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Philosophical Reviews of The Bible

Michael Langford responds to Les Reid’s review of the Bible in Issue 99.

It might seem odd to include a book review of the Bible within a magazine devoted to philosophy, but one appears in Philosophy Now Issue 99. On reflection, I hold that there is a case for such a review, and not only on the grounds that that edition centred on God. Both the nature and the status of sacred texts raise a number of issues in philosophy concerning for example, the relation of philosophy to literature (to which at least one major journal is devoted), the relation of philosophy to mythology and poetry (a discussion that goes back at least to Plato), and the nature and justification of various forms of ‘authority’, to name just three. However, I found the particular review by Les Reid very deficient, and in what follows I propose to provide a more adequate one.

A Library, Not A Treatise

Reid says that his critical comments are directed not against those who “reject the literal approach entirely” but against those who “say that the Bible is true, whether literally and entirely, or only partially.” This, I claim, is far too blunt an instrument of classification. Rather, any adequate review of the Bible has to begin with the many kinds of material found in it, which, taken as a whole, forms a kind of saga of a people covering many centuries. Parts are certainly mythology, but other parts have as much claim to being historical documents as many other ancient sources. This does not make them ‘literally’ accurate – but Reid’s implication that a Biblical text is either literally true or nonsense presents a bogus dichotomy. Things are more complex than that.

Let us review some of the major genres found in the Bible:

(i) Certainly there is mythology, and sometimes it’s pretty evident that the authors were aware of this. In Hebrew ‘Adam’ can stand both for a proper name or for ‘humankind’, and a related word, adamah, means ‘earth’. There is clearly an element of allegory in Genesis as these different uses of the term are blended together to give a kind of non-historical story about what human life is meant to be about, including the claim that things go wrong when human beings usurp the place of God.

(ii) There is poetry, most notably in the Psalms. When this is used directly as sources of theology or ethics, a kind of category mistake has been made. Instead, some poems powerfully express aspirations, some lament (“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept”) which can lead to anger (“Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones”). Obviously passages such as the last are totally unsuitable for a religious liturgy; but they belong quite properly to a great archive of poetry that expresses the whole range of emotions, including penitence, joy and delight in nature, in addition to aspiration, lament and anger.

(iii) There are laws. Here, it is intriguing to observe the evolution from a belief in collective guilt and collective punishment, in the Mosaic Code early in Jewish history, to a rejection of these in favour of a doctrine of individual responsibility in Jeremiah 31, much later. Also, we see how later critics begin to distinguish the legal, moral and ritual elements in the ancient law, culminating in the New Testament.

(iv) There is moral and theological reflection, of course, and the concept of God can be seen as gradually evolving – for example, when God’s holiness becomes less a matter of arbitrary power and increasingly a source and inspiration for justice (notably in Isaiah and Micah), and then for mercy and loving kindness (in prophets such as Hosea, and in the New Testament). These passages are important sources for the emergence of the idea of what we would now call ‘the intrinsic dignity of persons’.

Perhaps the most remarkable reflective passage of all is the one in which Moses asks God for his name – remembering that the use of true names tended, in the ancient world, to represent power over the person or thing named. We cannot be sure whether the reply reported (“I am that I am”) dates from the time of the exodus from Egypt (perhaps around 1200 BCE), or whether it is a later interpolation, prior to the fixing of a kind of proto-canon. Whatever the historical truth may be, the reply is astonishing and subtle. God cannot be given a name like say ‘John’ or ‘Mary’, because to conceive of God in this way is to misunderstand the very idea of the concept. The answer given instead points to the very nature of reality, and perhaps suggests a way God can be approached. Whether or not one believes in a God, it’s a response that demands reflection.

(v) The grounds for seeing a historically valid core in some of the writings are very strong. Freud (no friend of theism) thought that some kind of exodus must have taken place in order to explain the psychology of the Jewish peoples. Many historians have also suggested that in the court histories of David and Solomon that make up several books of the Old Testament, we have one of the earliest examples of real, humanistic historical sources, where characters are described ‘warts and all’. Of course, this does not imply literal accuracy, any more than it does in, say, the work of Thucydides, but it implies that we are dealing with important historical sources nevertheless.

It is also interesting to note typical historical processes at work as earlier texts are supplemented by later ones in which exaggeration and hagiography are more and more evident. For example, the books of Chronicles modify passages in the books of Samuel and Kings in order to make Jewish history accord more closely with a claim that sin and punishment are systematically linked. Or in the New Testament, the sources we know as Matthew and Luke tone down the accounts in Mark’s (earlier) gospel that are critical of the disciples. In the case of the New Testament, it also needs to be pointed out that the very existence of the Chester Beattie and Martin Bodmer papyrii, and the extraordinary P52 in the John Rylands Library, strongly support the first century creation of the original documents, for it is hard to see how they could have been buried in Egypt between 125 and 200 CE otherwise. Again, this is not an argument for literal accuracy, but for a much more balanced and nuanced approach than Reid’s.

(vi) There are other genres within the Bible, for example wisdom literature (or ‘wise sayings’), and stories that are (at least in my view) almost entirely legendary, although they can be ascribed profound symbolic meanings and thus turned into something approaching myth or parable. I suspect that the book of Judges contains much material of this kind, yet even these stories have value as sources of powerful metaphor and image, without which our language and literature would be much impoverished. The stories of Balaam’s ass in Numbers and of Samson and Delilah in Judges provide good examples.

This view of the Bible, which takes it seriously without any commitment to it being absolutely authoritative or literally accurate in all parts, is not an invention of modern liberalism: it represents a channel of Christian thought from the time of the first apologists, who tried to being together rational reflection (rooted in a respect for Greek philosophy) with an appreciation of the Hebrew tradition and the disciples’ experience of Jesus. Perhaps this approach is most powerfully found in Origen in the third century, who argued that we must interpret Scripture in a way that is worthy of God. On this ground, in his Homilies on Joshua he rejected the interpretation of the book of Joshua which claimed that God actually commanded the slaughter of women and children during the Hebrew invasion of Canaan. Origen argued that on the required spiritual and allegorical reading of the text, the passages refer to the destruction of vices in our hearts. I prefer simply to say that the author got it wrong when he attributes the Canaanite genocide to God’s will.

It would be interesting to read a review of Icelandic sagas where, in addition to a range of genres, an historical core has been demonstrated by discovering Viking remains in Newfoundland.

Further Superficial Problems

There are other examples of superficiality in Reid’s review. For example, he asks “Does Yahweh change?” A believer’s answer might go: “According to many religious readers, the answer is that God himself does not change, but that our understanding or perception of him does.” Indeed my previous comments about the notion of holiness in the Bible moving from power to justice to love, imply exactly this. Furthermore, there are some serious Christian philosophers who, following Whitehead, think that the concept of totally immutable Godhead has to be rethought. Such plausible responses are not mentioned. It is another example of what Terry Eagleton in a famous review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion describes as not responding to the toughest case.

Next, in his section on human suffering, Reid frames the problem in terms of an ‘all-powerful’ God. I suggest that the very concept of ‘all-powerful’ or of ‘infinite power’ did not even arise until advances in mathematics gave some sense to these terms. The Bible does indeed see God as having unique creative power, but it is our language, not that of the Biblical authors, that calls God ‘all-powerful’ or ‘infinitely powerful’. When such terms are discussed philosophically by Aquinas, he invokes severe restrictions in order to preserve what he considers to be coherence, asserting an absolute commitment both to the law of non-contradiction and an insistence that God’s will must operate in the context of objective Goodness. (In Aquinas’s more technical language, both moral law and divine will are framed by Eternal Law.) Consequently, serious theologians have rarely claimed that God could do literally anything. Reviewers of the Bible may legitimately disagree about whether such discussions of omnipotence (and omniscience) are successful, but they cannot be ignored as philosophically unimportant.

In response to the problem of evil itself, perhaps the love that emerges in human life could only arise in our kind of world, in which there is evolution, suffering and uncertainty and the risk that this love may not be requited. If so it is for the sake of freedom in love that evil is allowed by God to exist.

Philosophical Uncertainty

What worries me most about Reid’s review is the kind of certainty that pervades it, which seems to me to be inconsistent with the whole philosophical enterprise, from before the time of Socrates. To put my cards on the table, I am seriously agnostic about many theological claims, but I have made the existential commitment to be a disciple of Jesus – which involves saying, and meaning, “Jesus is Lord.” This is perfectly compatible with many kinds of doubt. Take Reid’s wholesale rejection of the possibility of a personal afterlife. Like many contemporary Christians I am not sure what will happen when I die, and my commitment to the way of Jesus in no way depends on a future life – but at the same time I find Reid’s certainty unwarranted. He is right to highlight a problem about how I can say that I am the same person after I get dementia, but this issue arises much sooner: I wonder in what sense I am the same person as I was yesterday. However, on both scientific and metaphysical grounds, I hold that the phenomenon of self-consciousness is much more puzzling than is suggested by Reid’s blithe naturalism, and the suggestion that consciousness transcends the purely neurological (while quite probably being dependent upon it) is just as possible as his purely reductionist view. If we add to this the possibility (not certainty!) that the universe is the product of a creative intelligence, and that love is a kind of discovery about what it is all for, then hope for an afterlife is not merely a foolish dream, but a viable aspiration.

© Professor Michael Langford 2014

Michael Langford is Professor of Philosophy, emeritus of The Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is now teaching part-time in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge. His book The Tradition of Liberal Theology was published by Eerdmans in January.

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