Think of yourself as a biblical scholar

Think critically - yes please ... but also towards biblical studies

I am a person who likes to think critically. And I'm a person who trusts the Bible with all my heart. Do both go together? Yes. But I perceive that many Christians around me do not take this for granted. They try to convince me with human and angel tongues that the two do not go together.

Think critically?

On the one hand, there are those who tell me: The Bible shouldn't be viewed critically. It is Holy Scripture and God's Word. Therefore any criticism of the Bible is forbidden. You have to believe and accept, not ask and research. And in my mind's eye the image of a fragile porcelain bowl emerges, which you can look at and marvel at in its beauty, but which threatens to break as soon as you take it in your hand or touch it too hard.

On the other hand are those who tell me: Why do you want to trust the Bible? It's just a book, written by people. You should trust God, not the Bible. And then they explain to me that “God's Word” is not the same as “the Bible”. Because God speaks in many ways, not just through a book. In general, “the Bible” is not a book at all, but a loose collection of very different writings from very different authors. The Bible is not God's word, but you can find God's word in it if you search hard enough. In short, it is the theologians who suggest how I can distinguish God's Word from other words in the Bible. So I would have to trust your suggestions.

Incorrect circular reasoning

My siblings on the one hand tell me: “There is no question that you can trust the Bible, because it says it itself.” I have never really understood this logic. In a court case it cannot be considered as evidence of credibility that a witness asserts his own credibility. To trust such a witness only on his word would be a blind and unfounded trust. In terms of the Bible, that would not be enough for me. Finally, the Koran also claims to be God's infallible word. But that alone does not justify that it is actually the case. Here lies the core error of an "uncritical" interpretation of the Bible, which is convinced of the flawlessness of Scripture only because Scripture itself (supposedly) says it. The credibility of a witness does not only depend on what he himself claims. It can be seen in other observations: For example, in the question of whether his statements are consistent and coherent. Whether they are also confirmed by other witnesses. Whether they prove to be sustainable. Whether his personality and character give the impression of credibility. However, none of this is "watertight" evidence, but rather observations that either arouse trust or shake trust. Similarly, I believe that the credibility of the Bible, while not watertight, can be substantiated by looking closely.

On the other hand, there are those who tell me, “Of course you can't trust the Bible. Because science has shown that it is unbelievable ”. At this point, however, I would like to contribute a little to demythologizing, namely to demythologizing biblical studies. In my experience, it is not as omnipotent as my well-meaning siblings on one side and the other assume.

My way with the Bible

In school I learned the condensed results of modern biblical studies. With the usual time lag, of course: Experience has shown that textbooks always end up with what was the current state of research around 20 years ago. But of course we didn't know that at the time. Personally, I found everything I heard there plausible and extremely interesting. I did not feel a conflict with my faith. Why shouldn't God be able to speak through authors with the sonorous names J, E, P and D in the same way as through a Moses? And the question of whether one believes miracle stories or not did not seem to me to be a question of biblical studies even then, but rather a question of worldview.

When I was studying theology, however, a very special process of "demythologizing" began for me: Gradually I realized that what I had been presented in school, compact and handy as the result of modern biblical studies, was not that reliable in individual cases . For every important question in biblical studies, we got a brief overview of 200 years of research history, during which the most diverse theories and hypotheses alternated, ruled and often contradicted each other. In religious education, for example, I had learned that large parts of the Abrahamic and Moser story came from the source of an author called “J” (for “Yahwist”). We were even able to assign individual sentences and words from the Moses story to the hand of this Yahwist. During my studies, however, I learned that there was little agreement among researchers as to whether this Yahwist ever existed. Some researchers even went so far as to discover a total of 13 different "Yahwists" (J1 to J13) in the biblical accounts. Today, on the other hand, such names have been completely abandoned.

It was similarly complicated with the widespread “two-source hypothesis”, which can be found in textbooks to this day as a simple explanation for the origin of the Gospels. It is very practical for everyday use, but on closer inspection this hypothesis also slips between your fingers: In 1918 there were seventeen different reconstructions of the source "Q". But not a single verse that was included in all 17 versions. Today there are various explanations for the origin of the Gospels in research, and many of them can now do without a source "Q" at all.

The often quoted “reliable results of biblical research” are therefore anything but certain. They are current snapshots of majority opinions.

Increased confidence

At the same time, however, my trust in the Bible was strengthened more and more through biblical studies. The study of the history of research showed again and again how the path from initial skepticism to ultimate confidence led. So I learned that in the early days of biblical research, the Gospels were partly written until the late 2nd century AD. dated and that individual Bible Students completely questioned the historicity of Jesus by means of biblical studies. Today we are far from it. No one would doubt that Jesus lived, and the Gospels will be written in AD 70-100. dated. This strengthens my confidence in the content of the Gospels

Another question is about the intentions of the evangelists: Rudolf Bultmann still assumed in his 1926 book on Jesus that the Gospels could not be used as historical sources about Jesus because they did not want to write history, but only wanted to preach faith. But this assumption was already called into question by the students of Bultmann themselves. Today one speaks of the “third search” for the historical Jesus, in which the Gospels are once again used quite naturally, albeit critically, as a source for historical research.

Historical and critical

During my studies I also got to know the deep rift that opened up between the opponents and the supporters of the so-called "historical-critical method". Personally, I have to admit that I never really understood the argument. At the method level, it always seemed to me the most natural thing in the world to work both historically and critically when dealing with the Bible: To research historically means to ask such questions as: When did this event happen? What do we know about this time and its culture? When was this text written down? By whom? And what do we know about the author's contemporary situation? All of these seem to me to be quite natural questions. And to be honest, they are also asked of those who reject the "historical-critical method".

And the criticism? I have always understood it to mean that the point is to critically examine whether what I believe about the Bible is actually found in it. To be critical of one's own prejudices, of seemingly biblical beliefs that do not even come from the Bible. But also: to distinguish critically between the text, its previous history and the historical event of which it reports. Again, I don't really see any dispute with those who reject the method.

At the level of the results, however, I do indeed consider many things to be questionable as to what this method has produced in the past: For example, the many hypotheses about authors and times of origin of biblical books, some of which blossomed adventurously and are constantly changing to this day. For me this is not a question of belief, but of scientific discussion.

However, I am skeptical of ideologically based prejudices that precede scientific work: If, for example, the factuality of miracle reports is questioned simply because a modern person can no longer believe in miracles, then that is neither historical nor a critical method but a statement of faith. I can accept them like that. But not as a basis for scientific research into the Bible.

Does Biblical Science Harm the Faith?

Already at the beginning of my studies I was asked by many fellow Christians whether I would not be afraid of losing my faith through biblical studies. I actually didn't have that. And as I said, my trust in the Bible has also been strengthened. But in fact I have also seen an enormous number of people around me who, in the course of their studies - and prompted by scientific biblical research - have turned their backs on their faith. However, the number of those who said they had not lost their faith but changed it significantly was even greater. And that is basically to be welcomed. It would be a shame if our beliefs did not develop further in the course of life. Changes are good where they lead us out of wrong, too narrow or not justified ideas and influences in the Bible.

Unfortunately, however, I have often experienced a certain arrogance among theologians, which automatically assumed that only such changes, which were also accompanied by less trust in the Bible, less commitment to a church, less missionary commitment and relaxed ethical convictions, really were healthy and honest change of faith. In my observation, however, it was often not biblical studies as such that damaged the faith. Rather, it was personal circumstances and life decisions that made people choose a different path in life. However, biblical studies were often a welcome tool to free oneself from those statements and convictions of the Bible that stood in the way of the newly chosen path in life. In this respect, biblical studies do not necessarily harm faith, but they can often be a "helpful" instrument to justify the already chosen turning away from faith or previous beliefs. And then simply shouting to those who think differently that they are not well informed scientifically or that they are not yet sufficiently developed in terms of their life history.

The persuasiveness of the Bible

For me, trusting the Bible is not a blind step of faith that I have to take before I first open the Bible or before I study it scientifically. For me, trust is not a prerequisite, but a result of my study of the Bible: Because the Bible proves to be trustworthy to me, I can trust it. I trust the Bible to be persuasive even when I read it through the eyes of an atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jewish reader. That is why I only want to use methods in biblical research that are understandable and plausible for my neighbors of other faiths, no special Christian methods or dogmatic preconditions. For me, this is where the deeper missionary meaning of a scientific, historical-critical examination of the Bible lies.

Source: Fascination Bible 2/2016, pp. 20-23

(Download the original article here as a PDF).

Bible, Critical, Trust