In his latest volume, Is Scripture Still Holy? Coming of Age with the New Testament, A.E. Harvey tackles the thorny problem of whether Christians can still believe the Bible is, in some sense, a “Holy” book in light of the modern scholarly consensus which declares it to be quite ordinary. Given the problem of the canon, the disagreements over the Apocrypha, the various textual versions in the Dean Sea Scrolls, the existence of Q, and the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, how can Christians still believe the Bible is special?
While the title of this volume implies that the author may still be presenting this as an open question, the first chapter makes it quite clear that the answer in this volume will be “no”—are at least “no” in regard to any historical, traditional sense in which Christians have regarded the Bible as God’s holy word. Here he offers a sustained critique of inspiration and concludes that the Bible is holy only in the sense that a divine experience of some sort was the occasion of its production.
This post is the first installment of a multi-part review of Harvey’s book. Throughout these posts, I will focus on the various arguments that he makes against the idea of inspiration and offer a response to each of them. Here I will focus on just one of them, namely Harvey’s argument that the true Revelation is Jesus, not the New Testament.
In a quasi-Barthian fashion, Harvey argues that it is not the New Testament itself that constitutes Revelation. Instead, “In Christian understanding, the revelation consists of the person of Jesus Christ.” He then proceeds to say that the New Testament writings “nowhere say, or even imply, ‘Thus, says the Lord’” (5).
This argument sounds pious on the surface—who wants to deny Jesus is the ultimate revelation?—but it runs into serious problems.
First, we have to ask about where Harvey is getting his definition of revelation, and his understanding of Jesus. How does he know revelation works the way he says it does? How does he know that Jesus is the true revelation? Notice that he claims that his argument is consistent with the “Christian understanding” of things. But, where does he look to get this Christian understanding?
Of course, this is where he reaches a bit of a dilemma. His entire book is designed to undermine the reliability of the New Testament as a faithful source of information about God, Jesus, and Christianity. After all, he claims the New Testament is subject to “the vagaries of human transmission and reception”—meaning that they are changed and manipulated by human interpreters over time.
If that is the case, then clearly the New Testament itself is not the source of Harvey’s understanding of Christian revelation (or Jesus). One might suppose he could appeal to the history of Christian teaching on these subjects. However, that will not fix the problem because (a) the historical Christian teaching on revelation and Scripture is not consistent with his own; (b) the historical Christian teaching on revelation is dependent on the very NT he rejects.
In the end, we must conclude that Harvey is just giving us his own personal opinion about the way revelation works (or ought to work). But, of course, there is no reason to think that his opinion is any more reasonable or compelling than the historical Christian position on the matter (not to mention the teaching of the NT itself!).
Second, Harvey claims that the NT does not even imply that it is divine revelation. But, this is an enormously misleading statement. Several things are true of the New Testament: (1) Jesus claims to speak the very words of God; (2) Jesus commissions the apostles to speak on his behalf, thus giving them the authority to speak the words of God; (3) Numerous books claim to be the writings of Jesus’ apostles.
Even if we adopt the critical consensus on the authorship of New Testament books (for the sake of argument), we are still left with very many books written by the apostle Paul. And the apostle Paul explicitly claims to be speaking for Jesus (Galatians 1), and even expressly states he is speaking the words of the Lord: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor 14:37-38).
Most noteworthy about this latter passage is that Paul directly addresses the precise nature of his writings and declares that they are a “command of the Lord.” Such a phrase is common throughout the Old Testament as a reference to either the commands that come directly from God himself or to the commands he has given to Moses. So confident is Paul of his authority to speak for the Lord that he declares that anyone who does not recognize the authority of his writings is himself “not recognized.”
Just this one verse (and there are others), demonstrates that Harvey’s claim that the NT does not understand itself as divine inspiration is patently false. He is free to reject the claims of the NT, but there is little doubt about what those claims are.
We shall continue to explore more of Harvey’s arguments against inspiration in further posts.