A Word About This Book
This essay asserts that there is a way of reading the Bible which opens the door to vital faith without shutting the door to critical thought. The Bible is more revered than read because most people do not know how to read it with understanding; hence they don’t read it at all. Consequently, it is the most neglected resource of our time. Even people who hail it as "the precious Word of God" often fail to catch its inner dynamic. True, reading the Bible can be a formidable undertaking; but it can also bring one into the presence of God. It can do this if we are willing to read it seriously.
Taking the Bible seriously involves more than simply reading it piously. On the one hand, it demands a willingness to listen openly to what the writer says about God’s involvement with his creatures, and to his reasons for saying it as well. On the other hand, it requires the courage to deal with what he says, and to make an honest response to it. Moreover, taking the Bible seriously means that we do not know in advance just what kind of response we shall make. In fact, the seriousness of our reading can be measured by the extent to which we permit significant disagreement. It may be better to argue with the Bible than to shrug it off. In other words, this book maintains that we take the Bible seriously when we allow both the reader and the Bible to meet each other honestly. Such a meeting brings both opportunity and danger. The Bible risks being set aside by a person who cannot believe it, and the reader risks being convinced by what the Bible has to say. That is, if the reader takes the Bible seriously enough to meet its message, God himself may apprehend him. This essay explores the basis for reading the Bible thus and sketches its consequences.
The book invites readers who have difficulty in taking the Bible seriously to participate in considering certain basic issues. Not all important problems can be treated, of course; nor can any of them be discussed fully. This is not our purpose. Rather, this essay aims to help the reader think systematically for himself. Therefore we shall not try to soften debate but to elicit discussion. One way to participate is to fill the margins with comments. Another is to check the Bible itself from time to time. The biblical text is seldom quoted here, though references are scattered throughout. Reading these will give concreteness to the argument and raise a steady supply of questions as well. Besides, no book about the Bible is worth its weight in wastepaper if it does not lead one to read the Bible for himself.
This essay assumes that the Bible can speak for itself if it has a chance to do so. The Bible does not need to be kept in a back room where no embarrassing questions intrude. As a matter of fact, the real dynamic of the Bible usually lies dormant until we bring our basic questions to it. Its real power reveals itself when we take it seriously enough to learn what it has to say to our questions and to risk having our questions dealt with in unexpected ways. This approach requires going beyond reading it as a mere book; it asks that we read it so that writer and reader address one another. To facilitate this, we shall attempt to understand the Bible from within, as much as possible on its own terms. Moreover, this book does not mount the ramparts to defend the Bible against the onslaughts of the modern world; nor does the writer feel guilty for asking, even pressing, a modern reader’s questions. To the contrary, such a relentless reading is necessary if the writer is to meet us where we really are. In this way we can discover the power of the Bible for vital faith today. Anyone who is looking for ammunition against such an approach ought to put this book down — unless he is willing to engage in a conversation.
A central theme is that the historical-critical method is an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to know what the Bible says. Fortunately, today one does not need to defend the use of this method for studying the Bible because in some form it has been accepted on all sides. Unfortunately, however, the religious and theological consequences of this method often remain undrawn, if not actually denied. For example, students are sometimes told that studying the Bible critically will not affect their faith because the course-work is concerned only with the "facts" about the biblical documents. Such a position is quite misleading and is mostly nonsense. Unless the Bible is irrelevant to faith in the first place, a particular way of studying it inevitably affects the understanding of the Bible, and hence what one believes. Only a faith without any content can remain unaffected. Hence, this book outlines some of the ways scholarly work affects the authority of the Bible for faith.
Some readers may shy away from a somewhat complex approach to the Bible. They may put this book down with a wistful desire that things might be simple again, that one could settle the matter by announcing boldly, "Either you believe it or you don’t." There is a place for such a basic decision, but it is not at the outset when one begins systematic reflection about the Bible. Such simplicity is an achievement, not a refuge. Rather, because the Bible emerged as men wrestled with issues which embarrassed their faith as well as they supported it, the Bible is usually more prepared to face tough problems than its readers. In fact, this is one reason it is worth taking seriously.
Finally, without shifting responsibility, I should like to express a word of appreciation publicly, especially since the book largely omits that fetish of the academic world, the footnote. My obligations to unmentioned literature will be apparent to seasoned readers. In addition, fellow students of the Bible have sharpened my thinking. Some of these have been my classmates, some were my students at Wellesley College and at Vanderbilt, others my associates in both schools. Two colleagues at Vanderbilt, Professors Gordon Kaufman and James Sellers, read the manuscript at different stages and made valuable comments. My wife contributed disarming questions and steadying encouragement; both have been indispensable. But especially important contributions have come from my teachers of the Bible; the list begins with my parents, to whom this volume is dedicated with gratitude.
Unless otherwise indicated, the scriptural quotations in this book are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946 and 1952 by the Division of Christian Education, National Council of Churches.
Leander E. Keck
The Divinity School