The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 1648-2013:
How Did We Get Here And What Are We To Do?
By Iain Provan
March 25, 2013
There is, of course, more than one way of thinking about the beginnings of the modern world, but the year 1648 is a fairly plausible starting point, so long as we understand that people did not just wake up one day in the course of that year and decide to be modern. It's a plausible starting point because 1648 saw the end of the Thirty Years War in Europe, which in various ways was a watershed event, or series of events, in European history. As the peoples of Europe put those terrible events behind them, they looked forward to a very different kind of world, and in due course they created one. And it is that world that was then exported and in due course globalized in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries in particular, such that there are very few places now on our planet that have not been profoundly influenced by modernity, whether for good or for ill.
This modern world that we are thinking about is very different from the world out of which it originally emerged. That world, the pre-modern world, was the world of Christendom - an entire medieval civilization that was Christian. I do not of course mean that everyone who lived within it was a Christian, in any meaningful sense of that word. What I mean is that the entire civilization was one in which the biblical story, as mediated by the Church, had come to define the reality in which people lived. They inhabited what has often been referred to as a "culture of the Book;" and their various endeavors, whether in the realm of the intellect, or in art or architecture, or in literature or music, reflected the Christian story and were brought into conjunction with that Christian story, in what we might well describe as various mediaeval 'syntheses' - various attempts to unite in one domain, within the bounds of the Christian narrative, all human knowledge. This synthetic approach is often described nowadays in terms of bringing together 'Jerusalem and Athens' - the knowledge we gain from the Bible about the story in which we find ourselves, and the knowledge that we gain from other sources, such as Greek philosophy. The language reflects Tertullian's famous question, "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?" Well, in mediaeval Europe, the prevailing answer was: "everything." And whether the central figure on the side of Athens was Plato or Aristotle, or Plotinus, and no matter exactly which kind of synthesis was being attempted with Jerusalem, we are dealing in the Middle Ages with a profoundly Christian reality, substantially formed and deeply informed by the Christian story.
None of us nowadays, of course, lives in such a Christian civilization. Most of us here this evening count as our homeland a country that has never known such a civilization; and those of us whose home still lies within what was Christendom now encounter that civilization only in the form of scattered remnants, and often fairly corrupt remnants at that. The Christian story no longer defines and provides the context for our public lives, although it may be important to us privately. The unified Christian society, founded on the mediaeval Christian synthesis of all knowledge, disappears in the transition from the Middle Ages into the period of the Reformation and then the European Enlightenment, paradoxically even as the numbers of Christians in societies plural, across the globe, increase and then ultimately explode in the 19th and 20th centuries. Europeans, as they reach the 16th century, are still living in a Europe dominated by the Christian world-view, in which the Bible is still the defining document for private AND public life. The Christian narrative is still the narrative that frames public discourse. A mere two centuries later, in the 18th century, the same cannot be said. The Bible has by this point been dethroned as the authoritative source of all human knowledge and understanding throughout large areas of Europe. Hans Frei puts it in this way in his Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: biblical interpretation, he says becomes "a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story [my emphases] rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story."
How exactly did this displacement of the Christian narrative happen? It is an important question, I think, for those of us who still believe that this Christian narrative does in fact tell us the true story of the cosmos. We need to understand as best we can why this became an implausible and unwelcome story to many people in the Enlightenment and Modern periods in Europe, and continues to be an implausible and unwelcome story in the world of today that has been so influenced in different ways by both Enlightenment and Modernity - no longer the Western world only, of course, but the whole world. So how exactly did this displacement of the Christian meta-narrative happen? And how are we to respond to that reality now, in the present moment? That's my topic for this evening. I'm going to begin by talking about the 'back-story' - the period prior to the seventeenth century. I don't think we are really going to understand what one author has called the 'eclipse of biblical narrative' in the period of modernity unless we have some idea of went before and prepared the way for it. Then I'm going to speak about the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries themselves, at equal length; then much more briefly about the 19th and 20th centuries, just because I cannot speak about everything in just over an hour; and then, having given you my view of "How We Got Here," in the second part of the lecture I'll make some suggestions about "What We Are To Do" about the situation in which we find ourselves.
2. The Back-Story
We could begin the back story at various points. For example, we could begin it with the 13th century English Franciscan monk named Roger Bacon - an interesting figure on the leading edge of what was already a changing world. He still lives within the "culture of the Book" I just mentioned; but he does not live within it uncritically. His various writings tell us that on the one hand he would like to see more of the Book - more emphasis on, and more accurate reading of, the Bible. He would like on the other hand to see more openness to the world around about - God's other Book, if you like, the book of creation. What can be learned from creation that is true and good? And indeed what can be learned from those who have observed creation and thought about it, whether they be French Christians or Spanish Jews and Muslims, or indeed ancient Greek pagans? In pursuit of all of this Bacon is above all an advocate of good education. He is looking for a surer foundation than custom or tradition - a foundation in empirical enquiry into the natural world, for example, or into original and properly-established texts, both biblical and otherwise. These various emphases on the good reading of "books," whether Bible or Creation or indeed other books, and on effective communication of the results of this "good reading" these emphases are going to mark out the immediately succeeding centuries. And in the end it is, I think, a failure in good reading of books of all kinds that in some measure leads us to where we find ourselves today. That's why we could start with Bacon; but time forbids.
So I'm going to begin instead with the Renaissance, in the period from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Here we find that same emphasis on the good reading of books that I've just been talking about. There's tremendous emphasis in this period, for example, on 'going back to the sources' in order to correct modern, inexact texts - a tremendous interest in history, and remarkable recovery rate in terms of finding ancient texts. This included biblical texts, in their original languages, with which the Latin Vulgate could be compared and contrasted. The scholarship which flourished during these centuries was also facilitated by a renewed interest and competence in Hebrew and Greek. This is illustrated by such things as the teaching career of Elias Levita (1469-1549), who taught Hebrew to a number of Christian scholars and published a Hebrew grammar and dictionary; and also the publication of two important printed editions of the Bible in the 16th century: the Complutensian Polyglot, which included the texts of the Bible printed in their original languages; and Erasmus of Rotterdam's edition of the NT (1516), originally made up of the Vulgate and the Greek text.
But to go back to the sources was not just to produce more reliable biblical texts; it was also to look carefully and in a new way at the content of the biblical text, as a text from the past. So it is that in the Renaissance we see very careful attention given to the content of biblical texts, by scholars reading them in their original languages. We already see, for example, discussion of the puzzle that there are different names for God in the Hebrew of Genesis 1-2, and discussion of the idea that the Pentateuch might not be a unified book, but may be a combination of different books. Both discussions are later important in developing theories about the composition of the Pentateuch. And beyond all that, the Renaissance also sees continuing, serious attempts to read the Bible in the light of new knowledge arising from scientific endeavor and from expeditions of discovery. We see this reflected for example in John Calvin's commentary on Genesis, when in chapter 1:16 he confronts the problem of the "greater and lesser lights" that God sets in the sky, and he is forced to ask how we should best read this text in view of what the developing science of astronomy has to say. His solution is to read Genesis 1 as a non-scientific account of the creation of the world - a description of creation such as could be understood by a normal Israelite, and not a description corresponding to current (16th century) scientific knowledge. Ancient texts need not be expected to speak about the natural world in modern Renaissance or early modern ways, suggests Calvin: "I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature ... Moses wrote, in a popular style, things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.
So we find in this period of the Renaissance, which embraces also the Reformation, that increasingly careful attention is being paid to texts, including biblical texts. As a document from the past, people were asking: what is the nature of the Bible; what does it really say; and what should this mean for what is believed and practiced now? And they were asking these questions in the light of what was also being discovered about the world outside the Bible; because the assumption still was that God's two books of Scripture and Creation could and should be read together, and should be expected to provide a coherent account of the world.
At the same time, however, it is true that in the post-Reformation period in the 16th century we find questions about what the Bible means producing markedly different answers; and one of the most challenging issues becomes how to handle the diversity that now confronts people, in terms of these answers. This was not just a matter of Protestant disagreement with Catholics; it was also a matter of disagreement among Protestants (for example, between Lutherans and Anabaptists). What was to be done when different Christian groups disagreed about important matters like the proper relationship between church and state; or baptism; or Eucharist? What was to be done when they even objected conscientiously to core Christian doctrines, on the basis that these doctrines were not biblical? How were such things to be negotiated? What were the boundaries of acceptable dissent?
The famous case of Michael Servetus illustrates the kind of debate that such issues provoked. Born in 1511 in Spain, Servetus was a gifted language student who had read the entire Bible in its original languages. This led him to certain convictions about Church dogma and practice, most notably that the doctrine of the Trinity is not based on biblical teachings but on Greek philosophy. Thus convicted, he advocated a return to the simplicity and authenticity of the Gospels and the early Church. The consequence was that Servetus was condemned both by Reformed and Catholic theologians, and had to change his name to escape trouble. Ultimately he was put on trial in the Reformed city of Geneva, where John Calvin was functioning essentially as ruler; and Servetus was condemned on two counts: first that he disseminated non-Trinitarian doctrine; and secondly that he opposed infant baptism, which he described as "an invention of the devil." He was pronounced guilty and burned at the stake - a martyr, as some have seen it, to the cause of freedom of religion and expression.
Certainly that was how one of Calvin's other contemporaries, Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563), saw things. In response to the outcry over Servetus's execution, Calvin had felt compelled to publish a book defending himself; and Castellio, a professor of Greek at the University of Basle, now responded with a book of his own. We do not all have to agree upon matters of doctrine in order to be saved, he argued; the important thing is that we follow in the way of Christ. This alone can bring salvation to us. For this reason, persecution is wicked; and it is also futile, because to kill a person is not to defend a doctrine - it is only to kill a person. A person should be permitted to read his Bible and accept the truth he reads there as his mind and heart dictate. When Servetus fought with reasons and writings, Castellio affirmed, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings - not by violence. Calvin bitterly attacked Castellio in response. Castellio's rejoinder was not published until 1603, long after his death - so nervous were publishers about offending Calvin further.
In this assault on Calvin we see that, for Castellio, it is really not what you believe, now, that is the most important thing; it is how you live, and the sincerity which you bring to that task. Even core Christian doctrines can be considered relatively unimportant, because "believing" them is not intrinsic to salvation. There should be tolerance with respect to diversity of opinion.
So what do we learn about the period prior to the seventeenth century in Europe? We learn that the notion of a Christian civilization is still alive and well, and that the attempt to integrate all knowledge within the bounds of the Christian story is still proceeding. However, there are some stresses and strains, in terms of how exactly to integrate new knowledge with the old and how exactly to read Scripture and Creation together as the two books of God. There is a very particular problem with respect to the unity of Christian civilization, which has fractured in the Reformation; and this leads on to questions about how diversity of opinion and dissent are going to be handled in the emerging new world.
3. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
As we enter the first half of the 17th century the very attempt to read the world at all within the framework of the traditional Christian story about the world is now, for many people, under threat - at least the versions of the story offered in the post-mediaeval Christian syntheses of the Reformation, on the one hand, and of Roman Catholic Thomism, on the other. The position of the Bible as the grounding authority in European society not only on religious and ecclesiastical matters, but on everything, is increasingly challenged, even as its infallibility is increasingly stressed by Protestant theologians intent on strengthening its immediate authority, as in the case of the Westminster Confession of 1646.
In part this challenge arises because of ever-increasing amounts of information accumulating in the 17th century as a result of world exploration. The information explosion was creating stress - not least because the information was being increasingly widely disseminated, as the number of printers and their output increased throughout Europe, and Holland, in particular, became a haven of tolerance where books prohibited elsewhere could be published, including the writings of Galileo. Information was thus widely available, and it fed debate in the universities of Holland; in the salons of Paris; in the learned societies of France and England; and elsewhere.
Beyond information, however, the 17th century was of course a century marked in its first half also by terrible war; and with the end of war around about the middle of the century came a deep desire not to go that way again. "Toleration" becomes an even more important issue, for more people, than ever before; and the role of the Bible in feeding intolerance raises further questions both about its proper authority and its interpretation. "Reason" appears to many to offer greater hope for a way ahead than the kind of biblical interpretation that had earlier prevailed. A good example of the kind of response these various circumstances evoked in Bible readers in the early to mid-17th century is provided by the Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes was a rationalistic Anglican who lived through the English Civil War - a supporter of the absolutist monarchy and the system of the state church under Charles I. The question lying at the foundation of Hobbes' famous book Leviathan (1651) is how a state can retain stability and avoid internal chaos when faced with competing religious claims. His inspiration in answering this question lies in the methods of the natural sciences as they were developing in his time. He seeks to apply to human beings and to the state they create scientific theories about "bodies in movement" and the influence they have on each other. Implicit in this is a theory of natural law, in line with which the Bible itself must function - not least because the very extent of the canon is a matter of disagreement among Christians, he says, and must itself be decided by the sovereign of a given Christian nation. The public realm is to be governed by reason - by science - and not by particular interpretations of Scripture. "The Scripture was written to show unto men the kingdom of God, and to prepare their minds to become his obedient subjects," he says, "leaving the world and the philosophy thereof to the disputation of men for the exercising of their natural reason."
The Liberal Anglicanism known as Latitudinarianism that gained a dominant public position in England in the second half of the seventeenth century followed a similar line in distinguishing faith and reason, the private and the public. An important figure here is John Locke (1632-1704), who argued that Government was not legitimated by nature but created by society, and remained legitimate only by doing its job properly in the interest of those who created it - otherwise it ought to be overthrown. No divine right of kings here, derived from the Bible. A government's job, in Locke's view, was to protect life, liberty and, above all, property. Among the things that government should not do, argued Locke, was to interfere with an individual's religious life, which he considered essentially to be a completely private affair. The State must leave people alone, so far as possible, voluntarily to join such churches as they wish.
Among the many intriguing aspects of Locke's thought is his historical consciousness, which is very much a feature of the times - a new perception among European thinkers of the importance of history for understanding ideas and indeed of the reality that ideas develop over time. We find it, for example, in the writings of the French Roman Catholic Richard Simon (1638-1712), whose Critical History of the Old Testament specifically mentions in his preface the work of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza himself makes some use of historical argumentation precisely to undermine the Bible's authority and therefore its use as a foundational document for the organization of society. Significantly, Simon responded to Spinoza's mainly rationalist approach with an even more thoroughgoing historical approach. For example, he argues that if internal evidence suggests that Moses did not write all of the Pentateuch, this does NOT mean that the Pentateuch was diminished in importance - it only suggested how it was composed. The status of the text was not affected by the process of its composition. Simon was one of the first to carry out this kind of historical investigation in a systematic manner; and it is important to note that it arises not out of hostility to Christian faith, but rather out of a desire to offer an apologetic on behalf of the faith, in the face of criticism of the Bible by radical thinkers. This criticism was a marked feature of the 17th century, however, as liberals targeted what they saw as the main obstacle to a better world - namely, the Bible.
So the 17th century is a century of growing doubt in Protestant Europe about the nature and role of the Christian story with respect to public life - doubt that is fuelled by expanding empirical knowledge, on the one hand, and weariness with religious war, on the other. The universality of the biblical story is under question; the real message of the Bible is a matter of debate; the State, it is suggested by some, should no longer concern itself with many of the matters that are of interest to the church, and should indeed no longer organize itself on the basis of Christian dogma, but on the basis of universal reason.
It is in the 18th century, however, that the synthesis of Scripture and reason, which together had formed the criteria for public discourse in Europe from the time of the Church Fathers until the 18th century, finally begins completely to unravel. As a result of increasingly fervent intellectual attacks the Bible loses its significance for philosophical thought and for the theoretical constitutional foundations of political ideals in England and then elsewhere. The principles of the Humanist world-view increasingly take over in the public realm as the measurement of the truth and relevance of the Bible itself. The ethical rationalism that thus emerges in public life proves to be one of the forces that shape not only Britain but the entire modern world. It is in this new context that Bible-reading now takes place. It is a world marked by John Locke's ideas about the legitimacy of the state as rooted in the will of the people rather than in the will of God. It is a world marked by foundational political documents characterized by claims about self-evident human rights rather than prescribed human duties. It is a world of growing freedom for people to believe and to do as they wish, as long as they do not disturb the peace of society.
And this is not only the world of the Enlightenment rationalists. It is also the world of the evangelical Pietists. This is where evangelicalism begins - with people like John Wesley, with his deep convictions about the truth at the heart of the Gospel, but his emphasis nevertheless on tolerance with respect to the inessentials of the faith, and his emphasis on the religion of the heart rather than on the religion of doctrinal confession. This is a world in fact in which everyone may begin, to some extent, to express their views about the Bible freely and without fear of punishment, precisely because the Bible's interpretation does not now impact so directly on the survival and shape of the state itself. One's views of the Bible are increasingly regarded as "private," even where they are published.
Among the most significant of the early 18th century European theologians was a German professor at the Pietist University of Halle named Siegmund Baumgarten (1706-1757). Baumgarten played an important role in making foreign theology known in Germany, especially the debates about the Bible which had been taking place in England; and he was thus an early facilitator of an important shift that takes place in 18th century intellectual life in Europe, by which the intellectual center of European philosophy (and theology) moved increasingly from Holland, Britain and France to Germany. Once rooted in German soil, the new ideas quickly developed and flourished within the context of a new "back to the sources" movement of the kind that we noted during the Renaissance and Reformation. Philosophy begins to give way to history as the handmaiden of theology, and history indeed becomes a weapon deployed against the arguments of the Enlightenment rationalists, in much the same way that Simon had earlier used it to opposed Spinoza. A good case in point is Johann Semler (1725-1791), a student of Baumgarten's in Halle. Faced with the arguments of the English Deists and of Voltaire in France (1694-1778) that not everything in the Bible is improving or inspiring, Semler's response was to focus on the historical circumstances that led to the origin of a biblical text and to ask: how were the cultural assumptions and immediate concerns that motivated writers different from the thought-world of the modern interpreter? The Bible thus examined could be seen to be the product of historical processes in a small ancient Near Eastern nation whose actions and beliefs did not always correspond to the nature of the God whom they worshipped, and indeed whose laws were laid down for particular circumstances that no longer apply. This last point was also made forcefully by Johann Michaelis (1717-1791), another of Baumgarten's students, who argued that Israelite laws were quite reasonable when seen in their own historical context, but that they should not determine what 18th century European states should do. This represents an honest attempt to save the Christian story, as it were, without at the same time reverting to a situation in which previously the nation of Israel had been understood by many as providing a model for the modern state - a position earlier heavily criticized by John Locke, against the background of the English Commonwealth. Consider, then, the extent of the evolution in thinking between the early to mid-17th and the later 18th centuries. In the middle of the 17th century it was still possible for a man named Jacob du Bois to write (in 1653) a book on cosmology in which part of his argument in favor of an earth-centered solar system was that this idea is "biblical." The 18th century, on the other hand, saw the Bible largely lose this kind of cultural pre-eminence in Europe, at least so far as science, chronology, ancient history, linguistics, geology, geography and so on are concerned. The Bible had ceased to be, for many people, the one document in which all knowledge could be assumed to be rooted, even where it retained its authority with respect to matters of religious faith and morals. It had become, even more clearly than in any preceding period, a document from the past which at least to some extent must be studied according to the normal procedures employed in studying any ancient text, in order to see which kind of knowledge, and how much of it, it could add to the modern knowledge-pool. Its truthfulness and its usefulness had to be determined. It was no longer presupposed.
4. The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the acceleration of these trends; but for the sake of time I will not speak in detail about those centuries now. Let me simply say that the extent of the historical analysis to which the Bible has become subject in these centuries is truly astonishing. This is the period in which the Bible itself ceases to be the only real substantive source of information about the non-Graeco-Roman ancient world - the period of the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and of Mesopotamian cuneiform; the period of better access to the key texts of the Eastern religions, and to the world of so-called "primitive" religions; the age in which science came into its own as a discipline distinct from philosophy, gradually coming to dominate the world of the university; the age, specifically, of Darwinian evolution. Information and ideas were produced at ever-increasing speeds and indeed disseminated at ever-increasing speeds, as first steam-powered presses produced more and more books more cheaply; then newspapers became widely affordable and transportation and communications by rail and sea improved, and regular mail services took off, allowing greater scholarly contact than ever before; and then of course many more recent significant developments. This vast increase in knowledge and in access to knowledge has not helped the Bible's cause in the public domain in the West, or in other parts of the world either, where it is nowadays either not read at all or survives only as interesting ancient literature which may perhaps also be inspiring. If it is read as literature, however, the story world of the Bible is certainly regarded as having little to do with the real world as defined by science and history. That late-modern and postmodern acceptance of such a profound a dichotomy between the real world and the story world of the Bible is actually already foreshadowed among the 18th century Romantics. I'm thinking here of someone like Johann Goethe (1749-1832). For Goethe, the Bible was certainly not a source of doctrine or history; but it remained a literary work that inspired him with its images and poetry. Goethe left the "outer form" of the biblical material to the critics, while focusing on what he thought of as the inner core that no external concern could destroy. Goethe is interesting for all sorts of other reasons as well, not least his early work on evolution, which influenced Darwin, and his work on philosophy, which impacted both Hegel and Nietzsche.
5. Retrospective and Prospective
So "How Did We Get Here?" Why is it that there has been an "eclipse of biblical narrative" in those parts of the world deeply impacted historically both by the Christian Gospel in itself and then also by modernity and postmodernity. Why is it that this narrative, previously welcomed as Truth, has become an implausible and unwelcome story to many people who previously lived in Christendom, and remains so to many others whose lives have now been shaped by the narratives of modernity and postmodernity? No doubt the answer to these questions is not a simple one; but my take on some aspects of the answer would be as follows, summing up my remarks so far. Historically, the Christian narrative came to be suspected of being, and then known to be, incapable of embracing all the truths being discovered about the world - truths scientific, historical and so on. It also came to be understood as a major cause of violence, war and intolerance; and a major obstacle to legitimate human rights, freedoms and ultimately well-being and happiness. These same suspicions - this same knowledge - marks the present moment of those who are the heirs to the narrative of modernity. It is common knowledge, among those heirs, that the Bible is untrue, and moreover wicked. And I mean 'wicked' in its more traditional sense, not its fuzzier, friendlier and more postmodern sense.
That's how we got here. "What Are We (as Christians) To Do" about it? Well again, no doubt the answer to that question is also complicated and not capable of simple expression. But let me propose at least one, centrally important thing that I think we must do. And it is this: we need to reaffirm our ancient Christian commitment to the integrity of truth. Specifically, I want to suggest that in so far as what has been discovered about the world between 1648 and the present, and about the Bible in relation to the world, whenever it has been discovered - in so far as it is true, it is to be welcomed ... because it is true; and all truth is God's truth.
This sounds as if it ought to be self-evident. But in fact it has not been self-evident to many folks throughout history; or at least we should say this: that many throughout history have been so convinced that their current understanding of the truth about the Bible and the world is in fact THE truth about the Bible and the world, that they have been unable to embrace evidently new truth about either one, and to change their synthesis of truth in order to accommodate it. In other words, there has been an obscurantist streak in Christian thinking throughout the ages, a wrong kind of conservatism, which has often rejected new truth out of hand and has sometimes persecuted the truth-tellers, where it had the power to do so, only begrudgingly to accept the truth later and long after others had already done so. Outright rejection has seemed easier than careful consideration of the data, to see how it might fit within a Christian, indeed a biblical world-view. Countless examples could be generated. Let me briefly mention three, one of which (at least) will be well known to you. When Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was first thinking about and planning his Atlantic exploration, it is reported that one of the committees set up to investigate his plans responded to his belief that an "Antipodes" or second continent might exist with the following dismissal: "St. Augustine doubts it." The discoveries of Columbus and others not only demonstrated that St. Augustine's doubts were without foundation, but also raised questions about the kind of information the Bible provided about the world, and for many ultimately cast doubt on the Bible. Nevertheless, when Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), looked through his telescope saw things that suggested that the cosmology of his day was mistaken, as were current understandings of Psalms 93 and 104 and Ecclesiastes 1:5 (which appear to speak of the motion of celestial bodies and the suspended position of the earth), he got himself into significant trouble, as you will know. Likewise, the date of 4004 B.C. for the creation of the world, calculated by James Ussher (1581-1656) in the early 17th century and included in the page margins of many versions of the King James Version dating from 1700 onwards, remained widely accepted long after modern geology had suggested that the world was much older than Ussher's dates allowed.
These are illustrations, only, of an obscurantist streak in Christian thinking throughout the ages - a wrong kind of conservatism. I propose a different way of approaching things. In so far as what has been discovered about the world and about the Bible in relation to the world is true, I suggest, it is to be welcomed - because it is true, and all truth is God's truth.
To the extent that the Enlightenment and Modernity, and indeed Postmodernity, has produced truth, therefore, and indeed has produced a less violent and prejudiced and more tolerant world, in which many people's lives are better and I can deliver this lecture without fear of imprisonment, torture or deportation, as far as I know; to the degree that truth has emerged in the course of the last 500 years, and to the extent that virtue has emerged, these things are to be welcomed. I don't think that a Christian can simply be "against" the Enlightenment or Modernity or Postmodernity. The historical analysis of the Bible that has arisen in this period has itself been helpful, I think we must say. I do not mean that everything that scholars applying this mindset to the Bible have said about the Bible is helpful; nor that every ideology to which certain biblical interpretations have been attached should be embraced by Christians. I mean only this: that the Bible that we receive from Christ and his apostles, in which and through which God speaks and to which we assign ultimate authority as the great story within which we live out our lives-this Bible that speaks to us from God is literature: one book, and yet also many books. To hear God speak, all these texts through which He speaks must be understood for what they are and we must be careful to identify what they are not. This inevitably involves biblical hermeneutics in historical study.
Is this a capitulation to the Enlightenment, to Modernity and indeed to Postmodernity? I do not believe so. I believe that it is simply a recovery of a more authentic Christianity than the one we sometimes see around us, which embraces truth where it finds it and seeks to integrate it within the Christian story. And this recovery of authentic Christianity is not just important for us; it is missionally important as well. Let me explain my thinking here. There is a tendency sometimes among Christians, I think, simply to lament the eclipse of biblical narrative - the dethronement of the Bible - in people's lives, without realizing the extent to which this dethronement has at least something to do with the Church itself. We ourselves are complicit in it. Specifically, I suggest, the kind of displacement of the Christian story that I have been describing today has something to do precisely with the rejection of some truth among some Christians, historically, that I have just described. For if the truth that is "out there," as it were, cannot be shown by Christian people to be capable of integration into the Christian narrative and is simply rejected by them, then grave questions inevitably arise about the adequacy and ultimate truthfulness of the Christian narrative. That is how things have been historically; it is how they are logically, and existentially, as well. When Christians narrow their view of truth, then, and indeed give the impression that they alone are the possessors of all of it while appearing to others in fact to be deniers of significant aspects of it, this inevitably does little to advocate the Christian world-view. Christians are then seen as opponents of truth and indeed as the purveyors only of prejudice, and as such they are perceived as dangerous people, especially when they are in possession of power.
From this point of view the eclipse of biblical narrative in the West can be seen to be, not just the consequence of a Deist rejection of orthodox faith during the Enlightenment (for example), but also a consequence (in the Enlightenment's aftermath) of an obscurantist, anti-intellectual and indeed quasi-Gnostic retreat from the world of public discourse on the part of people who are at least in many respects orthodox Christians. It is the consequence of an unprecedented choice of Jerusalem over Athens. Luther and Calvin could defend the necessity of higher education against populist anti-intellectual sentiment in the 16th century, and embrace in their Bible-reading, without any angst, new truth from scientific disciplines like astronomy. Protestant Christians immediately thereafter, including many 18th century Pietists, could themselves embrace new emergent truths about the world and about the Bible and combine these with Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxis without difficulty. Unfortunately the long-term impact, as seen in the modern period, of the strong Pietistic emphasis on what is individual and experiential has perhaps not been helpful, so far as Christian integration of truth has been concerned. The "inward" turn of the 18th century becomes in the 19th and 20th centuries, in fact, all too often a rejectionist turn in terms of truth that does not correspond to settled present convictions about the nature of things. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) could still in the 18th century combine, in his person, heartfelt devotion, orthodox belief and intellectual openness to the world around him, including openness to what people like Isaac Newton and John Locke had to tell him about physics and human nature. Paradoxically, however, the kind of revivalism which Edwards himself supported in the Great Awakening of the 1740's contributed greatly to a later view in North America (and elsewhere, I'm afraid) of what it means to be a Christian which has had little place for integrated Christian thinking in engagement with the outside world. There arose in the 19th century in significant parts of the Protestant community what was in fact a quite adversarial attitude towards the new approaches to biblical interpretation and the new science that were emerging at that time, which in the early 20th century has hardened into what is often called nowadays "fundamentalism," marked by calls for separation from the world and from the world's learning; marked by a fierce anti-intellectualism; and marked by a poor grasp of the history of biblical interpretation and of the contingency of its own presuppositions about how to read the Bible. Jerusalem with a vengeance. Jerusalem as a ghetto, in fact. Mark Noll, in his The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, describes the stark reality thus:
"For the purposes of Christian thinking, the major indictment of the fundamentalist movement ... was its intellectual sterility. Under its midwifery, the evangelical community gave birth to virtually no insights into how, under God, the natural world proceeded, how human societies worked, why human nature acted the way it did, or what constituted the blessings and perils of culture ... What even the laudably Scriptural beliefs lacked ... was profound knowledge of the divinely created world in which those beliefs were applied. As a result of following a theology that did not provide Christian guidance for the wider intellectual life, there has been, properly speaking, no fundamentalist philosophy, no fundamentalist history of science, no fundamentalist aesthetics, no fundamentalist novels or poetry, no fundamentalist jurisprudence, no fundamentalist literary criticism, and no fundamentalist sociology. Or at least there has been none that has compelled attention for insights into the way God has made the world and situated human beings on this planet. And because evangelicals ... have largely retained the mentality of fundamentalism when it comes to looking at the world, there has been a similarly meagre harvest of evangelical intellectual life. What J. S. Bach gained from his Lutheranism to inform his music, what Jonathan Edwards took from the Reformed tradition to orient his philosophy, what A. H. Franke learned from his German Pietism to inspire the University of Halle's research into Sanskrit and Asian literatures ... precious few fundamentalists or their evangelical successors have ever found in the theological insights of twentieth-century dispensationalism, Holiness or Pentecostalism."
What we need now, I believe, is a firm commitment to the resurrection of the Christian mind, brought back into harmony with the Pietistic Christian heart. A new union of Jerusalem and Athens, such that people are helped to see once again, even in a modern and post-modern world, how as one author has put it, "the storied world of the Bible describes the real history of God and humanity, and ... is a history that can and should be entered into." That, I think, is one of the needs of the hour. It's not the only one; but it's certainly a really important one.
Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies, at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. This lecture was delivered at L'Abri, Southborough MA, February 18, 2013 and is republished with permission
On the Mainline
Worship with us:
Sundays at 4:00pm.
210 S. Wayne Ave, Wayne, PA