Thursday, July 24, 2008

A different take on Inspiration - Blumhardt

While looking for the source of the quote in the previous post, I came across the entire text of Vernard Eller's compilation of the writings of Johann Christoff Blumhardt and Christoff Heinrich Blumhardt, Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader. This excerpt from the section entitled "The Bible" is relevant and interesting:

People speak much these days about "the inspiration of scripture"; and this is good. However, I prefer to speak of "inspired people." God be thanked that we have scriptures that came from those through whom God's Spirit spoke the truth. Yet it is the prophet who is inspired, not the letter of scripture. And if the letter is to lead to the truth, so must you also be led by the Spirit of God as you read.

Conversely, today's natural man knows nothing of the Spirit of God and so gets himself quite confused regarding the words of the inspired prophets. But thus, also, a man like Luther could, for his time, personally witness to the God-intended truth of that for which other writers of his time could find no meaning nor make any sense. He was ruled by God and the Spirit, not by biblical texts. But if we all attend only upon the revealed life of God, and if each person is zealous only for his own gifts regarding God's truth and steadfastness, then we do not need to be in conflict over the inspiration of scripture. We then can find ourselves in reciprocal agreement.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why it matters

Though I'm far from exhausting the issue of Biblical inspiration, I think it might be useful to turn aside for a moment and look at why I'm going down this road at all. I already stated at the outset that one primary reason is that we have no business making a doctrinal-level claim that cannot be conclusively supported on Biblical texts alone. That is, if the Bible itself does not define itself as the word of God (and I contend it does not), then we have no business so defining it.

Nevertheless there is another reason to which I have alluded several times: Many (perhaps most) of the doctrines taught in our churches today, are based on a few Biblical passages--even single verses--taken out of their larger context and expanded into complex theologies. (I should clarify here that I use the term "doctrine" not in the literal sense of the Greek didache, which is simply "teaching," but rather in the more-common English sense of basically a synonym of "dogma:" that is, a proposition to which the believer is asked--or even required--to give intellectual assent).

By contrast, the passages highlighted in both Old and New Testaments as the "word of God" tend to have a great deal more to do with how we live, than what we think (I know, this brings up works-vs-faith salvation for many of you. I'll address that in a few days). Particularly with the prophets, but also in Jesus' own words, we learn a great deal about what makes God happy, and what pisses him off. A reasonable person, reading these words, would probably conclude that making God happy is a good thing, while upsetting him, not so much. It's not rocket science.

Let's look at a couple of examples. According to at least one source, the Bible references money over 800 times, and whether his numbers are correct or not, he's on the right track. Quite a few such references are by Jesus himself, or in the prophetic "thus saith the Lord" passages I referred to in my prior post. Even a cursory survey of such verses gives us a pretty good clue what God thinks about money: we shouldn't be driven by it, we should be careful not to harm others in the acquisition/use of it, it easily becomes an idol, etc. In other words, taking these passages seriously leads to ACTION: doing some things, and not doing others.

On the other hand, the contention that God knows the whole future (whether because of his planning or simply divine foreknowledge), while not absent from the Bible, is much less common. Though I have yet to do a full survey of the subject, I strongly suspect that:
  • It's mentioned a lot less than 800 times and probably less than 100
  • Mention of God's foreknowledge generally (not exclusively) is not in the "thus saith the Lord" parts of the Bible so much as in literature of other types
  • Most importantly, it does not occur in passages--regardless of who's talking--that carry an expectation of behavior that would change because of God's knowledge.
It is this last point I would emphasize the most strongly. Whether or not one believes (as in, gives intellectual assent to the proposition) that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of events that will happen is an entirely intellectual mind game, while on the other hand, whether or not one believes (as in recognizes it matters to God) in the Biblical view of money can and must have a direct impact on our behavior.

Nevertheless, I have heard more teaching on God's omniscience than I have on God's opinion about economic justice. If you attend (or know someone who attends) an American evangelical church (maybe a lot of other churches too), I'll bet you've been exposed to a similar imbalance. This is one way the church grossly misrepresents the God it claims to worship.

When God actually took the time to speak, and to make clear to his hearers that he was speaking, it was not to get their "doctrines" as we use that term, in order. It was to get them to do something or to stop doing something else. Perhaps the greatest violence that theology has done to the faith of Jesus, is by re-defining faith as a mental exercise in believing propositions, more than a lifestyle of discipleship. Though this redefinition has many roots, I believe one of the keys has been the misapplication of the "word of God" imprimatur to the Biblical canon, which in turn resulted in theologians feeling the compulsion to tease out the meanings of isolated phrases and concepts found in every corner of the text.

Years ago I was given a quotation that I have since lost, which says it best. I believe that the author may have been one of the Blumhardts, but sadly I cannot say for sure, and so far Google has been useless in turning it up. If anyone can help me with a citation I shall be grateful:

"God's word is given in order that we shall act in accordance with it, not that we shall practice the art of interpreting obscure passages."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Biblical Inspiration part 4 - Rightly Dividing the Word

I have contended in previous posts that the conventional Christian position designating the entire Biblical canon to be the "Word of God" is in error. But this is not to say that we do not have the Word of God available to us. . .quite the contrary. The role of the "workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15, KJV)" is to understand what, out of all the Biblical writings, is God's own word, and be sure to live by it.

If we simply let the Biblical texts speak for themselves, this isn't really terribly complicated. First and foremost, of course, as John makes abundantly clear at the beginning of his gospel, the ultimate word of God is Jesus himself, the Word become flesh. Anything we presume to understand from the written Biblical texts (or for that matter from anywhere) must be subjected to the character of Jesus as he lived and taught while present on earth. In any case where there is any perceived disagreement or discrepancy, Jesus wins because Jesus is the fullest revelation of God in history. So for example, when Jesus taught a variety of "you have heard it was said. . .but I say to you" throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), it doesn't really matter whether what he was doing was clarifying an earlier point that God had revealed, or correcting a human doctrine. Either way, Jesus' own authority was and remains paramount. It is impossible to make a Biblical case for rejecting or discounting a teaching of Jesus, and it is equally impossible to be obeying Biblical teaching in any way that leads one to live or behave contrary to Jesus' character.

In this regard, we must operate under the faith position that Jesus' words and actions, as represented in the four gospels, are faithfully recorded. Without these, Jesus is no more than a significant historical legend who may or may not have taught certain things or done certain deeds. The various revisionists that try to parse out the "historical" Jesus from that recorded in the Gospels may be performing an interesting academic exercise, but faith in Christ depends on a faithful account of who Christ was.

(I should note here that there are plenty who get into the subject of apologetics to determine the historicity of Jesus. This is an interesting subject, and one I may take on at some point. But it's not the point of this series. I am speaking here to those who accept--or at least are willing to entertain the possibility of--the divine nature of Jesus' life and work on earth. My argument is which parts of the Biblical text are to be taken as the word of God, which PRESUPPOSES that there is a God, there is a word of God that must be followed, and so on. This is hermaneutics, not apologetics).

Parenthetics out of the way, what am I saying? Very simply, if there is a "word of God" at all, at the very pinnacle it must be the words of Jesus, God's incarnate son.

After Jesus, there are other places where the Biblical texts explicitly say that what they are relating are the words of God. We find this mostly in the prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others say over and over in their texts "this is what the Lord says," or "the word of the Lord came to me," or similar phrases. These designators--highlighting that here it is no longer merely man's thoughts but God's own communication--are followed by very clear condemnation of evil, occasional praise for faithfulness, and unmistakable directions for action.

Frankly, if our churches spent as much teaching and study effort on these parts of the Bible where it actually says it's God's word, instead (or even in addition to) their emphasis on other parts that make no such claim, we would be looking at a radically different faith. The troubling, encouraging, exciting thing is that the places where we have these words recorded, tend to be passages that talk a lot about justice and right behavior, and not so much about belief in doctrinal propositions.

On the other hand, and in stark contrast to these declaratory passages, the Psalms are a man's words. They are full of David's praise to God, as well as his prayers, the venting of his frustrations, and so on. In many ways it might be accurate to look at parts of the Psalms as David's "prayer journal." But the Psalms also relate plenty that is flat-out un-Godly. Probably the best examples of this are the so-called "imprecatory psalms" such as Psalm 109.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. May his days be few; may another seize his position. May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. (v. 7-10, NRSV)

When David is saying these things he's being bluntly honest with his feelings toward his enemies. But no one who's paid any attention to the character and teachings of Jesus can make the case that these feelings are remotely Godly--certainly they're not something we are taught to emulate or bring about.

So are they in error? No, it's not an error to have included them in the text. While God may not have inspired David to write those words (evil thoughts like those have a very different inspirational source), I do believe God inspired the canonical council to include them. They are profitable for teaching, because they give us an unvarnished look at the range of feelings--perhaps the range of depravity--of a man who served God faithfully for much of his life. But this rant cannot in any stretch be characterized as God's word. It is, in fact, antithetical to God's very being.

So study your Bible, and learn to "rightly divide" that which is God's word from that which is also profitable for teaching. We'll talk more about what this division may mean in future posts. Peace until then. . .

Monday, July 14, 2008

Biblical Inspiration Part 3: But what about 2 Tim. 3:16?

Note, please see the follow-on to this discussion linked at the end of this article.

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. . ." (NRSV).
Doesn't this verse conclusively state that our Bible comes straight from God?

Well, not exactly.

First of all we have to look at the word "Scripture." While in modern English that word has the meaning of "sacred writing," the Latin word "scriptura" is much more pedestrian--it just means the written word. In addition to the religious word "scripture," we also get our words "scribe" and "script" from the same root. Similarly the Greek word "graphe" used in the original text is a pretty generic word. You're reading my "graphe" right now, but at least it has some spiritual content. If my wife puts a note on my dashboard reminding me to pick up milk on the way home from work, that's "graphe," too. I doubt the grocery list is inspired by God!

Now it's true that in the first century a lot fewer people were literate. Added to the fact that pens and paper were a whole lot rarer and more costly, and writing back then was likely reserved (mostly) for more significant stuff than the grocery lists, but we have plenty of examples of "graphe" from Paul's time that were most certainly not holy!

But the real key to this passage leaped out at me when I first read it in the old American Standard Version from 1901. Though it's not the most readable version I've ever seen, the 1901 ASV is regarded by many scholars as possibly the most literal translation ever, of the Bible into English. Here is the same verse from the ASV:

Every scripture inspired of God [is] also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness.

Notice the difference? That little verb "is" got moved three positions to the right, and it completely changes the character of the sentence. Instead of declaring that "every scripture comes from God," the ASV tells us the somewhat-obvious fact that "anything that comes from God is profitable." The ASV's translation is equally valid because the verb "is" doesn't appear in the original text at all, in either place. A literal translation of the Greek text is more like ". . .every (or "all") writing God-breathed and profitable. . ." Both the translators of the ASV and other English translations inserted the "is" because the sentence doesn't make much sense in English without it. But with apologies to Bill Clinton, where the "is" is, makes a huge difference in the meaning!

The more I think about it and look at this passage, though, the more I suspect that both sets of translators got it wrong. Their error (besides "already knowing what it means" before examining the text) was assuming that verse 16 and 17 are a single sentence separate from verses 14 and 15 before them (and forgetting that Paul is legendary for run-on sentences). If, instead, verse 16 is a dependent clause in the same sentence as 14, we don't need an "is" at all to understand it. Consider this alternate reading of the passage (picking up in verse 15):

". . .from childhood you have known the holy writings (which have the power of wisdom to produce faith in Christ Jesus): every writing inspired by God and useful for teaching. . ." etc.

In other words, the writings which Paul is saying have the power of wisdom to produce faith are those writings which (1) are inspired by God, and (2) are therefore profitable for teaching and all the rest of it. That is, Paul is using the fact that a given writing is God-breathed (as opposed to all th other writing "out there"), as a point of qualification for it's being used for teaching the believer. Stated plainly, "If God inspired it, then it's worth using for teaching." Put that way, it's kind of a no-brainer, don't you think?

To use this passage as it has been used for centuries, as a divine imprimatur over a Biblical canon that did not exist for another 200-plus years is nonsense. I have been told before that "God intended to inspire the canonical council to put all these books together as His word, and so inspired Paul to state that's what they were." This is circular reasoning. . .saying that "the Bible is the Word of God, therefore it says it is the Word of God" only makes sense if you start with the assumption that it's the inspired, inerrant word of God. Paul in this passage said no such thing.

For a correction based on better grammatical analysis, please see this follow-on article.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Biblical Inspiration - Part 2: The Foundation of our Faith

One might reasonably ask whether, when I argue against the inerrancy doctrine of Biblical inspiration, I might not be undercutting the very foundation of our Christian faith. To this I answer an unequivocal "no." At its core, our faith is not in any text, but rather in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh who dwelt among us, "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11, NRSV).

Greg Boyd said it better than I can, in a recent blog post (note that he qualifies his use of the term "infallible"):

"My belief that Jesus is the Son of God isn’t rooted in my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word. Rather, my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word is rooted (mostly) in my belief that Jesus is the Son of God. I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible says so. I believe in the Bible (mostly) because Jesus says so."

We have got to realize that the Bible's authority depends on God, not the other way around. The old song

Jesus loves me, this I know
for the Bible tells me so.

actually has it backwards. Put another way, you could take the Bible away and still have a sovereign God; but take God away and the Bible is meaningless.

This is not to discount the value of Biblical texts--after all, most of the little we know about God's very identity and character, we learn from the Bible. I said in my last post that anything we can't derive from Biblical sources (as opposed to extra-Biblical) dare not rise to the level of doctrine, and I stand by that statement.

But I don't think that it's accidental (or in error) that one of the oldest creeds of the Christian faith, the Apostles' Creed, begins

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.

There is no mention of the scriptures at all in that early creed. This is right, because it isn't the Scriptures in which we believe. . .they are the source of information and teaching and the words of the One in whom we believe. It's not an idle distinction.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Biblical Inspiration, Part 1 - The Error of Inerrancy

Most Christian churches teach a doctrine about the Bible that comes from outside the Bible itself. The Bible is variously described as the Word of God, the Inspired word of God, and similar terms. Many (most?) Evangelical and/or fundamentalist churches hold to a doctrine they call "Verbal and Plenary Inspiration," ("verbal:" the words are inspired, and "plenary:" all the words are inspired) which to many means that God directed the human writers of the Biblical texts to write the very words, grammar, etc. they used, so that the Biblical texts are "without error (inerrant) in their original writings" (a phrase found in many Evangelical statements of faith including the denomination I currently attend--here is an example).

There are, of course, widely divergent opinions even among those who claim to believe in Biblical inerrancy, as to exactly what they mean by the term. At the most rigid end are those who insist that every word and phrase in the Bible came directly from God, and must be literally true in the plain reading of it. At the other end are a number who develop a complex system of hermaneutics (fancy word for interpretation) that acknowledges that the Bible contains many forms of literature, including not only direct reporting, but also prophecy, apocalyptic (symbol-laden) writing, poetry, parable, and so on. This latter group may suggest that no Biblical passage is in error in what it says, though the immediate literal meaning may not be what it intended to say. One can debate whether this methodology really deserves to appropriate the "verbal and plenary inspiration" label (I think it's strained) but they still frequently make that claim.

Certainly, lots of Christians do not accept such rigid definitions of inerrancy. Some approach the Bible more devotionally than didactically; others interpret it all in terms of the culture of the times and/or try to adapt its message to our own culture and times. Among the more so-called "liberal" denominations there does not (to me) appear to be much of an issue with Biblical authority at all--if it doesn't seem right or reasonable, it must not be relevant today. It is not to this group that I speak.

But for those who consider Biblical authority important, I maintain that the doctrine of the Bible is still fundamentally flawed. Simply to apply the term "the Word of God" to the Biblical canon requires extra-Biblical authority, for nowhere in the entire text is there any evidence for that label. I have not yet had the time to research the historical use of the terminology, and I'd welcome comments with source material on this point, but I suspect that both the description of Biblical texts as "divinely inspired" and the label "Word of God" (not at all the same thing) come much later in church history--particularly as those words are now understood (more on Paul's use of "inspired" in another post).

There are numerous places within the Biblical record where certain messages are represented as God's word. Paramount of these are the recorded words of Jesus in the gospels. Close behind are the prophets in those instances where they state "Thus saith the Lord" or "the word of the Lord came to . . ." The apostle Paul himself clearly delineates places where he believes he has a word from the Lord vs. his own thoughts (see 1Cor. 7:10, 7:12, 7:25). Such delineation would be wholly unnecessary if the entire text were God's word.

I will get into specifics as to why I maintain the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy are incorrect, in future posts. For now let's look at why our doctrine regarding the Bible matters. Bottom line there are three reasons:
  1. I maintain that if one is truly to respect Biblical authority, one must not assign doctrinal status to any proposition that cannot be derived exclusively from the Bible itself. In other words, if the Bible doesn't say itself that it's the Word of God, then we better not say it either. We must not go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).
  2. The reverence with which many people approach the written word of the Bible, at least in its most extreme form, comes dangerously close to idolatry. The Bible is not God; it is not a fourth person of the Trinity (we may discuss the trinity in a later post, but that's another subject). Many Evangelical statements of faith actually have the doctrine of the Bible as the first point on their list. . .even before a statement of belief in God himself. It may be paradoxical, but "no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3) includes images, representations, even books of God himself, not just idols from other religions.
  3. Insisting on Biblical inerrancy provides the targets and the ammunition for numerous unnecessary fights and controversies within the church, and between the church and the world. Let's face it, much of the battle over creation vs. evolution would be a total non-issue if we weren't trying to defend Genesis. The raging debates between churches about millenialism are of no consequence unless one has to build a doctrine around two obscure phrases in Revelation. Requiring the belief in inerrancy produces lists of doctrines to which one must give assent, but it does nothing to advance the cause of behaving like a disciple of Jesus. It is at best a distraction; at worst it actually drives people from genuine faith.
I want to close by clarifying something I am categorically NOT saying. I am not trying to build a case against the authority of the Bible. In fact, I hope that future posts will demonstrate that I am actually advocating a HIGHER authority for what the Scriptures actually say about themselves, in contrast to what Christians conventionally teach about them. The Biblical canon is a faithful record of God's dealing with his people throughout history, and "our full and final authority for faith and practice." That should be enough, without assigning to the entire collection, a divinity that it never claims.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Nailing it to the door

Those of you fans of church history have probably already guessed the reason for the title, but for the rest:

In 1517, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther realized through his study of the Bible that the current doctrine in his church was messed up--so messed up that some pretty central teachings of the church flew completely in the face of the God he saw in the Bible. For Luther, the issue was the way the church saw repentance and forgiveness: to make a (very) long story short he realized that nobody but God (and certainly not a priest or the Pope) can accept a person's repentance and forgive their sins. Luther drew his "line in the sand" on these teachings by writing up 95 "theses" or propositions for debate, and nailing them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany (see this wiki for a nice summary).

The events set in motion by Luther's declaration and subsequent study/teaching/debating (as well as the work of others) grew to become what we today call the Reformation. While the Reformation was in many respects political as well as ecclesiastical, it represents a fundamental re-examination of basic, deeply-held beliefs about God and the church. A great deal of the teaching that Christians (Catholic and Protestant both) hold to be indisputable today stems from the Reformation, and would have been considered heresy by the church before that time. In short, it was a "soup-to-nuts" re-examination of some basic beliefs of the faith.

I believe that we need a similarly radical re-examination today. I am not so arrogant as to claim anything remotely like Luther's mantle. Heck, I don't think I could come up with 95 issues if I tried. But I'm growing increasingly convicted by several really basic differences with conventional Christianity that I believe desperately need to be rethought. In the following posts, I hope to nail a few of my own theses to the door, and invite your debate as Luther did.

Let me say at the outset that I welcome constructive dialog (whether you agree with me or not) on these issues. However, this is not a place for screaming matches about who's right and who's a heretic. If you aren't willing to consider that you may not have the handle on all revealed truth, save your breath and mine by finding somewhere else to shout. But if you, like me, have this inescapable feeling that there's more to the way of Jesus than His church has allowed people to experience in centuries, by all means come along for the ride!

In the meantime, Pax Christi vobiscum (may the peace of Christ be with you)!