Finishing Jaroslav Pelikan’s book

Reading in surgery waiting rooms while uh…waiting… is not the best way to concentrate and grasp content.  Talking to somebody is much more helpful than reading. This is because you tend to think too much.  Then reading in the hospital room is no better, because you become a caretaker and companion.

Anyway, my wife’s surgery went well.  We just hope we can break this cycle of having a major surgery every year.

I did finally finish Jaroslav Pelikan’s Who’s Bible is It?. 

From talking about the Bible in the Renaissance and the Reformation, he moves on to talk about the Bible in the Enlightenment and on into recent centuries.

The Enlightenment was the time when modern biblical studies arose.  The main idea was to apply the same techniques for studying any literature to studying the Bible.  Some thought this diminished the Bible.  When accompanied by modern skepticism about the supernatural it did become reductionist–it reduced the value in the Bible to what a person with a modern world-view could readily accept.

However, the biggest problems arose when the modern world view was too inflexible to even understand the biblical world view.  For instance, Edward Gibbon criticized the statement that when Jesus was crucified darkness descended upon the whole earth.  He claimed this was an impossible miracle.  But the biblical writer, no doubt, used “the whole earth” as someone would who had no thought that the earth was a planet.  The “whole earth” was a way of speaking about a widespread experience.

Against this modernist thinking that tended to undermine the authority of the Bible, fundamentalists overreacted.  They defended the Bible, not on its own terms, but on the grounds set by the skeptics.  Yet churches and people kept reading and teaching the Bible.  In spite of the Enlightenment, artists like John Milton in Paradise Lost, Johann Sebastian Bach in the Saint Matthew Passion,  George Frederic Handel in the Messiah, and Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers reinvigorated the Bible and its stories and images.

Pelikan deals with the whole period from the Enlightenment to the present showing how Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism interacted with the Enlightenment and modernist challenges.  I was surprised, given that Pelikan was Eastern Orthodox when he wrote, that he did not deal much with the Eastern Orthodox.  He talks about Nazism and the “German Christians” but not about the Soviets and their interaction with the Russian Orthodox.

He has a section that talks about how we need to take the Bible in its strangeness without striving to make it comply with our expectations or to make it too relevant.

One of the ways the Bible is strange to us is that it speaks to a people, the people of God.  This people is Israel.  This people is the church.  We may try to do away with the Bible’s strangeness by applying what it says about the people to the individual.  For instance, when Jesus said, “You are the light of the world”, the “you” is plural.  He did not say that the individual Christian is the light of the world.

This is the key, I think, to how Pelikan wants to approach the Bible.  Who’s Bible is it?  To state the answer in the negative: the Bible does not belong to the individual.  The Pietistic ideal seems to be for the individual to go off and have his or her quiet time and read the Bible alone.  This was never what the Bible was written for.  From the first, Pelikan emphasized the orality of material.  It was all meant to be spoken aloud and passed on that way.  It was only written down to facilitate this.

But to state his approach positively:  the Bible belongs to the people of God.  For the Tanakh, this means both Israel and the church.  For the New Testament, it means the church in its Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant manifestations.  The Bible doesn’t speak to the individual in isolation.  It speaks to the Jew as part of the flock of Jacob, and to the Christian as a member of the body of Christ.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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