Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Orthodox View of the Bible

Over the last several years, I have frequently found myself on the defensive, apologizing for or attempting to explain my view of the Bible, Inspiration, Inerrancy, etc.

[My views are expressed in the following posts: My original post on Progressive Revelation; a later post responding to Richard Dawkins’ caricature of God; and a recent post detailing my view of Inspiration.]

Whether on evangelical web blogs, or within my own local circle of friends and comrades in the faith, my take on the Bible is seen by many as liberal, as “compromised”, and certainly as inferior to the fundamentalist stance of inerrancy. My friends who read the Bible as if it were the very inspired words of God see themselves as standing on the solid high ground of Fundamentalism, and see me as skidding down the slippery slope of that dreaded disease of Liberalism.

My detractors consider their beliefs to be orthodox, and mine to be aberrant. They are correct, of course, if by orthodox, they mean “traditionally accepted”. But orthodox (ortho = right, doxa = opinion) simply means “the correct view.” To claim that only a verbally inspired–inerrant–infallible–literalist view of Scripture is orthodox involves a good deal of presupposition. That is, it must be correct before it can be truly orthodox.

What if the correct view of Scripture is that it is not the inerrant, verbally inspired “Word of God”. What if the orthodox, correct view, is that it is an accurate journal of an historic people of faith, written by human beings, subject to their errors and misconceptions, but recording for our benefit their quest to know the Living God? If that is the case, then we should expect to find within its pages a rich heritage of growing, developing understandings about God; but we should also expect to find mistakes, discrepancies, contradictions, and a variety of other inaccuracies. And this is exactly what we do find!

Perhaps it is time for those of us with a less rigid view of the Bible to boldly declare our view to be orthodox! If my view is, in fact, more orthodox (as I believe it is!) then the less orthodox view of Inerrancy is both dangerous and misleading. This, I believe, is the case.

Inerrancy leads to distortions of the character of God. Sometimes, horrendous distortions. A few examples should suffice: In an inerrant Bible, God becomes one who endorses the practice of selling one’s daughters as sex-slaves (Exodus 21:7-11). The God of the Inerrantist commands that children who sass or stubbornly disobey their parents are to be killed for their transgressions (Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21). If God were speaking through Moses in the pages of Numbers 31:9-18, then God followed the pattern of many military conquerors, rewarding soldiers with virgins for their sexual indulgence (or please, Inerrantist, explain what else is going on in these verses!). The God of the Inerrantist was, on occasion, confused about biology, as when he identified rabbits as ruminants in Deuteronomy 14:7. Furthermore, an Inerrantist must view God as sometimes raging out-of-control, one who had to be talked out of venting his rage upon the Israelite nation by the cooler-headed Moses (Exodus 32:7-14). This list could be expanded. We haven’t even ventured beyond the first five books! But my point should be clear by now. Inerrancy is dangerous to a healthy view of God and his character. It leads to theological confusion and distortion.

On the other hand, if we understand these stories to be of human origin, expressing the views of Moses and his contemporaries, we understand these misconceptions to reflect an understanding of God in its infancy; we can excuse Moses as a human being who was in the process of getting to know his Creator, and who was inspired to record what he was learning, complete with theological misconceptions and factual errors. Of course, this requires that we actually think about what we read. And this, according to some, is dangerous because we become arbiters of what is true, and what is not, in the Bible.

But even the most ardent defenders of Inerrancy, such as John Piper, readily admit that errors and misconceptions abound in the Bible. Piper acknowledges “hundreds and hundreds” of apparent “disparities”. This admission is addressed to fellow preachers; one wonders how often Inerrantist preachers say such things from the pulpit; or if they secretly hope that few of the folks in the pews discover blatant contradictions such as the two descriptions of the death of Judas in Matthew and Acts. When the mantra is repeated over and over that the Bible is flawless, the perfect inerrant revealed Word of God, what happens when a young believer discovers these disparities. Sadly, the dissonance can unsettle the faith of young believers. James McGrath recently commented on the blog, Exploring our Matrix:

My strongest reason for opposing these misleading claims about Biblical literalism and inerrancy is that they are a fast track to atheism. Many preachers say one must choose: "Either the Bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God, or it is a load of garbage and should be thrown out". This sets up anyone who decides to study the Bible seriously and has been told this to either pretend the problems aren't there, and thus compromise on honesty, or to do what they were told and throw out the Bible. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So Inerrancy is not only dangerous because it leads to distorted views of God, it can potentially lead to apostasy among believers who seriously study the Bible.

Thus is was that James Orr warned that the teaching of Inerrancy would be suicidal for Christianity. Orr was a leader of the budding Fundamentalist movement in the early years of the 20th Century. He took exception to Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and others who were contending that Fundamentalism must include an unwavering belief in inerrancy:

It is urged...that unless we can demonstrate what is called the inerrancy of the biblical record down even to its minutest details, the whole edifice of belief in revealed religion falls to the ground. This, on the face of it, is the most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.

Suicidal, in Orr’s opinion, because he viewed inerrancy as impossible to defend. And thus, the Inerrantist inevitably paints himself into a corner.

A correct view of the Scriptures – that it is something less than literal, verbally inspired and inerrant – does not mean that we must hopelessly abandon the Bible. I have appreciated the following statement on the Bible contained in an early version of the Mars Hill Narrative Theology:

We believe the Bible to be the voices of many who have come before us, inspired by God to pass along their poems, stories, accounts, and letters of response and relationship with each other and the living God. These words have been used to describe God and his character for thousands of years, and we call this theology. Theology is one of the best ways we can come to know and love God; it is also how we understand who God calls us to be and what he calls us to do. Theology comes from the Greek words "theos" and "logos." Theos means God, and logos means word. Words about God.

We believe God inspired the authors of Scripture by his Spirit to speak to all generations of believers, including us today. God calls us to immerse ourselves in this authoritative narrative communally and individually to faithfully interpret and live out that story today as we are led by the Spirit of God.

While I might use slightly different verbiage, I can endorse this statement which carefully avoids fundamentalist buzzwords such as Verbal, Literal, Inerrancy, and Infallibility.

Questions for my readers:

1) What constitutes an “orthodox” view of Scripture?

2) What is your opinion of the Mars Hill statement on the Bible?

3) Should non-inerrantist evangelicals, like me, point out the errors in the Bible? or is it too unsettling for some believers?

Friday, October 23, 2009

John MacArthur: "The evolutionary lie ..."

An interesting discussion at C. Michael Patton’s website, Reclaiming the Mind has ensued from the following citation. The words are those of John MacArthur from his book, The Battle for the Beginning:
“The evolutionary lie is so pointedly antithetical to Christian truth that it would seem unthinkable for evangelical Christians to compromise with evolutionary science in any degree. But during the past century and a half of evolutionary propaganda, evolutionists have had remarkable success in getting evangelicals to meet them halfway. Remarkably, many modern evangelicals . . . have already been convinced that the Genesis account of creation is not a true historical record. Thus they have not only capitulated to evolutionary doctrine at its starting point, but they have also embraced a view that undermines the authority of Scripture at its starting point.”
Wow! If MacArthur represents a broad swath of evangelicalism, it is no wonder my views on evolution have garnered for me rejection from so many of my friends. On the other hand, I am encouraged that MacArthur has apparently discovered “many” evangelicals who are convinced of evolution. I wish he would introduce us to each other. I find such evangelicals to be quite rare!

Well, Dr. John, count me among those evangelicals who have “been convinced that the Genesis account of creation is not a true historical record” (more on that later ...). But I absolutely repudiate your misguided contention that I have “compromised with evolutionary science” any more than the Christians of an earlier age “compromised” with Copernican cosmology. (But of course, they were also accused of heresy and compromise by the Fundamentalists of their day, and even excommunicated.) When one is confronted with irrefutable evidence for some bit of reality, his acceptance of that reality is hardly a “compromise”. My acceptance of evolutionary science is based firmly upon hard evidence, the likes of which, I’m confident, Christian’s like you have never encountered. Do you wish to win me back to the fold, Dr. John? Then try presenting a bit of evidence that I am mistaken, rather than clobbering me over the head with insinuations that I have “capitulated” to “propaganda”. If you are looking for a perfect example of propaganda (which is unsubstantiated, highly biased misinformation), try reading your own book. The writings of evangelical scientists like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, Owen Gingerich, et. al. hardly fall under your “propaganda” category. Have you even read them?

The likely answer is that MacArthur, along with the countless evangelicals who stand with him, have not read such authors. Are they so filled with fear that evolutionary science may prove to be factual, and thus trap them in a new set of baffling dilemmas? Or do they genuinely mistrust science in the first place, and avoid it like the plague?

That would be sad! MacArthur, and some of the commenters to the Parchment and Pen post who defend him, believe that 1) Biblical revelation trumps all other sources of information, and 2) Biblical revelation must be understood literally (unless there is, as they would say, strong internal reasons to understand it allegorically). Thus, their theology is impoverished by their ideology. They reject volumes of natural revelation which science has uncovered in the last few centuries. How valuable is this natural revelation? Paul, in Romans 1:20, makes the case that we can know and understand much about God, including his “invisible qualities” (NIV) without ever cracking open a holy book, but merely by examining the work of his creative hand. Science, good science, is nothing more nor less than the close examination of the handiwork of the Creator! Christians, of all people, should embrace science with heart and mind! and when then do, they will discover that evolution is the most likely framework for the history of life. And they will find, as I have, that our vistas upon the mysteries of theology are expanded, and that Biblical theology is not “undermined”, but greatly enhanced.

And what of MacArthur’s lament that "many modern evangelicals . . . have already been convinced that the Genesis account of creation is not a true historical record." I wish MacArthur were more specific about which "true historical record" in Genesis is important to believe: the one in chapter 1, or the one in chapter 2. Both, of course, cannot be "true historical record[s]" since they give irreconcilably contradictory accounts. But if we read them as allegorical literature (as they were surely intended), the result is that both accounts are “true” in the sense that they convey truths. Far from “undermining the authority of Scripture”, a proper view of the Bible sets us free to understand its profound truths unencumbered by some felt need to defend the indefensible notion that it is literally “true” scientifically and historically. A proper view of the Bible, coupled with a healthy view of scientific discovery, will set us free to explore our Creator in ways earlier believers could never do. What an adventure! It is sad that so many intelligent minds, such as that which John MacArthur possesses, refuse to set out upon this adventure.

So what is your view? Is MacArthur correct? Am I a compromised Christian?