PAGE 2 of our interview with theologian Ephraim Radner…
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2016
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ERB: What led you to undertake this project?
ER: The project is more of an intellectual project—trying to sort some things out. But in terms of being drawn into this as something that needs to be sorted out, it came from being caught up against the thinness of our way of looking at the world and experiencing it, which is confirmed in our modern ways of reading the Bible simply as a historical document. In terms of theodicy and how to understand suffering, the thin, historical vision of the Bible has little to tell us. Reading the Bible as a simple historical detailing of events either makes the world look meaningless—because all it is is one thing happening after another, which is unpleasant—or it renders our existence without any means of finding the context for why it is the way it is in God’s purpose.
That was experiential. The other thing was being exposed to this more complex, deeper figural universe that the Bible as God’s offered, infinitely complex and rich Word represents. I got that in part in Africa, where I went to work as a young ordained person, with Christians who in some sense had been raised in a different context in which the complexities of God’s omnipotence were more experienced. So they read the Bible in a very traditional way—as I said, it’s not something new, they were reading it in a very old way. I realized that the modern, mainline church’s way of reading the Bible that I grew up with as a young adult and trained in had no openness to this.
ERB: I want to make sure that we completely spell out what you mean when you say that the Bible in its modern way of being read doesn’t have much to say about theodicy and suffering. Do you mean that the Bible doesn’t anywhere say explicitly, “Here’s why you’re suffering and here’s what it means about the nature of God”? Whereas if you’re able to find yourself in the figures and become part of the biblical world in an ongoing sense, then that is helpful in contexts of suffering?
ER: It is. If you don’t think the Bible is about you, then everything it has to say is about somebody else. So what are you left with? This has been the development of liberal theology. You’re left with trying to pick up themes from the Bible: God is just, God is good, God is liberating, God is compassionate. These become your message, the message of the Bible. But of course, trying to apply that to your own life doesn’t explain much. Those are not theodicies; everybody’s recognized that. Those cannot make sense of the reality of your life. In a sense, by wiping out the history of the Bible as being braced by God’s own being in a way that’s relevant to you, all you’re left with is you and your little experience of God, as you have conceived of him.
By entering into the Bible as the place where the whole of your life is found, you are encountering everything that is in your life. Everything that you have lived is already there, and you are finding your place within it. And of course, that doesn’t just mean finding your place momentarily, but therefore seeing that your life is bound up with a gigantically embracing set of realities and stories and people.
ERB: Your book really challenges the main question that many people are tormented by when it comes to the Bible, which is “But did it really happen?” This is the issue of historicity. Your book challenges that question and reframes it.
ER: That is probably one of the most pressing questions that many modern readers of the Bible have. I suppose the provocative thing that I’m arguing in the book is that if we accept—as I think we should, given who God is as our omnipotent creator, the one by whom, for whom, through whom, and because of whom all things exist, and so the condition of our being and the ordering of our being—if we accept that, then we have to understand that how we conceive of reality is really extraordinarily limited. Our experience of reality is real, but it cannot begin to reach the basic features that undergird it. We can’t see outside of ourselves, we can’t see who made us, we can’t see why we are who we are, we only know that we are.
What I’ve found very intriguing is how indeed modern philosophy—not necessarily theological or Christian in any way—has from many vantage points recognized what an odd idea knowing the past is and talking about the past as a reality is. We don’t have anything in front of us that is the past—the past is a conception that we have, by which we make sense of things that we encounter in the instance that we call the present. We don’t really have access to the past; we have things only in the present. If one can get one’s mind around that aspect of our experience on the one hand and the reality of God’s utter, creative omnipotence and magnificence on the other hand, then we can see that the question “Did it happen?” is actually an odd question. Did what happen? What is the what we’re talking about? Moses crossing the Red Sea, or did it happen at such and such a date—what is a date? You start thinking about what your past is, and it becomes increasingly hard to put your finger on it. All we have from the point of view of the past with respect to the Bible is the Bible itself.
Now the claim that I’m making from a modern perspective is that the reality of the world that is given to us by God is completely explained to us in Scripture. That is our past, and as a result it’s also our present. We have no other access to it. Those who have traditionally accepted the Bible as God’s Word have in a sense accepted the presupposition that what they’re getting in the Bible is the truth about reality, which includes everything we call the past. I don’t know what the past is; I don’t think anyone else does. So when people say, “Well, did it happen?” all I can say is that God has ordered the world—my world today, your world today—such that Moses crossing the Red Sea is the world’s past. God can do that. Is it accessible to archaeology? I don’t know. Maybe it will be, maybe it won’t be. Most of what the Bible says is not accessible archaeologically, although some things seem to be. Maybe.
This is perhaps not a helpful explanation to some people who are asking the question “Did it happen?” My response is “You don’t know what it means for something to happen until you have encountered God. Then you’ll understand what it means for something to happen. And when you do, then you’ll see that all the happenings in the world are the ones that God has given to us in Scripture.”
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