For a long time now, a war has been raging within the lofty towers of Academia, and consists of the pitched battle between biblical conservatives and biblical liberals. The bombast accompanying the conflict reminds me of the old World Wrestling Federation; the ferocity, of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. And like those conflicts, there are two protagonists.
In one corner, there is The Liberal. The liberals have been hard at it since the days of David Strauss and F.C. Baur, criticizing, debunking, and deconstructing the Bible, both Old Testament and New. They delighted to point out historical errors and inconsistencies in the sacred text, dealing with Scripture as if it had no more authority than any other set of documents from antiquity. They threw around words like “myth” and “legend,” and denied the historicity of pretty much everything in the Bible. For them, miracles did not occur, and any part of the Bible that reported one was thereby discredited from being historical in any sense.
This provoked the contrary response. In the other corner there appeared The Conservative. These were those who stressed the authority of Scripture as the Word of God, and focused on its fundamental truths. This gave birth to the name “fundamentalist,” though the early defenders of the fundamentals had more scholarly sophistication than those to whom the label would later be applied. They rushed to affirm everything that the liberals denied, and were committed to the historicity of the Biblical text. Their (modern) understanding of historicity meant that every story and detail in the Scriptures were read as if it were modern history, with all the factual and mathematical rigour which modern historians use.
This commitment to read Scripture as if it were modern history led the conservatives into some sticky situations. To take one example among hundreds of possible ones, we may look at the number reported in the Book of Numbers for those who left Egypt. In a census taken soon after the Exodus by Moses (Num. 2:32), it was reported that the total number of men twenty years old and upward was 603,550, making for a total population of about a million and a half people who passed through the Red Sea. This figure has long given even conservatives pause. For consider: the number of the Egyptian army at that time has been estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000 soldiers. Ancient records report that much later in 853 B.C. King Ahab managed to muster an army of 10,000—considerably more than his nearest ally and neighbour, the king of Syria, who only managed to field an army of 7000 men. It was estimated at the time of David, about 1000 B.C., the total population of all the Israelites in Palestine was only about 100,000. Looking at these numbers, an army of over 600,000 is unbelievable. Why flee before Pharaoh? An army that size could have easily taken them on without even leaving Egypt or breaking a sweat. Clearly this figure of 603,550 fighting men cannot be taken literally, as if they were figures provided by Stats Canada or a modern western government agency. Nonetheless, those in the old conservative corner of the ring felt morally obliged by their belief in Scripture as the Word of God to defend the mathematical accuracy of the large figure. Some said, “What does ‘thousand’ mean, after all? Perhaps it means simply 603 fighting units.” Others simply declared, “The Word of God says there were 603,550 men, and that settles it.” But everyone in the conservative camp felt themselves on the defence and defensive.
There was a time when I found myself firmly in the conservative camp, dedicated like my fellows to defend the Bible against all comers. Like my fellows, I read the Scripture through the embattled lens of the polemicist. For me, the Bible was not just a sacred text, it was also a battlefield, and I had to tread carefully through it lest I step on any landmines and find myself blown up by liberal attackers. Though I scarcely knew it at the time, my way of reading the Bible had been dictated to me in advance by this struggle to the death between liberals and conservatives, and was conditioned by the liberal challenges. I was not a Bible reader so much as I was a Bible defender, and the awkward things pointed out gleefully by my liberal opponents summoned me to the confessional barricades. Though I would not have admitted it at the time (or even recognized it), polemics had replaced devotion. I was not so much a student of the Scriptures as its champion.
Since becoming Orthodox, I have withdrawn from the wrestling ring of Protestant polemics. I still confess the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, fully authoritative in the Church of God. But I have come to see that I don’t have to play along with the approach or take sides in the pitched battles occasioned by liberal attacks. My view of history is more consistent with the historical method of antiquity than with modern history (that is, it is less anachronistic). I no longer feel required to affirm everything denied by the liberals in order to confess the Church’s belief in Scripture as the Word of God. God’s Word can be contained in history as written in antiquity, and in parable, historical fiction, proverb, and poetry—even love poetry, such as the Song of Solomon. Since withdrawing from what was essentially a pointless (and losing) battle, I have been freed to read Scripture as it was originally meant to be read—as appealing to the heart and the will, as literature meant to awaken, shock, enlighten, to steel the nerves, and enthral the heart.
To take the example of the 603,550 who left Egypt: as someone fighting to the death with the liberals, it was all about historical credibility, because I felt that if I admitted the number was not historically accurate by our modern standards, I was thereby selling the farm to the unbelievers, and agreeing that Scripture was not the Word of God after all. Now I can admit that the figure was inflated. But I no longer care what the liberals conclude from this. The issue now is: what is God by His Word telling me by this figure? The answer: God is telling me how exalted He is, in bringing a mighty host out of the house of bondage by His upraised hand. He had promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numberless as the sand on the seashore, as the stars of heaven for multitude—and here He has fulfilled His promise. The Biblical author is using numbers poetically, not mathematically; he is writing theology, not demographics.
The issue is not about ultimately about numbers; it is about faithfulness and the power of our God. For the God Who brought Israel into their inheritance is strong enough to bring us into ours, and to see us also safely through all trials to enter our own Promised Land in the Kingdom. In leaving behind the shrill and sterile debate of liberal with conservative, I have found the Word of God is richer than polemics, and more satisfying. My task is no longer to win an argument; it is to feed upon the living Word, and find eternal nourishment for my hungry soul.