4th of July, Biblical Civilization, Atheism, and Conversation

To all US citizens, happy 4th of July. May this be a time of reflection on the best of our hopes, while we also consider the worst of our failures as a diverse and imperfect people.

In honor of this day, I recently recommended to the very energetic online Coffee With Paul Bible Study partners two fairly recent academic (you have been warned) discussions:

Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918  by Mark Noll, 2013 Astor Lecture, Oxford University.   The lecture is a detailed and probing history of post American civil war readings of the Bible, centering around the key date:  1876.  If you listen carefully, there are plenty of applications for why people read the Bible the way they do in any era.  Mark Noll is a prominent evangelical historian and theologian who also is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) which states:  “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,”  and which asks, “why has the largest single group of religious Americans, who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence, contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America?”  The audio is not about that topic.  (1 hour, audio only).

The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. A stimulating panel discussion by atheist Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher Anthony Kenny.  Although all three accept evolution as a fact, that is not the point of the discussion (and is not the point of my sharing this).  The point is rather with the way in which the discussion was conducted and the stimulating way in which questions were asked and engaged. This was held at Oxford University in Feb 2012. (Video 1.5 hours).

The Question

So I presented this to my online study partners, and one very astute member of the group, after listening to the first recording, commented and asked (in part):

Q:  “Critical thinking should not cause a person to lose Faith or discard the Bible as myth. So what would a true Biblical Civilization look like?”

This is a great observation and question. When faith is afraid to face honest and legitimate questions with reasonable answers, it is “chicken faith,” not Christian faith.  While I don’t want to accuse people of this (and sit in judgment on others), I also don’t want this to mark my own faith.  Hence the book:  Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.  That is the entire concern of that book.  Christians need to be able to face up to realities about the Bible and AT LEAST engage in reasonable discussions about such things.

This reminded me of something I saw on space.com recently: a beautiful picture of the “stunning new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467” (an actual star nursery)—a picture that would make any astronomy enthusiast beam with joy—right next to the most unlikely ad for this page. Here it is:

astronomy-astrology

Astrology and Astronomy. What a combination!

It immediately struck me that this aptly represents just how Christians often (or normally) read the Bible—in popularized, hop-scotch, horoscope fashion. The fact is, many might define “Biblical Civilization” as just such a thing! However, Bible readers should have no more patience for this kind of approach to the Bible than astronomers do for astrology.

A Biblical Civilization

This is why I also liked the second listed video (above).  In that video, atheist Richard Dawkins asks a very legitimate question to the Archbishop about “why God waited 4.7 billion years (or whatever) to finally get to the point,” and then again, “why should we turn to ancient sources in the first place?”  They were running out of time, so a good answer didn’t happen, but I still respected the way the question got asked and how the Archbishop (quickly) replied.

Part of my own answer (because I DO accept a 4.7 billion year span) is that Dawkins, who does not believe in God in the first place, is making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about “what God would have to be like.”  In other words, even accepting a 4.7 billion year time before humans (which you might not accept, but that is not the point—let’s stay on this point!), I am not bound by somebody else’s opinion and assertion of what God must be like or what he must do, or what must be important for him, especially by somebody who thinks God is a “ghost” anyway.

Who says that God did not or could not “delight in” or enjoy every single minute of the 4.7 billion years that existed before all of the kids were born?

Now, I’m attempting to offer some levity, but the point is quite serious.  I am respecting Dawkins’ question and asking him right back:

Accepting your assumptions about time, who are you to say that there could be no divine purpose to a long creative process, or that purpose can only exist when humans come along? Or what God can or can’t be? Or how God must act? And who are you to tell me that the Bible must be read in such a shallow way?  I get that enough from Christians, I don’t have to accept those kinds of assumptions from them OR you!

Again, the question Dawkins asked is a good and legitimate question and deserves a good and reasonable answer from believers.  (And my answer is, the Bible makes no claims about such things and was not written to such questions. So I don’t have to submit to your forced opinions about such things any more than I do from some Christians.)

So, I offer this as food for thought: A “Biblical Civilization” would NOT be one that is bound by only one particular view of how the scriptures apply to current questions.  (That means that a “Biblical Civilization” will be one of disagreement and discussion, not lock-step conformity!) Rather a “Biblical Civilization” would be one of vibrant, open discussion of this question: “How do we apply ancient texts to current contexts?”   And that right there is the most important question current readers of the Bible have to deal with.

Now, in that enterprise, Dawkins is ill equipped and totally off base.  But so are most Christians!   Dawkins (and most atheists I am aware of) fight against one particular kind of Christian viewpoint about the Bible, and then call it “the Bible!”  Most Christians comply by accepting that approach!

I absolutely do not.  A responsible and contextual reading of the scriptures considers first and foremost two things:

(1) Why these texts came into existence in the first place.

(2) Why they were kept and handed on by others.

It was NOT because the questions we are asking nowadays were being asked by them.  It was because other questions were being asked, and we have largely forgotten those questions and those contexts.   Genesis is not addressing the questions that science is asking today.  And whenever Christians accept that platform (which most conservative approaches do), they have already shown that they don’t understand the nature of their own book!  This is exactly why Christian teachers sometimes use texts out of context when they know better.  It is because they are often more motivated by the “right answers” they already know are true than they are by the integrity of the texts they have right in front of them.

I suggest that a “Biblical Civilization” would be comprised of people energetic and responsible in discussion about our ancient and precious texts.  And it would carry on this conversation without wrangling or frothing at the mouth.  A “Biblical Civilization” would be a searching civilization.

Gary

A New New Testament

Did you know that the NT now begins, not with the Gospel of Matthew, but with “The Prayer of Thanksgiving”?  What, you say, is the “The Prayer of Thanksgiving”?  Well, it is described this way:

A short and heretofore almost completely unknown prayer from the earliest eras of Christianity, it acts as a surprising and tender spiritual invocation for all the ANNT collection of traditional and unfamiliar documents. Its only copy exists and was discovered in the Nag Hammadi collection.

What Is This New New Testament?

ANNTBeginning March 2013, a new book on the NT canon has hit the shelves.  Only this is not about the NT canon, this is presented as a new NT canon. 

The book is called A New New Testament and is put together by Dr. Hal Tausig and 18 other teachers and religious leaders (both men and women) from the US.  They have  designated themselves as “The Council for A New New Testament.”  You can see a very nicely done video here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=SsDXHOzDHVI

So the NT now begins with a 4th A.D. century document from Nag Hammadi which few Christians ever did see, and no Christians have seen for about 1600 years or so.  At least, that is the idea here.

Now, for those who may not know or remember, Nag Hammadi is a spot on the Nile River in Africa where a small number of books (13 codices with 50 documents or texts) were found in 1945 dating from about the 4th century (A.D.)  They are a marvelous find of Christian documents mostly identified as Gnostic in philosophical orientation.  Christian Gnosticism was essentially run out of existence by the 4th century (except in underground movements), and had been the subject of ridicule since at least the 2nd century.  Naturally, as one might expect, there is a lot of speculation and argument over the dating of some of the documents included from the Nag Hammadi group.  For example, some like to date the Gospel of Thomas from as early as A.D. 35 or so!  Of course, this is hotly disputed.

What Does the New Canon Look Like?

Now, back to this New New Testament which is being presented as a new NT canon.  This book includes all of the current NT documents and the following additional books, although not in this order:

  1. The Gospel of Thomas
  2. The Gospel of Mary
  3. The Gospel of Truth
  4. The Odes of Solomon I
  5. The Odes of Solomon II
  6. The Odes of Solomon III
  7. The Odes of Solomon IV
  8. The Prayer of Thanksgiving.
  9. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
  10. The Acts of Paul and Thecla
  11. The Letter of Peter to Philip
  12. The Secret Revelation of John

Several of these are from the Nag Hammadi library mentioned above.  But these documents are not just “tacked on,” as if you can read these too, if you like—these are interspersed with the other NT documents.  So, it is unmistakable that this book is intended to be a replacement for the current NT canon.  Or, at the very least, it is attempting to grab people by the shoulders and shake the time out of them (while slapping them in the face) saying something like:  “The NT is not what you think it is!”  Or “Look what has been hidden from us!”

For example, the NT now looks like this:

First Group

  1. Prayer of Thanksgiving
  2. Gospel of Thomas
  3. Gospel of Matthew
  4. Gospel of Mark
  5. Gospel of Luke
  6. Acts of Apostles

Next Group

  1. The First book of the Odes of Solomon
  2. The Thunder: Perfect Mind
  3. Gospel of John
  4. Gospel of Mary
  5. Gospel of Truth

Paul’s letters are divided by those considered  (Group 3) “authentic” letters (Romans, 1-2Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1Thessalonians, Philemon), and (Group 4) those considered “in the tradition of Paul” (all the rest).  Group 3 is headed by “The Prayer of the Apostle Paul;”  Group 4 looks like this:

  1. The Second Book of the Odes of Solomon
  2. Ephesians
  3. Acts of Paul and Thecla
  4. Colossians
  5. etc.

This continues with other documents until following the the book of Revelation is the new last book in the New New Testament, which is now “The Secret Revelation of John”  (another book from Nag Hammadi).  

You get the idea.  To see the whole thing, go to Amazon.com   and click on “Look Inside” at the table of contents. 

At the end of the book, a little less than a hundred pages is given to the background of this book, providing some of the backstory and assessments of the documents added. 

Assessment and Response

One could spend hundreds of pages responding, evaluating the documents chosen, looking at the members of “The Council,” and so forth.  But that is not what I will do.

First, for the record, I want to state that I certainly don’t accept this as a NT canon that I feel any obligation to.  (You might not care, but some people will ask me, so I’m stating it up front.)  It is not that I feel they have committed any sin in offering such a thing—–even though this is not quite the process of canonization from the start.  Originally, canon grew out of use, acceptance as authority, and later was recognized as in use by churches all over the place.  “Canon” was more the end result of usage, rather than a list pushed on the church by any council or collection of councils.   This attempt seems rather the latter, and more likely an attempt to pry (by force) the topic open on a popular level.

Second, it certainly does not contain anything new, even though that is the way it is being presented.  It is only new to anyone who is not aware of the discoveries and debates in biblical scholarship since 1945 or so. And in that respect, it could be debated for ever just what books were not included, as well as what were included.  Certainly it is “new” considering the whole ongoing history of canon discussion, but it is still a bit disingenuous to refer to these books as “new.”

Third, this is not really a “canon” of anyone at this point, except perhaps for the people who put it together, and for the many who will jump on board for the newness of it.  It will most likely get a lot of attention, if for no other reason than it is a direct challenge to the current NT canon—–but more, to the widespread notions (and on a popular level, unexamined notions) about canon.  Again, this is an attempt to force open the question.

However, having said all of that my main response is rather this way:  Instead of just rejecting and reacting against such a move (which most evangelical and conservative Christians surely will), Christians ought to—instead—take this as one more of an unending number of reasons why Christians of all stripes need to become conversant with the full range of discussion on what scripture is, what canon is, and what inspiration means.  It is not acceptable for Christians to merely bury their heads in the sand and yelp against such new books.  Nor is it acceptable for church leaders to hide such things from their members, as though they are innocent little children who have no ability to think.  “Protecting” our people from such things and not helping them to think through such issues, or even just showing them only one side of the argument, is not only cowardly, it is honestly just a dumb idea! 

Walking people through such current concerns and discussions does not mean dusting off old notes from 30 or 40 years ago and “reminding oneself” of how we know what should be in the NT and what should not be.  The landscape has changed so much from then to now that Christian readers need to start over and get up to speed on what is being said and why. 

The issues are clear:  Christians need to be actively discussing the nature of scripture, canon, and inspiration.  Not just what the so-called “rules” are for “which books should be included and which should be left out, but beyond that to the very nature of  what we call the most important book in the history of the world.  This is not just about what you yourself accept privately;  this is about what we as believers are presenting to the world! And if we continue allowing ourselves and our memberships to look like buffoons on this and related topics, we won’t have anything to present to anybody.  And we shouldn’t!

Gary D. Collier
author of Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration   (May 2012)

 

“I Seem to Be Struggling with Bible Study”

Just today I received a public comment about the Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration book that deserves more than a “comment” status.  It is from Lynette—someone I’ve never met.  I have come to know her, though, through this Bible study program.  She has an eagerness that is contagious, and an openness and transparency that is commendable. I’m sharing this because I think some others might identify with her.

Here’s what she wrote (the bold sections were made bold by me):

Let me just say for someone that was raised in the church, I still feel very “new” to all of this. I love the church that I’ve found, my children love it and the pastor and his family are amazing! I however still seem to be struggling with bible study and I have absolutely no idea why. I did read the book, and I got really confused, and scared-no idea why. I gave it to my pastor, he is almost done with it and we will be getting together to discuss and I’m very much looking forward to it. I honestly wouldn’t even stress about those that are being so negative, they are that way only because they don’t know and they are lacking in faith, I don’t know, I don’t understand; however, I have faith and something tells me that what you are saying makes sense! So keep going! I will figure it out I promise, some days I’m just slow out of the gates! As I read the book, at times I did seem to feel like I was understanding, and then the next day I was lost (could be the fibro fog thing honestly) I enjoyed every minute of it, the amount of passion you put into your work does not go unnoticed! I look forward to learning more! I know that I don’t know that Bible as well as I would like, and I crave the knowledge it has to offer and look forward to learning and sharing everything that I can.

I want to thank L. for being so up-front and honest!  Struggling is not a sin;   it is rather a sign of a spirit that wants to know and grow.  It does not mean she will end up agreeing with me.  It means she is thinking.  

L’s admission of being confused and scared will be enough for some to say,”See, look what you are doing to people of faith!”  (I’ve already heard it.)  My reply is simple: Educating people of faith is not something I’m ashamed of.  I would think that being people of faith means that we are also people concerned about truth. And being concerned about truth, we are not afraid to be challenged, or to think seriously about the book we call the most important book in the history of the world.

I am right now having another conversation with a friend about this book:  he is attempting to help me see weaknesses in my argument.   I am grateful for his energy.  I will not quote him directly, but he says (in effect) that the inerrancy of the original autographs is obviously a construct that we have come up with, not specifically stated in the Bible;  but that it is a reasonable construct (he affirms).

When I heard this, I was genuinely nonplussed.  I said in response:

This is almost funny.  Here I am trying to say, ‘Let’s be biblical in our views of the Bible,’  and you are saying that the Bible is not sufficient for that!  Who has the higher view of the Bible?

We are not content with what the Bible does and does not specifically claim.  It is not enough for us.  We have to “fill in the blanks.” We have to sugar-coat it and theologize about it and make up things about it that it does not claim for itself.  Then we teach it to all of our people.  We even require it!  And then we get mad when somebody blows the whistle on us for doing it.

Let us put it this way:  If faith is based on fantasy, or has to be propped up by it, then how is this not another Santa Claus story?

Challenging current theories about the Bible is not the same as attacking the Bible.  Asking people to think about what they believe is not an act of faithlessness.  It is rather not only an act of faith, but an obligation of faith.

I want to thank Lynette for being brave enough to state the truth.  And it is to her, and and any who may feel like her, that I close this piece with what I consider to be a statement of resounding faith and love for the ancient scriptures.  It actually is found in the CWP statement of faith:  it was written before the book was written, and it remains unchanged to this day.  Here is but a piece of it:

This is a faith-based academic effort asserting that the canon of the ancient scriptures is an act of faith in search of a conversation with God. As such, it deserves our very best efforts as we engage both heart (the discipline of faith) and mind (the discipline of academic rigor) in pursuit of a conversation with God.  Not only should the canon be offered words of great respect (as it often is), but it should be pursued with responsibility and integrity (which it often is not). It is not enough that Christians claim a “high view of the scriptures” or “academic excellence,” they must act upon such things or the claims mean nothing. We approach the ancient scriptures energetically.  They are not, however, the object of our worship, but witnesses to the Lord who is. 

Gary D. Collier