On Trusting the Bible

Funny, just yesterday I post a few musings about what might be hot topics, I sort of give B list status to “what’s the Bible and what are we supposed to do about it,” and then the onslaught.

First, there was Rachel Held Evans’ indication that this is going to be a big topic for her this year: we need to learn to love the Bible we actually have.

Then there was an email message from someone taking a church history course that had come to the point of dealing with Neoorthodoxy and Karl Barth in particular.

Here’s how it’s all connected.

The student taking the church history class was getting an assessment of Neo-Orthodoxy from a prof at a school with an inerrancy statement. So there’s a presumption of a high view of scripture here–which is a point at which more conservative Evangelicals have routinely chided the Neo-Orthodox.

A summary of his assessment was this: the Neo-Orthodox were reacting against historical Jesus scholarship, and separated actual history from interpreted history. In retreating from actual history, Barth, Bultmann and Brunner severed the link between what actually happened and scripture. As a historian, this prof says that we have to affirm the actual history relayed in the text.

Here are a few thoughts: first, Barth and Bultmann were doing very different projects. Bultmann was moving away from a historicized Jesus in favor of a demythologized Jesus who confronts believers in an existential moment of decision. He is intentionally recontextualizing Jesus into the framework provided by existentialism.

Barth was doing something very different, inasmuch as he was calling the church back to scripture as the authoritative witness to Jesus as the incarnate word of God.

But here’s the more important point for today’s discussion: the inerrantist church history professor is calling us to a Jesus we have no access to, in denial of the Bible we actually have, in order to uphold his “high view” of scripture.

In reaffirming the centrality of the historical Jesus, the professor has done several things at once. First, he has affirmed the centrality of a kind of access to Jesus that God has not seen fit to give to the church. We do not have a historical Jesus record, we have theologically crafted narratives that interpret Jesus for the church.

Second, in so affirming this need, he denies the sufficiency of the Bible we actually have. Barth was right: the Gospels are witnesses to the incarnate logos, and this is what God has given us. To insist on the centrality of the historical Jesus is not only to clamor for what we do not have, it is to misunderstand the nature of the Gospels as historical documents that tell about historical events.

It’s both as historians and theologians that we must acknowledge that the Gospels are interpreted, theologically laden narratives–and that this is just what God wanted us to have.

Ironically, the conservative rejection of Neo-Orthodoxy in the name of a “high” view of scripture, at least in the case of Barth, ends up as a rejection of the Bible we actually have in favor of a man-made construct that does not match up with it.

We do not need to fear the theologically-laden, deeply interested, and individually shaped narratives of Jesus that God has given us. We need to find ways to celebrate that our God has given us precisely this Bible rather than the one we so often would prefer.

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