There is a fundamentalist anxiety that I hold in great sympathy. My sympathy is driven by the fact that I lived for many years under the burden of that very anxiety. It is the hidden fear that possibly, despite all faith exercised in the opposite direction, the Bible may not, in fact, be true. A great deal of energy is spent in maintaining the integrity of the dike that withstands this anxiety.
I grew in the shadow of Bob Jones University, one of the most prominent bastions of American fundamentalism. The ideas of that university permeate not only the students who study there, but in many ways the surrounding culture of Christianity in the area. The fear is pointed towards Darwin and any possibility of his evolutionary theory. It drives biology students at the university to reach strange conclusions, regardless of the science. I was taught at age ten by a biology student from Bob Jones, in a Baptist summer camp, that blacks were simply biological inferior to whites based on false information that he shared with a group of young, impressionable kids. Perhaps his biology was not the product of his university classes. But it was as baseless as much of the science that was done there.
The same fear drives the concern for the Flood of Noah and the age of the planet (not to mention any possible hint of evolutionary science). Thus the earth must be young, the flood must be literal (with perhaps a still existing Ark on Mt. Ararat). Science has an answer that it must prove, rather than a question to be answered. The agenda of such fundamentalist science is set by the need to refute anything that possibly undermines a peculiar view of Scripture. One flaw and the entire house of cards comes tumbling down.
It makes for bad science and even worse Biblical interpretation.
I am no friend of liberal Biblical studies. I suffered under such oppression for a number of years and can say that fundamentalism also has a liberal form. I was punished (intellectually) for believing all of the articles of the Nicene Creed as much as a Darwinist would suffer at Bob Jones. But that is its own story.
The history of literalism is a checkered affair. Some of the early fathers leaned in a literalist direction for many parts of Scripture, though leaving room for other, more symbolic approaches, where appropriate. The great battles over the historical literalism of Scripture arose in the 18th and 18th centuries in Europe and America (battles over certain scientific matters versus literalism began even earlier).
Part of the tragedy in these battles was that the battlefield itself was a fairly newly-defined area and failed to take into account the full history of Biblical interpretation. For a young believer in the midst of America’s own intellectual religious wars in the late 20th century – my question was whether the choices presented were the only choices available.
I should preface my remaining remarks with the simple affirmation: I believe the Bible is true.
Having said that, I must add that the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man. The Scriptures bear witness to Him and are thus “true” as a true witness to the God/Man Jesus Christ.
As others have noted, the Scriptures are true as they are accepted and understood by the Church that received them. They are Scripture as recognized by the Church and cannot be removed from the Church only to turn them against the Church. They are unique writings, and must be read in a unique way. That way is found in the liturgies of the Church and the commentaries of the Fathers.
It is also true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth. Read any other way, the books are interesting, but they will not be read in a manner that has been received by the Orthodox Christian Church.
Of course, the historical method (whether literal or historical critical) represents only two possibly ways of reading the text of Scripture. There are assumptions behind both that are problematic from an Orthodox perspective. For many, the notion of “salvation history” has become so dominant that they cannot think about history in any manner other than that which they have been taught. I can think of a number of problems:
First – the traditional modern view (whether fundamentalist or otherwise) of history, is a matter of chronology. It sees a beginning at some point in the past and a progression to some point in the future. This same chain of events is generally viewed as reality, or the ground of reality, and championed above all other things. God acts in history, they will argue, but history is somehow the reality with which God has to deal.
This is highly problematic for an Orthodox theological understanding. Not only does Scripture treat history as quite relative (Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, He is also the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth”), it in fact makes history subject to the end of things – making history simply one aspect of lived eschatology.
Thus time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.
By the same token, Holy Scripture is a Divine account of reality, not itself explained by chronology nor subject to historical validation, but subject to the Truth as it is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus the New Testament is Scripture, though the writings of Josephus or Tacitus are mere history.
There is a nervousness that runs through the body fundamentalist when phrases such as “mere history” are uttered. It is a nervousness that is born of the attempts of liberal modernists to dismiss as “myth and fiction” what are seen as events essential to our salvation in Christ. No one who is a believer could treat such anxiety with anything but sympathy. In many ways, with the tools at hand, conservatives in Western Christianity have fought a valiant fight to defend the faith against a serious contender. But that fight does not justify every argument advanced by fundamentalism. Orthodoxy offers a different approach.
I recognize a nervousness that occurs among many conservatives if “truth” is approached in any manner other than literal. Liberals have played games with words for so many years that believers are rightly wary of word-games. On the other hand, for theological accuracy, it is necessary to speak of truth and its character in Christian revelation. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth. This is not to say that He is the Truth as compared to some external criterion of truth, but rather that He Himself is the criterion and definition of what is true. Things are true and false only as they are compared to Him. He may be compared to nothing else.
By that token, it is problematic to define “truth” by some particular standard of “historicity.” I understand the importance of saying, “This is really true,” and would never want to deny such a thing. The tomb on Pascha was empty, Christ is truly raised from the dead by every standard and then transcending every standard. His resurrection is the true ground of all reality.
Having said that, it must also be said that the Scriptures are true (as Scriptures) only inasmuch as they reveal Christ as the risen Lord and what that means for all creation. The witness of the Church is that these writings do precisely that and are thus Scripture. But it is the resurrection of Christ that undergirds the Scriptures and not vice versa. The disciples did not understand the Scriptures until they understood the risen Lord. And this remains the case.
Thus the import of Noah’s flood is to be found in Holy Baptism and not the other way around. Creation as shared in the first chapter of Genesis is an unfolding of the Paschal mystery and it is from that mystery that it derives its value. I could multiply such examples. When this principle is forgotten, Christians find themselves arguing over points of geology or archaeology and not over the triumphant resurrection of Christ. If Christ is risen from the dead, everything else becomes moot. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then all Christian statements become moot.
Christ is risen from the dead.
What can we say to these things? The Scriptures are true because Christ is risen from the dead and this is their message. The faith of the Orthodox is that all things find their beginning and their end – their meaning and their fulfillment in the Pascha of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the good news. What other good news could there be?