Can We Trust the Bible?

Harold W. Attridge

Two major developments on the contemporary religious scene pose major challenges for the Church. One is a fundamentalist impulse that manifests in many ways, including intense apocalyptic expectations. From another direction, in part in reaction to fundamentalism, comes a distrust of the Bible as historically untrustworthy or positively detrimental to human flourishing. It is the latter issue on which this essay focuses.

A brief review of the things that the Bible is not will suggest why some people find the Bible difficult to trust. We misplace our trust if we treat it as a textbook of science. The fact that many of our countrymen currently want to do so is a disturbing trend. Recent battles over the teaching of evolution or the warning labels affixed by some school districts on biology texts reveals an anxious trust in the Bible. But that trust is surely misplaced. The Bible does not purport to offer scientific truth, as serious interpreters have long recognized.

At the University of Notre Dame, I regularly taught a freshman seminar on the theme of “Creation.” We began by reading myths of origins from different cultures. We then read Plato, who told a creation story in the Timaeus, and then Aristotle, who thought that such stories were worthless. We then traced how Jewish and Christian readers of Genesis interpreted their sacred text in the light of such philosophers. Reading Plato alongside Genesis was an easier undertaking, but Plato’s mythic cosmogony eventually proved less persuasive than Aristotle’s account of the physical world. By the time of Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century, the challenge for Christians was to reconcile the scientific “truth” of Aristotle’s cosmology with the story of origins in Genesis. Aquinas did it by suggesting, in effect, that those who focus on the doctrine of “creation” as a process were making a category mistake. What the doctrine affirmed,  and what the Bible taught Aquinas, was that all that exists is radically contingent: it has no reason in and of itself for being. The doctrine of creation is not primarily about an event but about a relationship with One who grounds reality and gives it meaning.

Whatever we might think of the position of Aquinas, the issue of the “scientific” character of scripture was addressed long before the Scopes trial. Christian and Jewish readers of the Bible have long since become used to making an appropriate distinction between what the Bible claims and what is known from reason and observation. Those who insist that the Bible should be trusted as a literal account of natural processes are fighting a very old and futile battle.

Neither is the Bible a textbook of history. In one sense that is obviously true. There are large sections of the Bible that are not “history” in any sense. The Psalms are poetry, plaintive, celebratory, prayerful, as is the sensuous Song of Songs. Proverbs offers abundant advice and counsel, but not history. Some books however, do puport to give accounts of past events. Can we trust them?

This question has bothered readers of the Bible since the increasing historical consciousness that came with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Particularly troubling are the scriptural accounts of the “miraculous.” How can stories of parted seas, blind people seeing, lepers being cleansed, the lame walking, the dead being raised to new life, be true? Some readers, such as Thomas Jefferson, actually edited scripture to remove miraculous elements. More recently scholars of early Israel have suggested that the apparently sober accounts of the monarchy of David and Solomon are merely legends elaborated by the threatened Judahite kings of the seventh century. Can the Bible be trusted as “history”? Not if what we seek is critical history, a reconstruction of the past based on careful assessment of sources and probabilistic reasoning. But that should not surprise us, since the Bible itself signals caution about its tales of the past. For Israel’s monarchy, it offers two accounts, the books of Kings and the books of Chronicles,  each with a distinct  perspective. The New Testament offers four different gospels. Harmonization attempts to overcome the discrepancies, with ever unsatisfactory results. How much better, then, to recognize what the Bible’s multiform shape itself reveals, that its stories of the past are not critical history but perspectival reminiscences, that truth is to be garnered from them, not by celebrating their simple facticity, but by embracing their diversity.

As for the miraculous, there too we do well to recognize that the Bible’s stories make assumptions about the world that we seldom share. Our assumptions may also differ from the Enlightenment’s mechanistic views, but we need not check them at the dust jacket when we pick up a Bible. Hence, we cannot embrace a false naiveté. Yet we should allow ourselves to “suspend our disbelief” and be open to the truly miraculous elements in the Bible, the miracle of divine love for sinful humanity.

If the Bible is to be trusted neither as science or history, is it a textbook of law or ethics? This question, even more than worries about science or history, has dominated recent debates. The Bible now stands accused of destructive moralizing, of being a source of oppression for women, who are to “keep silent in church” and earn salvation by childbearing; for gays and lesbians, whose love is “an abomination”; for the poor, whose oppression is comforted by hope of heavenly reward; for the environment, whose domination and devastation find biblical warrant in Genesis and Revelation. Trust such a book as this? “No way!” is often the response.

In this case, the considerations relevant to science and history do not readily apply. It is not a category mistake to say that the Bible enshrines values, and the Bible has indeed been used to support oppressive political and social programs. As a catalogue of values and norms, the Bible is not without its problems. So, is this collection of texts in any sense trustworthy?

A sketch of what the Bible is and does might help to answer the question.

If the Bible is not strictly history, it is story and it does what stories do: shapes imagination, inspires hope, hones sensibilities, wrestles with ambiguity. The Bible tells a large story, within which it tells many short stories, and all contribute to shaping a world of meaning. Or better put: the Bible provides a script from which communities tell stories. It is those communal retellings that give meaning to the text.

One way of construing the Bible’s grand narrative is as a story of God’s relationship with the world, which begins in the wonder of cosmic beneficence and ends in reconciled peace. Between beginning and end come frustration, betrayal, estrangement, reconciliation, bitter dispute, joyous restitution. Between alpha and omega lies, in other words, the human condition  as we know it, fallenness and alienation, redeemed by an all-encompassing love. Those who have been shaped by that story see their condition through lenses at once realistic and hopeful.

Individual stories flesh out the larger plot. Exodus, even without a Cecil B. DeMille treatment, sounds fundamental themes that have shaped both ecclesial and civil communities. President Bush’s second inaugural address hymning “freedom” and “liberty,” evokes generations who have identified with oppressed and liberated Israel. The list is long: New England Puritans, who found on these shores a promised land; African Americans who found on these same shores a new pharoah; Jews from the stetls of Eastern Europe and Russia; peasants on coffee plantations in Latin America who have sought here a better life. The Bible’s first subplot is about liberation. To trust the Bible is to trust that story, not as an account of the past but as a paradigm for our present.

Jewish readers of the Passover Haggadah have long known this truth. That text invites celebrants to hear the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt as the story of all the people of Israel. Whatever inflections Christians add, we also read ourselves into the biblical text, which shapes our encounter with the world.

Exodus is an important part of the grand narrative. Even shorter stories come from the lips of the teacher whom Christians revere. Jesus uttered not systematic theology, but pointed anecdotes, witty, provocative, profound. Deeper than creeds and confessions in the consciousness of all types of Christians are powerful vignettes, stories of a compasionate outsider; of a forgiving father; of sowers, shepherds, and fishermen, treasure hunters and banqueters, each of whom can have something direct to say even to modern ears. To trust the Bible is to trust such a world of little stories, with their invitation to self-examination and commitment to the values of love, compassion, and reconciliation.

To be sure, not every biblical story has such positive potential. Some are, as Phyllis Trible calls them, “texts of terror,” telling of the rejected slave Hagar or the raped Tamar. But stories work in many ways, and we need to trust, among other things, our ability to be shocked by them and to learn about our own sins reflected in them.

If the Bible collects stories, it also assembles debates, not defining truth but rather engaging readers in its quest. Within the larger story of God’s reconciling love are the voices of many raconteurs and sages with different points of view about fundamental issues.

One example comes once again from my freshman theology class. The narratives of the Old Testament not only proclaim liberation and covenant, but also offer a moralistic account of good rewarded and evil punished. Both in the Pentateuch and the historical books, when Israel goes astray, it is punished; so if it suffers, it must have gone astray. The monarchy is doing a lousy job? The people must be sinning. All is sunny and bright? The people are abiding by Torah. Students who read for the first time this familiar theology — evocative of a contemporary “prosperity gospel” — assume it to be biblical orthodoxy. But if they continue reading they will find Job and Qoheleth. Each of those texts has its own complexities, but whatever else they do, they forcefully challenge the orthodoxy of the Bible’s historical books. No! says Job, human suffering is not inextricably linked to moral guilt. To explain why good people suffer may finally be beyond us. The answer that the character of God gives in his famous speech from the whirlwind (Job 38–39) is distinctly unsatisfactory, but that is precisely the point of the book. Even the character of God, as convention ally understood, does not explain why bad things happen to good people. The omnipotent God of prophets and Torah emerges in Job as the wizard of Oz behind the curtain, a bit blustery, impressively pretentious, either incredibly mysterious or utterly ridiculous. Reader, take your pick!

Of similar stuff is Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes, the book that sees a time and a place for everything under the sun, the book that boldly declares “all is vanity” (1:2) and recommends that one should “enjoy life with the wife whom you love” and “do with your might” whatever your hand finds to do (9:9–10). Qoheleth’s hedonism contrasts starkly with the Pentateuch’s covenant fidelity. Job and Ecclesiastes together constitute a major challenge to a simple biblical orthodoxy. Yet both sit there, canonized in the same Bible, both the “Word of God.”

One could trace other similar debates on now-contested issues. The basic point is that the Bible enshrines debate in the structure of its canon. It often does not propound definitive solutions but invites the reader to participate in discovering the truth. Communities that venerate the Bible recognize that fact in various ways. Jewish students of Talmud have enshrined legal debate as a kind of sacrament to actualize the heritage of scripture and to access the divine reality itself. Catholic and Protestant interpreters have different ideas of how scripture works, but their traditions of theological disputation enshrine the same principle found in Rabbinic debate: the truth within scripture emerges through dialogue based on it.

The Bible tells stories and enshrines dialogue; it also reaches out to the minds and hearts of its readers urging them to participate in life to the fullest. It preaches, exhorts, admonishes. How are we to construe its moral teaching? The first thing to note is that, here too, there is debate. Biblical books often attempt to relate the larger narrative framework to specific behaviors, but those don’t always agree. There is a clear diversity of opinion about how to reconcile divine love and demand with the particularities of human life.

Three examples will make the point. The most obvious is no doubt the division between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Commands that the Old Testament solemnly enjoins, e.g., that male children be circumcised, and that certain dietary restrictions be observed, are repudiated in the New Testament. The apostle Paul’s struggles with such issues provide a useful model of how to address such conflicts.

Genesis interprets the traditional practice of circumcision as a sign of Israel’s covenant relationship and enjoins it on all who would be members. Paul, after his “Damascus Road” experience, embraced a vision of God at work in his world. This vision was probably based on the prophecies of Isaiah that God would make Israel a light to the nations and would gather in the dispersed faithful. Understanding himself to be living when those prophecies were being fulfilled, Paul interpreted them to mean that Gentiles could as Gentiles join the community of those who shared the faith of Jesus. They did not need to adopt the particular marks of Israel’s covenant.

In his epistles to Galatia and Rome, Paul offers varied arguments for his position. Yet in each Paul confidently plays a persuasive trump card, his own, and his addressees’, religious  experience. In Galatians, for example, Paul resists an appeal to his congregation in the middle of modern-day Turkey to undertake circumcision. The appeal probably challenged the Galatians to demonstrate that they were children of the promises to Abraham by taking on the sign of relationship to the patriarch, circumcision.

After arguing about what God’s promises to Abraham meant, Paul finally counters that his addressees should know on the basis of their experience that they do not need circumcision. The experience is twofold: the Galatians were baptized using a formula declaring traditional social divisions obsolete: in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal 3:28). If the Galatians had experienced that baptismal reality, they should know that they did not need circumcision.

Paul reminds his addressees of the prayer in which they address God in the most intimate of terms, as Abba (Gal 4:6). So, says Paul, if, following the example of Jesus, you speak to God this way, you are children of God and heirs of God’s promises. Experience should convince you.

Paul’s validation of experience may not be a panacea for solving contemporary ethical dilemmas, but it enshrines in the Bible an important principle of discrimination that we neglect at our peril.

Yes, there are major discrepancies within the Bible about concrete ethical norms, and the history of both Christianity and Judaism reveals communities in dialogue about those norms, often appealing to experience as well as fundamental values endorsed by scripture. Thus it was for slavery, for the emancipation of women, and more recently, for the acceptance of men and women with various sexual orientations into the community of faith.

While Christian moral sensitivities have developed over the centuries from their biblical base, some contradictions within the Bible point to perennial moral problems. The relationship of church and state, hotly contested today, is a case in point. Jesus, of course, seems to offer sage advice to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s” (Matt 22:21.) That statement, however, may be less helpful if God owns the whole shooting match, and Caesar has no rights! As often, Jesus plays with ambiguity.

Paul more clearly admonishes his Roman addressees to obey the civil authorities, entrusted as they are with power to enforce the good (Romans

13). Generations of law-abiding Christians have followed that advice, even when they might be uncomfortable with the official policies, as many of us have been in this time of war. But submission to authority is not scripture’s only value, neither in the Old Testament, which knows of oppressive Pharoahs, nor in the New, which, in the book of Revelation, portrays civil authority as the embodiment of demonic forces. Such a stark picture may itself be problematic, but no more so than the advice simply to submit to authority.

The truth on this point, as on so many others, no doubt lies somewhere between Romans 13 and Revelation 13. The forces of civil government can be both instruments of God’s grace and of Satan’s destructive power. The debate within scripture invites its readers to a process of discernment that only they can make.

Scripture, then, is a moral guide, not as a compendium of unchanging particular moral judgments, but as the framework provided for a community of moral discourse, a framework that in its stories highlights fundamental values and that in its particular conversations invites its readers into a process that leads to reflective moral action.

To summarize the argument so far: The Bible first tells a story, or set of stories, that form character by shaping the imagination and providing a meaningful framework human life. That ethics shaped by the story operates in the final analysis not by laying down unalterable norms of behavior but by engaging readers in a dialogue about how to realize anew the story of liberating justice and reconciling love.

One final dimension of the Bible merits attention. So far I have argued that the Bible’s recitation and dialogic admonition are trustworthy. For more than two thousand years they have formed communities of conviction where meaningful life has been possible. That life is possible, and the Bible is trustworthy, because it performs one more function. In addition to narrating and stimulating dialogue, the Bible also sings a song, engaging not only the mind but also the heart. It appeals, not simply, as Aristotle would say, through “logos” or reason, but also through “pathos” or emotion, and by the language of poetic imagery.

The poetics of the Bible would require another essay, but they merit at least a brief treatment here. Poetry is most obvious in the Psalms, the record of Israel at prayer that became the fundamental Christian prayerbook. Several years ago, celebrating Yale’s tercentennial, colleagues at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music staged a conference on that prayerbook, highlighting the ways Psalms have worked in Jewish and Christian traditions. The Bible’s poetry invites its readers to join a chorus expressing hopes and fears, longings and laments, from the quiet trust of Psalm 23, “My shepherd is the Lord,” to the joyous celebration of the ascent Psalms such as Psalm 108: “I shall sing and raise a psalm. Awake my soul.” In these and many other texts, the Bible sings and invites its readers to trust by joining in the song, joining a choir that has been singing since a people of God was formed. My own contribution to the conference traced how words of the Psalms were put on the lips of Jesus, and how believers were invited to respond antiphonally with their own psalm to the “word of the Lord.” An interesting illustration of the phenomenon appears in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Arguing about circumcision, Paul alludes (Gal 2:16) to Psalm 143:2, which says that “no one is righteous” (or “innocent” NRSV) before God, a theme that will reappear in Romans. The Psalm, however, says more, capturing essential points in Paul’s overall argument. The psalmist eloquently expresses the her own need: “My spirit fails me and my heart is numb with despair.… A thirst for you like thirsty land I lift my outspread hands to you. Lord, answer me.” The Psalm also expresses the trust in God modeled by Jesus, a trust that characterizes the right relationship to God (i.e., justification). Psalm 143:8 prays, “In the morning let me know your love, for I put my trust in you. Show me the way that I must take, for my heart is set on you.” The Psalm also hints, as Paul proclaims, that the spirit of God is poured forth onto human hearts. Psalm 143:10 prays, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; by your gracious spirit guide me on level ground.”

Those who sing this psalm pray the outline of Paul’s theology, hearing from the Bible itself what it means by trust. As a prayer, the Bible expresses trust not in itself, but in the God who loves, forgives, restores, sustains, and guides. The Bible’s poetry invites its readers to participate in such a communal prayer, to focus trust where trust belongs, not in ourselves, not in a book, not in an institution, but alongside our brothers and sisters of faith, in the One who alone is trustworthy. If the Bible is to be trusted, it is above all in this capacity, as the hymnal or prayerbook that helps us where we need help most.

Paul himself joins that chorus in his poetic affirmation of Romans 8:38: “that there is nothing in death or life, or the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In sum, the Bible may be many things, and as a product of human hearts and minds it has its faults. Can it be trusted? Insofar as it is a story about God envisioned in the Psalm and in that chapter of Romans, insofar as it is a debate about what it means to be related to that God, and insofar as it a poetic expression of our longing for and confidence in that relationship, it is most surely to be trusted.

Harold W. Attridge is Dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament. Professor Attridge’s research has explored issues in Hellenistic popular philosophy, Judaism in the Hellenistic period, the exegesis of the New Testament, and the history and literature of early Christianity. In 2001, he served as President of the Society of Biblical Literature. He has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Second Century (now the Journal of Early Christian Studies), The Society of Biblical Literature’s Texts and Translations Series, Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, and the Hermeneia commentary series