As I near the end of nearly seven years of formal training in Bible and theology, I wonder if it means anything. I’ve had enough divine sovereignty hammered into me to know that it will end up meaning something, but I’ve also breathed in enough eschatology and incarnation to know that the present event and the ending up are in constant tension. And there’s no glory gained for the ending up by glossing over the present futility.
“We must follow the evidence where it leads,” a Bible professor of mine once said, “and trust that the truth will be made known.”
I believed in these words for many years. When it came to the Bible, I tried my best to lay my presuppositions aside and follow the evidence where it led, trusting that if God was true and the Bible was his word, then the Bible would be able to bear up under academic scrutiny.
What I didn’t realize then–in those early days when I was drunk on dead poets and the musk of crumbling books–was that my professor’s statement was limited by its own rationalist assumptions and the myth of objectivity that form the philosophical basis of the Western academy. This philosophy assumes that we can follow the evidence without bias to some logical conclusion–to truth, if you will. It advocates a mode of “knowing” that assumes we can submit to truth as discovered through empirical means, and that the truth leads us.
But the evidence itself is siphoned through our own selectivity and assumptions. The evidence may not end up leading us to the truth, but simply back to ourselves. (In a rationalist system, this is a negative thing, for if we inculcate ourselves into truth, it has no authority over us since it stands within us instead of outside us.) Although rationalist philosophy uses the rhetoric of “being led” to the truth by evidence, the idea behind the rhetoric (how the divorce of form and content haunts our words, both confirming and contradicting them) is that we are able to lead ourselves to the truth by the sweat of our intellect, tapping into a higher truth by gaining mastery over it.
In a rationalist system, the ideal is to remove ourselves from the equation so that abstract truth can reign. The system collapses, however, because we are still attempting to know truth by standing outside of it. By trying to stand outside, we set ourselves up as the authority over it. We also abdicate our hope of knowing, for knowledge does not come by standing outside, but stepping within.
So I believed that if I followed the questions raised about the Bible by higher criticism that I would arrive at a fuller understanding of the Bible since I would be able to better understand the messages of the biblical authors in their original contexts. I was persuaded that if I used the proper tools, I would somehow come to see the Bible for “what it is,” since I would be setting the text free to speak on its own terms.
I am now persuaded that the questions lead back to the questioners.
For people of faith, the evidence would lead to scripture’s divine authority (however that authority might be mediated through the limitations and concession of human language and culture). For people of no particular faith but rationalism, the evidence would lead to the Bible as a merely human book sans any divine trace or authority. For the former, the evidence led to a history of revelation (God reaching down to humanity), but for the latter, the evidence led to a history of religion (humans reaching up to God). In both cases, the evidence led back to the assumptions.
The problem that I did not perceive as an undergrad was that the bulk of conversation about the Bible in the academy was had in the context of this rationalist framework, which could only lead back to the Enlightenment illusion of objectivity (with a big helping of functional deism to boot).
My professors seemed to think everything was okay (and so did I). The cultural context of the Bible “properly understood” would lead to a re-affirmation of the Bible as the word of God, mediated in human speech.
But it was that assumption–the presupposition that “proper understanding” came through the tools of grammatical-historical exegesis–that began to become a barrier to actually hearing the word of God. In the early days of my Protestant faith, I did my fair share of harping on the Catholic church of Luther’s day and the monopoly it held on biblical interpretation. Only later did I realize that the rallying cry of ad fontes (“back to the original sources!”) and the development of critical tools for the study of scripture meant that the final authority on interpretation had simply shifted from the Church to the individual scholar (who, through use of the proper linguistic tools, was able to somehow determine the “meaning” of scripture).
These are the tools I have been learning to use for almost seven years now, freighted with all the philosophical presuppositions described above. And for the past two years, I’ve been in a program that’s given me all the ammunition to pick apart the Bible and virtually no theology with which to put it back together.
The grammatical-historical method is founded on distance. The ideal is to disentangle yourself from theological presuppositions–to suspend your history with the text and the God it proclaims–in order to come at it with some sort of disembodied, objective, God’s-eye-view of the thing.
Sometimes I feel like the Israelites staring at the manna, this bread from heaven, asking, “What is it?”
What is it? Just eat it. You’ll see.
“There’s nothing but all this manna to look at.”
So don’t look at it. Eat it. It will nourish you and preserve your life.
“Is YHWH really among us or not?”
But eating is the very thing we must not do with texts. For when we eat, we lose perspective. When we eat this word, letting it live in us, letting it know us, it changes us. We learn to love it instead of interrogating it in the old way.
And if I’ve learned anything in the past seven years, it’s that I mustn’t love this word.