The Flames of Criticism
The underlying question about the Bible and our faith is not about whether or not it is inerrant, infallible, objective, or absolute. The underlying question is, can we handle it if it's not. I think that so often we pigeonhole the Bible and our faith into categories that and interpretations that undermine the truest things about it. In his book The Moral Teaching of Paul, Victor Paul Furnish talks about the issues that come when we look at the Bible, specifically at Paul's teachings, as a "sacred-cow."
"Some people believe, or at least read the Bible as though they believed, that scripture is the written deposit of God's truth, mediated through inspired writers in centuries, but valid in both general and specific ways for all times and places. This may be called the sacred-cow view of the Bible. It leads to the conclusion, when applied to the concrete ethical teachings of Paul, that they are in fact God's commandments and thus eternally and universally binding. They are not to be touched, disturbed, or in any sense explained away. They are to be taken at face value. ...The fundamental problem with this way of approaching the Bible... is the fact that such an approach seriously misrepresents the understanding and intentions of the biblical writers themselves."In other words, we've codified and canonized the teachings of the Bible in isolation from the particularities of the specific contexts in which they were originally expressed, and all this in the name of objective clarity and "inerrancy." We've taken an incarnational text, fully and authentically human in its revelation of divine truth, and dehumanized it. In doing so we have undermined the true nature of its inspiration. As a result, we've become afraid or at least hesitant to apply scholarly contextual criticism, i.e. an actual interrogation of historical context, if ever it may result in the realization that our initial face-value interpretation has been wrong all along. For instance, we worry about picking and choosing which passages to diligently examine in their original context, which passages we should question, and which passages we should simply take as they are. You've likely heard it before, "the Bible says it and that settles it." The real answer is that we should question ALL of it, hold all of it under historical scrutiny, and allow all of it to burn in the flames of reality in order to, as Peter Rollins says it, "discover what, if anything remains."
Holding the Bible in the light of its own humanity is a risky move indeed. It means that what seems so simple might actually be extremely complex and what we've made so complicated might actually be very simple. It means that we'll actually have to open ourselves to the cross pattern. Jesus opened himself to the possibility, indeed the reality, of utter defeat and downright forsakenness. The cross pattern of Biblical interpretation is to crucify the Bible itself, to allow it to be stripped and beaten, questioned and mocked--to allow the Bible to endure all the scrutiny we can muster in order to see what, if anything still stands. But like Peter, we pull out our swords and try to defend the scripture from scrutiny. We are no more certain that the Bible will withstand the heat of criticism than the disciples were that Jesus would raise from the dead. But Jesus did raise from the dead and in faith we may discover that the Bible can handle whatever questions we might throw its way. As Peter defended Jesus with violence, so we defend scripture with certainty and thereby undermine the very reason it is with us in the first place.
It will be a painful process. It's never comfortable to be exposed to the possibility that something you hold dear might be taken from you. It's never natural to consider, even for the sake of spiritual growth, that everything we know could be wrong. The flames of uncertainty and criticism are hot but as with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, if we are faithful we may just find that we are free to dance in the fire and that we are joined there by the mysterious God of truth. Every time I have done the difficult task of questioning my own understanding, criticizing the book I hold so dear, and allowing for the possibility that the Bible may not be saying what I think its saying or that the authors were talking from a completely different vantage point than the one I had anticipated, or even that the author may indeed be mistaken in their teaching, I have come out the other side more alive than I was before. Resurrection follows the cross.
So let us be free to burn our sacred temples, to allow for the possibility of defeat, to faithfully offer the Bible into the hands of the scholars and the critics with faith and trust that it can dance in the fire and that whatever remains will be good news. Let us enter into the flames and discover that God is not only in that which remains, but also in the flames themselves.