Monday, August 21, 2006

The Gospel Debate (2) Inspired or Inerrant?

Here's John's response to the last email. What are your thoughts over the issues raised?

Inspired means just that--inspired...God-breathed. Not "inerrant"--which I see as a claim that was part of a 19th century reaction to the extremes of the Enlightenment. This term didn't exist before the Enlightenment. I think many folks have confused facts with truth...that is, "if it's not factual, it's not really true" (or God-inspired).

From what I can tell, people in the ancient world that produced the Bible didn't share the same concern for factual veracity that we did, but felt it perfectly permissable to play loose with facts in order to accomplish their agenda in writing. A concern/value for facts is a product of Enlightenment thinking. The irony is that the same people who reacted against Enlightenment thinking have bought in to the "truth as facts" logic in coming up with and embracing the claims of inerrancy.

Plus, I don't feel the need to commit intellectual suicide or do mental gymnastics to be a faithful Christian--I see too many instances of biblical error to buy in to inerrancy. This doesn't bother me at all, though, since, just as I or any other preacher in a Sunday morning service can be "errant" and still proclaim the Word of God for our audience, so can the biblical witness be errant and still be the Word of God. To be human is to be with error; our merciful God elected to incarnate his Word in very human beings, in order to "reconcile the world to himself." "Inspired by God" doesn't have to mean perfect; "God-breathed" simply means God is at work in and through it. The Bible itself makes no claims of inerrancy, by the way...because it's a pre-enlightenment collection of books!

As for my discomfort (as you put it) with definitive statements about stuff like hell, that's simply part of a hesitance to participate in truth-claims that I view as arrogant, that I believe have a growing irrelevance for many people, and that I'm convinced have undermined the ability of many to comprehend the actual meaning of the Scriptures. As for sins, I don't have any problem talking about sins as sins; I just don't want to participate in getting overly focused on what I consider to be the symptoms of the fundamental problem: our state of alienation from God. To me, the gospel of justification/ reconciliation through Christ is God's healing remedy for the condition of sin, and as we claim this remedy daily and let God's Spirit do its work on our hearts and minds through both inner and external processes, we can see some change in/relief from the symptoms--although never anywhere close to a complete cessation, since the condition of sin is lifelong even when we make use of the remedy. Thank God for the remedy, though, since with it we can experience the blessedness of walking with God even when we suffer the consequences of sins--ours and other peoples'.

What can we trust? The promises of God, that call our faith into being and lead us into a right relationship with God through faith--not faith in facts but in the reality of God and the dynamic truth of a relational God--a living reality that meets us where we're at, not a collection of facts to be mined out of the Bible and boiled down to doctrines. Ultimately, we can trust in God--the God who, with all their foibles and discrepencies, the books of the Bible bear witness to.

Please know that for me, in no way does not accepting the factuality of many Bible passages make it any less simply leads me to be much more cautious in making truth claims and endorsing doctrines. To say the Bible has errors doesn't make it an untrustworthy document; it makes it a document we need to make use of a lot less arrogantly than we often do! For me, the main function of Scripture is to bear witness to Christ; it's not the only witness we have, and so I don't need to depend on it as perhaps many of my fundamentalist brethren seem to think they need to. In addition to the Scriptures, we also have our own witness to the Living Christ, as well as the witness of 2,000 years of other believers--empowered by the gifts and presence of God's Holy Spirit in and among us, who is still inspiring and breathing today just as in those biblical writers.

In addition, to me it often seems the fundamentalist approach to the Bible leads folks to witness to and emphasize many things other than all kinds of peripheral doctrines and moral claims that are not essential to and often interfere with promoting faith in the Living Christ. Not that non-fundamentalist folks don't have their own problems this way...we're all sinners--broken people whose approach to faith and it's vocations are stained by our sinful condition--leading us to commit sins of ommision and commision in the way we witness to our faith!

Well, you asked:)


Anonymous said...

Enlighten me John.Could you please give me some instances of Biblical errors.

Palmernate said...

Lets just there are some errors. Then how can we trust even the promises of God or anything else in the Bible. Any error would throw the entire book if not the entire Bible into question? Was the writer of John in error when he wrote God so loved the world, maybe he meant only parts of the world maybe he meant wally world.

The burden of proof is on there being any errors. Once there one just one that calls into question the validlity of the entire bible

John said...

Before I answer your question, anonymous, let me just say to ehlodog that, for me, an error in the Bible doesn’t discount the whole thing, any more than a mistaken reference or quote offered in a sermon discounts the validity of the preacher’s message. Just because God chooses to communicate to us through fallible people doesn’t mean we can’t trust God. In the end, anything we claim to be true in the Bible or from any other source about God is a matter of faith. Faith may involve knowledge, but it’s a different order of knowing. I’d propose (as a faith assertion) that God is ultimately so beyond our comprehension that nothing we could ever say or do could ever “accurately” capture the whole picture. It may be that this is why God chooses to call us into relationship through faith. Faith knowledge isn’t the same as empirical knowledge. Faith calls us into a trust relationship, and only once we step out into that relationship by trusting God’s promises, can we “prove” to ourselves the dependability of the promise.

Now, for an example of error in the Bible:
Mark 1:2-3
"As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,' "
Part of this passage that Mark cites as being from Isaiah (see Isaiah 40:3) is actually from another book altogether:
"See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts."--Malachi 3:1
To me, this is one example of many of how gospel writers didn't share our concern for facts--they were ancient people whose world-view did not embrace our post-enlightenment "truth as facts" view of the nature of truth. These were very human writers whose "errors" in writing did not weaken God's ability to inspire them to communicate the good news of Christ in the context they found themselves in. Their witness was recorded and became Scripture, not because their words were “inerrant,” but because many faithful people found their words to be trustworthy in terms of inspiring a vital faith relationship with God.

Rob Tombrella said...

"For me, the main function of Scripture is to bear witness to Christ, though it's not the only witness"

My question would be this (and I ask it in the next post I believe)..

What "Christ" can be supported by anyone without "facts?" What Living Christ can be supported without falling on "facts?" Even facts that can be boiled into doctrines?

I would contend you do believe in facts about Christ--and you eventually fall on them by way of the objective Scripture when you need to--but you don't apply the same hermenuetic to all Scripture--just the ones you mine. ;)

After all, if I say the Living Christ in me tells me that I should kill my child--how would you counsel me?

As to the Mark passage--there is no error here. Mark does quote Isaiah in verse 3 after quoting Malachi in verse 2. If Mark wanted to communicate that Malachi's prophecy of John the Baptists ministry was the same as Isaiah's prophecy from generations previous why is it necessary for him to say "as Malachi and Isaiah the prophet said" instead of what he wrote?

What other examples come to mind as errors?

Incidently John, since you're the only ELCA clergy involved at this point, we applaud you carrying the weight of the argument and Nabisco on your shoulders.

Anonymous said...

Ditto! More examples.

Tony Sok said...

Rob, good observation on Mark 1:2-3. Mark does quote and have in mind Isaiah's messianic servant. Was doing devo's this morning, and in verse 10 of chapter 1 the part of the verse that says, "He saw the heavens opening," is an Isaiah fulfillment of Is.64:1 "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down" the Septuigint has the same greek word "rend" or "open" as found in Mark 1:10. John although I'm still trying to understand where you're coming from on certain things, I really do appreciate your bringing up Inerrancy in your discussions. What you help shed to light, especially those who hold to inerrancy (as I do) if the fact that we tend to solely rely upon the doctrine of inerrancy. Instead we must be constantly reminded that Scripture is not just about inerrancy, but sufficiency. It does one no good to hold to inerrancy without regarding scripture as sufficient as well. I enjoy your willingness to dialogue; and the spirit in which you do it.

Rob Tombrella said...


Great point Tony! Lets move that direction.

Certainly most people who argue for inerrancy wouldn't quibble over particular numbers of deaths in an OT battle, or if it was 1 angel or 2 at the resurrection, but over the sufficiency of the text to communicate all that God intends for us to know about Him in regards to his nature, our condition, and who he is for us in Christ.

So, is the Bible sufficient, or has God intended more "R" revelation?

John said...

Is the question whether the revelation in canonical Scripture is the end of God's revelation, orif there could be more beyond what Scripture reveals?

John said...

Oh, and before we totally shift away from the inerrancy examples, there's a clear discrepency between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9, two accounts of what happened on the road to Damascus. Did those with Saul hear the voice or not? Somebody was in error here, it seems to me! --put this one in your pipe and tell me what it tastes like :)

Rob Tombrella said...

Acts 9:7 "The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one."

Acts 22:9 "And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me."

This can't be a smoking gun to build a case for new canon-quality revelation. Luke the historian is stating facts--as he learned them--and Paul is giving an eyewitness account.

But they confirm the same thing. Just because Luke said they saw "no one" doesn't mean they couldn't have seen a bright light--just no person in the light. Likewise, just because the hear a voice doesn't mean they "understood" what was being communicated to Paul.

9:3 says that as Paul and his companions were traveling, "suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?'"

Verse 7 says that the men stood "speechless" hearing (what in the greek can also be translated 'sound.' Are we to believe they were mute only because of the sound and not the light flashing around them?

I'm not doing gymnastics with these verses--I am smoking them, and they seem to taste like perfectly parallel passages.;)

No, the question is not one of whether or not God gives revelation today--but if God gives Scripture-quality, inerrent, canon-quality, capital "R" revelation that would be worthy of canonizing and adding to the 66 books of the Bible.

Most of the men involved in this debate would probably hold to the idea that God is still speaking prophetically among His people. But we would say that this "little 'r'" revelation is lightyears apart from the "capital 'R'" revelation of the canon. This kind of revelation is when God brings something to mind to edify His church, but is ever-evaluated and judged by the canonical Scripture as to its truth. In other words, God doesn't reveal things today that go against what He has already spoken in Scripture.

So I think you still need to prove that we can distance ourselves from the text and cling closer to what God is "saying" today based on errors in the Bible. Going back to what Tony mentioned--is the Bible sufficient to communicate His character and attributes?--or do we need new Scripture?

Palmernate said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John said...

For me, and officially for the ELCA, the bible is the norm and standard for faith and life. How we understand, interpret and use the standard of the Bible is informed by an awareness that there are many apparent inconsistencies and many sides to issues as presented in the Bible—often even within the same book. Applying literary, historical and sociological analysis can often help us to see this. Also, the tools of lower textual criticism—paying attention to the variances among extant manuscripts, lead us to exercise caution, since we can see that the texts as we have them have changed in transmission—sometimes in very significant ways (as with the ending to Mark’s gospel).

What this boils down to for me is that the question of what you call “sufficiency” is muddled by the need to use extra-biblical resources to gain what amounts to a seldom 100% certain standard.

But then, to me that’s fine, since it’s not the Written Word in the Bible that’s the ultimate Revelation-Word, but the Living Revelation-Word in Jesus Christ. Also above the written Word (for me) is the Proclaimed Word that’s inspired by this Christ. It’s these forms of the Word that produced the Word of the Bible. In other words, I see the Bible as sort of “frozen slices” of Living and Proclaimed Word, passed down to us across a chasm of time from ancient people of faith. This passing down was, of course, mediated along the way by people like medieval monks, renaissance scholars, and eventually more modern people of faith who used (and still use) use scholarly methods to aid them in transmission. And thank God for this—since these frozen slices provide the meat for countless sermons and a major vehicle for the Spirit of Christ to teach and guide the church.

Have you ever stopped to think, though: what would it be like if we didn’t have the Bible? Would God’s Revelation continue to be available? My answer is yes! The Bible isn’t the source of that’s the Living Christ himself!