I don’t have much invested in the debate over biblical “inerrancy.” It strikes me as largely an intra-evangelical debate, one driven in large part by a very conservative, Reformed strain of evangelicalism. But I do have something invested in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. I think that a “liberal” view which regards the Bible as just one instance of great religious literature is inadequate for Christian faith.
So it’s no surprise that I appreciated this post from Ken Schenck, who is the dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He argues that much evangelical hermeneutics are driven by a “most difficult common denominator” approach. That is, individual difficult passages or verses are allowed to overturn the broader trajectory of the biblical message.
Schenck notes that in pre-modern times, “problem” verses were often interpreted in ways that were almost certainly contrary to the meaning intended by the original authors if they seemed to contradict more fundamental biblical principles.
He thus recommends viewing the Bible in a two-level fashion: there is the original, historical meaning of the individual books, passages, and verses; and there are the overarching themes and message as Christians have commonly understood them:
If we return to the sense of Scripture’s truthfulness before the Princeton Calvinists, we look rather to the “greatest common denominator” of Scripture. What is the central teaching of the Bible on this topic? If there are other passages that seem to pull in another direction, you set them aside as unclear. After all, we don’t know all the history to interpret the original meaning of the Bible fully and certainly anyway.
Chalk it up to contextual uncertainty. Reinterpret it like a good premodern or just put an “unclear” tape on it. Invoke the notion of progressive revelation or situational particularity. However your tradition deals with unclear verses, do that. But don’t let the problematic trump the central principles of Scripture.
So, for example, the Canaanite genocide should not control our understanding of God’s nature, and an isolated verse in 1 Timothy shouldn’t determine our view about women in ministry.
One thing that sets Schenck’s proposal apart from a more strictly pre-modern approach is that he recognizes that we can’t go back to a pre-critical consciousness. Some of the Fathers may have thought that an allegorical interpretation of a particular passage provided the “true” meaning; but we now think that the original meaning of a text is its intended meaning in its historical setting. We may reinterpet it, set it aside, or just deem it unclear or irrelevant, but we at least need to acknowledge its original meaning (to the extent we can determine it).
It should be noted that the New Testament authors themselves often play fast and loose with the original meanings of the texts from the Hebrew scriptures that they quote or reference. It’s clear that, for them, God’s acts of salvation in Jesus provide the interpretive lens for understanding Scripture. And the Church Fathers had no apparent qualms about reinterpreting parts of the Bible if they seemed to contradict the Gospel.
In light of this, Schenck’s position seems more consonant with the mainstream Christian tradition than some modern forms of inerrancy. Christians have always regarded some parts of the Bible as more central or authoritative than others, no matter what their theory of biblical inspiration may say. The gospels and the Pauline letters are more central than the pastoral letters or Revelation; Isaiah and the Psalms are more central than 1 and 2 Chronicles or Obadiah, etc. And this priority is determined in part by a rule of faith, such as the creed, that provides a summary of the essentials of the Christian message.
This doesn’t mean that we can just ignore the parts of the Bible that we don’t like. But it does mean that our interpretation is shaped by the faith of the Christian community. A different rule of faith would undoubtedly result in some different interpretive choices (as modern Judaism demonstrates). But there’s really no getting around that. After all, the canon of Scripture itself was established in the light of such a rule.
In a post yesterday, Daniel Silliman quoted historian Molly Worthen arguing that biblical “inerrancy” became an entrenched position among evangelical Christians only when it seemed necessary to shore up beliefs that were under attack by theological modernists. Prior to that, evangelicals held a variety of views on the inspiration of the Bible.
He specifically mentions the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s emphasis on the “sufficiency” of Scripture:
[S]ome theologians of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, including important figures in the early history of the Church of the Nazarene, rejected inerrancy. The ultimate revelation of God, they wrote, was not the Bible. The ultimate revelation was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible was to be thought of not as an authority but as a guide to the revelation of Christ.
It’s “sufficiency,” rather than inerrancy, was emphasized.
This remains the official position of the United Methodist Church, which of course also traces its roots back to Wesley. The Methodist Articles of Religion, which were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England’s 39 Articles and are shared by a number of churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, include this statement on the “Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”:
The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
While this says that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, it does not say that everything contained in the Bible is necessary for salvation. This at least opens the door for a non-inerrantist understanding of biblical authority.
It’s probably not wise to try to hang too much on this statement, since the origin of the 39 Articles was in Reformation-era disputes, not contemporary questions about biblical inspiration. The question for them was more about where ultimate doctrinal authority was to be found.
Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that inerrancy is not the only–or even historically the most common–way of understanding the Bible’s authority.
The Jesus of the orthodox story treats people with deep attention even when angry. [The gnostic] Jesus zaps people with his divine superpowers if they irritate him. Orthodox Jesus says that everyone needs the love of God, and God loves everyone. Their Jesus has an inner circle you can be admitted to if you collect enough crisp packets. Orthodox Jesus likes wine, parties, and grilled fish for breakfast. Their Jesus thinks that human flesh and its appetites are icky. Orthodox Jesus is disconcertingly unbothered about sexuality, and conducts his own sexual life, if he has one, off the page. Their Jesus can generate women to have sex with out of his own ribs, in a way that suggests the author had trouble talking to girls. Orthodox Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. I am always with you.” The Jesus of these documents says, “Advance, Blue Adept, to the 17th Jade Portal of Amazingness, and give the secret signal with your thumbs.” Read much of the rival “gospels,” and you start to think that the Church Fathers who decided what went into the New Testament had one of the easiest editorial jobs on record. It wasn’t a question of suppression or exclusion, so much as of seeing what did and didn’t belong inside the bounds of a basically coherent story.
–Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, pp. 153-4
One line of argument he made popular went like this. Jesus said that he was God. Jesus was neither a deceiver nor deceived. Therefore Jesus was indeed God. Mocking the idea that Christ was simply a great moral teacher, Lewis wrote that a man that said the sort of things Jesus said “would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell”. Yet even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity, so that the argument fails to get started.
Lewis’s trilemma argument does indeed have a serious weakness, and Kenny gropes towards it: Lewis’s argument depends on the assumption that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s words, but if you doubt the reliability of the Gospel accounts, then you can easily believe that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” who had certain words put in his mouth by later disciples. This is the assumption that underlies most skeptical redactions of the Gospels, from the Jefferson Bible to the work of the Jesus Seminar. But the great majority of biblical scholars today, as throughout the history of the Church, do indeed believe that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s teachings, which puts the trilemma into play.
While I agree with Jacobs that many (if far from all) biblical scholars hold that the gospels (or at least the synoptic gospels) faithfully record the spirit (if not the letter) of Jesus’ teachings, Lewis’s argument still faces some serious obstacles. The biggest problem, in my view, is that Lewis and those who follow him tend to read a full-blown doctrine of the Incarnation back into the gospel texts, and sometimes put questionable interpretations on ambiguous passages. Many of the proof-texts sometimes used to show that Jesus claimed to be divine are susceptible of much less exalted readings.
That said, I do think many contemporary scholars would accept that the historical Jesus claimed a special or unique role for himself in God’s unfolding plan. Many statements of Jesus in the gospels, while falling short of straightforward claims to divinity, do express the sense that one’s response to Jesus is determinative for one’s standing in God’s kingdom. This makes some on the liberal end of the spectrum uncomfortable, in part, I suspect, because it conflicts with the portrait of Jesus as a benevolent sage preaching a message of inclusive tolerance. (See the final chapter of Michael McClymond’s Familiar Stranger for a good discussion of this issue.) So if Jesus viewed himself as the agent of God’s inbreaking reign, even if he didn’t claim to be divine in Nicea-compliant terms, a modified version of Lewis’s trilemma argument could perhaps get off the ground.
Luther believed that his was a restatement of the New Testament, especially of Paul. But although his message contains the truth of Paul, it is by no means the whole of what Paul said. The situation determined what he took from Paul, that is, the doctrine of justification by faith which was Paul’s defense against legalism. But Luther did not take in Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit. Of course, he did not deny it; there is even a lot of it in Luther, but that is not decisive. The decisive thing is that a doctrine of the Spirit, of being “in Christ”, of the new being, is the weak spot in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. In Paul the situation is different. Paul has three main centers in his thought, which make it a triangle, not a circle. The one is his eschatological consciousness, the certainty that in Christ eschatology is fulfilled and a new reality has started. The second is his doctrine of the Spirit, which means for him that the kingdom of God has appeared, that the new being in Christ is given to us here and now. The third point in Paul is his critical defense against legalism, justification by faith. (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, pp. 230-1)
Like proponents of the “new perspective” on Paul, Tillich, Lutheran theologian though he was, saw the limitations of the traditional “Lutheran” interpretation of Paul’s theology. Tillich doesn’t deny that justification by faith is present in Paul’s thought–indeed it remains very important for Tillich’s own theology. But also important is the idea that Christ inaugurates a new age and that Christians “participate,” through the Spirit, in the life of the risen Christ (or the “new being,” to use Tillich’s preferred term).
To use an analogy that comes naturally to me as a scientist, the Bible is not the ultimate textbook in which one can look up ready-made answers to all the big questions, but is more like a laboratory notebook, in which are recorded critical historical experiences through which aspects of the divine will and nature have been most accessibly revealed. I believe that the nature of divine revelation is not the mysterious transmission of infallible propositions which are to be accepted without question, but the record of persons and events through which the divine will and nature have been most transparently made known. – John Polkinghorne, Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, p. 1
The New Testament writings, Schleiermacher says, are the first in the ongoing series of presentations of the Christian faith, but they are also normative for all succeeding presentations. He writes, “all that has approved itself in the way of oral presentation of Christian piety in later ages of the Church has kept within the lines of these original forms, or is attached to them as an explanatory accompaniment” (§129.1). But, he asks, if redemption is being “ever more completely realized in time,” then how can these first writings retain their normative status? Might they not be replaced by newer, fuller insights? This is true in a limited sense: when we compare the apostolic age as a whole with later ages. For during the apostolic age there was a variety of Christian writings that possessed uneven quality in terms of how clearly they expressed the essence of Christian piety. However, those testimonies that “stood near[est] to Christ”–for instance, narratives of his words and deeds–exerted a “purifying” influence on the church, allowing it gradually to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus the writings existing at the time were later divided into the apocryphal and canonical. So, in that sense, later ages may have an advantage over the apostolic.
The influence of apocryphal elements was bound to diminish, Schleiermacher says, precisely because of the purifying influence of what later came to be recognized as the canonical witness. These writings were the ones that contained memories of those who actually knew Jesus. And those testimonies constitute an irreplaceable source and norm of Christian faith. The Church “could never again reproduce the canonical, for the living intuition of Christ was never again able to ward off all debasing influences in the same direct fashion, but only derivatively through the Scriptures and hence in dependence on them” (§129.2). The New Testament is authoritative because it contains memories of the historical Jesus and the testimonies of those who first came to have faith in him. So, later ages may have the advantage over the apostolic in having been purged of certain competing influences; but they can never side-step the authority of the canonical scriptures.
He goes on to say that not every part of the New Testament enjoys this authority–only what pertains to the central message and not “side-thoughts.” Nor is all later Christian thought to be confined to simply repeating what’s in the New Testament. “For since the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, no age can be without its own originality in Christian thinking” (§129.2). Yet all Christian thought has to be tested for its harmony with the canonical writings, and no later writing can provide the same kind of yardstick.
According to Schleiermacher, the authority of the Bible cannot be the foundation of Christian faith. The notion that it is, he says, is more often implied than asserted, for instance by how books of doctrine and confessional documents present the doctrine of Scripture. Nevertheless, we need to get this misconception out of the way. So, he asks, if faith in Christ is to be established on the basis of the Bible’s authority, how is the authority of the Bible itself to be established? It can’t be by rational demonstration, for two reasons. First, such an approach would introduce an inequality in how Christians come to faith: there would be a class of Christians who are themselves capable of following the chain of reasoning that demonstrates the authority of the Bible, and there would be those who have to accept its authority on trust. But this would be “incongruous with that equality of all Christians which the Evangelical [i.e., Protestant] Church proclaims, and would, as in the Church of Rome, demand from the laity an unqualified and submissive trust in those who alone have access to the grounds of faith” (The Christian Faith, §128.1). Second, even if a proof of Scripture’s authority was forthcoming, the resulting faith would “not be a genuine, living faith at all” because someone could possess it without feeling the need for redemption or being in “living fellowship” with Christ.
Furthermore, if there can be no distinctions between classes of Christians in terms of how they arrive at their faith (in order for it to be the same faith), this principle applies across time too. In other words, the way that contemporary Christians come to faith can be no different, in principle, from how the first Christians came to have faith in Christ. And, clearly, their faith was not based on the authority of Scripture since the New Testament didn’t exist. (S. considers and rejects the possibility that the first Christians’ faith was based on the authority of the Old Testament in that they perceived Christ to be the fulfillment of the OT prophecies. Rather, he says, they came to believe in Christ first and then went back to the Scriptures and found that they foretold him.) The first disciples’ faith originated in the personal encounter with Jesus himself. It “sprang from Christ’s preaching of Himself, [and] so in the case of others faith sprang from the preaching of Christ by the Apostles and many more” (§128.2). Therefore, Christian faith is not of necessity bound up with the belief that the books of the Bible posses a special status; this faith “may rest on any other sort of witness that is accomplished by real perception of Christ’s spiritual power–may rest, that is, simply on oral tradition” (§128.1).
“Thus,” he says, “in order to attain to faith, we need no such doctrine of Scripture, and the attempt to force unbelievers into faith by means of it has had no success” (128.2). It is only when we already have faith in the message about Jesus that we properly come to ascribe a special status to the New Testament witness.
Kenton Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture cuts to the heart of how Christians understand revelation and the truth of the Bible. This is a more popularly pitched version of an argument that Sparks, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, made in his book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. The issue is: How can the Bible be a revelation from God and normative for Christian faith and practice when it contains passages that depict God in morally horrifying ways and ethical commands that seem downright evil, not only by modern standards, but by standards embedded in the Christian tradition itself?
Sparks argues, correctly I think, that this presents a more difficult issue than biblical “errancy” regarding history or science. It’s relatively easy to make peace with the idea that the Bible did not adhere to modern standards of historical accuracy and that it was not meant to teach scientific cosmology or biology. However, the “texts of terror” threaten to undermine what Christians claim is the central message of the Bible: a revelation of God’s gracious character, will, and purposes for humanity and the world.
The touchstone example Sparks uses is the story of the Canaanite genocide recorded in the book of Joshua. How can the God who commands Joshua to slaughter men, women, and children be the God of limitless compassion that Christians claim to believe in? Some of the church fathers dealt with these passages by adverting to allegorical interpretations: they should be interpreted as referring to our internal spiritual warfare against our sins, for example. Sparks argues (again, correctly, I think) that such readings will seem strained to modern readers. Instead, he says we should frankly admit that such passages are not part of God’s word, at least not directly.
To articulate his position, Sparks draws an analogy between the “problem” of the Bible and the problem of evil as it’s usually discussed in the Christian tradition. Briefly, theologians–however much their specific approaches may differ–have generally maintained that creation is good but fallen and that the source of sin and disorder is in humanity not God. The Bible, Sparks says, is part of the fallen creation–it is not perfect or inerrant but reflects human sinfulness. “Scripture is a casualty of the fallen cosmos” (p. 66). But just as God uses fallen human beings to advance God’s purposes, God uses the Bible–taken as a canonical whole–as a medium for revelation. The Bible is both human and divine discourse.
The inevitable question, though, is how we are supposed to distinguish the divine message from those parts of Scripture that reflect human error or sin. Sparks offers several responses to this: first, Scripture sometimes corrects itself, as in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he relativized certain parts of the Mosaic law; second, we should read individual passages in the context of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative and message; and third, we need to read the Bible in light of the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit, the revelation of God in the natural world, the Christian tradition, and our own experience. Sparks emphasizes that most passages of the Bible admit of a surplus of meaning and we should be cautious in thinking we’ve arrived at the one true interpretation. He also points out that a key test of Christians’ Bible-reading is whether it leads to Christ-shaped lives.
Sparks identifies, at least to some extent, as an evangelical, and much of what he says may not seem particularly controversial to mainline Christians, who generally admit that the Bible is a humanly conditioned document. But mainliners have not always been clear on what their positive doctrine of Scripture is; Sparks’ book clearly articulates a position that is honest about the text while also maintaining a “high” view of the Bible’s authority. Such a position should in principle be acceptable to a fairly broad swath of Christians, from fairly conservative to fairly liberal. My one complaint is that Sparks is vague (as he himself admits) on how he understands the Bible’s inspiration, as well as the closely related concept of revelation. For example, is the medium of revelation the text itself, an overall message or regula fidei derived from the text, or the events that the texts witness to? But on the whole, I’d recommend this book as a sane and balanced approach to a difficult topic.
I’ve been reading The Scope and Authority of the Bible by biblical scholar James Barr, and in it he clarifies something I’ve been thinking for a while. Barr wrote a well-known book on fundamentalism, and one of the essays in Scope… deals with fundamentalism.
The point Barr makes is that, contrary to what is often said, fundamentalism doesn’t mean reading the Bible “literally.” Rather, its distinguishing mark is a doctrine of inerrancy that is frequently at odds with a literal reading:
It is often said that fundamentalists are ‘people who take the Bible literally’. This however is a mistake. Fundamentalist interpretation concentrates not on taking the Bible literally, but on taking it so that it will appear to have been inerrant, without error in point of fact. Far from insisting that interpretation should be literal, it veers back and forward between the literal sense and a non-literal sense, in order to preserve the impression that the Bible is, especially in historical regards, always ‘right’. . . . It is the inerrancy of the Bible, especially its truth in historical regards, that is the fundamentalist position, and not the notion that it must always be interpreted literally. (pp. 77-8)
We might think, for instance, of the strained attempts to “harmonize” the four gospels or to assemble the eschatological passages of the Bible into a coherent “end times” narrative.
By contrast, Barr says,
It is the critical interpretation of the Bible that has noticed, and given full value to, the literal sense. In this sense, as Ebeling and others have noticed, the critical movement is the true heir of the Reformation with its emphasis on the plain sense of scripture. It is precisely because of its respect for the literal sense that critical scholarship has concluded that different sources in (say) the Pentateuch, or the gospels, must be identified. . . . Characteristic conservative treatments, as I have shown, depart from the natural meaning of the texts in order to force upon them an apologetically-motivated harmonization which will evade the fact of the contradiction. (p. 78)
In short, fundamentalism, Barr says, refuses to take the Bible as it is, but instead presents a homogenized version that fits safely into a preexisting theological scheme. (The appeal to the “original autographs” is another example of rejecting the Bible we have for an idealized one.) It’s noteworthy that the doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t arise directly from anything the Bible claims for itself, but has usually been imposed on the it as a conclusion from a theological argument about the kind of Bible God must have produced.