Thinking in Public Interview with Michael Legaspi, Author, The Death of Scripture and The Rise of Biblical Studies
Thinking in Public
October 18, 2012
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Michael Legaspi teaches at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Previously he taught as an associate professor of theology at Creighton University in Nebraska. He’s the author of the book, The Death of Scripture and the The Rise of Biblical Studies, an intriguing title published by Oxford University Press.
Professor Legaspi, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Legaspi: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be a part of the program.
Mohler: Well I’m looking forward to a conversation about your book and, I have to tell you, I think you win for the one of the very best lines in any academic book I’ve read. Here’s the line: “Scripture died a quiet death in Western Christendom sometime in the 16th century.” I have to tell you there are an awful lot of Christians who might think of that in precisely the opposite terms. What did you mean when you wrote these precise words, “Scripture died a quiet death in Western Christendom sometime in the sixteenth century”?
Legaspi: Well I guess I should say I’ve been advised by some people that when you write a book you should try to start bold. So I took that advice and thought I would formulate my argument in a provocative and catchy way as I could. By starting the book that, what I intended to show that was that a momentous shift had taken place in the 16th century, that the Bible occupied a position in Western culture. Prior to that time that really began to change fundamentally with the reformation, so when I say that Scripture died, what I’m trying signal is that a mode of understanding the Bible, scripturally, is one that was compromised basically by the disunity of the Christian church in Europe in the 16th century.
Mohler: I think about any informed person thinking about the historical development of early modernity to the aftermath of the Reformation and, much less, the rise of the Enlightenment and what we would call modern and even now late-modern thought recognizes that the place of Scripture, in terms of our society and culture, has been fundamentally changed, but when I read your book—and I read that first sentence—I didn’t at first understand what you meant, and I think the crucial word here is the word Scripture because you’re saying something different than to say that the Bible died a quiet death in Western Christendom in the 16th century, you’re saying that Scripture did. And you’re using Scripture there in a very precise means, a very precise way.
Legaspi: No; that’s very astute. I use the word Scripture here to invoke a way of interacting with the Bible that is traditional, in which Christians have been operating really for hundreds of years, for a millennia. That is to say, when I refer to the Bible as Scripture, I’m talking about it in its role as an authoritative guide for life. That is, it is to say the Christian life which exists in the church and in communion with other Christians. And so when I say that Scripture died a death I’m saying that something about that mode of understanding the Bible was lost when the Christian church was split asunder during the 16th century in the time of the Reformation. And so the Bible continues very much to be alive in Western culture after the Reformation, obviously, but because of the contested nature of the religious environment in Europe, I think new ways of understanding the Bible and trying to relate to it were developed and, you might say, had to be developed. And so part of the story of the book is trying to understand how people from across the theological, religious, and political spectrum dealt with this change in the status of the Bible in Western culture, but I sort of take for granted that with the sort of onset of early modernity it ceased to be a kind of unproblematic authority in Western culture the way that it once was.
Mohler: Well you might point out that in terms of your book it could be summarized as the trajectory of the Bible from Scripture to what you call the academic Bible. And, again, I think most of us who are aware of modern biblical scholarship and are aware of the transformation of academic life, the rise of the university, especially the modern research university, and we can immediately understand that something happened there, you’re onto something, when you shift from Scripture to the academic Bible. But you also say this, “For over a millennium Western Christians read and revered the Christian Bible as Scripture, as an authoritative anthology of unified authoritative writings belonging to the church.” So by the very implication of that sentence, after that millennium, and you date this precisely to the 16th century, the Bible was no longer so much Scripture that authorized an authoritative anthology of unified writings belonging to the church, it became something else. It became an academic Bible that belonged to the university.
Legaspi: That’s right. As I’ve talked about the book with a variety of people, one of the misperceptions about what I’m saying is that sort of a group of people sort of rose up in a hostile way to kind of undue the authority of the Bible, and really what I’m trying to say is that the academic Bible or the cultural Bible which we see sort of formulated in the late 17th and 18th centuries is a kind of sequel to an historical moment in which, because of the disunity of the church, the Bible ceased to exist unproblematically in the scriptural way. So I think that’s really the story of the book. It’s a fairly simple trajectory saying—so you European Christians are kind of looking at one another after centuries of religious division following the reformation and saying sort of, “What next?” And I think there was very little appetite to return to confessional modes of reading that people had associated with religious warfare and with division, and there was a desire basically to do something different with the Bible, and I think this is where the story of the academic Bible or the cultural Bible really begins.
Mohler: You know, I think your book is tour de force in terms of intellectual history and I think you really set the stage for that with two very different contexts that you describe very early in your book and you compare. One is the context of Christians in worship holding the Bible as Scripture and the other is in a seminar room where modern academics, sitting around the table in a far more dispassionate and distant understanding of the text, argue concerning the same book. It’s the same book, but it’s not the same book you really imply.
Legaspi: That’s exactly right. I think part of the work really has to do with my own experience as a believing Christian who belongs to a church that reveres the Bible as Scripture and for whom the Bible is the Word of God experienced liturgically, but, at the same time, I sort of had this dual membership in the academy as a student of the Bible. And I guess what became clear to me is that not only were there sort of different assumptions about what the Bible was doing, but there were different virtues that were cultivated in those different contexts with respect to what it meant to hear and understand the Bible in a responsible way. And I think for a period of time, you know, I had sort of labored under the idea that the two really had a kind of mutual benefit from one another and sort of what I undertook to do in writing this book was to discover how the two might be related. I think in the end I ended up with a more dichotomist characterization of the relationship between the two largely because I see the academic Bible really as oriented as a kind of civic project, oriented towards the state, and I see the scriptural Bible really as one that is oriented in a more fundamental way toward our identity as Christians in the kingdom of God. It’s a kind of perennial tension between the two: the life of Christians in the world as members of political community, obviously, but also, at the same time, as members of God’s kingdom or members of the church. And so I think the history in some way reflects a more perennial fundamental tension that’s been there in the history of the church.
Mohler: Well I often think, as I read a book like yours, that what we understand from the present is so continuous or at least referential to the past, but that past is often something that even the people who think themselves rather well-informed about such matters really don’t see. I mean, for instance, I would characterize most efforts, in terms of modern theology, as rescue attempts of one sort or another of Christianity from something that moderns believe is no longer tenable. And so, for instance, Protestant liberalism emerging in the 19th century in the European context was largely an effort to save Christianity as a meaningful cultural force after the supernatural was no longer a natural part of the intellectual furniture. And it seems to me what you’re arguing is that there were many, especially in the same cultural and intellectual context, who said the Bible is no longer to be understood as Scripture. It’s no longer an authoritative set of writings that we understand to be divinely inspirited; however, the Bible’s still important and its importance now has to be translated into a cultural importance. And, of all things, along comes, if I’m understand the story right, the rise of the modern university and the custodians of the university then as those who led to this transformation of the Bible from scripture to text.
Legaspi: No; I think that’s exactly right and I think the characterization of this effort as a rescue project is really quite apt. As I say in the book, I think that by the time you get to the 18th century and you’re talking about sort of a lead intellectual culture in Europe, you’re talking about an environment in which traditional faith in the Bible eroded to a great degree in having to do with a lot of things that we associate with the Enlightenment. Consider the rise of the new science; we have English deism and rationalism; and we have sort of moral attacks on the Bible as a book that is fundamentally immoral. You name it, the prestige of the Bible had really sunk to an all-time low by the time you get to the 18th century. And so the question is: well what do we do with it now? And I think, unlike the French—many figures associated with the French Enlightenment—who would rather have just sort of gotten rid of the Bible entirely, I think the insight, the genius if you will, of these German academics at these new universities was not just to get rid of the Bible, but to try and transform its significance. But they had already sort of progressed too far in this modernizing project to return to the Bible in its old confessional forms, so what they did was to create a way of thinking and talking about the Bible, in terms of its cultural value, which I think that process had really been insumated or began in other parts of Europe as well. But what I think made the German contribution so unique was the idea that this approach to the Bible as a kind of cultural artifact could be made a program or an enterprise at the university
Mohler: Or the state.
Legaspi: And the state—and that’s the important thing about German universities at the time is that they’re very much instruments of the state. I think unlike the older university tradition—when you think of the University of Paris in the late middle ages or places like Oxford or Cambridge—you’re talking about universities with a much more churchly character, so there is a kind of relationship there between what’s going on at the university and the life of the church. But in Germany these are really status enterprises and so when these German scholars undertake the study of the cultural Bible in an academic milieu they’re trying to make the case to their employers that what they’re doing has relevance to the flourishing of the state. So they married this impulse to sort of allow the Bible to continue on in its cultural afterlife with a pedagogical program designed to produce enlightened people who can serve in the modern state and that I think is basically the recipe for the modern biblical studies as we know it.
Mohler: Well you might say that what was going on here is that the Germans, especially those even in the German monarchy and the German elites who created the universities who wanted to do so in order to create a modern unified Germany and a common German culture, and they really didn’t think that could be done without the Christian Bible at the center of that culture, as a central point of reference, but it was no longer the Scripture and, as a matter of fact, speaking of the rise of modern scholarship, you write, “modern scholars inherited a moribund Bible, which after the Reformation had ceased to function as Catholic Scripture in a divided Europe in place of confessional modes of reading, which only seemed to perpetuate war, obscurantism, and senseless religious division. It created a new program for retaining the cultural authority of the Bible and yet, of course, as you say, it’s no longer Scripture. But you use another interesting linguistic term that I think would surprise many modern people who think they are cogitating in an informed way about the Scripture. And, for instance, you refer to the fact that the Bible became a text—from Scripture to text—and, of course, it is a text. It always was a text, but in the sense you mean this it became what we might call merely a text, a text in a very academic sense.
Legaspi: That’s right. I do mean that term in a more narrow or, you might even say, technical way. As you point out the Bible had always been a text, but it had always been a text in a king of deeper, richer, and fuller ecclesial environment. It had been a text that functioned in the life of the church. It had been a text that functioned liturgically. It had been a text that was understood in a much fuller context, and I think what you start to see after the Reformation is an interest really more in the objectivity of the Bible as a thing. That is to say, you have a deep interest in its physical properties. You have deep interest in the state of the text as a document. And so you have new strategies basically that developed in this period. Growing out of the Renaissance humanist movement, which was itself concerned with texts as well, but you have this applied to the Bible in a new way so that the Bible becomes an object and, not only that, but a sort of textually disordered object that has to be revitalized or repaired through scholarship. And so I think once you remove the Bible from its ecclesial context, from its sort of wider theological residence, and you look at it as a thing, as a disordered text, then scholarship becomes an operation by which that text is repaired and rendered fit for use. I try to use the term text there to indicate that the Bible, when it becomes a text, is a little bit like a person whose sort of put onto the operating table, at that point the person is inert and vulnerable to the procedures the doctors want to perform on him.
Mohler: Yeah; I think that’s a very appropriate metaphor and that’s exactly what I think is taking place. And sometimes people who are engaging the same words on the same page are not engaging those words in the same mode, in the same intellectual context. And you talk about those two different rooms—one a room where Christians are gathered in worship and the other where scholars are gathered around an academic table—and the fact is they hold the same book, but it’s not the same, in terms of how they approach that book. And I think you have documented for us one of the key transitional moments in movements in which that particular shift took place.
The shift of the Bible from Scripture to an academic text is no small thing and the understanding of what took place in that shift is necessary in order for us to understand not only what’s going on, in terms of the modern research university and its intellectual project, but also what’s going on when many Christians look to the book that’s in their hands and remain very unsure of exactly what this is. Even as on the one hand they may refer to it as the inerrant and infallible, inspired Word of God; on the other hand, to look at it as a text, but, as CS Lewis once remarked, the one who tries to read the Bible merely as literature has never actually read the Bible. We certainly do not deny that the Bible is a text, but, in the academic sense, it’s certainly not merely a text.
I’m talking with Professor Michael Legaspi about his book, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, published by Oxford University Press in its series, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Professor Legaspi, we’ve been talking about two different ways of looking at the Bible. We’ve talked about the shift from Scripture to an academic text, or what you call the academic Bible, but as much as we’ve documented some of the key intellectual concepts and the key shifts, I think what you also do very well in your book is to tell a story. History’s best understood in terms of a narrative, so why don’t you lay out for us the narrative of this development that you set out in your book.
Legaspi: So I begin basically with a tragic division of the Christian church in Europe during the time of the Reformation and while I think many of the theological arguments on both sides are certainly credible and a lot of the Reformers are certainly involved in important reform movements and the church is responding in appropriate ways as well. And I think there’s a lot of good, a lot of things that we associate with Reformation that we regard now as important, but I think, overall, I guess I see the Reformation as in one sense tragic, in the sense that the church was fractured, its unity was fractured, and the church itself was divided. And so this gives rise to a difficult period, I think, in the history of Western theology in which the Bible becomes a contested thing among various groups—Catholic, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed, Anabaptists, and a whole variety of groups that developed in this time—and, unfortunately, I think this is not a positive development to the Bible as the Bible comes to be a sort of contested thing. It’s authority in the wider culture I think starts to wane, and by the time you get to the Enlightenment, I think you get criticisms not only about the credibility of the church and its ability to continue to function as a source of unity in European culture, but you also have criticisms of the Bible as an old, irrational, and outdated thing. And so the story picks up then again in the context of the German Enlightenment when enterprising academics charged by German governments with creating universities that will prepare citizens for leadership in the new German modern nation-state, they turned to the Bible and they rehabilitate the Bible by making it a cultural Bible that allows it to place the Bible at the center of new efforts to kind of transform the older Christian religious inheritance of the West and to make it something that works, with a new form of life oriented toward the state, the modern-liberal political order, and the prestige of science. And it’s in that process that the Bible is appropriated by academics and becomes what I call the academic Bible, and I think that legacy is still with us in that our modern universities, colleges, and many of our seminaries are still in engaged in teaching the Bible and talking about the Bible in the mode that was created in the time of the Enlightenment some 200 years ago.
Mohler: I am sure you are right in terms of that latter part of your argument in terms of the result of these shifts. I’m looking forward to pushing the conversation a little bit in terms of the earlier part of the narrative, but before we do that I want to go back and ask you, you really focus not only on the German university as a new development and upon the larger German and European intellectual context here, you really focus on one academic, and upon one university, and I think that is the way the story is best told, and you do it very well. You are really looking at one, Seminole figure in becoming a catalyst. Indeed, you kind of argue the most important catalyst for this shift, and it took place at one university, which is also illustrative of the bigger picture.
Legaspi: That’s right. The university that is the University of Gottingen in the territory of Hannover, which was created in the 1730s at the initiative of King George, II. What is going on in Germany at the time is that a lot of these, unlike France and England, Germany is a kind of patch work of territories, and very often these territorial rulers were creating universities to rival one another, to out trip one another, to compete with one another. And so with a period of university reform and university founding in German history, this particular university was founded in the 1730s to become the kind of model modern university, and the scholar with whom the book is concerned is a man called Johann David Michaelis who was a professor of oriental languages at the university, and he was an enterprising figure, and he was someone who had himself trained in biblical languages at the University of Halle, which is the pietist university. Nicholas was who was concerned, basically, about the future of the study of the Bible, and I think what he did then was to sort of formalize a way of studying the Bible that would allow it to fit in with what was going on at these new universities. So he took, for example, the study of Hebrew language. He made it more formal, he made it more scientific, and he sort of gave Biblical studies a scientific cast. In talking about the Bible, he used a kind of historical criticism of the Bible’s laws and legal materials to show that the Bible fit in with classical history, or he used the work of some English scholars, for example to show that the prophetic books were best read as poetry. So in these ways he made the Bible the source of a kind of classic, poetic literature. So in these ways, he created ways of studying the Bible that allowed it to seem more like a classic, cultural text than what we think of as the Bible, the possession of the church. And, in formulating a method of study, orienting the Bible in this way, he was able to convince the people that the university that the Bible had a future in the curriculum, the Bible had a future in modern Germany as a kind of indication of the great human past. And he was highly successful in this, and he trained a number of important scholars in the German context, and this model was reproduced at other places and became within the 19th century, which was kind of the golden era of the German University, with respect for Biblical studies, this program took off.
Mohler: There is always danger in responding to something like that with the phrase, “In other words,” but I am going to try it here. Let’s just say, in other words, German Monarch reigning as a British king, established a German university, in order to establish an academic pattern to Biblical studies, that then influenced the English speaking world as well.
Legaspi: Nicely done. I think that is exactly what happened. We tend more to speak of German influence upon everyone else only because German scholarship in the 19th century was so important. But in this case, it actually began on the other side of the Atlantic with an English monarch whose creating the university, which then has an effect not only on England but the rest of Europe as well.
Mohler: Yeah, especially since what we are looking at here is Germany becoming the very center of this kind of, this particular trajectory of enlightenment thought, and as you well know having done your doctoral work at Harvard University, even now the German methodology in terms of Biblical scholarship, the German tradition of Biblical criticism is still the dominate academic tradition. Even right down to the German words that are integral to the discipline, so that is a trajectory that is not just something in terms of the 16th century and thereafter, but very much a part of where we are today, which is where I want to push you just a little bit. You want to go back to the 16th century in your book, and you argue that this is basically the result of the schism and Christendom division that was the result of the reformation, and by the way, I would have to say as an evangelical and a champion of reformation theology that I think the reformers would also have understood the reformation to have been tragic, but they would have understood that tragedy in different terms. So they would have seen it as necessary, although necessarily tragic you may say, in that. And I want to push back just a little bit because it seems to me that just as it is not particularly accurate to speak of the reformation as something that just emerged in the 16th century after all there were intellectual developments and as Heiko Oberman points out, there were forerunners to the reformation. It appears to me that what we call “Christendom” was already beginning to be fractured before you had anything like the magisterial reformation. You already had within what was supposedly a unified Catholicism. The break-up of the intellectual culture, and of course one of the things we have to acknowledge here is that the political culture is very important as well because of the union of throne and alter. When you begin to have the kinds of political shifts that took place in the early, modern age, in one sense I just want to press you a little bit to go back to the 16th century. Was it really the reformation that did this, or was it the larger intellectual project of early modernity?
Legaspi: That is a great question, and I guess I just have to start by acknowledging that there were, indeed forerunners to the reformation in which a lot of the same arguments, the same discussions about Biblical interpretation were sort of previewed. So, historically at one level, it is a mistake to say that this is all 16th century, as you point out. There are important late, medieval antecedents to the kinds of reforms and discussions that really exploded in the 16th century. So I guess I would say, at one level, basic, historical level, the kind of shift that I am talking about with respect to textualization, it takes off in the 16th century. What I mean by this are the works of scholarship devoted to the Bible as text, the great polyglot Bible project, which are wonderful examples of this new understanding of the Bible as texts, and development of these tools to kind of deal with the Bible in a contented environment all accelerate after the 16th century. Just a kind of basic, imperial level, I would say that the 16th century is important. As to the point about the influence of early, modern philosophy on these developments, clearly they are there to be acknowledged. When you only think of people like Spinoza or Hobbs, you see just how people outside the church were in their own ways, encouraging these kinds of developments. I do think that, if I can put it this way, I think the ball was in the court of the Christians. I personally see the reformation as a failure of truth at many levels, but also as a failure of love as well, and I think that the kind of early modern developments that we see coming along in such an important way in the 17th century, I think really the way is prepared for them by the failure of Christians to keep the thing together at the time of the reformation. So in that sense, I wonder very much whether things would have happened the way they did if the separation in the 17th century hadn’t been as dramatic and final as we know now it was.
Mohler: Indeed, and of course you can also go from the 16th century to our current 21st century and recognize that even as those divisions are continuing and very real, at the same time over against the larger, secular project, they have to be put into an entirely new context, which is exactly where I want to lead in terms of my questions because when I read your book, quite frankly, I was stimulated to new ways of thinking about the Bible and this transition to the modern age in virtually every chapter, but then I arrived at the end of the book, and I wondered, I wonder what he would say about drawing a line from where your book ends to where your life is now situated. After all, you know the scripture and the Bible both as scripture as a confessional sense, and you did a PhD in Old Testament literature at Harvard University. So, you have been in both places, you know both worlds. How would you connect Gunjan and Michaelis and then to your own experience?
Legaspi: Well, that is a difficult question, and it is always hard to talk about oneself. I guess I will say that I went to Harvard ultimately because as a Christian and as someone who came to Biblical studies as a Christian, I always had the lingering question when doing the academic study of the Bible, you know, what does this have to do with the church? Is anything we discover going to change our beliefs, say, in the divinity of Christ or the doctrine of the trinity? Obviously, no. So, I always wondered, “What am I doing here?” And I went to Harvard because I really thought that would be an ideal place to explore this, and I think what I saw at Harvard and what I have seen in my other travels, if you will, is the way in which Biblical scholarship functions socially, politically, and culturally. And I guess what I have gained in those contexts is an understanding of that. So what I have now, as someone who is a Christian, is a sense now of what it means for the Bible to function politically and culturally. And also what it means to function religiously, but then my own book has basically freed me to think in new ways about how a social, cultural rational for the study of the Bible at the university or an academic context might be reconceived. So, I am still a teacher, I am still involved in academics, and I do think there is a future for an academic study of the Bible. I don’t think anything necessarily on the confessional side needs to depend on it the way a lot of scholars do. They insist that what scholars come up with in talking about the historical context of the Bible needs to shape and determine the theology of the church. I don’t think that way, in contrast to what some others in the protestant and catholic world. Anyway, I don’t think that what happens on the academic side needs to shape or determine necessarily what happens on the churchly side, but I do think just as Christians who are engaged in the world and living in the world that an academic study of the Bible can still serve an important role. I don’t think it serves the old role, or I don’t want it to serve the old role of insulating or domesticating the Bible the way that it did in the old enlightenment order, or simply just sort of fertilizing a modern culture with its own decomposed contents the way I think it did, but I am interested in thinking with other people about how a new academic study of the Bible might be conceived to fit the situation in which we find ourselves today.
Mohler: And that situation would have to include something that marks our intellectual context in dramatic contrast to the period you are covering in your book, and that is the scripture does not play the central part in our culture, and certainly within academic life, you know for instance, most of the people at Harvard doing doctoral degrees would have very little knowledge, perhaps less about what you were doing than almost any other discipline on that campus because of the displacement of scripture in terms of modern academic life.
Legaspi: I couldn’t agree more that our context is completely different. The cultural capital of the Bible really can no longer be assumed. I think the worry back then was that if you didn’t have critical scholarship, you would have fundamentalism, you would have fanaticism, and so there was a kind of effort to reign in belief in the Bible, but I think in our own context, Biblical literacy is low. I don’t think the Bible functions in the same way anymore. I was talking with a Catholic moral theologian who made a really nice analogy. She said that there used to be a time in Catholic moral theology when theologians cultivated a decent from the church, which was necessary to help people think about their own moral lives. But she thinks the questions now in Catholic moral theology for people, is “Why belong to a tradition at all?” And I think the question analogously that I would pose is, “Why should we be involved with the Bible at all?” And I think academics need to rethink that question.
Mohler: I have to ask you one last question, just for my own interest. You teach at Philip’s Academy in Handover, Massachusetts. You teach a rather select group of very intelligent teenagers. What do you say to them about the Bible? What do you teach in that context concerning the scriptures? A long way from the University of Gottingen, but to me a question of real interest. What do you do there?
Legaspi: It’s great. I have wonderful students. As you say, they are very bright, very motivated. A lot of them don’t know very much about the Bible. So, my task is basically to help them understand what has made the Bible such a vital force in people’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual lives? So rather than work on contextualizing the Bible historically, I mean, to be honest, I do a little bit of that, but I want them to walk out of my classroom at the end of the term feeling like, “I know why this has changed people’s lives. I know why this has been regarded as a dangerous book. I know why it has remade whole cultures.” Not that they know those questions fully, but I want them to have a sense of the existential challenge that the Bible plays. So, I am not trying to tone down the Bible, which is kind of the standard move in critical scholarship, I’m rather trying to tone up their sense of what is at stake in reading the Bible. And so we try to stay within the Biblical narrative, and I make it as dramatic as I can, and I make the existential challenge the Bible presents to us as moral beings, as spiritual beings, as intellectual beings, also as dramatic as I can. I think that is the best thing I can do for them in the limited time I have with them.
Mohler: Well, the very fact that you were able to say that in just that way tells me that your students are sitting in a very privileged context with you as teacher. Professor Michael Legaspi, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Legaspi: Thank you so much, Dr. Mohler. It was a pleasure.
Mohler: It has been said that human beings are collectors of stories and our lives make sense in terms of the accuracy and the meaningfulness of the stories that we collect. One of the stories any Christian needs to have in his or her collection is the story of what happened to the Bible in the very era that Michael Legaspi has documented so well here. The narrative he has just told us is one that explains how you get from the one picture he told to the next. From the Christians gathered in a room, understanding the Bible as the word of God in worship and the scholars sitting around the table looking at the Bible as an academic text. Understanding that story is essential to understanding the great challenges of our own time.
In the story that Michael Legaspi tells so well in his book, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, he makes clear that in the future that was envisioned by the German intellectuals that he covered, he says that “it is the academic Bible and not the scriptural one that shapes the culture.” I think looking back now from the perspective of several centuries after the period covered in Legaspi’s book, the reality is that the scripture really doesn’t seem to have that much hold on our culture. Not the same way that it certainly had a hold upon the culture of Germany and even of the German universities in the 16th centuries. We are looking at a very different intellectual culture, and yet the issues remain. What is this book? How do we think of it? That is where evangelical Christians reading a book like this need to come to a very clear understanding that there are limited alternatives in terms of our understanding of this book. And when we come down to it, we really are left with the fact that it either is the inspired word of God, or it is something else. It is an artifact of ancient religious literature. Now when you look at it that way, you understand there are different ways you can try to construe that choice. You can try to build moderating or mediating positions. You can try to argue for a continued authority of a text that is now robbed of its divine inspiration, and thus its divine authority, but at the end of the day, what the culture does with the Bible is of interest to us. It is of crucial interest to us, but it is what the church does with the Bible that is most important. The Bible is indeed the church’s book in the sense that we understand that it is God’s word. It is not just a record of God’s word. It doesn’t merely contain God’s word. It is God’s word in written form. And by that very designation, it is scripture and it can never be less than scripture. It can never be other than the word of God in written form, which is indeed a text. It is words on paper. We understand that. It is literature and is found in a literary mode. But it is not merely a text. It is not merely literature, and it is not merely a book. It is indeed a divine word. It is indeed, the word of God. It is scripture. And that is one of the crucial insights you get from a book like this. How is it that you can look at one book, it is for sale in chain bookstores, it is found in the drawers of hotel rooms, it is found just about everywhere you look in this culture, but for most people, it is not scripture. It might be a text. It might even be a book. It might be literature, but it is not scripture. And thus, even though we use the word scripture, sometimes in a more generalized sense, Legaspi’s use of the word does remind us that when you look at this book, you are going to make a fundamental choice. What is this book? The changed intellectual climate between the period of time, especially in the 16th century in this aftermath that Professor Legaspi looks at, you begin to look at this and you step back and say, “we are in a period that is so remarkably different that the academics that are now shaping the university culture, by and large feel no accountability to the very things that were the central project of people like Johann David Michaelis. This is a different world. We are living in a vastly, secularized, academic culture. And when you look at that, you recognize that our missiology has changed in terms of our challenge, our apologetic challenge has changed, and yet, we are not in the best position to address those contemporary challenges if we do not know the story of how we have arrived at this point. That is where a book like Professor Legaspi’s book, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies is so very important.
Evangelicals reading this book are likely to go back to the beginning of his account and press some questions there as I did in conversation with him about how his reading of the reformation and its aftermath, if you just read the book before listening to this conversation, you would think that Professor Legaspi just points back to the reformation as the great tragic event that set the stage for the displacement of scripture in the culture. And if you are looking at it in terms of the long span of western civilization and culture, there is some sense to what he is meaning there, of course. You do understand that in the vast shifts that took place in the early modern age, at the beginning of it you have the union of throne and alter, the union of scripture and church and culture, and on the other side you have a very different picture. And of course it is very different also in terms of being different in different places. It is very different in terms of the French enlightenment and the German enlightenment and comparing that to the English speaking enlightenment, distinguishes even between the English enlightenment and the Scottish enlightenment. And the differences that implied even different ways of understanding the book we know as the Holy Bible, as the scripture.
But what about the reformation? When he said, “It is a failure of truth and a failure of love.” Here is something that evangelical Christians who prize the reformation as such a necessary and providential corrective and recovery of the gospel need to keep in mind, it was a tragedy. It was tragic. In breaking apart the church, in breaking apart unity, in dividing the church so that it had multiple voices, no longer speaking with a common voice, where the faith once for all delivered to the saints was claimed to be one thing here and another thing there. That is a tragedy, but is so often the case in a fallen world, there are some tragedies that are tragic necessities, and as a confessional protestant, I want to point back to the reformation of the 16th century and say, It was a tragedy, but it was a necessary tragedy. It would have been more tragic, had the gospel not been articulated and recovered, had it not been defended and proclaimed the way it was in the 16th century. But there is loss. There is the kind of loss that happens whenever a correction has to take place. It is the kind of loss that takes place, even in the context of unnecessary surgery to save a life, a massive surgery, the kind of surgery that requires the breaking open of a body and requires a long period of healing on the other side. You understand that it is necessary, but no one would sign up for it voluntarily. The reformers, we need to remind ourselves, did not at first seek to break from the church. They sought to reform the church. That is where the reformation gains its name. And no one understood the tragedy of the failure of that reformation better than the magisterial reformers, such as Martin Luther himself. And yet, he was apologetic because the greater tragedy would have been had the reformation never happened.
As not only a confessing protestant and as an evangelical, but as a Southern Baptist having lived through what has been called the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, I saw the very same thing. Unnecessary corrective, unapologetically, necessary, correction. The one that also came with a tremendous cost. A cost of the rupture of relationships, a cost of the loss of unity of a people, and at the cost in some sectors of confusion over what it was all about. In other words, to use Professor Legaspi’s words, “a failure of truth and love, unnecessary tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.” On the other hand, like in the reformation, a tragedy that gave birth to where we know our home, and where we understand our responsibility to contend for the faith once for all, delivered to the saints, and a tragedy that as we are reminded by the entire story that Professor Legaspi has told us, that will only be rectified eschatological. In other words we understand the past in order not only to understand the present, but to understand our yearning for the future.
Many thanks to my guest, Michael Legaspi, for joining with me today. Before signing off, I want to remind you about the first annual Expositors Summit, an important conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary next week that is October 30-31. The theme of this year’s conference is, “Preaching in a Post-Everything World.” Please join me along with John MacArthur and Alistair Begg and others for this conference on this campus of Southern Seminary. For more information, visit sbts.edu. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.