Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bible 101: Invitation to Agnosticism

By Joseph Martin

I do not know why people have a hard time understanding the following: believers in Inerrancy do not necessarily believe everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. Never have. Really. To believe the Bible is word for word true is not to believe that the trees literally clap their hands, or that there are four corners of the world, or that Adam's Rib is not just a steak house but also the anatomical artifact from which sprang Woman. On this score the decrees of the early Pontifical Biblical Commission [HERE and HERE] deserve revisiting.

That said, if you gut the Bible of its credibility, no amount of authoritative Church teaching can salvage belief. Witness one reason for the current crisis in Catholicism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is great [Christopher Schonborn's involvement I suppose is a stunning testament to prevenient grace], but still, if the notes in the New American Bible are true, what rube would believe a catechism that relies so heavily on the Bible?

All of this is said as a preface to this linked testimony: Rod Dreher, "She wishes she was still born again" (The American Conservative, May 22, 2014).

People always talk like the problem is Fundamentalists. Or Traditionalists. No, the problem is Modernists. Always has been. Even if they make up the majority of faculty at Notre Dame and Fordham and Catholic U. I recall a best friend, very faithful, pride of the church youth group, who -- poof! -- lost her faith as a college freshman fairly quickly once she took a course in Old Testament. Her mother could not understand how this happened at a "church" college!

The Evangelicals do seem to be the only ones who get the fact that modern Scripture scholarship as currently taught dissolves faith. Even when it is gussied up with assurances from a comfortably less verifiable papal magisterium (see Ignatius Press’ depressingly oblivious [if happily no longer marketed] Scripture introduction The Consuming Fire: A Christian Introduction to the Old Testament,for an example of well-intentioned embrace of critical thought that nonetheless pops the balloon of belief). If the Bible is not very reliable, on what grounds does the Church base its authority? If the historical claims are textually bogus, well, good luck then trying to maintain an authoritative voice. Or maybe that is why there seems to be so little motivation to exercise one.

Are we or are we not confident of the Biblical witness? I am almost afraid to ask that question. And I'd wager Rome would tell us we simply don't need to go there and risk seeming... combative? Meanwhile, however, I would also wager the linked sad story has been replicated in the lives of tens of thousands, prompted our very enlightened and very non-Fundamentalist Catholic Scripture scholars (including the widely referenced Raymond E. Brown). It's an issue I have harped on, but that is because I think it is an issue that is rarely if ever faced honestly.

The last real rumblings I've heard about it were at a conference hosted by Fr. Neuhaus, and that was back in the '80s (and attended by then Cardinal Ratzinger). Those conference addresses are reprinted in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989). Inerrancy was hardly the focus, but a careful reading reveals that the issue of source credibility was certainly raised there. Cardinal Dulles diplomatically commented, "Many have made the point that modern critical exegesis, with all of its methodological self-limitations, has in fact destroyed the credibility of a great deal of church teaching. It does this by saying that Jesus had no messianic or divine self-consciousness, that Jesus was very likely not conceived of a virgin, that we do not have a coherent and consistent account of the Resurrection appearances. At almost every point where faith begins, this historical-critical exegesis falls silent and says, ‘We cannot help you there.'" Another pastor told of “a former colleague, […] a New Testament scholar, [who said]: ‘There was a time when I could read the Bible for devotional purposes. But after a lifetime spent on exegesis, I am no longer able to do so.’" And finally a seminary dean gave what might be the most jarring assessment, saying “We have invented ways of studying the Word of God from which no word of God could possibly come."

We are left with the question that never goes away. Is the Bible trustworthy, reliable, and worthy of our respect as more than some ancient literature esteemed by academics but problematic to honest inquirers? That's a question any non-sleeping Catholic college student is likely to ask. And you don't have to buy into caricatures of Protestant Inerrancy to answer affirmatively, witness C.S. Lewis, Romano Guardini, Fulton Sheed and Frank Sheed -- not to mention the currently toasted Scott Hahn. Christianity, unlike Judaism, "is not a religion of a book." That's an argument you'll frequently hear Catholics invoke against earnest Protestant debate opponents. But Catholicism is hardly a religion that can stand independently of the Bible. But thus far the only book I have found to hand Catholic students in this regard is Peter Kreeft's You Can Understand The Bible: A Practical And Illuminating Guide To Each Book In The Bible,which, perhaps unsurprisingly, sounds almost like it was almost written by an Evangelical.

Related resources (with annotations by Dr. Martin):Jesus Seminar Critically Examined series:Joe Martin is a professor of Communication at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, who prowls the outskirts of the Internet and keeps an eye on the Atlantic surf.


Charles said...

Brilliant piece. Thanks!

DP said...


I'd just add that even where modern Catholic biblical scholarship has defended certain biblical notions (Brown defended the Virgin Birth), the most it will leave you is as a moderately-conservative mainline Protestant.

If you're looking for defenses of Catholic distinctives, the biblical academy act as deserters.