The course description for my introductory, year-long Old Testament Interpretation course here at Virginia Theological Seminary opens: "An introduction to interpreting the Old Testament for our times, a period extending from modernist challenges to late modern confusions." I think it is wise for an attempt to reflect on an approach for teaching the Bible in today's seminary setting to proceed from some such initial characterization of biblical study's twentieth-century development as is hinted at in this description. I would thus like to begin this essay by briefly sketching such a characterization. A basic starting place would have to be the modernist challenges to which I refer in the description-challenges which, of course, have their roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Modernist, that is "higher," or "historical," criticism of the Bible, though it had earlier precursors, emerged full-blown with the Enlightenment's focus on reason and the Age of Evolution's focus on change over time and through history. Appearing in 1878, Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena galvanized and spearheaded higher criticism's challenge, a challenge that may even be described as an onslaught. "Onslaught" sounds all negative, and that would be an unfair characterization. Modern criticism's positive achievements are undeniable. Among them are a tremendous new precision in biblical analysis, an impressive illumination of ancient biblical culture and society, so distant from our own, and a profound appreciation of the historical and human character of the Bible. Yet, modern criticism also gave rise to tremendous frustration and fear, particularly in America. The reasons for this reaction need to be uncovered so that we can become more clear about whether, and in what ways, the reaction of fear and anger might be justified.
The influence of modern biblical criticism in America became serious by the first few decades of the twentieth century, when tremendously painful denominational, cultural and political fissures erupted. The famous Scopes "Monkey" trial of 1925 is a prominent example of these fissures. Biblical authority and scientific humanism severed and collided as William Jennings Bryan debated Clarence Darrow over the illegality of the teaching of evolution in the Tennessee public schools. The teaching of John Thomas Scopes occasioned the trial, but the issues at stake were much larger than his pedagogy. The trial showcases the agonizing divides in America over the impact of modernism.
William Jennings Bryan's words in an earlier, 1923 speech reveal how caustically many Americans experienced modernism. "Give the modernist three words, `allegorical,' `poetical,' and `symbolically,'" Bryan opined, "and he can suck the meaning out of every vital doctrine of the Christian Church and every passage in the Bible to which he objects."1 Bryan is objecting, angrily, to be sure, to a real and clear tendency in modernist biblical criticism. As this quotation of Bryan reflects, modernist criticism discounts the Bible as a literal and historical report of what it narrates. That is the scandal for Bryan. In place of the Bible's value as a report or "witness" is substituted its value as a "source" that reveals to us the creative religious interpretations of life made by the authors of its building blocks.
Now, part of my own scholarship is to strive to appreciate and illuminate the dense literary richness of the biblical text. Thus, I do not rush to endorse Bryan's literalism. My VTS colleague, Ellen Davis, who has done much scholarly work on the literary character of the Bible, concurs. Bryan's remark helpfully castigates any attempt to domesticate the Bible as a mere product of creativity in order to make an end run around its authority. However, a symbolic and semantic richness can often be an inherent property of the biblical text, not an evasive construal of it as colorful religious expression. Attention to poetics and to the symbolical dimension of the text in these cases may be essential for identifying the Bible's actual literal sense. …