Each Saturday, IM will post a classic article by Michael Spencer.
Originally posted January 14, 2008.
Iâ€™ve had an idea running around in my mind for a few months, and Iâ€™m going to try and get it down on paper. Itâ€™s slippery, and rather than try to sound profound, I think it would be best to say this is a bit of advice for those in the mood to listen (which some of you wonâ€™t be in the mood for, Iâ€™m pretty sure.) Perhaps Iâ€™ll manage to put something into words for those of you who, like me, often get these vague feelings that you canâ€™t quite grab and get into a sentence, likeâ€¦â€What do you call it when someone says youâ€™re a theological sissy because you wonâ€™t (fill in the blank with daring, bold, untoppable words!)
Iâ€™m going to talk about theology and how people choose to express it. One point I want to make immediately is that I believe the contemporary evangelical scene is impoverished in expressing anything theological, so I donâ€™t want to be heard as criticizing those who actually DO think God-centered thoughts. My hats off to you for rising above the level of the childish nonsense that passes for theology these days.
Among those who are doing theology, however, I detect something that I can only call, with any honesty, a kind of game. Iâ€™ll call it the â€œMore, Higher, Most, Highestâ€ game. (MHMH) By using the term â€œgame,â€ I am not raising the issue of insincerity, because I genuinely believe it is a manifestation of true zeal and devotion. But I use the word â€œgameâ€ because there is an element of comparison and competition that I can no longer ignore.
The â€œMore, Higher, Most, Highestâ€ game is the tendency to escalate theological claims and language, and to claim that the escalation of claims and language indicates an accompanying increase in truth, faith, commitment or other valuable commodities among Christians. (I would say the tendency to escalate theological rhetoric, but that word seems to upset some people beyond any possibility of clarification. But itâ€™s what I mean exactly.)
The basic form of this game could be seen, for example, among those who believe in the continuance of spiritual gifts such as healing. Letâ€™s say someone affirms the continuance of some kind of healing gifts, manifested as God sovereignly chooses. It will not be enough to say that one believes God can heal. This will be greeted by someone claiming God ALWAYS heals. This will be followed by the claim that if God DOESNâ€™T heal, itâ€™s our fault. And then we hear that God WILL heal if you use this prayer or attend this church. Then God heals big things, and does so immediately, IF we really believe. Of course, someone has heard that God is raising the dead somewhere, and someone else will settle for nothing else but perfect health for all true Christians, because by his stripes we are healedâ€¦â€¦
And on and on and on we go. Easy to see with the Pentecostal team, right? Well look in your rear view mirror.
Should we bring on the â€œHow can I say the Bible is true?â€ team and see what rhetorical height we can climb with claims of the Bibleâ€™s perfection? I can cite you a well known reformed church whose web site says you are â€œsaved by the Bible,â€ which is news to me.
Or just look closer to home. Respected blogger Tim Challies has just completed a short series on inerrancy. Tim will be here on Thursday answering questions about his new book, so just so youâ€™ll know Tim and I are not on the same bus on many issues, take a look at what he says regarding those of us- and thatâ€™s me in that us– and a whole lot of other Christians as well- who do not use or endorse the term inerrancy. (Bold face is mine, so you can see what Challies is saying in regard to those, like me and many others, who do not use inerrancy as the way we understand Biblical authority and inspiration.)
First, if we deny inerrancy, we make God a liar. If there are errors in the original manuscripts, manuscripts that testify they were breathed out by God, one of two things must be true: either God purposely lied or he mistakenly lied. Either way this would indicate that God is capable of making or of producing errors. Needless to say, this would destroy our ability to trust any of Godâ€™s revelation and cause us to doubt God Himself.Second, if we deny inerrancy we lose trust in God. If there are errors in Scripture, even if in the smallest detail, and these were placed there intentionally by God, how are we to maintain trust that He did not lie in other matters? When we lose trust in the Scriptures, we lose trust in God Himself and we may consequently lose our desire to be obedient to Him.
Third, if we deny the clear testimony of Scripture that it is inerrant, we make our minds a higher standard of truth than the Bible. At the outset of this series I indicated a concern I felt towards those who deny inerrancy is when they indicate that the doctrine does not â€œfeel right.â€ But nowhere does the Bible appeal to our feelings or our reason for its authority or inerrancy. We must submit to the Word, for it will not submit to us. We must give to the Bible the place it claims for itself. We cannot stand in judgment over it.
Fourth, if we deny inerrancy, and indicate that small details are incorrect, we cannot consistently argue that all the doctrine the Bible contains is correct. Admitting error in even the smallest historical detail is only the thin edge of the wedge, for we then allow the possibility that there may be error in doctrine as well. And when we allow this possibility, the Christian faith soon crumbles into a mess of subjectivity and personal preference.
So inerrancy is not an optional doctrineâ€”one we can take or leave. Rather, it is a doctrine at the very heart of the faith and without it we impoverish our faith and destroy our ability to trust and honor God.
Now I have great appreciation for Bro. Challiesâ€™ confidence that inerrancy is a no-option issue. Iâ€™ve been beat around with that word for almost three decades in Southern Baptist life, and I know the presentation pretty well. For the record:
I donâ€™t believe God is a liar and I recoil from ever saying such a thing. I donâ€™t have to believe in inerrancy to endorse the truthfulness of God. I donâ€™t believe God lies in allowing Biblical language to be inspired human language. For what itâ€™s worth, neither does N.T. Wright, just to name one scholar who wouldnâ€™t use the term inerrancy.
I do not doubt God or his ability to express revelation exactly as he wants it to be. The thought that God cannot reveal truth unless it is in a book that is supernaturally prevented from having normal, imperfect, human expressions of its time really never occurs to me. I assume that within the expressions, thought world, worldviews and literary genres of the time, God got exactly what he wanted and I can preach it without having to be concerned about â€œerrancy.â€
I have not lost trust in God as a result of not using a word I never heard until 1979 when a bunch of guys came to my seminary and said we had to believe it or we didnâ€™t believe the Bible enough to be Baptists. I have no problems in affirming Godâ€™s dependability even though I am guilty of not using a word that the Westminister Confession itself never uses. (Go read WCF I on scripture and see if Iâ€™ve missed it.)
I am not claiming to know more than God or that my mind is â€œaboveâ€ the Bible. I submit to what I understand God is saying in the Bible. Is there a way to understand and interpret the Bible that doesnâ€™t involve my mind making judgments? Is it sinful to do so?
I am in no way constrained to believe the Bibleâ€™s message is false because I do not use a standard of perfect scientific precision, for example or perfect linguistic expression. To me, inerrancy is a concept that has to have so many qualifiers, so many explanations, so many footnotes, so many exceptions that it is cumbersome and far from helpful. â€œPerfectionâ€ has to be redefined for inerrancy to be meaningful, and what finally emerges allows so many kinds of less than precise statements that the whole concept collapses.
For instance, I donâ€™t believe Jesus cleansed the temple twice. I believe John has no interest in chronology when he puts the cleansing of the temple courts in chapter 2 of his Gospel. I am not interested in the kinds of â€œharmonizingâ€ that are necessary to stop one of the Gospel writers from being in error. The category simply doesnâ€™t apply.
The word inerrancy, which a lot of people in my denomination used to club a lot of other good, believing people in my denomination right out the door, just isnâ€™t the only way to talk about Biblical authority. (Again, see Wright, The Last Word, for an example.) But it is a triple-word score in the game of â€œMoreâ€¦highâ€¦most..highest.â€
Back to the topic of this post. I just donâ€™t play the â€œsay moreâ€¦moreâ€¦go higherâ€¦higherâ€ game with the Bibleâ€™s truthfulness. What I see happening with â€œinerrancyâ€ is an escalation of terms into the potentially useless.
The Bible is true. The Bible has authority. The Bible has the authority of Godâ€™s word in human words and expressions. While I know there are many who can state reasons we need to say â€œmoreâ€¦moreâ€ and make â€œhigher and higherâ€ claims, I donâ€™t see the usefulness. Ultimately, we wind up defending our own language and our own formulations.
And the person willing to say the most, to make the highest claim- like a KJV Only-er for example- feels justifiably proud that heâ€™s climbed further out on the limb of faith than anyone else. And I suppose he should. Iâ€™m not going that far, even if I sound like I donâ€™t believe the Bible.
A further example would be claims of Godâ€™s sovereignty. Just how big, bad and bold a statement of Godâ€™s control can we make in the aftermath of tragedy?
Or the presence of Jesus in ourâ€¦..Eucharist? Or Praise music? or Revival? Heâ€™s present. Really, really, reallyâ€¦REALLY present.
Or Iâ€™m not postmodern. Look how non-postmodern I am. Iâ€™m 19th century. Or 18th. Iâ€™m a Puritan.
Or Iâ€™m in the real church. The true church. The only church Jesus founded. The church thatâ€™s in the Bible.
Or weâ€™re not compromising with the world. Weâ€™re really about the Gospel. Really. Really. Thatâ€™s all. Nothing else. How about you? Did you have a New Yearâ€™s bash? Seeâ€¦I told ya.
Or how about shocking you with what Iâ€™ll say about what it really means to be committed. Or how bad we all are. Or what you REALLY would do if you were a Christian.
I could keep going, but this is annoying even me, and Iâ€™m writing it.
â€œMoreâ€¦higherâ€¦moreâ€¦highest.â€ â€œYou canâ€™t say more than Iâ€™m willing to say. You canâ€™t pay more compliments, make more claims, use stronger language, be more public, make more noiseâ€¦..than me.â€
Is all of this really necessary? Or is this a manifestation of the need of theological types to find some way to create a stadium full of people who just donâ€™t believe enough, or believe right or believe enough right?
The Bible makes some massive claims, but everything we believe isnâ€™t to be expressed in a kind of rhetorical competition that sneers at the other fellow for being too much of a theological sissy to be as â€œstoutâ€ as we are with our theological affirmations. Call me liberal or worse, but much of what we need to say accurately can be said simply without shouting, setting the bar ever higher or taking the dare to climb out on the limb so weâ€™re the only one with enough correct theology (and correct faith) to say what needs to be said. It can be said without setting up a way to say most other people who express their understanding differently actually have bailed out.
Before I head out the door on this topic, one last thought.
Weâ€™re justified by faith, right? Not works? Not any kind of works?
Not by saying â€œI believe in justificationâ€ MORE and LOUDER and with BIGGER WORDS and MORE ARGUMENTS than the other guy? Not by bluster and sticking our chest out? Not by being shocked that others wonâ€™t climb as far up the mountain as weâ€™re willing to go?
Could it be that for some theological types, theyâ€™re doing the â€œworksâ€ of high-powered theological rhetoric rather than trust in the finished work and the trustworthy, simple word?
Weâ€™re saved by a perfect savior and simple faith. No hype needed. God isnâ€™t going to get more impressed with anyone of us and what we say than he already is with Jesus. Thereâ€™s no special commendation for the person who dared to really, really, REALLLLLLY believe.
Talk about it amongst yourselvesâ€¦.in the comments. But donâ€™t shout at me. Please. Iâ€™ll get your point in plain english and a normal volume.