How Is the Bible True?
Luke Timothy Johnson May 18, 2009 - 9:52am
It seems an obvious thing to say that Christians read the Bible in order to search for truth; that we do not read these ancient texts simply as a source of arcane information, but because they have something to do with the truth of our lives.
But what is the truth of the Bible? I would like to provoke some thought by complicating the relation of truth to the collection of compositions that make up the Christian Scriptures. My premise is that, like the character in the song who is “looking for love in all the wrong places,” readers of the Bible—particularly American readers—have been looking for truth in all the wrong places. Specifically, we’ve been looking either in the past or in the future. But there exist other places and other ways to look for truth. I want to suggest that a more complicated understanding of truth leads to a richer and more satisfying way of asking how the Bible is true.
Looking for Truth in the Past
Two apparently conflicting ways of reading the Bible characterize the American culture wars. Among educated Americans the dominant paradigm is the so-called historical-critical method. Its assumptions are those taught in seminaries and college religion classes. The paradigm assumes that the truth of the Bible is to be found in its character as a historical document. Written in an alien culture, the Bible’s texts must be understood within their own symbolism, but their truth is to be found in the accuracy of their historical assertions.
Belief in the historical truthfulness of biblical narratives was, to be sure, shared by all Christian readers up to the time of the European Enlightenment. They simply assumed that things happened the way the stories said they did. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, world exploration discovered peoples and cultures never imagined by the biblical story—Augustine’s City of God was the last credible attempt to subsume all empires into the framework of biblical chronology—and the development of natural and historical sciences exposed the factual basis of the ancient stories to withering criticism.
In the centuries since then, Christianity’s cultured despisers—a surprising number of them Christian themselves—and its beleaguered defenders have waged a running battle over the historical truthfulness of the Bible. Its historical credibility suffered with each blow of the critical hammers. The Mosaic authorship of Torah; creation in seven days; the parting of the Red Sea; the conquest of the land; the Davidic kingdom: all had to be abandoned in the face of inexorable criticism. The quest for the historical Jesus is the supreme manifestation of the historical-critical paradigm. Rejecting the church’s Christological doctrine as a falsification of “the real Jesus,” it searches for a more accurate historical representation of Jesus based on the deconstruction of the canonical Gospels and the reshuffling of what credible pieces can be salvaged from them. One can have the “truth about Jesus,” it says, only at the cost of the “truth of the Gospels.”
The battle over the Bible and truth continues today in an American Christianity deeply divided between modernist and fundamentalist. For the academics who make up the Jesus Seminar, televangelists are the enemy; for many Evangelicals, academic biblical scholars are apostates from the faith. Yet after centuries of conflict, most Christians simply bypass serious engagement with biblical truth—and do so by avoiding sustained engagement with the texts of the Bible. Liberal Christians are content with broad principles they consider derived from Scripture, but pay little attention to the actual texts, which seldom actually conform to those principles. Many conservative Christians, meanwhile, are even more selective in what they read, fervently defending biblical truth while avoiding passages that give rise to genuine critical questions. What’s notable here is that for liberal and conservative alike, history is the measure of truth. Thus N. T. Wright, no friend of the Jesus Seminar, states in his treatment of the historical Jesus that if Reimarus—the epitome of Enlightenment skepticism—had been correct in his historical reconstruction, Christianity would be required to reconsider its teaching concerning Jesus. If the Bible gets history wrong, in other words, then its truth is in question.
Looking for Truth in the Future
Some American Christians have sought relief from historical criticism by seeking the truth of the Bible in the future, locating its authority in its ability to predict the events leading to the end of the world. Theirs is not the Bible as history, but as prophecy. Where the historical-critical approach deals with narratives, the millenarian approach focuses on prophets: Isaiah, Zecharaiah, and Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures; and in the New Testament, the prophetic portions of the Gospels and Paul and the Book of Revelation. For those expecting the rapture of the saints from cosmic catastrophe and a thousand-year reign of the Messiah on earth, the Book of Revelation is the supreme repository of biblical truth. I heard one televangelist declare that all the other writings of the Bible were written for the past; only Revelation remains open as a prophetic word to the present.
The millenarian reading of the Bible has some significant antecedents—elements can be found in the apocalyptic expectations associated with Joachim of Fiore and with the radical reformer Thomas Leyden—but it has acquired greater prominence among conservative Christians today. Recent years have seen the astonishing success of the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, whose novelistic rendering of millenarian theology has found millions of excited readers. On cable TV, meanwhile, preachers routinely offer predictions of the imminent end of times, using visual aids that might include a map of the Near East and smudged newspaper articles concerning global warfare.
The hermeneutics of millenarianism require that Scripture be read as a prophecy, but one whose precise meaning was veiled from the prophets of old and remains to be unlocked through correspondence to contemporary events (thus all the maps and headlines). The mysterious predictions of Revelation concerning the great beast and the reign of the Messiah emerge with startling clarity when aligned with the news of the day. The beauty of this method is its resistance to contradiction. No matter that the expected end never arrives as predicted; the fault lies not in the method but in the mistaken reading of the headlines. This sort of prophecy cannot be disconfirmed: when one candidate fails, another immediately is nominated. And indeed, the roster of persons identified as the wearer of 666 down the centuries is impressive: from Nero, to Frederick the Great, to Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Gorbachev, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and assorted popes. The entire system is brilliantly evoked by the old Beyond the Fringe sketch, with the solemn countdown to the end, a pause...then the resigned “Not quite the conflagration we had anticipated,” and finally the chipper “Oh well, better luck next time!”
The Ends Meet in the Middle
A new element in the millenarian approach is its recent warm embrace of conservative—some would say reactionary—social values and political activism. The mental agility required to balance an expectation of the end-time with the pleasures of capitalism is impressive, but recent elections have demonstrated that waiting for Armageddon and voting for Republicans are not in fact irreconcilable. At the other extreme in our culture wars are those academic critics of the Bible who deny both its historical truth and its relevance to political decisions of any kind. We all know that it is as difficult to find a Republican in academia (at least in the liberal arts) as it is to find an Obama supporter in the NRA.
Yet these political nemeses share the same presuppositions concerning biblical truth. Both work from the assumption that truth is found in the correspondence between propositions and nonlinguistic realities such as things and events. The meaning of a text is found in propositions that point outside themselves, and the truth of a text is to be found in the way its propositions match external reality. For the historical approach, this means how accurately the Bible describes the past; for the millenarian approach, how accurately the Bible predicts the future.
Both approaches ignore the literary dimensions of the Bible, insisting that the text is valuable not as a literary composition, but only insofar as it tells us something outside itself. For the historical approach, the literary features of biblical narratives are an obstacle to accurate historical reconstruction because they “interpret.” The millenarian approach equally ignores the literary character of prophecy. Taking the Book of Revelation as a unique prophecy about the future, for example, ignores the fact that Revelation is written in a literary genre (apocalyptic) common in the first century, one with certain well-established conventions. And so both approaches remain deaf to metaphor, literalizing the poetry of the biblical text. Neither knows what to do with the biblical literature that is properly poetic—such as the psalms and wisdom writings—and has stirred the imagination and piety of countless readers. For both, the Bible can only be literally true by ceasing to be literarily beautiful.
The Bible & Literary Imagination
I would like to propose another approach to the truth of the Bible, one which works in and through literary imagination. Such an approach would focus neither on the world that created the Bible nor on the world that the Bible might predict, but rather on the world that the Bible itself creates. We can approach the Bible not as an anthology of compositions locked in the past but as a word that unlocks every present, not as a set of sources for describing reality, but as a set of witnesses prescribing reality, not as a set of propositions about the world but as an imaginative construction of a world. In every age and in every circumstance, it is possible to read the Bible as creating an imaginative world in which humans can choose to live.
In each and every one of its parts and as a whole, the Bible imagines a world as created by and ordered to, cared for and saved by, a God who is at once infinitely powerful and infinitely personal; a world in which God creates humans in God’s own image, with capacities for knowledge and love, pleasure and freedom; a world that is a garden that God plants for humans to enjoy and cultivate. Nothing about the imagined world is empirically verifiable, yet by imagining the world in this fashion, the Bible also reveals reality, and by revealing it, opens the possibility of humans living in it. By imagining the world that the Bible imagines, humans can imagine—construct—their world as a new creation.
I am recommending with respect to the Bible what we already recognize as axiomatic about the human project: that we do not simply find a world, but rather construct worlds on the basis of shared imagination, then engage in practices that serve to make what we imagine seem natural. Because we can imagine a world called “education,” we willingly attend classes and take exams, or teach and grade papers, and by doing so, we make the world of education real. Because we can imagine a world called “democracy,” we gladly vote and campaign and serve, and in the process make government by the people, of the people, and for the people a reality. We even think about science in these terms. We recognize, for instance, that before space travel was possible, humans needed to imagine the world in a new way, more like Copernicus and less like Ptolemy, more like Einstein and less like Newton. Once we imagined the possibility of standing on the moon and viewing the earth as a big blue marble, the practices of rocket engineering and space aeronautics made that possibility real by enacting what imagination had already first conceived.
Imagining the world the Bible creates is an equivalent Copernican revolution. It requires us to push back against the Enlightenment’s epistemological reduction of all knowledge to the empirically verifiable. This reduction banished imagination and fantasy to the epistemological basement. Yet all great history and all great science depend on fantasy and imagination long before test tubes and textual criticism come into play, just as every human life is driven by fantasy and imagination more than by sets of facts.
As children of the Enlightenment, we are not intellectually comfortable thinking about the truth of the Bible in terms of imagination. We are reluctant to commit ourselves to that which is simply “imaginative.” But there is also a moral factor in our reluctance to embrace such a reading, for it demands of us that we put into practice the world thus imagined by the Bible. If the Bible is “true” as description or prediction, it demands nothing of us but intellectual assent; its truth is like that of a weather report or a mathematical theorem. But if the Bible is true as prescription, then everything is demanded of us: we are called to embody that imagination, to bring it into existence by the patterns of our lives.
Complicating the Notion of Truth
Approaching the Bible through imagination complicates the question of how the Bible is true, making a shift from a correspondence theory of truth to a constructive model. I am here extending the definition of truth by Thomas Aquinas to encompass a broader range of possibilities. Aquinas spoke of truth as an adequatio rei et intellectus, the correspondence of a thing and a mind. For Aquinas, however, this was not simply a matter of human propositions and their correspondence to empirical facts. Thomas contemplated a mind (intellectus) and reality (res) in several dimensions. First is the created world as the res that expresses the design of the divine intellectus. By this, Thomas meant the truth about the world expressed in the biblical and creedal affirmation that all existence derived from its maker. Second is the truth found in the apprehension by the human intellectus of the reality that God thus creates at every moment, the res we call God’s world. Finally, Thomas applied truth to the exercise of human understanding (intellectus) in moral discernment and action—the res that we bring into being through our freedom.
We follow in Thomas’s footsteps, then, when we recognize that there are multiple ways of knowing reality, and of thinking about the adequatio of mind and reality. When we consider the discrete ways of knowing reality displayed respectively by art, literature, mathematics, dance, and music, we recognize the need to think flexibly about what “truth” in each such discourse might mean. We can go further and recognize similar complex dimensions of the meaning of “truth” in the discourses concerning personal relationships, morality, and religion. For religious literature such as we find in the Bible, a constructive understanding of truth comprises a complex conversation among texts, readers, and the worlds they mutually construct through such conversation. Truth is not something external to which we need only assent; rather, it is something in which we participate and for which we must take responsibility. From this perspective there are at least three ways in which we can think of how the Bible might be true.
1. We could ask, first, does the Bible imagine a true world? As soon as we ask that simple question, we see what complexities it hides. We might mean, “Is the Bible true when it imagines a three-decker universe consisting of the heavens, the earth, and the netherworld?”—and declare that science has shown such an image to be false. But readers both ancient and modern have used such biblical language to understand not just the physical arrangement of the universe but the issue of the material world’s depth: is there simply the surface that we can see and touch, or is that surface a veil, behind which is a deeper sort of being? The language of heaven and earth enables readers to imagine a world that does not simply offer itself to immediate examination, but rather discloses itself slowly to those who are open to the mystery beneath the surface. We can, in fact, reverse the question: Without a language that enables us to imagine inner and outer dimensions to human existence, or a sense of height and depth in being, is not our understanding of reality necessarily forced into flatness-itself a simplification, a kind of untruth?
Such questions push us to ask what criteria should determine the truthfulness of the world the Bible imagines. Scarcely anyone these days wants to measure biblical truth on criteria derived from natural science. Natural science, however, is not the only discourse about reality, or even the most interesting one. We could also ask about the truth of the Bible within philosophical discourse: Are its statements capable of being engaged by reason, and do its mythic dimensions raise and respond to questions of being? We can ask within moral discourse: Does the Bible create humans who are evil or who are good, does it suppress a full humanity or enhance it? And we can pose the question of truth within religious discourse: Does the Bible enable an adequate apprehension of God? Asking whether the Bible imagines a true world is complicated not only by the number of discourses—each with its own criterion of truth—within which the question can be posed, but also by the plain fact that the Bible does not speak in a single voice on any subject. We must always keep in mind the Bible’s literary, perspectival, and thematic diversity whenever we ask, on any point, whether the Bible imagines a true world.
2. It is therefore important that we ask a second question concerning the truth of the Bible—namely, do we read the Bible truly? Those who blithely assert or confidently deny biblical truthfulness assume that the Bible’s meaning is familiar and easy to grasp. In fact, the meaning of these ancient texts is more often alien and elusive. And far too often, claims concerning the truth of the Bible avoid any actual reading of the texts themselves. A true reading must be responsible to the text of the Bible, which demands that we recognize its otherness in language and culture and struggle with the difficulties presented by its grammar and syntax. It demands that we take into account the diversity of the Bible’s literary form and expression. And true reading also means being responsible to a community of other readers, past and present, embracing exposure to their readings and thereby entering into a process of mutual correction and growth in insight. Reading that is simply private cannot claim to be true reading; and neither can reading that is simply sectarian—whether denominational or academic.
3. Finally, we can ask about the truthfulness of our reading in still another way: Do we act truly as readers of the Bible? This question addresses not our intellect but our moral posture. Are we engaging the world that the Bible imagines, living in a manner consistent with its vision? There are at least two aspects of this form of truthfulness to consider. The first is whether we are morally competent to read. Stanley Hauerwas declares that only someone committed to nonviolence can truly read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the same way, perhaps, Paul cannot be read truly by those committed to racism or sexism. (To be sure, the texts of Scripture have repeatedly shown their ability to challenge and even change such presuppositions; Augustine was neither the first nor the last to hear the words of the Apostle directed to his twisted heart and begin the process of change within.)
The second aspect of moral truthfulness with respect to the Bible concerns the specific ethics of our reading, a point pressed especially by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. If we read the Bible to establish the correctness of our own ideology or the security of our own manner of life, we are not reading truly. If we read primarily to demolish the positions of others and demonstrate that they are in error, or even unloved by God, then we are not reading truly. It is impossible to lay claim to the law of love if the purpose of our reading is to place burdens on others rather than to help bear their burdens, to destroy others rather than to save them. To read the Bible truly, one must be in the process of being transformed by the world that Scripture imagines; to speak truly about Jesus, one must be in the process of being transformed into his image.
How, then, is the Bible true? I believe that this question grows richer and more pertinent to our lives when we begin to imagine the world Scripture itself imagines, through its literary art; when we ask what is the shape of that world and its rules and how we might embody it; when in that quest we read both passionately and carefully; and when we are willing to ask not only whether Scripture imagines a true world, but whether we ourselves read truly, and as readers act in the truth.
The Bible is the sacred book of the Christian church. It also deeply forms and informs our national culture. As such it deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness by the most serious people. A collection of texts this powerful possesses capacities for good and evil; and in the hands of those who ascribe absolute truth to it without taking the care to investigate how it might be true, the Bible can become a harmful instrument, bringing ugliness and evil into our common life. But in the hands of those who are willing to discover the richness of biblical truth, and who begin by taking responsibility for the truthfulness of their own reading and moral actions, the Bible can still enliven hearts, expand minds, and—as it has so often in the past—energize the efforts of those seeking to serve the world’s best future.
This essay has been adapted from the Thomas Verner Moore Lecture given in September 2008 at the Catholic University of America.
Related: "A Guide for the Perplexed: The Bible as Moral Teacher" by Donald Senior, CP
About the Author
Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).