The following is taken from a paper that was delivered at a conference sponsored by the Center for Pastor Theologians on November 3.
In his 2005 book, The Enlightenment Bible, Jonathan Sheehan describes changes in the Bible’s role in Germany and England between the late seventeenth and mid-nineteenth century. In Sheehan’s account, Enlightenment is not a philosophy or a secular mood, but a “new constellation of practices and institutions”—philology, text criticism, and new theories of translation, as well as coffee houses, scientific societies, and journals—one that dislodged the Bible from its central place in the Western imagination. No longer considered revelation from outside this world, the Bible was “reconstituted as a piece of the heritage of the West” and “transformed from a work of theology to a work of culture.”
What Sheehan describes is not so much a loss as a reconstruction of biblical authority. The Enlightenment Bible had authority, but its authority “had no essential center” since it was distributed among the disciplines that scrutinized it, each of which “offered its own answer to the question of biblical authority.”
We shouldn’t romanticize pre-modern biblical study. Neither Europe nor America was ever a continent-wide scriptorium in which each Christian spent his every waking hour poring over, listening to, or singing Scripture. Besides, for all the wisdom, charm, and interest of precritical exegesis, patristic and medieval biblical commentators suffered from glaring (and entirely innocent) limitations. For a millennium, most Western theologians were ignorant of Greek, not to mention Hebrew, and premodern interpreters knew little about the historical contexts of both Old and New Testaments.
And we shouldn’t despair about the present either. Though no longer the authoritative text for the cultural at large, the Bible is still the most important single book in American public life. John Kasich argues that our nation will be judged by how well it cares for the “least of these,” and that staunch Presbyterian, Donald Trump, flashes his personal Bible at rallies, a gift from that other stalwart predestinarian, Norman Vincent Peale.
It’s easy to find examples of technical academic work that has little evident value for the Church, but within the academy much biblical scholarship is done by believers who regard Scripture as authoritative and who seek to serve the Church in their scholarship. They scrutinize the Bible as a literary and historical artifact but are also interested in its spiritual import. It would be a grave mistake for Christians to renounce the disciplines that arose around the Enlightenment Bible so thoroughly that we fail to receive its gifts with gratitude.
Still, the Church’s fundamental response to the Enlightenment Bible must be refusal: The Enlightenment Bible is not our Bible. Scripture has many authors, it makes use of many sources, and it is written—if we may be excused an unhelpful anachronism—in various genres. Academic scholarship has pointed all of this out, sometimes with insight, often to the point of tedium, and at times quite erroneously.
Yet Christians believe that the Bible is a unified book of books with theological and literary coherence. We believe that the Bible is such because the same God who spoke the world into existence spoke again and again through angels and prophets to Israel, and spoke again in the last days through his Son who is his eternal Word. This divine author did not grope from beginning to end, or vice versa, but knew the end at the beginning because he is the Lord who is, who was, and who comes.
The fragmenting methods that created the Enlightenment Bible are the same tools used to study it, and further to dissolve it. On this point, the Church unfortunately accommodated to the trends of the times. Seminaries institutionalize the Bible’s fragmentation by separating faculties into departments of Old and New Testament. Within the Church, “scientific” exegesis has often been regarded as the gold standard of serious biblical scholarship, and modern Christians are often as contemptuous of premodern allegory, figural exegesis, and typology as your neighborhood philosophe. The Church’s disciplines of reading should suit our convictions about the Bible’s unity. And so, to the refusal of the Enlightenment Bible, we must add another refusal: a refusal of the Enlightenment’s habits of reading.
And we might as well add a third refusal: The Church has too often sheepishly agreed that, whatever pastors do in their pulpits, real work on the Bible is done by scholars in universities.
For the Church, though, the liturgy of word and sacrament is the primary context for publishing the results of Bible study. Biblical theology is done when the Lord’s servant speaks the word of the Lord to the Lord’s people who have been gathered by the Lord’s Spirit at the Lord’s table on the Lord’s day in the presence of the Lord. Biblical studies happen when the Spirit uses the pastor to transform hearers into a letter from God. That, above all, is where and when the work of biblical interpretation is done.