Schleiermacher: What Does the Bible Mean?

So if you’re a little edgelord, and if it’s your first time saying anything mean about Christianity, your first port of call might be the authority of the Bible. Christians claim the Bible is the Word of God, but how do they know that? What can they appeal to as evidence of that belief? Obviously the Bible itself claims to be the Word, but why should anyone believe that claim? It’s circular reasoning: you can believe that the Bible is the Word of God because it claims to be the Word of God, but why do you believe its claim to be the Word of God? What makes this book’s claims true, over and above all the other religious texts that make similar claims? Surely, eventually, you have to refer to something other than the text as evidence. Anyway, it’s like baby’s first gotcha for atheists – or, like, it’s maybe a tie between that and the ‘can God make a burrito so hot that He can’t eat it?’ question.

As always happens with these questions, it turns out that Christians have been thinking about them for a while. Issues around Biblical authority are pretty important, and perfectly reasonable to raise – you know, really the only problem with edgelords asking about it is that they’re not actually interested in learning the answer. They’re just trying to upset believers who’ve never had to think about it before – the blind harassing the blind, if you like. In reality, different thinkers throughout Christian history have taken a range of positions on how the authority of the Bible is conveyed. Some of them are pretty interesting. For instance, Calvin argues that the authority of the Bible is revealed by the Holy Spirit. God basically picks out (or predestines) some of us to get a visit from the Holy Spirit, who tells us that the Bible is the Word of God, and that’s why you get Christians (who got a visit) and non-Christians (who didn’t). Whatever you think of predestination or Calvin’s wider system of belief, his theory does do a neat job of explaining why, to some people, it just seems self-evident and obvious that the Bible is the Word of God. It’s tidy, albeit horrific in some of its broader implications.

In a similar vein, Friedrich Schleiermacher in The Christian Faith (1830) argues that the Bible obviously can’t function as proof of its own claims – for all of the reasons that we’ve already explored. In paragraph 128, he states that “The authority of Holy Scripture cannot be the foundation of faith in Christ; rather must the latter be presupposed before a peculiar authority can be granted to Holy Scripture.” He points out, for instance, that the disciples never had the New Testament, because it hadn’t been written – and yet they were still Christians. For the disciples, Schleiermacher argues, “it was a direct impression [of Christ] which awakened faith in souls prepared by the testimony of the Baptist, and their description of Jesus was only an expression of this faith combined with their faith in the prophets.” They met Jesus and had faith in him, and then wrote about what he did and said. “As just as their faith sprang from Christ’s preaching of himself, so in the case of others faith sprang from the preaching of Christ by the Apostles and many more.” From that perspective, Schleiermacher argues, the Bible isn’t really some magic book with special powers. Rather, it’s a record preaching the words and deeds of the historical Christ, who himself is the source and origin of our faith. It’s useful as a record, as a way of understanding who Jesus was and what he was about, but that’s really it.

And obviously people are going to have different reactions to that idea, depending on what they think the Bible is supposed to do – or maybe rather on what they think ‘true’ means. In Joshua 10, for example, Joshua commands the sun to stand still over Gibeon. The text relays that the sun stood still in the sky until Israel had munted the Amorites. Is that story true? It depends on what you mean by ‘true’. For instance, it’s not an accurate cosmological description of the relationship between celestial bodies. The sun could not have stood still, because the sun doesn’t normally move. The story draws on a model and understanding of outer space that is fundamentally incorrect – which doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole text is invalid. Truth exists in a range of contexts, and an untruth in one regard doesn’t necessarily imply untruth in the rest. There isn’t even a clear map of the relationships between these different contexts – it’s all negotiable. For some people, when they say the Bible is ‘true’, they mean that whatever is written on the page is true in all contexts and across every possible domain of meaning. They take things like Joshua 10 as evidence that the sun moves around the earth – the Bible says it, so it must be literally, absolutely true – and then they go off and try and prove that the earth is flat. It’s, you know, not really necessary. The better alternative, which most Christians have adopted, is to accept that the Bible can be wrong on some things without invalidating its broader message about the nature and identity of God.

However, even within that, there are still a range of opinions on which elements of the Bible need to be true in order for the faith to be valid. Some people will say that even with the bad astronomy, Joshua 10 still needs to be read as an accurate historical record. They claim that Joshua was a real historical guy, and this war was a real historical thing, and when Joshua prayed the earth actually did literally stop spinning until the Israelites had finished wrecking shit. Other people might say that Joshua 10 doesn’t need to be historically true in order to reveal things about the nature and identity of God. It could be a complete fiction, a story or myth, and still be ‘true’ in the sense that it says accurate and true things about who God is. Of course, even though these conversations can be fun to have around Joshua and other Old Testament figures, the stakes do rise when we move into the New Testament. Does it matter if the feeding of the five thousand never happened? How much of what has to be true in order for the broader message about Christ to be valid? You might expect that the crucifixion needs to be historical, as it’s the heart of most theories of atonement. But does Jesus need to have met Satan in the desert? Does he need to have walked on water or raised Lazarus from the dead? Schleiermacher is pretty open on these questions: he suggests that as long as a testimony contains “Christ’s essential witness to himself and the original preaching of his disciples,” it could also contain “much in detail that had been misinterpreted, or inaccurately grasped, or set in a wrong light owing to confusions of memory.” He doesn’t claim that any of the Gospels fall into this category – he’s just saying that if they did, as long as they contained Christ’s essential witness, they could successfully inspire faith in their readers.

Ah, there’s a bunch we haven’t touched on, but we’ll have to leave it there. Things to think about, though – if the Bible is just about pointing to the witness of Christ, who is the real source of our faith, what becomes of the Epistles? Do they matter? Or are they more like a mildly interesting historical record? That is, if the Bible only testifies to Christ’s witness, then maybe Paul’s writing (for example) is less a guiding instruction for us today and more just an example of how the earliest believers understood Christ’s witness. That’s already a common approach that people take – for example when discussing whether Paul was sexist (“I permit no woman to speak”), sometimes you’ll hear people say, you know, he did the best he could given his cultural context, but we know better now. That element of the Bible isn’t true, just like the model of the sun going round the earth. To me, this is where our understanding of the Bible gets really interesting: what are the rules we use to interpret it? How do we decide whether something is outdated or untrue? As best I can make out, there isn’t really any systematic rule. It’s just people doing their best based on what they think is right. As Schleiermacher would say – it’s the vibe of the thing.

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