Sunday, 27 July 2014

The "aha" moment - Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories. Part 10: Chris Tilling

Part ten of Peter Enn's series of invited posts by Christian scholars from a conservative / fundamentalist background whose detailed study of the Bible led to their recognition that a fundamentalist reading of the Bible was untenable comes from respected NT scholar Chris Tilling who is Lecturer in New Testament at St Mellitus College in the UK, as well as Visiting Lecturer at King's College, London. In his post, Tilling comments on how he moved from the circular logic of fundamentalism's view on inerrancy (the Bible is inerrant because God inspired it, and we know God inspired the Bible because the Bible says so) to one which "allowed the Bible itself to shape our doctrine of Scripture", allowing him to "read and love the Bible for what it is, not what it isn't."

Tilling, who describes his background as being "Ken Ham this, dinosaurs-lived-with-humans-as-seen-in-Job that" neatly summarises one of the main reasons why Biblical literalism / fundamentalism are noxious, faith-destroying epistemological positions - fear:
Slightly more sinister, however, was the way fear attached to this circular reasoning. Anybody who disagreed with this was simply deceived (probably by Beelzebub). Best to stay behind a safe wall of Christian academics more intelligent and learned than I. Let them deal with the difficult questions about two creation accounts, Gospel contradictions, the archaeopteryx, Adam’s missing bellybutton etc.
Sadly, this represents the mindset of a significant part of our community with respect to how this approach to the Bible is maintained. Of course, given that we regard the idea of a supernatural devil, it is the 'wisdom of this world' which replaces Beelzebub. As to exactly what that wisdom of the world is, the fundamentalists in our community usually say something about 'higher criticism' without demonstrating the remotest familiarity with what contemporary historical criticism entails, or why some of the more intellectually honest evangelical scholars recognise the need to re-engage with historical criticism. [1]

Defending this circular reasoning with a combination of mindless disparaging of non-Christiadelphian Biblical scholarship [2] coupled with frankly hysterical rhetoric about the 'erosion of the Truth' if the next generation primarily relies on the NIV [3] hardly helps the honest doubter who recognises that genuine problems (contradictions between parallel accounts in the Bible, the massive avalanche of scientific evidence utterly refuting special creationism) are often handled by slipshod harmonisation at best, and recognises that such answers are worse than none at all.

On this point, Tilling is most instructive:
One particular “aha” moment came when listening to a Walter Brueggemann lecture on “The character of God in the OT.”
  • Brueggemann pointed out that the Bible could say some astonishingly strange things about God, for example: 
  • the contrast between what Deuteronomy 23:1-3 and Isaiah 56:3-5 have to say about who God says can be admitted to the assembly,

  • Jeremiah 20:7 and God “overpowering” Jeremiah, 
  • 1 Kings 22:20-22, where God’s actions seem devious, 
  • Exod 4:24, where God “tried” to kill Moses. 
Rather than whipping out an “answer” to these issues, he just let them sit there, undecorated and without cosmetics. 
Boy did that guy screw with my head! But as a result, no longer could I accept a clear, unambiguous line between “what the Bible says” and “what we must all believe” (these issues, I later learnt, were elaborated under the heading “Israel’s Counter Testimony” in his Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy).

Thankfully, I remembered Goldingay’s arguments, and this begun a complete reconstruction of my views, something facilitated by great distance from my earlier conservative Christian roots, as I was now surrounded by amazing Christian theologians at Tübingen University.
There it started to become clear that a biblical grasp of the Bible demanded that tensions and, yes, contradictions, factual and, yes, theological problems in Scripture needed to be taken seriously. 
Confronted, not dodged, embraced as God-ordained, not “explained away” by some doubtful apologetic manoeuvre that would only convince the desperate. 
Otherwise I would indeed not hold a biblical view of scripture. 
In a nutshell, I began to see that to speak of the inspiration of this text means to take seriously the phenomenon of that text! (Bold emphasis mine)
Many 'contradictions' are ironically a product of an extreme fundamentalist approach to the Bible which imposes a naive, wooden literalism on the text, and creates problems, such as that seen by the contradiction between Gen 1 and Gen 2 with respect to the order of creation which would not exist if the texts were not read as literal, scientifically accurate, sequential accounts of material origins. Once again, this is why we need to make the most of modern scholarship in order to acquire the means to see what are problems, and what are merely artefacts of a mindless fundamentalism.
 Having said that, there are tensions and problems which exist in the Bible, and rather than try to impose arbitrary, unconvincing harmonisations in order to preserve a naive, unsustainable view of the Bible (one verging on bibliolatry to be honest, and one that will create unbelievers when the honest Christian doubter encounters one ad hoc harmonisation too many), we need to recognise that we do see through a glass darkly, and that, as Tilling says, "loose ends, puzzlement, doubt-filled and existentially troubling questions are sometimes a dominant part of biblical spirituality, as we see in the Psalms – yet my “aha” moments have breathed fresh and wonderful life into my reading of scripture."
1. See for example Hays, Christopher M., and Christopher B. Ansberry, eds. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism. London: SPCK, 2013.

2. That too many fundamentalists in our community fail to differentiate between confessional and non-confessional scholarship, with some extremists even boasting about how few non-Christadelphian books they read shows how far parts of our community have degenerated from the early generation of Christadelphians who critically engaged with then-contemporary scholarship.

3. Sadly, I am not making this up.  One ultra-fundamentalist in our community, in an article betraying both an unhealthy reverence for the flawed AV, and ignorance of textual criticism and the history of the Textus Receptus asserted: "If the Lord remains away and our children rely on the NIV, the Truth will be eroded to the point where the next generation will have Bibles which no longer support the first principles of the Truth regarding the nature of Jesus. This could, in time, lead to our understanding of the efficacy of Jesus’s sacrifice being obscured from view. All versions of the Bible have a place as aids to Bible Study, but we should not forget that the NIV is one of the products of declared papal ecumenical policy, and should therefore be used with caution. If we ignore this, we do so at our peril." It is hard not to get exasperated at uninformed personal opinions masquerading as Christadelphian scholarship.