Heart of Christianity 3 – Bible

Unlike his take on faith, I found Borg’s treatment of the Bible surprisingly weak. He starts out by saying that Christianity is centered on the Bible because it points to God, but that the Bible has become a stumbling block for many because of biblical literalism. Literalism, according to Borg, puts an undue emphasis on 1. infallibility, 2. historical factuality, and 3. moral and doctrinal absolutes.

By contrast, his emerging paradigm is 1. historical, 2. metaphorical, and 3. sacramental in its treatment of the Bible. Let’s unpack that a bit:

Historical: The Bible, Borg says, is a human product, created by two historical communities (Israel and the early Christian communities). It tells us how these communities saw their life with God, but, as such, it is historically and culturally conditioned. The Bible should be interpreted in its historical context–as texts written from and to particular communities.

Metaphorical: Borg defines metaphor as the non-literal but “more-than-literal” meaning of a text. In his account, the more-than-literal is what matters most. For example, the Genesis creation story is primarily about God’s relation to us and the world, not whether the world was created in six 24-hour periods. Likewise, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as reported in the gospel (the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, the wise men, the shepherds, etc.) have rich symbolic meaning that doesn’t depend on their historical factuality.

Sacramental: The Bible is a “means of grace” whereby God becomes present to us. In personal or public devotional reading of scripture (e.g., lectio divina) we can hear the Spirit speaking to us through the words of the text.

For the emerging paradigm, Borg says, the Bible is fundamentally a “way of seeing” God and our life with God (metaphor) and a means or way that God speaks to us and comes to us (sacrament).

I agree with Borg that much of the Bible can–and should–be understood metaphorically and that flat-footed literalism often misses the point. Borg’s key claim is that the stories have this meaning independent of their historic factuality, and, despite the importance of historical context, focusing on the question of “what really happened” detracts from their meaning. While true as far as it goes, I think this is an over-simplification.

After all, the Bible is a different kind of literature from Shakespeare or Moby-Dick, or even the Bhagavad-Gita. Its spiritual or religious meaning depends, at least to some extent, on historical factuality. To take the most obvious example, Christian faith would collapse–or at least be radically different–if it turned out that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived or that he lived a life very different in character from the one depicted in the gospels (leaving aside how we could ever learn that this was the case).

Historical truth does matter–even if we agree that there is a lot of mythical embroidery on the basic facts. The meaning of Jesus–the more-than-literal meaning if you like–would be a lot different with a different set of historical facts. This is because the Christian claim is that the divine life was actually lived out among us. I’m not sure Borg would deny this, given the work he’s done on the “historical Jesus” question, but he gives little indication–in this chapter at least–that the history matters much at all. (Which, as Jonathan pointed out, makes you wonder why getting the historical context right is so important.)

Borg seems at times to want to replace a one-dimensional “literalist” interpretation with a one-dimensional “metaphorical” one. But I think he’s asking the concept of metaphor to do too much work here. (In fact, at times I think he’s using “metaphorical” to include every non-historical type of meaning, from “moral” to “theological” and “metaphysical.” This confuses more than it clarifies.). The Bible is more complex than a simple dichotomy between “literal” and “metaphorical” captures, and I think other approaches do more justice to that complexity.

3 thoughts on “Heart of Christianity 3 – Bible

  1. There is no authoritative way to distinguish what is metaphor and what not.

    If God is bodiless then it is a metaphor (and not literally true) that he walked in the garden, and probably few would contest that, even among so-called literalists.

    But if talk of creation in 6 days is metaphoric does that mean talk of creation at all is just a metaphor for “God’s relation with to us and to the world”?

    And what, in that case, would that be?

  2. Pingback: Faith and factuality revisited « A Thinking Reed

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