The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA was told this week that “In the area of race relations, America is facing a moral crisis such as it has not faced since the Civil War.” Without dissenting voice, the assembly, meeting in Omaha, approved a report which declared “Racial segregation is a problem of such magnitude and urgency that it takes precedence over other social issues in American life today.” This vote was taken in the face of a challenge from an all-white Birmingham presbytery in Alabama which objected to a policy statement that took an entirely anti-segregation stand. Dr. Earle, secretary of the church’s Department of Social Education and Action, declared that “The crisis is characterized by blindness and resistance to the demands of simple justice and fair play.” And any comment this reporter might make on that statement would indeed be super superfluous, and belaboring the obvious.
The Southern School News this month gave a summation of progress or lack of it in the three years since the original Supreme Court decision. It found that 685 school districts have either begun or completed the integration process, embracing some 325,000 Negro children and nearly 2,000,000 white. As against this, there are about 3,100 bi-racial districts that remain segregated with nearly 2.5 million Negro and some 7 million white children. During the period, legislatures of 11 states adopted more than 130 pieces of pro-segregation legislation since the May 17, 1954, Court ruling. This is legislation which doubtless will delay, but is hardly likely to avoid, the ultimate inevitable adjustment to integration.
The Hebrews, after coming into contact with Persians, believed in the resurrection of the body. The Hellenistic Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul. Paul wrote about a “resurrection body.” No one, probably including Paul, knew exactly what that meant.
Current Sunday school lessons for adult Protestants are based on the Old Testament and commentators in the accompanying literature stress the importance of the Bible as the basis of religion. Well, it is true that the Bible has been the basis of Protestantism, but the word “Bible” itself came from the Greek meaning “books.” I wonder if those same commentators are not, consciously or unconsciously, overlooking the fact that our Bible is one of the results of religion; not the cause of it. Were the Bible blotted out, man would still be a religious animal, for the phenomena of religion is not dependent upon any one Bible.
A listener writes, “It seems to me a scientifically trained person must put critical evaluation in moth balls while reading the Bible.”
It is difficult – impossible – to agree with this. Probably more than any other literature, critical examination of Bible is necessary to a real understanding of it. One can read Rousseau, even Kant, with ease and understand fairly well what he reads. But Paul’s book of Romans, for example, is pretty hard going. The fact is that the Bible is a large body of heterogeneous literature of the people of spiritual genius who passed through many cultural, political, and religious changes. It took some 10 centuries for the Bible to be written. Important manuscripts have been lost. Parts have been badly translated and even more badly interpreted. Worst of all perhaps, it has been the football of theological controversy.
There are at least two schools of biblical criticism in the U.S., both claiming to use the scientific method of critical examination. One may be called the conservative school, and it is concerned in preserving the religious values of the Bible. To use the language of some of its members, it sees the Bible “as a revelation of God to man, as man’s talk through this life with God.”
The other school claims that the work of the first is at some points rendered invalid by the theory it holds. The logical conclusions must be avoided if they are in conflict with the theory. It accuses the first school of abandoning the scientific method at precisely the points where it is most needed. It charges the first schools of sometimes bending biblical scholarship to theological ends.
The latter school sees the science of biblical criticism as an independent empirical discipline having no necessary connection with theology. It claims to be wholly objective and if at any point it conflicts with theology, then theology can do the worrying. This school is not out to prove something, or to support something, or to conserve something. Each of these schools has capable scholars within its ranks and both cut across many non-fundamentalist denominations.
The truth is that the Bible is historical material but not objective history. The books of Kings, for example, are told from the standpoint of, and are to the advantage of, the Southern Kingdom. In this day when we are supposed to have developed something of a science of history, we know how prejudiced our historians are in writing about any way in which we have been involved. Few would look upon Kings, for example, as objective history, and only critical examination, without regard to theological theory, can determine the degree of objectivity to be found there.
It not only took centuries to write the Bible, it also took centuries for men to determine what books should be included in it. The process of selection of books that shall be official Bible is called “canonization.” The Roman Catholic Church made a decision that seems to be final. It canonized 11 books of the 14 that were in the Septuagint. The Roman Catholic bibles in any language are based on Jerome’s Latin Bible of the fourth century A.D., which in light of manuscripts discovered later is judged to be a weak work.
Again, there is no single Bible accepted universally by all Christians. There is the Roman Bible, Protestant bibles of various kinds, based on different collections of manuscripts, and those of the Armenian church, of the Coptic Church, and of the Syrian church. All are different – not merely one text translated into different languages. Some English bibles have been printed with 14 apocryphal books between the Old and New Testaments. Today printers leave them out and Protestants lost one-third of their Bible and few of them ever missed it.
The point of all this? Well, maybe you will think there is no point, but here in the so-called “Bible Belt,” it may do us good to take a little broader look than most of us seem inclined to take and make a critical study of how our Bible came to be, how it is like, and also how it is unlike, bibles of other Christian, even other Protestant, groups. The trouble with too many of us, and this reporter is no exception, is that we would willingly die to defend the Bible but we do not know what it is, have never read it, but we take offense when we hear even objective, constructive criticism of it. Could this very lack of understanding not well put us in the unenviable position of being blind people trying to lead the blind?