This is the fourth and final post on reading the Bible critically and religiously [Post 1 | Post 2 | Post 3]. This post reviews how Protestants read the Bible, as discussed by Peter Enns, who teaches biblical studies at Eastern College and who is the author of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005). Publication of Inspiration and Incarnation caused a heated controversy at the Westminster Theological Seminary, where Enns was a tenured faculty member at the time. Read Enns’ Wikipedia page for a short summary of the controversy.
Three Problems With Biblical Criticism
Enns begins his section by identifying three problems that Protestants have with biblical criticism. First, sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible is “the church’s final authority on all matters pertaining to faith” (p. 131). That’s fine if the Bible gives clear and unambiguous answers, but in fact it is open to diverse legitimate interpretations. The Bible speaks with many voices. Hence, “biblical criticism, which introduces novel readings and extrabiblical evidence to inform interpretation, is often seen as undermining that authority” (p. 133). Second, the nature of the Christian Bible, which Protestants want to be “a coherent grand narrative that tells one and only one story with a climax: the crucified and risen Son of God brings Israel’s story to completion” (p. 134). But biblical criticism looks at each book or text on its own terms, in its own context. It “does not unify the Bible but breaks it down into its various and conflicting messages by focusing on the particular historical settings in which the texts were first written or uttered” (p. 134). Finally, Protestant identity, which was threatened by the appearance in the late 19th century of evolution, biblical criticism, and Near Eastern literature that paralleled (to some degree) early biblical texts. There was a natural defensive reaction: “Generations of traditionally minded biblical scholars dedicated their entire careers to defending the Bible from these threats …” (p. 138). Consequently, a strong institutional bias within Protestantism has developed that opposes combining critical and religious readings of the Bible.
Enns’ response to these problems, these concerns, is encapsulated in what he terms his incarnational model of scripture, a topic he addresses fully in Inspiration and Incarnation but which he summarizes here as follows:
A basic Christian (not just Protestant) belief is that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form, both fully and truly human and fully and truly divine — however mysterious and ultimately inexplicable that confession of faith may be. In the history of Christianity, theologians have suggested that the Bible can be spoken of in a similar way: the Bible was written in particular times and places and reflects those settings, but it is also a “divine” book, meaning the writers were inspired by God and so the Bible carries with it divine authority. Scripture is a thoroughly human and divine product.
Combining Critical and Religious Readings
Combining is probably the wrong term. Each approach has its place. It is as wrong to make a critical reading of Genesis the basis for a Sunday School class lesson as it is to base a college course on the Bible solely on a religious reading of the text. What is needed is a way to bring the two into dialogue so that an informed religious reading reflects what critical scholars have discovered about the Bible and so that critical scholarship can serve some positive end rather than merely deconstructing traditional readings of biblical texts. Enns provides some suggestions for how this can be done is his final paragraphs. He notes that God, not the Bible or a particular interpretation of it, is the center of Christian faith. “Coming to the realization the Gospel is not at stake with every interpretive challenge will encourage a fruitful dialogue between religious and critical readings of scripture” (p. 160). He notes that an unsettled faith is a maturing faith, and that an episode of “spiritual alienation” can, in fact, be part of moving one’s faith forward in new ways.
Finally, he suggests fear of biblical criticism often derails the dialogue between those who advocate faithful readings and those who prefer critical readings. “When dialogue is stifled and aggressive responses quickly follow — whether by popular opinion or prevailing power structures — lurking not too far beneath the surface is an unstated fear: familiar, protective, theological boundaries are being threatened.” He thinks Protestants need to get to the point where “fear in the face of biblical criticism no longer dominates” (p. 160).
A Mormon Response
Some of these points apply to the Mormon approach to scripture and others don’t. With prophetic leadership and an article of faith that declares that the Bible is to be accepted “as far as it is translated correctly,” neither sola scriptura nor biblical inerrancy are issues that trouble most Mormons. One would think that the incarnational model of scripture, that it is partly divine but partly human, would be welcomed by Latter-day Saints. But fear and rejection of biblical criticism is certainly a part of Mormon tradition. Dialogue between faithful and critical readings of scripture are rarely evident in LDS religious education or in the preaching of LDS leaders. If simply ignoring historical criticism is not an option (as examples scattered throughout the book clearly indicate), then some approach for bringing our traditional religious reading of the Bible and LDS scripture into productive dialogue with critical readings will have to emerge.
As this is the final post in this series, a short word on the book as a whole is called for. A Mormon approach to reading the Bible cannot simply borrow the Jewish or Catholic or Protestant approach: we have our own unique issues. But familiarity with the issues those traditions face and how some within each tradition attempt to resolve them is terribly instructive for Latter-day Saints. It broadens our view. It shows that we often share similar concerns and issues with other believers. It offers ideas for how to enrich our reading of scripture. Any LDS student of the scriptures would benefit from reading The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously.