The Bible and Knowledge 2 (RJS)

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I don’t ever jump in to introduce posts by RJS. But this post today is a summary and sketch of a very serious proposal for how to understand the doctrine of Scripture and our knowledge of Scripture/theology. Give this a good read and join in on the conversation. SMcK

Chapter 1 of Kent Spark’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW) continues the exploration of the influence of culture on human understanding of scripture with a discussion of the postmodern era. While it is not correct to say that our current culture is postmodern it does appear to be correct to say that we are in a time of transition from enlightenment modernity into “something else” and postmodern is as good a word as any.The transition began in the late 1800’s and continues today.

Sparks describes two types of postmodern thought developing from the weakness of the modern optimism that certainty and rational objective knowledge were obtainable goals.  The first, antirealism, gets most of the bad press, and is not really worth serious consideration – but the second, practical realism, makes much more sense of the world we see and experience and, for the present purposes, of the Biblical text we have received.

According to Sparks practical realism recognizes that even the best instances of human knowledge are good and adequate but also finite and imperfect. As we look at the text of scripture it seems apparent that this is true of the text we have.  The human authors of scripture were subject to the same limitations as everyone else, including the original audience of the texts and every generation since. God in scripture uses adequate means and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.

In fact, I suggest that this is all that 2 Tim 3:14-17 teaches – scripture is God given, God breathed (θεόπνευστος), and adequate for his purpose; wisdom that leads to salvation and training for righteousness.

Is it reasonable to suggest that God used and uses adequate rather than perfect means to convey his message in scripture?

Practical realism is a Third Way approach – but it is not gray or lukewarm, resulting from a mix of black and white or hot and cold. Rather it is a new path of epistemic humility and optimism. Perhaps here it is best to simply quote Sparks – but the whole chapter is well worth reading.

For practical realists, tradition does not blind us to truth. It is instead the imperfect but useful way that humans grasp, discover, and perpetuate truth. (p. 42)

It is not terribly difficult to see where this line of thought leads us. If practical realism has it right that tradition is the path of understanding but also a road sign that partly misleads, then the epistemic result will be neither pure fancy nor belief emancipated from human error. Human beings enjoy a modest and adequate capacity to understand and successfully live in the world. But we understand things always partially and always in some respects wrongly. (p. 42)

Implicit in this practical realist account of epistemology is an account of human language and textual meaning. If human thoughts and ideas do not perfectly mirror reality, still less this will be true of our words. Words are not bearers of full meaning so much as the specific clues by which we infer meanings when we read or hear verbal discourse. … That is, according to practical realists, we are able to understand verbal discourse very truly – but always partially and to some extent even wrongly. (p. 43)

According to this view human communication is at best adequate. And scripture is ultimately human communication because the audience is human and language is human. Even if we had a perfect “inerrant” text of scripture in the modernist or fundamentalist sense, human comprehension and inference from the text is at best adequate. But the human authors of scripture are subject to the same limitations as everyone else, including the human audience. There is no reason based on the evidence we have – the text of scripture itself – to think that God protected scripture from the humanity of the human authors. God in scripture uses adequate means and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.

I would have objected to being classified as “postmodern” before reading this chapter, largely because of the perception that postmodernism = antirealism. But Sparks’s description of practical realism is a good description of the way I think about scripture among other things.

So what does this mean?

There are two common ways of looking for authority and certainty in the Christian faith.

In one view authority is vested in the institutional church and our faith is founded on the inerrancy of church tradition and church hierarchy.  This is the rock upon which we stand. The search for authority drives many converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism (See Scot’s book Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy). But when the church fails – and it often has and still does – this undermines the foundation of faith.

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In another view – the reformation view – authority is vested in scripture and our faith is founded on scripture. Scripture is the rock upon which we stand. In the context of modernist thought this foundation is only secure if scripture is inerrant. If any piece of scripture is questioned and found wanting – all is open to question and we start down the slippery slope … Our belief in the historicity of the resurrection depends on the historicity of Noah  or Exodus. No distinction is possible.

This is something of a caricature I admit, but the image I am left with is a house of cards faith.  We have a construct built by taking the pages of scripture and assembling an understanding of the faith and church.  If any page, any card, is removed the whole structure is shaky and may collapse, some would say will collapse. The foundation of faith is Scripture – but more than this, the foundation of faith is every jot and tittle of scripture.

But aren’t we better served by a third view – our faith is founded on God alone. The rock on which we stand is God alone – and his work in this world, including the atoning work of Christ. Scripture illuminates God, his nature and his interaction with his creation.

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In this view our questions about scripture do not shake the foundation. The idea that the story of Gen 3 tells important theological truths in mythic form; the suggestion that the story of the exodus from Egypt may (likely does) have elements that are not exactly historical in the modern sense of literal – factual reporting, even the redaction of Matthew and the authorship of 2 Timothy … these are ideas, questions, suggestions that we can consider and discuss without fear, but with reverence.

In this view we require that scripture is reliable  (the lamp must give off light) –  but we do not require that scripture be inerrant in the common evangelical use of the term (it is not the foundation of knowledge). A reliable scripture is consistent with the evidence and not demolished by modern biblical scholarship. And we can use modern biblical scholarship to help us better understand the text and the message. Mark Roberts’ book Can We Trust the Gospels? is an excellent readable discussion of one aspect of scripture along these lines. The Gospels are reliable. God in scripture uses adequate means, adequate witnesses, and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.

And to go back to the notion of authority vested in the Church.  The church is on the rock, but it is not the rock on which we stand. In this view the Church, the traditions, are not foundational, but paths blazed before us on the rock.  We do well to take with utmost attention the wrestlings and opinions of those who have gone before us and those who stand alongside us, but we also do well to consider when and where the Church as institution has and does go astray.

Ok – this is my thinking at this point. Now I open it for discussion and refinement.

Is practical realism – and the consequent view of scripture as both reliable and adequate a workable approach? Why or why not.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

  • Peter

    “All language is metaphor” and therefore subject to differences in understanding (couldn’t find the source for the quote; sorry).
    Living in Indonesia for a long time, concepts such as these are forced into contrast with Islam for me: In Islam God sent a man to tell us about a book; in Christianity God sent a book that tells us about a man. We are not Muslims and should “monitor” any drift toward handling our scriptures in the way that Muslims do. Our relationship is with a living communicating God, not with a book.
    Still, regard for the book as the authoritative is reasonable only when we recognize God as the authority behind it and his Spirit as the one who communicates it to us. I though that “The Blue Parakeet” articulated this well. The use of he word “adequate” here fits with my understanding of the incarnation: messy, just like my life in this world.

  • Scot McKnight

    Thanks much for this post: practical realism is a genuine Third Way approach and one that many will want to embrace today. I’m keen that folks read this, absorb this, and converse about it…..

  • Jim Marks

    I often have wondered, and still do, why so many people have used 2nd Timothy 3:16-17 as the grounds for a belief that the Bible is “perfect” and “inspired” (a word they use narrowly here to mean that G-d wrote the book -through- human hands but that all the usual finite, limited, messy business about people doesn’t apply). When this epistle was being written, The New Testament didn’t exist and of the books which are a part of it were not yet considered “Scripture” in any canonical sense. For many Jews, only the Pentateuch was “Scripture”, not the entire “Old Testament” we embrace. And yet most Christians nearly completely ignore The Law of Moses in their Bible (with good reason, the few who don’t tend to do more harm than good in this world).
    It makes no logical sense whatsoever to take this verse and retroactively apply it to the collected and bound book of which this letter later became a part. Not if you’re going to use it as a proof text that the Bible is perfect. The author did not have a copy of it to have read it to deem it perfect!
    Thank you for finding an understanding of this passage that makes sense.

  • Jim Marks

    As one Catholic who converted from an Evangelical upbringing, I would just like to say that it was a distaste for schism and denominational division, not a quest for authority, that drove me out of Protestantism. We are called to be one Body, the Bride of Christ, and schism is anathema to this calling.
    Rather than some unthinking monolith in subjugation to the understanding provided by the Pope, I find more freedom to ask questions and hold differing opinions in the RCC than I ever did among any group of Protestants (even emerging Protestants).

  • Brian

    “Adequate for what?” is the obvious question to ask.
    Jim, I don’t see myself ever becoming Catholic, but I share your distaste for schism. Anathema is the correct word.

  • Rick

    RJS is postmodern. Who would have thought it? ;^)
    The boundary between God’s message and man’s faults seems muddy here. How do we determine the difference?
    N.T. Wright’s take on the authority of Scripture:
    “When we turn the question round, however, and ask it the other way about, we discover just what a rich concept of authority we are going to need if we are to do justice to this book. The writings written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are not for the most part, as we saw, the sort of things we would think of as ‘authoritative’. They are mostly narrative; and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative?[4] Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”
    So is God’s authority “exercised” through Scripture damaged in the use of use of man’s limited knowledge?
    Jason Sexton asks:
    “One wonders what a “practical realist” reading of Scripture looks like for Sparks, and what criterion might exist for determining where an error is not. A better position seems to be, rejecting any docetic notions, that Scripture is both human and divine; where one ends and the other begins is impossible to know, for they are inseparable. Had these matters been clearer in Sparks’s work, he might have had more to contribute to the inerrancy discussion.”
    Also, as a Trinitarian, and as mentioned by others earlier in the week, I too see a lack of emphasis in the role of the Holy Spirit in all this.

  • RJS

    You are right – one can read the post without thinking “Holy Spirit.” But the Holy Spirit is fundamental in my thinking and is part of “God” Father, Son, and Spirit – this is the rock.
    In fact, I think that the reluctance of evangelicalism to trust the leading of the Spirit (too subjective) in favor of scripture (as unchanging revelation) is probably our biggest shortcoming. The fact is reliance on scripture is just as subjective as reliance on Spirit – because interpretation is always and unavoidably subjective.
    In fact – I suggest reliance on scripture is more subjective. The Spirit is a person of the Trinity. Scripture is not. We cannot rely on scripture, in any fashion (adequate or inerrant) to lead us to God without the power of the Spirit.

  • DML

    I think we have to look at every book in the Bible separately, and look at it with the understanding that their is no unity of scripture. Even the ‘received texts’ have been redacted and contain multiple layers to suit new religious concepts or take away old ones. Instead it is important to dispassionately understand their social, political and religious objectives in the time they were written. Dueling attempts to derive systematic theologies by different denominations are futile efforts and a major source of schism.

  • Richie “Rich” Merritt

    RJS – interesting and thought provoking post. I have been very cautious in both my reading and mulling over of the authority and inerrancy discussion. I totally get what your saying here, and I tend to wholly agree. However, when it comes to the stickier life application issues of the day that leadership tend to wrestle with, how is this 3rd way applied? For instance, the issue of sexual orientation; or women in leadership; and many of the other topics that Scot has so graciously allowed to be discussed in this forum; how do we take that 3rd way approach in dealing with the cultural issues of our day?
    This is a struggle for many I think. It is easier for those in the errant crowd to just say this is it – very black and white. However, for us who are willing to let GOD shape and mold our leadership and not tradition, this tends to put us in some very sticky situations and conversations. The other thing that I am bit skeptical about too, is over the years I have had some pretty strange things said to me with the opening line – “The Lord told me…”, so.., that is also a danger that can lead many down the wrong path too, i.e., Jim Jones.
    Anyway.., I think you get my point. I really appreciate your posts and this forum. Thanks for making us think!

  • RJS

    And I probably used the word “fact” too often in #7 to be truly postmodern – but I am trying.

  • Rick

    Are you suggesting that we cannot rely on Scripture because it is subjective? I don’t think you go that far.
    Also, are you saying the revelation changes, or the application/illumination changes? The revelation of God, His work, and His relationship in creation/fall/redemption/restoration does not change.
    Jesus (the “rock” Himself) indicated the reliability of Scripture, so shouldn’t we take the same approach?
    I just don’t think we should separate the priority of the Holy Spirit in His use of Scripture as a tool, in both its authorship, and in the church’s attempts at interpretation.
    The more I look at this the more I appreciate the Wesleyan Quad Scripture/Tradition/Reason/Experience method.

  • Travis Greene

    Brian @ 5, “Adequate for what?”
    Adequate for making us able to do good works, of course. That’s the real point of everybody’s favorite 2nd Timothy verse: that Scripture is useful. Handy. It’s not “basic instructions before leaving Earth” (I just threw up in my mouth a little), but more like “as you travel the earth fulfilling the missio Dei, you’ll need this”.
    DML @ 8,
    I think that’s a pretty narrow understanding of what unity means. Is there diversity of style, ideas, and even theology in the canon? Of course. But those things aren’t antithetical to an overall thematic unity, which there is. Even the subversive texts (like Ecclesiastes and Job, for instance) are in explicit and implicit dialogue with the rest of Scripture. And the idea that dispassionate study is the sole key to truth and knowledge is exactly the modernist fallacy we’re discussing. It has an important place, and context is crucial, but the text is for us today as well as it was for the original audience.
    RJS, I think this post sums up my current thinking. It provides us a way forward with proper humility and proper confidence, avoiding the twin chasms that lead to nihilism and fundamentalism. Thanks.

  • JKG

    This is a wonderful conversation to have. It’s hard to know where to begin.
    I think we must not underestimate the importance of the Holy Spirit in receiving Scripture. How many students have taken a class in “The Bible as Literature” and never understood it as anything more than that? Just as the Spirit was present at the writing, He must be present in the reading for it to come alive in us. Other believers sometimes act as the instruments of the Spirit — think of Philip and the Ethiopian — but the Spirit must be present. Maybe that presence becomes the guard on misinterpretation of Scripture. Likewise, Scripture can guard our hearts from misinterpretation of what we perceive to be the Spirit’s promptings.
    Only one other note for now… I dislike the label “practical realism”. It is itself an ugly phrase from enlightened modernity. There is surely a more grace-filled name for what we want to describe.

  • RJS

    Reliable and adequate are both excellent descriptions of scripture, and terms I used. God did not err in giving us the scripture we have. Of course the Holy Spirit is active at all stages.
    The Wesleyan Quad is along these lines I think, but this is not the tradition with which I am most familiar.

  • Jim

    2 quick comments and a question:
    (1) the inerrancy claim has always struck me as a claim based upon extra-biblical foundations…i.e. the Bible does not claim it for itself. i.e. can the claim to inerrancy be inerrant?
    (2) I don’t see how we could claim anything other than something like practical realism given that part of the human condition at the moment is that we “see through a glass darkly” (enigma) Even if it is argued that those who wrote the texts were somehow granted clear eyes to see, we were not.
    (3) Question: is there something like “performative truth”…truth that is revealed in the performance of it and not only in the understanding of it?

  • Richie “Rich” Merritt

    Can you point me in the right direction with respect to your last line?

  • Randy

    Let me suggest one older book for those interested in this discussion.
    James K. A. Smith at Calvin College wrote “The Fall of Interpretation:
    Biblical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic.”
    Jamie’s hermeneutic is close to that presented by Sparks. But Jamie’s presentation of it provided a perspective that I had been grasping at without the terms to describe it.
    Jamie begins by proposing that the finiteness of language and consequently of interpetation is not a result of the fall, but of the way God created us — He is infinite, we are his finite creatures. But he then shows the positive side of this. He shows how the finiteness of language, the words that comprise scripture, and our interpretation are often multi-faceted and so are more like jewels, than like flat 1 or 2 dimensional signs.
    In my mind, this is the positive of recognizing our finiteness. We spend so much time discussing and debating the negative good, the dangers, that we don’t notice these positive goods of such third-way/critical realist/practical realist perspectives.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • RJS

    The book is not that old – but also no longer in print unfortunately (although apparently Jamie is selling one or more copies through Amazon, and some rather expensive used copies are also available).
    Sounds interesting.

  • Rick
  • Eric

    That sounds very interesting. And related to something I’ve been thinking about: One of the limits God created us with is that we don’t know the future, we only know the past (this time limitation is something not very well understood, even by science). In other words, he put us in the middle of a story, with a beginning, end and middle. It makes sense that His word would be in story form. (Although this isn’t related to today’s discussion, this also makes some sense of why faith is so important — its what is necessary to get us from our present to our future in the right way, fulfilling the mission).
    RJS — thanks much for this post. Its very much in line with how I look at this issue, although you describe it better than I could.

  • dopderbeck

    Whew! Wish I had all day to talk about this.
    First, I generally agree with Sparks’ epistemology. However, the term “practical realism,” in my view, is confusing, because there is a well-established school of thought called “critical realism.” NT Wright and Alister McGrath have articulated critical realism very thoughtfully in the context of Christian theology. It draws on Michael Polanyi (outstanding!) and for McGrath, Roy Bhaskar. I give a brief introduction to critical realism in this article. I think we could benefit from being more precise about what this term means.
    Second, I’m not sure that the foundationalist house-of-cards metaphor is a truly accurate portrayal of how most contemporary inerrantists construct their epistemology. For example, Rick (#6) cites Jason Sexton’s recent article in Themelios. I had a conversation / debate with Jason about his article recently. I disagree with some aspects of Jason’s position, but to be fair, he does indeed ground his epistemology in God, as do most inerrantists. Like many inerrantists, he is a Reformed presuppositionalist: he believes that only the Holy Spirit can produce faith in God, which includes faith in God’s truthfulness and therefore in the truthfulness / inerrancy of God’s written Word. In other words, he doesn’t start with an empirically inerrant Bible and build an epistemology from there; he starts with faith and gets to the presupposition of an inerrant Bible from the foundation of faith. Whether or not a given inerrantist is a true Van Tilian presuppositionalist, I think this is generally a more fair understanding of how the vast majority of evangelical inerrantists think of inerrancy: it starts with a faith presupposition about God.
    But this is the crux of my debate with Jason, and I think the crux of the contemporary inerrancy debate: do the phenomena of scripture (the things that make it appear quite human) drive how we view the doctrine of scripture, or does the doctrine of scripture drive how we view the phenomena? If the Bible at some point appears to be “in error,” do we acknowledge the “error” and use that to inform what theopneustos means, or do we insist that the apparent “error” must be something other than an “error” because scripture is theopneuestos. At least for me, this is where the key point of tension lies (and I think this reading of it is consistent with the modern history of the debate, following on Warfield’s efforts to preserve scripture against Biblical criticism).
    I’m not sure there’s any easy way to resolve this question. And here is a tension that lies on top of it; Scot McKnight, I’d love to have you comment on this one: if someone decides that the more adequate and true approach is to all the phenomena to inform the doctrine, can that person still be called an “Evangelical,” or should that person hand in his or her Evangelical ID card? Can a person who thinks the phenomena should inform the doctrine serve in good conscience in an Evangelical church with inerrancy in its Statement of Faith by suggesting, as do Sparks and Pete Enns, that inerrancy means simply that the Bible we have is exactly the Bible God intended to give us? Or is that disingenuous?

  • dopderbeck

    Sorry, a left out the shamelessly self-promotional link to my law review article that discusses critical realism:

  • RJS

    I know – I need to read Polanyi (you won’t let up until I do). What would you recommend first?

  • ChrisB

    “The human authors of scripture were subject to the same limitations as everyone else”
    Sounds perfectly reasonable but it comes from presuppositions we bring to the scriptures. If you believe in the supernatural, there is no a priori reason that it must be true.
    “Is practical realism – and the consequent view of scripture as both reliable and adequate a workable approach? Why or why not.”
    This approach will always be open to abuse, namely, whatever part of the scriptures I don’t like is simply a product of the frailties of the human authors. Most arguments for viewing homosexuality as acceptable take this approach, for example.

  • RJS

    Yes but…
    Isn’t the assumption that the authors are protected from their humanity also a presupposition brought to the text from the outside? And it is a presupposition I find damaged by the evidence of the text itself.
    Any approach is open to abuse … the history of the church and the disagreements tell us that there is no such thing as “perfect” interpretation. Either way we must rest in the Spirit not on the text.

  • dopderbeck

    Critical Realism:
    Polanyi: “Personal Knowledge” and “The Tacit Dimension”
    Roy Bhaskar: “A Realist Theory of Science”
    Alister McGrath: “A Scientific Theology: Reality”

  • dopderbeck

    Still, ChrisB has a good point: the human authors, if they were inspired by God, were at least in some sense not subject to ordinary human limitations. After all, in ordinary human speech, no one — or at least no one in his or her right mind — goes around claiming: “what I’m about to say now is breathed out by God Himself.” In 2 Peter, it says “for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The prophet clearly is not subject to every ordinary human limitation, nor is prophetic speech ordinary human speech. If this is a model for inspiration — which I think most evangelical scholars, including Scot, would say is the case — then a text that is theopneuestos was not produced by an author subject to every ordinary human limitation.
    So, the question should be, I think, in what sense does God’s outbreathing of scripture “transcend” ordinary human limitations? Scripture itself tells us that it is not in the sense of erasing all of the author’s cultural situatedness: Heb. 1:1 notes that “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways . . . .” Did the “ways” in which God spoke result in texts free of any historical or scientific “error?”
    I think we need to grant that this is a very reasonable theory. God is certainly capable of speaking in such a “way,” and we might very well expect God, who is all-knowing and wholly truthful, to do so. The question is whether this theory is a necessary inference from the fact that God speaks, such that all of our reading of the resulting text must pass through this lens, or whether there are other viable models for what the extra-ordinary mode of “inspired” speech might look like.

  • RJS

    Inspired prophetic speech – and I do think that there is such – may be a good way to think about Romans for example. This is not prophetic as much as it is didactic – but Paul certainly thinks (and I don’t doubt it) that he is teaching according to the revelation of God.
    But I don’t think the same is true about Genesis or Samuel, Kings, Chronicles for example – or for that matter the Gospels and Acts. That is, I don’t think that these are “prophetic,” that the idea of prophetic speech applies.

  • Rick

    “Either way we must rest in the Spirit not on the text.”
    Let’s not forget that same Spirit inspired the text.

  • Eric

    You said: “If the Bible at some point appears to be ‘in error,’ do we acknowledge the ‘error’ and use that to inform what theopneustos means, or do we insist that the apparent ‘error’ must be something other than an ‘error’ because scripture is theopneuestos. At least for me, this is where the key point of tension lies. . . . I’m not sure there’s any easy way to resolve this question. ”
    Agreed that is where the tension lies, but for me at least I don’t think its hard to resolve this question. Doesn’t the latter suggest we would never, ever question inerrancy, no matter what the evidence, observational and reasoning skills that God Himself has given us lead us to conclude? (Just listening to people try to explain away inconsistencies in the gospels drives this point home for me).
    And “inerrancy” itself is a human construct or assumption about what God would do in inspiring the Bible; we’re simply elevating one rigid human construct (inerrancy) above the more general human obersational and reasoning skills that God gave us, in a way that doesn’t make sense.
    Incidentally, this broader issue gets to the crux of why N.T. Wright has so much appeal to a lot of people: He explains why Christianity actually makes sense; we don’t need to check the minds that God gave us at the door.

  • Travis Greene

    Was Jesus subject to ordinary human limitations? I don’t mean sin, I mean, for instance, did he think the world was flat?
    The idea that he did not, that he somehow transcended our inherently limited human perspective, never doubted, nor shared certain assumptions of his culture…I’d suggest doesn’t take seriously enough the Incarnation, or what Scripture actually says about Jesus.
    Conversely, the idea that he was subject to ordinary human limitations (again, not sin) is only a problem if you think of those as bad. Which obviously God doesn’t, since he made us that way.
    Same with Scripture. Certainly, God was up to something in a unique way with the authors (and editors) of the Bible, but he still worked through human beings. That’s the whole point.
    And yes, ChrisB, cherry-picking is certainly a temptation. But even very conservative, complementarian churches explain away the verses about not wearing jewelry by saying “You have to take it in context”.

  • Rick

    “But even very conservative, complementarian churches explain away the verses about not wearing jewelry by saying “You have to take it in context”.”
    But is not trying to understand context different than saying one is trying to understand what parts the authors just got wrong?

  • ChrisB

    RJS said: “Isn’t the assumption that the authors are protected from their humanity also a presupposition brought to the text from the outside?”
    Yes. But we need to be clear about our presuppositions and why we’re using them.
    As dopderbeck alluded to above, if we believe the scriptures are inspired, we need to start with figuring out what inspiration means, what it implies, and what it requires.
    “Any approach is open to abuse … ”
    Of course. But this one is open to some pretty clear abuses. Which leads to …
    Travis said: “cherry-picking is certainly a temptation. But even very conservative, complementarian churches explain away the verses …”
    Taking a verse’s context into account is not cherry-picking. What I’m talking about here is knowing full well what the author intended and deciding to ignore it because, for example, “Paul didn’t know any better.”

  • BeckyR

    Again I don’t see any reference to the holy spirit. We are limited humans, first because we are finite and second because we are fallen. The fall broke our minds and we are incapable of knowing truth because of the broken mind. But we are not lost or kept in that position, there is the holy spirit who intervenes and we are enlightened and can know enough adequately to come to the knowledge of truth. It will never be perfect in this life, but it will be enough.

  • RJS

    The author of Genesis 1 thought Ancient Near East cosmology was true. And we know the author intended it to be a reflection of the reality of the world whatever we say about the Genre of the rest of the text. But I choose to dismiss his cosmology because he didn’t know any better. The Spirit (God) did not protect him from the error of his understanding.
    Now where do we go from here?

  • RJS

    Read comment # 7 for a clarification.

  • Scott Watson

    In talking about a critical realist approach to the Bible,which actually takes into account what it says about itself or what it testifies to, St. Paul could be termed a ‘practical realist’ when he says that even the charismata (“spiritual gifts”),the manifestation of the working of the Holy Spirit in this age are not “perfect”: “we prophesy in part…” There is an eschatological element to limits of all knowledge, even spiritual knowledge. What YHWH bestows is sufficient for life and salvation–that’s the point. The quest for incontrovertible God-like knowledge which transcends that which is amenable to the finite human condition now is akin what Icarus ventured!

  • dopderbeck

    RJS said: The author of Genesis 1 thought Ancient Near East cosmology was true.
    I respond: I agree that this is the most parsimonious explanation for the phenomena of the text. However, many conservative scholars disagree that this is what the author “thought.” John Walton and Greg Beale, for example, argue that the author intended to communicate metaphorically that creation is God’s “temple” — in other words, that this one God rules over all creation. How are we so certain of what the “author” “thought.”
    My scare quotes here indicate that I am dubious about efforts to reconstruct the “original intent” of an “author” of Gen. 1 — a text that likely has many authors and editors over a long period of development before taking on its canonical form. But here I certainly digress from Beale and Walton.

  • AHH

    So much good stuff here, and then I see in the comments dopderbeck said some of what I was going to …
    If Kent Sparks is reading (or maybe this is in the book), maybe he can tell us why he chose “practical realism” rather than the established term “critical realism” (used by Wright, McGrath, and others). He certainly seems to be describing the same thing, which I have heard summarized as:
    “Truth is absolute, but human knowledge never is”
    This is distinguished from the “naive realism” of the modern project, where science, human reason, etc. are supposed to inevitably lead us to sure and absolute knowledge of Truth.
    And the post touches on the related failure of modernism, which is “foundationalism,” finding some sturdy starting place on which to build everything. Whether it is liberal religion building an edifice upon universal experience and human reason, or fundamentalist religion building an edifice upon a “perfect” Bible (where “perfect” is defined by Enlightenment standards that would have been foreign to the inspired writers of Scripture), it gets us into trouble. The book “Beyond Foundationalism” by Grenz and Franke (which I read on the recommendation of dopderbeck — thanks!) gets at this. RJS suggests God as a “foundation” which is a picture with Biblical warrant (I Cor. 3:11), but I think some critical realists would recast epistimology as a “web” of mutually reinforcing beliefs that make sense of the world, and rather than talking about a foundation one might talk about Jesus as the center of the web.
    Oh, and on the question:
    “Is it reasonable to suggest that God used and uses adequate rather than perfect means to convey his message in scripture?”
    To whatever extent God works through me, or anybody else reading this, or through the church, God uses imperfect means. Which at least makes it plausible that Scripture would work similarly.

  • RJS

    I don’t want to get into how or why Walton and Beale propose temple imagery for Gen 1. It doesn’t matter – we can find other examples that would serve the same purpose.
    It is the sheer number of patches that are applied to preserve author intent from such errors that leads me to reject the approach in favor of a practical (or critical) realism.
    Perhaps Kent will stop by and explain the choice of word.

  • Kenny Johnson

    This is the email I sent to RJS from her last post on this subject — because I didn’t feel comfortable posting it here… but this is a bit of a struggle for me personally…
    I find this discussion both interesting and challenging. I come from an evangelical background and have always tried to ground my faith in logic and reason — which often distanced me from my more fundamentalist friends. I think that because I wasn’t raised in the church, it made it easier for me to not just accept certain beliefs (such as a young Earth) as absolute truth, especially when it seemed to counter the evidence available.
    The authority and inspiration of scripture have often challenged me too. Especially when becoming a new Christian and having very intelligent, educated skeptics challenge the historicity of the Bible. I pretty much kept to the Evangelical party line though. I have a friend who left the faith many years ago because he bought all the skeptics challenges to his faith — That any apparent errors in the Bible meant that it’s not inerrant (fiction) and therefore its not inspired by God (God doesn’t lie) and therefore God most likely doesn’t exist.
    I’ve not experienced that crises of faith, but I often feel overwhelmed. I think, sometimes, I’ve let my rational side rule my faith too much — which means when my faith is challenged by rational means, its much more damaging to my faith. I guess the same happens when someones faith is fully rooted in their “experience.” What happens when those experiences diminish or disappear.
    Anyway… the reason I’m writing is because I don’t really feel up to the challenge of responding to this in the comments and I was hoping maybe for some insights from you. Unfortunately, most of the Christians I associate with aren’t interested in these kind of issues and so I have few, if any people to go to.
    For me, the inspiration of scripture is very important to my faith. And the historicity of the Bible seems to me, to be closely tied to this inspiration view. Now, I don’t know that we have to agree that every narrative in the Bible is historical, but I do think we need to believe that it mostly is. What I mean is, I’m perfectly willing to say that the creation story was poetic and not literal, but then what else do I toss to the side as merely poetic and not historical. And then, at which point is my faith not rooted in a faith in a God who interacted with His people in history — and instead starting to look much more like the faith of Hindus or others. So if critical scholarship says that the Jews weren’t in Egypt and the exodus story is bunk, do I just accept that as truth? And if that story is not rooted in history, then how do we determine which ones were?
    What I mean is, I think the Christian faith (for me) has always made sense, because it was rational. Because it was rooted in history. Not just because it ‘rang true.’ I thought it’s what separated my faith from that of Hindus or others.
    The other issue I have is… If we’re to take critical scholarship seriously. Where do we draw the line? Things change. Somethings critics questioned were later proved correct. So if we’re too accepting of critical scholarship, don’t we risk buying into false assumptions? But at the same time, I guess the argument could be made that if we ignore it or don’t take it seriously, we run the risk of having people leave the faith when these traditional views are challenged.
    I’ve dealt with this myself — such as the challenges to 2 Peter. Nearly all non-evangelical scholars claim it couldn’t have been written by Peter and most claim it was a 2nd century document. If this is true, then is it inspired? If it’s not inspired, should it be in the canon? If it’s not inspired, then which other ‘books’ aren’t — and so on and so on and so on. I know I’m making a slippery slope argument. But I don’t think slippery slopes are always bad arguments either. I’m not saying I’d have to believe that 2nd Peter was inspired for me to still have faith, but I think it does challenge my faith.
    Anyway.. I think I sorta rambled. I just needed to vent. Thanks for the ear.

  • dopderbeck

    Hey Kenny (#41) — well, the good thing is, you’re not alone, by any means! Those are things I wrestle with too. You might want to check out a recent collection of essays edited by Laura Miguelez and Vincent Bacote, “Evangelicals and Scripture”. I found that introduction to that volume very helpful because it basically says: “we’re trying to figure this out too!” — and that is in a volume edited by a couple of Wheaton profs who presumably consent to Wheaton’s inerrantist stance.

  • dopderbeck

    I wonder if any exegetes who really know their stuff could comment here on how 2 Peter 1 relates to the entire canon? It speaks of the statement “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” — which is depicted in the Gospels as originating from a bright cloud at the transfiguration (e.g., Matt. 17) — as making the “prophetic word” “more sure.” It then, however, reiterates the Divine source of prophecy: “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (v. 20) before the reference to the role of the Holy Spirit (“men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”) (v. 21).
    Can we derive something about the inspiration of scripture generally from this passage, or does it really refer only to a subset of scripture: “prophecy of Scripture” (“propheteia graphes”)? If it is a subset, what is “prophecy” and how do we distinguish it from other parts of “Scripture?” And what exactly does “epiluseos,” (“interpretation”) refer to here (this word, curiously, is a hapax).
    And for those who want to argue for accommodation models for scripture, who does v. 20, “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,” fit the model? This isn’t a rhetorical challenge, BTW. I’d really like to hear a good explanation.

  • Eric

    Kenny (#41) — your questions are very similar to the ones I have thought (and many other people have as well, I think). For what its worth, here is how I think through them:
    The baseline question is whether Jesus’s resurrection was historical. If it wasn’t, we have a problem. If it was historical –if it really did happen — then the rest of the issues like inerrancy aren’t nearly as important; there is then a huge basis for faith. The rest of the criticisms of scripture, valid as they may be, don’t matter if the resurrection happened. On that question (whether the resurrection happened), one of N.T. Wright’s big books goes through the evidence, and I’d recommend it.
    If you conclude the resurrection happened, are you going to reject all of Christianity if the Bible itself doesn’t meet a 100% total accuracy test we humans have come up with? I wouldn’t. Instead of using a human, manmade test like inerrancy, why not use that very, very able mind and reasoning ability God has given you, and apply the methods we humans always apply for questions about historical reliability? We don’t throw out historical accounts from thousands of years ago simply because they got some details wrong (would we really question reliability of a historical document if it were 95% accurate, rather than 100%?) As RJS’s post says, “God in scripture uses adequate means and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.”
    That doesn’t mean we can pick and choose what is right or wrong about the Bible; it means that we use all methods God has given us in applying it to our mission today, including the historical evidence, our reasoning, prayer, the Holy Spirit, our community of faith, tradition, etc. Its not easy, but its what we’ve got!

  • Kenny Johnson

    Thanks dopderbeck and Eric,
    I found both your comments really helpful. I agree with you Eric that the historicity of the Resurrection is absolutely crucial. What I never though about though — and I’m glad you mentioned it, is that if that 1 single fact is true and historical, then everything else is so much less significant.
    I’ll check out NT Wright’s book.

  • AHH

    Dopderbeck @43:
    I would take the “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” verse as a warning against *private* interpretations of Scripture, not as some “common-sense reading, no interpretation required” message. So the “one’s own” part is key; we need to be in community as we deal with Scripture, looking not for my right answer and your right answer but for our right answer as best we (preferably with the Holy Spirit) can discern it (critical realism again).
    But I’m no exegete — I’ve heard that interpretation in a couple of my communities and it seems to make sense within the whole Christian framework, but maybe others will weigh in.

  • RJS

    NT Wright’s “Resurrection of the Son of God” is a great book – (and the other two as well). The idea of a historical resurrection is key. (Long book though – 700+pages with footnotes.)
    A lecture he gave on the topic Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection is available here. You can download and listen to audio or video versions.

  • BenB

    For me, personally (and this does not come from hours of solid exegesis), it seems that the passage there in 2 Peter is dealing with the person of Christ and that the Scriptures (prophecy) attest to this. I think first of all maybe an argument can be made that it is pertaining to a subset (prophecy) but even that doesn’t seem to matter. For the author of 2 Peter it very much seems to be that he’s emphasizing God is the author behind Scripture, and that man has not had their way with it, writing whatever they will… but God alone is the source and mover of such authors. I believe this itself even fits within an accomadationist view.

  • Scott M

    Kenny, it’s his largest and probably densest book. The summary of the case he makes in it is in this lecture, which I’ve listened to a number of times. I really like it.
    Scroll down until you get to Bishop N.T. Wright, “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?”
    I do recommend the big book for the fullness of each point, but you’ll get a good idea what’s in it from the lecture.
    Beyond that, I don’t really have much input on the specific topic. Whether it’s true or not, I’ve never been able to grasp why the category of ‘inerrant’ even matters when talking about Holy Scripture, much less why people would make it part of the essential construction of their faith. It’s never struck me as a helpful category whether it’s true or false.
    I’m probably too postmodern to get it. 😉

  • Eric

    So my copy of Sparks’ book just arrived, and I’m having a hard time putting it down.

  • Kent Sparks

    “If Kent Sparks is reading (or maybe this is in the book), maybe he can tell us why he chose “practical realism” rather than the established term “critical realism” (used by Wright, McGrath, and others).”
    I’m trying to stay on the sidelines, but I’ll just say (as I did in the previous series of posts) that “critical realism” is used in two different ways, one of them very close to the modern realism that my book critiques (e.g, D A Carson calls himself a critical realist, I believe). It’s become the label of choice for conservative evangelicals who don’t want to sound like fundamentalists (but who, IMO, are simply really smart, well-trained fundamentalists). The critial realism of somewhat like Polanyi is fine in my book and fits into what I would call “practical realism.”

  • Dan Martin

    I’m late to the party on this one but I really want to reinforce how much I appreciate it. RJS, what you say about 2 Tim. 3:14-17 is closer to what I have observed, than anything I’ve read in a while (and congratulations, by the way, for including all 4 verses–most people make 16 stand by itself which is woefully incomplete). May I offer a little more thought on that by referring you to my own post on that passage?
    I also want to highlight dopderbeck’s excellent framing of the question in post #21. Allowing the text as we find it to inform the meaning of “theopneustos” rather than the other way around, is vital.
    Missing from the discussion of 2 Peter on the prophets not speaking on their own, however, is that the text refers to “all prophecy of scripture.” If, as I suggest, the texts should be permitted to self-define, then we need to apply that reference not, as several seem to, to “all scripture,” but rather to that subset of scripture which self-identifies as “prophecy.” I believe this would result in our examining a subset of texts that demand to be elevated above the surrounding material, as representing directly those times when God spoke. It’s a crucial distinction to make in “rightly dividing the word of truth.”