So when asked the street-level question, “Does the Bible contain mistakes?” I always answer, “When interpreted properly, no.” That first clause is important; after all, an awful lot of people in history have thought that the Bible says the earth is at the center of the universe, flat, and built on pillars. There is also a plethora of texts whose literal meaning cannot be their original meaning—ranging from the obviously poetic (“your breasts are clumps of dates”) to the obviously symbolic (“then I saw a beast coming out of the sea”) and the obviously hyperbolic (“cut your eye out and throw it away”)—as well as a group of other texts whose literal meaning may or may not be their original meaning (as anyone who has read Paul Copan on Joshua, Tom Wright on the Olivet Discourse, or Greg Beale on Revelation will know). Consequently, care is needed, particularly in a church context where declaring that “the Bible does not contain mistakes” may be taken as code for “the tribulation will last three-and-a-half calendar years, every single Amalekite was killed by Saul, the moon will literally turn into blood one day, the revelatory gifts have altogether ceased, and evolution is entirely bunk.” When the Bible is interpreted correctly, it is completely true in all that it affirms. When it is interpreted incorrectly, there is no limit to the nonsense we can assume it teaches.
Archive for the ‘bible’ Category
Yes, at least according to Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. In this excerpt from a round-table discussion posted at the Modern Reformation website, Horton offers a nuanced defense of inerrancy, arguing that the doctrine is still important for evangelicals today.
On the difference between inerrancy and literalism:
Inerrancy is a claim about the truth of the text and literalism is a way of misreading the Bible or any other text, inerrant or not. An audience of sharp, science-minded students should hopefully have had enough literature courses to be able to interpret genres other than science textbooks. Warfield labored the point that the Bible isn’t a science textbook. In fact, he favored theistic evolution! Scope, purpose, and genre have to be considered. Then you have to distinguish views that finite and fallen people might have assumed in their worldview from what they actually teach. To be sure, these are complicated issues, but they aren’t about inerrancy; they’re about interpretation–and with or without inerrancy, everyone has to do that. Yes, there are extreme views of inspiration (such as dictation, which is basically denying the humanity of Scripture), and there are inerrantists who think of the Bible as a catalog of propositional descriptions of astronomy, geology, and math. But, again, those are interpretative flaws that lead people either to deny inerrancy or to develop extreme views of literal accuracy. Calvin spoke of Scripture as without error. Yet he also reminded us that Moses spoke not as an astronomer but that God condescended to accommodate his revelation to the finite capacity of his covenant people. It seems to me that critics of inerrancy sometimes share with fundamentalists a naive and modernistic set of assumptions about the way to read a series of covenantal documents…
On the contextual nature of all theological development:
I’m sure you would agree that confessions are historically conditioned. From the earliest days, the church was implicitly trinitarian in its baptism, prayers, liturgies, and hymns. The heretics pushed the church to formulate the dogma of the Trinity in clearer terms. Same with the christological debates, the Pelagian heresy, and on we could go. Yet even heretics either quoted Scripture as authoritative or (as in the case of the Gnostics) appealed to their own secret texts.
Only with the advent of Socinianism and the Enlightenment did professing Christians begin to question whether divine inspiration preserved the scriptural canon from error. Clement of Rome, who died toward the end of the first century, wrote that in “the Holy Scriptures which are given through the Holy Spirit nothing iniquitous or falsified is written.” Augustine added, “The evangelists are free from all falsehood, both from that which proceeds from deliberate deceit and that which is the result of forgetfulness.” Luther declared, “I am profoundly convinced that none of the writers have erred.” Same with Calvin, although he noted in detail apparent discrepancies, difficulties, and open questions concerning textual criticism. In modern times, papal encyclicals have insisted upon inerrancy, sometimes even falling into the exaggerated position of a dictation theory (which evangelical statements like the Chicago Statement reject), and both Vatican I and Vatican II affirm that the Bible is inerrant. So, further reflection on the nature of Scripture was precipitated by modernist criticism–and by a concern to distinguish the view from fundamentalism. To say, however, that inerrancy arose Phoenix-like from the ooze of modern epistemology is wide of the mark.
While I affirm the Westminster Confession‘s statement on Scripture (viz., that it is “the only infallible rule for faith and life”), I also affirm inerrancy as a tragically necessary “further report.” Infallible used to mean not only inerrant but incapable of erring. It was a stronger word than inerrancy. As we know, however, in the 1970s “infallible” became a weaker alternative to “inerrant.” Sadly, we need to clarify what would in other centuries have been a perfectly obvious confession for believers. I wish we didn’t need inerrancy, but we do. I wish we didn’t need to qualify what we mean and don’t mean by affirming the trustworthiness of Scripture, but we do. Things are a lot more complicated now, but it is not because inerrantists have too much time on their hands. It is because we are more aware than ever both of the challenges to scriptural authority and the necessity of defending it. With Warfield, I don’t believe that denying inerrancy is a heresy, but I don’t see how we can adjudicate truth and error at all when it is up to us to determine what in Scripture we will receive as divinely revealed canon.
This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.
From larger-than-life dictators to too-big-to-fail banks, the 21st-century world is dominated by figures and institutions that exert an enormous influence on politics, the economy, and just about every other facet of modern society. Such systems of power, often driven by anxiety and greed, must continually consolidate control and suppress dissension in an effort to protect the status quo, inevitably resulting in the subjugation and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.
In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, outlines what he perceives as Scripture’s sustained witness againstany power structure that perpetrates injustice in its frantic pursuit of temporal security. Rejecting an Enlightenment mindset that would confine the Christian faith to “the private sphere,” Brueggemann calls the church “to practice neighborliness in a way that includes both support of policies of distributive justice and practices of face-to-face restorative generosity” (11-12).
The Problem: Fraudulent Power
Brueggemann provocatively summarizes the problem as he sees it:
Public power is everywhere wielded and administered by those with concentrations of wealth, who thereby control the supply of money, who control the legislation that governs credit and debt, and who fund (or refuse to fund) military adventurism and technological advances that are often in the service of the military. Thus power refers to a network of influence and leverage that may be channeled through the state apparatus or, as is the case in our society, through the private sector with its huge corporate combines. (2)
Supporting and legitimating such concentrations of power are what Brueggemann (following Karl Marx) calls “symbolizers” (e.g., the state, the church, the academy, the media). These institutions are crucial for preserving the status quo, and often benefit from their privileged and protected status.
The Solution: Subversive Truth
In answer to such large-scale injustices, Brueggemann advocates a return to the pages of Scripture—particularly the OT—where we encounter narratives that consistently challenge all such illegitimate and self-seeking claims to power. Over the course of four chapters, Brueggemann examines the stories of Moses, Solomon, Elisha, and Josiah, arguing that each narrative illustrates a distinct way in which the God of truth, working through human agents, confronted and subverted unjust power structures of the day.
Furthermore, after exploring each OT passage, Brueggemann highlights how various NT figures drew on and extended the same subversive critiques in their own day.
Adapted from a series of lectures delivered to a lay audience, Brueggemann’s writing is clear and forceful. Readers of all stripes will find the chapters accessible and engaging. While the first two chapters seemed forced at certain points (more on this below), the latter two were more convincing, offering readers some truly instructive comments about the Elisha and Josiah narratives. Brueggemann is a creative and insightful biblical interpreter, and where he succeeds, he succeeds masterfully.
Finally, despite the reservations mentioned below, Brueggemann rightly highlights Scripture’s repeated critiques of oppressive power. This reminder may be especially important for conservative evangelicals who have at times been reluctant to critique unjust social structures (notwithstanding those related to a few key issues), preferring instead to individualize and privatize Scriptural principles and commands.1 Readers would do well to recall (and perhaps reread) Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which stands alongside Truth Speaks to Power as a sobering warning to complacent Christians (160).
Brueggemann intentionally eschews a taxonomic approach like that put forth by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture, insisting instead the narratives he examines are “one-off enactments from which generalizations should not be drawn” (8). Additionally, Brueggemann claims he won’t make connections to any particular political agenda(s):
I do not believe the Bible points directly to any political policy or action. . . . Thus I do not believe that one can make direct moves toward or connections with contemporary issues, even though we—liberals and conservatives—keep trying to do just that. (1-2)
However, Brueggemann seems unable (or unwilling) to leave the narratives in their historical contexts, repeatedly alluding (at least implicitly) to recent examples that, in his estimation, parallel the biblical stories he explores (e.g., “banks and insurance houses” , Óscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. , “the rapacious capitalist-consumerist economy of our society” , Richard Nixon , liberation theology , etc.). Nevertheless, he assures us he has “no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system” (160). Individual readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Brueggemann stays true to this stated goal.
The book’s most serious flaw is the way Brueggemann’s focus on socioeconomic power-critiques occasionally overrides the natural thrust of the biblical narratives. For example, in discussing the story of Moses, Brueggemann cites Joseph, Egypt’s “food czar,” as the one who helped Pharaoh create “a peasant underclass of very cheap labor” (17-18). Later he writes that Joseph likely “turned his life toward the pharaoh and away from YHWH” (23). There is nothing, however, in the narrative necessitating this overly cynical reading. The text instead seems to highlight God’s gracious provision through Joseph’s wise stewardship.2 Likewise, this overemphasis on power-critiques is also illustrated in Brueggemann’s suggestion that Bathsheba may have framed Adonijah as a pretext for murder—a theory that, while exciting, finds no support in the narrative itself (53).
Moreover, drawing on his distinctive dialectical approach to the OT, Brueggemann relies extensively on a “suspicious” reading of the text (particularly with regard to the story of Solomon), highlighting the significance of subtle ironies littered throughout the narratives in question (47). At times, however, such “doublespeak” seems a bit too subtle, leading this reader to wonder whether or not it really occurs as frequently as Brueggemann suggests (48).
Finally, Brueggemann questions the historicity of the biblical text at certain points (e.g., 36, 116). However, this doesn’t prevent him from listening intently to what the narratives teach us about the God who consistently stands with the weak and downtrodden.
Greed, Denial, Despair
Brueggemann closes the book with a chapter reflecting on the implications of his reading of the OT, highlighting modern expressions of unchecked power in our world, and calling the church to live out the truth amid a society that “depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair” (162).
How the Scriptural narratives outlined in this book are applied to contemporary issues will doubtless differ from person to person and church to church. Nevertheless, Brueggemann helpfully challenges all Christians to pay close attention to God’s Word, where we come face to face with a God who consistently sides with the weak, the orphan, and the widow. Indeed, it is in Scripture that we encounter the ultimate example of righteous power wedded to perfect truth: Jesus Christ, the humble king.
1 For example, see Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford, 2000).
2 Cf. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, The New American Commentary, Vol. 1B (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 850-852; John Sailhammer,Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 266. Sailhammer writes, “First with his brothers and then with the Egyptians, Joseph’s wisdom is seen as the source of life for everyone in the land.”
It is not necessary that we should have any unexpected, any extraordinary experiences in meditation [on God’s Word]. This can happen, but if it does not, it is not a sign that the meditation period has been useless. Not only at the beginning, but repeatedly, there will be times when we feel a great spiritual dryness and apathy, an aversion, even an inability to meditate. We dare not be balked by such experiences. Above all, we must not allow them to keep us from adhering to our meditation period with great patience and fidelity. … It is here that our old vanity and our illicit claims upon God may creep in by a pious detour, as if it were our right to have nothing but elevating and fruitful experiences, and as if the discovery of our own inner poverty were quite below our dignity. With that attitude we shall make no progress. Impatience and self-reproach will only foster our complacency and entangle us ever more deeply in the net of self-centered introspection. … We must center our attention on the Word alone and leave consequences to its action.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 83-84
While one can mine nuggets of moral instruction from the depths of the text, the Bible’s apparent lessons are difficult, and not infrequently troubling. Abraham goes to Egypt, deceives Pharaoh about his relationship to Sarah, and leaves Egypt richer than ever. What’s the lesson—that lying pays? What moral do we draw from Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, or Joshua’s slaughter of everything that breathed at Jericho? The more we read the Bible, the clearer it becomes that the book isn’t a Hebraic Aesop’s fables.
Treating Scripture as a directory of moral lessons or compendium of moral rules assumes a constricted view of moral practice and reasoning. We don’t pursue virtue simply by applying general principles to particular situations, and true morality is never simply obedience to commandments. Practical morality requires the ability to assess situations accurately, memory of our own past patterns of action and of others’ inspiring examples, and enough moral imagination to see how a potential tragedy might become the birthplace of unforeseen comedy.
– Peter Leithart, “What is the Bible For?“
In this panel discussion from Ligonier’s 2012 National Conference, R.C. Sproul and friends discuss the Christian’s approach to Scripture and the natural world, offering wise words regarding the importance of embracing both as infallible revelation from God. In my opinion, R.C. Sproul (in the clip below) and Michael Horton (in the full recording, timestamp 69:30) offer the most helpful insights into how Christians should think about and discuss these controversial issues. Sproul’s main point is that we must embrace all of God’s revelation, not setting one part against another. Horton clearly agrees, noting: “All truth is God’s truth, but not all truth is in the Bible.”
In my opinion, this fascinating discussion should serve as (yet another) call for a little more light and a little less heat in discussions related to faith and science.
Wise words from Jen Wilken:
The Xanax Approach: Feel anxious? Philippians 4:6 says be anxious for nothing. Feel ugly? Psalm 139 says you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Feel tired? Matthew 11:28says Jesus will give rest to the weary. The Xanax Approach treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better. Whether aided by a devotional book or just the topical index in our Bibles, we pronounce our time in the Word successful if we can say, “Wow. That was touching.” The Problem: The Xanax Approach makes the Bible a book about us. …
The Pinball Approach: Lacking a preference or any guidance about what to read, you read whatever Scripture you happen to turn to. Releasing the plunger of your good intentions, you send the pinball of ignorance hurtling toward whatever passage it may hit, ricocheting around to various passages “as the Spirit leads.” The Problem: The Bible was not written to be read this way. The Pinball Approach gives no thought to cultural, historical or textual context, authorship, or original intent of the passage in question. …
The Magic 8 Ball Approach: You remember the Magic 8 Ball—it answered your most difficult questions as a child. But you’re an adult now and wondering if you should marry Bob, get a new job, or change your hair color. You give your Bible a vigorous shake and open it to a random page. Placing your finger blindly on a verse, you then read it to see if “signs point to yes.” The Problem: The Bible is not magical, and it does not serve our whim. The Magic 8 Ball Approach misconstrues the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Word, demanding that the Bible tell us what to do rather than who to be. …
The Personal Shopper Approach: You want to know about being a godly woman or how to deal with self-esteem issues, but you don’t know where to find verses about that, so you let [insert famous Bible teacher here] do the legwork for you. The Problem: The Personal Shopper Approach doesn’t help you build “ownership” of Scripture. Much like the Pinball Approach, you ricochet from passage to passage, gaining fragmentary knowledge of many books of the Bible but mastery of none. …
The Jack Sprat Approach: This is where we engage in “picky eating” with the Word of God. We read the New Testament, but other than Psalms and Proverbs we avoid the Old Testament, or we read books with characters, plots, or topics we can easily identify with. The Problem: All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. All of it. Women, it’s time to move beyond Esther, Ruth, and Proverbs 31 to the rest of the meal. …