Sunday, September 6, 2015

Evangelicals and the Problem of Scripture

For those of you who have suffered through my various cryptic Facebook and twitter posts, well, the time has come. In this post, I will be highlighting the issues and questions surrounding the inerrancy debate within evangelicalism. In thinking through this important (but not essential issue), I’ve been pouring over the multitude of lectures on Youtube. Mostly stuff by The Gospel Coalition and Together 4 the Gospel, including a recent conference held by John MacArthur focused exclusively on inerrancy. As it may not yet be obvious, I have profound disagreements with TGC and T4G and John MacArthur on a multitude of issues and a multitude of attitudes, but I consider them to be brothers in Christ, and so on and so forth. It is simply a matter of common courtesy as far as I am concerned, at least from me to them.

In listening to these various lectures, which include mainstays such as Kevin DeYoung, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, John MacArthur, Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, and others [1], I was struck by the repeated emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture as a foundational position for the Christian faith.  This, they said repeatedly, lay at the heart of Christian faith.[2] One, I forget who exactly, said that if he found one error, he would cease preaching the Gospel.

I was struck both by his honesty and his rigidity. I recall a friend saying roughly the same thing, and I proceeded to tell him that he was no longer an inerrantist. Confused, he asked why; I pointed him to the longer ending in Mark (16:9-20), and asked him why this was still in Scripture even though we know it was not in the original text. Dumbfounded, he sputtered for a second and I then told him, “Its okay. It isn’t an error in transmission as much as it is a problem with translation. Sal’ good, mate.” But the question lingered. I also wrote a bit about the story in John 7:52-8:11:

Various modern English translations confirm in footnotes that John 7:53-8:11 is an interpolation. The CEB notes that “critical editions of the Gk New Testament do not contain 7:53-8:11” and the NRSV supports this with “most ancient authorities lack 7.53—8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful.” Metzger explains that John’s pericope is missing from the “most early and diverse manuscripts” (Metzger, 187). There are external factors besides its manuscript omission: early church fathers don’t quote it until the twelfth century, showing a lack of awareness of the text in question (Metzger, 188) and that it also appears in multiple locations through John’s Gospel as the NRSV footnote states. This shows that scribes were uncertain about its placement within the narrative. The text’s addition may have been due to a scribe’s belief in the truthfulness of the account, and because of this they had little issue in trying to place it within the narrative. Coupled with this, the story is moving and shows Jesus in a consistent and compassionate light (c.f. his interactions with the unmarried Samaritan woman in John 4). After all, Metzger acknowledges, “the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (Metzger, 188) as a self-contained story. It may have happened, but John in his original Gospel did not include it.
It is not my intent to point to the various problems within Scripture—and I’m leaving a gaping hole right there with the word “problems”—but rather to try and steer the conversation towards a more fruitful dynamic.

A key question I have begun to ask about this question is this: “so what?” My long-suffering wife will attest to this, as I kept her up for a night, using this question as a guide to further my post-workout ramblings.

Scripture is inerrant. So what? So is a spelling book, or a scientific textbook that points out what the sky is blue. So what? I don’t consider the color of the sky to be a particularly moving or insightful key into how I worship God. The sky, after all, could be red or purple in your world. A fact does not necessitate authority. The fact of the sky being blue in my world does not factor at all into instigating an authoritative response.

Scripture is inspired. So what? Joseph Smith claimed he was inspired. So have many people in this world, including many cultic figures. The Koran could be inerrant; almost all Christians would, however, not choose the Koran as their supreme authority in faith and practice. The standard proof text for inerrancy/inspiration/authority is 2 Tim. 3:16, with the hapax legomenon θεόπνευστος occurring in relation to πᾶσα γραφὴ. God “breathed” all Scripture. Gordon Fee notes, “in doing so, [Paul] is not offering a theory of inspiration; he is, rather, reflecting the common tradition of Judaism (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21).”[3]
Church fathers (Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia) do not seem to specify if this is directed toward the Old Testament (what Paul usually means by γραφὴ), and the second question in this little question has to do with aspect: given that the canon debate has been largely settled by the time they are writing, are the Fathers justified in including both Testaments in this if they do so? Most likely, Paul is writing about the Old Testament and not his own epistles, which is the opposite of what many modern theologians seem to assert. This—again—is not to undermine inerrancy conceptually, but to push us towards a better framework. Or attempt to frame a better framework. It is indeed getting late now. 

2 Tim. 3:16—according to historical-grammatical rules of interpretation set out by ICBI—cannot be interpreted in the manner most ICBI users desire. Simply stringing along biblical words like, well, "word" will not help matters, nor will reductionistic propositions like "God does not lie," etc.

It seems to me, in speaking about Paul, that he assumed his own authority as an apostle of the risen Christ, and this gave him insight and power to, say, excommunicate a man “having” (
ἔχειν) his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1-5). He also believed he had the authority "to command” (ἐπιτάσσειν: present active infinitive: 1:8) Philemon to free Onesimus, especially because he is “having boldness in Christ” (ἐν Χριστῷ παρρησίαν ἔχων). Paul’s authority seems to come from his relationship to the risen Jesus, and this determines how he acts towards fellow brothers and sisters. His authority comes from seeing the risen Jesus, thus confirming the Gospel of God: the resurrection of the dead, found only in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15).

Scripture and her multitude of authors—Paul, the Psalter, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, First/Second/Third Isaiah, Peter and the epistles written in his name—all seem to assume their own authority in their own inspired way, not on the basis of their own infallibility or inerrancy, but rather on what has been revealed to them. They know they are broken, violent, rash people. It seems, instead, that we ought to focus on the nature of what it means to have an authoritative text that speaks into our lives and informs our faith and practice. Peter not writing 2 Peter does not diminish the authority of 2 Peter; rather, it contextualizes it and forces us to re-conceive of how we read 2 Peter in light of the Gospels and in light of the history of canon.

Given the nature of pseudepigraphy in the New Testament (something I am assuming for the sake of argument), how is inerrancy to respond to fairly convincing arguments that Paul did not write Ephesians and the Pastorals, and that Peter did not write 2 Peter? If these are true, what then of inerrancy? These texts and their authorship would not challenge something as crucial as the resurrection of Jesus. So perhaps our focus is a bit askance.

The Koran could be error-free. The Koran could be inspired in some sense. However, having both does not give it a lick of authority over my life and how I practice as an evangelical Christian.

So it seems we should conceive of a more evangelical method of interpretation of Scripture, one that pays true attention to the details of disparate authors and contexts, and one that actually treats the text with full authority in our lives and in the lives of others.

Beyond “so what”, why does Scripture have authority in my life, your life, and the Church’s life? I will offer three short theses as to why I consider Scripture to be fully authoritative in my life and why this discussion needs to happen.

  1. Scripture most often is confirmed by history and by the methods and philosophy of history. Hidden within this is my own assumption that the world is an odd place and odd things can happen – like a man dying and rising from the dead, revealing Jesus Christ to be the Messiah he said he was. If this is historically true, then this whole resurrection thing means my life is more than a blip on this pale blue dot.
  2. The ethics of the New Testament—especially in Paul—regarding women and slaves and poverty are so progressive that the church seems unable to keep up with him. The fact that Paul goes against so much of his ancient patriarchal culture means something is up, and that he had a radical shift in thinking—based on his experience with the risen Jesus.
  3. My own experience is confirmed and challenged by Scripture. In struggling with sexual sin ever since I was eight years old, Scripture has repeatedly challenged me to improve and repent and grow and mature; it has confirmed that my experience was hollow and grim, and has shown me a better Way. In changing my habits and mind, I've seen tremendous growth and you probably have too. That would not be without the challenge of my wife and Scripture.
I do not claim to have this figured out, and it is highly likely I could embrace inerrancy in the future. I am reading through several works and delving back into the Gospels before this quarter begins, and my friend Jarrod has been pushing Vanhoozer down my ear for the past few weeks, so it is entirely possible.

But, for the sake of intellectual honesty and for the sake of the future of our Catholic Church, concern yourselves with the authority of the text first. That seems to be where the main rub is. If fully authoritative, how then do you live? If not, what then?

*Nick reserves the right to change his mind if he thinks he has written something dumb*

In Christ,

[1] It goes without saying that I disagree with all of these scholars when it comes to the ordination of women, the extent of the value of Reformed readings of Scripture, the genre of Genesis, and a whole host of other more interesting topics. This, of course, it not due to any level of disrespect I have towards these men, but because a theological degree or three does not make a man or woman free.

[2] I was also bemused and dismayed by their repeated comments about Fuller Theological Seminary and the seminary’s history with inerrancy; rather than engage, they dismissed and moved on. See George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 279.

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