Those of us who have studied theology will at some point have encountered liberal, modernist biblical scholars who treats the Bible as an entirely human creation, no different from the mythical literature of the ancient Greeks. Such scholars disregard or explains away miracles and makes a sharp distinction between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’, the ‘historical Jesus’ being a mere man whose ‘ethical teaching’ somehow just happens to agree with the latest leftist shibboleth. Such figures dominate the theology departments of many of today’s universities.
In this enlightening book, Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker trace the history of how we got to this point. They chronicle the development of what has become known as the ‘historical-critical’ method of biblical scholarship. It is generally believed that this began with the Enlightenment. However, the authors argue that it has its origins much earlier in the 14th century, with its roots set in the attempt to exert state control over the Church.
Supporting state over church
The 14th century was the century of the Avignon papacy, under which the popes were effectively controlled by the kings of France. That era ended with the Great Schism, in which rival popes reigned—one in Rome and another in Avignon with the monarchs of Europe supporting one or the other depending on their political interests. The century also saw one of the many power struggles between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, with the emperor seizing Rome and installing an anti-pope.
In this context, with the Church heavily compromised in many ways, it was inevitable that certain thinkers would look elsewhere for inspiration. The first thinker the authors turn is the Italian scholar and politician Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275-c. 1342), who wrote his Defensor Pacis in support of the emperor against the pope. Marsilius, say Hahn and Wiker, was the ‘great secularizer of political philosophy’:
As the title of his Defensor Pacis (Defender of Peace) indicates, he believed that earthly political peace is the highest goal…and so the state must keep the papacy from upsetting “the tranquility or peace of civil regimes.” The Church, and the pope in particular, cannot be allowed to quote the Bible against secular power.
Marsilius went beyond the caesaropapism of the Byzantine empire, reviving a pagan notion held by certain ancient philosophers,
that there is only one life, life in this material world, and therefore the supernatural claims of all religions are false and belief in them mere superstition. However, if these religious beliefs are properly understood and used by clever philosophers, they can be very helpful political instruments of thoroughly secular political rulers.
Thus the Bible must become a tool in the hands of civil authorities and any disputes on its meaning settled by ‘human legislators’ or clergy appointed by these legislators. Marsilius cited the Gospel injunction to ‘Render unto Caesar’ and St Paul’s teaching about submission to rulers to support his position. The authors state of Marsilius’s philosophy:
We need to understand Marsilius’s revolution very clearly as secular. Affirming that there is only one life in this material world, Marsilius set out a new political philosophy that…jettisoned the concern for the soul and focused only on bodily nourishment and comfort, and the peace to enjoy them…This purposeful stunting of political life to mere bodily existence marks the beginning of modern philosophy’s entirely materialistic foundation, and modern political philosophy’s entirely secular aims.
The irony of this secular revolution in thinking is that it would be adopted by sincere religious reformers with a desire to bring about positive change in the Church. In England, John Wycliffe preached that the clergy should not own property and that therefore the state should forcibly disinvest the church of its wealth. But Wycliffe would reject the later Protestant doctrine that each man may interpret the Bible for himself.
Martin Luther took this revolution several steps further. Like Wycliffe, Luther believed the state should force the Church to reform and asserted (using Romans 13:1–4 and 1 Peter 2:13–15) that everybody, including the pope, should be subject to political rulers. But Luther also added the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ arguing based on 1 Peter 2:9 that by virtue of our baptism we are all “truly priests, bishops, and popes”—doing away with the specific character of the ordained priesthood.
This had three serious consequences. First, political rulers could now unite political power with scriptural authority, becoming both king and pope, using of the Bible as a political tool of the state. Second, others would take Luther’s reforms further, leading to a splintering of Protestantism into countless sects. Third, since all now had access to the Bible and the right to interpret it, a peasant uprising occurred claiming biblical inspiration with the peasants refusing to renounce any demands unless “it is proved to be against the word of God by a clear explanation of the Scripture.” The first of these consequences would become most manifest in the England of Henry VIII.
Hahn and Wiker discuss the various Bible translations that emerged following the Reformation and debunk the claim that the Church opposed the study of the Bible in its original languages prior to this time. The Complutensian Polyglot Bible of Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros was produced some years before the Reformation. One result of the Reformation was that different religious factions adopted their own translations. Thus, the Douay-Rheims became the Catholic Bible, Anglicans had the King James version, while Calvinists favored the Geneva Bible.
Expelling the supernatural
The English Civil War of the 17th century was, according to the authors, an earth-shattering event as far as Biblical interpretation was concerned. It was from this conflict and its long aftermath that new and radical ways of interpreting the Bible emerged. The mushrooming of strange and fanatical sects such as Ranters, Diggers and others following the civil war, each with its own unique biblical interpretation, caused many to believe in “the deep necessity of the political sovereign controlling the interpretation of the Bible for the sake of civil peace”. This was the line of thinking propagated by Thomas Hobbes.
According to Hobbes, the sovereign must have complete control over religion. There must be one sovereign, with one religion completely under his control. The purpose of miracles is to boost the power of sovereigns; the sovereign must determine the canon of scripture and even the nature of God himself. That the sovereign must have absolute authority over the Bible, Hobbes insisted, is a doctrine that comes from the Bible itself. Hobbes envisioned Moses as a civil sovereign and made him the prototype of the political sovereign who controls every aspect of religion.
Hobbes’s scriptural interpretation involved a denial of supernatural elements, paralleling later historical-critical writing. Hahn and Wiker give examples of this:
(In) Hobbes’s extensive, politicized exegesis, the Spirit of God moving upon the waters in Genesis 1:2 actually meant “Wind,” which as a material cause was doing “God’s work.” In Genesis 41:38, Spirit of God was a metaphor for wisdom in Joseph, and in Exodus 28:3, where God instructed Moses “to speak to the wise of heart, whom I have filled with a spirit of wisdom” to make Aaron’s garments, it only meant a certain kind of skill displayed in a particular type of artisanship… Turning to the New Testament, Hobbes informed the reader that when St. Paul (in Romans 8:9) used the term “Spirit of Christ,” he did not mean “thereby the Ghost of Christ, but a submission to his doctrine.” And finally, when the text referred to Jesus himself as full of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, these “may be understood, for Zeal to doe the work for which hee was sent by God the Father.”
The authors conclude of Hobbes:
…in Hobbes’s thought we find all of the following: Marsilius’s complete reduction of politics to the goods of the body, the complete Marsilian subordination of the church and Scripture to the state (via a declaration of sola scriptura), and the ancient pagan belief revived by Averroes and Marsilius that religion is a purely political instrument invented by the wise to rule the masses…Wycliffe’s subordination of the English national church to the English state, as affirmed by the actual practices of Henry VIII; Machiavelli’s complete denial of good and evil as the foundation for political reasoning, and his atheism as well.
Contemporary with Hobbes but writing in the Netherlands was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), whose writings were a massive leap forward for what would later become the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis. Like Hobbes, Spinoza stripped the biblical text of supernatural elements. He regarded the Bible as a book written for the less intelligent members of society that could only be properly interpreted by those with a sophisticated historical mind:
Rather than the Bible being inspired by the Holy Spirit, it was, Spinoza asserted, written in accordance with the “spirit of the plebs,” appealing to their unscientific imagination,” focusing on “only very simple matters, which can be perceived even by the slowest.”
Natural explanations replaced miracles and even Jesus himself was presented as a man teaching a double truth to an ignorant populace:
Jesus knowing sub-rational capacities of his audience, “accommodated himself to the mental cast of the populace”—that is, “to the mental cast of the plebs.” He may have spoken of demons for those foolish enough to believe in them, but in this condescension, his only goal was “teaching moral lessons” to those incapable of rational thought.
The authors go on to show the link between Spinoza’s thought and that of the Enlightenment and the so-called ‘higher criticism’ leading ultimately to our modern predicament, with scholars such as the best-selling author and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (b. 1955) callomg for a reopening of the canon of scripture.
While thinkers such as Spinoza thought that the Bible could act as a moral prop to an otherwise secular society, that has in fact not been the result. As the authors conclude:
The morality derived from secularized culture and the morality derived from the Bible do not share common ground, as our current, extremely heated debates about abortion, infanticide, eugenics, homosexuality, homosexual marriage, and transgenderism make clear. Evidently, the subtraction of the doctrinal aspects of Christianity result, after several generations, in the substitution of secular morality for Christian morality. The fundamental differences between the two now divide our society far more deeply, vividly, and intractably than previous disputes among rival Christian parties. Needless to say, historical-critical scholarship, in undermining doctrine, has contributed mightily to the cultural substitution of secular morality for Christian morality
The authors do a good job linking the various scholars and thinkers from the 14th century to our day and illustrating their relevance in the history of biblical scholarship. By focusing on many of the key philosophers and religious figures of the last 700 years, the book also serves as a good introductory history of Western thought since the early Renaissance. It also contains a useful list of recommended books about the Bible written by believing biblical scholars.
The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture: How the Bible Became a Secular Book
by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2021
Hardcover, 296 pages
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