Untimely Observations

The Bible as the Word of God: Looking Backward



What follows is Parts B and C of my final assignment in THL106 New Testament Studies. I have corrected one punctuation error and one typo; otherwise what follows is identical to the paper I handed in on 14 October 2011. I have, of course, left out Part A, my Initial Thoughts on the Bible as the Word of God, simply because you will already have read it.

Please feel free to grade this essay in the Comments. If and when my grade appeal is decided by Charles Sturt University, I will post the official result there. But don’t hold your breath waiting!

Reflections on Biblical Criticism:

1. Historical Criticism

For most of my life, appeals to historical criticism of the Bible were an easy sell whenever I turned my mind to the Christian faith. I grew up in post-war, small-town Ontario where Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in all of its varieties was abundantly present. Unfortunately, in retrospect, English Canada was signing its own spiritual death warrant through the progressive separation of the spiritual from the secular realm.

The working assumption of the Canadian WASP (as with his American, English, and Australian counterparts) is that most of life can be managed (if not always explained) without reference to God. My own upbringing incorporated that background assumption and informed my studies in both modern history and law. The secularized methods of those academic disciplines reinforced an ethnocultural bias towards agnosticism. No doubt such predispositions reflect, inter alia, the impact of the “higher criticism” on Anglo-Saxon Protestantism over the past two centuries.

Had I been asked, my younger self would readily have acknowledged the value of “a range of techniques to increase our understanding of the social and cultural world of the New Testament and further our understanding of the New Testament itself.”[i] I took to heart the argument—made by über-agnostics such as Bertrand Russell—that the search for the historical Jesus was pretty much a waste of time and that his contemporaries were doomed to disappointment when he failed to return before “this generation” had passed away.[ii](Matthew 24:34) To my callow mind, the New Testament, no less than the Old Testament, was obviously a historical document. As such, it could best be understood by employing techniques such as source, form, and text analyses sensitive to the cultural setting within which the original text was written and received.

My attitude towards the agnosticism built into the scholarly traditions of historical criticism has changed radically in recent years. I am now convinced that there is solid historical evidence that the Bible story is both beautiful and true. I first recognized the sacred significance of Scripture only when a new hermeneutic revealed to me that Christ did, indeed, “burst into history” in AD 70 in a manner and form visible to every reader of the Word of God. When I was a teen-ager, Russell convinced me that there was no historical or archaeological evidence for the events at the cross or the resurrection. But there is one decisive historical event which lends powerful support to the credibility of the biblical narrative tracing the rise and fall of Old Israel and the birth pangs of the New Jerusalem. Both the Old and the New Testament prophesy the destruction of the Temple in the Day of the Lord which marks the end of Old Israel. Even Josephus, a contemporary Jewish historian, confirms that the fall of Jerusalem was accompanied by the heavenly signs and wonders promised throughout the New Testament by Christ and the apostles.[iii]

2. Rhetorical Criticism

In effect, my encounter with preterist interpretations of the biblical text swept away the theological presuppositions which underpin contemporary WASP agnosticism. Historical criticism, when married to a futurist eschatology, rests upon a scholarly methodology that must mistake trees for the forest. This is particularly apparent in the field of rhetorical criticism where futurist presuppositions regularly distort the meaning of New Testament texts such as Paul’s letters.

Gooder defines rhetorical criticism as “the study of how texts use either ancient or modern rhetoric (the art of persuasion) to convince their readers of a particular point or position.”[iv] The crucial issue in rhetorical criticism, one might think, is to identify the point or position that Paul is attempting to convey to his audience. In Romans 8:19-23, for example, Paul reminds his readers of a shared knowledge that, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In the context of imminent expectation, his goal is to persuade them to “wait eagerly for our adoption as sons” when a new creation is born.

On the face of that text it seems that Paul expects something momentous and world-changing to happen during the lifetime of the people then present in his audience. Mainstream rhetorical critics, on the other hand, presuppose that, two thousand years later, we still await that momentous event. Accordingly, they focus on the issue of how an “implied narrator” structures and develops an argument for an “implied” audience rather than on its operational significance for an actually existing first-century audience. Not surprisingly, therefore, the rhetorical critical approach often—ahistorically—“seeks simply to discover how a passage persuades in our modern context, regardless of how its author intended that it would persuade.”[v]

How then can we discover what Paul meant to say? Perhaps we should turn to narrative criticism as a way of situating Paul’s letters in the narrative structure of the Bible as a whole.

3. Narrative Criticism

Futurist eschatology presupposes that the biblical narrative is a very long story without an end. One notorious consequence of that presupposition is that the meaning of Revelation must remain utterly obscure, literally until the end of time. But this should not be an inherent flaw of narrative criticism. A preterist hermeneutic allows us to read the Bible as a narrative with a beginning and an end. Moreover, unlike historical criticism which often requires the biblical text to be deconstructed into bite-size bits, narrative criticism can be applied, in principle at least, to larger units.[vi] But, in practice, agnosticism reigns supreme in this sub-discipline as well. Narrative critics treat the Bible as just another literary text subject to the standard forms of analysis which prevail in the study of English literature.

The parts of the Bible which don’t “tell stories,” as such, are assigned to other sub-disciplines of literary analysis. When a particular story is selected, the original author, like the original audience, is not the focus of attention for the narrative critic. Neither the Gospel writers nor the early church community is recognized as a character or participant in the cosmic drama which unfolds between Genesis and Revelation. Indeed, the idea of providential history is altogether beyond the ken of narrative critics who mine the Old and New Testaments for its wealth of individual narratives on which their analytical skills can be practiced.

Strangely enough, narrative criticism robs the Word of God of the mythic power it exercised over the hearts and minds of the European peoples in the two millennia which followed the dramatic consummation of the promised new heaven and a new earth in AD 70. That long span of time encompasses the rise and apparent fall of Christendom. In the history of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, in particular, the Bible story was inextricably bound up with the foundation myths of the English nation. More widely, as a sort of cosmic fairy tale, the Bible story gave the breath of life to the medieval imagination throughout Europe. Postmodern narrative criticism treats the Bible story as if it were a cadaver freshly delivered to the literary morgue.

Now that narrative critics have embalmed the text of the Bible, it is the job of the so-called ideological critics to ensure that the cold corpse of Christendom never rises from the dead.

4. Ideological Criticism

My experience in this (and the Old Testament) course has left me with a jaundiced attitude towards biblical criticism as practiced in academe. Ideological criticism is the reduction ad absurdum of postmodern biblical studies. For generations now, the higher criticism has sapped the spiritual foundations of Anglo-Saxon countries by cultivating a professionalized agnosticism in the study of the Holy Scriptures. But the postmodern academy has outdone its predecessors by opening its doors to any and all groups determined to deconstruct what little remains of the spiritual dominion of Christendom. In reading about this movement, I found myself seeking space for resistance.

Accordingly, I was very disappointed not to be able to discuss “postcolonial” criticism in the class devoted to it on the timetable. In particular, I wanted to practice the “retrieval hermeneutics” which is said to have “unearthed the imaginative ways in which…the victims of European colonialism” used the salvation history of the Bible “to justify both their resistance to colonial rule and their defence of their disparaged culture.”[vii] Sitting as the sole Anglo-Saxon man among the Tongan, Korean, Negro, and Arab students in this class, I often wonder just who in the quondam “Anglo-Saxon countries” has become the colonizer and who the colonized? Just who are the “beneficiaries” and who are the “victims” of the “reverse colonialism” so ardently promoted by the Uniting Church and United Theological College in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Surely such a neo-communist campaign to open Australia’s borders, clearly intended to force the integration and indiscriminate mixing of disparate population groups long separated by geography and culture, flatly contradicts the Word of God. Did not the apostle Paul tell us that God made “every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live?”(Acts 17:26) Only a neo-orthodox, Anglo-Saxon Christian brand of ethnotheological biblical criticism seems likely to ask much less provide satisfactory answers to such questions.

Towards Anglo-Saxon Ethnotheological Criticism

Is it really so obvious that European Christian missions to Africa, Oceania, and Asia were simply a manifestation of “Western imperialism,” as charged by “postcolonial” critics? Perhaps the work of Christian missionaries was the logical corollary of the dominion theology implicit in the preterist notion of fulfilled eschatology. Perhaps England was bound to spread the Word of God to the ends of the earth in fulfilment of the Great Commission. (Matthew 28:18-20) Perhaps Anglo-Saxon Protestants need a biblical hermeneutic which can “draw attention to God’s presence in their own religious traditions,” now endlessly disparaged by Third World “postcolonial” critics (a label which is both disingenuous and self-serving in the extreme).

Allegedly “postcolonial” critics are among the beneficiaries of “the rising tide of colour” now transforming every Anglo-Saxon society into a colony of the Third World.[viii] They are also the theologians most committed to a futurist eschatology looking forward to the “liberation” of the Third World. They claim that the “pure gospel” must be freed from the distortions imposed by “the vested interests of Western denominationalism and cultural imperialism.” Sooner or later, in their own defence, Anglo-Saxon Christians will be compelled to look backwards to the Word of God to find a renewed ethnotheological warrant for their survival as one of the nations baptized by the holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

I believe that there are a few hermeneutical principles that Anglo-Saxon Christian men can usefully deduce from this course. The first might be that while the Bible may have been written for us, it was not written to us. The New Testament was written in the first instance for a first century audience for whom the “end of the age” was still to come in AD 70. A second hermeneutical principle follows from the example provided by the feminists, blacks, queers etc, all of whom insist that we must determine what the Bible story, in whole and in part, means to us.

It follows that Anglo-Saxon Christians, no less than blacks, queers, and women alienated from their menfolk, need an ethnotheology able to disclose who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. A preterist biblical hermeneutic wedded to an Anglo-Saxon ethnotheology would reinvigorate the dominion theology which inspired the old Anglo-Saxon province of Christendom to become the heart of a great civilization stretching to the four corners of the world.

United Theological College has taught me something about the depth of resistance likely to confront efforts to renew the Old Faith among Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Clearly, a host of institutional, ethnic, and political interests are now deeply invested in the futurist eschatology which underwrites currently hegemonic forms of biblical criticism. Students who question the ruling orthodoxy pay a social price; they also risk formal disciplinary proceedings.

I speak from experience. For daring in lectures, tutorials, and public seminars to question the Uniting Church’s doctrines (in what I trust has been a persistent but courteous, informed, and articulate manner) on matters such as the role of women in the clergy, feminism generally, the dogma of racial equality, and supersessionism, I have become the subject of a investigation by the Charles Sturt University ombudsman. Formal written complaints of “racism,” “sexism,” “anti-semitism,” “holocaust denial,” and “supremacism” were lodged against me by an individual student, the student association, and several staff members. Some called for my removal from the college.

The heavily ideological character of the compulsory celebration of racial, religious, and ethnic (but not, apparently, intellectual) diversity practiced here at UTC has convinced me that patriotic Anglo-Saxon Christian men are now an oppressed and marginalized group. There are far too many other peoples ready to exploit the over-developed and now maladaptive Anglo-Saxon tendency to direct Christian charity to out-groups in preference to their own kith and kin. Faced with the theological tyranny of contemporary Christian humanism enshrined in ecclesiastical institutions such as the Uniting Church, Anglo-Saxon Christian men badly need a biblical hermeneutic, perhaps even a liberation theology, of their own.

[i] Paula Gooder, Searching for Meaning: An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 5.

[ii] See, Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 16.

[iii] Quoted in, Eusebius, The Church History (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007), 88-89.

[iv] Gooder, Search for Meaning, 71.

[v] Ben Witherington, III, in ibid., 79.

[vi] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, in ibid., 83.

[vii] RS Sugirtharajah, in ibid., 176.

[viii] Cf., Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920).