Tag Archives: inerrancy

The Dangerous Act of Reading

I operate with deeply Protestant sensibilities. I read, work with, and respond to scripture anticipating that it will challenge, even upend, the paradigms that I bring with me to the task.

As banal as that might sound (the idea that a 2,000 year old book is free to disrupt what we’ve come to know), I actually think it’s quite a radical posture.

Reading is dangerous.

A month or so ago, Greg Carey’s Huffington Post Article made the rounds again. It’s title, “Where Do ‘Liberal’ Bible Scholars Come From?” The short answer to his provocative question is this: from reading the Bible.

The best way for conservative churches to produce “liberal” biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.

Over the past couple of week Peter Enns has been hosting a series on “Aha Moments,” those times when folks encountered something that transformed how they understand what the Bible is.

Nobody in Pete’s series is a “liberal” bible scholar, but the theme recurs: reading the Bible opens up our eyes to things that actually are contained in scripture which the theologies about scripture that we cut our teeth on typically did not allow for.

Today on Seth Godin’s blog he talked about “Literacy and Unguided Reading.”

Controlled, or guided reading, is all well and good for those who want to control. That control is lost, and with it the stable present that they want to preserve, when people are free to read:

Unguided reading is a real threat, because unguided reading leads to uncomfortable questions.

Reading is a dangerous act.

With reading comes learning. Godin looks at this with giddy anticipation:

Teach an entire culture to read and connections and innovations go through the roof.

“Innovations go through the roof.”

This is, in fact, what happened in the wake of the Reformation. It’s still what happens when people read today.

Are we ready for the innovation? Are we willing to change? Are we willing to not be in control?

Are we ready for people to read?

Doctrine of Scripture

I was mulling for a few minutes what I might say if I had to write a statement of faith that included something about scripture. I was thinking I’d go straight for the 2 Timothy 3 jugular and start with something like this:

I believe that scripture is God’s word, given for the purpose of giving us the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith, in Christ Jesus (1 Tim 3:15). Therefore, any interpretation of scripture that points to Christ (John 5; in particular to Christ’s suffering and subsequent glory, Luke 24, 1 Peter 1), demands that we understand God as God has been revealed in Christ, or that demands of us that we walk in the way of Christ, is to be received as the authoritative word of God that will lead us into faithful belief and practice.

Do you have some doctrine of scripture that you work with? How does it influence how you do or don’t read the biblical texts?

Story of God, God of the Story

The Bible is the story of God at work in the world.

The Bible is the story of people responding to (or ignoring) God at work in the world.

The Bible is particular people wrestling with the particular ways God is at work at their moment in time, telling their part of the story, writing their part of the human response, as people who want to lead their communities into a certain way of response.

The Bible is dynamic in this sense. Not merely breathed by God, but written by prophets who were eagerly searching out the things about which they were writing.

The people had to respond.

God was at work.

God was warning.

God was at work.

God was to be celebrated.

God was at work.

God was to be obeyed.

There is a compulsion to the writing, a compulsion inspired by God. There is a compulsion to the writing drawing people forward: to the coming Christ and then to the Christ who will come again.

This is a story of a God who exalts the humble. This is the story of a God who determined that before a people could have a king who would rule the earth, it must first be a people who were landless, rootless. Slaves.

This is the story of a God who creates out of nothing–a world for life to flourish, the feeding of five thousand off of five meager loaves, the resurrection of the dead.

This is the story of a God who is wise beyond all earthly telling–a God whose wisdom is made manifest in the foolishness of a cross, a God whose great moment of weakness overthrows the power of the cosmos.

So when I say, this week, that I am not interested in clinging to an inerrant Bible, I am sacrificing that claim about the Bible on the altar of this story: that scripture has a role to play, a narrative to tell. It is the story of a God who is at work in a way that surprises us. It is the story of a God who wants us to discover the cross.

Again and again.

It surprises us even though we know what the ending of the story is.

It surprises us because we cannot help ourselves–we construct systems of control, systems of power, philosophies of wisdom.

And so the cross must reappear. It must wrest our systems from our hands. It must grant us fresh forgiveness.

This Bible that I love with all its foibles? It has a purpose: “To give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through the faithfulness which is in Christ Jesus.”

Yes, that’s the part in 2 Timothy that comes before the celebrated, “All scripture is God-breathed.”

God-breathed tells us, not about an abstract property of the words, but about a wind that blows in a certain direction. It tells us that there is profit, that there is instruction–if we will walk in the way of wisdom.

And the way of wisdom is the way of Christ.

And the way of Christ is the way of the cross.

This is the life-giving narrative of the Bible. This is the life-giving God of the Bible: the One who knows that our world is a place of death, the One who conquered it on Easter Sunday, the One who invites us to trust that if we, too, will lay down our life then we, too, will find it.

Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.


Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”

What’s The Bible, Again?

I made the comment in passing on Rachel Held Evans’ blog yesterday, but it bears repeating here (and even if it didn’t, it’s my blog, right?!):

When we debate issues such as women in the church, the underlying debate is “What is the Bible?”

At the beginning of the year, I posted some thoughts on what are pressing issues for evangelicals: gospel, gender, human origins, and the Bible.

In fact, the “What is the Bible?” question is the one that most fundamentally underlies all of those. But the differences aren’t about those who take the Bible as authoritative versus those who don’t. It’s not about people who are inerrantists versus those who acknowledge errors.

Behind even those kinds of debates lies a plethora of competing ideas about what the Bible is: is it a handbook for life? is it the maker’s instruction manual? is it a theology text–the revelation of the eternal counsel of God?

My blog is called “storied theology,” provocatively sub-titled, “Telling the Story of the Story-Bound God” because all of the theological and exegetical particulars that get worked out here are built on the prior commitment to the Bible as, fundamentally, a lengthy narrative.

Why does this matter?

For one, it matters because in stories people change.

For another, it matters because as stories and their characters develop, different actions become acceptable or not, real changes take place, because the circumstances have changed.

In stories, there are false starts and dead ends–for characters, for groups–but the story can continue.

When reading stories, our imaginations are shaped. We are changed, not by legal requirement or didactic necessity quite so much as visioning a new world and being drawn up into it.

I take recent kerfuffles about women and about Adam (see today’s Kevin DeYoung post and James McGrath’s reply) to be manifestations of conflicting ideas about what the Bible is, and how it functions as sacred scripture.

There is a compelling pull from the conservatizing elements, compelling because it feels more biblical to see certain passages in a given way. Treating the whole Bible as a treasure chest full of compatible theological insights is one way to treat the Bible with respect as God’s word.

Except that this is not the Bible that God has actually given us. We do not have a systematic theology text. We are not given the easy task of taking one verse and assuming it will fit with the rest.

Instead, we have a story. We have God in dynamic relationship with people. We have a Redeemer who actually changes what it means to live as the faithful people of God on earth.

Christ’s is a narrative that transforms the others. His is a story that reinterprets not only the biblical promises and commands and stories that came before, but also the lives that follow after.

Reading stories is easy. Interpreting them well is difficult.

For evangelicals, this difficulty lies at the root of our various partings of ways. First, we need to start thinking about the Bible differently. Then we can start talking about what it’s actually trying to tell us.

On Not Harmonizing

I’ve just wrapped up teaching the Synoptic Gospels part of my Gospels and Acts course. Going through the individual books, looking over proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem, and seeing how the seemingly harmonious stories portray Jesus’ ministry in quite different lights, we are left with a few conclusion that are surprising to many of us. Here are a couple:

  • The Gospel writers have different ideas about how Jesus’ death works, which means they have different ideas about how God brings salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
  • The Gospels we have used sources, including, probably, Mark as a source for Matthew and Luke, and yet they felt free to change this source for various reasons, including: style, making a somewhat different point, causing the story to more clearly echo an OT antecedent, eliminating theological claims that they did not want to make, or including new theological claims that are somewhat at odds with the theological claims of the original story.

This means that there is not only a plurality of voices in the NT, there is an irreducible theological diversity.

But more importantly, this theological diversity is no accident of history but, on the human level, has been intentionally introduced into the texts we have in front of us. Luke intentionally modifies Mark (and Matthew?) to increase the continuity between the OT narrative and the work of Jesus, and to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ death procuring salvation for people as such.

Two questions came up that I think are important for us to keep working through, especially as evangelicals for whom such conclusions seem to push against our prior conception of what it means to call the Bible the word of God.

First, what does this mean for “scripture interpreting scripture”? This rule became quite popular at the time of the Reformation, or at least, if you Google “scripture interprets scripture” the people who are the most fierce advocates for the view are likely to be appealing to the Reformation traditions in their defense.

But what do we do when Luke says, “Blessed are the poor,” and Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? Is Matthew clear here where Luke is ambiguous, thereby telling us what Jesus really meant? Or are we to hear in Luke’s version his special concern for the socially marginalized?

What are we to do when Mark says that you don’t put new wine in old wineskins, but Luke feels compelled to add, “No one wants new wine, old is better!”? Do we let Mark’s apparent meaning stand, where Jesus is the new wine that cannot be contained by the older Jewish practices? Or do we allow the “more clear” Lucan conclusion to change our reading?

Image: WikiBooks, Gospel of Mark ch. 8

My response: (1) allow the scripture one author wrote help interpret that author’s other passages; and (2) allow the NT’s example of rereading the OT in light of Christ to train us to reread the OT as a witness to the saving life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus.

If we insist on giving the one meaning made clear by the other texts, we start to force the Bible into our preconception of what kind of Bible would be good for us, what kind of Bible would qualify as “word of God,” and in so doing we spurn the actual Bible that God did give us, and that God thought was adequate for conveying God’s word.

Question two is what do we do with this stuff as pastors?

My answer here: it is your pastoral responsibility to help people recognize that the Bible we actually have, rather than the Bible of our imaginations, is the word of God.

If you don’t give your people a category for this kind of diverse Bible being the word of God, then you will create a false sense of connection between a supposedly uniform, univocal Bible and the Christian faith as such. So what happens when they go off to college and take a Bible class at State University? What happens when they get bored one Saturday and map out (or try, anyway) the last week of Jesus’ life in each of the four Gospels?

Uh oh.

That’s when they discover that the Bible isn’t what you led them to believe. And if that imagined Bible is necessary for believing what God has to say about Jesus and the Christian faith in general, then the latter are apt to crumble as well.

Make no mistake, there are tremendous pastoral issues at stake in affirming correctly what the Bible is. But one of the worst mistakes we can make, especially in a day and age where media will tell people the truth if we don’t, is to affirm a vision of a single-voiced scripture that fails to correspond to the text we have actually been given.

Bible Made Impossible: Final Reflections

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been offering my engagements with Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

You can find the first four installments here (pt 1), here (pt 2), here (pt 3), and here (pt 4).

My enthusiasm for Smith’s assessment and proposal continues in this final installment. He has put his finger on the problematic treatment of the Bible in evangelical circles, calling out the ways in which its understanding of scripture is insufficiently biblical, and insufficiently defined by the gospel.

Chapter 6, “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity,” is bookended by two fantastic paragraphs that clearly articulate the problems with “evangelical biblicism”:

Ironcially, while biblicists claim to take the Bible with utmost seriousness for what it obviously teaches, their theory about the Bible drives them to try to make it something that it evidently is not. (127)

And then this:

The Anglican divine Richard Hooker put this well when he said about the Bible, “We must… take great heed, lest, in attributing unto scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed.” In other words, the more we try to make the Bible say allegedly important things that are in fact subsidiary, nonbinding, or perhaps not even clearly taught, the more we risk detracting form the crucial, central message of the Bible about God reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. (148)

Biblicism, by insisting on the equality of every chapter and verse, creates a world in which everything we believe takes on equal significance. Deny the necessity of homeschooling and you’ve rejected the gospel. The importance of the Christological hermeneutic is that it allows back seat issues to stay in the back seat.

A final chapter from Smith works hard to articulate a third way between the conservative posture of biblicism and the strategies of liberalism or full-blown postmodernism. It is important for readers to appreciate that critical realism is, in fact, a true third way. No doubt it will be described as opening the back door for liberalism by many who hold to the position Smith wishes to advance. But that is plain wrong.

This final contribution is an accessible crash-course in hermeneutics and has the power to destabalize how we think about the Bible as an authoritative text. How do we, in fact, condemn slavery as morally reprehensible when the biblical writers seem so accepting of it? There are good reasons for our difference–and these are instructive for us when we think about what the Bible is and what we should be doing with it.

Smith’s book comes on the scene at an opportune time. As the evangelical right tightens its grip on evangelicalism more broadly, an tremendous number of believers are slipping through their fingers. Whether the conservative resurgence shows itself to be less-than-biblical because of a particular issue (e.g., the earth’s being 6,000 years old) or because of a holistic and yet inconsistent way of attempting to apply the Bible as an equally authoritative voice to all of life, those who leave biblicist worlds behind are reconfiguring what it means to confess that the Bible is the word of God.

So even though Smith will not doubt become another point at which the biblicist world points to encroaching liberalism and thereby solidifies anew its identity over against “them,” it also provides an invaluable tool to those who know that the biblicist Bible is, in fact, impossible–but who continue to believe that the Bible we have is, in fact, the word of God given to bear witness to the Word of God.

Interpretation and Scripture (review pt. 3)

Here’s where Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible is heading as it rounds off the first part of its discussion (the problems with biblicism): interpretive problems point to the reality that the Bible is not what biblicists think it is.

In other words, we cannot separate interpretive outcomes from our doctrine of scripture. When things that “shouldn’t be there” come up repeatedly in our interpretive endeavors, this points out to us that our doctrine of scripture needs to be reconfigured to match the reality of what the Bible is.

In the theological tradition in which I cut my teeth, this sort of relationship was acknowledged, at least in theory. The Westminster Seminary faculty put together a series of essays entitled Inerrancy and Hermeneutic that sought to articulate inerrancy in a way that did not prejudice interpretive outcomes.

Later, Peter Enns would elaborate on this tradition with his extended suggestion in Inspriation and Incarnation that the Bible we actually have should be shaping our understanding of what the Bible is.

Of course, this was the beginning of the end for Enns at WTS, as the theological and financial pull of biblicism was simply too strong to allow scripture to transform our understanding of what the Bible is. Indeed, it might have been expected: the commitment to inerrancy, for example, in American evangelical circles is often far too strong to allow the errors we discover in the Bible to override it.

This diversion into the world from which I came is to say that Smith is exactly correct in what he perceives to be an irreconcilable tension: there is the Bible that biblicists preach, and then there is the Bible that we hold in our hands. And they are not the same.

The Reformation tradition has nicely placed the Bible in everyone’s hands. This is a good thing. But with it has come the notion that anyone reading the Bible will be able to know what it says.

So why then is there pervasive interpretive pluralism if the Bible is so easy to read?

The point that Smith will come around to is that we need to rethink what the Bible is so that we read it differently, more in keeping with the Bible we actually have and its own stated purposes.

Protestant doctrines of scripture have told us, from way back, that what we need to know can be clearly read in scripture or deduced by good and necessary consequence. They have told us that the meaning of any passage is one. They have told us that there are inerrant autographs somewhere that contain the exact words God wanted us to have.

And each of these is either irrelevant and useless (inerrant docs we don’t have) or proven false (we don’t actually clearly see what must be known–we disagree).

Smith rounds off his discussion with some reflections on how a clearly false and impossible Bible manages to imbed itself in evangelicalism as though it is the Bible we actually have. He rightly points to both historical and sociological factors as creating both the perceived necessity of such a Bible and the plausibility structures within which such a Bible can be believed to exist.

In other words: when you hang around a bunch of people, be it in church or in seminary or in your denomination or at an Evangelical Theological Society meeting who not only believe the Bible is this thing, but who define themselves as holding to such a Bible over against the Bible-denying, God-hating liberals, it becomes quite easy to believe in the glorious garments of this particular, naked emperor.

This brings us to something Smith mentions only briefly but that, to me, is the most important reason we have to get beyond evangelical biblicism: it is pastorally disastrous.

Students who believe in this kind of Bible but then leave the world that makes it plausible by going to, say, a public university or a differently oriented seminary or, worst of all a PhD program and there encounter the real Bible for the first time–well, they lose their faith. Or, they have to go through so much intellectual reconfiguring of their faith that its persistence stands in question.

We have to start reading, thinking about, and talking about the Bible that we actually have. We have to recognize that there is no “one meaning” to be found in each passage, there is not “one theological system” to be gleaned from the whole, there is no “inerrant autograph” that is going to show us the truth that will eventually set us free.

We have to take responsibility for how we read, we must read in the right direction, for scripture to fulfill its purpose–which is a different purpose from that articulated by evangelical biblicism.

That purpose? Stay tuned…

Stop with Your Impossible Bible, Already (pt. 1)

A devoted Presbyterian (I think taht was me, once upon a time) moves from his confession of faith to the Bible. He had read about “the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one),” and embraced the parenthetical warning against multiple meanings. Then he looked up the OT passage from which a NT citation was drawn. One meaning? Uh oh…

Rachel Held Evans attempts a year of living biblically. As her year winds down, what does she have to say? That adjective “biblical” is really hard to pin down. Does biblical womanhood mean camping out in the back yard during your period?

We all think we know what biblical means. In our North American Christian context the word is thrown around as a way of demanding that all of life be lived in accordance with the Bible as the Word of God.

And Christian Smith is here to tell us that the two experiences summarized above are exactly what we should expect when we come to the Bible with the impossible demands of the biblicism of current evangelicalism.

His book is, The Bible Made Impossible, a book for which I shelled out my own money, so I am under no obligation by the Fed to make any disclosures to you about having my eyes blinded through having received it for free.

Smith affirms that the Bible is inspired by God. He recognizes its importance in the continuing story of the church.

But he also calls us to recognize that a “biblicist” view of scripture creates expectations that cannot be met, and that in the end it is an impossible theory to maintain in practice. And, in fact, nobody does.

So what is this impossible biblicism? Smith sees it delineated by these 10 claims / assumptions (pp. 4-5):

  1. scripture contains the very words of God (divine writing)
  2. the Bible is God’s exclusive means of communication with people
  3. everything God needs to tell us about belief and life is in the Bible
  4. anyone can read, understand and thus rightly interpret the Bible
  5. the Bible can be understood in its plain, literal sense
  6. we can build theology from scratch without creeds or confessions
  7. all the passages touching on the same topic can be brought together into a harmonious whole
  8. the Bible is universally applicable to people in all times and places
  9. inductive method leads to right hearing of the text
  10. the Bible, read this way, provides a handbook for living

Of course, no one person or group will necessarily hold to, or put on display, all ten.

These sorts of claims ring true to many of us: the big idea behind much of it is that if we sit down and read the text we can actually know what it says. God speaks in the Bible and we need simply to listen.

But there is one major problem: “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”

If the Bible is so easy to read and understand, why is it that Christians who hold to similar convictions about what scripture is nonetheless cannot agree on what scripture actually says.

This, claims Smith, is more than simply a phenomenon of people’s practice not reflecting the theory as well as it should. It is a determinative indication that the theory itself is flawed.

We do not simply read “what is there.” People interpret differently. People read preexisting theologies into and out of texts. Pluralism will not go away. And it does not simply touch on incidental matters such as whether or not we pass a holy smooch, this plurality extends even to such central ideas as what happens for our good on the cross.

And so, Smith will contend, the Bible is not what is so often claimed.