Marc 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.