analysis & synthesis (Was Hyers' Dinosaur Religion ...)

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Sun Feb 22 2004 - 14:27:45 EST

Peter Ruest wrote:
> What struck me most about Hyers' approach were two things: (1) he assumed
> that Genesis 1 was written by a "priestly" writer during or after the
> Babylonian captivity of Judah in the 6th century BC, and (2) he assumed that
> a theological meaning (or even agenda) in Genesis 1 prevents it from having
> any historical-narrative basis, at the same time. Of course, this is the
> usual dogma of liberal theology with its destructive source criticism
> invented more than 200 years ago in Germany by "Enlightenment"
> "theologians"..................
        I want to comment here on just 1 aspect of Peter's post, the phrase "destructive
source criticism" - which he has used before. "Destructive" is a bad-sounding form of
another term which we often use in math & science, "analytic." It means literally
taking things apart.

        In the natural sciences an analytical procedure means taking things apart to see
how they work. Newton "took apart" white light with a prism - a procedure that Goethe,
e.g., objected to. He wanted a what today would be called a "wholistic" approach to
nature. But science hasn't gotten very far by trying to study the world as a whole. In
practice an analytical approach seems to be necessary for scientific advancement.

        But if that's all you do, the understanding you'll get will be incomplete. It's
what MacKay called the fallacy of "nothing buttery" to claim that a living thing is
"nothing but" a collection of the individual molecules into which it can be analyzed -
just as it's wrong (to use MacKay's example) to say that an advertised sign is "nothing
but" a collection of lightbulbs and wires and ignore the pattern of words and letters
that those elements form. After analyzing something to understand its components you
have to synthesize - i.e., put things back together (at least in imagination) and see
the thing as a whole. That's where "wholism" comes in, at least for the scientist - at
the end, not the beginning.

        Things are similar with the study of scripture. In order to understand it in
the deepest way you have to be willing to take it apart & study the individual
components, how they came to be where they are, how they fit with other components, &c.
This is what the whole practice of the historical critical method of studying the Bible
is about. & when you get a text chopped up into little pieces and are trying to figure
out who may have written each piece & when & why, it doesn't seem very spiritual or
edifying. It seems, in a word, just destructive.

        The negative effects of the historical-critical method are in large part the
result of just taking the Bible apart in that way _and not putting it back together
again_. It's like someone who has taken a watch apart to get a tray of wheels & screws
& springs & doesn't put it back together. You may understand how the watch worked (past
tense) but it's not a watch anymore.

        The error there isn't in the historical-critical approach itself but in stopping
short at that point. What's needed is now to put the individual pieces together,
recognize that the parts that may (N.B.) have come from sources labelled J & E & P &
others are now a single Book of Genesis, and that that book is part of the whole of the
Hebrew scriptures which is part of the Christian Bible. This is what "canonical
criticism" is about. It doesn't just ignore what has been learned from the historical
-critical approach (as "conservatives" tend to do) or stop short with it (as some
"liberals" do), but engages in the process of trying to understand the various parts of
scripture as a whole, as the canon of scripture.

        Why do we have to take it apart in the 1st place? With all the dangers of
apostasy connected with the critical study of scripture (some will say), isn't it safer
to take it as a whole & simply believe Genesis & all the rest the way our ancestors
centuries ago did? I appreciate the feeling: It would be be better for a person to be
a YEC who trusts in Jesus Christ as her/his savior than to have all sorts of detailed
information about the sources of Genesis & think the whole Bible is just a lot of tribal
legends which are of interest only to antiquaries.
        You don't have to take apart a watch if it's running OK. But if it stops, or
otherwise starts going wrong, you need to "analyze" it & that means destroying it for
the short term. If I may force the metaphor, the rise of historical consciousness in
the west and the developments of modern science seem to many people to have shown that
the Bible is out of synch with the way the world is. Even conservative Christians have
to admit that a lot of traditional interpretations of scriptures are out of synch with
reality. That being the case, it's necessary to do the dirty work of taking the Bible
apart to see how it ticks, & _then putting it back together_.

        My point there (since I suspect some will jump at what I said) is not that the
Bible isn't "running properly" but that the way Christians traditionally have thought it
"worked" - how texts were composed, what their function was, &c - has in some cases been
in error. & to fix that we have to get a better understanding of those matters.

        This isn't a job for the faint-hearted. The analytical study of the Bible can
be challenging to faith at some points, as anyone who has been through a serious
seminary curriculum knows. It is something that should be done with the support of
Christian believers, in the context of a worshipping Christian community. OTOH, any
so-called theological education that doesn't challenge students' faith probably isn't
worth much.

        & the analytical process cannot be doen once & for all, so that we can just go
back to a pre-critical stage & thing of the Bible the way people did in the 16th
century. Each generation of Christians has to go through the kind of process I've
described. But we can lessen the shock somewhat by not teaching young people things
they should eventually unlearn - that early Genesis should be read as history "wie es
eigentlich gewesen ist" &c.
        Finally, I realize that some people engage in the analytical process in a way
that we refer to as "picking apart" the Bible - d.h., finding fault with it & trying to
destroy the authority of scripture. But the fact that someone may take a watch apart &
then throws away the pieces doesn't invalidate the whole practice of watch repair.
(Again I'm forcing the metaphor & am not saying the Bible needs to be "repaired.")


George L. Murphy
Received on Sun Feb 22 14:31:28 2004

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