Balancing Faith in the Word with a Scholarly Understanding of the Bible


Sometimes, people grow up in conservative churches where the Bible is often read in a very literal or fundamentalist way. Such persons might go on to study at a college or university where they are exposed to a more scholarly, historical-critical way of reading the Bible. This usually feels more informed and honest than the fundamentalist approach to the Bible — but often it seems that something can be lost when we transition from reading the Bible literally to reading it in a more scholarly way.

This issue seems to be at the heart of an email I received recently (reproduced here by permission of the author).

Pulling together my previous religious teachings and also my history/philosophy teachings, I think I’m torn between two seemingly opposing views on the Bible, and I’m wondering if you have come across any resources that you could point me toward for additional study. On the one hand, I believe the Bible is the divine word of God, a way that God reveals himself to us to understand his nature and keep this history of our faith. By the same token, I believe men had a primary role in shaping the text as we know it today. I know that humans (particularly those in or seeking political power) played a big hand in selection of the final books of the Bible. I also believe the Bible has been selectively wielded as a tool for power (religious and political). I’m exploring within myself where faith comes into this line of thinking, but I would really appreciate if you have any guidance on additional readings that could help deepen my thoughts on this topic.

I think this is a really important question.

It certainly points to something that I have struggled with, and I suspect others may have as well. For me, it was a “head versus heart” challenge: my heart yearned for the kind of devotional intimacy with God that I first encountered through prayer and worship at very traditional churches and prayer meetings I attended while in High School. Meanwhile, my head just couldn’t be satisfied with an approach to the Bible that did not take into consideration the historical, political and critical issues that I first discovered in college. But the problem I ran into: while I found a scholarly approach to scripture scholarship to be intellectually honest, paradoxically it also left my faith feeling, well, un-nourished.

My journey took a lot of twists and turns over the years, but for me the resolution of this head-versus-heart problem came only when I joined a church community where there was plenty of room for both a devotional and a scholarly approach to scripture. For me, this meant a Jesuit parish — where the priests and the lay leadership are committed to the kind of contemplative depth exemplified by St. Ignatius and the Ignatian tradition of spirituality, but there’s also a recognition that scholarship and intellectual inquiry are an important part of any authentic religious formation.

In other words, the only solution to the head versus heart paradox is to find a community of faith where both head and heart can be nurtured.

I think being part of a community of faith is so helpful because different people naturally will emphasize different aspects of their faith, so in a communal setting it’s more possible to appreciate some of these “paradoxes” of faith. Some people may emphasize reading the Bible devotionally, while others are more interested in the critical approach. No one person is “right” or “wrong” here, God can meet us in different ways. But taken as a whole, I find it reassuring to be in a worshipping community where both of these approaches to scripture are accepted and honored.

A Few Books to Help Point the Way

I realize I write this from a privileged position: I have access to a church with a Jesuit presence, in the shadow of a major university with a Dominican Catholic Center (Emory). Very few people have these kinds of religious resources at their disposal. For many people, your local church (whether Catholic or Protestant) is likely going to be either devotionally-oriented or scholarly-oriented, but may not have the kind of culture where both of these approaches to faith and spirituality can be held in a creative tension.

If that’s your situation, I would say — responding to the original question I was asked — that at least one can turn to some written resources that can point toward a spirituality that is both devotionally heartfelt and scholarly rigorous. Here are a few books that do try to address this paradox/tension from a faithful perspective. (I’ve linked them to Amazon, in case you want to get copies).

Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg.
Borg, who passed away a few years ago, was a Lutheran scholar who wrote a number of books about finding faith in an intellectually honest way. I think the subtitle of this book sums up his approach: we actually do the Biblical text a disservice when we limit ourselves to just a literalistic reading of the text. Borg escorts us throughout both the Old and New Testaments to offer insights into how we can read the scripture with both integrity and faith.

How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Is God Violent? An Exploration from Genesis to Revelation by John Dominic Crossan.
Crossan is a Catholic Biblical scholar and, like Borg, is well -respected both as a scholar and as someone who can write for the general public. This book looks at a central issue that many struggle with: how do we make sense of the sometimes contradictory images of God (and Christ) in scripture, where on the one hand we find a message of love and forgivenesss, but on the other hand an aggressive and even hostile image of God? Crossan sorts it all out and offers a thoughtful way to approach the text in all its complexity.

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Richard Rohr.
Rohr, who should be familiar to most readers of this blog, is a Franciscan priest and a very popular spiritual teacher, well worth getting to know. What many people may not realize is that he got his start with an audiotape series helping people to make sense of scripture. This book, his guide to reading the Bible, builds on his earlier work. Unlike Crossan and Borg, Rohr approaches the topic from a spiritual rather than academic perspective, but he is clearly informed by historical-critical scholarship. I’d recommend reading Things Hidden alongside the other two books for a more balanced perspective.

Featured photo by Aaron Burden.


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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman



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