Tag Archives: scripture

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?

What, Exactly, Did God Breathe?

My post on Adam and Christ generated the range of predictable responses, from, “Thank God someone is saying what I’ve thought for a long time,” to “How on earth can anyone believe what Paul says about the resurrection of Jesus if he flubbed so badly on the existence of Adam?!”

To the latter question I address this post.

More the point, I address this post to the question of why I acknowledge the errors in the Bible, the ways that ancient cultures influenced the biblical writers to say things that we cannot agree with, and the like.

No, I’ve not quite said it right yet–I want to address how the Bible, precisely as the word of God can be so varied in its witness, and so reflective of both the strengths and shortcomings of its writers.

My confidence in scripture as the word of God, comes from the great source of “there can’t be any errors” itself–2 Tim 3.

The part of 2 Tim 3 that everyone likes to quote and that becomes the bedrock of their doctrines of scripture is, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction…”

Scripture is God-breathed. Yes!

But wait! There’s more!

Or, perhaps better put–wait, you forgot a part!

The verse before this presents a significant qualification: “From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Did you see it?

Scripture isn’t just “good.” Full stop. It is good for a particular purpose. That purpose is Christological. Scripture is not rightly read as scripture when it is given its historical, scientific, or critical meaning. It is not rightly read as scripture until it is read as a witness to, or cultivating a wisdom that inclines us toward, the crucified and risen Christ.

In Romans, Paul says similar things: the righteousness of God (in the crucified and risen Christ) is borne witness to by the Law and the Prophets; Christ is the end/goal of the Law.

Paul is faithful in what he says about Adam, not because he rightly identifies Adam as the biological precursor of all subsequent humanity, but because he sees in Adam a way to understand how the crucified and risen Christ is the beginning of God’s plan for a new humanity at the acme of new creation.

What did God breathe? Words of wisdom. Words of wisdom that lead to salvation. Words of wisdom that lead to salvation through faith in Christ.

If we read and find only words of science or dogma or ethics or history, the Bible has not yet become for us the living and active and inspired word of God.

Wise for Salvation in Christ

What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?

“Inspired” is an answer that many of us give right off the top of our heads:

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character. (2 Tim 3:16, CEB)

But in general we’re not so up on the lead-in:

Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 3:15, CEB)

Scripture is not just about “learning things” that God wants us to know.

And it’s not just about finding out “what we should do.”

The things we are to learn, and the things we are to do are located within the work of God that has a specific end and goal in view.

We read scripture with full faithfulness not merely when we say, “This is God’s word,” but when we read and interpret it as a witness to the salvation that God has made available to us in Christ.

It’s not enough to read the Bible. We have to read it with a Christological hermeneutic.

God Revealed in the World?

What has Peter Enns to say to Karl Barth? Or what has the Biology faculty to say to the Divinity School?

One of the tensions that underlies debates about Adam, evolution, and the Bible in contemporary Christian worlds is that we often operate with a fairly restricted view of revelation: God reveals in scripture.

Barth wants to stick with this, and decries natural theology.

But, to bring the question up I posed a week or two ago, what if general revelation is, truly, revelation?

In other words, can we say this: “The God who does not lie in revelation of Godself in scripture also does not lie in revelation of Godself in the natural order”?

This would turn many of the questions raised against evolution by more conservative folks back around: did God lie, deceive, or mislead us in the creation of a world that seems, from many different natural vantage points, to be well over 4 billion years old?


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 Trusting the Bible

Funny, just yesterday I post a few musings about what might be hot topics, I sort of give B list status to “what’s the Bible and what are we supposed to do about it,” and then the onslaught.

First, there was Rachel Held Evans’ indication that this is going to be a big topic for her this year: we need to learn to love the Bible we actually have.

Then there was an email message from someone taking a church history course that had come to the point of dealing with Neoorthodoxy and Karl Barth in particular.

Here’s how it’s all connected.

The student taking the church history class was getting an assessment of Neo-Orthodoxy from a prof at a school with an inerrancy statement. So there’s a presumption of a high view of scripture here–which is a point at which more conservative Evangelicals have routinely chided the Neo-Orthodox.

A summary of his assessment was this: the Neo-Orthodox were reacting against historical Jesus scholarship, and separated actual history from interpreted history. In retreating from actual history, Barth, Bultmann and Brunner severed the link between what actually happened and scripture. As a historian, this prof says that we have to affirm the actual history relayed in the text.

Here are a few thoughts: first, Barth and Bultmann were doing very different projects. Bultmann was moving away from a historicized Jesus in favor of a demythologized Jesus who confronts believers in an existential moment of decision. He is intentionally recontextualizing Jesus into the framework provided by existentialism.

Barth was doing something very different, inasmuch as he was calling the church back to scripture as the authoritative witness to Jesus as the incarnate word of God.

But here’s the more important point for today’s discussion: the inerrantist church history professor is calling us to a Jesus we have no access to, in denial of the Bible we actually have, in order to uphold his “high view” of scripture.

In reaffirming the centrality of the historical Jesus, the professor has done several things at once. First, he has affirmed the centrality of a kind of access to Jesus that God has not seen fit to give to the church. We do not have a historical Jesus record, we have theologically crafted narratives that interpret Jesus for the church.

Second, in so affirming this need, he denies the sufficiency of the Bible we actually have. Barth was right: the Gospels are witnesses to the incarnate logos, and this is what God has given us. To insist on the centrality of the historical Jesus is not only to clamor for what we do not have, it is to misunderstand the nature of the Gospels as historical documents that tell about historical events.

It’s both as historians and theologians that we must acknowledge that the Gospels are interpreted, theologically laden narratives–and that this is just what God wanted us to have.

Ironically, the conservative rejection of Neo-Orthodoxy in the name of a “high” view of scripture, at least in the case of Barth, ends up as a rejection of the Bible we actually have in favor of a man-made construct that does not match up with it.

We do not need to fear the theologically-laden, deeply interested, and individually shaped narratives of Jesus that God has given us. We need to find ways to celebrate that our God has given us precisely this Bible rather than the one we so often would prefer.

What’s On Your Plate?

Slowing the blogging pace and stepping back for a week or two over the holidays, I started to think about what streams of conversation are flowing with particular force these days.

Over the past couple of years there have been emergent or missional conversations that always provided ready fodder for conversation. But those streams have largely dried up as ever-present conversation pieces.

Here are a couple of things that strike me as continuing points of interest as I scan the blogosphere. But I’d also love to hear from you: what are you thinking about and finding yourself in vigorous conversation about as you strive to work out what it looks like to faithfully follow Jesus in 2012?

  1. The Gospel. I know that sounds rather broad and… well… settled, but here’s what I mean: in the more or less evangelical circles in which I run, we are finding a good deal of traction in conversations that press us to articulate a holistic gospel that affirms the “spiritual” dynamics of a restored relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus while also affirming that the spiritual work of being at work in the world for the good of all God’s creatures is integral to the faith.

    Recent books by Scot McKnight, Tom Wright, and yours truly are all working to contribute to such a recalibration of the evangelical gospel, that has been too long denying what it should have been affirming (in many circles). The gospel is good news for the whole world.

  2. Human origins after evolution. As denial of evolution becomes a rallying cry for both religiously and politically conservative movements, it moves certain brands of Christianity into more of a backwater. Too many Christians now have too much education for this non-viable position to continue to hold sway among thoughtful evangelicals.

    But, this means that we are confronted with a monumental task. And here is where the conservatives are right: to affirm evolution entails a reconfiguring of the narrative of humanity in significant ways. What can Christians say about the significance of humanity’s place in the cosmos once the story of evolution displaces the story of one-off creation? What can be retained? What must be replaced? Pete Enns’ book, and the interest it is generating even prior to publication, is one piece of bookish evidence about the continuing significance of this issue.

  3. Gender in the church. Here’s one for which I have no direct evidence in terms of tell-tale books. (I apologize.) But, with the continuing surge of the neo-Reformed movement, there has been a concomitant surge theological conviction about male dominance of the church.

What do you think? Are these issues the ones that are active points of conversation in your world? Are there others? I started to wonder if “what the Bible is” might not be another significant point where evangelicals are entering a new place (cf. Christian Smith’s, The Bible Made Impossible), and if folks find themselves increasingly in conversations about sex and sexuality?


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.

Preaching the Incomprehensible Word

Barth’s discourse on the Word of God takes its final turn when he moves to preaching as the Word of God.

He has already spoken of Christ as Word of God, and also the Bible. The question he wrestles with now is how it is that human speech about God, not the speech of the apostles and prophets but the speech of any preacher, might be the word of God.

Barth puts forward to central ideas. First, the challenge for us to speak the word of God comes from the fact of our humanity and the otherness of God as the subject about whom we would speak.

Barth Must Speak

When I was in seminary much ado was made about the “Creator-creature distinction.” The point: God is simply other. God “lives” in a way that our “living” only dimly approximates. God “is” in a way that cannot be defined or limited by “being” as we know it.

How can such a God speak within this sphere?

That’s the question of the word of God in Christian preaching–how the God who is other becomes present and revealed in human speech. This is a problem, not of human sinfulness, but of humanness as such. God is what we are not. God exists where and how we do not.

So how can we speak of God? How do we even know it’s possible?

This is a real question that haunts our modern day theological and ethical debates as much as it occupies the minds of theologians.

Ever been fighting about something (in a good way, of course) and hear (or say), “How can you even know what God thinks about that?” There’s a denial of the very possibility of revelation–that we could know what God thinks, that God could speak to us, that we could ever speak for him.

But Barth says no. This is false humility.

The Christian confession is that Jesus Christ is the very word of God. God has spoken. In time. In human space.

And the church is, at the heart of its calling, in Christ.

So the church must neither think that it can speak God’s word on its own (no, it is human and God is God), there is no room for arrogance; nor that it must wait for some special work of the Spirit (no, it has received its vocation).

Because the church is in Christ, the Christ who has come and spoken as none other than the word of God itself, it must also faithfully speak the word of God, and hear the word preached as the word of God.

Barth once again places the Christ event at the center. The coming of Jesus shows us the possibility by which we know everything else that is possible. Because God has spoken, in Christ and the Bible, we must speak as well.

On Reading the Bible

Barth finishes ch. 3 of the Dogmatics with a section on reading the Bible. As we have been noting through the review of Christian Smith’s work, reading the Bible is not as straightforward as one might guess.

There is a historical sense to be had–or at least, to be approximated and approached.

But articulating what the apostles and prophets said is not the same as understanding what those words entail, and it is not the same as being transformed in our whole way of life by them.

Barth insists that the act of biblical interpretation must, then, not only be a practice of articulating what the text meant, but of actively engaging that text as witness to the Word of God. We have not “read” if we have not been changed, made obedient, transformed in mind and heart.

What about the theologies and philosophies we bring with us? Barth recognizes that we all bring a philosophy of our own day and time with us. Somewhat surprisingly, but quite realistically, he does not demand the (futile) attempt to set these aside.

Instead, we should recognize that each philosophy has the ability to be taken hold of by the grace of God and made an instrument for communicating the word; and, each philosophy has the ability to become an idolatrous substitute, determining in advance what the word must conform to.

And when we say, “philosophy” here, we also mean “theological system.”

The church is free under the word so long as it reads and listens to that word, listening in the sense of being taken hold of by it and willing to have its prior understandings transformed by the voice of God speaking in scripture.

The ideas Barth hits on here continue to be important: is historical critical reading of the Bible sufficient? what about praxis in response to what we’ve read? do we bring a strong paradigm that controls what the scriptures can say?

Biblical scholarship (and, indeed, the church at large) has not yet embodied a viable solution to these questions. And we might anticipate that there will not be one final solution–because this itself would, no doubt, turn into yet another version of that controlling idol that attempts to constrain the voice of God speaking through scripture.