Not Born This Liberal: Further Thoughts on Inerrancy

I think it is hilarious that Mike Bird referred to me as the “Lady Gaga of the biblioblogosphere.” But if I’m a Liberal/Progressive Christian, it isn’t because I was “born this way.” The views I now hold are ones that it took me a while to reach, and while I wasn’t born into conservative Evangelicalism either, once there, I took the usual steps to resist “sliding” into “liberalism.”

And thus the depiction of the stereotypical college professor offered by Collin Hansen, which Mike linked to and which mentions my blog post, certainly doesn’t describe me well. Hansen writes of “the relish university New Testament professors display when they expose the Bible’s supposed errors for wide-eyed college freshmen”. I find that description problematic, not only because he describes them as “supposed errors,” but also because sometimes it takes recognizing errors to begin treating the texts in question not as a supernatural code to be cracked, but as texts to be understood using at least the full array of tools at our disposal. Be that as it may, I took no delight in discovering errors, and devoted all the intellectual effort to harmonizing them and explaining them away that any good conservative Evangelical was expected to. Yet with hindsight, I take delight in the fact that I have stopped defending my doctrine of Scripture from the evidence the Bible itself provides, and can now simply do my best to make sense of those problematic parts of Scripture, rather than feeling obliged to explain them away lest my theological house of cards come crashing down.

Hansen writes:

What kind of humility prefers the whims of modern, Western interpretation over church tradition extending all the way back to the men who walked and talked with Jesus and recalled his very words? Here is true arrogance, to suppose we enlightened few truly understand. What may appear to us the less likely interpretation of a troubling passage may in fact reflect the very different time and place where Jesus walked and talked among us. A host of alleged discrepancies vanish when we shed our Western blinders.

There certainly are errors and difficulties that evaporate when we place the Bible’s texts in their historical context. There are also many which come into focus through the same process. Reading Genesis 1 as though it were written today is problematic, but recognizing that it reflects an ancient worldview which believed that there was a dome over the earth does not simply make all the problems go away, in particular for conservative Evangelicals. And shedding the blinkers provided by our annual Christmas pageants, and instead reading each Gospel on its own terms, only brings the contradictory geographical movements and chronologies of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke into sharper focus, to give one example.

The notion that it is conservatives who are consistently offering such a contextual interpretation, over against liberals who are simply out to find problems, is not a viewpoint that anyone who reads widely in Biblical studies will find credible. But it certainly is true that, like the Reformers whose approach to church tradition is allegedly part of Hansen’s heritage, Biblical scholars are open to challenging the assumption that later Christians always understood texts faithfully and accurately. If there is a difference, it is that mainstream scholars do not suddenly shift to appealing to church tradition when we do not like where critical investigation is leading.

The caricature that scholars remake Jesus in their image, while conservative Christians simply accept his words, is likewise inaccurate. Marcus Borg once commented how he had and has no particular interest in finding a Jesus who is a Mediterranean peasant, and would much prefer that he were a middle class guy who drives a Mitsubishi. John Dominic Crossan found a Jesus that, at least initially, didn’t seem to be one that he could follow. And going back a ways, Albert Schweitzer’s experience also runs counter to the caricature – although it is perhaps worth noting that in some important sense each of the above has found a way to follow the uncomfortable Jesus that historical investigation presented them with. But to quote an Evangelical scholar, Tom Wright once wrote the following (N.T. Wright, “The New Unimproved Jesus” Christianity Today Sept 13, 1995, p.26):

For me, studying Jesus in his historical context has been the most profoundly disturbing, enriching, and Christianizing activity of my life. As a historian, I meet a Jesus the church has unwittingly hushed up–a more believable Jesus, a Jesus who challenges me more deeply than any preacher, a Jesus who evokes my love and worship by what he is and does, not by the sentiment or hype that some preachers fall back on.

Scholarship can be an aid to faith – as long as you are willing to allow it to change and transform your views, and not merely try to use it to justify views you already hold. It disturbs me that conservative Evangelicals time and time again emphasize the detailed careful study of the Bible and the authority of the Bible, and yet time and time again resist following the route or drawing the conclusions that many of us reach, not because we set out with a desire to reach them (often, quite the contrary), but because careful study of the Bible’s contents leaves us with little choice. We must either be honest about what the Bible is and what we find in it, or uphold a dogmatic view of Scripture in spite of evidence to the contrary in Scripture itself. And if you are willing to do the latter, presumably you’ve lost all plausibility to a claim to be a Bible-believing Christian anyway, and so I don’t see the point.

These thoughts relate to Mike’s comments and even more so Collin Hansen’s comments on my recent post about inerrancy, the Bible, and Sarah Palin (with a dash of Paul Revere thrown in). Since the present post seems long enough, I’ll leave talking about the other subject Mike mentioned, penal substitution as a theory of the atonement, for my next post.

  • JS Allen

    I think “Lady McGaga” sounds so much better :-)

  • JS Allen

    I think “Lady McGaga” sounds so much better :-)

  • http://twitter.com/RodATJr Rodney Thomas

    “What kind of humility prefers the whims of modern, Western
    interpretation over church tradition extending all the way back to the
    men who walked and talked with Jesus and recalled his very words?”

    That’s a quote from Hansen’s post. I would just like to ask, at this point, which church is he referring too?  Certainly he recognizes the problems with calling on “the church” as he sees it, right? ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/RtRDH RodRogueDemonHunter

    “What kind of humility prefers the whims of modern, Western
    interpretation over church tradition extending all the way back to the
    men who walked and talked with Jesus and recalled his very words?”

    That’s a quote from Hansen’s post. I would just like to ask, at this point, which church is he referring too?  Certainly he recognizes the problems with calling on “the church” as he sees it, right? ;-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Rodney, I’m honestly not sure he does – but it might be worth paying a visit and asking him!

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Rodney, I’m honestly not sure he does – but it might be worth paying a visit and asking him!

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ James,
    Bravo, well said!  I can almost remember my days of being a Christian and applauding what you wrote — having drifted from conservative to liberal but never as far as you — I jumped ship on the way there.  And I think that is the rightful fear of conservatives.  
    I love your influence on Christianity.

    One thing that stands out to me:

    “We must either be honest about what the Bible is and what we find in it, or uphold a dogmatic view of Scripture in spite of evidence to the contrary in Scripture itself. And if you are willing to do the latter, presumably you’ve lost all plausibility to a claim to be a Bible-believing Christian anyway, and so I don’t see the point.”
    -James

     

    This points out something so fun to me — a religion based on a book.  It is fun to think how the religion evolved in that there was no Christian significant canon to have such a conversation about in the early days of the religion.  Sure, the OT and a few letters perhaps, but the we all know that all the complexity and nuances involved in the above statement that permeate modern scholastic Christianity were not part of the picture for early Christians.

    We can see why the Arabs (creating Islam) coveted having a book too.  It is time we left bookolatry behind.  You are helping folks do that.  If only Muslims could do it.  James gets teased when he does it in Christian circles, Muslim scholars face far worse.  I see this as incredibly hopeful.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ James,
    Bravo, well said!  I can almost remember my days of being a Christian and applauding what you wrote — having drifted from conservative to liberal but never as far as you — I jumped ship on the way there.  And I think that is the rightful fear of conservatives.  
    I love your influence on Christianity.

    One thing that stands out to me:

    “We must either be honest about what the Bible is and what we find in it, or uphold a dogmatic view of Scripture in spite of evidence to the contrary in Scripture itself. And if you are willing to do the latter, presumably you’ve lost all plausibility to a claim to be a Bible-believing Christian anyway, and so I don’t see the point.”
    -James

     

    This points out something so fun to me — a religion based on a book.  It is fun to think how the religion evolved in that there was no Christian significant canon to have such a conversation about in the early days of the religion.  Sure, the OT and a few letters perhaps, but the we all know that all the complexity and nuances involved in the above statement that permeate modern scholastic Christianity were not part of the picture for early Christians.

    We can see why the Arabs (creating Islam) coveted having a book too.  It is time we left bookolatry behind.  You are helping folks do that.  If only Muslims could do it.  James gets teased when he does it in Christian circles, Muslim scholars face far worse.  I see this as incredibly hopeful.

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad Matthies

    If you start dressing like her I’ll audit all of your courses!

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Deal! ;-)

      I’m teaching Paul and the Early Church in the Fall, and you’d be most welcome. But if I didn’t wear thematically- appropriate clothing in Religion and Science Fiction, I don’t think dressing like Lady Gaga for the Paul class is very likely on my part…

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad Matthies

    If you start dressing like her I’ll audit all of your courses!

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Deal! ;-)

      I’m teaching Paul and the Early Church in the Fall, and you’d be most welcome. But if I didn’t wear thematically- appropriate clothing in Religion and Science Fiction, I don’t think dressing like Lady Gaga for the Paul class is very likely on my part…

  • Ken Schenck

    It will seem strange that I am probably considered a liberal in my own circles, but I completely agree with the general sense of your post.  It was with great reluctance that I gave up the KJV and then that I acknowledged the importance of historical context and then that I acknowledged sources behind the gospels…

    I am sorry that someone like Ehrman lost his faith over textual issues (of all things), but I understand how stupid people like him feel after being zealous for causes that turn out to be misguided upon closer scrutiny.

  • Ken Schenck

    It will seem strange that I am probably considered a liberal in my own circles, but I completely agree with the general sense of your post.  It was with great reluctance that I gave up the KJV and then that I acknowledged the importance of historical context and then that I acknowledged sources behind the gospels…

    I am sorry that someone like Ehrman lost his faith over textual issues (of all things), but I understand how stupid people like him feel after being zealous for causes that turn out to be misguided upon closer scrutiny.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Ken, thanks for sharing your own perspective on this.

    One quick point: it is my understanding that things like textual variations only led Bart Ehrman to a libal form of Christianity. It was the problem of evil that led him to agnosticism.

  • Steve Cornell

    1. I am trying to think of any serious evangelical scholar who treats the bible as: “a supernatural code to be cracked” instead of “texts to be understood using at least the full array of tools at our disposal.” 
    2. While it may be true that “mainstream scholars do not suddenly shift to appealing to church tradition when we do not like where critical investigation is leading.” it is equally the case that many of these same scholars default to some kind of PC thinking expected from the Academy (or, perhaps, from their church tradition).

    3. You wrote: “Scholarship can be an aid to faith – as long as you are willing to allow it to change and transform your views, and not merely try to use it to justify views you already hold.” 

    I assume you realize that this door swings both ways and perhaps more in the direction of non-conservative scholars who frustratingly knee-jerk into some form of fundamentalist reaction to all things conservative. They so often appear to be too deeply committed to presuppositions they believe to be expected of them from their desired audience. Yes, many evangelicals (and no doubt all of us at some points) are guilty of the same. But let’s not pretend that this behavior doesn’t come from many so called “mainstreamers.” 

    4. At the end of the day, we face this dilemma about authority. How and where will the text of scripture sit in judgment over us? Frankly, when one answers this question in detail, the smoke and mirrors are removed and our motivational presuppositions (and authentic scholarship) are exposed. 

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Ken, thanks for sharing your own perspective on this.

    One quick point: it is my understanding that things like textual variations only led Bart Ehrman to a libal form of Christianity. It was the problem of evil that led him to agnosticism.

  • Steve Cornell

    1. I am trying to think of any serious evangelical scholar who treats the bible as: “a supernatural code to be cracked” instead of “texts to be understood using at least the full array of tools at our disposal.” 
    2. While it may be true that “mainstream scholars do not suddenly shift to appealing to church tradition when we do not like where critical investigation is leading.” it is equally the case that many of these same scholars default to some kind of PC thinking expected from the Academy (or, perhaps, from their church tradition).

    3. You wrote: “Scholarship can be an aid to faith – as long as you are willing to allow it to change and transform your views, and not merely try to use it to justify views you already hold.” 

    I assume you realize that this door swings both ways and perhaps more in the direction of non-conservative scholars who frustratingly knee-jerk into some form of fundamentalist reaction to all things conservative. They so often appear to be too deeply committed to presuppositions they believe to be expected of them from their desired audience. Yes, many evangelicals (and no doubt all of us at some points) are guilty of the same. But let’s not pretend that this behavior doesn’t come from many so called “mainstreamers.” 

    4. At the end of the day, we face this dilemma about authority. How and where will the text of scripture sit in judgment over us? Frankly, when one answers this question in detail, the smoke and mirrors are removed and our motivational presuppositions (and authentic scholarship) are exposed. 

  • Ken Schenck

    Thanks for the clarification James…

  • Ken Schenck

    Thanks for the clarification James…

  • Isaiah burton

    Great post James, just a question though, you say that modern scholars like Crossan and Borg don’t find a Jesus in their own image. I haven’t read enough of Borg to know, but it seems that the Jesus and the politics of Rome and Jerusalem that Crossan describes could be seen as an analog for the politics of Northern Ireland in relation to Great Britain. Also, you mention Schweitzer and granted, he did not find a Jesus in his own image, quite the opposite, but wasn’t his work “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” a direct response to the scholarship of critical scholars who were finding a Jesus in their own images? I’m just wondering if you would agree with this, and if not, why? 

  • Isaiah burton

    Great post James, just a question though, you say that modern scholars like Crossan and Borg don’t find a Jesus in their own image. I haven’t read enough of Borg to know, but it seems that the Jesus and the politics of Rome and Jerusalem that Crossan describes could be seen as an analog for the politics of Northern Ireland in relation to Great Britain. Also, you mention Schweitzer and granted, he did not find a Jesus in his own image, quite the opposite, but wasn’t his work “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” a direct response to the scholarship of critical scholars who were finding a Jesus in their own images? I’m just wondering if you would agree with this, and if not, why? 

  • Isaiah Burton

    Also, I’m curious what steps do you go through to try to eliminate contamination of modern ideas influencing your work? I haven’t read any of your books, so I’m not accusing you of anything.

  • Isaiah Burton

    Also, I’m curious what steps do you go through to try to eliminate contamination of modern ideas influencing your work? I haven’t read any of your books, so I’m not accusing you of anything.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @3d6adbddaf85ed5eff0833f8c06cb749:disqus , thanks for your comment. I agree that conservative Evangelical scholars do not, as a rule, treat the Bible that way. But laypeople and students do, and are often willing to have a pastor removed or criticize one of their own scholars because of the disconnect between any scholarship, even of a conservative Evangelical sort, and their understanding of the Bible and their faith. 

    The Bible includes a great deal that continues to challenge, inspire, provoke and judge the reader. But if we look at the history of interpretation of these texts, which begins even within the pages of Scripture itself, there is not simply acceptance but also critical evaluation on the part of readers. When the author of Chronicles reworked his sources, he didn’t treat them as beyond being improved upon – to give but one example.

    I believe that when conservatives say that they are simply letting Scripture judge them, and never sitting in judgment upon Scripture, they are either deceiving themselves or being dishonest. When Evangelical translators of the NIV removed the reference to a dome in Genesis 1, they were not simply letting Scripture speak for itself. And when we all fail to put into practice Luke 14:33 it isn’t because it is unclear but because we all have ways of resisting and avoiding the “judgment” that the plain sense of Scripture pronounces upon us.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @3d6adbddaf85ed5eff0833f8c06cb749:disqus , thanks for your comment. I agree that conservative Evangelical scholars do not, as a rule, treat the Bible that way. But laypeople and students do, and are often willing to have a pastor removed or criticize one of their own scholars because of the disconnect between any scholarship, even of a conservative Evangelical sort, and their understanding of the Bible and their faith. 

    The Bible includes a great deal that continues to challenge, inspire, provoke and judge the reader. But if we look at the history of interpretation of these texts, which begins even within the pages of Scripture itself, there is not simply acceptance but also critical evaluation on the part of readers. When the author of Chronicles reworked his sources, he didn’t treat them as beyond being improved upon – to give but one example.

    I believe that when conservatives say that they are simply letting Scripture judge them, and never sitting in judgment upon Scripture, they are either deceiving themselves or being dishonest. When Evangelical translators of the NIV removed the reference to a dome in Genesis 1, they were not simply letting Scripture speak for itself. And when we all fail to put into practice Luke 14:33 it isn’t because it is unclear but because we all have ways of resisting and avoiding the “judgment” that the plain sense of Scripture pronounces upon us.

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Isaiah, thanks for those good points. I think that there is, across the spectrum, a risk of finding not so much what we want to find, as what our assumptions and context lead us to. And so, while I think that scholarly and in particular historical tools can be helpful in at least making us aware of our assumptions, and help us at least attempt to avoid simply reading our assumptions and historical horizon into antiquity. But no one is fully able to think themselves into an ancient context, and sometimes this is quite explicit. To look at the example of Borg, while in some respects he placed Jesus firmly in an ancient context, he also in others allowed his own contemporary and Christian convictions to interfere with doing so. I’m thinking of the question of whether Jesus held an apocalyptic-type expectation. Borg somewhere explicitly mentions that one reason for rejecting the end-of-the-world Jesus is because prophets of doom strike him as rather loony figures, whereas Jesus strikes him as sane! I don’t think that is a sound basis for drawing such a conclusion, not least because what a type of figure is like, and what seems loopy, differs from one historical and cultural context to another.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Isaiah, thanks for those good points. I think that there is, across the spectrum, a risk of finding not so much what we want to find, as what our assumptions and context lead us to. And so, while I think that scholarly and in particular historical tools can be helpful in at least making us aware of our assumptions, and help us at least attempt to avoid simply reading our assumptions and historical horizon into antiquity. But no one is fully able to think themselves into an ancient context, and sometimes this is quite explicit. To look at the example of Borg, while in some respects he placed Jesus firmly in an ancient context, he also in others allowed his own contemporary and Christian convictions to interfere with doing so. I’m thinking of the question of whether Jesus held an apocalyptic-type expectation. Borg somewhere explicitly mentions that one reason for rejecting the end-of-the-world Jesus is because prophets of doom strike him as rather loony figures, whereas Jesus strikes him as sane! I don’t think that is a sound basis for drawing such a conclusion, not least because what a type of figure is like, and what seems loopy, differs from one historical and cultural context to another.

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  • Gary

    James said, “Borg somewhere explicitly mentions that one reason for rejecting the end-of-the-world Jesus is because prophets of doom strike him as rather loony figures, whereas Jesus strikes him as sane”…I assume Borg means end of this current world. Jesus’s predictions were “right-on”, if you assume he was talking about 70 AD. I can buy into either Jesus as the Messiah, and predicted the end of Jerusalem, the OT convenant, temple system, and brought the Gentiles and Jews into a common community….or with less enthusiasm that his predictions were written about after the fact, but still meant to be about the 70 AD event (of course, then you have to question Christianity itself). I cannot accept dispensationalist end-of-world predictions, yet-to-be tribulation, rapture (if not part of the general resurrection), etc. I view that they are loony. Of course, as you say, loony is not historic evidence, or scientific evidence.

  • Gary

    James said, “Borg somewhere explicitly mentions that one reason for rejecting the end-of-the-world Jesus is because prophets of doom strike him as rather loony figures, whereas Jesus strikes him as sane”…I assume Borg means end of this current world. Jesus’s predictions were “right-on”, if you assume he was talking about 70 AD. I can buy into either Jesus as the Messiah, and predicted the end of Jerusalem, the OT convenant, temple system, and brought the Gentiles and Jews into a common community….or with less enthusiasm that his predictions were written about after the fact, but still meant to be about the 70 AD event (of course, then you have to question Christianity itself). I cannot accept dispensationalist end-of-world predictions, yet-to-be tribulation, rapture (if not part of the general resurrection), etc. I view that they are loony. Of course, as you say, loony is not historic evidence, or scientific evidence.


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