Reading the Bible

Debates about Christianity usually evince a startling ignorance of Christianity. Of course working definitions must be forwarded in making arguments, but most of them are decidedly uncharitable and seemed more motivated by politics than a search for understanding. It seems worthwhile to help forward and articulate a more supportive view that accounts for and acknowledges the subtlety, wisdom, and value of Christianity. Numerous other scholars have undertaken just this: for example, the Dogmatic Theology series by Francis Hall. In reading Hall, your correspondent finds much scholarship and many definitions but something seems missing, though the lacunae are hard to define—perhaps a holistic perspective that integrates the disparate threads of Hall’s writing. Many analytic method, tools, and perspectives are available at the beginning of the 21st century than were available at the beginning of the 20th when Hall was writing. Most methodologists choose to employ such tools to critique rather than support Christianity, but this lack of supporters does not impact the potential value of the endeavor.

 In looking to a more integrated perspective of the Bible specifically and Christianity generally, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart provides a starting point. Although the tools are philosophy are employed, Fee and Stewart specifically warn that religion is not philosophy. Here we derive perspective from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That is, philosophy, the work of people, is necessarily limited, while the complexities of the heavens and earth they seek to explain are not. Religion too seeks to explore these complexities, so perhaps philosophical tools that acknowledge that complexity will be of service.

Fee and Stewart provide an overview of the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is divided into three broad categories: (1) the history of Israel, divided into the Pentateuch and others; (2) the writings of Israel, divided into the wisdom books—most notably Job—and others; and (3) the prophets of Israel, both major and minor. The New Testament is also divided into three categories: (1) The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (written by Luke); (2) the Epistles (mostly written by Paul); and (3) Revelation (not Revelations with an ‘s’). Without going into the details Fee and Stuart, this overarching organization of the Bible provides a perspective missing from reading selected chapters and verses.

Beyond that, Fee and Stuart introduce two philosophical terms or tools to Bible study: exegesis and hermeneutics. “Exegesis” pertains to the reading of the Bible in the context in which it was written. That is, scholars must recognize that the Bible was written in a specific time and place with a set of languages, cultures, and problems very different from our own. The task of exegesis seeks to understand this context to better understand the writings. “Hermeneutics” entails applying those writings to another place, time, and social context. This task necessarily entails understanding what aspects apply and which do not though analogical reasoning. This tension always exists and is never completely solvable, but an informed understanding of exegesis and hermeneutics helps avoid merely mining the Bible for quotes to support one’s argument. Extended to philosophical works, this intellectual exercise informs “close reading” Straussians who emphasize the timelessness of exegesis as opposed to others who emphasize the uniqueness of modern political and social issues as well as the inapplicability of the Bible and Christianity.

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