Absolute Perfection?… Oh My (RJS)

Absolute Perfection?… Oh My (RJS) March 15, 2012

There is a new book just out, a collection of essays edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? exploring a wide range of topics written by seminary professors from several different institutions including Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dallas, Denver, Southwestern, and a few others. I don’t have the book and haven’t read it, so I am not commenting either positively or negatively on any of the chapters contained in the book. One of the blurbs for the book caught my eye, however.

“Few Christian convictions are of as pervasive importance as the absolute perfection of Scripture—and few convictions fall under more perennial criticism. Hence the need for this volume, which seeks to defend the evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy against scholars who argue that in accommodating his truth to human understanding, God has made his Word susceptible to error. Here James Hoffmeier, Dennis Magary, and a broad range of learned colleagues take seriously the self-witness of Scripture and respond to some of the latest, hardest objections to inerrancy by providing clear, comprehensive, persuasive, and charitable answers. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? is an invaluable resource for any student of Scripture who doubts the doctrine of inerrancy or has serious questions about the historical reliability of the Bible.”

Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College

Inerrancy and infallibility are no longer sufficient? … Oh My. The ante is raised by a plea for “the absolute perfection of Scripture.” The stakes, we find, are enormous. I do think that historical matters are important to our faith. Our faith is grounded in real interactions in real time between God and his creation. But this blurb seems overstated, even over the top. It obscures the entire message of scripture, relegating it to secondary status.

To quote N. T. Wright, from the recent lecture he gave at the January Series at Calvin college:

Not for the only time swathes of evangelicals are more anxious to protect a theory of scripture than to hear what scripture actually says. (10:23-10:35)

Wright was talking about the approach of evangelicals to the gospels, but the same can apply many times over to the approach of evangelicals to the Old Testament as well.

To start us off, what do you think? I’ll give some of my thoughts below.

Is the absolute perfection of scripture a Christian conviction of pervasive importance?

Are the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy and the historical reliability of the Bible linked?

Does the evangelical preoccupation with inerrancy detract from hearing what scripture actually says?

I long had doubts about the evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy. These doubts and questions did not rise from the blatherings of skeptics but from the reading of scripture itself – in large chunks rather than in small bite-sized disjointed tidbits. Certainly science, archaeology, and Ancient Near Eastern studies played a role, but only as a component of a whole, not as issues driving an agenda. A proper understanding of  and respect for the nature of scripture is an essential component of the Christian witness. My questions were accompanied by a need to investigate the nature of scripture and the source of Christian doctrine more completely. The entirely inadequate, in my view, range of “evangelical” answers only increased the doubts and dissonance.

The common evangelical view – situated in the reformation idea of sola scriptura – suggests that 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. Skeptics of inerrancy, we are told, search for errors in scripture, and if we have to separate errors from God’s true words we are done for. We can make the text say anything we want. There is no way forward.

I think we are better served by a different view – our faith is founded on God alone. I have come to peace with scripture and hold a high view of scripture as the inspired word of God, a word that illuminates and informs our faith in God and his work in Christ. But the bible is not the rock on which we stand, God alone is the rock on which we stand.

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 or 2 Peter … 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. We are not skeptics trying to separate truth from error, but believers reading the Bible for all it is worth. We can stop wasting our time defending inerrancy and start spending our time listening to what scripture actually says.

I came to peace with scripture – not through evangelical defenses of inerrancy – but through the work of faithful Christian scholars and thinkers who were and are able to demonstrate the true foundation of our faith without reliance on the foundation of the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. The authority, inspiration, and truthfulness of scripture are important – inerrancy (as commonly understood) in the original monographs may be true, but is not necessary.

So here are some of the greatest influences on my thinking – at various times and in various situations over the last 30 or so years.

Three British Anglican thinkers.

CS Lewis. Here I can point to the classic Mere Christianity, and to many others, God in the Dock, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, and more.

NT Wright. For me this started with mp3 recordings of lectures he gave as part of an IVCF conference January 1999, followed up by his three big books (New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God).  For the first time I encountered a scholar who was faithful and found God in scripture without starting from the evangelical credo – “because scripture is inerrant we know …” .

Wright’s three big books are not for everyone and as a general recommendation The Challenge of Jesus (which arose from the IVCF conference talks) is better. Wright’s view of scripture is outlined more completely in his book The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God–Getting Beyond the Bible Wars and in his revised and expanded version of this book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. (You can find the lectures I referred to above through the N. T. Wright Page here: Jesus and the Kingdom, Jesus and the Cross, Jesus and God, Jesus and the World’s True Light)

I have not yet had the chance to read Wright’s new books Simply Jesus or How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels but I look forward to reading them and expect that they will make a good addition to the list. The January Series lecture I mentioned above is based on How God Became King.

John Polkinghorne. Many books again – Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, Quarks, Chaos & Christianity and Belief in God in an Age of Science provide a taste.  I will post on a new book of his Science and Religion in Quest of Truth in upcoming weeks.

Several American biblical scholars and theologians, including:

Donald Bloesch. His book Essentials of Evangelical Theology (2 Volumes in 1). One volume of this was used as the text in a systematic theology class I took in college.

Scot McKnight. One of the early books I read by Scot was Jesus and His Death, but this is not really recommended for a general audience. It was important to me at the time because I felt deeply burned by and distrustful of evangelical scholarship and scholars. Some good books for a more general audience:  The Blue Parakeet, and of course The King Jesus Gospel (for that matter anything on the sidebar is good).

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation was a breath of fresh air. I don’t care if you agree with everything he concludes, but his faithful, honest, and pastoral approach to scripture without excessive reaction against evangelical views is incredibly useful. His latest book The Evolution of Adam is likewise very good whether you agree with all of his conclusions or not.

Mark Roberts. I first happened on Mark’s blog when he was doing a series on the reliability of the gospels. These posts were afterwards expanded and published in book form Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Bruce M. Metzger and his books on the nature of the text of scripture: The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th Edition), The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, The New Testament: Its Background Growth and Content, Bible in Translation, The: Ancient and English Versions. These books are not light reading – but I found them incredibly useful, especially the first in the list.

The phrase “absolute perfection” in a blurb like that by Ryken above is problematic. We know that there are textual issues and questions about parts of the text – any modern translation notes the most significant of these. The apparatus accompanying a Greek New Testament notes the variants in the available sources and gives a rating of the reliability of any given reading. Metzger’s books provide fascinating insight into the reliability of the text we have and the confidence we can have in the faithfulness of the transmission.

The book by Mark Roberts places this kind of scholarship at the level of lay Christian readers with respect to the reliability of the Gospels.

If the church was doing its job books like Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman would be relegated to the remainder table or trash bin where they belong. Nothing in Ehrman’s book challenges the truthfulness of scripture, although the sensationalistic way he presents it and the ignorance of most Christians makes it seem as though it does.

Some sociologists and historians including:

Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism and American Culture.

James Davison Hunter. American evangelicalism: Conservative religion and the quandary of modernity and Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation.

The books by Marsden and Hunter provided an important description of historical context that helped me understand many of the driving forces at work in American evangelicalism.

I’ve read many more books – finding some helpful and some not so helpful. But the books above provide a good start.

Which Christian thinkers and scholars have most shaped your thinking about scripture and the reliability of the Christian faith?

What resources have you found most helpful?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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