The State of the Bible in the Twenty-First Century

By Klein, Ralph W. | Currents in Theology and Mission, February 2008 | Go to article overview

The State of the Bible in the Twenty-First Century


Klein, Ralph W., Currents in Theology and Mission


Lutherans are not the only Christians who are celebrating, worrying about, and trying to attend to the role of the Bible in the life of the Christian church. I just returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, where some 8,000+ scholars listened to or read papers that not only reached back to what the Bible meant but in many cases also reached forward to what the Bible might mean for theology, ethics, and life in the church (and synagogue) today.

The Hein Fry lectures at the eight ELCA seminaries in 2006 were delivered by two outstanding New Testament scholars, and Currents is pleased once more to make this lecture series available to an even wider audience. Donald A. Hagner is an evangelical; Donald Senior, C. P., is Roman Catholic. Let all who have ears, hear!

Donald A. Hagner reports on the state of the Bible from his position as a leading evangelical scholar and begins by identifying a number of recent surveys of hermeneutical issues. He notes the widespread retreat from history and traditional methods of interpretation to the new obsessive focus on the reader rather than the text. For many the Bible is no longer the book of books, but a book among many books. While the Bible is widely attacked by those outside the church, it also suffers from abuse of the Bible by (mainly) conservative Christians. The article offers an explanation for the Bible's loss of authority and why the Bible is no longer heard as the written word of God. The historical-critical method is necessary, however, precisely because the Bible is the story of God's acts in history. Nevertheless, the historical method has been destructive of the Bible. For this reason the naturalistic presuppositions of the historical-critical method must change, leaving room for God to act in history. In its pure form the literary approach is totally hostile to history, insisting on understanding the text as a self-contained world and as strictly nonreferential. Postmodernism has issued a justified critique of modernism (belief in the ability of human reason to know everything; inflated claims for objectivity). But postmodernism can lead to the impossibility of knowledge altogether and a dismissal of the idea of truth. All that is available then is opinion, and yours is as good as mine. Some of the polemics of postmodernists against historical criticism is unfair. Traditional exegetes are not as dumb as some postmodern writers make them out to be. Some of the new insights of postmodernism are compatible with a tempered historical-critical exegesis. For evangelicals the historical-critical method is fundamentally important. Christianity cannot be merely story, merely idea, merely concepts, merely images, merely ethics. Most exegetes are ultimately questing after the same thing: to make it possible to hear the voice of God in the Scriptures. Our interpretation of the Bible must be in line with the tradition of the church, the faithful who have preceded us, and a hermeneutic provided by the regula fidei. The implied interpreter of the Christian Scripture is a disciple. A theological interpretation will unleash the potential of Scripture because this kind of reading is characterized by an openness to hear and to know God in the texts.

In his second essay, Donald A. Hagner emphasizes the recent interest in the theological interpretation of Scripture, that is, exegesis done with faith presuppositions up front. Historical-critical exegesis maintains its importance, tempered by an openness to and an interest in theological reality. Charges that the Bible has no stable meaning are faced with the fact that exegetes agree on the meaning of texts 70-80 percent of the time. Biblical authors intend to say rather specific things, and they succeed in expressing themselves much or most of the time. If we are going to be open to deeper or "spiritual" senses of Scripture, we need to have our feet firmly planted in the exegesis of the plain meaning of the texts. …

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