Is your Bible study biased?

Review of "The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture" by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker.

The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture

By Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2021

This is a rigorous, concise and entertaining book for anyone interested in the history and function of Scripture, and how the current approach to study and interpretation of the Bible can be improved. Hahn and Wilker pull you into history to show how apparently old theological and political disputes are relevant to Biblical studies today. The authors argue that the current approach to Scripture by scholars and other professionals is filled with assumptions and biases. This can be difficult to see at first because the current approach is often presented as neutral and unbiased. 

Hahn and Wilker detail the current approach, which for many years has emphasized using different academic disciplines to demystify, and provide context to an outdated, pre-modern view of the world. Parallels are drawn to other religions, and ancient texts, showing plenty of similarities and value in all religions. Also, there is an emphasis on acknowledging the biases and assumptions that writers bring to any text – where the Bible and its authors are given no special exemptions than any other literary or scholarly analyses.

Hahn and Wilker show, through a readable and engaging style, that at the core of the modern approach is a focus on very earthly, political ends. Many modern scholars and interpreters have a clear bias towards secular values. These values presuppose a materialist framework and outright reject the supernatural. The authors trace the origins of the modern historical-critical approach to well before the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth-century or the Enlightenment of the eighteenth. They do not blame science or modernity, but a thread of thought which can be followed from antiquity about the nature of humanity and its ultimate purpose. A thread of thought which says civil peace is the highest good we can hope to achieve, and views humanity as confined to the limits of the material world. Through several historical examples, they show a centuries-long decline of scripture’s true nature as God’s revealed Word, into just another tool for attaining material goals.

An early example of Scripture being used for political ends is during the Avignon Papacy. In a divided Europe with competing claims to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, there are several factions who use Scripture for their own political ends. It is Marsilius of Padua, in his tract Defensor pacis, who Hahn and Wilker cite as “the first great secularizer of political philosophy” as he believed that political peace was the “greatest good of man.” He sought to greatly limit the power of the papacy and separate the secular state from religious authority. Marsilius was not the first to think in these terms, and the authors cite several examples of pagan thinkers from antiquity that he draws from, but his influence set a pattern of secularization. This is the first of many instances of Hahn and Wilker’s ability to simply explain complicated theological and political disputes.

Shifts in European thought

Major figures of the Reformation – Martin Luther chief among them – are cited as further “elevating the secular power to the same status as the sacred, declaring them equal.” Around the same time as the “priesthood of all believers” who had as much claim to Scriptural interpretation as anyone else, was the rise of philosophers and statesmen who used Scripture for their own ends. These figures often remind one of modern scholars. Machiavelli offered a culturally sensitive, well-read, comparative approach to Scripture by viewing Moses as a semi-mythical founder of a state akin to Theseus or Romulus. 

Philosophers are also shown to begin to elevate things other than God and Scripture in their ideas. Rene Descartes’ method is shown by Hahn and Wilker to elevate the self to the place of the creator – assuming one’s own existence rather than God’s. Descartes also places science and reason above superstition, “removing the miracles from the Bible to make room for the miracles in the laboratory.”

These developments are not all viewed negatively by Hahn and Wilker. They are reflective of a shift in European thought and culture which brought technological and financial benefits, but came at a cost, too. In the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, the authors how show the apparently new ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke had already gained traction throughout Europe, and shaped civil life. Religion was increasingly viewed as only necessary to ensure civil peace, rather than ensuring the saving of souls. In short, “a morality molded to the goals of the industrial-commercial state.” 

It was during this period of change, and the nineteenth-century in Germany, where many current proponents of the historical-critical approach to Scripture believe they find their origins. However, Hahn and Walker show throughout the book that this thread of thought goes back much further. It was only during this time that these modern ideas had grown to be much more widespread and visible.

They end on a positive note providing a list of expertly-written books about the Bible, by faithful scholars, showing that there still are plenty of non-political options today for the discerning reader. We need to be aware of our biases wherever we find them, and make sure that we do not twist or distort the Bible to suit the politics of the day. They argue that what is greatly missing in much of the modern view and study of Scripture is a vision which does not simply deconstruct and induce doubt, but rather an acknowledgement of the ultimate purposes God has for us. This is necessary if we want to go beyond the secular and material world, and bring the sacred back to scripture.  


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