Volume 39 - Issue 3

Bye-bye Bible? Progress Report on the Death of Scripture

By Robert W. Yarbrough


A trio of recent books raises important questions on how Scripture is handled in halls of (certain kinds of) learning and how such handling affects Scripture’s perceived truth and message. One of these books’ titles conveys the thrust of all three: The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. That is, scholarly study (“biblical studies”) has too often robbed Scripture of the respect it deserves. This essay explores and assesses these books, one by Harvard-trained Hebrew scholar Michael Legaspi and the others by the renowned New Testament scholars Ulrich Wilckens (emeritus, University of Hamburg) and Klaus Berger (emeritus, University of Heidelberg). It concludes that it is not Scripture from which there is need to take leave; the problem is with faulty approaches to reading it.

Every decade or so, at least, sees the rise of a fresh learned movement promising to rewrite the book on the Book. That is, the Bible regarded as the word of God will finally be debunked conclusively. This is an impression often cultivated by the media; actually the conviction that Scripture needs debunking because so much of it is bunk is as ancient as the Scriptures themselves. The good news contained in Scripture regarding God’s sure promises of redemption has always found dedicated opponents. OT prophets were executed by their own countrymen. Jesus and his early followers found their saving message a tough sell; the crucifixion of Christ was not a sign of fame and popularity.

In the wake of biblical times, the bitter critique of the pagan philosopher Celsus (ca. a.d. 180) is an early, fairly full example of a negative judgment on Scripture’s substance, and one that anticipates many criticisms still current today.2 Particularly contemporary is Celsus’s contempt, not only for the holy writings of the Christians, and the Jews too for that matter, but for Christians and Jews themselves. Despite such skepticism (and Celsus is the tip of an iceberg), early Christians generally upheld a high and robust view of God’s Word written, as Michael Graves has recently demonstrated.3 More broadly one could think of the history of heresies arising over the centuries. They amount to a series of assaults on Scripture and its truth. One could also think of the critiques, implicit or explicit, of confessional Christian faith and the Book on which it is based represented by its rivals through history and around the world like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to name just four.

A curious feature of church history in the West over the last 200 years or so is that theological leadership and pastoral training have increasingly fallen into the hands of figures and schools of thought that reject the Bible’s veracity.4 I have in mind here especially Germany’s universities and theological faculties and then the ripple effects of this in Britain and North America. In his 2012 book Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology,5 Gary Dorrien has shown how important Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Schelling have been and continue to be for mainstream Protestant theology. Dorrien argues that even Karl Barth tacitly endorses this heritage, so that his theological protest against it fails to find traction and supports the liberal heritage Barth reacted against.

Dorrien’s “modern theology,” by which he means mainstream Protestant and post-Protestant theological discourse, has found it compelling to dance to the piping of select German philosophers rather than the purported “thus says the Lord” of the OT or Christ’s “Verily, verily” in the NT. Over the last couple of centuries, movements like the Tübingen school, the history of religion school, the so-called first quest of the historical Jesus, and Bultmann’s demythologizing hermeneutic traced a progressively lower view of the Bible’s truthfulness. In more recent times there was the myth of God incarnate debate in the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of postmodernism with grandiose claims to have done away with all absolutes, and the Jesus Seminar climaxing in the late Robert Funk’s book Honest to Jesus,6 which announced the end of creedal credibility insofar as it rested on biblical testimony. Prominent among influential Bible detractors today is Bart D. Ehrman, a NT scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Others like Princeton University’s Elaine Pagels have weighed in, speaking for thousands of their colleagues worldwide.

In July 2014 the prestigious Society of Biblical Literature unveiled its “Bible Odyssey” website, showcasing the results of the latest biblical scholarship for the benefit of the world. Scrolling down, the first featured link asks, “Does the Bible Relate to History ‘as It Actually Happened’?” (scare quotes conjuring up the memory of discredited historian Leopold von Ranke). The stated answer: “‘History’ is an inappropriate designation for biblical narratives, but the stories nonetheless convey important truths.”7 In other words, the Bible is generally not true, historically speaking, though we who know the truth apart from the Bible may be able to spot affirmations of what we know to be true in the Bible. This essentially articulates what Langdon Gilkey expressed in the early 1960s when he reminded Western colleagues that the hegemonic “we” of the university decides questions about God and truth without regard to what the Bible might have to say about such things.8

In this essay I want to make the simple suggestion that despite the Western post-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian rhetoric pervasive in much scholarship and media coverage of it, it is not yet time to say bye-bye to the Bible as a truth-telling book in a comprehensive sense, not just here and there but in all God intends to affirm in it rightly interpreted.

In a sense this is not a new claim. Voices from within the disciplines of biblical scholarship have protested criticism’s excesses repeatedly from the start of the “critical” movement in the late 1700s. Lessing (not a biblical scholar but influential over many biblical scholars) was opposed by the not unlettered Hamburg pastor John Melchior Goetze.9 F. C. Baur found his scholarly equal in J. C. K. von Hofmann10 and later Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort in England. Troeltschian historiography was ably addressed by Adolf Schlatter.11 Bultmann’s potpourri and synthesis of earlier hermeneutical trajectories (like that of Baur and Harnack) were clearly identified and confessionally corrected by fellow NT scholar (and Nazi adversary12) Martin Albertz.13 In recent years Martin Hengel14 and Paul Minear15 expressed consternation at the pretensions and miscues of “critical” learning and called for more responsible scholarship.

Moreover, going back to Old Princeton, American confessional stalwarts (e.g., B. B. Warfield) and later explicitly evangelical voices (like scholars at institutions including Wheaton College, the early Fuller Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) took up the gauntlet of what they viewed as unfounded critical outlooks.16 Evangelical scholarship sought to work out handling of the data that was more responsible both historically and theologically. This effort continues today, some of it chronicled in Themelios.

But these conflicts will never be resolved and done with. Learning (or the pretense to learning) progresses, and each new generation must work out its response both to old paradigms and new proposals. At the present time three books, each from very different angles, make similar arguments with deep learning and conviction. Below I wish to call attention first to a book by Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, 2011.17 Legaspi argues that biblical scholarship as currently constructed should no longer be the gatekeeper of the meaning of the Bible for those who read it as Holy Scripture, a legitimate undertaking in his view. I then look at two books by German NT scholars. The first is Ulrich Wilckens, Kritik der Bibelkritik. Wie die Bibel wieder zur Heiligen Schrift werden kann, 2012.18 The second is Klaus Berger, Die Bibelfälscher. Wie wir um die Wahrheit betrogen werden, 2013.19 Wilckens and Berger are internationally famous NT scholars who late in their careers are speaking out against the destructive hermeneutical tendencies of the exegetical guilds to which they belong.20

1. Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies

This book appears in the series Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Its central character is the OT scholar Johann David Michaelis (1717–1791). The story it tells regards the place of Scripture in eighteenth-century Germany. The Bible was co-opted by government via the universities to promote not theological and salvific ends but political, civic, and social ones.21

Michaelis and contemporaries like Johann Gottfried Herder and Immanuel Kant did not openly advance an “aggressive heterodoxy” but promoted a use of the Bible that was “amenable to new intellectual projects” (ix). They did not directly attack the Bible but shrewdly undermined it. Theirs was “a conservative progressivism that took the cultural obsolescence of confessional Christianity for granted and aimed at the creation of an irenic social order based on reason, morality, and the growing power of the state” (ix–x). A result was the creation of “the academic Bible,” a book “oriented toward the social and political goals of the conservative Enlightenment” (x).

Chapter one of the book “argues that the Bible in the West ceased to function as catholic [small c] scripture in the period following the Reformation and that, as a result, biblical scholars turned increasingly toward the Bible as text to rehabilitate it” (x). In other words, rather than view the Bible as God’s Word to sinners for world redemption, they began to treat it as a mere husk with perhaps no such saving message at its core. We might contrast such a regard for Scripture with Jesus’ claim in John’s Gospel that Moses’ writings point to him (John 5:46), or Paul’s statement to Timothy that Scripture can make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and ultimately “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15, 17). The Bible as understood by Christ and the apostles, first the OT and eventually the NT, was not an academic compilation but a redemptive one. Germany in the Enlightenment era moved in an opposite direction. (Students of the era will know that there were precursors to this in the form of Deists in England, scholars like Richard Simon in France, and other movements.)

Chapter two tells how Göttingen in Germany became a center in the study of the Bible in this new sense. This came about through incorporating it into scholarship of the humanities. Chapter three describes how, parallel to the study of ancient Greek and Rome, study of ancient Israel emerged. This resulted in “a critically reconstructed antiquity fully intelligible to modern ideals” (xi) rather than a collection of writings testifying to the saving work of God and affording entrée to relationship with him in the context of the heritage of biblical faith. The OT was about a dead-and-gone past, not a book like that extolled by the Psalmist, the Torah (law), which was his life-giving delight and meditation day and night (cf. Ps 1).

Chapter four details how Michaelis worked at presenting the Bible “embedded in a deep and dead past before it could be operated on and, ultimately, revivified” (xi). He achieved the feat of making the Bible seem corpse-like in part by stressing the teaching of Hebrew. For Luther and Calvin the original languages had breathed fresh life into Scripture; now those languages were used to try to bury the Book. Michaelis also relativized “religious interpretive frameworks,” promoting instead a normative academic framework that would crowd out the religious. In some ways this marks the beginning of German philosophers being given the lead in providing the hermeneutical matrix that determines Scripture’s meaning (on this more below).

Chapter five marks the success of Michaelis’s program to read the Bible aesthetically, as literature, “allowing scholars to operate independently of scriptural frameworks for understanding the Bible” (xi). By transforming prophets into poets, for example, “foretellers of Christ” became “poets of personal passion” (xi).

Chapter six describes how Michaelis remade the all-important Moses. “Michaelis denied that the Old Testament . . . had any kind of direct relevance or authority in modern life.” This quite contradicts how figures like Christ and Paul understood Moses, to say nothing of Irenaeus and Augustine, or Luther and Calvin, or countless practicing Christians worldwide today. Michaelis used the scholarly tools “of history and philology to remake the biblical tradition, to see the value of biblical figures by new, nonconfessional lights” (xi–xii). The effect was to cast Moses in Stygian darkness. The well-known anti-Semitism of much German biblical scholarship and idealist philosophy has roots in this era.22

Legaspi reflects on the implications of his findings for study of the Bible today. Clear understanding turns, he writes,23

on the way that the problematic relation between the scriptural and academic Bibles is ultimately negotiated. The two are opposed to one another, but I believe it is necessary to reconceive the nature of this opposition. Too often it has been seen, unhelpfully, as an expression of stale antitheses between reason and faith, history and revelation, the secular and the sacred. The history of modern biblical criticism shows that the fundamental antitheses were not intellectual or theological, but rather social, moral, and political. Academic critics did not dispense with the authority of a Bible resonant with religion; they redeployed it. Yet they did so in a distinctive form that has run both parallel and perpendicular to church appropriations of the Bible. (xii)

In other words, the academic Bible ran parallel to the scriptural Bible in being viewed as visionary, authoritative, and worthy of attention. But it also ran perpendicular, on a collision course with the Bible’s call to repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Christ.24 The scriptural Bible summons the reader to heed God; the academic Bible is a domain for the exercise of scholars’ methodologies and certainties drawn from sources other than the Bible.

In his conclusion, Legaspi sees a place for both approaches to the Bible, but with careful delineation by both parties. He grants “the moral seriousness of the modern critical project and, to a modest degree, the social and political utility of the academic Bible.” He also grants “the intellectual value of academic criticism.”

Yet he thinks that it “has become clear . . . that academic criticism in its contemporary form cannot offer a coherent, intellectually compelling account of what this information is actually for.” True, “there is value in the social and moral by-products of academic criticism, in things like tolerance, reasonableness, and self-awareness.” Yet “these rather thin, pale virtues seem only thinner and paler when compared to the classic virtues associated with the scriptural Bible.” Legaspi notes that, in the Bible of the church, “instead of bland tolerance” there is “love that sacrifices self; instead of agreeable reasonability, hope that opens the mind to goodness and greatness that is not yet fully imagined; and instead of critical self-awareness, faith that inspires and animates the human heart.”25

By comparison, “academic criticism tempers belief, while scriptural reading edifies and directs it. In this sense, they work at cross-purposes. Yet each mode presumes the value of knowledge.” In the end, Legaspi states somewhat hauntingly,

perhaps the two are closest . . . when in the brief moment before thought recognizes itself, the mind wavers between words that have suddenly become strange, and knowledge that is a choice between knowing what the text said and knowing what the words might be saying. It is a choice, at such a moment, between the letter that has been revived, and the letter that never died.

I take “the letter that has been revived” to be an interpretation of the academic Bible in keeping with contemporary dictates. I take “the letter that never died” to be Scripture as the living and active word of God, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12 ESV). I take Legaspi’s point to be that we should say bye-bye to the Bible as a monolith, whether the errant ancient book requiring reinterpretation by scholars zealous to inject into the Bible each generation’s evolving social ideals, or the divine oracle gaining nothing from scholarly investigation of it. When the Bible is merely demoted to a wax nose suiting either iconoclastic or fideist ideologies, it might as well be shelved.

At the same time, we live in a time where Western criticism has been permitted more say about God’s Word in Christ’s church than it deserves. Criticism has not so disproved Scripture’s truth as to discredit the traditional reverence shown to Scripture in the church. It is fully justified for Christians, not only on faith but also on empirical grounds (to say nothing of christological warrant), to preach, teach, worship, and live in line with the guidance of Scripture, despite the negative verdicts on the academic Bible viewed by scholars as a cadaver for their thought experiments. For they conduct their probes not solely on the basis of facts or reason as they claim but rather informed by convictions and ideologies, often hidden, that too often predetermine their own work.

The next two books I will mention strengthen Legaspi’s claims.

2. Ulrich Wilckens, Kritik der Bibelkritik. Wie die Bibel wieder zur Heiligen Schrift werden kann (Critique of Biblical Criticism: How the Bible Can Again Become Holy Scripture)26

Ulrich Wilckens, born 1928, is well-known for critical commentaries on Romans27 and John’s Gospel.28 He also wrote a multi-volume NT theology. On the back cover of the third part of volume one of that theology, it promises that volume three will present “a critical, methodologically new orientation” to the discipline. “The history of historical criticism of the Bible will itself be subjected to historical criticism.” This book appeared in 2012.

The book, while important, is disappointing. Joel White of the Freie Theologische Hochschule, Gießen, Germany points out how “the small remnant of conservative biblical scholars in Germany” including himself eagerly awaited the book.29 On the positive side for White is that fact that Wilckens affirms “the historicity of the resurrection, the atonement, and NT ethics . . . as the revelation of the character of God.”30 White points out that this “is already a revolution when viewed against the background of mainstream German scholarship.”31 But White concludes: “It is just not the revolution” that many were hoping for.32

Two things weaken the book. One is that it leaves untouched most of the contestable consensus claims of NT scholarship as regards, for example, pseudepigraphy of most of its contents. By that I mean, for example, that Wilckens continues to support the view that the four Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, nor were many of the NT letters written by their purported authors. The cogency of the NT throughout history for many has lain in its appearance of preserving eyewitness or first-generation testimony. Wilckens does nothing to defend the notion that those who wrote the NT actually had empirical grounds for their historical assertions.

The other disappointment is that Wilckens’s positive proposal is so thin, covering just 54 pages. This too-brief section appears under the heading “How can the historically interpreted Bible become Holy Scripture again?” It touches on noble and worthwhile subjects, but as a positive alternative to the critical consensus, the section is so laconic and limited as to come off lame. The concluding appeal to God’s love in Christ as what will renew study of the OT and NT (170) is especially vague and toothless. I am reminded of what Nobel Laureate and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer wrote. She died on July 14, 2014, at the age of 90. One of her memorable and wise quotes about apartheid government was this: “You can’t change a regime on the basis of compassion. There’s got to be something harder.”33 Wilckens needs something with more hermeneutical steel, and I might add more gospel light, than his positive proposal contains.

Where the book shines, however, is in the first 100 plus pages. We find here an eight-point summary of “the history of historical-critical exegesis.” Potted histories of this often tell the story in a triumphalist way, from the point of view of the skeptical mainline today. In that approach a narration moves from some early pioneers of anti-creedal Christianity, like Reimarus and Semler and Lessing, to synthesizers of post-Christian convictions like F. C. Baur and D. F. Strauss, to movements credited with destroying the Bible’s historical claims like the history-of-religion school, to the twentieth century with its succession of hermeneutical approaches in Bultmann’s wake and his extreme skepticism toward the Gospels and plain denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Since about the 1960s biblical hermeneutics has moved in so many directions that terms like methodological diversity or pluralism are used. It might be more accurate to say anarchy. Almost anything may be and is supported from the Bible by someone somewhere these days.

Wilckens is not afraid to say that something is deeply flawed in where we have arrived. There is, he thinks, a sense in which Scripture is holy, and there’s no necessary reason why scholars must attack its hallowed status and message as they have and do. So he exposes the skeletal background of the history of biblical criticism in eight moves.

1. The rise of historical biblical criticism in the time of the Enlightenment. Like Legaspi, Wilckens notes the political push at this time to make the Bible a socially unifying force through the universities, which provided pastors for the churches and so indirectly had great influence over society. But Wilckens also performs the immense service of owning up to the assumptions—not proven truths but dogmatic assertions—informing this push. He lists five fundamental convictions of scholars in this era, convictions that are still in place for most scholars working in biblical studies fields today: (1) The many miracles in the Bible including those worked by Jesus must be disputed and denied by every reasonable Christian. (2) Foremost among the miracles that must be and were denied is the resurrection of Jesus. (3) The same unsparing criticism applied to Christ’s resurrection was applied to the biblical assertion of the saving power of Christ’s death in place of sinners who may be saved by trusting in him. (4) Jesus was a moral ethical teacher, the greatest in the history of humankind, whom to follow required the repudiation of all morals based on authority outside the individual. (5) The church is no longer necessary for the Christian, and more importantly there is nothing binding about its doctrines for the Christian’s faith, nothing normative in its directives for the Christian’s life, and nothing authoritative about its leaders for the church’s members.

This is the beginning of bye-bye to the Bible in the Western university, which in Europe’s state church systems was tasked with mediating the knowledge of the now-discredited, very unholy Bible to ministers, churches, and society as a whole.

2. The development of this critical trajectory in the nineteenth century. Wilckens notes the effect of F. C. Baur and D. F. Strauss by around 1850, and how already by this time pastors in Germany had to give up hope of finding help for their preaching from “critical” exegesis, because the radical historical reconstructions being proposed by scholars could not support any longer a Christian understanding of the biblical texts.

3. Nineteenth-century biblical scholarship in the context of the reigning German idealist philosophers (Kant, his successors Fichte and Schelling, Hegel, and finally Nietzsche and his nihilism). Wilckens does not say that liberal theology followed Nietzsche but that it lacked the resources to resist the implications of his destructive social vision. Nietzsche had more impact in the culture than the gospel message did, in part because theologians and Bible scholars no longer believed much less proclaimed the Christian message.

4. The convictions and effect of F. D. E. Schleiermacher, recognized today as the father of Western Protestant liberalism. Schleiermacher dissolves Christianity into personal subjectivism, rejects the OT as binding or even relevant, agrees that the four Gospels have no historical value, and values Jesus only as the example of the true human living with the awareness of oneness with God. The Christian task is not to trust and follow him as the risen Son of God but to feel God like Jesus our model did. This is not and never was Christianity, historically speaking, as J. Gresham Machen pointed out years ago in his classic volume Christianity and Liberalism.

5. The radical criticism of the Bible in the second half of the nineteenth century and its incorporation into liberal theology. This is largely a cameo of the history-of-religion school and its leading thinker Ernst Troeltsch, who saw himself as a disciple of Schleiermacher.

6. Opposition to the biblical criticism of liberal theology as well as attempts to “overcome” it. Names or movements here include the Erlangen school with its salvation-historical outlook associated with J. C. K. von Hofmann, Adolf Schlatter, curiously Albrecht Ritschl (who in my opinion doesn’t belong in this section at all), Theodor Zahn, and Martin Kähler. Wilckens closes with the observation of how compromised conservative interpretation became because it felt it had to spend so much time matching up with and vanquishing liberal exegesis. It lost its way to Christian explication of the Bible’s message for the church by making its mission the correction of liberal interpretation in the academy. It is at this point I think Wilckens does least justice to Adolf Schlatter, whose scholarship was always prized by Bible-believers at various levels because it opened up Scripture’s message so profoundly.

7. Roman Catholic exegesis before and after the Enlightenment. There was official rejection of Protestant liberal hermeneutics, but seeds were sown that have by now enabled erosion in Catholic convictions about the Bible among its own biblical scholars.

8. The tumult that arose between the World Wars—and that in many respects has not subsided today. Wilckens treats the state of faith, liberal and conservative, among scholars during World War I, the rise of dialectical theology and Karl Barth after the war, and Rudolf Bultmann and his influence. The outcome of dialectical theology by the 1960s was, according to Wilckens, that it did not succeed at replacing liberalism with something more compelling. In fact, the 1960s saw a return to many of the convictions that reigned in the 19th century.

To summarize, Wilckens shows that after 200 years of what he calls Bibelkritik, scholarly interpretation has not arrived at agreed-on results but is currently in a time warp: “Presently, to a great extent the theologian of the history-of-religion school, Ernst Troeltsch [1865–1923], has become the leading light of a new and growing rearticulation of nineteenth-century liberal theology in the twenty-first century” (114). Wilckens sees the current state of biblical scholarship, the methods that it prizes, and the assumptions that inform it, in need not of simple reform but of Überwindung (overcoming)—the whole approach needs to be scrapped and revamped. He seems to indicate that if positive-minded Protestant and Catholic scholars could get on the same page, they might together be able to “overcome” “the heritage of the Enlightenment in the entire tradition of historical criticism of the Bible” (115). But he does not think this is going to happen.

Wilckens shows, then, that he is to a large degree breaking ranks with the discipline he supported all his life because it has not illumined the Bible but rather suppressed and scrambled its message by applying alien and unfounded ideologies in its interpretation. He shows the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of how the Bible has been handled. And in an important respect he agrees with Legaspi: the need is not to bid Scripture as God’s Word farewell but to quit allowing its message to be dictated by interpreters hostile to that message and seeking to use the Bible to promote primarily political or moral or ideological ends, whether positive or negative.

3. Klaus Berger, Die Bibelfälscher. Wie wir um die Wahrheit betrogen werden (Bible Falsifiers: How We Are Being Robbed of the Truth)

You can’t tell a book by its cover. But the dust jacket comments on this book, some of them composed by the author, are telling. The book is billed as “an angry reckoning.” Berger, born 1940 and emeritus professor at the University of Heidelberg, is ticked off. Why? On the back cover of the book’s dust jacket we read:

Biblical research is swarming with thought-policing, ignorance, and philosophical fashions that are about as plausible as fairy-tales. Worse, as a result theologians unwittingly further the agenda of atheists. They block the way to saving faith. Berger argues: Jesus was no mere do-gooder, no faith-healer or gentle wisdom teacher. He was rather living God who has become part of our history. This book gives the reader access to a Jesus of Nazareth who brings both perspectives into view: his human and his divine nature.

The book, twice as long as Wilckens’s, begins with a lengthy introduction. The basic drift: “Two hundred years of intense and intelligent biblical research has desolated our churches” (9). Berger with much sarcasm and sometimes bitter humor serves up an exposé of the German biblical studies enterprise in those universities that provide pastors for the churches.

This is not an academic book but a deeply informed popular-level one. His introductory section calls attention to errors and pretensions in what he calls “liberal exegesis.” Among sample errors are the claims (1) that Jesus’ followers expected his imminent return but were wrong, and (2) that John the Baptist was not a witness of or to Jesus. Regarding John’s (non-) witness, Berger interacts with Gerd Theissen, another German NT scholar, who argues that point. Berger details and destroys Theissen’s argument. Berger makes this programmatic observation about how Theissen handles the many NT passages that suggest John the Baptizer was a witness to Jesus: “A hermeneutic of mistrust literally devours the [historical] reports” (30). In some ways that describes the whole book: in dozens of cases Berger applies the logical skepticism to the writings of his colleagues that they apply to the Bible.

Berger also makes the point already seen in Wilckens: German scholars like Bultmann worked hard to give university interpretation of the Bible normative, “scientific” status. They succeeded; in Legaspi’s term they have established an “academic Bible.” But Berger asserts,

the price for this [in the twentieth century] was that the philosophical anthropology of Martin Heidegger became the gate through which all theology had to pass. That has expanded today so that psychology, sociology, religious theory, and political ethics are made into vehicles for theology. It’s no different than how Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century made Aristotle’s philosophy the hermeneutical framework for theology. These are all noble efforts intended to strike blows for liberation, but in reality they clamped theology into new and entirely godless systems. (35–36)

Berger points out how scholars in both Protestant and now Catholic traditions feel free to deny the teachings of the historic Christian faith by denying what the Bible asserts. He cites NT scholar Rudolf Pesch as an example of a Catholic who denies the Virgin Birth. Had Berger published more recently he might have added the detailed study by British evangelical NT scholar Andrew Lincoln, who argues similarly.34

Since even evangelicals, who have long been upholding the historic Christian view of Scripture’s truthfulness, are now arguing against its clear assertions, Berger’s dramatic-sounding statement in his introduction gains plausibility. The same destructive approach to the Bible and ultimately the Christian faith observed in leading university and Protestant circles

is gaining entrance and traction in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions. But this means that this very strange science will soon take on a visible, global-political character. Before the Christian communions of the West collapse from their own inner weakness, like the churches of North Africa did centuries ago under Islamic pressure, my book is intended as an urgent appeal for a particular kind of Reformation: a reformation of the so-called historical-critical liberal exegesis. (10)

After Berger’s long introduction, the bulk of the book (43–296) is a section called “the demolition [Zerstörung] of the New Testament.” One finds here nine subsections, listed here to give a more definite feel for Berger’s argument:

  1. The demolition of Christianity in the classroom and from the pulpit
  2. The most important errors of liberal exegesis
  3. The preliminary assumptions of the opponents [of Scripture’s truth]
  4. Manipulation of the passion texts
  5. Ruthless secularization
  6. The domestication of the apostle Paul
  7. The infancy narratives as a playground for radical biblical criticism (Jesus’ childhood like the passion narratives are full of legends; Mary was not a virgin; Bethlehem was not Jesus’ birthplace; there was no fleeing to Egypt by the holy family)
  8. Rewriting history at will (Jesus was married; no hell but universal redemption; Jesus did not institute the Lord’s Supper; Jesus did not pray the Lord’s prayer)
  9. How did this exegesis ever get started?

Throughout these nine sections, Berger cites scholars who hold these views and interacts with them, sometimes citing documentation he thinks shows them wrong, sometimes using other means to demonstrate the unworkableness of their position.

Berger’s last section treats the future of exegesis and explores what it would take for things to possibly ever change. The section includes presentations of the gospel message as Berger understands it and even prayer to Jesus Christ.

It is obvious that Klaus Berger does not wish to say bye-bye to the Bible but to encourage fresh reading of and belief in it that will connect people with God in a redemptive way. Berger’s growing disgust over the years with how the Bible is treated in the German Protestant church and by his university colleagues is not the full story of his notoriety; he had more than one of his 60 doctoral students refused university positions because of their Christian convictions. One was a Catholic woman in the late 1960s; another was evangelical NT scholar Armin Baum just a couple of years ago. To express his displeasure Berger left the German Protestant church in 2006 and returned to the church he was baptized in, the Catholic church. He also became a Cistercian brother.

In a final word at the end of his book, Berger summarizes his problem with historical criticism in Germany and then where he thinks things are headed in this world for lived-out faithfulness to Christian Scripture. Here’s the problem summarized:

The historical-critical exegesis of the last 200 years has smashed all the china in the house of Christianity right down to the last flower vase. This is evident to anyone able and willing to see. It has led many theology students to abandon their study and provided people with cheap justification for leaving the church. It has promoted atheism and not united the church but splintered it even more. It has showcased the critical mentality and presumably converted no one to Christianity. So it is effective, but not productive—like an acid used for cleaning out toilets. (345)

Here’s his projection of where things are headed:

If I’m not mistaken, the retired Pope Benedict’s volumes on Jesus pursue a goal that is not far from this book: spring cleaning in a church that is about to enter hard times. What that means in New Testament terms: open heart surgery on the church. The archbishop of Chicago furnishes commentary here, as Francis Cardinal George wrote: I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. (346)

4. Conclusion

Bye-bye to Scripture? In this essay we have found agreement among a trio of scholarly statements. It is not Scripture from which there is need to take leave; the problem is with faulty approaches to reading it. Klaus Berger has left us with a rather chilling projection of what may happen to public leaders who do not follow the trend to say what the culture says they ought to say about the Bible and its teaching.

An American Catholic writing for the National Catholic Register, Tim Drake, did a little research on the Francis Cardinal George quote that Berger cites. Berger did not misquote the Chicago archbishop, but the quote did go on. Tim Drake tracked it down. I wish to close by citing what George said in full.35 This is not to encourage us to become Catholics, though worse things could happen, but to remind us to count the cost of discipleship, if God’s Word is as true to reality as we confess, and to encourage us to seek and find the right side of history as we live out either a higher or a lower view of the Bible—and we all have to decide. What I mean by the right side of history will become clear from Cardinal George’s original statement delivered in autumn 2012:36

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history . . . .

God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing “progressive” about sin, even when it is promoted as “enlightened.”

The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters.

The books examined above suggest that the right side of history is a view of the Bible, and the Triune God who gave it, that knows better than to bid these sacred realities farewell.

Evangelical thinkers can rejoice that Legaspi, Wilckens, and Berger (with inspiration from Cardinal George) concur in so many ways with perennial evangelical objections to aspects of mainstream approaches to Scripture. It remains for us to move forward with renewed confidence in the veracity and persuasive potential of the Book in study and in ministry, alert to learn from but not intimidated by skeptical voices, whether from the mainstream sources addressed in the three books above, or from mainstream imitators that sprout anew from time to time in our own ranks.

[1] Public lecture given at Regent College, Vancouver, BC, on July 21, 2014. My thanks to Bessie Li for constructive observations on an early draft. Editor’s note: Yarbrough recently contributed two related articles to Themelios: Robert W. Yarbrough, “The Embattled Bible: Four More Books,” Them 34 (2009): 6–25; Yarbrough, “Should Evangelicals Embrace Historical Criticism? The Hays-Ansberry Proposal,” Them 39 (2014): 37–52.

[2] See Celsus on the True Doctrine: A Discourse against Christians (trans. R. Joseph Hoffmann; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[3] Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

[4] For both critique and defense of the history, see Roy A. Harrisville, Pandora’s Box Opened: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method and Its Master Practitioners (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

[5] Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Reviewed in Them 37 (2012): 552–56.

[6] Subtitled Jesus for a New Millennium (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996).

[7] Nicola Denzey Lewis, “Does the Bible Relate to History ‘as It Actually Happened’?,” (accessed July 7, 2014).

[8] Langdon Gilkey, “Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language,” JR 41 (1961): 194–205.

[9] See, e.g., K. R. Hagenbach, History of the Church in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (trans. John F. Hurst; New York: Charles Scribner, 1869), 1:108, 282–88. Lessing’s criticisms of Goetze were regarded by later critics as devastating. But Hagenbach comments, “It is difficult to present a connected theological system of Lessing. Indeed, he had none” (288).

[10] See Robert Yarbrough, The Salvation Historical Fallacy? Reassessing the History of New Testament Theology (History of Biblical Interpretation Series 2; Leiden: Deo, 2004), ch. 1.

[11] Ibid., ch. 2.

[12] See, e.g., Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protest against Hitler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 93–94. For refusing to cooperate with the Gestapo and for employing non-Aryan (i.e., Jewish) women in the Berlin church college over which he had jurisdiction, Albertz was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Albertz collaborated with Bonhoeffer against the Reich as early as 1935 (ibid., 132).

[13] Ibid., 299–316.

[14] See, e.g., William Baird, History of New Testament Research, vol. 3: From C. H. Dodd to Hans Dieter Betz (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 317.

[15] Paul Minear, The Bible and the Historian: Breaking the Silence about God in Biblical Studies (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

[16] To give just one example from a Wheaton New Testament scholar, see Merrill C. Tenney, “Reversals of New Testament Criticism” (Carl F.H. Henry, ed.; Revelation and the Bible: Contemporary Evangelical Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958 / London: The Tyndale Press, 1959), 353–67.

[17] Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[18] Ulrich Wilckens, Kritik der Bibelkritik. Wie die Bibel wieder zur Heiligen Schrift werden kann (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Theologie, 2012).

[19] Klaus Berger, Die Bibelfälscher. Wie wir um die Wahrheit betrogen warden (München: Pattloch, 2013).

[20] Parenthetical references in the following three sections refer to pages in the corresponding book.

[21] What Legaspi shows regarding Michaelis has precursors in the work of Spinoza: see Jeffrey L. Morrow, “Historical Criticism as Secular Allegorism: The Case of Spinoza,” Letter & Spirit 8 (2013): 189–221.

[22] See, e.g., Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Antisemitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Giuseppe Veltri; Studies in Jewish History and Culture; Leiden: Brill, 2009). For the outcome generations later, as well as lamentable rootage in Luther, see, e.g., Christopher Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012).

[23] Quotations in this and the next four paragraphs are from The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, 169.

[24] Repentance is highlighted as a road too seldom traveled by biblical scholars in Harrisville, Pandora’s Box Opened, 350.

[25] Italics in original.

[26] Translation of all citations from Wilckens and Berger in this essay are by Robert Yarbrough.

[27] This three-volume work is available in a one-volume student edition: Der Brief an die Römer (2d ed.; Neukirchener: Neukirchener/Patmos, 2014).

[28] Das Evangelium nach Johannes (18th ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000).

[29] Review in BBR 24 (2014): 138.

[30] Ibid., 139.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Accessed July 15, 2014.

[34] Andrew T. Lincoln, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2013). Cf. the review in Them 39, no. 2 (2014): 367–69.

[35] Tim Drake, National Catholic Register, (accessed July 17, 2014).

[36] (accessed July 18, 2014).

Robert W. Yarbrough

Bob Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, an editorial board member of Themelios, co-editor of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament as well as the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Broadman & Holman), and past president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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