Monday, November 4, 2013

Personal Doctrine of Scripture

The following is an unabridged version of a paper I wrote for my Biblical Hermeneutics class on my "personal doctrine of scripture."

I'm naturally wary of the idea of coming up with a "personal doctrine of scripture", as if what I say about the Bible establishes anything. Scripture is scripture, regardless of what I tell it to be, and my only goal is to understand it for what it is, a task to which preconceptions of the nature of scripture can be a detriment. What we say about scripture is not nearly as important as what God says to us through it. Nonetheless, knowing what I believe about the Bible can help me to explain it to myself and others better for clarity's sake, so I press on.

I maintain no illusions that my entire doctrine of scripture is read directly from scripture itself; not only is this a circular argument (for you must already have some idea of how scripture works to learn anything from it), I have never met anyone whose entire (functional) approach to scripture did not involve bringing in outside sources or preconceptions. For reasons I will get to, I don't necessarily see this as a problem. If I must make assumptions or bring in outside notions, I will at least try to clearly state them instead of trying to convince myself they're right there in scripture, which (on an institutional level) is really the evangelical equivalent to the Catholic and Orthodox concept of "church tradition".

I believe, as all Christians do, that the Bible is an inspired set of books. What does this mean? In my limited research for this paper I interacted with two sources whose definitions were helpful. Our textbook defines inspiration as "the controlling influence that God exerted over the human authors who wrote scripture", and later says that "the messages spoken by the authors of scripture originated not with them but with the Holy Spirit" Anglical Biblical scholar N.T. Wright gives a very clear definition, saying, "'Inspiration' is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have." I would generally agree with Wright's definition and am comfortable adopting it as my own, but I will say more on how I see this process working.

My big assumption about inspiration is this: I don't think inspiration was a singular, unique event never totally unlike anything else God has done, but draw a parallel between the inspiration God provided to the biblical authors and more generally what I know, from Biblical knowledge and experience, about how the Holy Spirit, the same one who inspired, works in and through us today. This doesn't mean people are still writing what should be scripture today, but I think the process was of the same kind, and that to deny this puts the biblical authors unfairly on a pedestal over other believers.

I have reasons for making this assumption. 2 Timothy 3:16, a commonly cited verse in doctrines of scripture, states that "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness". The statement that scripture is breathed out by God is a common foundation for definitions of inspiration. I note that the other thing the Bible says is God-breathed is Adam (Gen 2:7), and by extension humankind. For all our flaws and weaknesses, the breath of God flows, acts, and does through us, not simply a part of us as if the Spirit of God were "a thing to be grasped" (Phl 2:6).

So I reject any dichotomy or purported conflict between something being "from God" and "from man"; the incarnation of Jesus Christ destroys any such distinction just as His death destroyed the curtain in the temple separating the dwelling of God from the people (Mat 27:51). I don't need a definition of inspiration that is "sufficiently God-centered" or "not too human" because inspiration is fully human and fully divine, just like Jesus. Just as the Spirit of God is not trapped inside or possessed by us, but dynamically moves through us, so He speaks God's power through the words of scripture, which are not intrinsically divine but are made divine by His ceaseless acting (which is also why translations or typos of the original manuscripts can also be inspired).

Regarding the reliability of the Bible, I hold fast to what is commonly called its infallibility while rejecting inerrancy. There is no debate as to whether the Bible can have factual errors in it; it does. The clearest I have found is in Mark 4:31, where Jesus says "[The kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth," and Matthew 13:31-32: "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds..." Being that the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed, I see no reason to accept Article XII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

So if we define truth as "statements corresponding to reality", it seems that the Bible doesn't always tell us the truth. Luckily, this is not the Bible's definition of truth. Instead, Jesus tells us, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (Jhn 14:6). Jesus is also the word (Jhn 1:1) which he later says is truth (Jhn 17:17). Biblical truth is not found in statements or knowledge, but in a person: Jesus Christ. The purpose of scripture is not to tell us impersonal truths but to bring us to knowledge of the One who is Truth, and it is reliable in that it never fails to do this (though we might fail to let the Spirit into our hearts). So when Psalm 18:30 and  Proverbs 30:5 tell us that the word of God proves true, we can be sure that through the Bible He can and will guide us into the truth we were made to know.

But more than simply being reliable, scripture also has authority. But what kind of authority? We often think of it as simply the authority to tell us what to do or believe, and it certainly means this; as Wegner says, "Scripture, then, has authority because it comes from God, who has the prerogative to tell us how to live our lives." But it also has more authority than this. N.T. Wright's book Scripture and the Authority of God is again very helpful here. He says, "When Revelation speaks of God and the Lamb receiving all power, glory, honor, and so forth, it is because through the Lamb's victory the whole of creation is being brought back into its intended harmony, rescued from evil and death. God's authority, if we are to locate it at this point, is his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation. Specific authority over human beings, notably the church, must be seen as a part of that larger whole." In other words, authority is not so much God telling us what to do and believe as it is the potency and exercise of His sovereignty over all creation, in pursuit of the renewal of all things.

Wright offers another very helpful clarification: "[The phrase 'the authority of scripture'] can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture's authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and son of God, the Immanual. It must mean, if it means anything Christian, 'the authority of God exercised through scripture.'" If all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Mat 28:18), then of course any authority scripture has must be delegated by Him.

To my imaginary interlocutor who believes the Bible dropped from heaven in an angelic language, I would simply point back to Jesus, "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15), the clearest revelation of the true nature of God. Jesus did not descend from heaven like an angel, "but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phl 2:7), and He rejected several tempting opportunities to solve human problems with divine power (Mat 4:1-11, 26:52-54, 27:39-43). If Jesus came in the form of a human, lived as a human with human limitations, and yet accomplished the atoning work of the gospel that the Father sent Him to do, and if this Jesus is the Word of God (Jhn 1:1), should we expect the written word of God to be any less human? By writing His word through the words of human authors, God illustrates what I see as a great pattern of the gospel: the new, the spiritual, the kingdom of God springing up from the midst of the old, the fleshly, the kingdom of this world, in the most unexpected ways and places, and transforming it from the inside out. So it is with us who know Christ, so it will be in the world to come, so it is with the Word.

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