Regarding Certain Evangelical Bible Commentaries
Posted by Job on March 26, 2009
When I am perusing Bible commentaries, I wonder how many of the learned evangelical authors of such efforts are movie fans like the estimable preacher Matthew Wrickman. I wonder if they like works from such directors as David Lynch, Chris Nolan, Jon Favreau, Edward Zwick, M. Night Shyamalan and Quentin Tarantino. Consider movies like True Romance, Memento, Mulholland Drive and Pulp Fiction. Such film directors often abandon the practice of linear storytelling, that is unfolding the plot according to a basically straight and forward moving timeline and from a single perspective. Instead, these directors use what can be called “scenic storytelling”, where the viewer is presented a series of scenes in a manner ungoverned by a single or dominant timeline or perspective.
Of course, a major motive for making movies in this fashion is that the director finds it more intellectually stimulating, and is much more likely to be recognized for his skill and cleverness. However, it is not merely an exercise in vanity, because the director is often convinced that his method of presentation makes the film more entertaining and the subject matter that it deals with better understood than it would have been had the story simply been told from beginning to end with a single perspective. Sometimes the director is right, sometimes the product is a mess that leaves the viewer not only confused, but feeling manipulated. Either way, it was the director’s ability and prerogative to make a film this way, and everyone acknowledges that it was this director’s work.
Oh were the books of the Bible viewed the same by the scholars who produce commentaries on it! Instead, the opposite is the case. Any failure of a book written thousands of years ago by Palestinian Jews under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to have the same straightforward literary structure as a short story written by a French or British child for her 7th grade literature class is seized upon as evidence that a book was not written by the person bearing its name. A break in logic? A change in perspective? A shift in ideology? A seeming contradiction? Ironclad proof that the Bible book was REALLY the product of the Deuteronomists, the Yahwists, the Isaiah school, the Johannine community etc. or that portions of the book were inserted or removed by later editors.
So how is it that these same people are able to sit through a Quentin Tarantino movie, view all of its convolutions, and refrain from saying “this is where Tarantino plagiarized David Lynch” or “this is where the studio inserted a scene from another movie that was never released” or other such contrivances? If Chris Nolan is not obliged to follow the standard modern western conventions of storytelling in making his movies, why, then, is Matthew, a person who lived in an entirely different time, place and culture with thoroughly different standards and expectations or else have in many cases the meaning, intent, and text of his gospel attributed to someone other than the very apostle who was a witness to the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Now, of course, unbelievers who analyze the Bible have a motivation for doing so. Denying that Moses wrote the Torah, claiming that the prophetic portions of Daniel were written after the prophecies had been fulfilled, and proposing that the gospels and epistles contained only a kernel of actual historical and doctrinal truth because they were augmented and edited by the church for a good 250 years or so is all in service of the agenda of denying the truth, authority, and inspiration of scripture. For them, it is all about getting as far away from John 14:6 as they possibly can, and for this reason think nothing of holding books of the Bible to the negative scrutiny that they would never apply to, say, the theory of evolution. For them, it is not enough to deny that the Bible is true, but they also claim that the people who wrote the Bible knew that it wasn’t true, or at least not true in the sense that Christians regard it to be. So, the book of Romans or the book of Samuel was either never written by Paul and Samuel, or Paul and Samuel wrote them according to meanings and purposes that were entirely different from what has been historically attributed to them, and were also significantly altered to hide their true meaning and purpose.
Of course, you would expect a person seeking to justify his unbelief to take that position. After all, it is one thing to claim that Jesus Christ never rose from the dead. It is another thing to deal with the fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (in addition to the epistle writers) all working independently of each other produced books that fervently, unambiguously, boldly proclaimed that Jesus Christ did rise from the dead, and further attached great significance from that fact. It is easier to say “I don’t believe it” than to say “the people who wrote the Bible didn’t believe what they were writing”, particularly since – unlike the Koran – the Bible lacks a single author, but has multiple witnesses to the same truths by very diverse people over a very long period of time; witnesses who had nothing to gain – and indeed everything to lose – by adhering to their story. So, using the alleged failure of the Bible’s books to follow a “paint by numbers” literary style at every turn being proof of that the Bible is – when it gets right down to it – a fabrication produced by dishonest people looking to hide the meaning is the best explanation that they have, so they are sticking to it.
But the question is this: why are evangelical scholars who do believe that the Bible is true so quick to adopt their opinions? I am not talking about the failure to consider arguments and evidence, to close your ears and eyes and scream “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” at the top of your lungs to drown out dissent like a toddler having a temper tantrum. Instead, what prevents evangelical scholars from simply stating that the arguments of the critical scholars should not be considered because they are built on a set of assumptions that are fatally and irreparably flawed? Again, one does not have to believe in the deity of Jesus Christ in order to reject the idea that the failure of Genesis to read like a 4th grade history book means that Moses could not have written Genesis.
Yet, I see some evangelical scholars assert that Matthew used Mark and a “Q” source to create his gospel, and others claim that the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus Christ in John was a separate oral or written tradition put in decades – possibly centuries – later (along with similar concessions to the strong delusions of atheists on many other points). The idea of saying “look, Matthew and John were recounting events that they personally witnessed and recorded them according to their memory and arranged the material in a way that would inform and convince as many people as possible with the Holy Spirit superintending the process” … well that is not acceptable as scholarship, which means that it is not acceptable as EVANGELICAL scholarship.
And if that is the case, then what is the reason for the existence of evangelical scholarship in the first place? Why should an evangelical produce a commentary that first declares or is ultimately based on the idea that the book is a fraud, and then go on to provide orthodox evangelical interpretations as if it were true? Maybe said evangelical scholars believe that the people who edited, added to, and removed from these books were inspired by the Holy Spirit too; that they were acting in God’s Will when they acted to keep the original message of the authors of the Bible lost to the ages. If so, why won’t they come out and say it? Simple: no one will buy their commentaries. It is one thing to assert inclusion of materials in the Bible based on the apostolic authority possessed by Peter, Paul, Matthew etc. as well as those associated with them like Luke and Mark. It is another to assert that these editors, anonymously passing on their own ideas as the ideas of others and doing so decades, centuries even, after the death of the last apostle had this sort of authority, which is none other than the authority to willfully deceive people into believing that apostles professed to witnessed events that they never saw (or never happened), or professed to hear Jesus Christ say things that they never heard Him say (or that He never said at all). In short, their doctrine of the inspiration of scripture must necessarily include the notion that the Holy Spirit inspired people to secretly lie and deceive. God forbid that such a thing be true, for let God be true and every man be a liar.
So, what is the Bible – believing Christian to do with these commentaries? What is to be done with the people who write them, and the Bible colleges that use them? That is the question.