The Bible and The Believer: How to Read The Bible Critically and Religiously

May 8, 2014 — 2 Comments

bible-and-believer1Marc Brettler, Daniel Harrington, S.J., Peter Enns, The Bible and The Believer: How to Read The Bible Critically and Religiously. New York: Oxford University Press, September 2012. 224 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.

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Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy!

A Jew, a Protestant, and a Catholic walk into a bar…

…to talk about reading the Bible in light of their scholarly commitment.

Marc Zvi Brettler is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. Peter Enns teaches Biblical Studies at Eastern University. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. was a Professor of New Testament at Boston College until his recent passing. Together, these three scholars have written a kind of multiview book on reading Scripture in light of critical and religious commitments.

The book opens with a concise history of critical biblical scholarship. Because Brettler is Jewish and Enns is an Old Testament scholar, the specific focus is on the Old Testament in modern historical criticism. After this context is established, each contributor offers an extended essay on his perspective of reading the Bible both critically and religiously. Then, the author gives an example of his critical/religious reading in action. The other two contributors then offer their responses as additional headings within the same chapter. The end of each chapter offers suggestions for further reading more or less in line with the author’s perspective.

In a horrible turn of events, the book has endnotes instead of footnotes. However, the valuable takeaway from this is that the publisher (Oxford) seems to be hinting that this is a book for laypeople. The underlying message is that the critical reading scholars from all perspectives use (Jewish/Protestant/Catholic) is compatible with the religious way the average person in the pew/synagogue reads. The writing is conversational and accessible, but doesn’t shy away from critical discussion. Since the three essays and responses taken together are about 150 pages (which gives you an idea how long each chapter is), it seems reasonable that the average person could make their way through the book and learn how to read the Bible the way the scholars do.

This way of reading though is not without problems. Perhaps the key one has to do with inerrancy and the historical value of the Old Testament. In these three scholars’ perspectives, the history of the Old Testament is minimized to say the least. Brettler says in his essay that “Jewish tradition is much less concerned with the literal truth and the historical accuracy of the biblical text than is the Protestant tradition (52).” Coming to terms with this says Enns, was what “set the course for much of my academic and spiritual thinking about the nature of Scripture (72).” Likewise, Harrington says that “Catholicism is not a religion of ‘the book,'” and “is more a religion of a person (85).” When it comes to the book though, “while inerrant in what pertains to our salvation, [it] is not necessarily inerrant in its worldview or chronology or what we currently regard as the province of the physical sciences (87).” As you can see, from a true critical perspective, there is no such thing as full inerrancy.

From my particular Protestant/Christian perspective, I think this book is a valuable read. I say this not because it provides actual insights I will use, but because it shows how what a critical reading of Scripture actually looks like from a religious perspective. I requested a review copy of this book mainly because Peter Enns was the Protestant voice and I wanted to see what he was up to. Also, I was intrigued by the format and thought it might be interesting to be a fly on the wall for a three-way discussion about Bible reading from three perspectives I don’t share. Enns does represent the Protestant perspective, but though I wouldn’t say he is a liberal Protestant (others might), he is definitely no conservative trying to maintain historical traditional orthodoxy when it comes to the Bible. More than originally anticipated, Enns seems right at home talk about reading Scripture with both a Catholic and Jewish scholar.

For readers who adopt this critical perspective, particularly evangelicals, Enns is a sort of Mosaic figure. After his own exodus from Westminster, he has been instrumental in helping others chart their way out of the Egypt of traditional inerrancy and into the Promised Land of critical, inerrancy-free Bible reading. Whether it’s his Evolution of Adam dealing with science and the Bible (mainly just deconstructing traditional understandings of Genesis), or explaining why he doesn’t think inerrancy works, Enns’ is progressively charting out a different approach to Scripture than Protestants have traditionally used. In this book, Enns offers a good overview of how he thinks we (Christians) should read Scripture critically and religiously. Since younger evangelicals who question inerrancy will likely find an affinity with Enns, it is probably good to know how Enns thinks we should read Scripture. In the midst of recent discussion of the future of Protestantism, this book provides an insight into how reading Scripture might look if views of Scripture like Enns holds win out. The result isn’t compelling to me, but I’m afraid it might be compelling to quite a few pilgrims on the way.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to The Bible and The Believer: How to Read The Bible Critically and Religiously

  1. “As you can see, from a true critical perspective, there is no such thing as full inerrancy.”

    ## That is a very thought – & provocative ! – remark.

    Two questions: if inerrancy is considered a property of the text as a bearer of information, is inerrancy limited to the text, and if so, on what grounds; and, to what text ?

    A reading of the OT that gives us the word for “Aramaeans”/”Syrians”, may differ by very little from one that gives us the word for “Edomites” in the same verse – but the semantic values of the graphic markings that are the letters that supply those words, are different semantic values. Otherwise, the readings would yield identical translations. Different ETs read the Hebrew in the same place differently, to produce non-identical translations. Which makes it difficult to see how both texts can be inerrant. Yet the ET of a passage that functions – for the monoglot English reader – as the inerrant text, has behind it two possible readings of the Hebrew, both of which are to be found in widely-used ETs (to say nothing of how the same passage is rendered in other translations, or in the ancient versions).

    Another difficulty with inerrancy is the difficulty in finding a text for it to be a property of. Was the version of Jeremiah’s prophecies burnt in Jeremiah 36 by King Jehoiakim, inerrant ? Or is it only the text re-written by Baruch after that, that is – or was – the locus of inerrancy ? What about a text for which several scribes are employed – is one of them writing inerrantly, and not the others; or what ? Or is it only the final product of scribal activity, after being checked & collated by the dictating author, that is inerrant ? Anyone who has taken a dictation at school will know what strange alterations of sense can occur when words are committed to paper; as applied to the writing of a purportedly inerrant text, it is very hard to see how a text written by several scribes, acting as human beings, not as automata, can without great artificiality be called inerrant.

    Other problems arise from exegesis. The Bible-reader who regards the 600 years of Shem son of Noah as accurate biographical information about that son of Noah, may well regard the Bible as infallibly historically accurate in giving that information. However, such information can equally well be regarded as accurate but legendary, by a reader who regards Shem as legendary or mythical – in that case, the information will be regarded as accurate within the narrative universe of Genesis 5.29-11.32, in much the same way as the “feigned history” of “The Lord of The Rings” is accurate within its narrative universe. The relevance of this is, that whole-hearted, intelligent, and prayerful appreciation of the authority of the Bible does not prevent striking disagreements between Christians about whether certain passages are true as history – or true, but not to be taken as giving historically-accurate info. When such disagreements arise, the same text is being read in two – or more ! – different ways; and acceptance of total inerrancy is no bar to such differences. It may even be true that most of those wbo have maintained that the Bible is free fromall error, have done so because they have been able to understand perplexing passages as mystical or allegorical, and not as giving even quasi-historical information – the itinerary of the Israelites was treated in just this way by Origen, IIRC.

    A further point, that I’ve seen little-discussed (I may not have read sufficiently widely) is this: is inerrancy a quality of:
    a) each and every assertion in the Bible;
    b) each and every unit of meaning in the Bible, regardless of whether or not their structure is that of a claim that X is the case;
    c) the sum total of all assertions in the Bible, taken *in toto*;
    d) the construct known as “the Bible”, that is the “continuum” within which the contents of the books are encountered ?

    IMHO, (a) is unworkable; my own preference, if one is going to treat Biblical total inerrancy as a theologically-significant concept at all, is for (d). Not in order to make the idea as vague as possible, but to leave room for the texts to function without being artificially harmonised. My own belief is that contradictions in the Bible, real or alleged, are theologically significant; if I could, I would not tone down any of them; not the two deaths of Judas, not the differences in the Resurrection accounts, not the differences in the names of the Twelve, not the differences over whether Abraham was chosen 430 or 645 years before the Exodus, the differences of St John from the Synoptics, & so forth. I believe these difficulties are there for a very positive purpose, and that we would be much the poorer if the Bible were totally self-consistent; that we would know less of God, if they were not part of the Bible.

  2. “thought” = “thought-provoking – and provocative ! – remark”


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