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Mark Noll

Whose Good Book?

Rival approaches to Scripture

In a period of only a few years right before the Civil War, American authors published a raft of books on the amazing advance of Protestantism in the United States. From a disorganized starting point in the 1780s, they could trace an unprecedented advance to a scene of remarkable vigor as well as remarkable influence on the country's institutions and mores. Figures as diverse as the Presbyterian Robert Baird and the Methodist Nathan Bangs were of course aware of problems in the denominations they described, but their overarching tone was bewonderment.

Then came the Civil War. When the very Protestant denominations that had risen to such influence divided among themselves in bitter controversy over the acceptability of slavery and when they floundered in responding to the great social and intellectual challenges of the postbellum years, the domination of Protestant values was over. Historians, who thought they were providing a road map to the future, were transformed into eulogists.

It is much to be hoped that the recent publishing flurry on the history of the Bible is not replicating the irony of Protestant histories on the eve of the Civil War. The learned, accessible, but very different books by David Katz and Jaroslav Pelikan that are the subject of this essay are appearing hard on the heels of a publishing boom that includes several of the best books every published on the history of the Bible in America (by Paul Gutjahr and Peter Thuesen), several unusually perceptive accounts of the Bible as literature (including books by David Norton, David Lyle Jeffrey, and Leland Ryken), and several effective narratives retelling the story of the King James Version and later Bible translations (by Alister McGrath, Benson Bobrick, and Adam Nicolson).

Whether this slew of outstanding books on the Scriptures is heralding a new day of biblical vigor (as some of the authors of these volumes so clearly hope) or pronouncing a benediction on a rapidly fading cultural epoch (and so reprising the fate of the antebellum Protestant histories) might depend on which of the contrasting plots inscribed by Pelikan and Katz anticipates the future.

Pelikan's general account of where the Bible came from is keyed to the diverse contributions of Jews and Christians over a very long history. It is an introductory study in which Pelikan's prodigious learning is worn lightly, yet authoritatively, as he explains how Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and even Muslim sacred texts took shape and then how they have been transmitted, studied, debated, and translated. By contrast, Katz's interests are much more specific, concentrating on three centuries of British history (1600-1900) and the specific issue of how the pre-critical biblical beliefs of practicing Christians were challenged, modified, and often abandoned by leading intellectuals. What Katz writes about the chronological bookends of his title is either hopelessly mistaken (Luther and Calvin did not believe that the whole Bible simply interpreted itself to anyone who picked it up) or risibly abbreviated (there are all of four breathless pages on 20th-century fundamentalism). But in between, for the subjects Katz knows well, the book is illuminating and provocative.

The contrasting stances of the two books are conveyed with subtlety. When Pelikan discusses the rise and effects of biblical higher criticism, he accepts that modern scholarship has forced most readers of Scripture, believers and unbelievers alike, to modify earlier convictions about the literal historicity of many biblical stories. He confesses that earlier conflicts among the three great "people of the book" witnessed unpardonable evils arising from misplaced confidence in biblical interpretations. And he repudiates the once popular idea that the coming of Christ superseded God's eternal covenant with the Jews.

Yet against modern tides that would reduce events among the ancient Hebrews and in 1st-century Palestine to the typical experiences of primitive peoples everywhere, Pelikan stands firm. He does take seriously the pressure that began to build in the 17th and 18th centuries against the church's historic beliefs, but he also wants testimony from that era by John Milton, J. S. Bach, and G. F. Handel to count in modern consideration of ultimate questions. He does acknowledge that the West's historic deference to Scripture is irretrievably gone, but also wants to record the significance of translation work that over the last century has made the Bible available to more people in more different languages than over the whole of recorded history before 1900. Above all, he wants readers to appreciate fully the substantial parallels, connections, and even continuities between Jewish reliance on Scripture and Christian reliance on Scripture. The conviction that drives this desire comes from an even more basic proposition:

the Bible is a strange new world because it confronts us with a God who speaks but who in the very act of self-revelation is and remains the Wholly Other One—"My plans are not your plans, Nor are My words your words—declares the LORD" [quoting Isaiah 55:8].

The "us" in Pelikan's phrase is crucial. It also happens to balance nicely a "we" that David Katz italicizes in the last sentence of his book: "Far from being a deviant group of religious extremists, Fundamentalists [in their insistence upon the literal inerrancy of the Bible] are actually those whose theological position is closest to the message of the Protestant revolution, while we are the ones who have gone into the sunset of the 'horizon of expectation'." If Pelikan's Whose Bible Is It? premises the enduring potential for Scripture to reveal a transcendent God who in words and as Word becomes immanent, Katz's God's Last Words provides a detailed, in parts deeply researched, and often funny account of why "we" should not accept that premise. Yet as is so often the case, even when so much depends on such a little word, Katz never pauses to define this "we." (About his general stance there is little doubt, such as when he compares Spinoza, who propounded his pantheism without paying much attention to biblical details, with the German higher critics "who dissected the Bible and laid bare the wheels and pulleys that made up the biggest conjuring trick in the history of mankind.")

Regardless of standpoint, God's Last Words is filled with important material. Thomas Hobbes, for example, whose brutal view of political order is not usually associated with a soft spot for scriptural religion, nonetheless argued that the Bible must be from God since, even though all the writings that went into Scripture were constantly guarded by powerful political and ecclesiastical rulers, yet the Bible still contains very much about the perfidy of the powerful. Equally interesting, and just as relevant, is John Locke's complaint about the division of the Bible into verses: because of versification, the Scriptures "are so chop'd and minc'd, and as they are now Printed, stand so broken and divided, that not only the Common People take the Verses usually for distinct Aphorisms, but even Men of more advanc'd Knowledge in reading them, lose very much of the strength and force of the Coherence, and the Light that depends on it."

Katz is also superb on two strangely matched figures of the 18th century. John Hutchinson, a self-taught Yorkshireman, felt he could derive an entire cosmology from the unpointed text of the Hebrew Scriptures and so disprove what Hutchinson considered the God-dishonoring science of Sir Isaac Newton. For his part, Newton dedicated himself, not only to path-breaking explorations in the physics of nature, but also to strenuous attempts at dating the millennium. One of Katz's signal achievements is to demonstrate that, on Scripture, Hutchinson and Newton stood much closer to each other than either does to modern consciousness.

Lamentably, Katz's major conclusions about the final character of the Bible are all assumed rather than made. For instance, he describes David Hume's argument against miracles ("even if it could be shown that the events recorded did actually take place, any supernatural claims for their origin would be impossible to demonstrate because no witness sufficiently infallible could be produced") as "irrefutable" and "conclusive." Again, for Katz, the combination of Kant's metaphysics, Darwin's natural selection, and Victorian cultural disillusionment means that "the universe had become rather meaningless and has stayed like that ever since."

However widely shared such views may be, they are inane as stated. Yet Katz does such a good job as historian that even those leaning in Pelikan's direction can take much away. As an example, the "Victorian crises of faith," which always had more to do with problems of evil and purpose than with geology or evolutionary biology, continue to pose genuine difficulty. On those problems Katz outlines clearly the ways that Victorians could go. Matthew Arnold thought he had sprung himself loose from the hard choices posed by biblical higher critics when he took refuge in the "spirit" of Scripture, which he summarized as "Believe in God, and live a good life." A much more thoughtful road was set out by the editors of Punch—who, when angry conservatives tried to have the British Privy Council condemn higher critical views published in a book called Essays and Reviews, opined:

Denounce Essayists and Reviewers,
Hang, quarter, gag or shoot them—
Excellent plans—provided that
You first of all refute them.

The Punch editors were certainly more prescient than Matthew Arnold about what a vigorously faithful stance toward Scripture required in an age of modern critical scholarship. About the general future of the Bible, however, it accords best with biblical truth itself to confess that no human being knows whether, in the short run, the fashionable assumptions of Katz or the traditional convictions of Pelikan will prevail.

Mark Noll is spending the academic year 2004-2005 as Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in American History and Ethics at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

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