2013-04-09

Use and Abuse of the Bible – Part 1

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

useabusebibledennisnineham-e1364031520159

Dennis Nineham, The Use and Abuse of the Bible

There are many useful and interesting insights into the way the Bible has come to be (mis)used by scholars and laity alike in Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible (1976).

One cameo that attracted my attention (over half way through the book) was what Nineham had to say about the New Testament evidence for Christian origins. Being consistent with his opening arguments Nineham acknowledges that we know nothing of the “history” behind the mythical narrative of the “Christ event” in the Gospels. All we know “historically” is that, whatever the historical or biographical reality of Jesus was, it must have been remarkable enough to spawn new communities imbued with a whole new sense of the divine.

The bottom line of the argument is this:

  • Christians appeared on the historical landscape.
    • And we “know” from the Gospels that the first Christians were transformed from fear and weakness to a people of courage and dynamism as a result of what they proclaimed to be the resurrection.
  • Therefore, God had done “something” (we don’t know what, exactly) most remarkable in the life of Jesus Christ in order to have caused this emergence of Christian communities.

One might think that the hypothesis is thus declared true because faith in God and the Bible permits no other hypothesis. (Nineham writes as a Christian and makes clear that his belief in God is bound up in his belief in “the Christ event”.) That’s not how Nineham explains it, however.

Non-Christian scholars of earliest Christianity today sometimes echo a mundane (cynical?) version of this argument: There can be no better explanation for the origins of Christianity than a failed life of yet another common healer/exorcist, preacher of platitudes and false prophet. (This latter explanation probably requires a greater miracle to make it work than the Christian explanation.)

True, Nineham does make passing mention of “extremists” who have proposed alternative hypotheses, but he dismisses these as quickly as he mentions them because the conventional wisdom does not accept their views. Ironically, in the first chapter of his book, “Cultural Change and Cultural Relativism”, he explains clearly why unconventional hypotheses, in particular those that affect the way we view the Bible, have such a hard time being taken seriously.

Before addressing the details of Nineham’s argument relating to Christian origins I’ll highlight some of his main insights into the ways the Bible has come to be misread and misused, and why, up to his own day.

Traditional use of the Bible

We know the Bible has for centuries been regarded as a sacred book, invested with infallible authority, wrapped in a mysterious quality and virtual sanctity. Its formal title accordingly Holy Bible.

What does this mean, exactly? These are the particular beliefs that have long accompanied readers of the Bible since late antiquity:

  • Cabanel-Monk-Reading-the-BibleIt was produced by God — God was its author.
  • Thus it contains no errors in any passage.
  • Every passage must have some meaning — because it’s God’s book and he would not inspire frivolous content; everything is there for some purpose and has some truth to reveal.
  • Thus there is no real need to take notice of any human author’s historical situation — or even of the historical and social context of the books.
  • Every passage has a meaning but it need not be the obvious literal sense. It can be allegorical or other figurative sense. (It has been said that “allegory saved the Scriptures for the Church.”)
  • Thus Christians of a pre-critical period felt no need to be bound by literal statements of bible.
  • Generally, though, Bible was the authority on history and science as well as faith and morals — it was viewed as Truth guaranteed by divine inspiration.

Nineham points to the primary result of the above premises. This is

the belief that every biblical passage has what may be called a factual reference and meaning, and that if these references are all correctly read off and put together they will form a coherent account of things, which may fairly be described as the meaning of the Bible. Orthodox dogma was in fact an attempt to formulate such an account; and being a Christian meant accepting that account and endeavouring to live in the light of it. (p. 49, my bolded emphasis)

Thus, if the Bible spoke of Christ expelling demons, then it followed for the Bible believer that demons really exist; if the Bible spoke of a Messiah “coming into the world” then it followed that there really is a supernatural Messiah from heaven who did enter into a life on earth.

So each passage was studied for its literal sense and all of these meanings were put together into some sort of “single coherent corpus of information.”

The wider frames of reference

Early Christianity developed in close association with the dominant philosophical outlooks of the day — Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism principle among them. These philosophical outlooks provided believers with fundamental metaphysical themes through which to interpret their faith. Accordingly the Church of the Middle Ages, followed by Protestantism, took over the following world views:

  • Reality was dual: there was this world that one could see, and there was the other world, hidden, that was in some way responsible for the existence of this material world. These two worlds interact. Things done in this world had the power to impact on what happened in the other.
  • Reality was ordained in a hierarchy of chain of being, with every component — God, angels, humans, animals, rocks . . . — having their divinely appointed place.

Thus the death of Christ was of supreme significance not because of any natural effects it had on people in this world, but because of the changes it wrought in the supernatural realm of that other world. God chose to forgive people.

Two results flowing from all this

1. Comprehensive system of knowledge, the meaning of the Bible

Christianity in the West was influenced by philosophical traditions that sought to create tidy, systematic views of everything. It was natural to read the Bible’s statements and place them, likewise, into a coherent system or account of things. This was then taken to be the meaning of the Bible.

The only question was whether this should be limited to subjects the Bible directly addressed or be applied more widely. In practice what was attempted was to find compatibility between biblical and extra-biblical authorities. The biblical data was combined with other philosophical knowledge to create ‘comprehensive systems of universal knowledge.’

Where there was conflict, however, then of course the Bible trumped any other knowledge.

2. The function and fruit of exegesis

Another consequence was that biblical exegesis took on a very specific function:

Given these presuppositions, the ‘meaning’ of a biblical passage could only be some statement or statements which fitted into the overall system derived from Christian and non-Christian sources. Thus exegesis was understood essentially as the translation of biblical statements into the categories of that form of the dominant philosophical tradition which appealed most to the exegete doing the work. (p. 53)

We can see how such an approach led to much distortion, but then it was taken for granted as the only way.

These exegetes

performed their task so skilfully that by the end of the fifth century there emerged a widely accepted and authoritative formulation of Christian truth couched in current philosophical categories . . . the Trinity, the Incarnation and the rest. (p. 53)

These doctrines then came to be understood as expressions of the meaning of the Bible:

[T]hey inevitably provided both a framework of reference and also an ultimate criterion for all subsequent exegesis. Anyone, for example, interpreting the New Testament passage which referred to ‘the Son’, now started from the conviction that the reference was to the Second Person of the Trinity as defined at Nicaea and Chalcedon. . . .

This inevitably led to a few passages in the Bible not fitting quite perfectly so special attention had to be given to understanding the “correct” way to interpret these. The references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters needed special interpretation in order to conform to the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity; Jesus’ saying that his Father was greater than he (John 14:28) needed special elucidation in the light of the Trinity.

Timeless validity and truth

Dennis Nineham reasons that since the philosophical tradition generally emphasized analysis and systematization of knowledge and ideas at the expense of experimental approaches and radical innovation, and since this approach essentially continued unchanged from ancient through to relative recent times, there was embedded an assumption that

  1. certain methods of interpretation were timelessly valid, and
  2. statements could be timelessly true

Consequently everything in the Bible could be assumed to be timelessly true in some sense, if only the sense could be discovered.

As for the ethical teaching in the Bible, or at least in the New Testament, these were also taken as binding in all ages and all circumstances.

In the next post I’ll look at Dennis Nineham’s discussion of what happened in the nineteenth century in particular when the natural sciences and historical understanding challenged the above traditions and how Bible scholars responded to these respective challenges.

–oo0O0oo–

Meanwhile, here are two more interesting tidbits from an earlier chapter of this book:

Even the most outstanding human being

This one is for those who believe that God has made astonishingly radical innovations in human affairs through solitary human agents.

It must be recognized that even the most outstanding human being can conceive and communicate only relatively modest changes of outlook. So limited are the measures of man’s mind that no individual, or even group of individuals, can in their lifetime envisage more than a limited revision of the position they inherited; and if per impossibile they could envisage more, their contemporaries would not be able to comprehend it.

The thunderings of a great prophet may demand changes which appear radical, and in comparative terms are radical. Yet when viewed from a historical perspective, what was demanded — however great its eventual implications — will be found to have left the greater part of the status quo unchallenged and unchanged.

We can see this if we consider the achievements of men who are generally regarded as having been responsible for major changes of outlook, men like Mohammed, Martin Luther or Karl Marx. It implies no underestimate of their real achievements to insist that what they left unchallenged in the presuppositions of their times was far, far more than anything they challenged or changed. From our perspective the chief impression made by Luther, for example, is that of a late medieval theologian, while Karl Marx strikes us in many ways typical middle-class nineteenth-century German intellectual who took over a great deal of Hegel’s philosophy and a lot more of the generally accepted ideas of his period and class. Even the most revolutionary thinker must speak — and think — in the language of his day . . . . (pp. 13-14, bold emphasis mine)

Miracles are not what they used to be

[T]he very concept of a miracle has changed significantly. So long as the universe was thought of as being directly and continually under the personal control of God, the line dividing the miraculous from the normal was relatively thin. . . . [I]t was only to be expected that while God would often move the universe in a regular way, as a man moves his body rhythmically when walking across country at a regular pace, he would want occasionally — for reasons which approved themselves to him, even if men could not understand them — to move the world in an exceptional way, just as the man may suddenly take a flying run in order to leap over a stream, comprehensibly to a distant onlooker who cannot see the stream.

As defined in terms of modern presuppositions, however, the word miracle takes on a greatly heightened meaning. That is . . . because in the light of our modern understanding of the physical universe as an impersonal interlocking system, a miracle would entail an exercise of divine power on a far vaster scale than previously periods envisaged. . . . . To believe now in the halting of the sun, or for that matter the raising of Lazarus, is to hold a quite different belief from that which was held by the biblical writers. (pp. 32-33, bold emphasis mine)

English: Joshua commanding the sun to stand still

English: Joshua commanding the sun to stand still (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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18 Comments

  • Don E. Stephens
    2013-04-10 02:23:35 UTC - 02:23 | Permalink

    Hi Neil:

    Regarding this bit:

    “There can be no better explanation for the origins of Christianity than a failed life of another common healer/exorcist, preacher of platitudes and false prophet. (This latter explanation probably requires a greater miracle to make it work than the Christian explanation.)”

    Why so? Joseph Smith would seem to fit the bill in all four elements: failed life, less than impressive miracles, bloated preaching, false prophet. I have read the claim (I believe in Not The Impossible Faith by R. Carrier) that Mormonism’s growth in its short existence exceeds what the evidence supports for growth of the early church. I have also heard Robert Price claim that Mormonism continues to grow at a rate that, if unchecked, will make it the new face of Christianity in another century. Yet Joseph Smith’s shortcomings are as widely known. His probably accurate reputation is nothing to be proud of, yet the movement of people who normally address him by the sanctified title “The Prophet” grows steadily. Why would it be cynical to imagine something similar for the origins of Christianity?

    Don

    • 2013-04-10 04:40:42 UTC - 04:40 | Permalink

      Joseph Smith did not become the central figure of worship whom followers exalted to be an emanation of God Himself and the one who sustains the universe and through whom God created the universe and who is the very wisdom of God for believers living in them and they in him. Mormons are not baptized into Joseph Smith and they do not ritually eat his flesh and drink his blood for salvation.

      Had Joseph Smith started a religion like that you would have a good comparison and have a strong point.

      • 2013-04-10 19:41:54 UTC - 19:41 | Permalink

        How about Shabbetai Zvi then? Or more recently, Menachem Mendel Schneerson?

        Both of these have even had adherents later on go as far as deifying them.

        • 2013-04-11 04:47:34 UTC - 04:47 | Permalink

          I don’t know a great deal about these names but the questions to ask are to what extent they may be seen as parallels to the model for Christian origins. Simply being deified doesn’t cut it. Roman emperors were deified, even in their own life-times.

          Did they start new religions? Did their following extend from a handful of immediate disciples and manage to go out and persuade others at a steady rate so that they grew into a powerful new institutional religion? Or did they remain figureheads of a small band of followers who remained a minority sect in a mainstream religion.

          Divinity is one thing — Heracles was made divine. So, too, Romulus. But they were never exalted to a status beside the supreme God and acknowledged as the creator of the entire universe who sustained the universe by their very existence. People used to eat sacred meals in honour of the dead, but in the case of the two individuals you name I doubt devotees believed their salvation depended on consuming their very bodies or essences in some sense.

          Single point comparisons (e.g. both are divine) can be made with many other religious and mythical belief systems. But they don’t work as models that are meant to shed light on the story that is offered for Christian origins.

  • 2013-04-10 03:24:49 UTC - 03:24 | Permalink

    NG, its the posts like this that I enjoy greatly. The muslim thing just ends up being a giant moshpit. Just saying.

    • 2013-04-10 04:43:54 UTC - 04:43 | Permalink

      The Muslim thing is important. These posts are just a hobby.

    • 2013-04-10 05:27:21 UTC - 05:27 | Permalink

      At first I misread “moshpit” as “mopshit.” The latter is more what it felt like on the Vridar side of things.

      • 2013-04-12 04:52:14 UTC - 04:52 | Permalink

        I believe in the original Hebrew “mah-hash-pit” can be actually be alleghorical to those who use mops, or bring mops to that tribal ceremony. Whether or not shit was encountered (or perhaps even a required component) could be ultimately unanswerable.

  • RoHa
    2013-04-10 10:13:41 UTC - 10:13 | Permalink

    “•Christians appeared on the historical landscape.

    ◦And we “know” from the Gospels that the first Christians were transformed from fear and weakness to a people of courage and dynamism as a result of what they proclaimed to be the resurrection.

    •Therefore, God had done “something” (we don’t know what, exactly) most remarkable in the life of Jesus Christ in order to have caused this emergence of Christian communities.”

    All we know is that Christian communities emerged. We do not know why.

  • Bob Moore
    2013-04-10 11:28:09 UTC - 11:28 | Permalink

    Nineham: To believe now in the halting of the sun” is indeed “exercise of divine power on a far vaster scale than previous periods envisaged.”

    This brought to mind my 1968 Bible College hermeneutics class where the professor discussed Joshua’s sun-standing-still in terms of a less “vast scale” of intervention. The professor explained that we should consider that the words for, “stand still” might also be rendered, “remain silent”, in which case other more reasonable interpretations might apply. This gave me some hope that the Bible might be a tad more reasonable, but I had the nagging sense that the plain sense of the text was against such an interpretation.

    The professor was Larry Hurtado, a 1965 graduate of our Central Bible College, who was recently back to teach there after getting an additional degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    • 2013-04-10 12:58:50 UTC - 12:58 | Permalink

      “. . . other more reasonable interpretations might apply.”

      What would it mean for the sun to “remain silent”?

      • Bob Moore
        2013-04-10 21:25:15 UTC - 21:25 | Permalink

        Hurtado suggested that the sun’s silence might be seen as its being made dark by clouds or an eclipse.

        • 2013-04-11 04:09:26 UTC - 04:09 | Permalink

          That makes no sense.

          And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. (Joshua 10:13)

          The story isn’t about the sun going dark or behind the clouds — it’s about having enough daylight to kill all your enemies. It might have been easier, certainly quicker, for Yahweh to come down and do battle himself.

          Why do you think Hurtado wants to make logical sense out of an ancient myth? I can’t see any point to it.

          • Bob Moore
            2013-04-11 12:05:27 UTC - 12:05 | Permalink

            Tim, I agree it dose not make enough sense. I was really beginning to see, in 1968, that science was challenging our teachers with the need to make the Bible more feasible while continuing to hold to inerrancy. I think CBC is still devoted to the traditional use (and misuse) of the Bible. Hurtado was barely 24 years old and was there for only two years. Maybe he has long since moved on to a Nineham-like position where his belief in God is bound up in his likely belief in “the Christ Event”. But, does Nineham take that event to be linked to a historical Jesus as does Hurtado?

            • 2013-04-11 15:41:11 UTC - 15:41 | Permalink

              But, does Nineham take that event to be linked to a historical Jesus as does Hurtado?

              Yes, Nineham does. How he arrives at that conclusion is a wonder to behold that I will address in the final of this series.

  • Pingback: Saving the Infallibility of the Bible from the Natural Sciences — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 2 | Vridar

  • 2013-04-12 16:31:43 UTC - 16:31 | Permalink

    Quite good, Neil. I particularly got a kick out of this part–laughed a number of times while reading it:

    It was produced by God — God was its author.

    •Thus it contains no errors in any passage.

    •Every passage must have some meaning — because it’s God’s book and he would not inspire frivolous content; everything is there for some purpose and has some truth to reveal.

    •Thus there is no real need to take notice of any human author’s historical situation — or even of the historical and social context of the books.

    •Every passage has a meaning but it need not be the obvious literal sense. It can be allegorical or other figurative sense. (It has been said that “allegory saved the Scriptures for the Church.”)

    •Thus Christians of a pre-critical period felt no need to be bound by literal statements of bible.

    •Generally, though, Bible was the authority on history and science as well as faith and morals — it was viewed as Truth guaranteed by divine inspiration.

  • 2013-04-12 16:34:19 UTC - 16:34 | Permalink

    Nineham is a very insightful person in several ways, however.

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