Denver Journal

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Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions

04.14.14 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Elodie Ballantine Emig | by Craig Blomberg

Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions

    A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Elodie Ballantine Emig

    Blomberg, Craig L. Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2014. $19.99. Paperback, xvi + 287 pp. ISBN 978-1-58743-321-4.

    The answer to Blomberg’s overall query is, of course, “We can still believe the Bible” (p. 225). He addresses his broader question, as the subtitle indicates, by dealing with six narrower ones. And he does so in an accessible, eminently readable fashion. One of Blomberg’s great strengths is his ability to communicate scholarly content to people who haven’t had the benefit of his education.  

    He begins the first chapter, on textual criticism (“Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?”), with the staggering estimate that there 400,000 variants found in our manuscripts of the New Testament. He goes on to explain how misleading such an estimate is and unpacks “the truth about textual variants” (p. 17). People who read Bart Ehrman need to know that those variants, the majority of which are variations in spelling, occur among 25,000+ manuscripts (and Dan Wallace was correct to assume in his blog that Blomberg meant to say 16 unique variants per manuscript on p. 17). The United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament4 contains 1,438 variants, those its committee deemed to be the most significant (Nestle-Aland28 includes roughly 7 times more) (p.17). 400,000, it turns out, is neither accurate nor particularly helpful. After looking at both Testaments, the Dead Sea documents and some representative variants, Blomberg compares our manuscript evidence for the Bible with that for other books that have survived from antiquity. The Bible is overwhelmingly better attested than all of the other extant works we have from the period over which both testaments were written. If we are persuaded that one cannot be even reasonably sure about what the books of the Bible originally said, “Then to be consistent we should discard all ancient writings on any topic as being far more suspect” (p. 36). Blomberg also cautions readers from going to the opposite extreme (as he does in every chapter) and reminds us that where we can reconstruct the biblical texts with great confidence, “We do not claim to have a perfectly flawless copy of any book of the Bible” (p.37).

    Turning to the issue of canon (“Wasn’t the Selection of Books for the Canon just Political?”), Blomberg ably dispatches the notion that the selection of the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible reflects, more than anything else, the controlling tendencies of the “winners” in the fourth-century Church’s battles to determine orthodoxy. Tellingly, the books that made it into the New Testament are those generally thought to have been written in the first or early second centuries. Literature from the “losers” in the battles didn’t begin to emerge until the third century (p. 44). As for the Old Testament, Blomberg traces the development of its canon, mentioning both the OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and reminding us that Judaism never canonized any books in either collection. He also makes the important point that the canonical books fit the same metanarrative. As one would expect, he outlines the criteria used for determining the NT canon and the historical process of canonization. In addition, he devotes six pages to Gnostic writings and takes some time to deal with other books that failed the tests of canonicity. Here “avoiding the opposite extreme” affirms that all truth is God’s truth and thus we can learn from just about anything under the sun (p. 78).

    Despite his obvious preference for the NIV, on whose translation committee he sits, chapter 3 (“Can We Trust Any of Our Translations of the Bible?”) is even-handed. Blomberg’s, “Yes, we can trust all but ‘aberrant translations produced by sects or cults to promote their distinctive doctrines’ (p. 85)” is fleshed out by: a brief examination of differing translations (12 separate translations) of six verses (2 translations per verse), a glimpse at the course of translation over the millennia, an explanation of the three main approaches to translation, and a caution about translations to avoid. Particularly helpful is his demonstration that “every [English] Bible on the market today is sufficiently faithful in its translation so that its readers can learn all of the fundamental truths of Christianity accurately” (p.85). And particularly challenging is the statement that we probably don’t need as many English translations as we have. He suggests that the Worldwide Church would be better served if we focused on producing more translations in other languages (p. 93). The “opposite extreme” section looks at the ongoing inclusive language debate.

    At this point in the flow of the book, an obvious question is, “Don’t These Issues Rule out Biblical Inerrancy?” First Blomberg makes it clear that inerrancy is more or less an American doctrine; other evangelicals prefer terms like authority and inspiration. Then to begin his answer, he describes the inductive and deductive approaches to the matter and then opts to use Paul Feinberg’s carefully nuanced definition of inerrancy as a working model. He takes some pains to consider what constitutes a legitimate error and notes that “we frequently impose modern standards of accuracy on ancient texts in hopelessly anachronistic fashion” (p. 126). Blomberg also looks at some significant challenges to inerrancy and zeroes in on the issue of harmonization. Classical historians have ample support for the theory that apparent contradictions between different accounts of the same event may be resolved by concluding that the separate accounts are accurate, but incomplete. Alternately, “Many texts printed as parallels in typical Gospel synopses probably are not true parallels” (p. 139).  The extreme to avoid is a rigid definition of inerrancy that ignores the textures of the biblical books, the standards of the times at which they were written and leaves one fearful that if an error can be found, “The entire Christian faith might as well be abandoned” (p. 143).

    The next two chapters concern (Ch. 5) whether or not some narrative genres employed by biblical writers are unhistorical and (Ch. 6) miracles. Articles 8 and 13 of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (introduced in Ch. 4) leave room for: Jonah’s fish to be a story, Genesis 1 to focus on “the ‘who’ rather than the ‘how’ of creation” (p. 151), and Job to transcend history. Blomberg tackles whether or not an inerrantist must affirm that the entire book of Isaiah was written by the same person. Then he moves on to Daniel’s apocalyptic, Matthew as a possible midrash, the problem of pseudonymity, and John’s Apocalypse. The bottom line is that “not all writings of a narrative genre intend to record history; we need to treat each on a case by case basis” (176). Those who maintain that all narrative genres must record history and that even apocalyptic literature must be understood literally (the opposite extreme), do violence to Scripture and create unnecessary barriers to belief in the God behind it.  

    As for miracles, quantum physics has been a boon. Instead of the objection that miracles are scientifically impossible, many postmodern problems with miraculous events cluster around the notion that they don’t constitute proof of the Bible’s veracity. Many religions report miracles, some falsely; Christianity is not unique, perhaps on either count.  Still, Blomberg makes reference to Craig Keener’s massive tome on miracles, which showcases “hundreds upon hundreds of well-documented accounts of instantaneous healings” (p. 180) among other types of signs and wonders. He mentions his own personal exposure to the miraculous before addressing the most serious problem his contemporaries have with miracles: their accounts, especially those of the resurrection, sound more mythical, or legendary than historical. If Jonah’s fish isn’t necessary to his overall story, just how necessary is the resurrection to Jesus’ story? It is absolutely essential, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians. More to the point, the New Testament doesn’t read like mythology, “the alleged parallels with ancient fiction are dramatically exaggerated” (p.186), and widespread belief in Jesus’ resurrection occurred within a couple of years rather than centuries of the event itself. Blomberg concludes that miracles in both testaments fit into a few important categories. They are not random bits of wonder (p. 207), but demonstrations of God’s ultimate sovereignty, grace and sometimes judgment. It should then follow that an extreme to avoid is cessationism.       

    There are a couple of places, e.g., when discussing Norman Geisler, where Blomberg’s overall irenic tone seems to give way to annoyance. In those instances, though, he is reacting to evangelical, in-house intolerance of more “liberal” positions. I think his own point regarding Jesus’ and the apostles’ harshness bears repeating, “Receiving the most censure are fellow members of the same religious community who occupy positions of … leadership and have created overly restrictive doctrinal boundaries and should know better” (p. 217). At a time when the Bible is no longer believed in much of the West, we do well to heed another bit of Blomberg’s advice, “The stumbling block of ‘Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2) must never be excised from the faith” (p. 216). At the same time, we evangelicals and our attitudes must not become a stumbling block that overshadows the cross. If we believe the Bible, we should submit to its authority “by following Jesus in discipleship” (p. 225).

    Elodie Emig, MA
    Instructor of NT Greek
    Denver Seminary
    April 2014