There were two interesting articles in the Church Times last week which illustrated well some of the challenges for the church of reading the Bible. The longer one was an interview with John Barton, former professor at the University of Oxford, following the publication earlier in the year of his book A History of the Bible.
At the launch, he explained that his thesis in the book was that “the relation of religion to book is not direct. Problems arise when this is ignored, as the history of interpretation of the Bible so often illustrates.”
This ‘indirectness’ is crucial, and the failure to recognise this is a feature of a range of ‘naive’ approaches to Scripture which treat the text as though it was written in a world like ours. In fact, the world of the human authors of the different parts of Scripture was in some regards very different to the world in which we live, and factoring this in is always an essential part of reading Scripture well. This is amply illustrated by an article a couple of pages earlier, by Ted Harrison, on ‘Divine Numerology’. Harrison points out that the 153 fish caught in John 21 would have a significance in the first century that means nothing to us:
There is one passage in the Gospels which may best be understood in this context: the story of the miraculous draught of fish, when 153 were caught. The meaning of this was immediately apparent to Pythagoreans, members of a religio-philosophic movement based on the teaching of Pythagoras that was undergoing a revival in the first century AD.
The fish were caught on the occasion of Christ’s third appearance to the disciples, known traditionally as the Twelve. If three and 12 are two sides of a right-angled triangle, Pythagoras’s theorem teaches that the hypotenuse is three squared plus twelve squared, which is 153.
Furthermore, it was pointed out by the late Church of Scotland minister and theologian the Revd Dr Gordon Strachan that the square root of 153 — the length of the hypotenuse — was thus 12.37. This is the number of lunar months in a solar year, which would have been known by Pythagoreans, and would have helped to convince them that the Jesus who had performed the miracle was one and the same as the God who created the universe.
Harrison has got his maths a bit muddled here—the length of the hypotenuse is in fact the square root of 153—but the link with Pythagoras is important for reading this as an ancient text. The number 153 has all sorts of interesting mathematical properties, and a number of these were important in the ancient world. The most significant, which Harrison does not mention, is that it is a ‘triangular’ number (think of the 15 red balls in a triangle at the start of a game of snooker), that is, it is the sum of the first 17 integers (and also the sum of the first five factorial numbers). Richard Bauckham links this with wider numerological features of John’s gospel in the final chapter of his book The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, which not all have found persuasive—but it has the virtue of connecting something important in the world of the text with other features of the text itself, rather than being an isolated example.
But John Barton goes on to explain that the ‘indirect’ way the Bible relates to Christian theology and the church is rather more comprehensive than this.
Barton is a Church of England priest as well as a prominent academic. I ask him how he sees the relationship between the Bible and the modern Church. He explains that he sees the Bible “as a resource for the Church, but not a ‘paper Pope’ to answer all our questions. When it speaks, we must listen, but need not agree.”…
“How does the Bible inform your own faith?” I ask. His answer is unexpected: “I believe the Bible contains and imparts a great deal of wisdom, but I tend not to think of it as ‘inspired’, preferring the idea that ‘the Bible tells us what we cannot tell ourselves’, as Lutherans tend to put it — insights we would have been at least very unlikely to arrive at unaided.”
This raises some fascinating questions. The first is whether, even in this comment, Barton is being consistent. If Scripture tells us ‘what we cannot tell ourselves’ (which is in line with the fundamental understanding of Christianity from a phenomenological point of view, that it is a ‘revealed’ religion), then on what basis might we disagree with what it tells us? There is also the interesting question of how this sits with what Barton has said elsewhere; in his much earlier The People of the Book (1988) he comments along these lines:
The value of the Lord’s own sayings for understanding and recognizing his divine authority does not depend on the fact that they appear in the pages of Christian holy books, but derives from the fact that Jesus actually said them… (p 39)…The Bible matters … because it is the earliest and most compelling evidence that Jesus rose from the dead… (p 40) [The Bible is] a trusted friend, on whose impressions and interpretations of an important event or experience we place reliance… (p 45).
He does qualify this somewhat, in suggesting that we understand revelation ‘far less as the direct communication of information by God, and far more as the fruit of an encounter into which the Biblical text leads us.’ (p 72) but I don’t think many thinking readers of Scripture would disagree with this. (Thanks to Peter Thomas for these quotations).
The difficulty with Barton’s position in rejecting the idea of ‘inspiration’ is that it goes against not only what Scripture seems to claim for itself, but what mainstream Christian thinking has consistently understood. The classic biblical text on this is of course 2 Tim 3.16: ‘All scripture is God-breathed [theopneustos] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…’ The metaphor underlying this is the speech of God carried on the breath or Spirit of God; try speaking and breathing in at the same time and you will see the force of the image! Sceptics will point out that internal claims made by a book about itself tell us nothing—but of course that ignores the fact that the canon of scripture has developed layer upon layer over time. The ‘Scripture’ that Paul is referring to here is what we now call the Old Testament; those who received and circulated this letter of Paul then recognised that God was speaking in the same way through this writing of Paul as God had spoken in the former scriptures, so added this to their collection of authoritative texts.
Barton clearly wants to avoid seeing this as implying some sort of rigid ‘verbal inspiration’ theory of the Bible, and so he includes criticism in his comments of ‘hardline biblicists’:
In this respect I wish more hardline biblicists in the Church of England would accept Luther’s principle that what is authoritative in the Bible is ‘what promotes Christ’ (was Christum treibet; quod Christum urget), which allows us to criticise, as he did, even books that are in the canon.
I am not sufficiently well versed in Luther to offer a comment here, but the idea that Luther would have constructed a picture of Jesus from the gospels and then used that to separate the wheat from the chaff in Paul and other NT writings seems scarcely credible, quite apart from the major questions this raises about the formation of the canon. Surely Augustine’s approach to the centrality of Christ in reading Scripture offers a better understanding:
Christ, our Moderator, having spoken what He judged sufficient, first by the Prophets, then by his own lips, and afterwards by the Apostles, has besides produced the scripture, which is called canonical, which has paramount authority and to which we yield assent in all matters. (City of God, XI, 3)
As is often the case, Barton reaches for Richard Hooker, ‘the nearest the Church of England has to a ‘founding’ Reformer, which he wasn’t’ (which raises the question, why not look to Cranmer…?) to protect ourselves against ‘claiming too much for Scripture’. Hooker is often brought into such debates, and the interpretation of his understanding is much disputed. But in this key quotation, he hardly appears to be qualifying the claims that Scripture makes on us:
Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next where-unto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V 8.2)
There is no sense here that we are free to disagree with scripture and set aside what we do not like; rather, Scripture has primary place, and only where there is lack of clarity or uncertainty do we need to reach in turn for ‘reason’ and then ‘the voice of the Church’. I think most thinkers about interpretation would now want to reconfigure the relationship between these three, so that ‘reason’ (how we use all the information at hand to make sense of the text) and ‘tradition’ (how previous generations have made sense of the text) function as the two ‘lenses’ by which we read (hence the picture above of a pair of binoculars with a Bible).
But the language Barton uses offers quite a different picture. As a biblical scholar, he seems to describe himself as an autonomous and authoritative agent, standing above the text and to one side of the Christian tradition in making assessment as to whether this Bible is correct in the things that it claims. In this sense, he standing squarely in the tradition of Liberal Protestant thinking, based on Enlightenment assumptions about the primacy of reason, and including an understanding of the self going back to Descartes. This was the dominant mode of thinking when I first studied theology in the 1980s, and the thing I found most frustrating about this tradition was how uncritical it was about its own assumptions in taking a ‘critical’ approach to the Bible. This is illustrated in the earlier review of Barton’s book in the Church Times by Anthony Phillips, also someone standing four-square in the Liberal Protestant tradition (who happened to be the chaplain of my college in Oxford when I was an undergraduate). He welcomes all of Barton’s conclusions—that no OT writings go back beyond the 9th century BC, that the NT thought-world is ‘thoroughly Hellenistic’, that Paul’s theology ‘differs considerably from what later became Christian orthodoxy’, that we cannot really be certain about anything claimed for the gospels, ‘let alone in attributing material to Jesus’, that the formation of the canon fundamentally changed the nature of the NT documents, and that the existence of textual variants ‘rules out any appeal to the exact wording of biblical sayings’. In fact, on every one of those issues, there is much debate; the positions of Barton that Phillips mentions are highly contested, and in fact scholarship has mostly moved against these ideas in the last forty years; and I think I would disagree with every one of them.
I think it was F F Bruce who said, at the beginning of his 1983 book The Hard Sayings of Jesus, that there are sayings which are hard because they are difficult to understand or make sense of. But there are other sayings which are hard because, being easy to understand, they are difficult to accept and live out. It does seem that the major problem that the Church of England has with the Bible is of the second kind, rather than the first.
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