Steven Nadler’s piece at the New York Times, Judging Spinoza, is an interesting take on the modern reception of Spinoza. In his post he recounts his role as part of an advisory committee, sanctioned by the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam, to discuss lifting the original 1656 ban against Spinoza, ordered by that same Portuguese-Jewish community. Though an admirer of Spinoza’s philosophy, Nadler ultimately advised to maintain the ban.
While we don’t agree on the merits of Spinoza’s scholarship, I appreciate Nadler’s honest depiction of Spinoza’s ban. Rather than skirting the issue, Nadler comes out and states the actual basis for the ban. He writes,
The ban against Spinoza was the harshest ever issued by the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community. Though the writ speaks only of his “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds,” without telling us exactly what they were, for anyone who has read Spinoza’s philosophical treatises, there really is no mystery as to why he was expelled. In those works, Spinoza rejects the providential God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; insists that the Bible is not literally of divine origin but just a haphazard (and “mutilated”) compilation of human writings handed down through the centuries; denies that Jewish law and ceremonial observance are of any validity or relevance for latter-day Jews; maintains that there is no theological, moral or metaphysical sense in which Jews are different from any other people; and rejects the idea of an immortal soul. Scholars have offered a number of alternative hypotheses to explain Spinoza’s excommunication, but if he was saying any of these things around the time of his ban — and there are good reasons for thinking that he was — it is no wonder that he was punished by his community. These were heresies.
Nadler rightly distinguishes between Spinoza’s ban and the 1992 decision of the Catholic Church to admit their error in Galileo’s condemnation. While Galileo did not intend to jeopardize the tenets of faith, Spinoza’s objective went against the very core of Christianity and biblical authority.
For further discussion of Spinoza’s thought and the authority of the Bible, I recommend J. Samuel Preus’ Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority. Looking at just the doctrine of accommodation, Preus, in agreement with Amos Funkenstein (Theology and the Scientific Imagination, 220-221), argues that Spinoza’s use opposed the orthodox definition of the doctrine (Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority, 173).
Historically, the doctrine of accommodation explained God’s condescension to human capacity through the implementation of human words and concepts in the Bible. This act of adaption allowed God to communicate divine truth through human words, yet maintain the integrity of the Bible. Spinoza’s heterodox concept of the doctrine contended that God appropriated the erroneous thinking of the biblical authors and their audience within his accommodation. As a result, not only does the Bible contain factual inaccuracies, but many of the doctrines proposed in its writings are merely the erroneous thinking of a primitive culture void of modern reason.
On this point alone, one would think maintaining Spinoza’s ban would be in keeping with upholding the authority of the Bible.