Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chapter Review: Craig Blomberg's Can We Still Believe the Bible?

Blomberg, Craig. L. Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2014. 287 pages, pb. 

Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, Colorado, has long been one of the finest Evangelical New Testament scholars in the field. Personally, I have benefited from his well known, Interpreting the Parables, his survey on the Gospels, Jesus and the Gospels, and his Contagious Holiness: Jesus' meals with Sinners. This small sampling is just the tip of Blomberg's scholarly output, but it underscores the expectations with which this reader/reviewer brought to his latest effort, Can We Still Believe in the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions.  I agreed to review chapter 5, "Aren't Several Narrative Genres of the Bible Unhistorical?" (147-178) Familiar with much of Blomberg's work, I was not disappointed, for this chapter was vintage Blomberg, careful, exacting, and charitable to multiple viewpoints.

Blomberg begins his chapter by noting that the book of Genesis, Jonah, Job, Isaiah, and Daniel all present historical conundrums to college students taking a one-semester introduction to the Old Testament (147-148). Turning to the New Testament, other problems arise when turning to New Testament Letters, as most scholars view vast majority of Epistles as pseudonymous. Revelation presents its own interpretive issues when John's visions are seen to be "snapshots of genuine future events" (148). After raising these issues, the author identifies the issue to be addressed here is one "of the literary form or genre of biblical books or their components" (148). Blomberg astutely observes that:
Virtually everyone in the history of the church has recognized that at least small parts of the Bible that are written in narrative form do not intend to recount things that actually happened... If there is good historical or exegetical support for identifying such texts as something other than ancient history writing, then not to interpret them as such would misrepresent the original intentions of their authors and violate the standard grammatical-historical hermeneutic of interpreting Scripture (148; emphasis original). 

Following on the heels of chapter 4, which highlights the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, Blomberg addresses what these observations mean. Citing Article 8 of the Chicago Statement, which states in the affirmative that God's work of inspiration "utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers," and Article 13 which states in part, "We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage and purpose," Blomberg is now in a position to bring the force of these observations in line with a proper view of inerrancy when he notes the role of the genre of Parable plays into this argument (149). The point of a parable is to illustrate a spiritual truth, not whether or not the details of the parable are speaking of a historical event. That is not to deny the truth of the parable, but to place the "standard of truth" in a different light.

Blomberg spends the rest of the chapter highlighting both Old Testament Examples (150-165), as well as New Testament examples (165-173), before finishing up with some big picture remarks on the issues at stake (174-178). The following will present a brief summary of Blomberg's arguments in the remainder of the review. First, he notes the hot-button topic of "Genesis 1 and Creation" (150-152). Blomberg notes that inerrantists have long held to the view of an older earth, while others hold a progressive view of creation, theistic evolution, some allow a gap of billions of years between Gen 1:1 and Gen 1:2, others recognize the literary framework and the poetic nature of the days, and finally, the argument of John Walton, who argues that Genesis 1 as God taking up residence in his temple, should all have the benefit of having their arguments heard and interpreters of having the freedom to choose the best option.

In the next section (152-155), closely related to the one above, Blomberg discusses "Genesis 2-3 and the Fall of Humanity." Inerrancy does not prohibit from seeing "Adam" and "Eve" symbolically, as representative of all of humanity, who although created in God's image have fallen prey to Satan's lures. But this does beg the question, is how did Homo sapiens get to be this way? In other words, why are human beings the only ones who label certain behaviors as moral, immoral? Ultimately, we recognize the "astonishing capacity for both good and evil in our species" as well as ourselves (153). Ultimately, by rejecting a more literal reading of Genesis 2-3, we must ask what symbolic reading best captures the account of human nature as we know it. Blomberg then surveys the many attempts to answer such a question (153-154).

Turning to the Book of Job (155-157), Blomberg notes that there are almost no historical particulars to anchor Job in history. Further, the highly stylized speeches of Job and his friends, are not what most conversations look like, and the story itself, with the unimaginable suffering and loss, detailed in exacting sequence along with the regaining of all that was lost "is even less lifelike" (155). So how should we proceed? Blomberg writes: "The lesson of the book of Job is that our finitude and falleness frequently render us incapable of understanding God's ways in such contexts" (156). Even if the book is "parabolic rather than historical," Job's contribution to Scripture cannot and should not be minimized (156). The rest of the section discusses how Tremper Longman's commentary on Job, has sought a middle ground where Job is situated between literal history on one hand and complete fiction on the other (156-157).

Next on Blomberg's radar is the Book of Jonah (157-160). Cutting to the chase, Blomberg notes that Jonah 2 which highlights the fish story, is quite self-contained (Jonah 1:17-2:10). Remove this portion of the narrative, and you have the sailors' throwing Jonah overboard and the sea growing calm. One could move directly to 3:1, where the word of the Lord comes to Jonah again. Blomberg does spend some time citing various news reports where people have been swallowed by sharks and subsequently spit out. Much of these reports are at best spurious and none can be substantiated with anything like certainty (159). Even if one is to chart a middle ground between historicity and fiction, Blomberg quotes approvingly, James Bruckner, who warns against "the use of the 'whale' question as a litmus test for orthodoxy" (160). I particularly enjoyed this quote for I am reminded of a colleague who was asked as a final question during a job interview as to whether Jonah was historical. In that situation, Jonah was indeed used as a litmus test of orthodoxy.

When it comes to the book of Isaiah and the questions of authorial unity, or the possibility that the work is composed of two or more authors, Blomberg ultimately notes that each side of the debate has dismissed the other's arguments too hastily. On one hand, the name Isaiah appears sixteen times in chs. 1-39, while there is no mentions of the name in chs. 40-66. Blomberg notes that no matter one's viewpoint about the composition or formation of Isaiah, it has nothing to do with biblical inerrancy (163). After dealing with the book of Daniel and the problems it poses (163-165), Blomberg similarly concludes:

With each of these examples, the point here is not to defend one particular solution as better than all others but to highlight how the doctrine of inerrancy remains unaffected throughout. Once we determine, as best we can, what a passage affirms, according to the conventions of style, form, and genre, a commitment to inerrancy implies acceptance of the truth of those affirmations. But a commitment to inerrancy does not exclude a priori any given literary style, form, or genre that is not inherently deceptive (164).

Moving ahead to New Testament examples, Blomberg begins with the question of whether or not Matthew is best viewed as Midrash. This argument was  put forward by Robert Gundry, whose commentary on Matthew in the early 1980's, led to controversy and ultimately, his being voted out of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). Midrash often takes the form of rewritten Bible, something like the book of Jubilees does with Genesis, by recounting much of the narrative while also adding details not in the original story. Gundry argued that Matthew used both Mark and and expanded version of Q along these lines. Matthew's audience, being familiar with both Mark and Q, would have been able to determine the unhistorical elaboration of Matthew's narrative, Gundry reasoned. This was an acceptable form of Jewish interpretation and Matthew's audience would in no ways would be deceived by these elaborations, compared to the truth claims from the core material of both Mark and Q. Blomberg  narrates the subsequent  fallout at ETS that occurred once Gundry's views went public. Blomberg is to be commended for his frankness in narrating the parties at fault (i.e. Norman Geisler) for turning the "event into a political campaign..." (167). He notes that no less a conservative stalwart than D.A. Carson, stood in support of Gundry, despite vigorously disagreeing with his interpretive conclusions. Blomberg notes: "To this day, thirty years later, not a single critic of Gundry who believed his view was inherently contradicting inerrancy has offered what Carson defines above as 'intelligent response'--wrestling in detail with the exegetical and historical methods and their applications that Gundry utilized" (167; italics original).

Blomberg's treatment of Pseudonymous Epistles is to be commended (168-173). Many NT scholars believe that Colossians, Ephesians, The Pastoral Epistles, 2 Thessalonians, James, 1 Peter, and Jude were not written by the authors to which they have been ascribed. The main point that Blomberg hammers home in this section is not to defend either those who hold to  traditional authorship or to those who deny it, but to simply say that we simply do not know enough about ancient attitudes to pseudonymous authorship, in order to rule this practice out of bounds, and thus rejecting their potential truth claims (171). Any claims where this is ruled as a deceptive practice is to project anachronistically our cultural values back on the ancients. Blomberg comments:
To say we know what first-century Christian attitudes to pseudonymity were outstrips the actual evidence, because no comparative material from the first century has yet come to light addressing the question one way or another (171).
After outlining the work of David Aune ("Reconceptualizing the Phenomenon of Ancient Pseudepigraphy: An Epilogue," in Frey et al., Pseudepigraphie und Verfasserfiktion, 794, citing Marco Frenschkowski, Wolfgang Speyer, and Joseph A. Sint) who summarizes several foreign language works that analyze six different kinds of pseudepigraphy, with only one kind falling into the category of genuine forgeries intended to deceive, Blomberg helpfully notes: "With only one of these six categories involving any intent to deceive, scholars on both the far left and the far right are simply wrong to claim that there is some inherently immoral quality to the practice" (172-173).

Finally, Blomberg discusses Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature (173). Despite the recent spate of quality commentaries on the Apocalypse they are still ignored by the large majority of the populace, who would rather spend their money on prophecy guides, end-time fictional novels and the like, all with the intent of attempting to line up the details of Revelation with current events. In my favorite quote of the chapter, Blomberg remarks on this phenomena:
The Christian world seems to suffer regularly from collective amnesia, as each successive interpretation turns out to be wrong, but we nevertheless jump on the bandwagon of the next similar proposal just as readily as we did the last. Perhaps we desperately want the world to be near its end so that we don't need to wrestle with the complex problems that plague our planet today. Unfortunately, we generally hold no one accountable for their past failed prophecies and with renewed fervor latch on to each, new exciting proposal that Christ's coming is imminent (173; italics original).
Another potentially apocalyptic passage, Matthew 27:51-53,  gets special treatment from Blomberg as he notes that it is "one of the strangest of all NT passages" due to its mention of resurrected bodies going into Jerusalem and appearing to many people (174). In similar fashion to his section that discussed Gundry's dismissal from ETS, Blomberg also springs to the defense of Michael Licona who, in his brilliant work on the Resurrection initially categorized this passage as apocalyptic in nature mentioning that Matthew is doing symbolically what Paul mentions prosaically in 1 Cor 15:20. For questioning the historical merit of this event, Licona was unjustly dismissed from Southern Evangelical Seminary and from the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Individuals like Albert Mohler and Danny Akin censured Licona and his view (175). Many who are leaving the Christian faith are doing so because it is this form of Christianity that does not encourage the hard questions of faith to be raised in a safe, nurturing environment. Those who buy into the all-or-nothing approach of their teachers and their definitions of inerrancy often find it better to "become atheists or, at best agnostics" (175).

Blomberg concludes his chapter with a summary of the contents and finally states his own views on the above topics (176-178).

In my view, Blomberg has done a remarkable service to the Evangelical community. His arguments are not the typical knee-jerk reactions that one often encounters either in scholarship, or now, in the latest trend, universities and seminaries tightening the reins on what their faculty can teach, research and write about-- usually according to their strict definitions of inerrancy and the like. Blomberg is surely right that interpretive disagreements need to be handled in the scholarly forum, allowing "the most convincing position win--through scholarship and not through campaigns to oust people from various positions" (178). Although I would not buy wholesale into some of the interpretive proposals Blomberg settles on in his conclusions, I for one, think Licona's initial suggestion of Matthew 27:51-53 is persuasive as he does not, however, the author is at least open to further research undertaken on the topic (177). Blomberg is to be commended for modeling a balanced scholarly disposition for which we should all strive. One, he models a gracious attitude towards the views of others, presenting their ideas in an accurate, responsible manner. Second, he reminds us that our interpretations should be held with humility and tentatively. We should be open to changing our minds if the evidence should lead to do a different interpretive conclusion. Third, he is able to cut a swath through the scholarly morass, allowing readers to see clearly what the issues are and are not. This is simply a masterful guide through some very thorn topics that bedevil anyone from the student in the classroom to the person in the pew. I recommend this volume for Bible Study classes and the like who want to address the big-picture interpretative issues of our day.

NB: Many thanks to Baker Academic and Brazos Press for inviting me to the book tour and providing an advance review copy of the book. This gesture did not influence my impression of the book or my review of its contents.

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