One recent analysis of the function of the Bible in the Christian church states that the Scriptures “died” when their ecclesiastical underpinning was weakened following the Reformation and the rise of confessional conflicts, with the result that its authority became unsustainable. The Scriptures were eclipsed by the “academic Bible” of biblical studies and became a text, its status weakened by polemics. In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment universities, particularly in Germany, the critical academic Bible resurrected as an ancient text became the successor to the scriptural Bible. The text was examined outside of the context of adherence and commitment and in such a way as to support a sociocultural project. The Bible was relativized, no longer considered as the Scriptures of the church, and, having lost its universal claim to authority, it became a pawn in the promotion of the tolerance, reasonable morality, and power of the state. The lines of tension that had existed and found resolution in previous eras between faith and reason, theology and science, revelation and history, and sacred and secular were redeployed in the context of a deepening dichotomy.1
This description is interesting because it has the merit of showing how, with the Enlightenment, the Scriptures became the academic Bible with limited social and intellectual value that is the blight of today. Biblical scholars in the academy make it a duty to stand apart from the faith of the church and confessional commitments, instead determining what possible interpretations the text might have, with a high commitment to neutrality and scientific objectivity. Their views, whether on questions of historicity, science, or gender equality, filter into the media as new insights, creating the dual impression that the Bible is irrelevant, belonging to a world no longer ours, and that it is susceptible to unrestricted hermeneutical manipulation. Christian belief, now beset by pluralism, is constantly under pressure to update in terms of present social knowledge and plausibility. The church is upbraided to get on board, and when it does so, it becomes obesely full of humanistic tolerance and lacking the power of immunization against present ills. So by following the trending academic Bible, the church loses the vitality of a dialectically relevant prophetic message; its positivity to the latest trends distance it from the biblical gospel of God’s judgment and salvation. It may well be that the church, remade in the image of present society, has lost any power of immunological rejection, the possibility to say no, and has adopted the too-much-of-the-same mentality “that derives from overproduction, overachievement and overcommunication” and that German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “the violence of positivity.”2
If the contrast of the lost Scriptures and the “academic Bible become text” of biblical studies is pertinent, some fine-tuning needs to be done on it from a Reformed perspective. It should not be forgotten that the great achievement of the Reformation was to open the Scripture as God’s revelation of good news for humanity. If the later academic Bible became a text in the confines of reason, the Scripture of the church had been set in different confines prior to the revolution of Luther and the return to the sources, its message limited by institutionalized traditions. In that context, the Word of God was as much neutralized by a human factor as it was later by rational scrutiny. The Reformed sola Scriptura was an antithetical principle that aimed to bring all human factors under its sway, whether the autonomous intellect or the authoritarian church. Recovery of the ancient biblical texts gave Christianity the chance to realign, after a millennia and a half of existence, with the one Word that does not originate in human experience and culture. The challenge the Reformation issued was the scandal of something that stands over against the normal avenues of human knowledge and achievement, the unique moment of the Word of God made flesh, the only mediator, and with it the witness of the Word to this truth. The confessional struggles after the Reformation were not just differences of opinion; rather, they frequently arose from resistance to the Scripture principle by synthesis theology, either Roman or rationalistic. The struggle was over the supposed insufficiency of Scripture, Jerusalem against Rome and Athens.
For more on this subject, see Paul Wells, “Editorial: Text and Textuality,” Unio cum Christo 2.1 (April 2016): 5–10, now available on the website.
1 Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
2 Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 5.