Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated
For example, I just had the privilege of hearing Richard Burridge’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Kings College, London. It was called ‘(Re-)tell me the Old, Old Story: Narrative and the Bible’, and it was outstanding: he lectured on the importance of story in biblical interpretation, but did it by telling his own story, mixed in with the story of Kings, mixed in with the story of the scriptures, and with a number of profound reflections on how to formulate biblical ethics to boot.
Like all good lectures, it was full of superb throw-aways. I’d never considered that the much-loved and beautiful style of the KJV was in danger of squashing the distinctives of the biblical authors, such that ‘the high Hebrew of the Psalms sounds the same as the appalling Greek of Mark’s gospel.’ I’d never noticed that our preference for speaking of ‘the Bible’ (singular), as opposed to Jesus’ for saying ‘the Scriptures’ (plural), might make it more tempting to think of a single book, complete with maps, and harder to think of a diverse library. Nor had I ever thought about the ways in which South African apartheid had been both justified and condemned using the same biblical passages (Acts 2:6-11) and stories (the Exodus and entrance into the Promised Land), or the implications this had for the way we describe the ethical task. And I loved his idea that the scriptures, rather than being a window into another world, or a mirror that reflected the reader, were better thought of as a stained-glass window: colourful, sweeping, transparent in places, reflective in places, misted in places, but primarily to be viewed for the story portrayed in it, not as a means to a different end. He even ended his inaugural lecture on an evangelistic note. It was a great way to spend an hour.
Then Andrew Lincoln stood up for a brief response to the lecture, and I sat in eager anticipation. He is, after all, one of the only people who has managed to produce a brilliant commentary (on Ephesians) despite the bizarrely counterintuitive format of the Word Biblical Commentary series, and having recommended it for years, I looked forward to hearing him. But he went on to say one thing in particular that I found both quite mystifying, and quite troubling.
He was talking about the historical reliability of the gospels, and argued that at the core of the gospels was a biographical account of Jesus that went back, through the early Jesus traditions, to the historical events themselves. (So far, so good.) He then went on to say that onto this core had been added ‘layers’ of material that were ‘embellished’ and ‘fictive’ and ‘invented’, but still in keeping with the character of the subject. (Uh-oh.) And then he explained, for those who were confused, that the gospels as a whole were still ‘true’, despite this. (Huh?) And I sat in my seat, somewhat deflated.
The four Gospels, Andrew Lincoln believes, contain layers that are embellished, fictive and invented, but they are still true. But what does that mean? Presumably it doesn’t mean ‘true’ in the sense meant by the Old Testament writers when they said things like, ‘every word of God proves true’, because he believes the historical core of the story has been ‘embellished.’ Nor, I assume, can it mean ‘true’ in the dictionary sense (‘being in accordance with the accurate state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact; not false’), because otherwise it would be very odd to call it fictive (‘fictitious; imaginary’) and invented (‘produced or created with the imagination; fabricated something fictitious or false’). So I am at a loss to understand what Andrew Lincoln means by ‘true’.
Take, for example, John’s account of the healing at the pool (John 5:1-9). Did that event actually occur as John describes it, or not? If it did, then it doesn’t make any sense to refer to it as fictive or invented. But if it didn’t, then it doesn’t make any sense to refer to John’s account as true, no matter how in keeping with the character of Jesus it might appear to be. So the only thing I can think of is that Andrew Lincoln has tried to satisfy both sides – layers of the Gospels are made up (to ease the nerves of the sceptics in the room), but the Gospels are true (to comfort the conservatives) – and got in a muddle as a result. Theologians do sometimes say things like, ‘He never actually said that, but it’s the sort of thing he might have said, so it’s true’, but they must know that when they do, they are using the word ‘true’ in a totally different way to everybody else. I don’t like assigning motives to people I don’t know, and whom I respect as biblical scholars, but I simply can’t see how else to understand his position.
Despite this, though, it’s a good time to be a British evangelical. In the hours after hearing Andrew Lincoln’s comments, I reflected a bit on the wider state of the British church and its attitude to the Bible, and it was actually very encouraging. Almost all of the UK’s largest, fastest growing and most influential churches are evangelical, as are our internationally acclaimed evangelistic resources (Alpha, Christianity Explored) and songwriters (you don’t need me to list them). Most of the major Christian holidays or festivals – Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, New Wine, Grapevine, Faith Camp, Newday, Keswick, New Word Alive; pretty much all except Greenbelt, in fact – are committed to the authority and accuracy of the scriptures, and that’s without mentioning smaller events which champion the scriptures more locally (like Eastbourne’s eponymous ‘Bible by the Beach’, at which I was recently privileged to speak alongside Rico Tice, John Lennox, Bishop Wallace Benn and Archbishop Greg Venables). In the universities, academics like Burridge, Richard Bauckham and N. T. Wright are at the height of their powers, and the top four theology faculties (Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews and Kings) all contain superb conservative scholars. And in popular debates, as I’ve commented before, evangelicalism has clearly shown some coherence, without the acrimonious fall-out that our American brothers and sisters have sometimes experienced. Reports of the death of British evangelicalism, it appears, have been greatly exaggerated.