Put Your Bibles Away?
I came across this intriguing piece at Per Crucem ad Lucem via Faith and Theology. It’s a quote from one of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s journal entries—one in which he seems to be advocating something, well, something kind of un-Christian. Here’s a little (provocative) sample:
Fundamentally a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope. All that about the Bible has developed a religion of learning and law, a mere distraction. A little of that knowledge has gradually percolated to the simplest classes so that no one any longer reads the Bible humanly…. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.
I’ve probably not read enough Kierkegaard to be qualified to make sense of how this fits in with the rest of his thought although it does seem odd to read these words coming from a man who devoted a book to trying to make sense of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s interesting to wonder what he was reacting against in his day, and how this passage might offer a word of warning to us today. I guess the question would be: what did “the Pope” signify for Luther in his day and how (if at all) does the role that the Bible plays in some circles of Christianity resemble this today?
It’s an interesting idea to think about, at any rate…
I’m wondering if idolatry is the root issue. I don’t know exactly how to explain what I have in mind except maybe by asking questions.
Putting aside the “red letter” sections (and their writers) in the Gospels…
(1) Since most Christians (I assume) don’t consider divine messengers (Pope, Biblical writers, etc.) to be God’s fax machines, how personal (if at all) can the message from God be?
(2) If the divine messages indeed are not personal in the divine sense, then, when the Church is learning from divine messengers about God, should they consider those impersonal messages as a literal sign that points away from itself, directing the Church to find or get-to-know-God-personally outside of the message and messenger?
(3) Or is it safe to assume God’s personal presence can also be sought out by looking within the divine message and messengers?
This whole personal/impersonal distinction I’m making might be way off from addressing the real issue, I don’t know. But my point is (I think), how does the Church avoid misinterpreting divine messengers and their message as God himself?
I think Kierkegaard’s big issue was with the nominalism that was produced by the church-state alignment in Denmark. A contemporary connection might be to those who think that a ‘daily dose’ of the Bible is enough to innoculate them against problems and to fulfill their Christian duty for the day.
Though Kierkegaard is not the first person to talk about the Bible as a ‘paper-pope’ (Stanley Hauerwas has said, ““The single most important task of the church today is to get the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians.”), I think he’s on to something important that is rarely admitted by Protestants.
Our historical roots go back to the belief that we can minimize the dangers of ‘human leadership’ by restricting Christian authority to the Bible. Several hundred years of denominationalism seems to have disproved this idea. The basic reality of 30,000 Christian denominations, each saying, “I don’t know what those other churches are doing; we’re just reading the Bible,” seems to indicate that the democratization of biblical interpretation has come with at least a few negative consequences.
So I think the quote you’ve posted is worth talking about simply because we don’t usually consider the possibility that ‘more Bible’ might not necessarily make better Christians (and may betray a basic misunderstanding of the nature of God’s authority).
I think the quote is quite relevant in an age of evangelical bibliolatry. The idea that the Bible can become a “distraction” is one that should be taken more seriously, especially if it is preventing us from genuinely seeking God as we constantly individualize each and every aspect of the text.
Perhaps a less provocative way of putting it would be to say we don’t need to read less of the Bible, we just need to read it better.
Thanks for the Hauerwas quote Gil!
Oh, and when I mentioned “bibliolatry” I meant the list of sources one cites at the end of an essay!!!
Jerry, I think you’re right – idolatry may be at least part of what both Luther and Kierkegaard were reacting against. In both cases, “something else” had assumed too prominent a role in the life of faith. In both cases, I suppose, this “something else” presented a genuine obstacle to ordinary people understanding and experiencing the gospel as “good news.”
Re: your question – “how does the Church avoid misinterpreting divine messengers and their message as God himself?” An honest acknowledgment of human limitation would seem like a good place to start for me, as well as a determination to interpret the parts in light of the whole to the best of our ability. If a particular person’s take on a passage seems suspiciously incongruent with the “big picture” (i.e., creation-fall-redemption narrative) it might be a good signal to be hesitant in taking their interpretation as the message of “God himself.”
Gil, I think you highlighted a major problem – one that Kierkegaard likely wouldn’t have been too enthusiastic about:
“The basic reality of 30,000 Christian denominations, each saying, “I don’t know what those other churches are doing; we’re just reading the Bible,” seems to indicate that the democratization of biblical interpretation has come with at least a few negative consequences.”
I think you’re also right to point out that one of the major negative consequences of this “democratization” is a misunderstanding of how God’s authority works. “What the Bible says” clearly is not the clear and uncomplicated solution to all problems that it is sometimes presented as being. This seems pretty much beyond dispute, at least to me.
As Dave says, though, I’m not sure the solution to bibliolatry (in the “non-source-list-at-the-end-of-an-essay” sense of the word) is just to stop reading the Bible (I’m not suggesting that this is what Kierkegaard was saying either – it seems obvious to me that he was being provocative to make a point). The key would be to read it better, but this might require some kind of a de-emphasis on Scripture (or at least a particular understanding of Scripture) for a time.
Perhaps learning how to read it better might mean taking a break from reading for a while and focus on acting according to what we understand its general message to be at whatever stage of the journey of faith we find ourselves in. Perhaps Kierkegaard is suggesting that the way to read the Bible “humanly” has more to do with ethics than exegesis.
When you say reading the bible “humanly” perhaps has more to do with ethics than exegesis, do you mean the Church may need to lean more towards acting out a philosophical theology rather than a biblical theology? Or have I misunderstood you?
If biblical exegesis would become a lesser priority in the edification of the Church, I wonder how that would change the fixed standards of divine revelation. Would the canon be considered open instead of closed? Would scripture from Genesis to Jesus be considered a progressive revelation of God’s existence, not necessarily a collection of his divine will?
Re: the ethics and exegesis bit, I mean simply that it might be good to spend more time obeying the Bible than reading it – at least in a cultural context that has been so formatively shaped and by and is already, theoretically, quite familiar with the Bible. Elsewhere Kierkegaard says the following:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
I don’t know if I would go quite as far as he does here, but I think we can all think of times – in our own lives or in the church – where this would be a very necessary critique.
Re: the canon bit…
Who would be in a position to consider the canon opened or closed? Historical and sociological factors within Christianity would seem to rule this out as a possibility.
“Would scripture from Genesis to Jesus be considered a progressive revelation of God’s existence, not necessarily a collection of his divine will?”
Plenty of Christians already consider this to be the case, myself included (although I might substitute “nature and purposes for the world” for “existence”)
Very interesting subject. I especially agree with Gil’s observations regarding “democratization”. How sad for Christian history that in rejecting a one “magisterium” authority as unbiblical, (my take on the reformation, at any rate) Protestants seem to have replaced the concept with literally thousands of “mini magisteriums”.
St. Paul’s prophetic words in 1st Corinthians, regarding factionalism, are sadly in need of review and re-application. We are many houses with many divisions.
Honestly, my point is not to “Prot bash”, (though you would be wise to be suspicious…lol) but rather to better understand why my “Kingdom beliefs”, haven’t really translated into “Kingdom living”.
I think I’m like a lot of people and there is a real disconnect between who I say I am and who I really am.
As best as I can figure, what is lacking mostly, is the Holy Spirit within me. I seem to take a too rational, too intellectual approach, in the expression of my faith. I don’t think I’m leaving enough room, or perhaps to state it more honestly, really believe that God can work in a supernatural way through me.
I think that this problem can often be exacerbated by too much biblical exegesis. If reading and study lead to an encounter with the Holy Spirit…beautiful, all is well. If it leads only to arguement, apologetics and legalism…well that is the much, much lesser gift.
One of the things that I think Catholicism has to offer in this regard is it’s willingness to embrace a supernatural encounter. From “transubstantiation” to the tabernacle we endevour to create spaces and events that offer a meeting place for the seen and the unseen. An intersection between the natural and the supernatural.
I’ve often thought that once more of my Protestant bretheren could feel comfortable with this type of relationship, the unity of purpose and family, that seems to be the intended hallmark of the Christian life here on earth, might one day be re-acheived.
Nice to read your contributions again. With regard to..”how does the Church avoid misinterpreting divine messengers and their message as God himself?”
The potentials of prophesy and discernment of prophesy seem to be held in such low esteem that an immediate answer from God is unlikely. In the end, infatuated as we are with our own critical faculties, we’re supposed to figure it out by “the fruit.”
Thanks for your honesty Paul. I share many of your frustrations re: why “kingdom beliefs” fail to translate into “kingdom living.”
Having said that, I don’t think that I would draw such a sharp distinction between intellect/rationality and being open to an “encounter with the Holy Spirit.” I’m convinced that God can and does speak to us through reason, and am hesitant to write off such things as argument and apologetics as being incompatible with God’s manner of working in the world.
I guess I’m a little unclear what you mean when you say “an encounter with the Holy Spirit.” Does this mean some kind of mystical experience? Is one’s determination to embrace irrationality evidence of the Spirit’s work? I get nervous when I hear “the work of the Spirit” and “reason” being seen as necessarily adversarial kinds of things…
An example pops to mind: a few weeks ago, a guy comes into my back yard and asks for food and bus fare, and I am convicted to help him out. I have, I think, had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. I have been moved away from my normal tendencies to be selfish, acquisitive, and fearful and towards loving my neighbour as myself. This is not normal behaviour for me (to put it mildly) and is the result, I think, of the Spirit of God penetrating my rather thick and overly-rational skull. I realize that the Spirit can and does work in many ways (including mystical experiences which I have, thus far, not enjoyed), but I think that if moving us toward behaving ethically towards our neighbours isn’t one of them, we’ve missed the forest for the theological and hermeneutical trees.
Thanks for clarifying my position Ryan…lol, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that an encounter with the Holy Spirit is an encounter with unreasonableness. Rather it seems to me that it it is usually something, as indicated by your example, that prompts an immediate selfless, loving response as opposed to a more abstract platitude or arguement.
Those people, mostly within a Catholic Charismatic community, who have exemplified this behavior best to me, better balance prayer, praise and fasting (things they do first) along with study (thing they do second) then I have experienced with other groups of Christians. It seems to me that their encounter with Spirit informs their actions and their actions explain their theology. They aren’t luddite or anti-intellectual but rather believe the Holy Spirit is more readily encountered through the heart, than through the head.
I’ve tried it both ways and from my experience I am more consistent in the expression of what I beleive to be my right Christian self, when I take a similar, prayer, praise, fast approach then when I try to first persue a reasoned theology.
I’m ruminating on some of the same thoughts at my blog (on sola scriptura, and whether or not the Bible itself promotes the idea).
I agree with Paul Johnston in that reasoning must be subject to a heart turned toward God (through prayer, praise, fasting, etc). In our modern evangelical circles, it seems to me that reason is king, and the Holy Spirit is given only a nominal place as teacher.
Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. I agree with both you and Paul – reasoning is most properly done when one’s mind and will is oriented toward God and his purposes. The only part that makes me nervous is when “reason” and the influence of the Holy Spirit are described as inherently different modes of accessing truth.
Reason is a gift of God that can be (and is) misused, just as human beings can be (and are) misguided regarding what they think the Holy Spirit is saying to them. I guess I would like to think that reason can and should influence our discernment of the Spirit’s voice, just as I would hope that we would be open to the Spirit’s guidance regarding how we reason.