account seem plausible, and he is clearly inconsistent in his account on other related issues, as his own text shows.

            There are a good number of examples of Luke being thought to be wrong, when archaeology has subsequently confirmed his details.

            So on the balance of probabilities, I think Luke is a better bet.

Leave a comment