Authority, Knowledge, and Scripture

Last week I posted here on the importance of the inerrancy of Scripture and received a number of comments and personal messages regarding the nature of the Bible and how we are to relate to it.

About two days later I made a comment on Twitter/FB to the effect that the Bible is authoritative, but our theology is man-made.  At least two people challenged my statement, insisting that an objective understanding of the Scripture is virtually impossible, because we all bring preconceptions and cultural biases into our reading of the text.

As technology has made the world smaller and we have become more aware of alternative interpretations of the Bible (and for that matter, of alternative religions), a popular refrain from certain theologians has been that we need to be extra careful not to assert anything “absolute” from the Bible. Doing so, it is claimed, marks us off as “modernists” who are intent upon using the Bible for our own diabolical schemes, to oppress the weak or to justify our own suppression of all contrary viewpoints. I had one seminary professor who would repeatedly remind us that “just me and my Bible” is a dangerous equation, since the community, culture, and historical situation to which we belong significantly affect our interpretations.

Fair enough.  One positive contribution of postmodern thinking has been the realization that I can never completely separate myself FROM myself.  I will always bring preconceptions to the text.  Because I am finite, my interpretations and understanding of God’s revelation will always be short of perfection.

It is possible, however, that we need to swing the pendulum back toward the middle of the spectrum a bit. Although I can never have perfect and exhaustive knowledge, that does not mean that I should throw up my hands and give up the search for truth. In his excellent book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, D.A. Carson argues for “critical realism” and describes it in the following way: “Critical realists hold that meaning can be adequately determined, over against both naive realists, who are inclined to think that meaning can be exhaustively determined, and non-realists, who hold that the objective meaning cannot be determined.” In other words, truth exists; I might not be able to find it perfectly, but I can find it adequately in most situations.

Some would call this naive, but isn’t it really how we operate most of the time? No, I can’t prove exhaustively that vegetables are always good for me (the whole idea could be a power-play by greedy farmers), but I can know enough about their benefits to go ahead and eat them.

So how does this relate to the Bible?

-Admittedly, we cannot fully understand the author’s intent (or the Author’s intent) because I am limited and finite.

-However, our understanding of God is that He genuinely desires to communicate with us certain propositions, ideas that are vital and (gulp) absolutely true in all situations. (Why else is Jesus Himself referred to as The Word if God except that God intends to communicate something Real through Him?)

-That means my interpretive process primarily involves attempting to find the authorial intent of the Scripture rather than to first ask, “What does the Bible mean to me?”  College students, if you want to understand why we use Inductive Bible Study Methods (observation, interpretation, application), this is why: we want to do our best to look at what the Scripture says before we impose meaning upon it or try to act in light of it. No, we can never completely remove our biases, but we can slowly become more aware of them and (hopefully) allow them to be challenged by the text itself.

Kevin VanHoozer, in his book Is There Meaning in This Text, argues that interpretation of texts is fundamentally an issue of authority.  Will I submit to the authority of the Author of the text (and of Creation), or insist upon my own understanding and authority as I read?

So the Bible alone is inerrant and infallible. My theology and my interpretations are flawed, but they do have some value in the teaching and leadership of the Body of Christ.  As long as humility is maintained as I interpret and teach, there is no real conflict between stating that only the Bible is absolutely authoritative but acknowledging that he uses fallible human beings to communicate the Bible’s message.

Grace and truth…sounds strangely familiar.

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Why Inerrancy Matters

Howdy! It’s been a while since I have posted to the blog, but with the new semester up and rolling I figured it was time to get back to it.

Several weeks ago I ran across this post  written by a New Testament professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, arguing against the validity of inerrancy.  His arguments, of course, are nothing new or original, but they provide a nice opportunity for me to state a few thoughts on the subject of biblical inerrancy.

First, a definition.  Biblical inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms, whether those affirmations concern spiritual truth, historical truth, or even scientific truth . Needless to say, it is a doctrine that consistently comes under attack from a variety of directions.

Reading Dr. Kirk’s blog post, I got the distinct impression that he does not fully understand the different ways in which inerrancy has been discussed in evangelical circles. The statement, “Inerrancy has virtually no room for the human hands at work in the composition of scripture” is a sloppy misrepresentation of those who hold to the doctrine of inerrancy.  Straw men (and women) are easier to blow over, but one would hope to expect more accuracy from such a learned scholar.

In fact, inerrancy allows for human creativity and even for the arrangement of biblical material to suit the literary purpose of the author. Kirk says he felt pressure to believe in two temple cleansings, even though they are “the exact same story, told in two different places.” Although many who hold to inerrancy do argue for two cleansings, there are others who do not.  Inerrancy does not require the sort of wooden literalism that Kirk believes it does.

Unfortunately, I do not have room on a blog to respond in detail to every objection to inerrancy.  For the particular one raised by Dr. Kirk concerning the timing of Jesus’ birth in the book of Luke, I would recommend the discussion in Darrell Bock’s commentary on the book of Luke from the Baker Commentary Series. Bock demonstrates an example of how inerrancy can be preserved without ignoring historical concerns.

The bigger problems with Kirk’s view, however, are philosophical and theological.

First, the Christian faith is fundamentally a historical one . It is grounded in a historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  This is not an event isolated from historical context, nor it is a metaphorical event intended to generate nice thoughts and actions similar to those of every other world religion. Christianity is unique among religions in that it insists upon being a historically grounded faith.

Once we strip the historical content from Scripture, we are left with what one recent author has termed “moral therapeutic deism,” the idea that God essentially exists to make me happy and cause me to do nice things for others. Christianity is radically different from that concept, demanding that we believe that a historical man is God in the flesh, died for our sins, and rose from the dead.

In reality, once we begin to pick and choose historical narratives, the resurrection quickly becomes suspect.  There are problems in the biblical accounts that are difficult (but not impossible) to reconcile. If evangelicals who deny inerrancy were consistent, the reality is that the resurrection would have to among the first stories to be discarded.  Inerrancy is the only position that will safeguard the very heart of the Christian faith.

Second, one’s view of the Scriptures is matter of how one approaches authority. Who has the right to determine God’s values, and how are those values communicated to humanity?  Notice in the context of his argument that Kirk states the Bible is incorrect regarding its view of the relationships between men and women.  He assumes (1) that the Bible believes women to be inferior to men and (2) that such a belief is wrong.  The first point is one of interpretation, and the second is a moral judgment.

Although I disagree with his interpretation, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Bible DID in fact argue for the inferiority of women.  How do we know it is wrong? What value system should we substitute for those of the Scripture? The value system of our culture? My own personal beliefs? Some scientific research that seemingly validates my point (and might possibly be proven incorrect when next week’s scientific study comes out)? My point is simply this: Once I remove the ability of the Scripture to speak to me authoritatively, I am cast adrift from any moral anchor.  My understanding of God’s will comes from…well, MY understanding of God’s will.

Ultimately, biblical inerrancy matters because we believe that the Bible is genuinely the Word of God.  Yes, men wrote it, but they wrote it through the inspiration of the Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). I can trust it, and indeed must do so if the Christian faith is to be left with any meaningful substance.