Defending Genre in the Bible

Does [the Bible] match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? … I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way. Scripture is true by virtue of God speaking it. If God spoke poetry, or parable, or fiction or a prescientific description of creation, it is true without any verification by any human measurement whatsoever. The freedom of God in inspiration is not restricted to texts that can be interpreted “literally” by historical or scientific judges of other ages and cultures beyond the time the scriptures were written.

In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless.

…Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself? – iMonk

iMonk’s idea might make some of us uncomfortable.  And, to be sure, archeological and historical research at the very least provides some affirmation of the Bible.

However, I think iMonk’s point is very important: we tend to argue for the authority of the Bible based on imported categories–categories set in a field which fundamentally has no place for such a thing as “inspired” scripture or anything supernatural in the first place–or by meeting some kind of external standard of acceptance.  But when we do that we are essentially handing the Church’s text to those who already reject it as anything but an ordinary book and saying, “Here: you decide.” This is a mistake.  The Bible is the Church’s text and need not be handed to those outside the church to be vetted by their external categories.

And this is true of other issues as well.  From what I’ve read of Stanley Hauerwas, for example, his MO is to refuse to debate ethical issues based on non-theological categories.  So in Abortion Theologically Understood, he suggests that for Christians the question of the rights of the mother or the rights of the fetus are the wrong basis on which to look at this subject.

It’s an interesting and refreshing way of looking at things: we are not required to think about ethics or theology or the Bible on someone else’s terms.  For most things these days those terms are what you might call “Enlightenment terms”, in which reason is, essentially, God. While I would never suggest that we should not use our reasonable faculties, I am beginning to wonder if sometimes the term “irrational”, a term with negative connotations, should be embraced a little more.

“Faith seeking understanding” (was that Augustine or Aquinas?) or “I believe so that I may understand” seem like irrational statements in our society.  But somehow those phrases carry a lot of weight and power.

5 thoughts on “Defending Genre in the Bible

  1. Andre

    Hey Marc,

    To my mind, these comments seem to trivialize reality. Communication depends entirely on the use of shared terms and we must always be using them to pass on points of view. The notion that the Bible is true because God spoke it is not an idea unique to iMonk. Perhaps the reason he believes this is because someone told him it was so. The reference seems to be making the argument that it doesn’t matter if what we tell each other is true in a real sense, so long as we like the sound of our voice when we say it. I’m not sure such a value has a place in any helpful philosophy.

    I could also be curious whose Bible the iMonk is discussing. Is it the one the church used for 1200 years, or the edited down version that been such a hit with Protestants for the last 400 years? Or is he talking about an earlier, less concrete collection of writings embraced by the church fathers? Or given the lack of context, perhaps he is not a Christian and is talking about the Buddhist scripture, or some other collection of holy writings that a group deems true because they believe them to represent God’s words?

    Some of the church fathers made a distinction between history and sacred history. They were not concerned whether the Scripture was ‘historic’ and did not value it as a representation of worldly truth, but understood that, regardless of its historical veracity, one could meet God in the stories. I find this to be a helpful perspective as it recalls that the main faculty for devling the ‘mysteries’ of God is mysticism and not rationality.

    But embracing the proper place of mysticism does not mean that we have to throw empiricism and rationality from their proper places. We share a world, and if we believe God made the world and invests it with who he is we should embrace a rigorous study of it and incorporate our discoveries into our overall understanding of the Creator.

    My 2 cents.

  2. Marc Post author

    Hey Andre,

    Funny you should comment. I thought about you today, wondering where you were, if you would blog again…

    The context of the quote is a much longer post criticizing the creationist (literal, 6-day) movement. The part I quoted was snipped out of a bit about insisting on reading Biblical texts literally (in a very wooden sense) when it need not be and perhaps should not be read that way (e.g. Genesis 1, much of Revelation). iMonk is arguing against a misuse of the text.

    Perhaps the title of this post was misleading.

    Here’s another bit from iMonk’s post:

    Now if I insist on a literal interpretation of this verse as a way of saying it is true and inspired, I am not treating the text with reverence and respect. I may be well motivated, but I am damaging the text. My point gets across, but at the expense of the real meaning of the text as it was written and inspired.

    In the same way, Genesis describes creation prescientifically, in the language and idioms of the time, with a theological purpose in mind. It speaks clearly and powerfully. Making this into a literal and “scientific” description as a condition of inspiration is wrong.

    Am I treating Genesis as a special case? Are Ham and others correct that this is straightforward description and there is no reason for putting a literary “spin” on how I read the text? My objection is to saying what a “straightforward description” means in a text several thousand years old; a text from a specific culture with a particular purpose. I am not claiming any special insight into Genesis. I am simply saying that, in my opinion, Genesis was not written with reference to the questions or methods of modern science, and making its truthfulness depend on that is a misuse of the text.

    …The literary nature of a text can’t be overlooked or taken for granted. In my opinion, this is typical of the creationist approach to the Bible. It becomes a piece of evidence in a scientific discussion, and the text of scripture- particularly its literary distinctiveness- is largely ignored.

    I think iMonk would agree with everything you said, and I suppose I was trying to suggest the same thing. Empiricism and reason should definitely not be thrown out the window.

    But does this mean that we need to defend scripture by the standards and expectations of Enlightenment thinking? I don’t think so. Kant didn’t invent reason, but he divinized it. The very fact that we can speak of mysticism and divine revelation through scripture is to some degree irrational from a purely empirical perspective (or at the very least, it appears irrational.

  3. Andre

    For some reason my first reading missed the word ‘genre’ in the title of the post whcih should have given me more context. Thanks for bringing more clarity.

    Gaining confidence in our maturing beliefs is certainly a complex process. My sense is that empiricism and mysticism are additive means that give us new knowledge, while rationality is our way of evaluating the efficiency of empiricism and mysticism, and of fitting such knowledge gained through them into a coherent, usable picture.

    I will likely blog again. I’m just coming off the busiest six weeks of my life and have a lot of catch up to do and the blog is not the first priority. When I return to it I expect I will be writing more intentionally about spiritual things than I have in the past; we’ll see.

    Peace to you.

  4. Marc

    You did not misread the title of the post originally. I changed the title of the post after you commented, because you made me realize that the title of the post did not reflect its content accurately.


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