Review of Harvey Cox’s How to Read the Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2015)

How to Read the Bible Book Cover How to Read the Bible
Harvey Cox


By Robert P. Menzies

Harvey Cox’s latest book should have been titled, How to Read the Bible…And Not Hear God Speak. Why? Because according to Cox, the Bible is purely a human document. So, we can take or leave the “truths” of the Bible and we are free to interpret it as we want. Ultimately, we sit in judgment on this record of how humans have responded to the big questions of life. Cox notes that the Bible is fantastically popular — even after his suggested “death of God” in The Secular City — but he offers little reason for this popularity or for reading the Bible ourselves. After all, it is a very human book, filled with contradictions, errors, and anti-heroes. Yes, the Bible has shaped the discourse of generations of past Americans, but then so has baseball. As I read Cox’s take on the Bible, I kept wondering, why not move on to something else, like the New York Times perhaps? I also wondered, if Cox got it so wrong back then (1965, the year that The Secular City was first published), why should Evangelicals in general and Pentecostals in particular listen to him now? Certainly an earlier generation of Pentecostals missed Cox’s memo—“It will do no good to cling to our religious and metaphysical versions of Christianity in the idle hope that one day religion or metaphysics will once again regain their centrality. They will become even more peripheral…” (Cox, The Secular City, p. 3)—and happily continued to proclaim and experience the awesome presence of God in our midst. Nevertheless, in the wake of Cox’s more recent and positive assessment of the Pentecostal movement (Fire from Heaven, 1995), many Pentecostals have become infatuated with him. This is the case in spite of the fact that in this book Cox consistently minimizes the biblical and Christ-centered nature of the movement. It is for these Pentecostals that I write, although my warning might also serve the larger Evangelical body.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me emphasize that Cox’s How to Read the Bible is not without its strengths. It is entertaining and peppered with interesting anecdotes drawn from a dazzling array of authors, ancient and modern. Cox is erudite, engaging, and witty. Yet, after a while, the themes and conclusions are simply too predictable. The requisite liberal tropes (the plight of the poor, approval of homosexual lifestyles, pacifism, and ecology) and heroes (Bonhoeffer, Gutierrez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama) all appear with some frequency. The interesting scholarly approaches that Cox introduces also come with an edge sharpened by unacknowledged presuppositions. The themes, authors, and approaches are all presented in such a way as to echo the dominant motif: the Bible is an interesting, but deeply flawed and very human book. We are continually reminded that the author’s conclusions are the studied results of “current biblical scholarship.”  The implicit message comes across loud and clear: Let’s not raise a fuss by bringing God into the discussion; or, if you do, please be polite enough to do so quietly and preferably in the corner, alone.

Cox’s treatment of Job illustrates his approach. It’s really all about Job (or actually, us), not God. Rather than reveling in the great climax of the book, God’s dramatic self-revelation through a whirlwind (Job 38-41) and Job’s awe-struck response (Job 42:1-6), Cox insists that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax. Not only do we not receive any answers to our questions about the existence of rampant evil, Job apparently is reduced to groveling before the God to whom he had boldly complained. Yet, as Cox explains, Job’s response isn’t as disappointing as it appears. Actually, Job is not “fawning and kowtowing” at the end as many suggest (p. 100). He simply acknowledges his limitations. Additionally, the reader can find comfort in the language of lament and complaint. Yet, can we really so glibly dismiss God’s dramatic revelation of his power in the whirlwind and does this not prepare us for that decisive display of God’s power and love on the cross? When our eyes are focused on the things below, we miss the glimpses of heaven that the Bible affords.

Another revealing illustration is found in Cox’s treatment of Luke 3:22. Here, as Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, the voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22, NIV). Cox, however, suggests that the original text of Luke 3:22 probably read, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (p. 146). He then asks provocatively, “Did Luke…suggest that Jesus was God’s adopted son?” (p. 146, italics his). His comments, both before and after the question, suggest that this is indeed quite likely. Yet this suggestion is wildly unlikely. Not only is the manuscript evidence for this reading pathetically weak (Codex Bezae is notoriously idiosyncratic), but this notion blatantly contradicts Luke’s narrative. Remember how surprised the young Jesus was when he learned that his parents had been searching for him in Jerusalem? The twelve year-old Jesus asked, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). So, why would Cox throw out such an ill-founded suggestion? It furthers his agenda, which is stated a few lines later, “…a wider variety of theological views than most people know about existed in the nascent Christian movement, and they persisted until the (unsuccessful) attempt of the creed writers to suppress them” (p. 147).

These comments from Cox’s reading of Job and Luke are just the tip of the iceberg. Cox’s book is full of conclusions that will raise eyebrows. He suggests that: Genesis offers conflicting responses to the problem of evil; the Exodus never really happened; the story about the fall of Jericho was fabricated from a pagan legend; which books should be included in the Bible is still an open question; questions about Jesus’ identity and the reality of his resurrection are not really historical questions; Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27 should not be read as condemning homosexual lifestyles today; and the book of Revelation was written by an angry, vindictive man. It’s all so very human.

If Cox’s human Bible doesn’t explain its popularity, his suggested method of interpretation also fails to satisfy. A serious logical flaw mars Cox’s presentation. He suggests that since we are all ruled by the presuppositions that flow from our cultural settings, social positions, and past experiences, we must simply acknowledge that our interpretations are hopelessly subjective. No one can read the Bible from the perspective of the original authors. We should all simply acknowledge this fact and revel in the multiple and even contradictory meanings that our readings produce. Historical meaning is out of reach and thus really a fiction. Yet, Cox goes on to spend considerable time trying to “enlighten” the reader about various historical matters, generally perceived flaws or inaccuracies of which he feels the reader should be aware. But again I wondered, why bother with the historical studies? After all, it’s all hopelessly subjective and driven by his liberal agenda, isn’t it? So, I considered the question, why were the historical sketches important for Cox? The answer was quickly apparent: they validated his humanistic reading of the text. His own movement from “naïvely” reading the Bible as a divine narrative to a historical-critical reading and then, ultimately, to a deeper “spiritual” reading actually represents a shift from a reverent reading of the Bible as God’s Word to a humanistic reading of the Bible as merely a collection of human thoughts (some grand, some not so grand). The historical-critical method is the hammer Cox attempts to use to shatter the illusionary worldview of the unenlightened pious. It provides Cox with the “proof” that validates his humanistic reading and presuppositions.

Yet here again Cox misses the irony. In spite of his acceptance of the relativism so common in the Western academy, ironically he appears to be supremely confident in his own historical judgments and conclusions. Equally striking is the fact that Cox consistently plucks one string with reference to the scholarly evidence and judgments he relates (that is the liberal one). Indeed, he appears blind to the fact that there are actually other strings that might be plucked. The beautiful, harmonious music that so many have found in the Bible is thus sadly lost to him.

Only a reverent approach to the Bible will yield results that are truly life changing. Only an approach that seeks to hear God’s voice will reveal a God worthy of worship, a God who acts redemptively and who speaks with a resounding voice. If we begin our reading of the Bible with the notion that it’s just a human book, either we will be confronted with our pride or we will walk away dissatisfied and angry. The New Testament confronts the reader with the crucial question, Did Jesus rise from the dead? How we answer this question will largely determine how we approach the Bible. Note, however, that a reverent approach is not to be equated with an unthinking or uneducated approach. Of course Cox offers stark contrasts: either you are incredibly gullible and unwilling to ask questions or you stand with him on the side of reasoned enlightenment. What Cox misses is that the past generation of Evangelical scholars (his generation) did not shy away from tackling tough questions (e.g., George Ladd’s The New Testament and Criticism). And now Evangelical scholars stand at the forefront of biblical scholarship. It is worth noting that these scholars also take seriously historical meaning, which appears to be the only antidote to the extreme subjectivism advocated by Cox. Although none of us approach the Bible free of presuppositions, the biblical authors’ inspired message, when anchored to its original intent, can help correct and reshape them. This is one of many reasons why I find Robert Stein’s book, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (2011), much more helpful. No, it is not the lack of thought that Cox dismisses; it is rather the rejection of his own liberal presuppositions. It is a reverent approach to the Bible, an approach that dares to believe that God acts and speaks clearly, authoritatively, and redemptively in the Bible, that Cox rejects.

Liberals worry a lot about the internal contradictions and diversity in the Bible. They fret over the miracles, the triumphalism, the simplicity, and the perceived arrogance of the apostolic church.  Yet, as I am suggesting is the case with Cox, they often fail to recognize their own arrogance and their own blindness.

Pentecostals, on the other hand, haven’t lost a lot of sleep over miracles. We have seen too many in our midst to see in the biblical record anything but a model for our lives and ministry. We haven’t worried much about internal contradictions in the Bible, for we dance to the beautiful harmony of the Spirit’s voice. We Pentecostals approach the Bible with a sense of reverence and accept the apostolic church as our model. The result (let’s engage in a bit of what Cox terms “effect history” here) has been a clear message, transformed lives, and a host of dynamic churches on virtually every continent of the planet. What has the liberal approach espoused by Cox produced? I will concede a few ethical platitudes and some predictable political slogans, but not much more.

Ultimately, Cox’s approach to reading the Bible does not provide a coherent, redemptive message. He constantly highlights apparent contradictions and tensions, so there really is no unified message to be found. Rather, we are told that the Bible contains a collection of contradictory and often confusing responses to the great questions of life. No, there’s not much to preach here. But then that’s the point Cox wants to make. We need to free ourselves from the bold notion that God actually speaks, that He has a clear message applicable for all people of all cultures. Cox’s God is strangely silent or, at the very least, greatly conflicted. But here we come to the “deeper spiritual” part. By rejecting the notion that God authoritatively speaks in the Bible, we open ourselves up to a plurality of contradictory messages, cultural values, and religions. Right might actually be wrong and wrong might actually be right. We need to be careful not to be overly confident in our judgments…unless, of course, your name is Harvey Cox. This doesn’t sound like good news to me.

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