Monday, October 13, 2008
Caught In-Between
I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago about how I feel caught in-between the liberal and conservative Christian worlds at seminary, especially in my Old Testament class. My OT prof is a great guy and very knowledgeable, however, he can occasionally come across rather condescending in the way he assumes that the only reason one would have to doubt the critical scholars' views or methods regarding the Hebrew Scriptures is because one holds a traditionalist/literalist view of the Bible, and that it's just too disturbing to one's faith to consider that, for instance, the events related in the Pentateuch are not entirely historical, or that the book of Isaiah was not all written by the same guy. And granted, there are a few people in the class like that who are having some strong reactions to these "liberal" readings of the Bible; but that isn't me.

The strange position I find myself in is that, on one hand, it doesn't shake my faith at all to consider these alternative ways of understanding scripture. Taking Isaiah for instance, what difference does it make whether one prophet in the 8th century BC wrote all of it, or whether it was written by several different people over 3-4 centuries and eventually collected as reflective of a particular "Isaianic" school of prophecy. The Holy Spirit is just as capable of inspiring multiple authors and editors as she is of inspiring just one guy. Thus I have no existential "need" to reject any of these critical theories simply out of hand. I'm completely open to new ideas and find that they generally strengthen, not challenge, my faith.

However, on the other hand, I do have some scholarly criticisms and doubts about the assumptions and methods that underlie some of the particular conclusions of the critical theories. Again, let me use Isaiah as an example. The literary-critical theory that the book of Isaiah is actually at least three distinct books (First Isaiah, chapters 1-39; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55; and Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66), and each book itself is composed of many different segments composed by different authors, is based on four observations about the text:

1) Differences in the language (e.g. syntax, grammar, vocabulary, morphology, etc.) between the different sections. The analogy given in class was that it was like taking poems by Shakespeare, Yeats, Jack Kerouac and Maya Angelou, mashing them all together and trying to pass them off as coming from the same author. It wouldn't take a scholar to figure out that something wasn't quite right. So, just as there would be a noticeable difference in the language of a 16th century Shakespearean sonnet versus a 20th century poem by Maya Angelou, we can infer a similar difference of time period and authorship between the various segments of Isaiah.

2) Differences in literary genres between different sections of the text. The book of Isaiah frequently switches between poetry, prophetic oracles, personal narratives and historical accounts. The assumption is that different genres should be attributed to different authors.

3) Differences in the content of the oracles. Parts of Isaiah are very doom and gloom, prophesying destruction and judgment, while other parts offer hope of deliverance and salvation. The assumption is that each of these must be the work of different persons.

4) Specific prophecies about events (such as a Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and subsequent exile of the Jews in Babylon) which post-date the historical Isaiah by a century or more are assumed to be by later writers. The reasons for this are two-folds: first, it is unusual for Hebrew prophets to address situations that didn't relate to their immediate audience at all. In Isaiah's time, Judah was being threatened by the invasion of the Assyrians. Why then would any of his contemporaries pay attention if he started warning them about a Babylonian threat that wouldn't materialize for over a century? Second, critical scholars generally operate on the naturalistic assumption that predictive prophecy is impossible, and thus any specific prophecies about future events must have actually been written reflectively, after the fact.

Again, I have no fundamental resistance to the suggestion that Isaiah was composed by multiple authors, however, of the reasons for this that I just mentioned, I don't find all of them very convincing. The first one is the most solid, IMHO. It does seem likely that significant linguistic differences would be the result of multiple authorship. Unfortunately, without a personal knowledge of Hebrew, I can't say for certain how many of the divisions of the book are based on these sorts of differences.

The next two reasons, differences in genre and content, are entirely unconvincing to me. It's not authors are incapable of writing in more than one style, or of writing about more than one thing. To take the Shakespeare analogy again, he wrote both plays and poems, and he wrote about countless themes and ideas, some of which conflict with each other. Why assume that Isaiah is any less capable of literary diversity? In the absence of other supporting evidence, positing multiple authors based on these criteria alone seems unnecessarily complicated and unconvincing to me.

The final reason, predictive prophecy, is only partially convincing to me. I fully agree that it makes more sense for the Babylonian oracles to have been written around the time when Babylon was an actual threat, and not a century before hand. In this regards it's important to remember that the biblical definition of "prophecy" isn't primarily about "predicting the future". Rather it's about communicating God's will and intentions to God's people as they try to navigate the circumstances they are in. Thus it makes sense that God's words would have been first delivered at a time when they were most relevant.

On the other hand, if the rationale is primarily based on a naturalistic assumption that predictive prophecy absolutely cannot, and therefore does not happen, that seems illegitimate to me. I say illegitimate not as a supernaturalist (though I am one) but as an (aspiring) historian. Naturalistic assumptions about history are just that, assumptions - i.e. preconceived philosophical biases that get in the way of the more fundamental historical question of "what, in fact, happened?" The historian should make no judgment one way or the other about whether supernatural phenomenon can occur. Our question should simply be: "what is the evidence we have for what actually did occur?" And if the evidence supports the possibility of a supernatural occurrence, we shouldn't be so quick to rule out that interpretation of the events out of hand. And there have been a least a few instances in my OT class, and especially in the primary text book, where that presumption of naturalism has been the driving motivation for a particular interpretation of a passage.

At any rate, I guess in the final analysis I'd say that the more of these factors that come into play, the more likely it is that the text is the product of multiple authorship. However, not being a full-fledged Old Testament scholar, I can't exactly say how often there actually is more than one factor in consideration. My impression, especially given the wide disagreement even among literary-critical scholars about how exactly the text should be broken down, is that these divisions are not always so clear cut and that our commitment to this way of reading the text should therefore be held fairly tentatively. And I guess, ultimately, that's my biggest complaint about the "liberal" scholarship and this class in general: I have no problem with considering all of these theories as possibilities, but it's when they get passed off as nearly certain truths (and therefore anyone who raises questions about them must simply be a conservative reactionary) that it rubs me the wrong way. I'm starting to gather during my time at a liberal seminary that this is one of the defining differences between liberal (or conservative) moderns and emerging postmoderns like myself - not the content of our views, necessarily, but the relative degree of certitude with which we hold them.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 4:51 PM | Permalink |


At 10/14/2008 01:57:00 PM, Blogger Mike L.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can relate. I've been in exactly the same position. When I was first exposed to the most current (liberal) Biblical scholarship I began to feel squeezed between my faith and my common sense understanding. I got over it pretty quick and now feel very comfortable with a non-literal view of the bible and a more naturalist understanding of the world. I tend to call it "real faith" as opposed to the more surreal faith I learned as a child in a literalistic religion.

I guess the big dilemma as I was working my way through this problem was that I felt the scholarship might be asking me to choose between a life of faith and a life of reason. Now, I realize that faith need not be confined to believing things that are hard to believe. I don't measure faith by the level of absurdity in what I'm willing to label as fact. Faith can be 100% reasonable and reason is not a flawed modern concept that will eventually fade away. Pre-modern people were very reasonable too, but they operated with different data than we have. I don't see post-modernity as a rejection of reason or a return to naivety, but instead I see it as simply an understanding with another few centuries of data (wisdom, stories, experiences) to add to our world view.

I have a couple of questions about what you meant when you said...

"it doesn't shake my faith at all to consider these alternative ways of understanding scripture"

When you speak of your faith in this context, do you mean your belief in the supernatural? Do you mean that a liberal (or more reasonable) reading of scripture doesn't cause you to stop holding a pre-modern supernatural world view? Or do you mean that this liberal reading gives you the ability to drop the pre-modern world view without losing your religious connections, stories and traditions? Can you unpack that a bit?


At 10/14/2008 03:27:00 PM, Blogger M James

"And if the evidence supports the possibility of a supernatural occurrence, we shouldn't be so quick to rule out that interpretation of the events out of hand."

Anything that has evidence for it is by definition not "supernatural".

In my opinion, the word "supernatural" is a bit of nonsense since anything that has a cause can be tested and investigated. There's no such thing as "natural" explanations versus "supernatural" explanations.
There are only "correct" explanations.

No matter what the claim, we can use the same methodology to test it that we use for everything else.


At 10/14/2008 04:34:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"it doesn't shake my faith at all to consider these alternative ways of understanding scripture"

"When you speak of your faith in this context, do you mean your belief in the supernatural? Do you mean that a liberal (or more reasonable) reading of scripture doesn't cause you to stop holding a pre-modern supernatural world view? Or do you mean that this liberal reading gives you the ability to drop the pre-modern world view without losing your religious connections, stories and traditions?"

I meant my faith as a whole, not just the supernatural component of it. But regarding the "supernatural", yes, even though I am open to "liberal" readings of scripture, I still do believe in a "supernatural" God (i.e. a transcendent Creator as opposed to the pantheist conception), in miracles, and in the possibility of predictive prophecy. These beliefs are not "premodern" or "modern" or "postmodern" IMHO. It's been a modern conceit (what C.S. Lewis calls "chronological snobbery") to think that modern science, or literary-critical interpretations of scripture, somehow makes belief in such things untenable. That's poor philosophy IMHO, and it's an unnecessary assumption to bring to a literary-critical approach to the Bible. So no, the critical scholarship does not affect my belief in the "supernatural" aspects of my faith, nor, I'm finding, much else about it. I already embraced a more flexible, less literalistic view of the Bible a long time ago. (Though, I should add, "less literalistic" does not, for me, mean "completely unhistorical", nor does it mean "demythologized" or "completely naturalistic".)


At 10/14/2008 05:10:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Michael (James) -

I agree with you that the natural/supernatural distinction is not a very useful one. Since I define "supernatural" as "anything that God does", then in a certain sense everything is supernatural, since, if God does exist, then she is the cause of "nature" as well.

However, in the context of my post, I was using the term "supernatural" more conventionally simply to refer to "out of the ordinary" things like miracles or predictive prophecy that we would tend to attribute to direct divine causation. I might disagree with you as to whether such events would ultimately be able to be tested by the same methodology as everything else. If God is their direct cause then that cause is ultimate inaccessible to scientific methodology. Science is a great tool for understanding many things within the created world, but science has its limits, and those are generally found at the edges of this universe. Science has no power to observe or comment on anything outside of this universe, which, if she exists, would include God.

But that's mostly a tangent since we're not talking about science, we're talking about literature and history - which are also realms where science finds its limits. The tools of history are not the same as the tools of science; nor is the discipline of history equipped to tell us about the kind of "causes" that I suspect you are referring to. For instance, when it comes to the possibility of predictive prophecy in Isaiah, neither history nor science can tell us anything about the "cause". All history can do is give us clues as to whether or not it actually happened. My argument is that we should separate that question about what happened from the question about causes, since the former is an historical one while the latter is a philosophical one. In other words, once history helps us determine what happened, then the philosophers - naturalist, supernaturalist, or whatever - can debate about what they think caused it. The problem, IMHO, is when one's philosophical presuppositions are introduced a priori, and thereby get in the way of the historical question.

(And yes, I'm equally annoyed when supernaturalists impose their assumptions on the text as well. I've read too many conservative commentaries of Isaiah that just assume that the book must contain predictive prophecy, and therefore ignore or dismiss any evidence for later authorship.)


At 10/14/2008 05:39:00 PM, Blogger Mike L.


Thanks for the clarification. Like you, I wouldn't want to venture into "chronological snobbery". I don't look down on older views because I recognize how flawed my own view will seem one day. I'm completely open and hold any conclusions as tentative and don't even like the word "conclusions". I suspect most liberal scholars are open as well but I won't speak for them. I don't know of anyone who would suggest the bible is "completely unhistorical". The most liberal of liberal scholars find a large amount of historical data in the bible, but most recognize that even the hard factual events are told through allegorical literary techniques. For example, how Jesus' birth story was crafted to allegorically align him with Moses' escape from genocide and his birth announcement so closely aligned with Augustus Caesar. By asking "Why?" we can see the beauty of the story's literary elements.

Even hard-line atheists would agree with a basic grounding in history for these stories. That isn't the point. The main point is that we've been caught up with categories of natural and supernatural for so long (perhaps residual effects of Greek philosophical dualism?) that we stopped allowing for God to be something real. I'm not interested in making the stories less real. I'm interesting in finding more reality in them. I find them drenched in reality. They may not be factual, but I find beauty in their ability to incarnate something as abstract as God into reality for us.

I guess for me it boils down to the difference in how I now approach the text. As a conservative I would read a story and say "Wow! Did that really happen?" Now, I'd read the same story and ask "What must the author have been trying to say by writing the story that way".

I think you are hinting at a more modern approach to the texts by suggesting that their value would rely in their historical accuracy. That is exactly what led to the 2 poles of modern mistakes - literalists who bend reality to match the story and secularists who throw away all stories that are not factual. Many people, like Thomas Jefferson, reacted by ridding the bible of its best parts. The problem is that those stories rock! If we don't try to seem them as proof for the supernatural, we can then see them as powerful allegorical commentary (like the story of Jesus casting out unclean spirits as an allegorical setup for his trip to Jerusalem and protest in the temple).

I haven't been to a liberal seminary so maybe you are correct to assume this prof. might be trying to degrade scripture somehow, but you may want to give the naturalistic reading a chance to see if it opens up deeper layers of allegory and truth. I don't think we choose between history or myth. IMHO, the stories are history told through myth.

Thanks for responding. I've always enjoyed you blog and your thoughts.


At 10/26/2008 12:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

This is an old thread, so I probably no one will read this, but it's such a fascinating post, I feel the need to respond, if just to work out my own response to it.


Naturalistic assumptions about history are just that, assumptions - i.e. preconceived philosophical biases that get in the way of the more fundamental historical question of "what, in fact, happened?" The historian should make no judgment one way or the other about whether supernatural phenomenon can occur.

I'm an atheist, so my answer here may not resonate very well with you, but I would say "naturalistic assumptions" are not just like other assumptions, that can be assumed or rejected. Rather, they're necessary to practice history.

Creationists often claim that evolution and the Big Bang are based on "naturalistic assumptions" that they just want to test---and that traditional scientists, who assume that regular natural laws work all the time, are really being unscientific. This seems to me to misunderstand how science works. You can't do science unless you assume that things are going to work in a regular manner, so that your hypotheses will lead to testable predictions. If someone thinks that the fossil record is based on God just placing fossils in a paricular place without regard to any regular laws, then we can't test that, because we have no idea what sort of fossil records God would like or dislike; God might do whatever He/She/It wants, with incomprehensible motives, and so this creationist isn't making any predictions that we can falsify. On the other hand, if a biologist proposes that the fossils are based on certain regular processes, we can figure out what particular fossil patterns would result from those processes, and then go out and see if we actually get those patterns.

Some of the comments point out that things might get moved from "supernatural" to "natural," and that's true. If parapsychologists get repeatable experiments that demonstrate ESP, ESP will get classified as a regular, testable, phenomenon. But beliefs that God just did something will never be testable, because we're never going to have a framework in which we can predict precisely what God will do. That's not to say that I might not have experiences that would convince me that God exists. If God talked to me as a burning bush, I would believe in God, but unless I could reproduce that burning bush, under controlled conditions, on the demand of others, that experience would be beyond science.

As you say, history and biology differ in many ways, of course, but it seems to me that the above arguments are true of history as well. You have to assume that all events are explained by the sort of "normal" human and natural interactions, if you're going to practice history. If I think that Caesar's assassination was planned by the Egyptians, we have a regular set of principles to investigate that---we know what documents to look for, we have reasonable guesses as to what sort of things might threaten the Egyptians, etc. . . We have an idea how Egyptians are likely to respond to certain Roman actions, how Romans are likely to respond to certain Egyptian actions, and so on, because they're humans, just like us. If I think that Hurricane Katrina was sent by God to punish America for the Iraq war, we have no idea what records to inspect, or how to analyze them, because we have no precise, well-agreed understanding of what motivates God, how He/She/It is likely to respond to human events, or how His/Her/It's prophets are likely to respond to hearing the word of God.

Anyway, a long response, and as I said at the start, since I'm an atheist, maybe none of this will resonate with you at all, if you see this post at all. But on the off-chance that you're reading let me make an argument that I think works from a Christian perspective. It doesn't make sense for Second Isaiah to have been written in the seventh century B.C., because not only does he talk about future events, but he give no sign that he's talking about future events. Take Isa 44:28-45:1, where he talks about Cyrus carrying out his will. If we assume that God told Isaiah that there would be a Cyrus in the future who would return the Jews to Israel, these verses would make sense to Isaiah, but would be completely incomprehensible to the Jews Isaiah was prophesizing to. The seventh century Jews would respond to these verses by saying "Huh, who's this Cyrus you're talking about?" If Isa 44:28-45:1 were really written by a seventh century prophet to seventh century Jews, then there should be verses before 44:28 explaining to the Jews that there will (using the future tense) be a Babylonian captivity, and that it will be ended by Cyrus.