One of the questions I’ve always had is this: How does what the Bible teaches relate to the world outside of the text? Obviously, two true descriptions on one topic much coincide in some way. But if the Bible is unclear on a topic, can a field of inquiry into the same topic bring clarity to the topic, and thus to the Biblical text?
This question has an obvious answer to many people. The problem is that it is treated precisely as obvious.
If I’m not being clear about this, for the sake of argument, let us assume that A) Jesus really was raised and B) therefore the canon (Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox will do) is, in some way, true.
So, if the canon is true and I am investigating Paul’s conversion experience or the descriptions of conversions in Acts I would do this:
- Check carefully what the text says in various places.
- Ensure that I am understanding the genre correctly (is it generally reliable historical reportage, helpful fables, an extended allegory, etc?)
- Carefully weigh that against what other ancient texts say (Old Testament, Gospels, Inter-testamental, Greco-Roman, later Christian works, etc) and see if those shed any useful light on the events reported in Acts.
At this point, I at least have a description of what Luke thought it meant to convert to Christianity and perhaps an ancient perspective on what it meant, in general, to change from one religion to another. But, here’s the thing, have I found: A) what it always means to convert to Christ and B) could a modern sociological perspective on how conversion works be used to shed more light on what happens in Luke’s text and thus what actually happened that Luke is reporting?
Then from these questions about understanding conversion in Luke and then, for a Christian, in the world, how does this become prescriptive? My thought it that, because of Luke’s genre, it is only prescriptive in the broad sense of showing the virtues of the early Christian movement. Thus, it is not meant to necessarily communicate what to do, so much as to report the generally virtuous and successful lives of those who did. To find what to do, the Christian need look no further than the Epistles, the Gospels, and especially in the ancient church, the local leadership. This issue at hand though is: In what sense is the Bible true here. Is it true in the sense that any relevant study of the same topic on which the Bible speaks can give us insight into that topic and thus into the text? If the Bible talks about conversion and modern scientists talk about conversion should I piece both together? On a side note, many sociologists aren’t scientists. For evidence read their books.
Another more obvious example is the evolution/age of the earth debate. Full disclosure, I find the debate in its present form so logically simple to solve and so obviously rhetorically misguided that I’m literally confused and have been since my teenage years about why it continues. I’m merely using this as an example:
- You study Genesis and come up with what it apparently teaches about God, ancient Israel, and the relationship between God, humanity, and the realms of earth.
- You read ancient literature that gives inflated time periods for ancient dynasties and think that perhaps the Biblical text is using a similar device, but the genealogies in Genesis aren’t about dynasties so you decide on a mathematical reading of the numbers.
- You read the relevant science on the age of the earth and realize that your literal reading of the genealogies is contrary to the time line of the earth’s age.
- Now the question is: was the Bible meant to teach the age of the earth? If so, then this scientific data points to the more accurate reading of Scripture (the ages are a literary conceit). But if it was inspired precisely to teach something else (and the ages are just part of the story whose point, not necessarily details are true) and the mathematical reading of those texts is correct, then the Bible, in a certain sense, is wrong about the timeline created. But, it could be that it is only wrong in the trivial sense that parables are “wrong” for not happening.
This problem comes up again with certain questions of self-regulation in the Christian life. The Bible gives us a great deal information about what Jesus taught and what his closest friends and associates thought that meant for the church. This is revealed data about the priorities of the moral life. So, if the Bible, in some places, is about the moral life and Stoic texts are about the moral life how do they relate?
- Some New Testament scholars see stoic influence all over Paul’s letters (Engberg-Petersen). In this sense, studying ancient stoicism helps us see what Paul means because they shared the same conceptual frame.
- But, supposing Paul did not utilize their framework, they still both wrote about what it means to lead a moral life. In this sense, if a stoic insight is clearly true and the Christian finds it to not contradict Paul’s teachings, shouldn’t he begin to practice it? And again, could it, because it is true data about a topic on which Scripture teaches, offer insight into what Scripture means?
- The same goes for the transcendentals. Those are categories independent of Scripture. But they seem like broad enough categories that A) Scripture could give insight into what they ultimately mean and B) they could give a framework for understanding parts of Scripture.
A non-Biblical example might be asking whether or not modern studies in physics can give us insight into the text of Aristotle’s Physics. I think modern physics and Aristotle’s Physics both give us insight into nature (though Aristotle is wrong so often). But I’m not sure that reading his physics does much for our grasp of gravity, though it might tell us how cause and effect, as principles, exist in a physical system. Thus, it seems that modern physics won’t help us understand Aristotle’s text. But, Aristotle doesn’t claim inspiration. Thus, in that respect, the reader isn’t obligated to find the truth, in some sense, in Aristotle. Modern cognitive psychology though, could give us insight into what Aristotle was getting at in his Ethics. Both fields are about habits and maybe, for somebody without Aristotle’s keen grasp of human nature, reading a few recent studies on habits could give insight into this or that aspect of Aristotle’s work on habits that remained difficult even after attempts at exegeting the text.
There isn’t much of a conclusion here. I have a position on this topic but I don’t care to express it until I find a more satisfactory way of stating it. I’m bringing this up because several books I’ve read have touched on it: Who were the Israelites and Where did they Come From by William Dever, The Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, Scholastic Metaphysics by Edward Feser, Foundations of Soul Care by Eric Johnson, On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine and The Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell. All of these authors, in one way or another, deal with whether or not the Bible corresponds with reality. The questions in Biblical studies, at least for the Christian are,
- What did the text mean when it was written and is that true in a significant way for the church today?
- Should data from outside of my direct field of inquiry assist me in determining the meaning of the text?
- If so, how? For Catholics this might be easy. The Bible could completely contradict your system and you could just claim, “Doctrinal development led us beyond the text.” Doesn’t make the claim right, but the psychological difficulty would be dealt with.