April 26, 2017

iMonk Classic: My Theology Can Beat Up Your Theology

Each Saturday, IM will post a classic article by Michael Spencer.

Originally posted January 14, 2008.

I’ve had an idea running around in my mind for a few months, and I’m going to try and get it down on paper. It’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 won’t be in the mood for, I’m pretty sure.) Perhaps I’ll manage to put something into words for those of you who, like me, often get these vague feelings that you can’t quite grab and get into a sentence, like…”What do you call it when someone says you’re a theological sissy because you won’t (fill in the blank with daring, bold, untoppable words!)

I’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 don’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. I’ll call it the “More, Higher, Most, Highest” game. (MHMH) By using the term “game,” 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 “game” because there is an element of comparison and competition that I can no longer ignore.

The “More, Higher, Most, Highest” 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 it’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. Let’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 DOESN’T heal, it’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 healed……

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 “How can I say the Bible is true?” team and see what rhetorical height we can climb with claims of the Bible’s perfection? I can cite you a well known reformed church whose web site says you are “saved by the Bible,” 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 you’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 that’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 God’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 “feel right.” 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 doctrine—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. Challies’ confidence that inerrancy is a no-option issue. I’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 don’t believe God is a liar and I recoil from ever saying such a thing. I don’t have to believe in inerrancy to endorse the truthfulness of God. I don’t believe God lies in allowing Biblical language to be inspired human language. For what it’s worth, neither does N.T. Wright, just to name one scholar who wouldn’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 “errancy.”

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 didn’t believe the Bible enough to be Baptists. I have no problems in affirming God’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 I’ve missed it.)

I am not claiming to know more than God or that my mind is “above” 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 doesn’t involve my mind making judgments? Is it sinful to do so?

I am in no way constrained to believe the Bible’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. “Perfection” 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 don’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 “harmonizing” that are necessary to stop one of the Gospel writers from being in error. The category simply doesn’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 isn’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 “More…high…most..highest.”

Back to the topic of this post. I just don’t play the “say more…more…go higher…higher” game with the Bible’s truthfulness. What I see happening with “inerrancy” is an escalation of terms into the potentially useless.

The Bible is true. The Bible has authority. The Bible has the authority of God’s word in human words and expressions. While I know there are many who can state reasons we need to say “more…more” and make “higher and higher” claims, I don’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 he’s climbed further out on the limb of faith than anyone else. And I suppose he should. I’m not going that far, even if I sound like I don’t believe the Bible.

A further example would be claims of God’s sovereignty. Just how big, bad and bold a statement of God’s control can we make in the aftermath of tragedy?

Or the presence of Jesus in our…..Eucharist? Or Praise music? or Revival? He’s present. Really, really, really…REALLY present.

Or I’m not postmodern. Look how non-postmodern I am. I’m 19th century. Or 18th. I’m a Puritan.

Or I’m in the real church. The true church. The only church Jesus founded. The church that’s in the Bible.

Or we’re not compromising with the world. We’re really about the Gospel. Really. Really. That’s all. Nothing else. How about you? Did you have a New Year’s bash? See…I told ya.

Or how about shocking you with what I’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 I’m writing it.

“More…higher…more…highest.” “You can’t say more than I’m willing to say. You can’t pay more compliments, make more claims, use stronger language, be more public, make more noise…..than me.”

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 don’t believe enough, or believe right or believe enough right?

The Bible makes some massive claims, but everything we believe isn’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 “stout” 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 we’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.

We’re justified by faith, right? Not works? Not any kind of works?

Not by saying “I believe in justification” 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 won’t climb as far up the mountain as we’re willing to go?

Could it be that for some theological types, they’re doing the “works” of high-powered theological rhetoric rather than trust in the finished work and the trustworthy, simple word?

We’re saved by a perfect savior and simple faith. No hype needed. God isn’t going to get more impressed with anyone of us and what we say than he already is with Jesus. There’s no special commendation for the person who dared to really, really, REALLLLLLY believe.

Talk about it amongst yourselves….in the comments. But don’t shout at me. Please. I’ll get your point in plain english and a normal volume.

Comments

  1. This has by now spread to almost every issue in current American Evangelicalism and in some segments of Orthodoxy. If you do not believe the way I do, you do not believe in the Bible and you have declared God to be a liar. In Orthodoxy, this shows up as if you do not interpret Holy Tradition the way I do, you do not believe in the Holy Spirit and the Church Fathers and you have declared God to be a liar.

    We sometimes forget that God Himself came down to Earth and was murdered because He dared to say that the current “must” interpretations were wrong.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Well, the theoretical end state of Protestantism IS millions of One True Churches, each with The One Correct Theology, each with only one member, each denouncing all the others as Heretics and Apostates…

  2. I vividly remember being told (and not all that long ago, either!) that if the Catholic Church (my church) could be proven wrong about even ONE of its doctrines, then I could no longer trust ANY of them. So naturally, when I came to believe that ONE of its doctrines was incorrect (I won’t get into which one, it’s irrelevant), I wound up losing faith not only in the Catholic Church but in Christianity as a whole. That “all or nothing” mentality can be a faith killer. (FWIW I got my faith back later!)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Funny, I’ve found that “all or nothing” mentality to be much more common among Evangelicals than Catholics. (Usually tied to an ever-lengthening list of Thou Shalt Nots.)

      Just like this blog’s recent Young Earth Creationism Uber Alles screaming contests every time Evolution comes up. When all you have is Sola Scriptura, every word, letter, and punctuation mark must be literally true as written or everything collapses. If Genesis 1 is allegorical or poetic, My Salvation Is Up For Grabs and That Cannot Be.

  3. Jonathan Hunnicutt says:

    This nonsense is part of the reason I became an Anglican. We have via media in our bones, so most of this stuff is quite silly.

    Of course, the downside is that the Anglicans don’t get excited about much of anything… At least we’re trying to get excited about church planting.

    I miss Michael Spencer.

    • Yep, me too. On all those points. I’m actually playing hooky from writing a big ol’ paper for my Christian Ministry class on “A Model for Christian Ministry in the Anglican Priesthood.” Our church is having a church plant meeting in a week or so. I’m excited!

  4. Savannah says:

    Thank you for posting this Michael Spencer classic.

    The one-upmanship is tedious and tiresome, and yet irresistable. I am not surprised many non-Christians have such a negative view of us, as we can’t even agree on some of the basic issues amongst ourselves, inerrancy vs. just plain true among them.

  5. So what do (or should) you do when these “more higher most highest” discussions break out? Do you walk away and avoid these folks, deciding that they aren’t worth talking with if they start the name calling because you aren’t orthodox enough for them? Or do you just listen and not say anything, hoping that they will stop and talk about other more useful things? The “game” just isn’t fun for me to play.

    • Considering that if they’re playing that game with you in the first place, they probably don’t really respect you, I’d take the opportunity to find out from them in their own words what practical difference their Juliann-ed theologizing amounts to.

  6. When someone’s line of argument consists of you “making God a liar” they’ve already lost.

  7. “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 we’re the only one with enough correct theology (and correct faith) to say what needs to be said.”

    I love that.

  8. One of my professors was talking about why he doesn’t use or like the term “inerrancy” the other day. He said 1) it’s not in the bible, so it’s not a necessary term. 2) It’s a term that’s totally user-defined. I.e. you talk to four people who claim to believe in it and they all have different understandings of what it means. He had two more reasons, but I don’t remember them other than that they were flippant and got a good laugh from the class.

  9. I’m probably as guilty as anyone of jumping on the “errors” of someone else’s theology and blowing one difference or two out of proportion. One thing I try to remember as I’ve matured in faith is that I once held some of the same opinions that I now tend to find fault with in others. Just as I know that when I held those opinions, I was well meaning and loved the Lord just as much as I do now, I try my best to remember that I should think of that other person in the same way.

    • This is a great way to think about it, and it’s definitely true that I have held many opinions that I now think were wrong — yet I loved Jesus then, and I love him now! Thanks for sharing, JeffB.

      Peace,
      Nathan

  10. “if we deny inerrancy, we make God a liar”

    How does this prove or disprove inerrancy? It seems ad hominem: if you disagree with me, YOU are saying something bad about God. How dare you, you bad person!!! It also sounds like begging-the-question: you don’t want to call God a liar, do you?

    This is sort of brute-force apologetics. We have lost the art of persuasive arguments. Or maybe that has nothing to do with it. Maybe it is all about feeling better about oneself by putting someone else down, but using theology as a means to do this. It’s easy to fall into this, especially when faced with criticism seemingly from every corner. It’s easy to get defensive and to counter-attack. Maybe we should take time to remember that we are still in the season of Easter, that the resurrection means that we don’t have to validate ourselves with macho arguments; our hope is already firmly established.

  11. Sometimes I think that God has played a big joke on us. First off, He created a world full of people who all think and interpret information differently. Then He comes to earth in the form of an average Joe and tries to tell us the truth of who He is and what He expects of us. And, before returning to His heavenly home, He commands us to spread His message to the four corners of the planet, while, at the same time, maintaining a state of love and unity with each other. But if He really intended for us to establish a mathamatically precise system of beliefs and practices, then why did He leave more questions unanswered than He answered, and why, in some cases, was He downright cryptic in what He said? Of course, He sent the Holy Spirit to guide us. I don’t know about anybody else, but, from my experience with the Holy Spirit, He’s a lot more likely to convict me over how I treat other people than He is to supernaturally deposit a complete and consistent system of theology into my brain — and even if He did, I would almost certainly scew it up when I tried to convert it into words and relate it to other people. I believe that God did provide us with reliable scripture — but the possibilities of interpretation are as various as the human modes of logic and reason we apply to it. Of course, some believe “correct” theology evolved over time along a particular institutional and authoritative line. But as an honest student of both history and scripture, I just can’t swallow that camel.
    So where does that leave us? I’d say it leaves us with lots of room for theological diversity and disagreement, as well as with unrealized directives regarding both unity and love. But maybe this isn’t a big joke on God’s part. Maybe this conundrum of incomplete information and room for rational disagreement and interpretation, combined with commands regarding love and unity, is not a joke but a test — a test we haven’t passed yet.

    • I just wanted to second this post. I agree with pretty much everything you said.

      “but, from my experience with the Holy Spirit, He’s a lot more likely to convict me over how I treat other people than He is to supernaturally deposit a complete and consistent system of theology into my brain”

      Same here. I come from a charismatic tradition. I’ve seen the Holy Spirit do a lot of stuff, but discipleship, convicting people, helping people to grow spiritually, is still His number one objective.

      When it’s done correctly, it really diffuses the “More, Higher, Most, Highest” mindset. Which is why it’s sad to see my charismatic and pentecostal brethren make a big deal out of the “flashier” spiritual gifts. Glossolalia is cool; prophecy is awesome; but loving your neighbor still beats them hands down. Not too mention loving God.

      Of course, that’s really what this is about? Who loves God the most? Somehow I think the people who really love God the most don’t play the “More, Higher, Most, Highest” game much. At the very least, they definitely play it less often than I do.

    • Great post, RonP.

    • Saw this quotation from G.K. Chesteron today at http://www.ironiccatholic.com/

      “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

      • Angela B says:

        Wonderful quotation, Joanie! Along those same lines, here’s one from C.S. Lewis:

        “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.”
        – Till We Have Faces

        For the Christian, knowing information (theology) is a means to an end, and the end is knowing a Person (God). We need to know certain truths about God in order to have a relationship with Him. It’s tragic how often those truths themselves become idols. I have been addicted to the “game” that Michael Spencer describes, and the only thing that saved me – that could ever have saved me – was encountering God Himself. As Job said,

        “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)

        That is the place where life begins.

    • Brother Bartimaeus says:

      I agree with the commendations from the others above. Here are a few thoughts:

      1). Adding to the quotes, I heard Dr. Royeese Stowe (UMC) on the Day One podcast this morning say that the texts of the Bible aren’t riddles, they are mysteries. No one can solve them which is why we are people of faith, not people of knowledge.

      2) Perhaps the convicting you feel from the Holy Spirit IS the theology you’re getting. No one said it would get plunked down in total!

      3) The cure for our own biblical interpretation fallibility is of course group study. When two or three of us gather to understand scripture we are more likely to perceive Truth. Of course two or three like minded people are only going to come up with limited Truth, so a variety of voices are also required.

  12. I had a professor who said he believed the Bible was inspired by God and the only source of authority for the church. He asked what more did he need to say, and if you think he’s lying that come out and say you think he’s lying.

  13. All this “I righter, stronger, more faithful, ect. ect. ect” is just us stepping into the shoes of the Pharisee who pointed at the publican and said, “Thank you Father than I’m not like him.” It’s the sin of pride pure and simple. It’s the looking to ourself and away from Jesus for evidence as to why we are worthy, more worthy somehow than others.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      More like the impossibility of perfection. I was raised with Utter Perfection expected of a Kid Genius, and the corollary that no matter what I do, no matter how much I stretch, it will NEVER feel like enough. I have had to learn to take this into account in everything I do.

  14. The word exceptionalism comes to mind. Perhaps it is motivated somewhat by insecurity as well as pride.

    “For now we see as in a mirror dimly […].” (1 Cor. 13:12) I think we can err, on the one hand, by failing to see (or accept) where the image in the mirror is quite clear or, on the other hand, by painting our own images onto the mirror where it is not so clear.

  15. Are any (or all) comments not in total sympathy with the post being deleted? Just curious.

  16. David,

    If I had to guess, most of the readers and commentators tend to agree. Those who disagree aren’t here, but in places where the theological games are played.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Maybe we’re all just Veterans of the Theological Psychic Wars (“Don’t let these shakes go on…”), and this is our refugee camp among the blog threads.

  17. If all scripture is God breathed, then doesn’t that make scripture inerrant? I’ve never had a problem with the thought that scripture itself is inerrant…..the issue for me has been that man’s interpretation of inerrant scripture isn’t inerrant.

    Point in case – Less than 50 years ago, pastors stood in pulpits throughout the south and taught that white people were the supreme race. And they used “inerrant” scripture to prove their point.

    Or more recently, my childhood church taught that both dancing and drinking (not just getting drunk, but any alcohol) was a sin. The entire time I was also taught the inerrancy of scripture.

    A quick review of church history should humble most anyone to climb off the limb and admit there’s at least a chance their interpretation is incorrect.

    • “.the issue for me has been that man’s interpretation of inerrant scripture isn’t inerrant.”

      I agree with that. I believe in inerrancy, but often find that people object to it because they think it means holding certain beliefs like young earth creationism or a premillenial rapture of the church—those beliefs and the objections to them have nothing to do with inerrancy but only with a particular interpretation.

  18. Brother Bartimaeus says:

    I haven’t been following this blog for a long time, but I this was one of the posts that made me want to continue coming back to iMonk. Thanks for reposting it!

    The thing that always stuck me as off about inerrancy was that the perfection of the text is in the original autographs. We all know God didn’t have a holy copy machine back hiding in Jerusalem, so the argument that our bible is inerrant is a complete fallacy. It’s just another way for some to dig trenches instead of building bridges.

  19. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Note that Matthew & Mark from the other threads haven’t surfaced on this one yet.

    • Instigator.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        As in “Don’t give them ideas”?

        (I mean, those two are the IMonk Poster Children for “My Perfect Theology Can Beat Up Your Heretical/Apostate Theology.” I think IMonk had a long-ago posting titled “Once You Read My 800-Page Theological Manifesto, You’ll See How Simple The Gospel Is.”)