More on updating Yahweh: a possible way forward (Carlos Bovell part 2)

Today’s post is the second of two by Carlos Bovell (see first post and bio here) on how Israel’s understanding of God developed over time and what this says about God and how God speaks.

In yesterday’s post, I made reference to Mark Smith’s book God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World to help describe briefly what might be called the “mainstream view” regarding the development of monotheism in Israel.

The mainstream view holds that key parts of the Bible were composed, edited and revised by post-exilic priest-scribes in order to promulgate monotheism and especially the belief that this single deity had a unique relationship with the Israelites.

It is important to note that non-evangelical scholars are not the only ones who describe portions of the Hebrew Bible in these terms. In God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship, evangelical OT scholar Kent Sparks presents the Hebrew Bible as containing political and religious propaganda.

The propaganda, Sparks explains, was an important component of priestly-scribal activity during post-exilic times. Reminiscent of Smith, Sparks explains, “Interestingly, some of the biblical texts that purport to be very old turn out to be among these late priestly texts” (127).

What I want to do now is ponder how a believer might grapple with these issues, particularly how they might integrate scholarship with faith, in this case one’s doctrine of scripture.

In his book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, Nicholas Wolterstorff ponders how one might tease out divine speaking in the midst of human discourse. Such efforts would involve two hermeneutics, a first that attends to the human discourse and a second that focuses on the divine. While exploring the second hermeneutic, Wolterstorff helpfully introduces the notion of “transitive discourse” to describe the connection between the two.

In speech-act theory, an illocutionary act refers to what is being accomplished through speaking (e.g., asserting, promising, warning, etc.). For our purposes, we are interested in cases where what is accomplished by someone’s speech act also accomplishes something else either for that same speaker or on behalf of someone else.

So, in order to help us assimilate Mark Smith’s research, we could posit that the biblical writer (a post-exilic priest-scribe in our case) begins to frame the Hebrew scriptures in monotheistic terms by penning, say, a creation story and weaving it into the fabric of the beginning of Genesis. This constitutes a first illocutionary act (telling a creation story that features a monotheistic God and presents him as creator God of the universe).

This first speech act generates a second one: the promulgating of monotheism and especially the special relationship that exists between the Israelites and the single deity. This is all happening on the level of human discourse.

On the level of divine discourse, however, God is appropriating the two human illocutionary acts to accomplish his own purposes. In other words, God’s illocutionary act—what he accomplishes—is also generated via human discourse; however, what he sets out to accomplish is never determined by it.

This means that even if the post-exilic priest-scribes, to continue with our example, believed they were giving an historical account regarding the origins of monotheism and specifically the special relationship that exists between the Israelites and Yahweh, it does not necessarily follow that God wished to give an historical account. Again, God’s illocutionary act might be generated by the biblical writers’ illocutions, but the human illocution can still turn out to be quite different from that of God’s.

I found this approach to biblical discourse to prove quite useful for coming to terms with the research produced by biblical scholars such as Mark Smith.

I admit that I am still left with the question of how to discern what God is “saying” in scripture. But here I am encouraged by Wolterstorff ’s insistence that what God says in scripture very much depends on what kinds of things we think God is likely to say. This means that “[t]o interpret God’s discourse more reliably, we must come to know God better” (239).

For me, at least—and this is one of the important points I try to make in Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear it is vital to remember that our relationship with God does not depend on our understanding of the Bible or how good we are at biblical hermeneutics. It depends on God, God coming down to humans and communing with us. Learning about just how human the Bible is should not lead one to despair, but rather to appreciate just how incarnational our God is.

inerrancy, historical criticism, and the slippery slope

In today’s post, Carlos Bovell suggests a visual metaphor that moves beyond the slippery slope, either/or thinking common among inerrantists.

Bovell, a frequent contributor to this blog, is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007)By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012).

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It’s very hard for inerrantists to change their thinking about how their doctrine of scripture is related to the spiritual life.

The problem is that they don’t have an alternate model and so instead of jeopardizing their connection to God (which they see as being established via scripture), they cling to inerrancy and hold out for any argument that gives an inerrant Bible even the slightest possibility of being true.

I trace this to a rhetorically powerful visual metaphor that they use to help conceive of what happens to believers when they begin challenging inerrancy: the slippery slope.

The slippery slope metaphor is what makes some inerrantists think that inerrancy is crucial, even non-negotiable, to faith. In fact, conceiving of scripture as being a central indication of one’s faithfulness to God has such a powerful ideational hold on conservative evangelicalism that even students who genuinely want to do serious research will select courses of study that will make it easier to keep inerrancy intact. They do this as a precaution because by doing so, they believe they’ll keep their faith intact.

What is needed, I would say, is a new visual metaphor for how scripture relates to faithfulness without tying inerrancy to faithfulness as the default starting point. We need a picture that allows inerrancy not only to be directly challenged but also discarded without having people feel like they might end up giving up faith.

As a suggestion toward remedying this, I offer the following illustration (adapted from a popular book on mathematics entitled, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking).

The old “slippery slope”picture:

Slippery slope

The slippery slope picture holds that once you start being critical of inerrancy there is no non-arbitrary way to stop the inexorable slide toward atheism. Put another way, the more historical-critical studies are allowed to inform our reading and understanding of the Bible, the more we’re reading the Bible like atheists. This is why some well-meaning authors feel obliged to characterize otherwise “solid” inerrantist biblical scholars as outright and duplicitous liberals.

But at the same time there are non-inerrantist, evangelical writers who would describe these same, “solid” inerrantist biblical scholars as thinly disguised fundamentalists. In other words, they have not come nearly far enough to meaningfully distinguish them from the more strict inerrantists. How can both dynamics be at work at the same time when people write about the doctrine of scripture?

The fact that both descriptions are being presented at the same time suggests that the slippery slope model is not doing justice to the state of affairs within evangelicalism today. What is needed is a new picture.

A new “maximizing faithfulness” picture:

historical critical thinking

Notice how this graph does not encourage believers to correlate faithfulness with being wary of historical criticism. Instead, it points believers toward a faithful appropriation of it.

It also does not predispose believers to correlate the appropriation of historical criticism with its most extreme adherents. By replacing the slippery slope picture with a maximizing faithfulness picture, we might takes some positive steps toward becoming less reactionary in our thinking toward historical criticism by jettisoning the either/or thinking that surfaces among inerrantists. We can reflect more carefully on both the importance of faithfulness and historical critical readings of scripture.

Of course, this leaves open such questions as “How much historical criticism is too much (or not enough?)” or “At what point on the curve is inerrancy no longer a viable category or is historical criticism actually not being practiced but only paid lip-service?” These are legitimate questions, but answering them wasn’t the purpose behind wanting to come up with a new picture.

The purpose behind suggesting the new picture is to help inerrantists get out of the slippery slope way of looking at things so that we can all begin thinking more intently about the legitimate place of historical criticism and still honestly believe (and treat each other like we believe) that the other Christians we are talking to, the ones who we so adamantly disagree with, are also trying to maximize faithfulness just as much as we are.

does an inerrantist culture “do good or do harm”?

c bovell 2014Today’s guest post is by Carlos Bovell, a frequent contributor to this blog. Bovell is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007)By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012).

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In Mark 3:4, Jesus poses a very interesting question to the man with the withered hand: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Why ask a question like this? Because, as Mark writes, the witnesses in the synagogue were waiting to see whether Jesus would heal on the sabbath, and thus be able to accuse him as being a sabbath-breaker.

This leads to another question: what was the point behind observing the sabbath in the first place? What religio-cultural benefit was it seen as providing? Whatever it may have been, did it have something to do with God instituting a sabbath to prevent people from doing good? Did it have anything to do with trying to prevent someone from moving to save a life?

To ask this question is already to answer it. The institution of the sabbath did not originally have any of these things in view, and Jesus’s point seems to be that over time keeping the sabbath had come to have the effect of stopping people from doing good.

According to Jesus, God would never want to do anything to stop people from doing good, from saving a life, from carrying out from the heart his two main commandments: loving God with all our hearts and loving neighbor as ourselves.

After all, what kind of God would make commandments that effectively prevent people from doing good? What kind of God would make commandments that get in the way of people from loving each other, that might keep them from saving lives?

Not Jesus’s God. In fact, throughout Mark 2 and 3, Jesus explains that what he does is what God’s followers should be doing, making sure that the commandments—including sabbath-keeping—are carried out in ways that promote love, in ways that lead to good.

The Markan evangelist continues his story, “But they were silent. He (Jesus) looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” The faithful, religious people of Jesus’s time (identified here and in Matthew 12 as Pharisees) were so concerned to keep the sabbath properly that their singular focus on doing so blinded them to the greater good of restoring and healing.

In Jesus’s view, this signified a “hardness of heart,” desiring the opposite of what God desires by setting the commandment that God gave to his people against the love that God has for his people. His expectation for us is that we love one another. In fact, he commands us to do so.

So whenever God’s people set one command against another, the net result had better be love. Otherwise, the net effect is killing the commandments, which spiritually deprives God’s people of his provision of love, which is exactly what’s needed to save souls. (Thus the saying, “The letter kills.”)

In Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, I drew a parallel between Jesus healing on the sabbath and the American evangelical inerrantist mindset.

There was a religious ethos among Pharisees during Jesus’s time where the sabbath, a symbol of socio-religious identity, had become spiritually paralyzing if not suffocating. My contention for years now has been that there is a socio-religious symbol in American evangelicalism that has become equally paralyzing and created a spiritually destructive underside that breeds a culture of fear.

One concern I have is that, for various reasons, a number of inerrantist scholars are failing to grasp just how debilitating it is to spiritual formation to foreground inerrancy as a central and permanent fixture for American evangelical identity. They fail to see how, culturally and institutionally, this mindset can keep evangelical teachers from doing good, from providing healing for searching Christians both in evangelical churches and in classrooms.

A recent review of my second book, for example, observes that although my objections to inerrancy might have been relevant “some years ago,” by now evangelicalism has moved beyond inerrancy as a problem, understanding better that scripture contains different genres and was written within various historical contexts.

But drawing attention to how evangelical scholarship has become more sophisticated, though always a welcome development, simply sidesteps the problem temporarily.

Defining inerrancy according to genre, for example, does not go far enough because inerrantists still feel the same pressure, just delayed for a moment: only genre designations that are not “errant” are allowed, which helps explain why myth and legend in Genesis, for example, are not typically admitted as legitimate genre designations by inerrantist writers.

But such designations are routinely—even universally—accepted outside of inerrantist scholarship. Guarding against “errant” genres in scripture looks like special pleading and a needless spiritual distraction.

Further, as I argue in my book, segments of inerrantist evangelical culture have developed in ways that are sustaining a culture of fear. There is a sizable number of wavering believers who desperately need to be healed from its damaging effects, which includes institutional and personal maltreatment. (I have been dared many times by inerrantist believers, “Why don’t I just get it over with and give up profession of faith?”)

The problem is that, given where we are in the history of evangelicalism, a very important part of the healing process for some believers requires turning a critical eye toward, and probably eventually turning away from, inerrancy of any form.

More and more within evangelicalism are questioning the value of an inerrantist paradigm. How will evangelical leaders handle this? Will they cheer on this healing that is taking place or will they grumble in their hearts because the healing supplants a higher “sabbath law?”

In the same way that the apostle Paul explains that he counts all things as ”dung” in order to know Christ (Phil 3.8), I think it’s time for some inerrantist evangelicals to consider whether the esteem with which they hold inerrantist doctrine is so high it is keeping them from doing good to others, from saving a person’s faith, from loving those members of Christ’s church who are looking to be healed from a culture of fear.

on being a mouthpiece of satan

c bovell 2014Today’s blog is by Carlos Bovell, a frequent contributor here. Bovell is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007)By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012).

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A disturbingly common response from inerrantists to those who ask historical-critical questions about the Bible is that they are undermining inerrancy and are thus mouthpieces of Satan. Defenders of inerrancy are following Jesus’s lead, while non-inerrantists, who are perceived as denying the Bible, are doing what the serpent did to Eve in the Garden, which is get her to doubt God’s Word by asking, “Has God really said?”

In my last post, I observed that Bob Yarbrough is representative of inerrantists when he suggests that Jesus had a word-that-proceeds-from-the-mouth-of-God view of scripture (see Matthew 4:4), which according to Yarbrough is approximate to modern day inerrancy.

In this post, I observe that while inerrantist writers of this sort pose themselves as the good guys (doing and believing what Jesus did) they also have no qualms about presenting views that “challenge” God’s Word as being in step with the devil’s motives.

I give two examples. First, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, makes the claim in a 2013 Alumni chapel at Southern Seminary concerning the denial of inerrancy:

There’s always a spiritual element behind it because I think the first recorded attack on the inerrancy of scripture we see is in Genesis chapter 3: “Has God really said?” (41:25)

So, inerrancy is a spiritual issue and to question inerrancy is to follow Satan’s lead.

Second, David Garner, associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theology Seminary, adds some heated polemic for good measure in his introduction to Did God Really Say?

When the serpent asks, “Did God actually say?” (Gen. 3:1b), the manner in which he tempts our first parents exposes his consistent modus operandi. God’s Word serves as Satan’s point of attack . . . With the force of spiritual authority itself, we turn the question, Did God Really Say?, right back on those who continue to misrepresent the gospel with serpentine-compatible methods. (p. xxii)

I have devoted quite a bit of time researching and writing in an effort to help Bible-believing Christians come to see that large swaths of American inerrantist culture is taken in by a rhetoric of fear, the sociological effect of which is to keep people from voicing honest and genuine questions concerning inerrancy (see again my last post).

As soon as students begin to think that they may have good reason to become critical of inerrancy, it is suggested they are ceding to temptation and being seduced by “serpentine-compatible methods,” as Garner puts it.

In these examples, commitment to inerrancy is presented as a spiritual obligation: If a student wants to make sure they aren’t following the devil’s lead (and who would ever say that they want to do that?) then they’d better quit asking such critical questions about the Bible let alone entertaining critical answers to those critical questions. Indeed, so long as there remains some solution to a problem that can save inerrancy, one had better accept it since trust in and obedience to God requires it.

This clear-cut, either/or choice–side with Jesus or Satan–poses a troubling dilemma for inerrantist churchgoers and students who begin having genuine questions.

But I am encouraged to see that more evangelical believers are coming to understand that the dilemma posed by some inerrantists is a false one—and in doing so they are actually the ones following Jesus’ lead.

You have heard it said that “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you do not resist an evildoer (Matthew5:38-39)

Wait a minute! Is this not in essence what inerrantists claim that the devil was trying to do in Gen 3 in the Garden? But here in Matt 5, it’s Jesus who’s doing it. Didn’t the devil question the meaning of what the Word of God requires from believers? Well, according to Matthew, this is exactly what Jesus did throughout his preaching.

In fact, questioning what God really said appears to be Christ’s “modus operandi.” The main difference is that Jesus claimed that he was fulfilling scripture.

So (Jesus continues) you heard that God said he wants people to love their neighbor and hate their enemy? I tell you that God wants people to love their enemies. (Matthew 5:43-44) If this is not a challenge to God’s word then I don’t know what is, but Jesus explains that it misses the point to see it as a challenge. To understand what Jesus means to say and do by presenting scripture in the way he does, one must accept what Jesus says (and does) as its fulfillment.

Therefore, if we ask, does Jesus challenge people to doubt the popular way of understanding scripture? Or perhaps more provocatively, are Jesus and the devil then not doing more or less the same thing in challenging scripture? We should answer, at least on one level, absolutely.

But on another level, there’s also a world of difference because Jesus’ challenge purports to fulfill scripture, to achieve its purpose, to bring out its full meaning, to re-direct scripture so that it can be put to the service of God’s will.

How does Jesus set out to do this? By tying scripture directly to his mission, by enlisting it in his revelatory message that he is God’s Son and by consistently drawing upon it to support his ministry to the cross.

To support my proposal (and it’s only that, a proposal), I appeal to Matthew 4:1-11 where Satan tests Jesus in the wilderness.

For my part, I think that the scholars who view Jesus’ baptism and temptation as an “apocalyptic journey” or a “visionary experience” are definitely onto something. The heavens opening, the heavenly voice, and the Spirit (and other spirits) guiding Jesus to places throughout the world leave no question in my mind that Jesus underwent altered states of consciousness (and probably regularly did so and taught some of his disciples how to do it too).

Either way, Jesus’ faithfulness to scripture does not lie in a show of his belief in inerrancy (as Yarbrough and others claim) over against the devil’s questioning of it. Jesus’ faithfulness to scripture rather is shown through the dispute over whether now that Jesus has been revealed as God’s Son, he would have what it takes to obey God by carrying out his ministry to the cross.

It is this kind of faithfulness that must prove “according to the scriptures” because it is what God would have Jesus do.

I suggest that this is the aspect of Jesus’ view of scripture that post-inerrantists are trying to emphasize: that the scriptures are to be read in light of Jesus because he is the Son of God and the main way that Jesus showed this is by faithfully carrying out his mission to the cross and folding scripture into that mission.

So it misses the point to suggest that inerrantists are following Jesus while post-inerrantists follow the devil. We are all trying faithfully to follow Jesus—though we have serious disagreements about how best to do this.

Perhaps one important difference between inerrantists and post-inerrantists is that a post-inerrantist may be comfortable saying something like this:

The fact that Jesus is the Son of God is the fact that dictates that the scriptures must now always be read—if they are going to have significance for Christians—with him in mind.

Whereas an inerrantist might feel more comfortable saying something like this:

It’s the scriptures that dictate whether Jesus was right or not, whether he was the Son of God, and it would be mostly on the basis of their authority that we believe.

But, as I see it, this has it exactly backwards. It is Jesus that gives the scriptures meaning (for Christians) in the first place. To ask, “What is the best way to describe this? Should we call it the “authority” of the Bible?” does not make post-inerrantists the devil’s advocate. It’s a believers’ relation to Jesus that attests to this, not how one decides to approach scripture.

updating Jesus as times change: hey, it’s in the Bible

The idea that God was “updated” is not restricted to the OT, a topic we’ve looked at in several recent posts, focusing on the work of Mark S. Smith (begin here with several follow up posts). Smith’s work suggests that post-exilic priest-scribes revised and edited older traditions in order to contemporize God as new circumstances and challenges arose.

In this post, we’ll look briefly at the work of NT scholar James D. G. Dunn and his identification of a large swath of gospel material as giving literary expression to pre-existing oral traditions. Through the course of his research Dunn investigates all four gospels. Our focus will remain on the Gospel of John.

What Dunn has found in his study of the fourth gospel is that the fourth evangelist retold, re-worked, and elaborated quite freely upon the traditions he was familiar with in order to address the contemporary concerns of his own religious in-group.

In The Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn acknowledges that most scholars agree the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are more historically oriented than the Gospel of John. But based on what researchers have found when studying the transmission of stories in oral cultures, Dunn explains that even within the (more historical) synoptic gospels, what readers encounter are traditions of the sayings of Jesus and “not the saying itself” (307).

If this applies to the synoptic gospels, it applies to the Gospel of John with greater force.

Building on studies by C. H. Dodd and others, Dunn marshals an persuasive list of loose correspondences between John and the Synoptics, correspondences that are certainly tight enough to establish links to synoptic material but interestingly loose enough to render “John’s direct dependence on one or more of the Synoptics as such highly unlikely” (163).

In other words, some are convinced that the evangelist is drawing on earlier traditions. Even so, the fourth evangelist only possessed “knowledge of Synoptic-like tradition but not of the Synoptic version of it” (145, emphasis added; see also 185–86):

According to Dunn, what we have in the Gospel of John includes considerable elaboration on various oral traditions that were still in circulation about Jesus. Dunn explains:

John or his tradition felt free to document Jesus’ mission with parabolic stories and not only actual remembered events. . . . John may have concluded that to bring out the full significance of Jesus’ mission he had to retell the tradition in bolder ways that brought out that significance more clearly (183).

John’s Gospel shows just how diverse and varied the Jesus tradition could become in its various retellings. . . John’s Gospel shows clearly the degree to which the memory of Jesus could be, and was, informed by subsequent insight and conviction, and shaped to portray Jesus as the Johannine author(s) or communities now saw him or wanted to present him to their contemporaries. . . At one and the same time, however, John demonstrated that for the remembered Jesus to continue to be seen as relevant to subsequent generations, the way he was remembered would have to be adaptable if the same Jesus was to speak to these generations (195).

What if the OT is not the only part of scripture that was updated and revised by later writers to contemporize scripture, making it fit with sensibilities of later times? In this post, we took a brief look at James D. G. Dunn’s research suggesting that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been updated and revised in controlled but creative attempts to contemporize the Christian proclamation of good news. The motivation was to make it more amenable to current habits of thinking. The gospels, and in particular the Gospel of John, appear to display analogous features to the updating and revising witnessed in the OT.

Today’s post is by Carlos Bovell, whom many of you know from some previous posts here. Carlos is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is also the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

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