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.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 5 - Poetry

A couple of times in this series on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy I've mentioned poetry in the Bible and I'd like to deal with this question a little more fully.

Article VI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics says

WE AFFIRM  that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute.

The problem with this affirmation is that it is simply and clearly wrong for large parts of the Bible.  Even the framers of the Statement on Inerrancy recognised this, saying in Article XVIII

WE AFFIRM  that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices....

They knew this to be the case, but they obviously didn't know what to do with it, or they couldn't have put their article about "propositional truth" in the follow-up statement.

So what's propositional truth?  Mr Google defines it as follows.

Truth which can be communicated in the form of a statement in which a predicate or object is affirmed or denied regarding a subject.

In other words, if I say "right now I'm writing on my blog", then I'm affirming the predicate (writing on the blog) about the subject (myself).  This statement is objectively verifiable - my wife could come into the room and would see that I'm writing my blog.  It is either true or false - either I'm writing my blog or I'm not. 

Some of the Bible is certainly like this.  When Paul says (in Romans 8:1), "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus", this is a propositional statement.  It's much more complex than the one about my act of writing, and there's lots of terms in it we would need to define carefully, but in theory it's the same kind of statement. 

However, large parts of the Bible aren't like this.  In particular, a lot of the Old Testament is poetry - not only the Psalms, Song of Solomon and Job, but also large slabs of the prophets are written in poetic form.  In addition, books like Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation are allegorical (in whole or in part), and of course Jesus spoke in parables.  These forms of writing do not contain propositional statements, they contain metaphors, symbols, images, hyperbole, personification - the whole range of tricks of the trade. 

For example, take a look at Psalm 57.

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.

I cry out to God Most High,
to God, who vindicates me. 
He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me
God sends forth his love and his faithfulness. 

I am in the midst of lions;
I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth. 

They spread a net for my feet—
I was bowed down in distress.
They dug a pit in my path—
but they have fallen into it themselves. 

My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music. 

Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples. 
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

Almost nothing in this song makes sense if you try to treat it as propositional truth.  Of course there are the obvious things - he is not surrounded by lions, these are a metaphor for people who want to kill him.  There are not literal nets or pits in his way - he just means people are trying to trap him.  But there's more to it than that.  For instance, look at the way he talks about love.  "God sends forth his love and his faithfulness".  These are not substances or beings that can be sent anywhere, they are actions.  What can this mean?  And at the end he says "great is your love, reaching to the heavens".  How does love reach up?  And what does he mean by saying "in you I take refuge"?  How can someone be "in" God?

The thing is, we know what he means,  He is celebrating how loving God is, and how God cares for him in the midst of troubles.  He uses a wide array of poetic tricks to make his point.  Those of us who have faith believe this to be true.  But it doesn't make any sense to talk about it as "inerrant" because it doesn't have that kind of precision.

You could try to say that you will interpret this "taking account of its literary forms and devices" - so you would recognise it as a poem, not try to insist on the literal truth of the images, and instead insist on the truth of the statement - God is loving, and protects his people or his king.  This statement (assuming you have interpreted correctly) is what is inerrant. 

This is fair enough as far as it goes, but to say this is to miss the point.  Why did David write a poem, with all this flowery language, when he could have just said it in one sentence and been a lot clearer?  It's because the central point of a poem or a song is not the "propositional truth" it expresses, it is the emotional impact of that truth.  David doesn't just want us to nod and say, "yes, that's objectively true".  He wants this truth to be subjective. He wants us to feel his agony and fear, to feel his relief at knowing God rescues him, to feel the sense of safety and protection of a chick being guarded by its mother hen.  He wants the temple singers to sing this so beautifully that the gathered worshippers leave with tears in their eyes at the depth of the love of God.

This is not inerrant.  It is so much more than that.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Dream Attic


After my brief mention of Richard Thompson's latest album, Dream Attic, in a recent article I received an e-mail from the man himself *.   He said

You little s***, how dare you blow me off like that?  You've got a hide, using me as a stepping stone to a review of an album by that young upstart Martha Tilston.  I was sharing stages with her dad when she was still in nappies.  I may even have changed her nappies myself - I can't be sure, there was a lot going on at the time.  Anyway, did you even @#$% listen to my album, you *&^%$?

I have to admit he has a point.  RT is one of my musical heroes.  And I had only listened to the cd a couple of times when I used it as a starting point for my review of Martha Tilston's beautiful album.  Kind of a march of the generations thing, you know.  So, with reverent apologies to the great man, here's a more mature reflection on his latest. 

Thompson is known for three things - his brilliant and unique guitar playing which mixes the folk styles of his Fairport Convention years with a strong rock sensibility; his prolific songwriting; and his acerbic and at times gloomy lyrics.  All three are in evidence on this album.  The acoustic demo disc that comes with the deluxe version shows he is quite capable of carrying a set of songs on his own, playing complex multiple acoustic guitar parts that drive the song along. 

The main album is recorded live in a number of small US venues, with the man himself on electric guitar backed by a band that includes bass, drums, violin and a choice of saxophones.  There's no studio trickery here, it's exactly what you would have heard if you were in the concert hall - a tight, well rehearsed and skilled set of musicians.  Having the band frees Thompson to let loose on guitar and there are some sizzling solos, but he also allows his band to shine, with lovely parts for the sax and violin. 

What made me initially dismissive?  A couple of times his bile goes over the edge; on the opener "The Money Shuffle" - did he lose money to a dodgy financial manager in the GFC? - and more particularly on "Here Comes Geordie" in which an unnamed but easily identifiable Newcastle-born superstar gets stung.  It's not funny or clever, it's just cruel, even if the man concerned is a bit of a prat.

It's a shame these appear early in the album, because it gets better as it goes on.  Later up-tempo numbers are more fun, including the eminently dancable "Demons in her Dancing Shoes" and the energising "Big Sun Falling in the River".  The band, including Thompson's guitar, get a great workout.

On this album, though, its the downbeat numbers that really shine.  The beautiful but desperately sad "Among the Gorse, Among the Grey", the enigmatic "Burning Man", the elegaic "Crimescene" and "A Brother Slips Away", and the scary "Sydney Wells" each has its impact, with thoughtful lyrics and beautiful arrangements . 

He saves the best for last, and even ends with a little hope in "If love whispers your name".

Next time I promise
I will be ready
Ready to move
When the clouds roll apart
Next time I promise
I will do it better
When the sun shines on me
And pierces my heart

If love whispers your name
Breathes in your ear
Sighs in the rain
Love is worth every fall
Even to beg, even to crawl

I won't act so cool
Won't be the fool
Next time
I won't quote the law
Won't be so sure
Next time

'Cause I once had it all and
I once lost it all and
I won't miss again
If the chance should come my way
If love should look my way

Love is worth every wound
Each lonely day
Each sleepless night
Love is worth every wound
The price that you pay
To live in the light

Almost cheerful for the King of Gloom!

* It's possible I only dreamt this.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Works of Belief?

A little while ago I wrote about the way we tend to substitute intellectual works for moral ones, insisting that assent to various doctrinal positions is essential to be considered a "Christian".  I just finished reading Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg and was delighted to find a very similar thought, although expressed much better than mine.  He talks about Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, and how his wisdom was opposed to the conventional wisdom of his day.  He then reflects on his own experience.

I grew up as a Lutheran, in a tradition that emphasised salvation by grace and not by "works of the law"....As Lutherans, we all knew that we weren't saved by "works". Rather, we were saved by "grace through faith".

Yet this strong emphasis on grace got transformed into a new system of conventional wisdom, not only in my mind but, I think, in the minds of many Lutherans, and many Christians generally.  The emphasis was placed upon faith rather than grace, and faith insidiously became the new requirement.  Faith (most often understood as belief) is what God required, and by a lack of faith/belief one risked the peril of eternal punishment.  The requirement of faith brought with it all of the anxiety and self-preoccupation that mark life in the world of conventional wisdom.  Was one's faith/belief real enough, stong enough?  Thus, for many of us latter-day Lutherans, the system of conventional wisdom remained.  Only the content of the requirement had changed - from good works to faith.

He repeats the point in a slightly different way later in the book.  He talks about what he sees as the three macro-stories of the Old Testament - the exodus, the exile and return, and the "priestly story" (ie the system of guilt and sacrifice).  Jesus and early Christianity, he says, reference all three.  However, he is concerned that the priestly image dominates the conventional view of Christianity.

The priestly story images God primarily as lawgiver and judge.  God's requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements.  Yet the sacrifice generates a new requirement: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and will not forgive those who do not believe.  God's forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional.  Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.  Thus, although the priestly story speaks of God as gracious, it places the grace of God within a system of requirements.  The overarching image for God's relationship to us is a legal metaphor, which pictures God as the giver and enforcer of a set of requirements.

We subtly move from a theology of grace to a theology of works, all the while masking the fact in language that sounds like it's still a language of grace.  God loves us, but only if we love him.  As opposed to what Paul said on the subject in Romans 5:7-8.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 4 - Why didn't David build the temple?

My relative and fellow blogger Luke has also been blogging on inerrancy, coming from quite a different standpoint to me.  Most recently he pointed to Jesus' parable of the mustard seed, in which some of the botanical details are not quite correct.  This is a clear case where literal truth is beside the point - indeed, Jesus' "errors" of fact appear to be quite deliberate and are used to heighten his message.

I've been thinking about another Bible story this past week, in relation to the Chicago Statement's insistence on the absence of contradication in the Bible.  This is one of my favourite Old Testament stories - the story of David's desire to build the temple. 

The first part of this story is found in pretty much identical form in 2 Samuel 7, and in 1 Chronicles 17.  Quoting from the Chronicles version, here is what happens.

After David was settled in his palace, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under a tent.”

Nathan replied to David, “Whatever you have in mind, do it, for God is with you.”

But that night the word of God came to Nathan, saying:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in. I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought Israel up out of Egypt to this day. I have moved from one tent site to another, from one dwelling place to another. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their leaders whom I commanded to shepherd my people, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ ....

“I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, ...

“‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever....’”

This is a fascinating and beautifully constructed conversation between God and David, with Nathan as messenger.  David proposes to build a house for the Lord.  This seems like a pious thing to do and Nathan agrees it's a good idea.  God disagrees.  It's not particularly that he objects to the idea of a temple - he's happy for David's son to build one - but he rebukes David for his idea.  Why?  The answer seems to be that David is underestimating God. 

God has lived in a tent since the Exodus and is not unhappy with this arrangement.  He doesn't need anyone to build him a house.  In fact, if there's any house building to be done, God will do it.  First, he will "provide a place for (his) people Israel and will plant them so they will have a home of their own".   Second, he will do something similar for David - "The Lord will build a house for you".  In other words, he will establish David's dynasty, starting with the son mentioned here. 

One of the key dangers with established religion is that God comes to be seen as belonging to the people, not the other way around.  God will not be domesticated.  David should remember who is God around here.

This is also a comforting message for the original exilic and/or post-exilic readership of these books.  The Babylonians could destroy the temple, but they could not destroy God.

In Samuel, this is the end of the story.  However, 1 Chronicles 22 has a second bite of the cherry.  Here, David is shown appointing workmen and stockpiling materials for the temple God has told him not to build.  Then he summons his son and heir Solomon.  Here's what he says.

My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the LORD my God. But this word of the LORD came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign. He is the one who will build a house for my Name.’

You will notice that the words of the Lord reported by David are very different to those quoted in Chapter 17.  In the earlier chapter, the reason David is not to build God a house is because God doesn't need one.  In Chapter 22 it's because David is a man of war. 

If you were determined you could harmonise these accounts.  You could say that Chapter 17 doesn't report the full words of God's message, and that in Chapter 22 David reports a bit that was left out earlier.  You could say that David is lying, or making a mistake.  None of these explanations is in the Bible, though.  They are explanations forced by a prior view of inerrancy. 

My understanding is that we are reading two different versions of  the same story.  You see this a lot in the Old Testament.  The authors and editors didn't share our love for consistency.  When they had two versions of the same story, rather than choosing between them or combining them they often just included both. 

The second story has a different message to the first, but one that is just as pertinent.  While wars and bloodshed may sometimes be necessary, God does not love them.  The development of his temple is a work of peace, not of war. 

The details of these two stories are contradictory.  They can't both be true in a literal sense.  Perhaps neither of them are.  The messages they bring, while also different, are complementary.  God is bigger than any temple, dynasty or nation, and rules over these things.  God loves peace and rest far more than war and bloodshed.  Each of these messages brings comfort and encouragement in a different way.  We can learn from both of them.  They should not be minimised or explained away in the name of a narrow view of inerrancy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Budget Cuts

We're having a lot of sound and fury about bank regulations at the moment, but I've been noticing another debate that's been going just a fiercely, although with slightly fewer headlines.  It's the debate about cutting spending.

Apparently, in the "little red book" of briefings provided by Treasury and Finance to the incoming Labor government, they recommended substantial cuts to government spending.  This was needed, they said, to prevent the economy from growing too fast and putting upward pressure on inflation and interest rates.

What occurred to me (and I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this) is that Keynesian economics has left us with an inbuilt tension in the way we think about Government spending.  After the Great Depression governments in the developed world adopted Keynes' idea that government spending should be used to smooth out fluctuations in the market economy.  When there was a downturn, governments should increase their spending to boost employment and keep the economy moving.  In boom times, governments should decrease their spending to avoid the economy reaching the limits of its capacity and inflation running out of control.

Cue the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and governments around the world rapidly poured billions into propping up their economies.  In Australia we had capital works sprouting like mushrooms - free insulation for householders, school halls and tuckshops, and a large public housing construction program.   Now in Australia things seem to be recovering and interest rates are going up, so economists are saying its time to wind back the spending.

The trouble with this is that it conflicts with the other - most of us would probably say main - reason for government spending, which is to deliver services.  The task of delivering quality education, health care, income security, housing and so forth requires carefully considered, well planned and consistent programs funded to a level that meets the needs.  It's very difficult for governments to do this while at the same time increasing and decreasing their spending in response to fluctuations in the global economy.

Housing researchers have been documenting high levels of housing need for decades.  Issues include a large number of households paying over 50% of their income on their housing (400,000 households and more since the early 1990's), an increasing gap between average incomes and average house prices, and the disappearance of rental housing at the bottom end of the market.  A key way to respond to this is to provide public and community housing to people on low incomes, giving them security and affordability while taking stress off the private rental market.  It's not just bleeding heart social workers like me saying this, it's people from all across the spectrum - housing industry organisations, trade unions, urban economists, planning professionals.

However, governments of both persuasions, in the grip of a desire to reduce government debt, have ignored this advice and run down the public housing system.  Then along comes the global financial crisis, and suddenly there is money to build 20,000 new public housing dwellings as well as repairing thousands more right now.

Unfortunately, after decades of neglect the capacity of State and Territory housing departments to deliver this housing is almost zero.  Organisations that have rolled along building a few hundred dwelling units a year, disposing of their land banks to keep up with repairs and maintenance, suddenly had to produce thousands in the space of 18 months.  The result - poor planning, dwellings in less than ideal locations, a scramble to sort out management arrangements. 

Then, after two or three years of effort, it will be over.  The crisis is passed, the Treasury boffins say it's time to cut spending.  Housing departments will have learnt lessons from the process and will be able to do better next time - except that next time won't be any time soon and most of the people involved will be elsewhere.  20,000 households will be moderately happy to be in reasonable and affordable housing although they will complain about construction flaws and lack of public transport.  Meanwhile, the other 380,000 will go on paying their 50% of income on rent and wait forlornly for the next economic downturn.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 3 - Young Earth Creationism

I have to confess that I have a soft spot for Ken Ham, a local boy who made it to the big stage.  He grew up in the same Brisbane suburb as me.  I had a slight friendship with his younger brother in my early teens, and Ken himself taught biology at the high school I attended.  In the year I graduated, he quit teaching to start the Creation Science Foundation here in Queensland, and a few years later joined forces with his friend and mentor Henry Morris to spread the idea of young earth creationism in the USA.  He is still doing it to this day.

In my early 20s I went to a Creation Science event at which Ken shared the platform with an American biologist.  At the time I was very receptive to creationism and was impressed by the American's presentation on the mathematical improbability of evolution.  I remember being less impressed with Ken's presentation, but in hindsight it was probably more to the point.  The Book of Genesis, he said, is a cornerstone of Scripture.  It is quoted and referred to throughout the Old and New Testaments.  If we take away the truth of Genesis, the whole fabric of the Bible unravels and we are left with no Christian faith.  Because of this, true Christians have no alternative but to believe in the literal truth of the early chapters of Genesis. 

It took me a few years to understand what this meant about Creation Science - that it is not science at all, it is the selection and arrangement of pieces of scientific information to bolster a pre-determined view of the Bible.  It is a piece of apologetics, albeit not a very good one.

He clearly had in mind a view of inerrancy pretty much the same as that propounded in the Chicago Statement.  Ken himself wasn't at the original 1978 Summit - he was still teaching - but Henry Morris's name appears on the attendance list.  Sure enough, this is what Article 12 says.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

Article 22 of the Statement on Hermeneutics reiterates the point. 

WE AFFIRM that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.

WE DENY that the teachings of Genesis 1-11 are mythical and that scientific hypotheses about earth history or the origin of humanity may be invoked to overthrow what Scripture teaches about creation.

This Article is the only specific Scripture reference I can find in any of the three statements produced by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  Why was this particular part of the Bible singled out?  Why, for instance, did the authors not defend the factuality of the accounts of Jesus' birth, death and resurrection - surely a subject more central to the Christian faith?  I suspect it has more to do with the culture wars in the US education system than with any sense of theological priority. 

What's sad about this is that it is quite unnecessary.  There are plenty of alternative views, and some of them don't even require you to deny the inerrancy of the Bible.

The most conservative alternative is to maintain that the Bible is inerrant, but that the first chapters of Genesis are not intended to be literal accounts.  The first chapter is a poem in praise of the Creator, describing with poetic imagination his actions in bringing the world into being.  The subsequent chapters are a parable illustrating the temptation and fall of humanity. 

This would be at least partly consistent with Article 18 of the original statement.

WE AFFIRM  that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices...

The question of the age of the earth could then have been a legitimate question of interpretation.  Evangelical readers would be allowed to debate and discuss the age of the earth without being told they were betraying their faith.  The next 30 years of battles over science curricula could have been avoided. 

Instead, the authors took a literalist position.  Their followers were left with no room to move - they had to choose between Christianity and science.  Many chose science.  Scientific atheists have been dining out on the results ever since.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Christmas songs

A bit of cross posting here because I'm feeling self-satisfied.  Pride comes before a fall but I just finished writing some new Christmas songs that I'm feeling proud of.  Check them out over at my song site.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Biblical Inerrancy Part 2

Some further thoughts on the Chicago Statement on Biblical InerrancyFour years after the original Chicago Statement, the same group of conservative theologians had a follow-up summit and issued a second statement, the Chicago Statement on Biblical HermeneuticsThis statement aimed to clarify some of the content of the original, and to explain a little more carefully how the participants meant the bible to be interpreted.

Once again, the core of the statement is a series of affirmations and denials and each would be worthy of some comment.  I'd just like to highlight a couple.  Firstly from Article VI

WE AFFIRM that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute. We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.

WE DENY that, while Scripture is able to make us wise unto salvation, biblical truth should be defined in terms of this function. We further deny that error should be defined as that which wilfully deceives.

In other words, everything in the Bible is literally true, not only in relation to the purposes of its authors, but in relation to everything it says.

Then there's this, from Article XVII

WE AFFIRM the unity, harmony and consistency of Scripture and declare that it is its own best interpreter.

WE DENY that Scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another.

That is to say, there are no contradictions in the Bible.  This, of course, follows logically from the idea that everything in the Bible is literally correct, because two contradictory statements can't both be correct.

These two statements highlight a core difficulty with the Chicago Statement's idea of inerrancy.  It asks us to believe that every detail in the Bible is literally and factually correct.  This means that the Bible must be internally consistent in every detail.  Yet you don't have to read particularly carefully to notice that this is not actually the case. 

Take for instance the accounts of Jesus' resurrection, surely a or even the pivotal story in the Bible.  To quote Bart Ehrmann from Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene:

In John's Gospel, for example, when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb she finds that the stone has already been rolled away, and she runs off to tell two of the disciples (John 20:1).  In Matthew's version, however, Mary and another woman named Mary arrive at the tomb and watch as an angel descends from heaven and rolls the stone away and sits on it.  They are terrified, but the angel reassures them, urging them to see that Jesus' body is not there and to go tell the disciples (Matt, 28:1-2).  In Mark's account they don't see an angel roll away the stone: they come to the tomb, find it open, and enter to see a young man sitting inside the tomb (not an angel on top of the stone that he has just rolled away, as in Matthew), who tells them that Jesus has been raised and that they are to tell the others (Mark 16:4-5). 

And so it goes on, through the accounts of who saw what, where, and when.  The details of the stories vary, and in ways that can't simply be harmonised.  Some accounts have an angel on the stone, some a young man inside the tomb, some two men.  In some accounts the woman are to tell the disciples to wait for Jesus in Jerusalem, in others to go to Galilee.  In some the women tell the men what they have seen, in others they don't. 

Speaking for myself, these differences don't bother me much.  There are different versions of the story, the details vary, but the central message is the same in all of them - the tomb is empty.  Yet this type of thinking is precisely what the Chicago summit wanted to combat.

WE DENY that, while Scripture is able to make us wise unto salvation, biblical truth should be defined in terms of this function.

In other words, it's not enough that I accept the core message that Jesus left the tomb, which is the only part of this story that is important to my faith.  I must also accept that all the details of these stories are literally true.   This can only be achieved with huge mental contortions because the bar is so high.  For instance, I have to somehow harmonise a story which says the women saw an angel roll away the stone, with one that says they arrived to find it already rolled away.  How am I to do that?  How am I to reconcile the literal truth of the Disciples being both sent to Galilee, and told to stay in Jerusalem? 

That's why the idea of inerrancy is such bad apologetics.  By hooking faith in God's perfection to faith in the absolute perfection of the Biblical text, it asks believers to believe nonsense.  It asks us to leave our brains at the church door.  Or, as an alternative, to throw out the baby with the bathwater and give up faith altogether.  They thought they were defending the bible, but actually they were backing themselves and their followers into a corner.