How should we read the Bible? While it is an ancient book, it is also foundational to the belief systems of two religions and influencing a third. This collection of writings which call Scripture emerged in what we might call an enchanted age, but we read it today in the context of a disenchanted age. Questions are constantly raised about its historicity, reliability, and authority. Millions continue to regard it highly, but how should it be read? Should we read the Bible as we would any other book? If we do, what should be the basis of that reading? What kind of book is it? After all, we apply different rules to fiction and nonfiction genres. Standing in the midst of this discussion is whether we can hear a word from God emerging from the pages of this ancient book. As a preacher, I have an interest in the way we answer these questions, because each week I stand in a pulpit and base my message in what I read in that book.
R.W. L. Moberly, professor of theology and biblical interpretation at Durham University in Britain, takes up these questions. While affirming the premise that we should read the Bible as we read other books, he asks a further question that too often we neglect to pursue. That question is, if the Bible is read like other books, on what basis do we privilege it?
I wasn't sure what to make of the book at first. He starts off with a conversation about the way we speak of dates. The common version today is BCE and CE, but he finds this problematic and offers his own system, which I didn’t find all that convincing. But, as I moved through the book, he drew me into the conversation, and provided important insight into this give and take between the way we read the Bible as a book and the reverence Christians give the Bible. In many ways his view of things is like that of Brevard Childs. He accepts the tools of the historical critical method but recognizes that this only gets us part of the way to the meaning of the text for the church today.
One reason I found the book compelling is that I am a member of a tradition that was born of the Enlightenment on the American frontier. Alexander Campbell believed that we should read the Bible as we read any other book. In principle, I have embraced Campbell's vision, which has invited Christians at large to read and interpret Scripture for themselves. At the same time, he made assumptions, that no longer hold, making it more difficult to read scripture in the way Campbell did. He assumed a clarity that we have discovered is not there. Although the disenchantment was underway, it had not made itself fully felt. That leads to a question of how we frame our reading/interpretation of Scripture. For a tradition that eschews creeds and affirms the priority of the individual reader, that could cause difficulties when it comes to affirming the trustworthiness of the word being engaged.
We live in an age when scholars have tested the Bible using the historical critical method and have given priority to the world behind the text, according value more to what is considered historical than what is not (consider the Jesus Seminar). As scholars privilege the world behind the text, seeking to find the historical kernels upon which to judge the book, we need to ask whether this is the best approach to this text. Perhaps we should not read it as if it is a book of history. It may contain history, but that is not its primary purpose. Perhaps we should read it as a classic, like we would Virgil's Aeneid or Homer's Iliad? We accord classics a certain respect because of their longevity and influence, but we don’t expect the Aeneid to give us a reliable history of the formation of the Roman Empire. That leads us to a third category, that of Scripture. Do we privilege it because it serves as an authoritative sacred text? If so, should we pay greater attention to the world within the text than the world behind the text?
Moberly raises the question of what it means to read the Bible as a historical account, but quickly moves on to whether we should read it as a classic. In this case, he explores the question by comparing Daniel 7 with Aeneid 1. Both passages, one from Scripture and the other from one of the great classics of the ancient world share a vision of divine providence. The Aeneid expresses a vision Rome as the eternal kingdom, as established by Jupiter. Daniel offers a different vision of God’s realm, one that is anti-imperial, and assumes the authority and power of Yahweh. There are similarities between the visions. Both posit divine involvement. The question is, why do we privilege Yahweh over Jupiter? He asks us to consider the question: "If the Bible is to be interpreted like any other book, why should the biblical deity not be understood like any other deity?” (p. 29). Why Yahweh instead of Jupiter? Moberly shows us in the course of the book that the Aeneid continued to receive respect for its imperial vision, long after Jupiter left the scene. Early Christian leaders, seeking to understand the relationship of the church the Empire found in the Aeneid a powerful vision that could be claimed even if Jupiter no longer played a role in the story. As the empire broke apart, the Aeneid lost its power, even if it continued to be seen as a classic. But what of the Bible, why do we still accord it respect and honor in a disenchanted age?
In part this has to do with plausibility structured. We have created a context in which to receive the Bible. That is the church, which continues to honor and authenticate its word. That doesn’t require that we read it as if it is inerrant (that is a modern concept), but we assume that it gives voice to God’s purpose. In addition, the Bible has stood the test of time. Again, this doesn't prove its divine foundation, but it does give some credibility.
Now, there continue to be challenges to the privileging of the Bible. Moberly addresses the challenge of Richard Dawkins, who would like to throw the Bible on the scrapheap of history. Moberly does an excellent job of demonstrating that Dawkins has a deficient view of God. It simply doesn't fit how Christians understand God. Dawkins wants to test the theory of God’s existence scientifically, but Moberly shows how Dawkins vision of God is stuck in the eighteenth century with William Paley’s “Watchmaker God.” He writes that “the significant initial evidence in relation to faith and the Bible may have more to do with the quality of certain people’s lives and actions than with a persuasive argument that, say, John’s Gospel shows a good, historically accurate knowledge of the city of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus and that Jesus’ very own words might still be discerned within their Johannine phraseology” (p. 134).
Moberly has no problem with the historical-critical method. It has its place. But it is insufficient to truly understand the influence and purpose of the Bible. It has aspects of history and can be read as a classic, but it is as Scripture that it gains power and authority. The reason that we privilege scripture, even in a disenchanted age, is that people hear God’s voice emanating from its pages. It is the world within the text that speaks boldly to our day, not the world behind the text. It’s important to understand that world, because it helps us in our interpretations, but it is not what gives it authority.
This is a winsome book that deserves a close read, so that we might read Scripture well. Moberly helps us attend to both worlds of the text, as well as the world in front of the text, our world. He addresses the questions that deal with reliability and trustworthiness. We cannot fully know what this means, "without a readiness, alongside other believers past and present, to respond, to enter with faith into the content of that witness, and to live and die accordingly." (p. 196). That, I believe is a word to take to heart, and reason to read this book.