The Theology of the Bible "in a glass, darkly"

For evangelicals the theology of the Bible is conducted with, amongst other things, all the 'in' words - 'inspiration', 'inerrancy', 'infallibility', and the like. These categories are worth having and discussing but they do confine the debate to certain well-worn channels. I think we evangelicals need to take the discussion wider, even if the 'in' words continue to play a key role.

But let's stick with the 'in' words for now. They are a blessing and a curse serving to open up and close down understanding.

Take 'inerrancy'. As a category this can only really apply to propositions. But as soon as we grasp this then immediately we see that vast amounts of the Bible are simply not candidates for being either 'inerrant' or 'errant'. For instance, was Jesus' prayer, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" errant or inerrant? It is not even a proposition so it cannot be factually true or factually false.

Consequently, to apply the term 'innerrant' to the whole Bible is to stretch its meaning. There may be some value in doing that but we need to be clear about what we are doing and what the term means when so stretched. Often discussions on 'inerrancy' amongst those evangelicals who find the notion helpful (and many evangelicals do not subscribe to innerrancy) lack such nuance.

Furthermore, once we read the Bible we immediately see that we need to add all sorts of qualifications to 'inerrancy' lest the Bible fall short of the standard and be declared 'errant'. Thus the Chicago Statement rightly adds many helpful qualifications.

That is good and wonderful but, as the term 'inerrancy' becomes more flexible, we find that it actually allows all sorts of things that those who use it typically wish to rule out. For instance, as Robert Gundry's Matthew commentary infamously demonstrated, a strong view of biblical innerrancy is fully compatible with an understanding of Matthew's gospel as Midrash and thus full of stories that are not historically accurate! Whether Gundry is right or not about Matthew as Midrash (I incline towards thinking that he is not) he is certainly correct to think that if it is then it can be inerrant whilst not being historically reliable. This 'insight' was not appreciated by some of those who use the terminology of 'inerrancy'. They say (and somtimes shout), "We don't want that kind of Bible!"
To my mind the main problem with some of those who are most keen on all the 'in' words is that the meanings of these 'in' words are decided in advance of a thorough engagement with the actual phenomena of the text that we have. The text is then made to conform to our expectations. We ask ourselves what kind of book that we would have written if we were God and then conclude that the Bible must be that kind of book.
One can see something of this divide at some of the debates at ETS in recent years. My general perception, as an observor, was that some of the theologians had far neater (and over-simplistic?) understandings of the Bible than many of the biblical scholars whose jobs require them to engage with the nitty gritty of the text day by day.

Now I am not against coming the the Bible with pre-formed categories. In fact, I think that it is inevitable so let's just be honest about it. Actually, I would go further and say that Christians should approach the text with theological preconceptions about the kind of text it is. At the most minimal level we should read it as the main text through which God addresses his people (and that really is too minimalist but I am just being tolerant for a minute). What I am against is a failure to allow our theological preconceptions about the Bible to be reshaped as we encounter the text.

I would defend a hermeneutical spiral in which we read the text in the light of certain theological beliefs about it, but then revisit those beliefs in the light of the text itself. We then go back to the text in the light of our revised beliefs about it ... and so on.

To take just one simple issue: consider the vast range of literary genres in the Bible. Then consider the theological categories of 'inspiration' and 'authority'. We may come to the Bible with neat and simple understandings of an inspired and authoritative Bible but once we encounter the text we must surely start asking questions like the following:

"What does it mean for a prayer to be authoritative?"

"What does it mean for a story to be authoritative?"

"Is a law authoritative in a different way from a poem?"

"Is 'authority' the most appropriate category with which to think about this particular part of the text?"

"Can texts function authoritatively differently in different contexts?"

"Is the mode of 'inspiration' of a prophet and the writer of a proverb different and, if so, what are the implications of this?"

Immediately our concepts of inspiration and authority are made more nuanced and complicated.

So my theology of the Bible has never quite settled down and I am not expecting it to in the near future. I have a "high view of Scripture" and I can gesture in the direction of what I do and do not mean by that, but I could not specify exactly. My theology of the Bible is theology seen "in a glass, darkly."

Comments

Teresita said…
Take 'inerrancy'. As a category this can only really apply to propositions. But as soon as we grasp this then immediately we see that vast amounts of the Bible are simply not candidates for being either 'inerrant' or 'errant'. For instance, was Jesus' prayer, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" errant or inerrant? It is not even a proposition so it cannot be factually true or factually false.

Actually, he was simply reciting Psalm 22:1 "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?" And inerrancy would apply to Christ's meta-meaning by making that citation. Inerrancy says that Christ really was forsaken by God, and it was not just a cry of self-pity. And this leads to a whole theology of atonement that says Christ was cut out of the Trinity briefly, which is heretical, because either Christ was demoted from godhood for a time, or there were two gods for a time.

Now I am not against coming the the Bible with pre-formed categories. In fact, I think that it is inevitable so let's just be honest about it. Actually, I would go further and say that Christians should approach the text with theological preconceptions about the kind of text it is.

Even more important, one must realize the Bible is a library of 73 books (or 66 books if you wish), and each book falls into different categories. There's history books (Numbers, Samuel, Kings, Nehemiah), novellas (Job, Jonah, Ruth), poems (Song of Solomon), calls for social reform (Isaiah, Malachi), biographies (the gospels), a travelogue (Acts), a collection of pastoral letters, and apocalyptic literature (Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation). It's not all a monolithic block of "doctrine" delivered straight from God, which is the underlying assumption behind its purported inerrancy. The Bible is not an exhaustive catechism.

So my theology of the Bible has never quite settled down and I am not expecting it to in the near future. I have a "high view of Scripture" and I can gesture in the direction of what I do and do not mean by that, but I could not specify exactly. My theology of the Bible is theology seen "in a glass, darkly."

This is perhaps where the Roman Catholic approach is a net plus. In Catholicism, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are considered two faces of the same deposit of faith "delivered once to the saints" and they are each illuminated by the teaching authority of the Church, which we believe was granted by Christ to the Apostles and comes down to us today. We call it the Magisterium, and its function is to be a sort of supreme court applying what is written to life on this lonely ball, which never stands still. The scripture changes not, so it assures that doctrine will not morph into pure novelty. But tradition overcomes the logical conundrum of having scripture interpret itself, which is a circular proposition.
Robin Parry said…
Teresita

1. Well, Jesus' utterance is not a propsition so it cannot be either inerrant or inerrant. However, as you point out, it does presuppose a proposition (namely, that God has forsaken Jesus). The inerrantist could argue in this case that whilst the doctrine does not apply to Jesus' utterance it does apply to any propositions implied by it. I think that this is what you are suggesting might be done by inerrantists.

That is fair enough and it is part of what I mean by clarifying how the notion is being applied.

However, we still need clarification about exactly what is being claimed by the sentence 'God has forsaken Jesus'. Does it entail what you suggest about Jesus being cut out of the Trinity? I don't think so. In fact, it is not fully clear what it does (and does not mean).

But more to the point, as far as this debate goes, there are plenty of statements in the Bible which cannot be treated in this way.

For instance, "The trees of the field will clap their hands." That has the form of a simple proposition but a quick reflection will show that appearances deceive; that it cannot be shown to be errant by making the observation that trees do not in fact have hands. So what exactly is the proposition that this utterance is affirming and would boiling it down to some basic proposition not boil away a lot of the meaning?

Can the claim that inerrancy is a suitable category for the Bible as a whole handle simple metaphors like? Perhaps but only by stretching the category of 'inerrancy' or by killing the wonder of biblical texts.

2. I agree with what you say about the diversity of the Bible and that it is not a handbook of doctrine or an exhaustive catechism. I am not sure that inerrancy requires it to be such things but you are certainly right to say that it is not.

3. I value the Catholic emphasis on tradition and I see the value of the Magesterium although I am a good Protestant (I hear some spluttering in the background) and so would not be happy to grant their declarations as having the high status that Catholics give it.

I do think that Protestants need to recover the value of tradition as a guide for biblical interpretations. I think it has a high status but not as high as Catholics give it.

Such are my schismatic Protestant reflections :-)

Robin
Teresita said…
1.The inerrantist could argue in this case that whilst the doctrine does not apply to Jesus' utterance it does apply to any propositions implied by it.

The inerrantist would also argue that Jesus, who on the cross could only exhale at the peak of his endless repeating cycle of agony when he manged to push with his pierced feet until his head was above his arms, somehow found it possible to speak "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" rather than scream. In all honesty I believe the sayings of Jesus on the cross were attributed to him by Matthew, years later in order to complete a series of Messianic fulfillments. The real atonement by the real man would have been terrifying to even watch.

However, we still need clarification about exactly what is being claimed by the sentence 'God has forsaken Jesus'. Does it entail what you suggest about Jesus being cut out of the Trinity? I don't think so. In fact, it is not fully clear what it does (and does not mean).

There are other unresolved issues in that strand. For instance, how could Jesus be one with his Father yet not know the year and day of his return, as he indicates in Mark? It implies that he laid down a portion of his omniscience when he was made flesh.

I agree with what you say about the diversity of the Bible and that it is not a handbook of doctrine or an exhaustive catechism. I am not sure that inerrancy requires it to be such things but you are certainly right to say that it is not.

I should have said inerrancy coupled with sufficiency.
Jim Deardorff said…
I agree with Teresita that the words "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" were attributed to the man we know as Jesus by the writer of Matthew or Mark, whichever you prefer came first. The man on the cross did not speak them. Is it a part of inerrancy to assume that all words attributed to Jesus were spoken by him, whether they involved a truism or not? I would presume that the usual meaning of "inerrancy" is extended to cover this case.
The Pook said…
There is no evidence whatsoever for the belief that Matthew interpolated the cries of Jesus on the cross. I see no biblical, synoptic, anatomical, historical, literary or logical reason to hold it.

There is quite a difference between a biographer or gospel writer giving the substance but not the exact wording of what someone said, and actually saying that they said something they never said.

The relationship between Scripture and Church Tradition is something that Andrew McGowan encourages protestants to explore more fully in his latest book 'The Divine Spiration of Scripture.' (IVP) He comes down in the end on the conservative protestant side, rejecting the Roman Catholic twin pillars approach, or the Orthodox approach where the bible is but a part of a whole continuum of revelation that includes tradition, creeds, liturgy, sacraments, Councils, Canons, Icons, mystical experiences, etc. Nevertheless, McGowan argues that protestants need to take their own church tradition and theological confessions more seriously and consciously develop a more formal theology of tradition.
Robin Parry said…
Teresita and Jim,

Did the historical Jesus say those words?

1. A doctrine of inerrancy would not REQUIRE that he did (though it probably would incline you to think that he did) so long as the words express the kind of thing Jesus could have said; the kind of thing that expresses where he really was at. If in fact he merely screamed then this saying still expresses well the meaning of his scream.

2. Nevertheless, I cannot think of any good reason to attribute this particular saying to the evangelists rather than to Jesus himself. The fact that the saying was passed on in the tradition in Aramaic counts in favour of its authenticity.

So too does the fact that whilst it may be easy to imagine later Christians inventing a noble saying like "Into your hands I commit my spirit" (though I don't think they did invent that), it is hard to imagine them inventing a saying like this "My God, why have you forsaken me?" because of the theological problems it might create for them. Why invent a problematic saying?

There is nothing implausible about a crucified person being able to speak. People in great pain often speak.

The pook - I have not read Andrew's new book but he's a good bloke. I don't doubt that it contains much wisdom.

Regards

Robin
Oliver Harrison said…
Robin

I really liked this post, very helpful. I must confess to being disappointed with Goldingay's book on this and find it hard to articulate a good (i.e. reasonable) and high (i.e. evangelical) doctrine of scripture. I tend to call it "uniquely and divinely inspired and inspiring", the last word giving some space for the reader as well as, or apart from, the text (see your later piece on Macdonald for more on that).

When pushed by some conservatives a few years ago to say what I though scripture was I described it as being like charcoal: which having been already burned (i.e. inspired, touched by God, etc.) is now capable of burning once more at far higher temperatures than mere (unburned) wood. It can then be used for processes that are only possible at such high temperatures (e.g. smelting iron). Normal texts are mere wood and will burn up in the common way, to limited effect; scripture is wood (i.e. a human text) that has been "fired" by God once and so when it "burned" (read) again it can accomplish much. I don't think they liked the parable much. I think they wanted a straightforward categorical description. Ah well.

But "TREES DON'T HAVE HANDS"??!! Are you mad? Have you BEEN in the forest alone at night?

I'll tell you what, mate, they bloody do.
M Slater said…
Intriguing post, inerrancy is a fascinating topic, unfortunately one that seems to go out to the extremes of both sides to often ,and one with less options generally given on how to approach it than their should be, I tire of some of the its A or B so make your call kind of rhetoric. Appreciate that you did not approach it that way.
Perhaps the most interesting fresh take on inspiration that I have read was N.T. Wright's article “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative” and his book “The Last Word”, both of which you may have read based on some phrases you tossed out, but if not I think you would enjoy them.
As for the question of if Jesus said on the cross what is attributed to him, I would say that it is pretty certain that he did, though presumably not word for word and it would be Aramaic. Gospels/Historical Jesus study is a prime interest for me and I thought that Richard Bauckham sets out in a quite erudite manner how the passion account gives every indication of being eyewitness testimony according to the textual, literary, and historical clues that we have in the narritives.

Also, excellent tastes on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, I read the 1st half this week while camping and it has been outstanding thus far.
Robin Parry said…
Oliver

What a helpful analogy! Never thought of it that way at all! Thanks.

My Cherry tree send his regards

Robin
Robin Parry said…
m slater

I have not read those Tom Wright things although he did have an atricle in Vox Evangelica in 1992 (I think) on the authority of the Bible which was very influential on me then, and remains so.

I think his comparison with an unfinished Shakespeare play is outstandingly helpful.

Glad you are enjoyinig Strange and Norell

Robin
Oliver Harrison said…
But trees DO have "limbs", non?

Anyway, God makes impossible things happen (camels, eye of needle) and if the people don't praise him the very stones themselves will cry out. (A bigger miracle would be the Stones praising God, but I have universalist hopes so even that may not be beyond belief.)

So trees clapping = easy.

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