Sunday, October 10, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Response, Part 3

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

towards UNderstanding the bible
In Chapter 2, Borg rightly seeks to understand the nature of the bible in order to understand how to read it; certainly a critical aspect of this is understanding the historical origins of the bible.  Rightly, Borg points out that the bible is a product of particular communities.  Whatever the bible is, it is certainly not less than a product of particular human communities within cultural and sociological confines.  Sadly, in evaluating its divine origins, Borg can’t seem to be able to maintain a both/and and opts for an either/or.  It’s either human or divine, and it can’t be divine so it must be human.  At least Borg anticipates an objection to his disjunctive thinking. 

However, his argument falters on being limited to his own subjective experience.  People who affirm that all of Scripture is both, in his experience, tend to separate Scripture out between the “human” parts and the “divine”.  Quite naturally, those “divine” parts end up being those that simply affirm the doctrines of the community (so I take Borg to be saying).  Well, I’ll certainly agree that this is a problem, and such practice is endemic to humanity beyond religious bounds, but perhaps Borg hasn’t experienced any who do comfortably, in theory and in practice, hold that the bible is 100% human and divine without seeing the tension as an obstacle for understanding.  More charitably, Borg has probably read or experienced those who see it as both/and, yet made a judgment that their understanding was based simply on subjecting the “hard parts” to the “human” and what they agreed with to the “divine”.  So then, does the fact that people have problems making it 100% both/and determine whether or not it’s true?  This is an error in psychologizing.  Maybe there’s merely a shortcoming in understanding how the human/divine go together or merely a lack of care in praxis while what they believe to be true really is true. 

The issue is that the bible itself makes astonishing claims about itself that the words that it speaks (speech-acts) are no less divine than they are human.  Of course, we don’t want to err on the side of divine dictation, where the bible merely consists of God, whether literally or metaphorically, speaking in someone’s ear and that person dictating or writing it out (though that may be true of some scripture).  Rather, as a product within history, the bible claims, implicitly and explicitly, that Creator God himself has acted within history and has acted to have witness to his acts faithfully recorded.  This recording claims to be so faithful as to be “inerrant” in conveying what God has said and done.  I will not go into supporting the claims of the bible as this would take a whole other post, but note the standard 2 Timothy 3:16 and also 2 Peter 1:16-21.  The authority with which the Scriptures (implicitly) demand such trust in its faithfulness is laced throughout.

But there’s a problem.  What if such claims are simply a part of the “metaphor” of the community and simply intended to affirm faithfulness to itself?  What if this way of putting things really is just the human community trying to exercise its own authority in the midst of historical trials/circumstances, etc.?  Then it doesn’t simply do to say “the bible says it this way”, does it?  As Borg lays out in Chapter 3, we shouldn’t ignore the historical context nor ignore the fact that the bible is not just simply historiography but paints a picture of how the people of that community see (for Borg, experience) God and thus themselves and the world they live in.

However, I think Borg draws categories which are too restrictive:
Concerning historical context, it is one thing to note that historical meaning is found in historical context, but some speech-acts point beyond the historical circumstance to declare a truth value intended to transcend the situation.  Sometimes, saying that the historical meaning is found in its historical context ends up over-psychologizing the statement or not understanding the type of statement given.  Take Exodus 34:5-7 for example:
“The LORD descended in a cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.  The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
Over-psychologizing can look at the historical context and claim that the author who wrote this did so (merely) out of the fact that a marvelous feat had been accomplished when the Israelite people escaped Egypt.  One might conclude that therefore the claims about God are ways of expressing the way the people experienced God in this instance and expressing consequences for not adhering to their way of seeing God.  Thus, it is limited in its scope to this circumstance and not intended to be an absolute truth claim (or at least shouldn’t be taken as one).  This is similar in many ways to Borg’s approach for Mark 13 in Chapter 8 of the book where we are to read it in light of the war-time mentality in the aftermath of the Romans destroying the temple. 

Yet this is very slippery.  Perhaps this is an instance where the reality really did point to some absolute truth, yet the approach of has determined a priori that it must be false as an absolute and so must be only true in relative terms.  Perhaps even looking at it this way is a product of our own historical circumstances (to be consistent) and so we still haven’t gotten any closer in understanding.  This is tied closely with simply not recognizing the type of statement.  It is popular these days to see the bible as simply (or at least mostly) narrative and so we put on our “narrative” glasses and read it that way.  Well, while that’s in many ways true, statements like the Exodus one above transcend narrative within the narrative.  It makes an assertion or proposition about who Yahweh is.  Thus it demands acceptance or rejection, not simply within the narrative but in and of itself.  We can rationalize the circumstance that brought it about but that doesn’t reckon with what the author asserted in writing it.

This leads into considering Borg’s second strand of approaching the bible, the metaphorical approach.  Borg wants us to recognize that ancient communities, like the ones that produced the bible, often metaphorized their history and often used this to invest their stories with meaning.  This is no doubt accurate for many ancient communities and it is certainly very important to recognize that biblical narrative certainly is more than just history, but is used to make theological points. 

But this is insufficient for a couple of reasons: First, it is recognized by some these days that many in Jesus’ and Paul’s day were very concerned with the factuality of the historicity of accounts, just as one criterion for canon for early church fathers was that it was in some way directly related to an eyewitness.  So such a blanket statement would be recognized by some as considerably off.  Secondly, and more fundamentally, there is a critical moral element in all this, a moral element to understanding and a moral element to “telling it like it is”.  One can either proclaim one’s worldview with respect to a faithfully portrayed history, or one can proclaim one’s worldview with considerable disregard for the way it really happened.  This directly ties in with the eyewitness concerns that are very prevalent in the bible (both implicitly and explicitly), especially in comparison to many other worldviews. 

The crux of the whole thing is that one’s worldview is fundamental.  Why would one be concerned with faithful historical accounting?  If a people/community understood that God really has acted in history, that this has been fairly witnessed, that God really is the righteous Creator God who stands in judgment against our sin, and that as a result we will all be judged accordingly, then there would be high reason for faithful reporting of what God has said and done.  Douglas Stuart says it well in discussing the historicity of Jonah,
“If the events described … actually happened, the audience’s existential identification with the characters and circumstances is invariably heightened.  People act more surely upon what they believe to be true in fact, than merely what they consider likely in theory …. If this is the way God works in history … it is not simply a narrator’s desire, it is God’s enforceable revelation.”

This is directly related to Borg’s methodology of determining the metaphorical level of a given passage of scripture; in particular, “the limits of the spectacular”.  He asks, “Are there some things that never happen anywhere?”  But I’d ask, “How do you know they never happened?” To anticipate the present tense of his question, I’d also ask, “Does the fact that it doesn’t happen now mean it’s never happened?”  First, this reminds me of a pithy Lord of the Rings quote.  In reference to the history of the ring, the narrator towards the beginning of the first movie says, “History became legend, legend became myth … and some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.”  Along more biblical lines, how unreasonable is it to suppose that if God really has acted specifically in history that such wonders didn’t actually occur, especially in order to affirm that God really was acting.  To assume they didn’t assumes that God hasn’t acted as the biblical authors proclaim.  Moreover, this makes man the final arbiter of what has and hasn’t happened.  Why should this be? 

In the end, who’s to determine whether only parts of it are divine, or whether all or none of it is?  Who’s to determine whether what the bible portrays really happened?  What’s required for understanding is simply faith.  That is, faith in what God has said and done.  In an essay by D.A. Carson, a couple of thoughts say it well:

1)  We cannot understand the bible without presupposing the God of the Bible, that is, of to some degree having the same view as the bible concerning God, human beings, sin, and what God has done and is doing to remedy the problem of sin.  We cannot know God without God first disclosing himself to us.

2) We do not know independently.  For God to structure his revelation to accommodate such a desire would be to foster the sin/idolatry in attempting to be like God, which the gospel frees us from.  His self-disclosure is sufficiently clear to those who walk by faith.  What is required is humility seeking godliness in order to grow in our understanding of God who says “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).

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