Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 6 - What I Think

During this series on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, some people have suggested to me (with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety) that I should maybe explain what I think, not just what I don't.  Of course, I've been doing that all along to some degree, but as a closer for the series I'd like to spell it out as clearly as I can.

Of course all along I've been using the Chigago Statements as a foil against which to work out what I think.  It's still developing.  Nor do I claim anything close to inerrancy for myself - I expect lots of people to disagree in various ways and I expect a lot of them will turn out to be right.  I'm no Bible scholar, and none of what I say here is original.  Still, here goes...

1. The Bible is the primary source for Christian belief
Everything important that we believe as Christians is ultimately sourced back to Bible.  It's where we learn about God and about Christ, it's where we learn how to pray and how to act, it guides our thinking and our doing.  No matter how much we argue about the Bible - its meaning, intention, the way we should read it - there would be no argument if the Bible wasn't there.

2. The Bible is the witness of human beings to God's actions in history
God is active and communicates to humans in and through history.  The Bible is what tells us about that.  However, there are two important caveats.  Firstly, by "witness" I don't mean "eye-witness".  There are very few eyewitness accounts in the Bible, and many of the books are written centuries after the events they describe are supposed to have taken place.  Secondly, these are the words of humans, inspired by God, not the words of God himself.  Humans are fallible, we make mistakes.

3. These accounts are what has been preserved while other writings were allowed to perish
The fact that these books were copied and recopied over centuries, and granted authority by generations of God's followers, both Jewish and Christian, indicates that they are special.  These books are judged by generations of believers to be the books which best communicate God's nature and his will for us.  It may not be inerrant, but its the best we have by a long stretch.

4. The Bible includes multiple points of view
The writers wrote in different times and places and had to address a diverse range of circumstances.  They also had different opinions.  These are often in tension with each other, not only on matters of detail such as that described in Part 2 of this series, but on huge questions, like whether or not non-Jews could be part of God's people.  Sometimes, as illustrated in Part 4, these differences appear side by side in the same book.  Different writers have different emphases and so present the same story in different ways, drawing different conclusions.  Sometimes one bit of the Bible contradicts another.  Our task, as God's people led by the Holy Spirit, is to figure out what we need to take from this in our time and place.  Sometimes we need to choose.  Sometimes, we need to learn from both points of view and keep them both clearly in view.  Sometimes we might need to just shrug our shoulders, say "I don't know" and move on.

5. The Bible is a book about God
As opposed to a book about science or,  Point 2 notwithstanding, a book about history.  If we try to read it looking for precise scientific or historical descriptions, we misuse it.  Every time we read a passage in the Bible we should be asking "what does this tell us about God, and about how we should act as his children?"

6. The Bible is a book of action
Not that there are no theoretical sections in the Bible - the book of Romans, for instance, contains a lot of philosphical thinking, as does the Gospel of John.  However, the Bible seeks to engage our whole being.  It asks for an emotional and practical response.  After reading it we should feel something, and we should do something.  This is why we have so many different literary forms employed.  The poetry and songs are there to stir our emotions, to open us up to joy and sorrow, anger and gratitude.  The proverbs and parables are there to stir us into action.  The narratives give us behaviour we can imitate, or avoid.  Intellectual assent without practical application is simply not an option.

I'm sure there's a lot more to say but that will do for this post.  Go read the Bible.  Believer or atheist, protestant or Catholic, fundamentalist or liberal, I promise you won't be disappointed.


Luke said...

Thanks for this closing round-up Jon. I like your explanation of the interpretive community in point 3 and your theological keystone of point 5, it's central character is indeed God.

But two topics or ideas were noticeably absent and makes me wonder if the points you've outlined can really make us say the Bible is true and authoritative or worth paying attention to.

Firstly you said "The Bible is the witness of human beings to God's actions in history". It is indeed that, but isn't it also the record of God speaking? You've emphasized the human authorship but downplayed entirely Divine authorship, without which there isn't much to distinguish it from other non-fiction and fiction about God.

Secondly, your last comment was an exhortation for people to read the Bible because we won't be "disappointed". But if it's a book focused on God with nothing from him, that'll be a dramatic disappointment. Apart from cultural literacy why else would you want to read the Bible except to meet and hear from God?

Thanks for the intellectual and theological engagement on this issue!

Jon said...

Thanks Luke. I think you would be disappointed if you came to the Bible with false expectations. This is part of my core concern with "bad apologetics". This is what I think literalism does - it sets people up to lose their faith because it makes unsustainable claims about the bible. However, I find it difficult to see how you could come to the Bible on its own terms and be disappointed in it.

Re the "words of God", I find this a difficult concept. People have heard God speak. But we only have the word of the people. How do we know they understood, or recorded correctly? Very existentialist/ post-modern I know, but remember the first existentialists were Christians. Ultimately we make a choice in faith, and in doing so we lean heavily on the judgement of the community of faith that has come before us.

Luke said...

Isn't it the divine character of the Bible which makes it distinctive from other Holy Books or even works of fiction. Otherwise what's really distinctive about Scripture?

If I wanted to recommend the Bible to Uncle Andrew, I'd want to on the basis that it's a divine revelation. (Admittedly this raises interesting questions about our different world views, but that at the base of it would be my primary reason.) He could read it and probably has for reasons of cultural literacy like I'd want to read the Koran or The Prince for example. But if you remove the 'expectation' of divine authorship why bother reading it?

Jon said...

I think there's a difference between "divine revelation" and "divine authorship". Yes God reveals himself. No he didn't write those words, people did. That's how God reveals himself and continues to do so.

I think the world view gap is a real one. If you told Roo he should read the Bible because it's the words of God he would give you a long reply about the illogicality of the idea plus some choice quotes of the gory bits to illustrate the sort of God you're talking about.

On the other hand if he, or anyone else who shares his views, could approach it without the frame of his childhood teaching and all that is associated with that, the Bible might speak to him in a way that touches him. This will be helped if the people recommending the Bible (including you and me) are able to act with at least something approaching the love of God, since we are the main message of God in our time.

Luke said...

I did pick him because I thought he'd be reading and he came to mind and your right he'd probably take that approach. (However I'd want to frame it within world views or basic presuppositions, moving beyond the self, the existence of otherness demands a response. )

I think there's a difference between "divine revelation" and "divine authorship". Yes God reveals himself. No he didn't write those words, people did. That's how God reveals himself and continues to do so. I disagree but I'm happy, from the original list I thought you were avoiding any hint of divine involvement.