Thursday, October 7, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Response, Part 2

This is the seventh post of a series on Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Marcus Borg.  The other posts can be found here:

While Borg has some good points, I find myself in considerable disagreement in many places.

1) History of Inerrancy.  Borg makes a sweeping claim in Chapter 1 backed by some fairly accurate but incomplete, and thus misleading, claims of the history of reading the bible.  That the idea that the bible was actually infallible didn’t exist until after the Reformation is broadly mistaken.  It may be true that infallibility as a doctrine wasn’t developed before then, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist as an idea for before then as it was hardly an issue.  Doctrines develop out of pre-existing concepts.  Given the pressures of many heresies in the second, third, and fourth centuries such as Gnosticism, there was certainly considerable emphasis in the Orthodox community on the faithfulness of the Scriptures to what it claimed to have been witness.  And this certainly goes back to the New Testament itself (John , , 1 Timothy 1:3, Galatians 1:6-7, 2 Peter -21).  No doubt Borg would disagree with my suppositions concerning orthodoxy in the early church and the scripture quotes, but this depends on a critical flaw I will get to later.  Moreover, though it was the case for a long time that only a few could read the scriptures, it was not that way in the beginning.  True, they didn’t always read per say but the letters were read and copied for reading considerably.  Moreover, especially under the Christian Roman Empire, education and literacy were highly stressed for many Christians; and naturally the first thing to be read was the Holy Scriptures.

2) The development of the canon.  Closely connected to the first point is Borg’s accounting of canonicity in Chapter 2.  There is ample evidence, which I won’t put forward here, that there is a considerable distinction to be made between when/how something was determined to have canonical status and when/how the canon was determined to be closed.  The evidence Borg (and many others) uses to determine when something was accorded a canonical status is quite precisely when the canon was determined to be closed and complete.  This was due to various external pressures, like Gnosticism, which caused a need to reject other writings from a claimed canonical status.  But there is considerable evidence, especially for the NT, that the biblical community accorded a canonical or authoritative status to many biblical works long before the canon was closed.  One need only read Clement, Ignatius, or Justin Martyr, to name a few, and their use of NT documents to understand this point.  Moreover, would a (significantly large, geographically vast, and diverse) community form a completed canon list without there being considerable precedence of the authoritative status of most of the works?  To answer “Yes” would be a phenomenal claim.

3) The supremacy of world-views for governing ones reading of the bible.  In chapter 1, Borg presents four cultural factors that require a replacement of the traditional way in which the bible is read.  Yes, it is true that we have increased awareness of historical and cultural relativity (a subset being religious pluralism), and it’s true that we are in the throws of modernity and on the cusp of postmodernity, of which historical/cultural relativity is a subset.  But why does one’s cultural stance become the standard of reading without criticizing any elements of that world view?  Are all world views correct?  In the very least we don’t know and it’s an amazing claim of knowledge to say that they’re all correct, even more than saying only your own is correct.  Borg doesn’t quite claim that they’re all correct, but he does seem to indicate throughout the book that most every one is except the evangelical/fundamentalist one.  (To be fair, there is some small critique of modernism.)  The least one can do is critically evaluate any/all worldviews to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong with them (though, that would require a standard above ourselves … more on that later).

I feel a few points are required concerning his explanations of modernism and postmodernism.  First, on my understanding, there are two major things missing from his characterizations of modernism.  1) Modernity came into being when a shift occurred: where God or the gods used to be the “given”, now “man” is the “given”.  Man becomes the center, and what is foundational to how one understands oneself and the surrounding world.  God can still exist, but must be proven.  2) What humans know becomes absolute (this follows naturally from the first point).  That is, whatever humans know to be true, they know it exhaustively and without exception.  To give an example, when Galileo made his discovery that the planets all rotate around the sun, the big deal was not simply that he proposed it, but that he claimed that it must be that way; instead of it merely being a possibility among many.  If this is not sufficient example, just consider the way standard evolutionary theory is propounded as fact when in fact it is merely theory.

These shortcomings follow through in his understanding of postmodernity, the skeptical reaction to modernity.  Again on my understanding, whereas modernism replaced the “given” of God/gods with man but left a god-like understanding, so postmodernism still has man at the center but man’s horizon of understanding shrinks to the size of man.  Man is entirely his own limit of understanding (a natural consequence of modernism).  What results is that whatever humans know to be true is really only true for them.  This does not necessarily mean there is no absolute truth, only that humans can’t really know it.  One’s horizon of understanding is so bound by one’s culture, language, historical circumstances, etc. – one’s community – that the truth that one sees is only true for one’s perspective.

All this means a few things with respect to Borg.  1) Postmodernism according to these definitions means that Borg is a little off in saying that we are on the boundary of postmodernism.  In fact in many ways the American culture is a mixture of modern and postmodern covering a wide spectrum.  And the western world has been in postmodernism long enough to have parts of it already entering a post-postmodernism where we at minimum realize that society just can’t function without any understanding of absolute truth.  We may not know absolutely but at least we know. 2) Given his strong emphasis throughout the book that we need a fresh reading of the bible based on the cultural world-views of our day, Borg is perhaps a bit more postmodern than “on the boundary” and comes across in this book as perhaps more postmodern than he admits.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for clarifying his position on modernity and postmodernity, and for giving a more balanced description of each (and you used the Galileo example!).

    The question of canon is a fascinating one - knowing how and why one letter was considered canon, and another not, and when the canon was closed, etc. These things, I think, are important for all Christians to know, and sadly, only a few church historians really have a good grasp on it. How can we we defend our stance on something if we don't even understand its origin? Especially something so important as the Word. Hmm ... this may be prompting me to tackle studying the history of the Bible sometime soon!


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