Coping with the Shock of Biblical Studies

For many Christian students, the first exposure to academic biblical studies comes as a shock. Our faith was formed and nurtured with a simple view of the Bible. It seemed clear and we could trust it. We want to dig deeper, so we enroll in a course at seminary or university. But instead of just digging deeper, it feels like the Bible we knew is being taken away from us. God feels farther away, not closer. We may feel spiritual vertigo, as if we can’t tell any more which way is up. We don’t know what to trust. It may even feel Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplashlike we’re losing our faith. We might be taught, for example, that the disciple Matthew probably didn’t write the Gospel that carries his name. It was written by an unknown Jewish-Christian scribe. He used Mark as a framework and wove in stories and sayings that he found in oral tradition, as well as in smaller written sources like Q. Now when we turn to the Sermon on the Mount it doesn’t feel like we’re reading Jesus’ teaching. It feels like we’re reading the ideas of some faceless scribe. How do I even know who Jesus is if I have to second-guess everything this fake “Matthew” wrote?

Finding an Intellectual Solution

It’s often important to grapple with that shock on an intellectual level. Often new ideas like this don’t mean that the Bible is untrustworthy. It’s just that the *reason* for its trustworthiness is different than we thought. Before, we thought Matthew was trustworthy because we assumed it was a first-hand eyewitness report. But in fact it’s trustworthy because the scribe

  1. had access to second-hand eyewitness memory,
  2. was concerned to preserve it accurately,
  3. gives an account that fits with the eyewitness tradition we find in other Gospels,
  4. was recognized widely in the churches as reliable at a time when people still knew who had written it, and
  5. was canonized early on as a faithful reflection of the Apostolic circle’s understanding of Jesus.

So Matthew has a strong claim to reliability, both on historical and on theological grounds. We just have to adjust to the idea that it’s reliable for a slightly different reason than we thought before.

One thing that makes this intellectual work challenging is that we don’t always get help from textbook writers or our professors. Some of these people aren’t Christians, so they’re just not interested in helping us to reconcile our faith with what they’re teaching. Other writers and teachers may be Christians, but they’re trying to speak to a broad mixed audience. In both cases we’re not likely to get help with figuring out a new way to trust Matthew. In fact, we might be reading or learning from someone who has an axe to grind and deliberately plays up how “shocking” the new information is, how it “undermines” traditional Christianity. The tone of voice these people use often makes the new information seem far more damaging than it has to be. Despite their knowing looks, there are still good reasons to trust Matthew and the rest of the Bible. But we may have to spend some extra time and energy finding someone (another author or another teacher) who can help us to find that new basis for trust. If your professor is a Christian, and she hasn’t yet helped you to find your way through, don’t be shy. She has obviously found a way to continue in faith. So take advantage of her experience and ask for help to find that way yourself.

Learning How to Trust Scripture Again

Now, when we do find renewed reasons to trust the Bible, we’re likely not going to trust it in quite the same way that we did before. If Matthew isn’t all first-hand eyewitness memory, then we will have to allow for the possibility that some things have changed a bit in the re-telling. We can actually see that happening when we compare the same stories and sayings in Matthew and Mark. So when we read “Blessed are the poor in spirit” we won’t be able to trust that Jesus said exactly these words. We will have to wonder whether he originally said just “Blessed are the poor,” like in Luke’s version. So the point isn’t necessarily that we will find a way to defend our old understanding of the Bible. The point is that we will come through to a new understanding in which we can still trust these ancient books as God’s reliable Word to us.

That new understanding, and the ongoing questions that go with it, won’t necessarily make us feel better right away. It will often make us anxious for a while. That is natural, although it’s not comfortable. If I come to a foot bridge, thinking it’s solid, I’m going to be terrified at first if it bounces a bit when I step out on it. (I’m not a big fan of heights!) Even after I realize that it’s a cable suspension bridge, it will take a few minutes for my emotions to catch up to my new understanding. But if I keep walking, by the time I’m half-way across that bridge my pulse will probably be back down close to normal. This is what we’re going through with Matthew. We asked some questions and got answers we didn’t expect. The bridge bounced a bit. And it’s natural to be afraid that the bridge is going to give way completely, that we’ll find we can’t really trust Matthew at all. But if we keep reading and studying we’re going to find that the bridge really does support us. Every step still bounces a bit. We’ll still always have questions about how much in Matthew’s account is “redaction,” etc. But we’ll learn by experience that those questionsPhoto by Verena Yunita Yapi on Unsplash don’t change the big picture: Jesus said something that *meant* this, Jesus healed people and drove out demons, Jesus gathered twelve disciples, taught them how to live, died on a Roman cross, and rose from his tomb. The questions we now have to live with don’t have to mean we’re less confident about these big-picture aspects of Matthew’s witness. Before long we’ll find that the bounce in the bridge doesn’t bother us anymore. Our emotions have caught up to our new understanding, and we feel once more that Matthew can support the weight of our trust.

Now, some of us may have started out with such an absolute certainty about Matthew that we’re not used to living with any questions at all. That is going to make this season of adjustment painful, but it also probably makes the process that much more important. Why? In part because it’s just realistic. The world we live in doesn’t really offer that kind of mathematical certainty. Most of the important decisions in our lives, most of our commitments, involve an element of risk. There’s always a chance we could be wrong, but we decide to make the commitment anyway. In fact, that’s what faith always involves: a decision to trust Jesus even though the available evidence doesn’t absolutely guarantee we’re making the right decision. So learning to live with less certainty about scripture can for some of us be a healthy part of deepening our faith. We learn to trust its depiction of Christ, to live as if it is true, even though intellectually speaking we can’t be absolutely certain about it.

Meeting God in the Struggle

The one the we must not do in this season of adjustment is to stop praying. It’s vital to keep talking with God, even if all you can manage some days is to vent to Him about the confusion you’re feeling. Ask God how to deal with the new information that has you feeling off-balance. Why? Because that’s how we walk out onto the bridge. What most builds our renewed trust in Scripture is the experience over time that our relationship with Jesus can continue intact. When we experience the Jesus of the Gospels in prayer and in daily life, this strengthens our confidence that the bridge is holding. It strengthens our confidence that, whatever historical uncertainties there might be at an intellectualPhoto by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash level, we know that the Jesus Matthew portrays is real. And as part of your prayer, continue to meditate on Scripture. Practice setting aside the historical questions as much as you can, and asking the Holy Spirit “What do you want to say to me through this text today?” What you’ll find is that even when you’re not sure how much of a passage is “Matthean redaction” you can learn again to hear God’s voice speaking to you through the text. Prayer and meditation may be pretty difficult for a while. But we have to just do it anyway, put one foot in front of the other, in the faith that God will bring us through.

In the meantime, the experience of reading the Bible can be frustrating and even frightening. The book that was so familiar, such a source of comfort, suddenly seems alien and treacherous. Reading it can make us feel farther away from God, not closer. But that sense of God’s distance, if it’s not permanent, can be a healthy thing. It’s like the “dark night of the soul” described by so many Christian spiritual writers. Why would it be positive? It’s easy for us to feel close to God, comfortable with God, because we think we understand Him. God becomes predictable, a manageable part of our lives, a reliable resource to draw on when we’re struggling. But sometimes there’s an element of idolatry here. We come to think that God has been tamed by our doctrine and our worship. So it can be important for us to be reminded again that God is far beyond our ability to grasp. There are aspects of God that will always infinitely strange to us because they are so far beyond us. And sometimes it’s not enough to acknowledge God’s otherness intellectually. We have to experience it. Insofar as Scripture is God’s Word, it too is beyond our ability to control or domesticate. This season of struggle, when we feel alienated from the Bible, can actually be a rich season of growth. Because in this season we are confronted by the uncontrollable reality of God. In the process our trust comes to rest more in the God who is, and less in the idolatrous God of our own understanding.

Nurturing Hope

Finally, it is important to nurture hope. What you’re going through isn’t unique. It won’t last forever. God will answer your prayers and provide what you need. If you don’t let go of Jesus, you will find in the end what so many others have found: that on the other side of the soul’s dark night is a dawning trust and confidence in God that is deeper and richer than before. I can’t tell you how long that will take. I also can’t promise that you’ll never come back this way again. My own experience has taken me through several seasons of spiritual vertigo. But the God who has held on to me through them all will hold on to you.

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