Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Position Paper: Bibliology

The following is the unabridged version of a paper I wrote for my systematic theology class. The prompt was simply to write a paper stating and defending my view of the Bible, providing a snapshot of my beliefs. I'm quite satisfied with the result.

I'm reticent about developing a "theology of Scripture" not because I don't respect the Bible, but because I do. Nowhere in it do we see the Bible give a sustained discourse about itself; the church fathers similarly focused on matters like God, Jesus, the Incarnation, salvation, and the everyday moral and practical challenges of living as a Christian when the religion was still underground. Additionally, dwelling too much on bibliology risks giving the impression (to myself, if no one else) that these kinds of rational systems of propositional knowledge are the end goal of studying Scripture, when this is only a shadow of the truth. But nonetheless I find myself doing so, not just because I was assigned to but because of its singular and important role in the Church as a window to the glory and mysteries of God, a "verbal icon" of Christ,1 His written Word to His children. As the written record of God's revelation, the Bible is divinely inspired, an infallible bearer of truth, and authoritative divine speech in human words that resound through the centuries.

My view of the Bible falls under three main heads. First, the Bible is inspired. It almost seems cliché to bring them to bear here, but 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 both help illuminate what inspiration entails. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that "all Scripture is inspired by God [literally theopneustos, "God-breathed"] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (RSV) Here we learn what the (inspired) nature of Scripture means for its usefulness and its purpose: it is good for "training in righteousness", to build Christians up as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. St. John of Damascus similarly testifies to the salvific purpose of Scripture: "He [God] Himself worked out our salvation for which all Scripture and all mystery exists." We must not become exclusionary about this truth and deny that salvation can come through other means, but God has given the Bible a unique place in our salvation just as it is a truly unique collection of writings. 2 Peter 1:21 adds that "no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." The Bible testifies to its own transcendent nature: inspired writing is speech "from God", divine as well as human in origin. Of course, both of these passages were referring to the Old Testament, which was the only Scripture anyone had in the first century, but the Church has always believed that the New Testament is inspired as well, and they apply equally to it.

I find the "incarnational hermeneutic"2 helpful for understanding the inspiration of Scripture. In light of the fact that Jesus Himself, God in the flesh, is the true Word (Jhn 1:1), the fullest revelation from God (Hbr 1:1-2), and the Truth of God (Jhn 14:6), we can draw a parallel between Christ's dual divine/human natures and the natures of the Bible. "As Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible."3 This means that the Bible is divine speech clothed in human words, human language, human cultures. Though this can sometimes make it hard for us as modern people to understand it, it also reassures us that God does not dispense abstract spiritual truths but incarnated truth (namely His son), coming to us wherever we may be. This also ties in with the fact that all of the written word, teleologically, serves for the Christian as a witness to the person and work of the living Word Jesus (see Luk 24:27, Jhn 5:46). "The center of the Bible as the written Word of God in human form is the person of the Living Word of God in human form, Jesus Christ."4 Though His written word, I believe God is able to speak to us as He did in the first century and before, and to bring us to a fuller knowledge of the living Word, that is, Christ.

Second, the Bible is infallible, and reliable. (I will also affirm that it is inerrant, after an extensive qualifying discussion below) Proverbs 30:5 says that "every word of God proves true". Jesus, probably at least obliquely referring to Himself, says "your [the Father's] word is truth" (Jhn 17:17), which certainly describes Scripture fairly. What this means, practically, is that we can trust God to lead us truly us through His written word. It is a profitable well from which to draw truth of God, and there is no better written foundation on which to build our lives. (Of course, this point is not proof against our misunderstanding the Bible any more than Jesus in human flesh was immune to the abuse of the Jewish and Roman authorities)

Third, the Bible is authoritative. This follows straightforwardly from the fact that it holds the words of the Lord of the universe, the ultimate authority. But what does this authority entail? Commonly it is thought of as "the right to command belief and/or action",5 and it does certainly involve this. But not all of the Bible is composed of didactic teachings or commands, and not all of these necessarily apply to modern Christians. How is a historical narrative authoritative? A parable? A Psalm? By finding the propositional content and making it mandatory to believe? N.T. Wright offers an interesting alternative: he imagines a Shakespeare play whose fifth act has been lost. The actors are tasked with devising and carrying out the fifth act themselves. The "authority" of the first four acts would not manifest in a definite script for the fifth act, but there is no denying that it would be authoritative for the actors.6 In a sense, their authority would create the fifth act of the play according to the pattern or vision they lay down. And so with the scriptures, whose authority comes not just from the God who is Lord over us but who spoke the world into being, an authority to create a people for Himself or recreate a troubled creation as well as to command. It is not so much that God has delegated His authority to the Bible as He exercises His own authority through the Bible, just as the Bible itself depicts Him doing in its pages.

I identify and agree with the Catholic/Orthodox view of Scripture as existing within the Church and its traditions, not separately from (and over against) them. Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware wisely says that "it [the Bible] must not be regarded as something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church (that is why one should not separate Scripture and Tradition)."7 He explains that we both receive and interpret Scripture through and in the Church.8 Regarding our reception of the Bible, obviously the Church has produced and preserved the Bible we have today, and it was the Church that did the important work of establishing the New Testament canon in the first few centuries AD. Of course this was not an arbitrary decision that conveyed authority to the books of the NT, but a recognition of the inspiration that produced them and their pre-existing authority. Nonetheless, the decisions that hammered out the canon were also made authoritatively, and no individual Christian is up to the task of it (as, for instance, Luther's doubts about certain books show). This process points to an organic relationship between Church and Bible, not simply the Bible's being set up as a sort of charter for the Church to abide by (the early Church went well beyond the "bounds of Scripture" before the New Testament was written and collected). God exercises His authority and gives His Spirit through both.

We also interpret Scripture through the Church. The Bible is authoritative, we say, but it can be misused. It never speaks to us without a (fallible) act of interpretation on our part. How does the Bible's authority transfer through this process? Is a flawed interpretation still authoritative in some way? Who determines which interpretation is correct? Sola scriptura Protestants who reject the notion of an authoritative arbiter of interpretations try to fill this gap in a variety of ways, usually by prescribing a correct, authoritative method for interpreting Scripture authoritatively. A common one is the method of "Scripture interprets Scripture", based on the idea that "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself;9 in other words, we can discern the meaning of unclear passages of Scripture in light of the clear ones. But this only works if what is "clear" about Scripture is the same to everyone involved, which (due to varying presuppositions, cultural backgrounds, hermeneutical priorities, etc.) is seldom the case.10

What is there to prevent hermeneutical anarchy from prevailing? Tradition. A tradition is simply "an opinion, belief, or custom handed down from ancestors to posterity."11 Every Christian sect or denomination is guided by traditions, even those that explicitly reject their authority. These traditions form an underlying rule or structure for making sense of the Bible, like the "rule of faith" that guided the early Church. Atonement theories, ecclesiologies, and even the "Scripture interprets Scripture" approach are traditions, as are styles of worship, forms of prayer, and even religious music and works of art. Protestants who recognize this maintain that tradition should be based on Scripture, always under its authority, never replacing it, metaphorically serving a "judicial" rather than "legislative" role.12 But this view misses the fact that all of our handling of Scripture, including using it to verify traditions, is itself conditioned by tradition. We can never "step outside" traditions to evaluate them purely objectively. The line between allowing tradition to guide our interpretation of Scripture and allowing it to generate new beliefs is porous, not rigid. Even doctrines like the perpetual virginity of Mary, purgatory, or the veneration of icons have scriptural correlations, if not scriptural "proofs". Rather than seek to elevate Scripture above tradition or draw a distinction between the two, Catholics and Orthodox see Scripture as part of Holy Tradition (albeit the most authoritative and valuable part), the whole of which is the living fulfillment of Jesus' promise in John 16:13 that the Spirit will guide the Church into all truth. I agree that this is the way to position the Bible within the Church.

Half a century ago my work might be done, but I would be remiss if I did not address the (relatively) recent challenges that have been made to the Bible's truthfulness. Atheists, liberal Christians, and other skeptics have challenged—not always groundlessly—the Bible's factual claims, the morality it expresses, and the historicity of the events it depicts. In response a good deal of attention has been devoted in conservative Christian circles to upholding the reliability of the Bible to speak truth, under the doctrine of inerrancy. This the view that the Bible, being inspired by God and effectively His speech in written form, in light of the fact that God speaks only truth and does not lie (Num 23:19, Prov 30:5, Titus 1:2), is thus "without error or fault in all its teaching",13 authoritatively true in all that it affirms. For Scripture to be incorrect in any of its statements would be for God to speak falsely in His (apparently unreliable) revelation, which cannot happen. Some qualifications are important to avoid misunderstandings: inerrancy applies to things that the Bible affirms, not merely reports. For the Bible to record the words of a person who was speaking falsely does not jeopardize its inerrancy. Additionally, the words of Scripture are inerrant when judged in the context of the (ancient) cultural setting from which we have received them and the purpose for which they were written. This includes the propensity of the Bible's prescientific authors to use phenomenal language (describing the way things appear to the eye), making no attempt to scientifically describe what was happening as we might expect.14

These statements and deductions must be tested and integrated with the phenomena of Scripture, however. There are a great number of places in which the Bible actually does seem to say something false, or at least difficult to believe with intellectual integrity, and it will not do to simply say over them, "we have not found an explanation for this yet." First, the Bible appears to make a number of historical errors, disagreeing with the external evidence and even itself. For example, in the flood narrative, Gen 7:10 says that the flood began seven days after Noah and his family entered the ark, but 7:13 says that he entered it "on the very same day" that the rains began. Gen 7:12 says it rained for forty days; 8:2 says the rains continued until at least after 150 days (7:24). A common theory for resolving these discrepancies is that it consists of two distinct narratives interwoven, but this hardly resolves the issue. If the Bible really is inerrant divine speech, why did God not at least inspire the editor of the combined account to resolve such obvious contradictions? Additionally, there is no geological or archaeological evidence of a global flood as we would expect,15 to say nothing of how people of every race could have come to live all over the world after the flood left only eight alive. As far as we can tell, the flood never actually happened, even though the Bible seems to regard it as history.

The Bible exhibits a number of examples of ancient science which we see paralleled in contemporary ancient Near Eastern literature. For example, it expresses a belief in the ancient view of the universe as consisting of three tiers (Phil 2:10) with foundations supporting the earth from below (Job 38:4-6, 1 Sam 2:8, Psa 104:5), an earth surrounded by a circular sea (Prov 8:22-31, Job 26:7-14) and having actual ends (Dan 4:12, Gen 11:31, Mat 12:42), an underworld (Num 16:31-33, Prov 5:5), a flat (Matt 4:8), fixed/immobile earth (1 Chr 16:30, Psa 83:1), a solid firmament fixed as the sky over the earth (Gen 1:6-8, Psa 19:1) holding back the waters above the heavens (Psa 104:2-3, 148:4) as well as storehouses of snow (Job 38:22-23) and the sun/moon/stars (Gen 1:14-19), that stars were small enough to fall to Earth (Dan 8:10, Mat 24:29, Rev 6:13), that the heavens could be rolled up like a scroll (Isa 34:4), that rabbits chewed the cud (Lev 11:5-6), that bats were birds (Lev 11:13-19), that seeds died before sprouting (Jhn 12:24-25, 1 Cor 15:36-37), and the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mat 13:31-33, Mar 4:30-32), all of which we now know to be false just as surely as we know that it gets dark at night. There is far too much biblical evidence like this to believe that the biblical authors were expressing something like our current knowledge of the universe and simply speaking phenomenologically or poetically, especially given the correlating evidence of the same ancient worldview in contemporary ancient cultures.

In the story of the exodus and Canaanite conquest, God does and commands some things that are dramatically at odds with Jesus' later teaching of love for one's enemies (Mat 5:44). In Deuteronomy 20 God commands the Israelites to enslave those who surrender to them and either slaughter or enslave those who resist (He especially commands them to "save alive nothing that breathes" of the towns in Canaan in 20:16-18). We see Israel carrying out these orders in the book of Joshua, especially chs. 6-8. Joshua 10:40 says that Joshua "defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded." 11:16-23 boasts of Joshua's complete extermination of numerous Canaanite tribes; verse 20 confirms that this extermination was the Lord's will. (The whole book takes pains to assert that this whole conquest was the Lord's will) In any other book, we would immediately (and rightly) deplore these conquests as genocide, the systematic extermination of nations to take their land and their possessions. And yet the Bible says that it was commanded by God, making no attempt to reconcile these commands with Jesus' teachings. Such "texts of terror" paint a seriously morally ambiguous picture of God, as countless biblical skeptics are happy to point out.

For one last example, the Old Testament does a surprising amount of hemming and hawing about the number of gods out there. For all the emphatic assertions that the Lord alone is worthy of worship, the Old Testament (at least, parts of it) doesn't seem to rule out the existence of other gods. For instance see Psa 86:8, 95:3, 96:4, 97:9, 135:5, 136:2, which praise the Lord by comparison with unnamed other gods; Psalm 82:1 and 89:7 refer to His presiding over some kind of divine council. Yet Isaiah (45:5) and Paul (1 Cor 8:4) both exclude the existence of any gods other than the true God. Wouldn't we expect God, in inspiring His inerrant revelation to His people, to get such a basic fact crystal clear?

These are undeniably difficult issues, but I believe that the aforementioned qualifications to inerrancy, when applied consistently, are able to explain them. For example, ancient historiography operated by a considerably different set of rules than modern historical studies. We see abundant evidence of this in contemporary literature such as the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics, which both have numerous parallels with the Genesis flood narrative(s)16 and which preceded it by centuries,17 indicating that the Genesis account was at least partially based on them. Ancient history was an outgrowth of ancient storytelling, which was heavily based on oral tradition,18 which made it considerably more fluid and prone to evolution and embellishment than modern history. The goal was not to provide an objective account of "what really happened", as in modern journalism and history, but as a way for a people to creatively interact with and retell its past so as to address present concerns and answer important questions of origin, identity, and meaning.19 Ancient history had a lot in common with mythmaking, though it had a basis in actual past events and was not simply "made up". If we evaluate the Old Testament by the standards of its own culture for doing history, rather than our own, our objections lose their grounding.

Add in the ancient perspective on science and the nature of the universe (which we have every indication Israel shared with its ancient neighbors,20 and on which the flood narratives rely), and we begin to realize a way to make sense of discrepancies in the Bible's witness by respecting its ancient viewpoint. Most evangelicals, especially conservatives, tend to be uncomfortable taking the reasoning this far, to the point of allowing the Bible to affirm things that we now know to be factually untrue like a geocentric universe or a flat earth. I see inconsistency in this refusal. If we have established that we must judge the truthfulness of Scripture by the standards of its ancient culture21 and this ancient culture did history and viewed the cosmos in ways that we consider false today (should we be surprised at this?), then Scripture should be allowed to make statements that hold together in its ancient worldview without their also being forced to conform to our modern one. Simple assertions that the Bible does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact fail to make the distinction between something being considered factual in the ancient Near East and its being considered factual today. A Bible that envisioned a heliocentric (much less a galaxy-based) universe, a spherical earth, and the vacuum of outer space would have been considered seriously in error (if not incomprehensible) by the ancient Hebrews! In light of this, it seems as though the traditional doctrine of inerrancy will have to be adjusted—but it already has.

It is true that the Church has historically affirmed that the Bible is true and without error in everything it affirms.22 But this is slightly misleading. Before the Reformation, and especially in the early Church, theologians believed that divine inspiration allowed Scripture to speak in multiple senses,23 and routinely appealed to the truth of the higher, more spiritual or allegorical senses when a passage appeared to be factually untrue/nonsensical or to portray God in an unworthy manner. Historically, the church fathers have been much less attached to the literal, factual truth of Scripture than modern defenders of inerrancy. Additionally (and this should go without saying, but I will say it anyhow), throughout most of the Church's history no one had a reason to doubt the Bible's scientific or historical accuracy. Until the modern age, no one had any idea that there was no archaeological evidence for many of Israel's conquests in Canaan,24 that geological evidence and radiometric dating indicate that the earth is much more than about 6,000 years old,25 or that there is not a layer of water above the sky. The few exceptions (such as the spherical shape of the earth which was established by Plato, albeit for philosophical and aesthetic reasons26) were accommodated to the Bible fairly easily, using allegorical interpretation if needed.

Our much more extensive knowledge of the differences between the Bible's claims and the way we know the world through science, combined with the unacceptability among defenders of inerrancy of interpreting troublesome passages allegorically, have tended to lead them to one of two options. First, they can change their reading of the Bible so that it supports new knowledge about the world. Prima facie, this doesn't seem like an option at all, since it makes our reading of Scripture dependent on current trends in academia and prevents us from reading the Bible the same way our Christian forebears did. Yet this method is commonly used, albeit subtly; when we read Genesis 1, how often do we envision God hovering over a spherical earth and creating the Sun at the center of the Solar System? (No one did the latter until after Galileo) In this way we lose sight of the Bible's ancient worldview as we read it as speaking to our modern one instead, often without noticing how much strain we are placing on its ancient words. Alternatively, they can not accept this outside information that would seem to contradict the Bible's claims, reaffirm the Bible's truth and consistency despite appearances, and in the case of scientific knowledge hold out hope that it will eventually be corrected by more complete information. But this means setting up an adversarial relationship between the Bible and what we can learn from the rest of creation, which is unacceptable if God created us to know Him through both sources.

How are we to understand the Bible's inerrancy in light of its proclamations about itself and the way it actually behaves? How can we trust the Bible to speak truth on spiritual matters if it gets empirical facts wrong?27 I believe we can, and that doing so is not a denial of its inspired nature but an affirmation of its dual human/divine nature, analogous to Jesus. Like our Savior during His ministry on Earth, the Bible is situated in a particular historical and cultural context. It occupies that context, rather than speaking abstract spiritual truth into it from outside. It was written by human authors who, though lovers of God and inspired by His Spirit, still had a limited, human perspective of the world, just as we do. We should expect Scripture to communicate the truth we need, most especially Jesus Himself, in that context and through that perspective—and so it does. Just as Jesus had a limited, mortal human body but was able to truly say "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jhn 14:9), so the Bible is able to lead us to the truth of God not just in spite of its human nature, but through it. Whatever errors exist in Scripture are due not to any ignorance or deception on God's part, but to the limited perspective of its human authors which in no way imperiled God's speech through their words. Realizing this frees us to read the Bible as God's word without being obligated to defend it where its ancient authors' cultural, historical, or scientific perspectives clash with our own.

I see two specific ways to do this. First, we can seek to understand the Bible's ancient viewpoint as best we can in order to discern what would have been revelatory for its first hearers (e.g. that God created the cosmos alone and made the first man for a personal relationship with Himself) and what would simply have been background knowledge (e.g. that there was divine act of creation or a first man). Theologian and biologist Denis Lamoreux calls this the "message-incident principle", which distinguishes between the inerrant "messages of faith" in Scripture and the incidental ancient history.28 Second, drawing on Christian interpretive tradition can help us to see what earlier theologians thought of "problem" texts before their factual accuracy was under debate, and so indicate how to constructively move past these debates. This helps us "do" theology as involved participants of the same body, not merely as quasi-historians studying ancient documents and reconstructing the beliefs of the authors for our own time (which is a risk of the first method). The inerrancy of Scripture means a lot more than its communicating correct information; in our sparring matches against modern skeptics we are apt to forget this, but the living tradition of the Church is there to remind us of the ineffable richness of God's written word.

Like the early church, I believe Jesus is the key to the Bible. In his unity of divinity and humanity we see how it can be written from an ancient perspective that we now consider primitive, yet speak the truth to us with the very voice and authority of God, making them manifest to the Church wherever she meets. And in Jesus' identification of Himself with the truth of God and the way to Him (Jhn 14:6), we understand the true purpose of God's written word for us: to manifest Christ, the true Word (logos) of God, to us and to make Him known long after His ascension, even as He makes God known to us. He is the center of the Bible, the key to its interpretation (see Luk 24:44), and the reason a two-thousand-plus-year-old collection of writings matters to us at all. May we come to the scriptures seeking to know Christ as well as to know of Him!

[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 201.
[2] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 17–21.
[3] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 17.
[4] Thomas Hopko, "Sources of Christian Doctrine," The Orthodox Faith, 1981, (13 September 2014).
[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 212.
[6] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: Fortress Press, 1992), 140–143.
[7] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 199.
[8] Kallistos Ware, "How to Read the Bible" in The Orthodox Study Bible (eds. Jack Norman Sparks et al.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1760–1763.
[9] Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9. (13 September 2014).
[10] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 21–22.
[11] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 196.
[12] Erickson, Christian Theology, 228.
[13] Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, (13 September 2014).
[14] Erickson, Christian Theology, 202–205.
[15] Denis Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 280.
[16] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 27–29.
[17] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 221.
[18] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 180–182.
[19] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 40.
[20] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 148–176.
[21] Erickson, Christian Theology, 203.
[22] Erickson, Christian Theology, 194–195 and Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 87–92.
[23] Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture, 48–55.
[24] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 58–60.
[25] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 422–427.
[26] E. Edson and E. Savage-Smith, Medieval Views of the Cosmos: Picturing the Universe in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages (Bodleian Library: Oxford, 2011), 22.
[27] Erickson, Christian Theology, 196–197 asks this question in more words.
[28] Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 239.

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