November 19, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 30, 2016

gethsemani light

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 30, 2016

Today we continue a series of Monday posts with excerpts of Michael Spencer’s thoughts about the Bible and what it does and does not promise to do for us.

• • •

I don’t believe in inerrancy, a view of how scripture is inspired that means well, but just can’t get traction with me.

My problems with inerrancy have been going on for a very long time, and I’ve heard it presented and taught by the best. It’s never sat well with me, probably because I have a lot of literary interest in the text of scripture, plus I don’t like to be bullied. I get a rash.

1. What the heck is it? It takes a major document to describe inerrancy.

2. The document in question contains the following paragraph (Chicago Statement on Inerrancy XIII):

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations

Excuse me, but did I just read that I am off the inerrancy hook if I can assert that the passage in question did not intend to come up to a particular standard of truth?

OK….I don’t believe the Bible was ever intended to be true in comparison to contemporary science, history, astronomy, geology, medicine, anatomy, psychology or the Bill James Baseball Abstract. Can I go to lunch now?

3. Inerrancy is asserted for the original autographs.

We don’t have them.

4. While the Bible is supposedly inerrant, none of those who interpret it are inerrant interpreters. That’s a problem. If there is a perfect compass, and you give it to a chimp, what have you got? A chimp with a compass.

5. Inerrancy is almost always tied up with things that really bother me: Young earth creationism, of course. Spiritual warfarism, where people with problem kids and screwed up marriages thing that Satan is in the house and/or in their head. Secret knowledge schemes, like What did Jesus eat? Diets. Conspiracy theories. Bible only Christian education. Lunacy like the Bible Codes. It goes on and on. Magic Bookies run amuck.

6. Inerrancy looks, smells and feels remarkably like a philosophical imposition on the Bible, going beyond what the Bible CAN say about itself, and forcing those of us who believe in the authority and truthfulness of the Bible to take a “loyalty oath” that goes beyond what should be said. Typical of evangelical attempts to show they are really really really really really right. Catholics do it with the Pope. Pentecostals with experience. Evangelicals with inerrancy.

It’s like a philosophical security system to keep everything safe. It’s been called Protestant Scholasticism, and I agree.

7. No major confession requires that you use the word “inerrancy”. Even the Southern Baptist Convention’s Faith and Message Statement avoids the exact word, and doesn’t harp on the concept. Reformation confessions don’t use it at all. We can live without it. Consider what BHT commenter Myron Marston says on the subject:

I’ve got news for you….but the Bible may be wrong on the resurrection. It may be wrong on lots of things. I don’t really have any way to inerrantly prove it one way or the other. And neither do you. At some point, you’ve got to accept it on faith, as do I. Accepting or not accepting the idea of inerrancy has little to do with whether or not I place my faith in Christ. In fact, I think inerrancy has a tendency to get in the way of our trusting Christ. We spend so much time sweating all these little inerrant details and trying to scientifically/historically “prove” the Bible that we can miss out on the entire point of the whole thing: Christ. Isn’t Christ enough? Why does it have to be Christ and inerrancy? Call me crazy, but I’m THANKFUL that the Bible doesn’t line up factually or theologically 100%. It would make it too easy to “stand pat” with my current understanding rather than having to spend a lifetime wrestling with scripture.

I could expand this list but I won’t. I want to say something about the comments quoted at the beginning of the post.

gethsemani light 2Defenders of inerrancy send me lots of false dilemmas. Thing like: If we don’t believe in inerrancy, the Bible must go out the window. Shred it. Go ahead. Shred Grandma’s KJV because you don’t believe in inerrancy so YOU JUST DON’T BELIEVE THE BIBLE ANY MORE YOU OVER-EDUCATED KNOW IT ALL.

Or this one. If you don’t buy the six day, young earth creationist view of Genesis, then you are saying it’s all an allegory. And that’s stupid. So it’s literal history with Ken Hamm or it’s allegories with all the devils of hell.

That’s it? Those are my choices? Ken Hamm or “allegory?” The great thing about that one is I’m pretty sure the author doesn’t know what an allegory is.

Or the Bible is a perfect compass. Or a perfect map. Or a perfect book. Because God is perfect. And if God said it, it must be perfect. It’s perfect. Really, really really perfect. Not just true. Not just a book that brings us Christ and the Gospel. Perfect. And if you don’t come out and walk around saying the Bible is perfect, then you reject the Bible.

And of course, without inerrancy, we lose history, and we lose the resurrection, and we lose the Gospel. The only way we know that the Gospels are telling the truth is the doctrine of inerrancy, modern version. Without it, we float off on a cloud of mythology. Or so I keep hearing. Why this doesn’t seem to be applying to N.T. Wright hasn’t been explained.

You will have to forgive me, readers, but this all just amazes me. I mean, it really amazes me, because it simply isn’t so.

The Bible is, first of all, not a book at all. It is 66 books, from a very long time ago. A wide selection of literature in the human conversation. The church selected these books because it believes that God speaks through those books to tell us the truth of the Gospel, and to tell us about Jesus and our salvation by the mediator. Therefore, the church asserts that these 66 books are a message from God. Since the Bible doesn’t know the “Christian Bible as canon” exists, it doesn’t have a word for itself beyond the New Testament calling the Old “scripture.”

Confessions like the WCF do a good job of saying God revealed himself, the church wrote down not only what was revealed about the Gospel, but a lot of other things surrounding the Gospel that make it understandable. The church selected a canon, and the church endorses that canon as scripture. God didn’t pick these books. We did. Christians will discover, on their own, that the Spirit speaks through those books and brings us to a saving knowledge of Jesus. They do a good job of this without talking about science, anthropology, anatomy, the latest issue of Biblical Archeology or any other standard of modern “truth.” The Bible is historical, but nowhere do I read a claim that it is perfect history. It’s “here’s the story from the God-point of view, where all kinds of strange things are more important than what you learned in school.”

The Bible is truthful, but it’s approach to truth is clearly something like this: God told us the truth in Jesus. Believe him. The Biblical story leading us to Jesus is true in that it leads us to Jesus. This seems to work without reference to large epistemological tomes on the nature of truth or the real “facts” of science. It’s actually quite amazing.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    “inerrancy” seems to be a celebration of a kind of fundamentalism wherein there are preachers whose infallible interpretations cannot be questioned. The interpretations are to be taken ‘literally’ when the preachers decide they are, and if the preachers say a verse is to be ‘metaphorically’ interpreted, the preacher is ‘inerrant’ and should not be questioned. These preachers use terms like ‘the Bible says’ and ‘the biblical gospel’. Very self-serving, this man-made fundamentalist doctrine.

  2. ” If we don’t believe in inerrancy, the Bible must go out the window. Shred it. Go ahead. Shred Grandma’s KJV because you don’t believe in inerrancy so YOU JUST DON’T BELIEVE THE BIBLE ANY MORE YOU OVER-EDUCATED KNOW IT ALL.”

    That was always a crock. The inerrantists I know and have known [ quite bright and thoughtful men] , noted difficulties but also noted [ correctly ] that those who vehemently deny inerrancy will most likely end up in churches – denominations that will have no logical basis to not affirm things like homosexual pastors.

    History appears to strongly suggest that once you deny a fairly straight forward understanding of what Scripture says in its words, you lose the anchor upon which to make moral judgments and you end up a reflection of the current/modern/secular culture.
    *
    Biblical orthodoxy has always been counter-cultural.
    *
    Inerrancy is as counter-cultural as it gets.

    • Inerrancy as counterculture? Oh, quite the contrary. Inerrancy is VERY embedded in culture – rationalist, positivist, reductionist culture. Inerrancy is 100% an outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking dialed up to ’11’. If it wasn’t, why did it take 1900 years for the Church to get around to acknowledging it, and only in the American evangelical/fundamentalist wing?

      Inerrancy is another aspect of evangelicalism ‘s cultural myopia. Once you see that, lots of other things fall into place.

      • *Inerrancy is 100% an outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking dialed up to ’11’.*

        Really? Jefferson Bible notwithstanding, I guess . . .

    • Marc B. says:

      “History appears to strongly suggest….”

      Way back when I was in college, one of my professors described this as a “meta-historical generalization”.

    • Danielle says:

      “The inerrantists I know and have known [ quite bright and thoughtful men] , noted difficulties but also noted [ correctly ] that those who vehemently deny inerrancy will most likely end up in churches – denominations that will have no logical basis to not affirm things like homosexual pastors.”

      In other words: in this case inerrancy is a means of setting particular viewpoints to which one has prior commitment– on cultural questions, on questions of praxis–beyond the reach of question. There are “difficulties,” but–for cultural and political reasons–they will not be acknowledged. The useful thing about inerrancy is that it permits the the Bible to deployed to prop up one’s position on various contested issues, and to turn any issue under contest into a question of the BIble’s integrity — an attention switch away from what is truly going on in the conversation. The need to be able to use the Bible this way trumps other considerations. Otherwise, one could discuss these … “difficulties.”

      The truth is, those who are joining liberal churches or very conservative ones are invested in a culture – different cultures, or different visions for the direction of a shared culture. One isn’t “counter-cultural” and the other isn’t “pro-mainstream culture.” What is “mainstream-” and what is “counter-” is a matter of position and perspective. Both sides claim to be the counter-culture when it suits them. Both claim to be the real America when it suits them. In either cases, both sides are posturing. This is rhetoric, and that is mostly all it is.

      And all this is one reason the word inerrancy just isn’t helpful. As Michael pointed out, you don’t really need to word to adopt a rigorous or even “conservative” view of Scriptural authority. There are multiple ways of interpreting what it means. And when it is deployed in actual arguments, its usually has the effect of simply one-upping the other side and making an ‘argument from authority.’ Better just to stay on point.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > This is rhetoric, and that is mostly all it is.

        This

        > And all this is one reason the word inerrancy just isn’t helpful.

        And using unhelpful terminology is a rhetorical device to terminate conversations. If someone actually wants conversation – then they say what they mean.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The inerrantists I know and have known [ quite bright and thoughtful men] , noted difficulties but also noted [ correctly ] that those who vehemently deny inerrancy will most likely end up in churches – denominations that will have no logical basis to not affirm things like homosexual pastors.

      “Playing Teh Fag Card” might shut down everything above the Reptile Brainstem for most Christians, but not here at Internet Monk.

  3. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

    The inerrantists I know…noted difficulties but also noted [ correctly ] that those who vehemently deny inerrancy will most likely end up in churches – denominations that will have no logical basis to not affirm things like homosexual pastors.
    Seneca shares another aspect of inerrancy which Michael didn’t note – for many people it hasn’t got anything to do with what the Bible says, what kind of literature it is, or what God is trying to say. It is a pragmatic tool to engineer pre-determined social outcomes.

    • And THAT is because if you are an inerrantist, you can safely assume that every word and concept in the Bible means exactly, precisely the same thing now as it did when it was written, regardless of cultural and linguistic context. Which is, again, a very Enlightenment way of thinking…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It is a pragmatic tool to engineer pre-determined social outcomes.

        Recited word-for-word by GOD just like the Koran, except in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe instead of Classic Meccan Arabic.

  4. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    “Chimp with a compass”. That is good.

  5. Richard Hershberger says:

    Ask me if I believe in Biblical inerrancy and my response depends on whether or not I have better things to do at the moment. If I do have better things, I will smile and nod and say of course I do. Left unstated is that “inerrant” is a lot vaguer than my interlocutor imagines. I know perfectly well that he means it as shorthand for the Chicago Statement or, more likely, a bastardized version of the Chicago Statement, which I consider an obvious crock. But there are senses (dare I say “interpretations”?) of “inerrant” that I can go with. So I smile and nod agreeably, and can then go about the rest of my life. This is a useful technique. Language is a slippery thing. Outside the realm of formal logic it is almost impossible to make a completely unambiguous statement. We can use this as a tool for maintaining the peace.

    • Robert F says:

      It all depends on what the definition of “is” etc.

    • Within interpersonal relationships that is commendable. When it comes to setting the beliefs, activities and priorities of our congregations and denominations, however, sometimes more is required.

      • Robert F says:

        But if what Richard says is true, and I think it is, it would be impossible to compose a completely unambiguous definition of inerrancy, or infallibility, understandable to the vast majority of non-logicians that occupy the pews and pulpits of any particular congregation or denomination. This is not only true of definitions of Biblical inerrancy, but also of something like papal infallibility: since these definitions are not produced or expressed by philosophical logicians, and are not in fact logical propositions, they inevitably are imprecise and vague, providing a lot of wiggle room for both theologians and non-theologians with very different understandings to use the same words, while meaning different things.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          To expand on this, the early reformers thought that once they stripped away the centuries of Romish doctrine that had accreted, leaving only pure scripture, then everyone would of course agree on true Biblical doctrine. You still see this notion today, typically among the less historically informed branches of Protestantism. In reality, it didn’t take long for divisions to come out, leading to the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist strands of Protestantism.

          • Richard Hershberger says:

            To complete the thought, writing denominational or congregational statements of faith and the like is merely an extension of the same mistake: the belief that we can come up with a statement that is so clear and so complete that, once we all subscribe to it, there is no more disagreement. It’s a nice thought, but not how the real world works. Better to learn to live together without agreeing on every jot or tittle. The alternative is armed camps, each of three to ten members.

          • Robert F says:

            And I think this has to do with the limitations of logic, which can not express, define or deal with much of what happens in human experience, including religions and religious experience. The tool of logic is good, and useful, and should be applied to as many situations as possible; but it is a human tool, ultimately circumscribed by human limitations, however expanded, and can not be applied to the whole of life and experience, because those who employ it are not outside that frame of reference. Trying to distill the Bible’s meaning-carrying ability into a neat, logically exhaustive and consistent system cannot work.

          • Robert F says:

            I would argue that the divisions that came out in the wake of the Reformation already existed in the womb of the Roman Catholic Church, and that the division that came out in the Great Schism of 1054already existed in the institutionally unified Church as it existed before that date, and that all of these had to do with differences of definition and the attempt to control them through the exercise of logically expressed systems, whether explicitly expressed or implicitly assumed.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            To expand on this, the early reformers thought that once they stripped away the centuries of Romish doctrine that had accreted, leaving only pure scripture, then everyone would of course agree on true Biblical doctrine. You still see this notion today, typically among the less historically informed branches of Protestantism.

            You mean the 50,000 Protestant denominations, each the One and Only True Christianity?

          • StuartB says:

            Would it be fair to say that protestantism is actually reflected in catholicism, namely in the various schools and systems of thoughts? Thinking Jesuits and other in-house groups.

          • Christiane says:

            Hi STUART B.

            I think the diversity present in Catholicism is more of a reflection of how the Church can be unified in matters of faith and morals, and yet have a wide acceptance of diverse points of view and emphases. The ‘different’ organizations within Catholicism may emphasize different things, but this is seen to be a celebration of the Church’s diversity as a strength, not a weakness that leads to division. In permitting a healthy diversity, the Church has been respectful of the mosaic of early Christian traditions that grew out from Jerusalem and are now represented in the various rites of the Church. My godmother was Eastern rite Catholic (she was Ukrainian), and grew up celebrating the beautiful ancient traditions of worship found in eastern Christianity.

      • Robert F says:

        Is it really commendable to use this tool in interpersonal relationships? I think it depends: if you are using it to avoid a futile and unnecessary conflict, yes, perhaps it’s commendable; if you are using it to avoid a hard but necessary to work through interpersonal issue, no, not so commendable.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          The typical situation where I use it is where I am accosted by some random guy, and I am trying to go about my day, giving me a strong incentive to placate him quickly so he will go away. Yes, if the context is my wife and I discussing how we are going to raise our children, then this would not be a good approach. But my wife and I have long established our relationship and lines of communication, and the discussion is for a purpose important to both of us. The random guy hijacking me is attempting to manipulate social norms to force me into a conversation I don’t want to have. The alternatives to my smile-and-nod approach are even less likely to satisfy anyone.

    • David Cornwell says:

      ” Language is a slippery thing. Outside the realm of formal logic it is almost impossible to make a completely unambiguous statement.”

      Are you accusing the translators of grandma’s KJV of being slippery? Or the original inspired authors who went into a spirit inspired daze while God dictated Leviticus? When the Lord said certain things to Moses, was She being slippery?

  6. Inerrant? In which language? In which translation? In which version? And if the original text were ITSELF inerrant then how does it retain this characteristic after being filtered and massaged by imperfect humans over a few thousand years? Preposterous!

    • Danielle says:

      In the king’s language, of course!

      So saith the king.

    • StuartB says:

      I had this article bookmarked once, now lost, of some elderly righteous deacon taking the hotshot young pastor to task for not believing in inerrancy. It was one of those feel good, the old get it the young don’t, stories, just chock full of logical fallacies, especially with the deacon’s insistence on the pastor placing THE inerrant translation into his hands so he could finally have THE word of God.

      It was sad. I could feel the young pastor’s mind breaking with each utterance from the deacon.

      Wish I still had that article. Think the poster deleted it.

  7. Stephen says:

    On this subject Historical/Form criticism can be quite helpful. It was realized fairly soon after it became possible to do such analysis without censure that the gospels of Matthew and Luke depend heavily on the gospel of Mark which they both quote extensively and verbatim. However there are interesting passages where Matthew and Luke take Mark and either expand on him, leave out details, and change details to illustrate their own viewpoints. What can we derive from this fact?

    That while Matthew and Luke valued Mark and considered him authoritative, they did not regard the previous gospel as inviolable inerrant scripture. If the gospels didn’t view each other as inerrant then why should we view the gospels that way?.

  8. Christiane says:

    It’s Memorial Day, and we mourn our dead soldiers.

    There is also reason to mourn those innocents who are not ‘ours’ but only because we couldn’t or wouldn’t help them in time:
    http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/blogs/the_slatest/2016/05/30/heartbreaking_photo_of_drowned_baby_illustrates_horror_of_migrant_crisis/seawatchdrownedbabymigrant.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2.jpg

    • Stephen says:

      This year may we expand our Memorial? Let us lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Civilian, a monument conspicuous by its absence, sacred to the memory of the hundreds of millions of noncombatants caught in the crossfire; innocents that live on the natural invasion routes; collateral damage.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        +1

      • Robert F says:

        Yes.

      • Robert F says:

        A moment of silence
        for those who fought and died,
        a liturgy of remembrance
        in the church graveyard
        for men and women
        who gave their lives —

        And what of those
        who just died,
        whose lives were not given,
        but only taken?

        If they do not exist
        in the same memory together,
        then they do not exist apart
        in memory, or hope.

      • Danielle says:

        Yes. A prayer for them all.

        • Danielle says:

          Come to think of it, the Bible is largely the story of a people who frequently have to make sense of the unfortunate circumstance of being located on a natural invasion route.

    • StuartB says:

      Memorial Day is a tough thing when you mourn both heroes and villains who gave their life in service of our country.