God does not lie, nor does he make mistakes.
The text that is the word of God therefore tells the reader something he can rely on and so be safely convinced by. This religious assurance does not absolve the reader of the necessity of thinking intelligently about the nature of the text before him. It might, for instance, sometimes be a religiously legitimate and necessary question to ask whether a biblical narrative text is meant by its author to be understood as an account of something Gareth Moore 13 that actually happened.
If we are believing Christians we might properly ask, for instance, whether the narrative of the book of Job is to be read as a putative historical report, or whether it is a fictional narrative, a kind of novel. Biblical scholars can help in answering such questions. But we have no reason to entertain a similar question with regard to the Gospel of St Matthew, which is plainly meant to be taken, on the whole, as an account of actual historical events and has always been so understood.
There is simply no room to ask, for instance, whether Jesus really did walk on water or speak to his disciples after his death. Indeed, it encourages them. If we are inclined for other reasons to think that a given event say, Jesus walking on the water did not happen, an explanation of why the author would have said it did happen, whether it happened or not, will strongly reinforce this inclination.
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The result is that we tend to be suspicious of biblical narrative texts, so that they no longer carry conviction as a religious reading requires. It follows that a critical reading of the Gospel does not sit easily with a religious reading. There is reason to think that a similar tension exists also between religious and critical readings of non-narrative texts. Take for example passages in Romans in which Paul expresses moral views.
He apparently insists on the shamefulness of same-sex practices —7 , and apparently also insists that everybody should be obedient to civil authorities —7. It might be a legitimate question for believing Christians to ask whether Paul really means what at first blush he seems to mean in these passages, and again biblical scholars can help in providing an answer; but if and when it is settled that he does mean what he appears to mean, then what he says, for the person who reads religiously, for whom this is the word of God, the text carries conviction, it is taken as true.
In this case, it shows that same-sex practices are unacceptable to God and that God wills that civil authorities be obeyed. A critical reading of these passages, on the other hand, might point out the influence of standard Jewish polemics on Chapter 1 and Hellenistic ethics on Chapter 13, presenting them simply as products of their time and place, only to be expected in the circumstances in which they were written.
But to say that Paul might have said something quite different is to suggest that the value of what he actually did say is not to be absolutised: as it happens, he said this, but he might easily have said something different, so no particular significance is to be attached to what he actually does say.
But the religious reading precisely does attach a particular significance to what Paul actually says. It is the word of God, eternal and unchanging, so it cannot be legitimately relativised in this way.
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Once again, it seems, the religious and academic readings are not easily compatible. It is even possible to construct an argument to show, not merely that certain conclusions of critical study of the Bible are in tension with a religious attitude to the Bible, but that the very spirit in which biblical criticism of the Bible is normally carried out is incompatible with a religious reading.
One might argue as follows. Suppose you are a Christian and read a given biblical text as part of your religious practice, as the word of God.
Because it is the word of God, you take it as in some sense true, it carries conviction, you find it convincing. But all reading is also interpretation; in reading the text, you necessarily take it in a particular way. This way of taking it will very likely appear to you simply as the obvious meaning of the text.
But it is the text as understood in this way that carries conviction, that you find convincing. The text is the word of God; on the basis of it you are convinced that A. Now suppose you discover, on reading a work of biblical criticism, that the text actually means B, which is substantially different from and even incompatible with A. How is it now possible, given that you are convinced that A, to find a text convincing that, as you now know, says that B?
Or, given that the text is convincing when you take it as meaning A, how is it possible even to consider the possibility that the text really means B and so actually excludes A? In treating a text as the word of God, must not this possibility of seriously reinterpreting the text be excluded? If you are convinced that a text that you take to mean A must be true, are you not also committed to saying that it is A that must be true and that the text must mean A or something very much like it?
A religious reading of a text seems to imply a commitment to a given interpretation of that text, a commitment that excludes the possibility that the text be understood in a substantially different way. The possibility of interpreting a text in different and perhaps surprising ways is bread and butter to a critical reading.
So there does seem to be a real incompatibility between religious reading and critical reading. The critical reading does not, apparently, merely abstract from a religious reading of a text, it actually excludes it. Gareth Moore 15 A solution? We know that in individual human lives a reconciliation between religious and critical reading of the Bible is possible, for there are, and have been since the inception of critical Bible study, eminent biblical scholars who are also devout Christians of profound faith.
These people have arrived at some kind of solution of the difficulties adumbrated above. But what kind of solution?
The possibility exists that such people are muddle-headed, deceiving themselves, engaging in doublethink or, despite appearances, acting in bad faith. So we have to ask whether there exists a theoretical solution to the problem. Is it as severe as is sometimes believed, or can the critical way of reading the Bible be reconciled with a religious reading? In order to work towards what I think might be a possible solution of the difficulty, I want to develop a little the concept of a religious reading of the Bible by asking what it might mean for somebody to read the Bible as the word of God addressed to the reader personally.
Biblical texts are in one way or another addressed to an audience or a readership. The texts were written to be proclaimed to hearers, or sung in a public liturgy, or perhaps read in private. Often, scholars can only guess at the identity of the original audience that the book addressed.
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Take as an example the book of Deuteronomy. The greater portion of the book takes the form of an address by Moses to the people of Israel just before the crossing of the Jordan and the entry into the Promised Land. But the book itself is not addressed to those same people at that same moment. The book does not tell us to whom it is addressed, and there is no other direct literary evidence that tells us. If we want to know the answer to that question, we have to guess. Our answer will be based on a number of factors: the date the book was written, the place it was written, the language in which it is written, its literary style, the concerns of its author or authors,9 and so on.
Some of these questions are as obscure as our original question, and any answers we give may turn out to be very tentative. In the New Testament things are less difficult. Things are actually not as simple as this.
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Even though the addressees of these latter texts are named explicitly in the texts themselves, we still have to interpret this fact. It is not impossible that Theophilus is an invention of Luke, and that Luke—Acts is actually addressed to another, unnamed individual or group. But for present purposes we can afford to leave these complications to one side. The important point is that the question to whom a particular biblical text is addressed is an empirical question.
Answers to it may be proposed on the basis of evidence internal or external to the text and evaluated accordingly. So far, a biblical text is much the same as any other text. But people in whose religion the Bible plays an important role may go further. If I am a modern Christian, I may say that, for instance, the Epistle to the Romans is addressed not only to first-century Christians living in Rome, but also in some sense to me. Indeed, it may be argued that it is normally this sense of being somehow addressed by it that gives the text a role in my religion. If I say that the Epistle to the Romans is addressed to me, what sort of claim am I making, if any?
It is certainly not an empirical claim in the same way that the assertion that Romans is addressed to first-century Roman Christians is an empirical claim. If I say that Romans is addressed to me, I would probably not support this by any assertion to the effect that I am named in the letter as one of its addressees.
If I did, my claim would be an empirical one and could easily be shown to be false.
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Nor, normally, would I support my claim by identifying myself as a first-century Roman Christian. Given that I was born in London in the twentieth century, this, as Wittgenstein says, would be too big to count as a simple mistake and would perhaps be evidence of mental incompetence. But that is not what makes it addressed to me. For the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita also say things about people in general, and may also on that account be of interest to me, but I may have no inclination to say that they are addressed to me.
There is a perfectly unexceptionable, and therefore for our purposes not very interesting, sense in which almost any document which comments on the human condition can be said to be addressed to me, and indeed to everybody else. But if I am a Christian my reaction to Romans is importantly different from my reaction to Hamlet. The essential difference between a human literary engagement with Hamlet and a Christian religious engagement with Romans might be put like this: If I say that Hamlet speaks to me, this is roughly equivalent to saying that the Gareth Moore 17 author of the play whom I know to be Shakespeare speaks to me through Hamlet.
If, on the other hand, I say that I am addressed by Romans, I may give a partial explanation of this by saying that the author of the text whom I know to be St Paul speaks to me through it. But I will also want to say that God speaks to me through this text. The voice I hear and listen to when I read this text is not merely that of the first-century man Paul of Tarsus, in whose opinions I am interested, but also that of God, the eternal, the creator of heaven and earth, my origin and final end.
It is the fact that I believe that God speaks to me through it that gives the text its importance for me. In saying that God addresses me in this text of Paul, I do not claim either that God is a co-author of the text in the sense that Paul wrote parts of it and God wrote other parts of it, nor that Paul and God collaborated to produce it, mulling over each part of it together to refine their thought and find the best wording to express it.
I might begin to flesh out what I say in the following way: When Paul, in Chapter 1, attacks Gentile idolatry and general wickedness, I might regard myself as condemned by his words. I might see myself as under the condemnation, not of Paul — for he is not speaking to me, and it little matters to me what this man who has been dead two thousand years would think of me — but of God.
I might want to say that God accuses me directly today through this ancient text. I might explain myself differently, but I will surely point to features of the text that strike me forcefully. Typically, when God speaks, what he says is striking, and it strikes as true. I do not know this because I have discovered empirically that God does not write insipidly, or that he writes many things which are not at all striking, for I do not discover empirically that God is the author of any text.