Category Archives: Nineham: Use Abuse of Bible


2013-04-20

Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 4 — Theologians Re-Enlist the Biblical God

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Part 3 of this series. . . .

In the previous post we noted the impact of modern historical studies on the traditional view of the Bible as the reliable foundation of Christianity. The problem posed by modern (beginning especially in the nineteenth century) historical methods was that they left large portions of the Bible irrelevant. If God revealed himself in historical events that were the foundation of biblical narratives, and if we could not recover what those historical events really were, then we had a problem.

If the best solution was for scholars to read into biblical accounts “traits and motivations derived from contemporary culture”, then one had to conclude “the impossible”, that the Bible’s religious significance derived in large measure not from the Bible itself but from modern minds! Theoretically there could be as many different interpretations as there were interpreters.

If scientific historical methods were to be applied to the Bible (as many scholars were beginning to apply them in particular to the Old Testament), one had to assume that God did not literally intervene in human affairs to change the course of events.

The only message of the Bible that was left for scholars to pass on was that God was “benevolently disposed” towards the human species,

but nothing more substantial than signals of paternal affection and filial trust and obedience can get through [the window between God and the world to the eye of faith]. (p. 74, quoting T. W. Manson).

The third solution

So Bible scholars were able to bypass the challenge of the natural sciences with relative ease and to meet the challenge of modern historical methods by withdrawing to the bare minimum of what was required of their God to maintain any presence at all among the faithful. But that latter retreat left many of the devout unsatisfied. So there was what Dennis Nineham calls a “third movement”: one that showed God was not just a distant image but a dynamic force in world affairs. This was

a movement back to the Bible which shows God actively doing things in the world to guide history and save men, and offers authoritative interpretations of his actions instead of leaving each man to be his own interpreter. This movement sought to give full weight to its observation that in the Bible historical statements and theological interpretation go closely together. The typical biblical statement, it was argued, is logically of the form: ‘Such and such an event occurred, and it constituted a divine intervention in this world by which God’s redemptive work was carried forward in such and such a respect.’ (p. 74, my bolded emphasis)

English: 100th day of birth of Karl Barth (188...

Karl Barth

 

We begin with arguably the most influential theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth attracted widespread support around the time of the first world war when he expressed dissatisfaction with the view that Bible scholars were, in Nineham’s words, in

unnecessary bondage . . . to the canons of historical study. And that study itself . . . was in bondage to the prejudice that the course of events is always completely uniform, that nothing ever happens for the first time and that nothing can be allowed as having happened in the past of a kind which is not experienced as happening in the present. (p. 75)

In other words, theologians had fallen into bondage to the godless view that the course of battles or public movements can be explained entirely as having human and natural causes.

But that’s not what the Bible says about historical events. If the message of the Bible were even only “partly true” — that God at least sometimes intervenes to disrupt the normal flow of human affairs — then historians were doing “a disastrous injustice to the biblical text.”

We now follow Dennis Nineham as he leads the discussion into a curious direction, yet one well trodden by theologians. He infers that this secular view of how historians view the world derives from a singular and now outdated philosophical school of thought. This view of history, he suggests, can be traced back to Hegel, that is, to philosophical underpinnings that have long since been left behind. Accordingly, all reasonable scholars should, by rights, be fair and give serious consideration to the view that there is a God who intervenes in historical events.

Blaming Hegel read more »


2013-04-15

The Day Theologians Reacted with Great Seriousness — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 3

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Part 2 of this series. . . .

In the previous post we followed the way theologians accommodated themselves to the challenges the natural sciences presented the belief in the infallibility of the Bible. They didn’t find it too difficult. After all, the Bible has very little to say about the structure of the solar system, the age of the earth and biological mutations.

A far more serious threat came from the historians:

When doubts began to be case on the historical statements of the Bible, theologians reacted with great seriousness. (p. 67)

Historical statements are central to the Bible. They are not confined to the opening chapters of Genesis.

Many of these [historical statements] were given great prominence in the Bible, and it was felt that they form the heart of the matter inasmuch as it is in and through the events they report that God principally revealed himself and established his redemptive relationship with the world.

Consequently . . . when the historical statements of the Bible came under fire, theologians reacted with great seriousness, and a great deal of attention was concentrated on them. (p. 67)

Historical studies as we understand them are a very modern development. There have been evolutionary changes in the way history has been approached and I will need to follow up this series with further discussions of the influence of postmodernism in New Testament historiography. For now, however, we need to follow Nineham’s concern that we should understand the character of history in the nineteenth century when it first raised challenges to the Bible.

Modern historical studies are generally attributed to Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).

Barthold Georg Niebuhr aus: Meyers 6. Auflage

Niebuhr

Nineham does not explain Niebuhr’s contribution but it is important so I include this from Wikipedia:

More than all, perhaps, since his conception of ancient Roman story made laws and manners of more account than shadowy lawgivers, he undesignedly influenced history by popularizing that conception of it which lays stress on institutions, tendencies and social traits to the neglect of individuals.

He does encapsulate Leopold von Ranke’s significance:

Deutsch: Leopold von Ranke

von Ranke

von Ranke’s aim [was] to uncover the past . . . ‘as it actually happened‘, in distinction, that is, from the embroideries and tacit interpretations of it in the later sources. In historiography as he and his like understood it, there was a high premium on the discovery and identification of the earliest sources and the discounting so far as possible even in them of all elements of elaboration and Tendenz. (p. 68)

(That famous von Rankean phrase wie es eigenltich gewesen here translated “as it actually happened” has been very often tendentiously misinterpreted quite contrary to its evident meaning in the way von Ranke used it; we see this so often as Tim has been pointing out in his posts: New Testament scholars all too regularly appear to rely upon what they hear others say about the concepts they address without any understanding of what their originators meant. Happily in this passage Nineham is focusing instead on von Ranke’s contribution of a discriminating approach to the sources.) read more »


2013-04-12

Saving the Infallibility of the Bible from the Natural Sciences — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Part 1 of this series. . . .

The traditional use of the Bible

The central point of the previous post was that the Bible came to be viewed as having a singular message that buttressed a comprehensive an entire world view. That is, one’s larger view of the world was believed to rest on biblical authority.

Nineham gives “an example of how such a feeling arose”:

If the Bible spoke of angels, and these were interpreted in what then seemed the only way possible, as a group of hypostases, or entities, then it could easily seem as if the existence of the chain itself was a part of the biblical revelation, or at any rate an indisputable deduction from it. (p. 62)

The challenges of the natural sciences

As we all know, Copernicus and Galileo were the first to challenge seriously the Biblical view of the place of earth amidst the heavens. In the nineteenth century geology and evolutionary biology struck blows at the Bible’s creation narrative. The church’s reactions we also know well:

[I]t is instructive to notice the extent to which, both in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the immediate and passionate reaction of the Church was to try to defend the statements of the Bible in every sphere. (p. 63)

John Keble, 1792-1866.

John Keble, 1792-1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Keble of the nineteenth century has left a useful trivia quote:

When God made the stones he made the fossils in them. (Presumably in order to test the faith of nineteenth century scientists!)

But the Bishop Wilberforces and Philip Henry Grosses could not win. It became increasingly clear, however slowly in some quarters, that flat denial of what the natural sciences had to come to understand was not going to prevail.

The early chapters of Genesis were at stake. The Bible was supposed to be authored by God and incapable of untruths.

Introducing the “true myth” read more »


2013-04-09

Use and Abuse of the Bible – Part 1

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: read more »


2013-03-16

Why Bias is Impossible to Avoid and So Hard to Detect

by Neil Godfrey

Coincidentally just after posting my last article attempting to demonstrate how bias is inevitable in any research, I started reading an expansion of the same idea in Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible.

I will try to minimize the high conceptual jargon and focus on Nineham’s illustrations as he leads the reader step by step into an understanding of the source of our must fundamental and hidden biases. (In all quotations the paragraphing and bolded font is mine. Italics are original.)

To illustrate the way people have rarely been able to distinguish between data or phenomena in the world and their own culturally determined interpretations of it (compare my point in the previous post that some scholars cannot distinguish between raw data and their interpretation of it), Dennis Nineham writes:

Suppose a man lives in a society in which all illness is understood as due to demon-possession. The only questions he will be able to ask about his health — or, mutatis mutandis, about other people’s health — will be: Am I possessed by a demon; and if so, what sort of a demon is it and how can it be expelled?

Because no alternative understanding is available in his community, the symptoms, real of imaginary, which lead him to ask the question will actually be experienced as demonic activity. The pains will feel like a demon biting at his vitals, the rash will be seen as a demon’s claw-marks, and so on. (pp. 4)

Nineham then imagines a slightly more sophisticated situation where the same man lives in a community that permits the existence of an alternative religion that ascribes all sickness to witchcraft.

Even then the understandings of illness available to the man will be limited to these two. He will still not be able, for example, to interpret his symptoms as the end result of a chain of natural causes and effects after the manner of a modern doctor.

What do we mean by “understanding” something?

Nineham then moves to the next point: read more »