The Bible for Grown-ups: A New Look at the Good Book

Loveday, Simon
Icon Books (2016)
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Had Jean Calvin, against the evidence, been given to laughter, he certainly would have laughed at an item in my parish magazine at the end of the week during which I finished Simon Loveday's book which announced a lecture by Andy Angel, a New Testament scholar, which would show how science "may be" compatible with the Biblical account of creation for, contrary to a widely held but deeply erroneous view, the interpretation of the Bible which has produced such phenomena as creationism was not a Reformation phenomenon but was a reaction to the 18th Century 'enlightenment' along the lines that if you have your textbooks of certainty, we, too, have ours.

Although the Damascus School of Biblical study in the Second Century adopted a deeply practical approach, no doubt engendered by geographical proximity to Galilee, the Alexandrian school of symbolism triumphed to such an extent that a thousand years later Saint Bernard of Clairvaux could write a monumental set of sermons on the Song of Songs without its ever occurring to him that it was erotic. The contemporary opposite view would be that - literally taking it literally! -  It is nothing else which, if true, would call its presence in The Bible into question. Incidentally, on that subject, I heard it argued only last week by an Anglican Bishop that the Apocrypha is not part of the Bible, while he commented that The Book of Esther contained no reference to God but were the Greek version allowed that would not be the case!

The problem with treating The Bible like an O Level chemistry textbook is that it closes down too much. Let me give two examples: first, if we take the story of Adam and Eve literally we are not allowed to extrapolate it into a full theory of the relationship between the sexes; secondly, if we take the Biblical text as a whole, being as liberal with it as we can, it does not produce the Doctrine of The Trinity. The trouble with the literalists is, like their Catholic predecessors in the early Councils of the Church accepted in the Thirty-Nine Articles, they cannot stop themselves from extrapolating, the difference being that the Fathers of the Church never limited themselves to the iron rule of the literal. Incidentally, again, if we are to be literal we need to understand that because the word "person" in Greek means something hidden, as of an actor behind a mask, the Trinity as an idea is profoundly approximate.

All this is a sub text in Simon Loveday's excellent synthesis of that branch of Biblical studies which has adopted the methodology of literary criticism to further our understanding of Scripture which has brought us to a better understanding of the way in which various books were written and why. There is no new ground broken here that has not been covered by such authors as Geza Vermes on the Gospels and von Raad on the Pentateuch but the conclusions are likely to scandalise the literalists and casual church-goers alike who want to believe in the Nativity Stories in Matthew and Luke and who live in a late primary school relationship with the Pentateuch. Indeed, the only place where Loveday shows his hand is in the book's title, inferring that the literalists are children. 

If you want a good summary of what light literary criticism can shed on The Bible this is a useful start, well argued, nicely written, properly sourced and free of the invective that one can almost hear him mentally crossing out.

Of course, the very people who need to read this book will probably not and those likely to enjoy it know almost everything it says: atheists are surprised by and literalists appalled by the degree of separation between 'Biblical populism' and evidence-based reception. As with so much else in the Church of England, we are losing our ability to talk to those with whom we disagree but it may, in any case, be too late; even Pope Francis thanks the Reformation for the vernacular Bible. The Church of England's reliance upon Scripture, tradition, reason and, more latterly, experience, is at an end. Scripture is the only game in church. But it will not be long before we all discover, to our grief and loss, that easy answers are like seed sown on stony ground. If The Bible tells us anything it is that there are no easy answers.