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 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”
However, men’s instinct was not to write off these chapters, but rather to assume that if they did not convey scientific truth they conveyed some other sort . . . (p. 63)
So the task became one of asking what those early chapters are really about and what sort of (God-sanctioned) information they are trying to convey.
So having decided that the Holy Bible was always true at some level, even if not in the exact literal sense (see Part One of this series), the literal truth of Genesis was simply exchanged for an allegorical or metaphorical truth. Truth had to be preserved in some form.
So the “true myth” concept is introduced. Genesis tells mythical stories but since this the Holy Bible they are “true myths”.
Getting comfortable again
This was not too big a problem. After all only a few passages in the Bible were affected. Most remained intact. And those affected passages were concentrated in the Old Testament anyway. The New Testament continued to be interpreted as always.
So believers could readjust the slight discomfort of discovering parts of the Old Testament were not literally true. And the larger world view that the Bible supposedly supported was refashioned, too. Few foresaw any serious problem for the future. The implications of that “minor” shift in the early chapters of Genesis were not generally apparent.
What implications were not yet obvious?
- If the biblical account of the ‘first things’ was a myth, something similar must be said about the Bible’s account of ‘last things’ too and much else — both in the New and Old Testaments.
- The question of the meaning of Genesis (that it was a myth) did not immediately hit readers with its full difficulty. After all, the rest of the Bible could continue to be read and interpreted as it had always been. The natural sciences did not touch much outside the early Genesis chapters. So Genesis itself continued to be
interpreted in terms of the traditional picture of God, men and their relations, and in that context it seemed fairly self-evident what it meant. The meaning of the myth was defined under the influence of orthodox dogma in the way described in the previous lecture [first post]. (p. 64)
No-one (it seemed) stopped to ask how the authors of the Bible knew that this Genesis myth, interpreted in a certain way, was going to convey the “true” meaning of the relations between God and humans.
Much virtue in your ‘really’!
Perhaps the reason traditional attitudes to the Bible and interpretations of it remained in large measure unaffected was that the natural sciences were not seen as central to the Bible’s message. The Bible has relatively little to say about these things and where it does address them they can be rationalized with little difficulty.
People can say in response things like:
The statements in the early part of Genesis cannot be accepted as a true account of what they purport to describe and yet they can prove highly illuminating and suggestive to a sensitive, meditative and informed Christian of today.
Or, one that is particularly attractive to a great many people:
The early chapters of Genesis are not really about matters of cosmology or pre-history; they are really concerned with the world’s total dependence on the creative activity of God.
The statements at the beginning of Genesis were never intended as a factual account of the origin of things; they were intended from the first as a vehicle of religious truths and about man’s relation to his maker.
Nineham wonders if that last statement suggests a sophistication of consciousness that may not have been available to the writers of that time.
The second of the above statements involves more certain difficulties:
Anyone who claims that a document ‘really’ means something different from what it appears to say must be careful to ask himself how he knows and also what he means by the word ‘really’.
The reason this particular “resolution” of the problem of science challenging the Bible is so attractive?
If it is justifiable, it can be extended to any passage which may cause trouble to the modern mind when taken at its face value; and it thus provides a way of maintaining a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. If properly understood — in the sense it ‘really’ bears — every statement in the Bible can be claimed to be true. (p. 65, italics original)
Saving the Bible’s infallibility
With good reason Pope Pius XII asked scholars to consider first the genre of any Biblical passage before attempting to explain it. Obviously this is good scholarly practice, but in the context of the time, Nineham observes, it had another agenda: once the true genre of a passage has been established,
every passage will be found inerrantly true in the mode appropriate to that genre. (p. 66)
Nineham expands on the implication:
The amount of room for manoeuvre afforded by such a position is shown by the fact that an upholder of it could quite logically say of any biblical passage: ‘we cannot in present circumstances be sure what it means; but we can be quite sure that it if we could discover what it meant, what it says would be infallibly true‘. (p. 66)
So paragraph 39 [or 35 in the linked source] of the 1943 papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu begins:
Frequently the literal sense is not so obvious in the words and writings of ancient oriental authors as it is with the writers of to-day.
That is, every passage of the Bible is said to have a literal meaning, and the literal meaning may often be a figurative meaning. (e.g. Christ saying he is a “branch” or “true vine”.)
My own comment: we see a similar approach today when scholars go to great lengths to argue that Jesus and Paul either did indeed teach all the virtues we find so honourable in our modern age, or that though they were limited by the values of their own day, they at least showed signs that they would have changed their minds as they learned as much as we know today.
Faith in the Bible
As Nineham himself points out of such an approach to the Bible:
It demands a quite staggering act of faith in the Bible as a set of writings wholly different from any others ever known, and a correspondingly rigorous, if not mechanical, doctrine of biblical inspiration. True, it has the quality of logical invulnerability. It cannot be disproved . . . .
So much for the challenge of the natural sciences and the first reactions to that. But what happened when the historical claims of the Bible were challenged? That’s the subject of the next post in this series.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
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