Reading the Bible again – again!

A response to Czech theologian Dan Drapel’s article, ‘Odpověď Johnu de Jongovi‘ (reply to John de Jong)

At the beginning of this year I wrote a short article called Reading the Bible Again which looked very briefly at some of the issues surrounding truth and the Bible. Czech theologian Dan Drapel responded by posting a lengthy article on his website (in Czech) accusing me of treating the whole Bible as a mythical work. This was not my intention, nor is it my belief. I therefore took the time to respond to Dan’s article, and this is reproduced below for those who are interested in such things! (I am sorry I cannot post Dan Drapel’s article here, but you will get a feel for the issues from my response.)

First of all, I would like to thank Dan for taking the time to respond to my article ‘Reading the Bible Again’. It is very healthy to have such discussions and debates, and I am glad that Dan and I are substantially agreed. As this response from Dan has been posted on his website, I would like to take a few moments to correct some misconceptions about my position and to make a few further comments.

A few preliminary words about motivation. The article I wrote – ‘Reading the Bible Again’ – was intended to encourage people to read the Bible, and was designed to provoke those who make truth claims about its literality, inerrancy or infallibility without proper reflection. Or those who use the term ‘The Word of God’ as if the book was a deity. If such views become foundational to faith there is a danger – and this is something I observe in the Czech Republic – that Christianity becomes more about believing the ‘right’ things than following Jesus.

Dan’s main objection to my article, on which I hope to put his mind at rest, is that I ‘see only mythical truth in the bible’ and therefore consider, for example, the death and resurrection of Jesus as mythical. This is not my position. I was trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to argue that not all truth is literal fact. I love the way Dan phrased this about the account of Jesus and I fully concur: ‘Christ’s cross is one of the points where the history and the myth intersect. Christ’s story is true in both of these senses.’ Dan has pointed out the different genres of writing in the Bible – poetry, legal documents, historical accounts, fictive or mythical narrative, and so on: to read all these in the same way, or to treat all these as simply ‘fact’ is unwise. In his words:

I do not see a reason to insist on the historicity of Jonas, for example. Jonas’s story can really be considered a novel through which God is telling us something. The truthfulness and significance of what this book says does not depend on the fact, whether Jonas historically existed or not.

This is also my main contention.

A few final words about factual verity. Dan makes the claim:

‘The excitement of liberals and atheists over the “factual mistakes” culminated around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Since that time, archaeological and other findings mostly confirmed the factual correctness of the Biblical data and the critics had to start retreating…’

My own view is that this claim is unsupportable. The debate, if anything, has become more heated since the beginning of the 20th century. I cite as an example the Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox (The Unauthorized Version : Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Viking, 1991). And one ongoing criticism from academics is that Christians (particularly those of the fundamentalist type that Dan mentions) have a propensity to fit archeological evidence to subjective and preconceived notions.

Concerning factual correctness. In Dan’s words:

De Jong is undoubtedly right saying that we can recognise two messages about creation in the Scripture. I myself have spoken about it many times and explained this fact in a certain way. But does it prove the factual unreliability of the Scripture? I do not think so.

I do not think so either because – in my opinion – these passages are less about literal fact and more about poetry and myth. No doubt there are ways (by engaging in intellectual somersaults, and talk of ‘apparent age’ and so on) that these accounts could be considered factual, but it seems to me that such discussions miss the point. It is akin to focusing on the surface of an artwork and missing the picture. It is to misinterpret the genre and miss the message.

Dan rightly points out that I stated that the bible is full of factual error (and I gave two particular examples – the size of Israel’s armies being routinely exaggerated[1] and the two contradictory accounts of the same battle in 1 Kings 15 with 2 Chron. 13). The extent of the perceived error (‘full’, I agree, may be too strong a word) depends, of course, on how much fictive or mythical narrative is ‘forced’ to be literal. As already noted, this statement was not meant imply that there is no factual truth in the Bible – clearly there is a huge amount, not least concerning the salvation event. Rather it was meant to highlight the naivety of simply claiming inerrancy. Just as one cannot be ‘almost’ a virgin, so the Bible cannot be ‘almost’ inerrant.

But our discussion is not, in a sense, about factual correctness, but how we interpret those passages which are clearly not fact, such as – as Dan mentions – the book of Job. In what sense can we call the words of Satan in Job ‘The Word of God’? I am not saying it is impossible (one could suggest that God, through the Holy Spirit, was reporting Satan’s words) but further intellectual somersaults are needed. Here subjectivity clearly plays a part: Dan has listed some passages he considers myth and some he considers factual; my list might be different. How do we discern the truth? Or, to phrase it another way: How do we discern the word of God to us, his people? How do we get beyond the anarchic subjectivity of postmodernism?

Here I would like to go beyond my original article to suggest five safeguards, five checks that God has given us to correctly interpret our scriptures:

  1. Firstly, Jesus promised to send us the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of Truth’ (John 14:17) who would ‘lead us into all truth’ (John 16:3).
  2. Secondly, we have each other. I am grateful to Dan for highlighting the shortcomings in my article, and for pointing out how certain statements might be misunderstood. Being part of the Christian community, and having honest and open discussion is a valuable safeguard against heresy.
  3. Thirdly we have our tradition, our history. This is, if you like, the inclusion of our ancestors in the discussion and we do well to heed their voice. (I am not, of course, advocating the blind acceptance of historical dogma without recognition of its historical contingency. If we go this route we would have to, with Paul, accept slavery as an acceptable social practice.)
  4. Fourthly, we have common sense. This is not to be confused with ruthless, logical rationalism, but wisdom which comes from intuitive contextual understanding of the ‘big picture’.
  5. Which leads me to my last ‘safeguard’ – context. As readers, as theologians, we must take note of the context of the words that we read: by whom and to whom they were spoken, when and why they were spoken, taking note of historical and sociological context, and so on.

With these five principles in place, the risk of interpretational error is minimised.

I conclude by thanking Dan once again for engaging in this discussion and for his helpful response. I am encouraged by the fact that we are broadly in agreement. My main disagreement with him is that he concludes: ‘[John’s] thesis is that the Bible is factually not credible.’ This is not my thesis. I am simply warning against the naïve interpretation of all passages as ‘fact’. My prayer is that we will all read the bible more and discern, through its sacramental pages, the Author.