How we read and understand the Bible has great implications for how we view the Christian faith. Those who read the Bible as literal history (those who consider themselves to be fundamentalist Christians) will take away very different meaning from the stories in the Bible than those of us who understand that these stories are in part human theological reflections on who God is and what God wants for God’s creation.
Marcus Borg writes that this conflict in interpretation is “the single greatest issue facing Christians today.”
The conflict about the Bible is most publicly visible in discussion of three issues. First, in some Christian circles, ‘creation versus evolution’ is the primary litmus test of loyalty to the Bible. The second issue is homosexuality: May practicing gays and lesbians be full members of the church? May the unions of gays and lesbian couples be blessed? May gays and lesbians be ordained? This debate is often cast in the form of accepting or rejecting biblical authority.
A third lightning rod for the conflict is contemporary historical Jesus scholarship. For the least decade, the quest for the historical Jesus has attracted widespread media attention and public interest, especially among mainline Christians. But it has generated a strong negative reaction among fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical Christians. From their point of view, questioning the historical factuality of the gospels strikes at the very founds of Christianity.
- Reading The Bible Again For The First Time
Richard D. Nelson writes that the Bible is a form of literature that can be called “historiography” - writing whose function is to “narrate the past and to make judgments about it.” He calls this process of writing “an ideological and interpretative enterprise” and believes there are three levels worth noting in the process of writing such literature:
Selection: Which events and people are worth the reader’s notice? Which incidents made a difference in the course of events? Which may be ignored as inconsequential?
Organization: Historiography characteristically imposes some sort of structure on the past and provides links between events.
Drive To Establish Patterns of Causation: What circumstances and causes brought about the events described? What later events and states of affairs did they produce in return?
Nelson is careful to note that saying the Bible is not literal history is not the same thing as saying the Bible is fiction. Authors putting oral traditions into writing had to work with stories that were familiar with their audiences, Nelson writes. The writer could “not ignore or deform these stories out of recognizable shape.” Walter Brueggemann thinks of it this way: “What we have in the Old Testament, rather than reportage, is a sustained memory that has been filtered through many generations of the interpretative process, with many interpreters imposing certain theological intentionalities on the memory that continues to be reformulated.”
Biblical Witness is a small movement in the United Church of Christ that is concerned with what they see as “the UCC’s theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture.” They reject modern biblical scholarship and suggest that churches within their movement seek ministers trained in more conservative seminaries outside of the UCC tradition. They feel so strongly about their beliefs that they seek with intention to undermine the UCC through their actions. The work of Biblical Witness is a clear example of how interpreting the Bible can create radically different theological world views. It also illustrates how important it is to make modern scholarship accessible to lay people that do not have the benefit of formal theological training.