All through this week, at 9.45 each morning, Radio 4 is playing abridged excerpts from Professor John Barton’s book The History of the Bible. I have found it quite a mixed bag, with some helpful and interesting insights on the one hand, but also including some unhelpful and skewed opinions expressed as objective assessments (which they are not) mixed in. I previously commented on John Barton’s approach in reviewing an article in the Church Times earlier in the year here.
To supplement those earlier comments, I here republish with permission my friend Jeremy Marshall’s review of the book:
It was the best of times it was the worst of times. It was the best of books it was the worst of books. Such are my views on John Barton’s new book on the Bible, its formation, its effect and its relationship to Christianity and Judaism. Others far more theologically qualified than me can make more technical comments (for example did Luther really say what Barton makes him say? I have seen Lutheran theologians shaking their heads vigorously in other reviews). This is a general review by and for the general reader.
The book has been very well reviewed in the secular press and its certainly worth reading because at the micro level it contains an enormous weight of learning, the product of a life spent studying the Bible.
However, it’s certainly I suggest essential to also disagree strongly with his overall conclusions about the nature and purpose of Scripture. Ian Paul has well expressed his theological concerns on this here https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-is-the-church-of-englands-problem-with-the-bible/.
The worst of times first. John Barton is very open that he is writing from a liberal view—though by appealing to Hooker he tries, unsuccessfully in my view, to bring his line of argument somewhat more within the mainstream of historic Anglicanism.
I am not all convinced that Hooker would have agreed with the rather snide comment Barton makes at the end of the book:
…it is striking how forms of Christianity that still insist on first century period junk survive and flourish. Yet a sizeable body of Christians does think that though the essence of what was taught by Paul remains authoritative, its expression was conditioned by its time and should be reconsidered.
This is telling. It is also telling that the section in the book on the inspiration of scripture (never mind its infallibility) is so short. Thus, we can see from the above, that Barton views the Bible as a human-derived set of teachings, heavily conditioned by their time, from which we can extract the “essence” of Christianity and jettison the “expression”—or even call it junk!
Barton doesn’t explicitly say that but the obvious inference is that biblical teaching that doesn’t culturally fit the values of contemporary culture should be rejected. We, the readers, should place ourselves above Scripture and pick and mix the bits we like, removing the pesky first-century ‘junk’. But the Bible’s view of itself is that it is God-breathed. If there is a God who made the whole universe and everything in it, who chooses to communicate with us through human means, surely he is able to communicate in a way that is authoritative? In other words, if there is a God that he is a God who is “competent to communicate” and we are not engaged in some endless pursuit of divine Chinese whispers where the message has continually being garbled. And can only be interpreted by Oxford dons!
“Mere Christianity” whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant is, as John Barton points out very important. As he points out, of course, we cannot live in a system where absolutely everything taught in the Bible is essential. Nor would anyone sensible argue for that. But, and this is a big “but”, where absolutely basic Christian truth such as the Trinity or the Incarnation can be regarded as adiaphora (things indifferent) as Barton proposes we must strongly object. We must as good Protestants protest! We must I suggest draw a clear distinction between being under the authority of the Bible and imposing our own cultural prejudices on it. Otherwise, we look as someone has said “down the well into the Bible at the bottom and see our own face (and its cultural assumptions) staring back.”
My other beef about the book is that conservative theological research of all types gets very short shrift in the overview of the theological consensus. In the last 50 years, there has been a huge increase in academic research from such a perspective and this is often (though not always) ignored. Especially so I would say (though I defer to others far more knowledgeable than me) in Barton’s treatment of the state of Old Testament scholarship. Ian Paul expands on this in the article above.
Now, it’s true as Barton says, that some fundamentalists want the Bible to be like say a ‘sat nav’, that tells us at each junction which way to turn—a rule book. We turn on the sat nav and off we go. As he rightly points out the Bible is a much much bigger and richer book than that containing many different genres and designed to make us think. And it’s also true—and he is very thought-provoking on this—that Christianity has diverged at time to time from its biblical base. But the Reformed view is that we need to close that gap—to sit under the bible and where we have drifted off “out to sea” (as frequently and perhaps inevitably happens) use the Bible (and not the culture) as the navigation point to “row back to the land”.
Understanding the way that the Bible was written and transmitted is hugely helpful in understanding how we ended up with what we have today. And here though I have to disagree strongly with the macro view held out in the book of what the Bible is for, we can certainly learn a lot from the micro description of how this amazing book came into existence and its relationship to faith.
Just to take one example: the relationship between Judaism and the Bible and especially the way that the latter departed from the former in terms of relying on rabbinical interpretation is extremely well told, as well as the connected interplay between the Hebrew language as it evolved and Aramaic. In addition, the way that Christians often don’t understand Jewish approaches to scripture is illuminating. For example, Barton explains how the Christian view of the Bible’s arc is of a disaster followed by a divine rescue story. For our Jewish friends though “the Bible is not a story of disaster and rescue but much more of providential guidance… of how to live a faithful life (collectively)”. These crucial differences mean that effectively the Hebrew Scriptures are almost different works for Jews and Christians. And this shapes the set up of the Bible in the Jewish faith: it’s not one story pointing to the Messiah but three collections of which one (the Torah) is far more important than the other two. Barton also points out that this wasn’t always the case—for example, the book “Wisdom of Solomon” a work from the first century, well known to Christians, was actually very interested in the fall.
Now of course a scholar or a theologian or a pastor will (hopefully!) know all this anyway but John Barton writes so clearly and well and at a level which can be followed by the interested lay reader (such as me!). There are many other examples of this: for example on the formation of the canon (where he is very orthodox) and the textual transmission. He also makes very astute comments on biblical genres. For example, on the narrative style, he writes “this sophisticated yet laconic style of narration…familiarity with the Bible can blunt our sense of how remarkable it is.”
Maybe there is a popular book written for the secular reader which does something similar but I’m not aware of it. Certainly, Barton fills a gap in the market for a non-Christian looking to understand as it were the history of the Bible. He does it using a methodology which personally I completely disagree with. But while disagreeing at the macro level I learned a lot at the micro one, and I was glad I read it, even though in places you can only roll your eyes!
Finally, the reception and success of the book show I believe a surprising level of openness amongst the general public to looking at the Bible. As the Bible fades into the background from the general culture it acquires a power to shock and influence which its previous familiarity has reduced. We might ponder as evangelicals for example on the extraordinary case of Jordan Peterson, who gives 2- to 3-hour talks and draws millions by lecturing mainly on the Bible, without even being a Christian at all.
There is a growing demand to learn about the Bible and what it says to us today from the general public. It’s a terrible shame that Barton’s huge knowledge and learning—from which we can learn a lot—is rendered far less useful by his blatant liberal biases and methodology. Maybe some great biblical scholar can write a book like this, about the Bible from an evangelical perspective, aimed at the general public?
Jeremy Marshall is a former banker who is living with terminal cancer, and has written about this in his short book Beyond the Big C. Earlier in the year he wrote a guest post about Covid-19 and our fear of death.