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Taking the Bible Seriously by Leander E. Keck


Leander E. Keck is Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and former Dean. His books include The New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon 1994-96), Who is Jesus?, Paul and His Letters, and The Life of Jesus. Published by Association Press, 291 Broadway, New York 7, N.Y. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1: The Bible Is a Problem


There is no need to argue that many people find the Bible to be a problem. The fact that year after year it manages to top the best-seller list hides the fact that most readers have serious difficulties with it. Much more significant than the sales record would be a report of how many of these Bibles were actually read with comprehension. Still more decisive might be knowing what kind of impact such reading might have had, for it is possible to understand the Bible without believing it. In any case, people tend to respect the Bible even if they do not know what to make of it. The aim of this chapter, then, is not to demonstrate the fact that we have problems with the Bible but to bring certain of these difficulties into focus.

Why Canít I Understand It?

"If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost." So spoke William Tyndale in 1522 as he set about providing a Bible every Englishman could understand. The translation cost him his life. The irony is that today, with dozens of English translations available, the average English-speaking person still does not understand the Bible.

For one thing, we have trouble with its language. This is especially true for those who continue to read the King James Version of 1611. But even the flood of modern translations and paraphrases have not solved the problem entirely. The reader meets strange phrases made up of ordinary words which are combined to read almost like a secret code -- phrases like . . . the Son of Man (what son of what man, and why all the capitals?) . . . the prince of the power of the air . . . walk by the Spirit. Translators keep such phrases because they believe accuracy requires them.

It does little good to say that such phrases are metaphors, because, although this is true, it is also obvious that we no longer understand what such metaphors say. The metaphor has become a cryptic cipher, and the language hides the meaning instead of revealing it.

In the second place, we have trouble understanding the Bible because we live in a different world. The things we take for granted, like the "shape" of the universe, had not yet dawned on the writers of the Bible; conversely, we treat the things the writers took for granted, such as the three-level universe or the influence of invisible beings, as outmoded ideas which belong in the museum together with witchcraft and alchemy. Thus, we hardly know what "the Spirit" is nor are we sure how to distinguish it from "the spirit"; nor do we understand what "the power of the air" is (certainly not air pressure or air power!() or why it should have a "prince." To say that this is a vivid metaphor for Satan merely restates the problem, for we do not know if we can believe in the existence of a personal evil being (Being?) at all. We may, of course, use the term "Satan" as a poetic personification of evil, but we still face the question of whether this is what the Bible intends to say. Similarly, we may continue to talk about Godís being "up in heaven" because we remind ourselves, if we think of it at all, that this is figurative speech; actually we probably doubt if heaven is a place (or space-time entity of any sort) and we are not at all sure that it would be "up." But the biblical writers did not have such reservations, nor did they have to cross their fingers mentally when they wrote. They could answer the childís question, "Where is God?" more easily than we, for when even we say "Heís everywhere" we may actually mean "Heís no-where." Thus the more seriously we try to read the Bible on its own terms, the more aware we become that in a real sense it comes from another world.

There is still a deeper level on which we have difficulty: grasping what the Bible intends to say. Even if we determine the meanings the writer had in mind when he used a particular phrase, the very fact that we have to make an effort to see his point reveals that he no longer communicates directly. Thus we may learn that when Paul uses the phrase "walk in the Spirit" he is not talking about a kind of stride but a kind of life, a life impelled by divine power now resident within man. The more clearly we perceive what Paul understood by the term "Spirit" the more difficult it becomes for us to use it because we donít think in these terms any more. The term "spirit" has lost most of its content even though we still use the word "spiritual" to designate something intangible like loyalty or love. Yet it is one thing to say that we live by intangible relationships; it is something else to say we live by the Spirit because at least Paul was talking about more than a relationship --he was also talking about something. He never doubted that there was a realm of things, being, powers, or essences which were both intangible and real. So the question is forged: can we genuinely comprehend what Paul has to say?

Now we are at the heart of it. Let us assume that we understand what Paul was trying to say to his first readers; that is, we have succeeded in "breaking his code" and we are now able to listen in as he talks with his contemporaries. Our real problem now is whether Paul is worth listening to, whether he has anything to offer us today. We raise the question because we expect, perhaps because we have been taught to do so, that the Bible has something to say to us. After all, itís Scripture. In fact, this is precisely why the Bible poses the kind of problem it does.

What Difference does it Make?

Our problems of understanding the Bible are serious because this book is Scripture; that is, a book with Godlike authority. This is true even in the so-called "post-Christian era" of today. The Bible has exerted formative influence on Western civilization. In fact, this culture cannot be understood without seeing the way the Bible has functioned as Scripture with divine authority, whether in the development of the Middle Ages, the Protestant Revolution, or certain elements of the resistance to totalitarianism. The Bible did not have authority because its contents have unique literary excellence (such a standard would exclude much of it) or because its teachings are the source of our pace-setting ideas (many of which are actually derived elsewhere). Rather, the Bible became a formative factor in our culture only because it became Scripture. That is, it became the basic authority for a community of faith, the Church, and through it for the culture as a whole. This is what we mean by "Scripture."

The picture comes into focus as we realize that the Bible is not the only Scripture mankind has. The Koran is the Scripture for Islam, and the Buddhist religion accords the Gitas high standing. The Communist faith has its Scripture also -- the works of Karl Marx, Friederich Engels, and Nikolai Lenin. In each of these cultures, the Scriptures function as a pace-setting guide, even a court of appeal. At this point we are not concerned with the Bibleís place among other Scriptures but simply with the point that our problems connected with the Bible are serious because they are the problems of our Scripture. They are the problems of not understanding clearly the nature and content of our religious norm.

We have similar problems understanding any ancient literature, whether it be the inscriptions on the pyramids or the Dead Sea Scrolls. But because these are not Scripture, the problem is primarily intellectual and not religious.

Moreover, it is largely the historians who have these problems because their work is to interpret the past. But Scripture is decisive for everyone. This is the reason Protestants, for whom the Bible has had unique and absolute authority, have been so active in translating and distributing the Bible in every place on earth. Since this Book is Godís Word, they reason, every man must have it; if he cannot read it, he must be taught to read so that first of all he may read the Bible. Traditionally, the Scripture is Godís Word for every man. This is why understanding it is so important.

But, as was suggested previously, the significant aspect of the problem involves more than understanding; it involves our ability to believe that the Bible has anything decisive to say to us today. In other words, can the Bible continue to be our Scripture? Can we still take it seriously enough for it to affect our lives and shape our culture? Or has the modern world made it both incomprehensible and unbelievable? This essay attempts to show how the Bible can still be Scripture in todayís world.

This is not the only way the Bible may be read for religious purposes. Many people find it impossible to restrict themselves to one Scripture because they realize that all the sacred texts of mankind contain high ideals and worthwhile teachings. Hence, it is possible for each person to compile his own anthology of inspiration and precept. Even if this were to be published on India paper and bound in leather, this need not be a Scripture in the sense we have discussed. Rather, it would be a treasury of insight on which a person might draw from time to time. Such a volume might be spared many pages of our Bible which appear full of dull details and teachings of dubious merit. In place of such biblical gristle one might use the meatier contents of the Koran, the Gitas, and the teachings of Confucius. In this way, one might select the clearest insights of man. This is the rummage sale approach.

But it is premature. At least we question whether the compiler has understood the spectrum of mankindís Scriptures from within or whether he has merely combed them for those parts which appear to be useful. Without passing judgment on other Scriptures, we can say that this procedure shows an inadequate understanding of the Bible and of the kind of authority it may have. The Bible does have excellent passages which repeatedly inspire or alert the reader to a true sense of values, but to abstract them from their setting violates the very paragraphs the person admires. For example, I Corinthians 13 is the famous chapter on love. Though the beauty and depth of this passage are undeniable, interpreting it in terms of some sort of Love-idealism misses the point. The passage does not celebrate the glories of Love-with-a-capital-L. Instead, it points a pseudo-sophisticated group of Christians toward a life in which self-glorying is given up. When one sees the setting and the intent of the passage, he often stops admiring it because oneís aesthetic appreciation for it is chastened by a sense of being judged by it.

On the other hand, the Bible also contains passages which appear to be useless and even objectionable, such as stories of vindictive palace revolts or offensive customs like executing an entire family for the offense of one man. But simply deleting them might also be a way of missing what the Bible can contribute. At least, one ought to ask why such stories were included, for perhaps the writers wanted to say something which is still worth hearing. Editing the Bible so that such materials no longer jar us may actually bypass important things the Bible can say to us.

The way to allow the Bible to have its say, without rejecting what we may learn from other Scriptures, is to let it continue to be our Scripture. Both words are important. The Bible can be our Scripture only if we are honest about the problems we have in reading it. This book intends to face such problems openly. The more the results of science and technology become ingrained in the outlook of our time, the more obscure and objectionable the Bible often seems. To be sure, there are many people for whom a sentence beginning "The Bible says . . ." carries an automatic mandate to believe it, more or less at face value. But, increasingly, such readers find themselves torn between their allegiance to the Bible as the Word of God and their understanding of the world in which they live. Moreover, these are not the only ones threatened by intellectual rupture. The more sophisticated reader also finds the impact of science (in virtually all disciplines) to be eroding confidence in the Bible. Students are sometimes uneasy with the current existentialist approach to the Bible because they sense that the issues of "Science and the Bible" have been swept under the rug. In any case, each generation must face the issues anew. There was a time when people believed that something was true simply because it was stated in the Bible; nowadays we want to know if what is in the Bible is true. All persons reading the Bible, regardless of their background, face this question in some form. Consequently, the kinds of problems raised by what the Bible says about the character of God or the world or his will for man must be faced openly, without fear or sense of guilt. In short, the Bible can be our Scripture insofar as we allow our real, modern selves to deal honestly with it.

Similarly, the Bible can be our Scripture only if we take it seriously enough to make an honest effort to understand it and to come to terms with it. In fact, one can measure its "Scripturehood" by the degree to which we are willing to risk hearing what the Bible actually has to say. As with any literature, the writerís message is larger than the mere content of what he says, for it includes what he is trying to communicate through what he writes. Only after seeing this underlying intent do we really know what the Bible wants to say. This is the proper point at which to decide what to do with it. Reading the Bible as Scripture requires allowing ourselves to be apprehended by what the writers have to say.

Our next task, then, is to see the character of the Bible as a whole (Chapter 2) and the tools for understanding such a Bible (Chapter 3). With this in mind, we can take up its central concerns (Chapters 4 and 5) and the kinds of issues they raise for us today (Chapters 6 through 8).

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