Review of New Interpreter’s Study Bible (and a critique of postliberal theology)

One of my hobbies in college (when I was still a baptist and the most important crisis of the day was making sure the moderates didn’t gain control of the seminaries) was  surveying various study bibles (often those of liberal persuasion) and examining their ideological presuppositions.  The classic example was the Oxford Study Bible (Revised Standard Version).  I looked at evangelical study bibles, too, but the liberal ones were always more revealing.

Back in the day the reigning paradigm of unbelief was the old-school bowel movement of German higher-criticism reflected in American universities.  They reasoned that the supernatural of the Bible was obviously false because 19th century Protestant scholarship had clearly shown it to be so (note the Hegelian presupposition here:  we in our moment of history have reached the apex of intellectual history and [only] we get to be the arbiter of what is true or false).  Thus, if you looked at the study notes of any particular passage, you would see some learned professor explaining it away on naturalistic grounds.   (Whole dissertations have since been written on William Barclay’s unbelieving presuppositions that made his scholarship possible).  The study bible soon became boring.  One could almost anticipate the next note of unbelief.

Liberalism, though, soon underwent a strange mutation at Yale University.  Some liberals suddenly realized that they were as myopic as the fundamentalists they had attacked.   The fundamentalist has a blind faith in the truth of the text.   Oddly enough, the liberal realized that he had a blind faith in the falsity of the text.   Other liberals realized that both fundamentalists and liberals approached the text in the same way—it was simply a document to be analyzed and whose meaning was ALWAYS determined outside the liturgical life of the Church.   What was to be done?

Liberals soon proclaimed themselves “post-liberals.”   They realized (quite correctly) that narrative was a fundamental component, not only of Scripture, but also of reality in general.     Emphasis soon went to the narrative of Scripture in its received canonical form,[i] and not to the various (and often admittedly unknowable) strata of oral Hebrew traditions.  And with the use of narrative as a philosophical tool, post-liberals (who still remained leftist and “progressive” in their social morality[ii]) realized a fatal weakness in their forebears:  if Scripture is really fake after all, and the supernatural doesn’t happen, how can we call upon a God to take away the wealth of social structures of the middle class conservative American voter?  Only a God who really acted in history could confiscate and redistribtute wealth!

Okay, on to the actual contents of this study bible itself.  Like any study bible, the notes are often “hit or miss,” and this isn’t a fault of the editors themselves.  There are different writers for each book who have various levels of intelligence and competency.  Therefore, it is hard to make generalizations about the study bible.   On the other hand, with a few exceptions, a number of observations are possible:

  • The authors of this study bible are committed to the thesis that the Jewish editorial readers at The New York Times must be appeased at all costs.  Anytime there is a reference in the New Testament to the sins of the Jewish people (e.g., Christ calls them children of the devil; St Paul says wrath will come on them to the uttermost, etc), the editors explain it away with the line that anti-semitism must be condemned at all costs (except when perpetrated against Arab Christians).
    Further, when speaking of the glorious prophecies for the Christian church the author is quick (see notes on Jeremiah 33ff) to point out this doesn’t apply to Christians but to Jews today.   This is an example of letting post-Holocaust guilt determine exegesis.  In other words, for the authors desire to reject modernism, they embrace fully its tenets.
  • The authors generally have a negative image of “the male.”  Like all feminists they see in every passage an example of masculine social structures being destroyed.  While it is true many passages do reverse the social orders, not every passage does and to keep maintaining it is reading conclusions into the text.
    It gets worse, though.   The authors of both Luke and Acts see (correctly) that the Christian image of the Trinity is masculine and assumes a certain social order on earth (later thinkers were to draw the conclusion that the monarchia of the Father assumes a political monarchy as the ideal on earth).  This is an example where post-liberals are far more honest readers of Scripture than American evangelicals.    The liberal realizes the monarchical and hierarchical[iii] implications of the ancient doctrine of the Trinity, and thus rejects it.   She doesn’t reject the Trinity, per se, but reworks it around postmodern and feminist categories.  She will answer to God for that, but at least she perceives the implications of the text far more clearly than evangelicals.

Conclusion

There are a few let downs with this bible (aside from the unbelieving problems listed above).  The first is the joke of a translation that is the New Revised Standard.  While it captures English grammatical mores nicely, even the most jaded feminist (forgive the redundancy) has to admit that the text reads in a wooden and blocky fashion.  The King James Version created the modern English language, of that there is no argument.  Even later revisions to the King James implicitly kept much of the syntax and wording of familiar and beloved passages.   The NRSV utterly destroys this.[iv]

I didn’t expect all the notes to be equally good, and I don’t begrudge the editors that decision.  In many ways, though, the thought and format of this study bible is far inferior to the bibles that had Bruce Metzger as the editor.  Metzger always had interesting (if wrong) articles on the nature of Biblical scholarship, the canon, and the formation of the Biblical text.    This study bible has no articles on the canon (which remains a gaping hole), but it does have a decent article on the formation of the text.    Of course, there is the mandatory article on the superiority of feminist criticism.  (What the feminist doesn’t realize is that given her emphasis on “suspicion” and “critique,” I, too, can employ the same suspicion and critique on her article and on that basis render it false.  Deconstructionism devours itself).


[i] The problem of how liberals and evangelicals justified the canon on scriptural basis alone was never answered but simply assumed and removed to another place.  This remains a fatal weakness in both post-liberal and evangelical scholarship today.

[ii] This might not be true, though.   Many of the doyens of liberal scholarship, while rejecting evangelical social ethics, were not comfortable with nihilistic ethics, either.   They may not have joined the John Birch Society, but neither did they want the existing social order threatened too much).

[iii] Not that the Trinity is a hierarchy, for that is neo-Platonism, but that in its masculine language and in the other Scriptural commands about male headship, a hierarchy on earth is assumed as normative.

[iv] Though Evangelicals probably do not see this given their indifference or hostility to liturgy, the NRSV, in altering the wording of the most beloved passages, contains within it an attack on the nature of public liturgy.  Liturgy, especially the public reading and recitation of the Scriptures, is a formative event.   It forms the soul and shapes the memory through the repetition of familiar passages.   When the NRSV changes these passages, it changes the event of liturgy itself.   (This is probably connected to why mainstream churches who use the NRSV also want to change the liturgy to more feminine constructs).

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2 comments on “Review of New Interpreter’s Study Bible (and a critique of postliberal theology)

  1. vjhogan says:

    On the NRSV’s liturgical use — I can’t speak for every jurisdiction/diocese, but I know the larger Orthodox clusters (OCA, AAONA) have wholesale banned its use despite the fact that, until fairly recently it was one of two English translations that wasn’t explicitly put out for liturgical use in which one could find the whole Orthodox canon.

    • vjhogan says:

      I didn’t mean to leave out the Greeks, who are the biggest Orthodox group in America…I don’t know about their liturgical policy, but they’re also the ones of the big three who are most apt to not be using English.

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