In the introduction to “What is the Bible?” Bell clearly indicates he is a fan of good exegesis and scholarship. “So I went to seminary, and I studied Greek and Hebrew (the two languages the Bible was originally written in), and I studied history and hermeneutics and exegesis and form and textual criticism— all so I could give better sermons” (p. 1). This is all commendable and good, as far as it goes. No evangelical should be afraid of good scholarship, but we should not engage in scholarship uncautiously. After all, the Pharisees were experts in the law, and Paul himself says he was a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5), but then goes on to say he counted it all rubbish for the sake of Jesus (v. 8).
But the question at hand is one of foundational commitment. Scholarliness per se is neither good nor bad. I’ve seen all sorts of scholarly precision used to justify atrocious behavior. (See my review Kershnar’s book Pedophilia and Adult-Child Sex, in which he argues, with all sorts of scholarly precision, that there is no empirical evidence that adult-child sex is wrong.) But this does not make scholarly precision bad. The Apostle Paul, after all, drew an enormous theological conclusion in Gal. 3:16 based on the fact that the word in Gen. 13:15 and 17:8 for “offspring” was singular instead of plural. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”
He goes further to say that we need to keep in mind the political, cultural, and linguistic context of the Bible. “They [a group of learned friends of one of Bell’s congregants] would point out insightful political commentary or subversive poetry or discrepancies in the text that were actually on purpose because the writer was doing something really clever just below the surface” (p. 2). He goes further and says, “Which is why I’ve written this book: I want to help you read the Bible in a better way because lots of people don’t know how to read it. And so they either ignore it, or they read it badly and cause all kinds of harm” (p. 3). Take note of what Bell himself says Christians should not do with Scripture. He says that we should not ignore it because we run the risk of doing harm to others if we do so.
Further, “Some people see the Bible as an outdated book of primitive, barbaric fairy tales that we have moved beyond. And so they ignore it, missing all of the progressive and enlightened ideas that first entered human history through the writers of the Bible” (p. 3). Also, “And then there are the folks who talk about how important and central and inspired the Bible is but then butcher it with their stilted literalism and stifling interpretations, assuming that it says one thing and if you just get that one thing, then you’ve read it well” (p. 4).
Bell says before the first chapter that Christians should interpret the Bible in a way that keeps in mind cultural and linguistic context, we cannot ignore it, and we cannot engage in literalistic and stifled hermeneutics. This is all well and good, but we will see later that it is empty rhetoric.
Bell ends the introduction with a few thoughts about interpreting the Bible. First, he says, “the Bible is a book about what it means to be human. And we are all, before anything else, human.” Now, this is one of those ideas that we can’t really disagree with, depending on what he means by it. By “human” does he mean “made in the image of God”? Would this, in Bell’s view, mean that the Bible is about God’s gracious redemption of our race through the sacrifice of His Son? If that’s what he means, then great. But he goes on to say that the book he is writing is not an attempt to “try to sign you up and convert you at the end.” This is truly bizarre. Is he not trying to convince anyone he’s right? Why write the book?
His second thought is even more problematic. “Second, you don’t have to believe in God to read the Bible.” Strictly speaking that is correct. But to understand it correctly requires the work of the Spirit. Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Paul actually makes clear that what he is referring to is verbal revelation: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words” (v. 12, 13).
This brings us back around to the initial concern we had about what Bell is going to teach. What is his foundational commitment? He may accept many things the Bible, but does he accept everything, as he himself claims we should? Will he accept what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, abortion, the doctrine of Scripture, the means of salvation, the reliability of the original text, and miracles? Does he accept what the Bible teaches about itself? He says he accepts all of it. We’ll see if he holds to that commitment.