The God Box

The image is from a post on Pete Enns’ blog, in which he explores a common false antithesis between critical scholarly and high-inerrantist-believing views of the Bible. Thinking about the Bible as the box that conservative Christians try to put God into is a helpful way of highlighting why biblicism is a form of idolatry.

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  • How do you define “biblicism?”

    • As Christian Smith put it, “By biblicism I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

      • When I read your definition, it occurred to me that any definition that long and precise is a sure sign of a straw man. This was confirmed when I read the post to which you linked. Therein the author of the definition said that the proper alternative to biblicism was to believe that the Bible bears witness to, and therefore is secondary to, Jesus Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who believes that the Bible is equal to Jesus Christ.

        You guys are just fighting caricatures of your enemies. You are not doing justice to your opponents’ true views.

        • Well, if you decide to stop arguing in a circle and instead can show how someone who is not already an adherent to your worldview can be persuaded to adopt it, then that will suggest that you are right. But from my experience of having held this viewpoint, and from my experience of interaction with you, I don’t find this to be a caricature. It didn’t look like this to me from the inside, to be sure, but it is exactly what your viewpoint looks like from the outside.

          • You are inferring other thoughts of mine into this comment. Please re-read and see that I make no mention of my worldveiw in the comment and therefore could hardly be expecting anyone to adopt it. My comment has to do entirely with your view. I am pointing out that you are attacking a caricature. I know many people who would say that the Scriptures are the word of God but none of them that I know of would sign up for that definition or would reject the notion that the Scriptures bear witness to, and therefore are secondary to, Jesus Christ. Where are all these people you are calling “biblicists?”

          • You are not pointing out that I am attacking a caricature. You are claiming that. And you are addressing only what people say about the Bible, not how they treat it in practice, which is not always the same thing.

            I am not drawing a conclusion based on your most recent comment. You have been commenting here for quite some time and have made a particular impression. If you are not happy with the impression that you have made, then I would encourage you to make a different one. Perhaps begin by communicating clearly and specifically about what you do think, instead of merely insisting not only that you don’t think something, but that supposedly no one does, even though many of us have held the view in question and have encountered it in others.

          • If you think that you used to be a “biblicist” and that there are many people today who still fit that description then I can only conclude that you are applying the definition you gave me in a judgmental and uncharitable way. It reminds me of folks who, having been atheists, become Christians and then decry the kind of people they used to be when, truth be told, they weren’t as bad as they say they were… nor are they as good now as they think they have become.

          • That is possible, but once again, it would make more sense for you to make a case for your view of the matter, rather than merely asserting it.

          • Answered below.

  • James,
    If the God of Jews/Christians is not defined by the Bible, then where do you know who He is, what He did, asks & will do?
    Cordially, Bernard

    • If one isn’t beginning by approaching the Bible with the assumption that its statements are decisive and that its anthropomorphic depictions of God are to be understood at least somewhat literally, then the question ceases to be meaningful.

      • David Evans

        I have a possibly meaningful question:

        If the Bible and our other sacred books did not exist (perhaps after some future catastrophe) would humans develop a religion that resembled Christianity more than it resembled any of the other major religions?

        • Jakeithus

          I’d say the answer to that question would depend on your assumption about the role, if any, divine revelation plays in our understanding of religion.

          Absent of divine revelation, I personally don’t think humanity develops a religion resembling Christianity on its own.

        • I suppose it depends whether, in addition to the destruction of texts, there was also a complete loss of continuity in passing on Christianity. In that case, it is hard to imagine that something more like Christianity than anything else would spontaneously emerge, since prior to the impact of Jesus we don’t find Christianity spontaneously emerging either.

      • James, you’re being grossly unfair to Bernard. It is quite possible, and appropriate, to approach these ancient documents, seeking to understand what they say before deciding what to believe about them. Since they were produced by Jews and Christians, its reasonable to wonder what documents, if any, speak authoritatively about the God they depict.

  • I don’t know if there are any true “biblicists,” but I do know that there are anti-biblicists and it seems they are more concerned about the Bible boxing them in than they are the Bible boxing God in.

    Modern religious man seeks to destroy every possible notion that the prophets of Israel truly wrote on behalf of the living God because at heart he is an irreligious man and can’t abide the idea that he is subject to any moral authority other than his own.

    • I suspect that you are a Biblicist and simply have trouble seeing yourself the way you come across to others. It is a common caricature to say that modern people are trying to avoid moral authority, when many of us began with that very assumption but found that when we examined our biblicist worldview, it was a dubious exercise in circular reasoning that is mirrored in any number of world religions. And I suspect that deep down you know that, having tried to persuade people that God spoke to this or that person in a literal fashion and discovered that your arguments do not convince those who are not already assuming what in fact needs to be demonstrated.

      • Just because I don’t believe what you believe now does not mean that I believe what you used to believe.

        The reason I decided that I am not a biblicist is that I compared my beliefs to the definition you gave and did not find a match.

        Just because someone agrees with Jesus that the prophets of Israel spoke for God does not mean that he understands the Scriptures as well as Jesus did. That certainly rules out perspicuity and self-evident meaning, and, by consequence, universal applicability.

        Apparently, you used to hold a view of the Bible that was untenable. To assume that anyone who holds that the Scriptures are from God has a view that is equally untenable is just trading one error for another.

        • I’m not assuming that. I am drawing a conclusion based on your statements on this blog in the past. Why not, instead of merely insisting that the description doesn’t depict anyone, and then changing to saying that it doesn’t fit you, just actually come right out and say where your views are different from Smith’s definition? Surely that would be a more sensible approach?

          • I only answered with regard to myself when you said “I suspect you are a biblicist…”

            As for how my view differs from Smith’s (and yours), I stated that clearly: I think the definition is artificial and contrived – a straw man.

          • I know. As I pointed out, you keep stating this, rather than offering a case for your assertions being correct.

          • I offered my case, which was that I honestly don’t know anyone to whom the definition given in the linked post applies. You rebutted by saying that you do know such people and used to be one yourself. If I was merely asserting, so were you. If you were offering evidence, so was I.

            In either case, I think the discussion is settled if not resolved. It’s clear to me now that you and I are applying the definition differently. I entertain no hope that I can persuade you that you are creating a pejorative label and applying it unfairly.

            Therefore, I think issue is now a dead horse. The other issue we were discussing, however, remains open because I was waiting for your response to my answer to your question about Moses and accommodations in the Law.

          • I think that your unwillingness to seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus did not regard the Mosaic law as the “Word of God” in the sense that you consider it to be, despite his emphatic statement that the divorce law was a concession by Moses (not God) to human weakness and does not reflect the divine ideal, illustrates that the definition of biblicism is not as far off the mark as you claim.

          • As I said, judgmental and uncharitable.

            However, leaving aside (once again) the issue of “biblicism,” I’m struck by the absence of a case from you that Moses crafted the divorce code absent input from God. Even if, however, you could make a case that Moses was acting as the principal and not the agent in that particular section of the Mosaic Code it would only mean there was an exception to the rule – not that there was no rule. And I am further struck by the fact that you would use such an exception (if it is one) to overturn what is unquestionably apparent throughout the Gospels – that Jesus trusted Moses and the Prophets to have spoken for God and shaped his life accordingly – even to the point of death.

          • I don’t deny that. I just deny the notion that these sources, because of their divine origin, could not be challenged or questioned.

          • Well, that’s progress when compared with some other things you’ve said. I’ll content myself with it.

          • If you think it is progress, then you presumably have misunderstood things I’ve written in the past. If you are misunderstanding me less, then I’ll content myself with that.

          • I don’t think I’ve misunderstood your antagonism towards those who believe, as Jesus did, that the prophets of Israel spoke on behalf of God. This latest comment from you is the first time I’ve seen you acknowledge, or at least come close to acknowledging, Jesus’ reverence for the Scriptures as God-given. If that’s been your view all along, I’m glad to hear it.

          • But you still won’t flesh out what you mean by their having spoken on behalf of God. Did they hear a voice? Have dreams in which God spoke to them? Simply have a strong sense of calling? Without such specifics, it is very hard to discuss this matter, and you are liable to perceive others as denying something simply because they don’t have precisely the same assumptions as you do.

          • Here’s how I would see some of the issues involved.

            1) Did the prophets speak for God?
            2) How did God speak to the prophets?
            3) What has God said through them?
            4) What do those messages mean?

            Each of these is an important question. I have only been focused with you on the first one. For if the answer to the first one is no, then the others become meaningless. Also, while all the questions are important, the second one is the least important because it has the least to do with our response to whatever God is saying.

            Are you saying that you have to have an answer to the second question before you can answer the first one?

          • I think that, depending on how one answers the second question, any answer given to the first question could mean very different things. And unless we know what sort of divine communication is envisaged, it may indeed affect whether we have any basis for saying anything other than “How can we possibly hope to know?” in response to the first question.

          • I don’t know why you insist on equivocating, but I do recognize by now that it is an approach to which you are committed. You are one of those people who is much more clear and forceful about what you don’t believe than about what you do believe.

            I believe in Jesus Christ and I believe all that the Scriptures say about Him. My understanding of the Scriptures is incomplete, but whenever I come to understand a little more of them, that increased understanding always enhances – and never diminishes – my view of Him.

            This will be my last comment on your blog because I’ve come to realize that you are less interested in exploration than your blog’s title would seem to imply – especially when it comes to Jesus Christ.

          • This is simply not true. If we don’t realize what we don’t know, how can we ever hope to learn? And why, having insisted that you are not a biblicist, do you mention believing Jesus and Scripture in the same breath? Can you not see that, even though you keep claiming that your stance is being caricatured, your own statements give the very impression you say is incorrect?

            You are free to comment or not comment. I am committed to exploration, hence my persisting in this conversation despite your unwillingness to actually present arguments in favor of your assertions.

          • Ian

            whenever I come to understand a little more of them, that increased understanding always enhances – and never diminishes – my view of Him

            This is in no way a surprise, given your exegetical approach.

            I struggle to think of anything that the scripture could contain that you couldn’t find some way of interpreting in a way that enhanced your view of God.

            That you don’t recognise your own approach is the reason why you end up leaving all these blogs in a huff. Why you did the same for me. It is literally impossible to have a meta-conversation with you, your wall of ‘rightness’ is too strong and thick.

          • Andrew Dowling

            ? Huh? The Mosaic law said one thing; Jesus clearly disagreed with it and declared a different ruling. It’s pretty clear and all of the verbal gymnastics you are attempting to do won’t put Humpty Dumpty back to together again.
            Also, you speak of Moses and the Prophets like 1st century Jews all had a consistent idea of what Moses and the Prophets conveyed/the core of their message . . the Prophets often don’t even agree with each other!

          • James, you wrote:
            “the possibility that Jesus did not regard the Mosaic law as the “Word of God””

            But from where did you get this idea if not from the Bible itself (gMark 10:2-12), which is not inerrant?
            Furthermore, “Mark” was anonymous and addressing Gentiles.
            That makes the possibility in question looks very suspicious indeed, more so when “Mark” had also Jesus observant of the commands of God and Law of Moses (Mk 7:9:14 & Mk 1:44).
            Cordially, Bernard

          • Bernard, what is your reference to inerrancy supposed to mean? I am not persuaded that, simply because no text is inerrant, therefore we cannot discuss their meaning, nor draw conclusions about them and from them,

          • James, so it is OK to discuss meanings and draw conclusions about/from highly suspect possibilities (concerning Jesus’ thoughts) appearing in non-inerrant texts written by an anonymous & biased later author?
            Cordially, Bernard

          • What historical sources are inerrant, in your opinion? I don’t think any are. What historical sources are unbiased, in your opinion?

          • James, this is not the main point I was making. Anyway I’ll answer your question:
            The gospels, with all their differences & conflicts, legendary & unhistorical stuff and anonymity, can hardly be considered as history. Sure all historical sources are biased, but the gospels (and more generally the whole Bible) are a lot more biased by light years.
            About the main point, you just do not build a house on quick sand. That is an image about making a point against opponents based on the possibility “Mark” did not invent Jesus’ words in Mk 2:12. Especially when the opinion based from these words fits “Mark” agenda & audience and is somewhat contradicted in Mk 1:44 & 7:9-13.
            Cordially, Bernard

          • Some of what you wrote simply didn’t make sense to me, I’m afraid. But your lumping together of the Bible seems to lead to where the problem is in your approach. You need to consider these texts just as you would any other, since when they were written, they were not part of a “Bible.”

    • newenglandsun

      Neither you nor James unfortunately has any real grasp on mysticism. It makes me sad. You two just debacle over material things and oh, how the Church got this wrong or oh, how the traditions are maligned, etc. Mysticism is what makes the Christian religion, not this materialist, sola scriptura, “Bible says this/that”, historical “Jesus”, evolution, stuff. Sola scriptura is heretical but none of this other minute, trivial stuff really matters when we concentrate on mysticism.