Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus J Borg


Here I provide a review of Marcus J. Borg's Reading The Bible Again For The Very First Time and then found below it is an excerpt from chapter one.

The Review

The first chapter of Borg's work lays down his framework. He distinguishes between natural and conscious literalism and points out that we need new lenses for viewing the Bible. "The older way of seeing and reading the Bible . . . has made the bible incredible and irrelevant for vast numbers of people." Borg highlights four factors contributing to why the older way of viewing the Bible has ceased to be persuasive: (1) religious pluralism, (2) historical and cultural relativity, (3) modernity, and finally (4) postmodernity.

After laying down the framework and pointing out the need for new lenses in the first chapter, in Borg's own words, the second chapter of his book seeks to "describe a way of seeing the relationship between the Bible and God." Borg focuses on four topics in the 2nd chapter: the Bible as (1) a human response to God, (2) as sacred scripture, (3) as a sacrament to the sacred, and (4) finally as the Word of God.

In chapter 3 Borg moves from ways of seeing the bible to "the more specific topic of reading the Bible." He develops a method which he calls a "historical-metaphorical approach." Borg sees the Bible as a combination of "history remembered" and "metaphorical narratives" (which includes "history metaphorized"). Borg also outlines and provides an example of viewing the Bible through the lenses of post-critical naivete in chapter 3. Post-critical naivete is being able to hear the stories as true even if one knows the primary elements of the story are not historical (to Borg 'metaphor is poetry plus, not science minus'). Borg cites the Infancy Narratives of Jesus as an example.

After laying down his framework and methods in the first three chapters, Borg goes on to apply his method to the biblical books in the next 7 chapters. He explores what it means to read the Bible as a combination of history and metaphor starting with reading the creation stories again and ending with reading Revelation again. In Borg's own words, we see "what it means to read the Bible as a true story (and as a collection of true stories) about the divine-human relationship." In the process we are provided with a mini-commentary on the Bible.

Fundamentalists and the more conservative Christians might not appreciate Borg's work because he does not accept the Bible as being directly from God and his notion of what constitutes a Christian is not concerned with the dynamics of believing or not believing. You will not see any "six-day creation" or "do you believe in the trinity" litmus tests from Borg. For Borg, to be a Christian "is not about believing in the Bible or about believing in Christianity. Rather, it is about a deepening relationship with the God to whom the Bible points, lived within the Christian tradition as a sacrament to the sacred." I suspect the reaction to Borg's work is different in the liberal camp and rightly so. Many liberals share his view that certain stories in the bible are not historical and Borg accurately notes in the first chapter that liberal Christians are often better at stating what they do not believe rather than what they do believe. Many who cannot accept the Bible as an infallible and inerrant divine revelation or as coming from God herself, have trouble defining the Bible and understanding its exact nature and relationship to the Christian life. This book helps alleviate a common difficulty by laying down a framework for viewing the Bible that respects it as a source of Christian authority even if it views it as only a human work. Borg helps provide a positive liberal framework for viewing the Bible and for that, I am indebted to him.

An Excerpt From Chapter 1

Chapter One
Reading Lenses: Seeing the Bible Again

The key word in the title of this book - Reading the Bible Again for the First Time - is "again". It points to my central claim. Over the past century an older reading of the Bible has ceased to be persuasive for millions of people, and thus one of the most imperative needs in our time is a way of reading the Bible anew.

Reading and seeing go together. On the one hand, what we read can affect how we see. On the other hand, and more important for my immediate purpose, how we see affects how we read. What we bring to our reading of a text or document affects how we read it. All of us, whether we use reading glasses or not, read through lenses.

As we enter the twenty-first century, we need a new set of lenses through which to read the Bible. The older set, ground and polished by modernity, no longer works for millions of people. These lenses need to be replaced. The older way of seeing and reading the Bible, which I will soon describe, has made the Bible incredible and irrelevant for vast numbers of people. This is so not only for the millions who have left he church in Europe and North America, but also for many Christians who continue to be active in the life of the church.

The need for new lenses thus exists within the church itself. The older lenses enabled Christians of earlier generations to experience the Bible as a lamp unto their feet, a source of illumination for following the Christian path. But for many Christians in our time, the older lenses have become opaque, turning the Bible into a stumbling block in the way.i Yet not all Christians agree about the need for new lenses. Many vigorously defend the older way of seeing the Bible. For them, what seems to be at stake is nothing less than the truth of the Bible and Christianity itself.

Conflicting Lenses

Conflict about how to see and read the Bible is the single greatest issued diving Christians in North America today. On one side of the divide are fundamentalist and many conservative-evangelical Christians. On the other side are moderate-to-liberal Christians, mostly in the mainline denominations.ii Separating the two groups are two very different ways of seeing three foundational questions about the Bible: questions about its origin, its authority, and its interpretation.

The first group, who sometimes call themselves "Bible-believing Christians," typically see the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. iii This conviction flows out of the way they see the Bible's origin: it comes from God, as no other book does. As a divine product, it is God's truth, and its divine origin is the basis of its authority. As a contemporary bumper sticker boldly puts it, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." The sticker may be unfair to many who hold this position, but it was created by an advocate, not by a critic.

For these Christians, the Bible is to be interpreted literally, unless the language of a particular passage is clearly metaphorical. From their point of view, allowing nonliteral interpretation opens the door to evading the Bible's authority and making it say what we want it to say. They typically see themselves as taking the Bible with utmost seriousness and often criticize moderate-to-liberal Christians for watering it down and avoiding its authority. They also commonly see themselves as affirming "the old-time religion" - that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach actually confines the Bible within a tight theological structure.iv

The second group of Christians, most of whom are found in the mainline churches, are less clear about how they do see the Bible than about how they do not. They are strongly convinced that many parts of the Bible cannot be taken literally, either as historically factual or as expressing the will of God. Some people who reach this conclusion leave the church, of course. But many continue within the church and are seeking a way of seeing the Bible that moves beyond biblical literalism and makes persuasive and compelling sense.v

Their numbers are growing; never before has there been so great an appetite for modern biblical scholarship among mainline Christians. They are responding strongly and positively to a more historical and metaphorical reading of the Bible. At the grass-roots level of mainline churches, a major de-literalization of the Bible is underway.

Though these Christians know with certainty that they cannot be biblical literalists, they are less clear about how they do see the origin and authority of the Bible. They are often uncertain what it means to say that the Bible is "the Word of God", or "inspired by God." Though they reject the grounding the Bible's authority in its infallibility, they are unsure what "biblical authority" might mean.

Thus it is not surprising that even within mainline denominations, there is conflict about how to see and read the Bible. At the national level, most of these denominations have vocal minority movements protesting what they perceive to be the loss of biblical authority. At some local level, some congregations are sharply divided about how to see the Bible. The conflict also divides families. In many conservative Christian families, one or more members have either dropped out of church or become part of a liberal church. The reverse is also true: many liberal Christian families have seen one or more of their members become conservative Christians. Some families have been able to negotiate this conflict with grace. But in many, it has become a source of division, grief and hand-wringing.

The conflict about the Bible is most publicly visible in discussions of three issues. First, in some Christian circles, "creation versus evolution" is the primary litmus test of loyalty to the Bible. The second issue is homosexuality: May practicing gays and lesbians be full members of the church? May the unions of gay and lesbian couples be blessed? May gays and lesbians be ordained? This debate is often cast in the form of accepting or rejecting biblical authority.

A third lightning rod for the conflict is contemporary historical Jesus scholarship. For the last decade, the quest for the historical Jesus has attracted widespread media attention and public interest, especially among mainline Christians. But it has generated a strongly negative reaction among fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical Christians. From their point of view, questioning the historical factuality of the gospels strikes at the very foundations of Christianity.

The Roots of Conflict

The border between fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical Christians is hard to draw. A fundamentalist has been defined as "an evangelical who is angry about something."vi But some conservative-evangelicals are not fundamentalists and have no interest in defending, for example the literal factuality of the Bible's story of creation or the complete historical accuracy of all the words attributed to Jesus. But what they share in common is an understanding of the authority of the Bible grounded in its origin: it is trued because it comes from God.

Fundamentalism itself - whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim - is modern. This is a reaction to modern culture.vii Christian fundamentalism as an identifiable religious movement originated early in the twentieth century in the United States, with its immediate roots in the second half of the nineteenth century.viii It stressed the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible in every respect, especially against Darwinism and what it called "the higher criticism" (by which it meant the scholarly study of the Bible as it had developed primarily in Germany in the nineteenth century.)

The roots of the evangelical understanding of the Bible are older, going back to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformation replaced the authority of the church and church tradition with the sole authority of scripture. John Calvin and Martin Luther, the two most important leaders of the Reformation, both had a strong sense of biblical authority. But it was in the second and third generation of the Reformation that claims for the infallible truth of the Bible were made. "Plenary inspiration" - the notion that the words of the Bible were dictated by God and are therefore free from error - was emphasized by those later Reformers.ix

The realization that these developments are relatively recent is important. The explicit description of the Bible as inerrant and infallible by fundamentalists and some conservative-evangelicals cannot claim to be the ancient and traditional voice of the church. Yet both fundamentalism and the notion of the Bible as "God's truth" (and thus without error) have their roots in an older, conventional way of seeing the Bible widely shared by most Christians for a long time.

An Older Way of Seeing the Bible

Ordinary people did not read the Bible until relatively recently. Until about five hundred years ago, the bible could be read only by the very few who knew Latin, Greek, or Hebrew and who had access to handwritten manuscripts, which were expensive to produce and therefore relatively scarce. Two developments changed this. In the middle of the 1400s, the printing press was invented. Less than a hundred years late, largely because of the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was translated from ancient "sacred" languages into contemporary languages.

The accessibility of the Bible to anybody who can read has been a mixed blessing. Positively, it has resulted in a democratization of Christianity. No longer are the riches of the Bible known only to an educated elite. But it has also had negative consequences. It has made possible individualistic interpretation of the Bible; and that, coupled with the elevated status given to the Bible by the Protestant Reformation, has led to the fragmentation of Christianity into a multitude of denominations and sectarian movements, each grounded in different interpretations of the Bible.

Moreover, prior to the invention of the printing press, virtually nobody has seen the books of the Bible bound together in a single volume. Rather, the Bible was most commonly experienced as a collection of separate manuscripts. Indeed, during antiquity and the middle Ages, the Bible was most often referred to in the plural as "scriptures" - that is, a collection of books. Once the Bible was routinely bound as a single volume, it became easier to think of it as a single book with a single author (namely, God).

Since then and until recently, the majority of Christians (especially Protestants) shared in common a set of lenses for seeing and reading the Bible. Indeed, this way of seeing was so widespread that most Christians were not even aware of the lenses.

This older way of seeing the Bible has been called "natural literalism." In a state of natural literalism, the Bible is read and accepted literally without effort. Because someone in this state has no reason to think differently, a literal reading of the Bible poses no problems.

Natural literalism is quite different from "conscious literalism," a modern form of literalism that has become aware of the problems posed by a literal reading of the Bible but insists upon it nevertheless.x Whereas natural literalis is effortless, conscious literalism is effortful. It requires "faith", understood as believing things hard to believe. But natural literalism does not insist upon literal interpretation. Rather, it takes it for granted, and it does not require "faith" to do so.

Fundamentalists and many evangelicals are conscious literalists. But their way of seeing the Bible stands in considerable continuity with the natural literalism of past centuries. Seeing the Bible through the lenses of natural literalism leads readers to the following conclusions about the Bible's origin, authority, and interpretation - conclusions that are similar to those of conscious literalism:

  1. Origin. The Bible is a divine product. Such is the natural or immediate meaning of how the Bible has been spoken about by Christians through the centuries. The Bible is the word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is sacred scripture. The Bible is thus not a human product, but it comes from God in a way no other book does.
  2. Authority. The Bible is therefore true and authoritative. The truth and authority of the Bible are grounded in its origin. As a divine product, it has a divine guarantee to be true and must be taken seriously as the ultimate authority about what to believe and how to live.
  3. Interpretation. The Bible is historically and factually true. In a state of natural literalism, it is taken for granted that what the Bible says happened really happened. The only exceptions are manifestly metaphorical language, such as "mountains clapping their hands with joy." Natural literalists can recognise and appreciate metaphor. But when the Bible seems to be reporting something that happened, it happened. Moreover, believing in the factuality of the Bible takes no effort; in a state of natural literalism, there is no reason to believe otherwise.

Though most readers of this book will not see the Bible this way, the perspective is nevertheless familiar. Its familiarity flows in part of the conventional status it held until recently within Christianity. Most of our ancestors two or three generations back were natural literalists. For those of us who are older, perhaps even our parents were.

Many of us grew up immersed in this tradition. So it was for me. As a child growing up in a Lutheran church in the middle of the previous century, I heard the Bible spoken of as "the Word of God." It was thus obvious that I should take it seriously.

In Sunday school, we were expected to memorize the Ten Commandments. They were important because they were in the Bible and were thus God's laws. We sang "Jesus loves me, this I know" - and how did we know? Because "the Bible tells me so."

In common with most Protestants, we Lutherans thought of the Bible as the sole authority for faith and morals. Though I did not know the Latin phrase then, sola scriptura - "scripture alone" - was one of the battle cries of the Protestant Reformation. To the same melody as the great hymn of the Reformation "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," we sang:

God's Word is our great heritage,
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavour.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay;
Lord grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure,
Throughout all generations.

My family and congregations were not fundamentalists. Rather we were natural literalists, though we favoured what we might call "soft literalism." We did not, for example, insist upon reading the Genesis stories of creation literally. It was fine to see the six days of creation as six geological epochs. We did not have to deny the existence of dinosaurs or the fossil record.

But as "soft literalists," we took it for granted that the most important events in the Bible happened pretty much as they are reported. That at the time of the exodus the sea really did part to allow the ancient Hebrews to pass through. That Jesus really was born of a virgin, really did walk on the water, really did multiply loaves and so forth. This is what I mean by "soft literalism": taking it for granted that the most central events reported in the Bible really happened.

This older way of seeing the Bible went with an older way of seeing Christianity. The reason for the connection is obvious: the Bible has been foundational for Christianity throughout the centuries. How one sees the Bible and how one sees Christianity go hand in hand.


1 The point is made in a remark I have heard attributed secondhand to Peter Gomes, author of a recent best-selling book on the Bible, The Good Book (New York: William Morrow, 1996). Because I am uncertain of Gomes's exact words, I do not use quotation marks, but the gist of the statement is thus: Has the Bible become a hindrance to the proclamation of the gospel?

2Mainline Protestant denominations include most of the older Protestant churches: the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the largest Lutheran body), the Christian Church (Disciples), American Baptists, Quakers, and some others. On the Bible, the Catholic Church has more in common with mainline Protestant churches than with fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical churches.

3For an important essay on variations within conservative attitudes toward the Bible, see Gabriel Fackre, "Evangelical Hermeneutics: Commonality and Diversity," Interpretation 43 (1989), pp. 117-29.

4 See L. William Countryman, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), pp. ix-x: "These Christians imagine that the nature of biblical authority is perfectly clear; they often speak of the Scripture as inerrant. In fact, however they have tacitly abandoned the authority of the Scripture in favor of a conservative Protestant theology shaped largely in the nineteenth century. This fundamentalist theology they buttress with strings of quotations to give it a biblical flavor, but it predetermines their reading of Scripture so thoroughly that one cannot speak of the Bible as having any independent voice in their churches." Countryman's book as a whole is strongly recommended.

5 I do not mean that the number of mainline Christians is increasing. As virtually everyone knows, membership in mainline churches has declined sharply over the last forty years. Among the reasons: when there was a cultural expectation that everybody would go to church, mainline denominations did very well, for they provided a safe and culturally respectable way of being Christian. Once the cultural expectation disappeared (as it did in the final third of the twentieth century), membership in those denominations declined. But among those in mainline churches, the appetite for modern biblical scholarship is remarkable.

6Attributed to Kerry Falwell by George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eardmans, 1991), p.1. Marsden himself expands the definition slightly: "[A]n American fundamentalist is an evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology in the churches or to changes in cultural values and mores." Marsden affirms that "fundamentalists are a subtype of evangelicals." For American fundamentalism and its relation to evangelicalism, see also Marsden's "Fundamentalism and American Culture" (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980). Both books strike me as particularly illuminating and fair.

7See the important new study of Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism (all understood as reactions to modern culture) by Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (New York: Knopf, 2000)

8 See the books by Marsden cited in note vi. The origin of a movement explicitly known as "Fundamentalism" is usually traced to the publication between 1910 and 1915 of twelve paperback volumes known as "The Fundamentals".

9 See the very helpful and interesting article on "Scriptural Authority" in The Anchor Bible Dicti0onary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday 1992), vol. 5, pp. 1017-56. The article is written by a number of authors.

On page 1034, Donald K. McKim notes that the second - and third - generation Reformers affirmed "plenary inspiration,: the notion that the Bible was directly inspired by God, "…in essence a 'dictation' theory of inspiration." Roughly a hundred years after Luther, the Lutheran Johann Quenstedt (1617-88) write that the books of the Bible "…in their original text are the infallible truth and are free from every error… [E]ach and everything presented to us in Scripture is absolutely true whether it pertains to doctrine, ethics, history, chronology, topography" and so forth.

On page 1035, Henning Graf Reventlow notes that this was a significant change from Luther: "[W]heras for Luther the Bible becomes the living word of God in being preached and heard, in the orthodox systems Scripture in its written form is identified with revelation."

10For natural literalism and the distinction between it and conscious literalism, see Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), chap. 3, esp. pp. 51-53


Copyright © 2001 Marcus J Borg