by Henry E. Neufeld
Copyright © 1997 Henry E. Neufeld
You may copy and distribute this material freely provided it is copied as a whole, and this copyright notice is included with it. I am placing a copyright notice on this because some of the material will be duplicated in a book I plan.
The following is both a position and a thought paper, though only for me personally. I am not attempting to express the beliefs of any organization nor to keep this paper in line with any particular existing view of scriptural inspiration. I do draw on sources from both the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, in which I grew up and from the United Methodist Church of which I am a member.
All scripture quotations not otherwise marked are from the Revised English Bible (REB), Copyright Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press 1989. Scripture quotations marked NIV are from the New International Version, Copyright New York International Bible Society, 1978 and 1984. Scripture quotations marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version, Copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Note also that I will use the abbreviations CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era) in this text as it is intended for a broad audience including both Christians and non-Christians.
I incorporated much of this essay into my book When People Speak for God. Since then I have published two books, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully (Edward W. H. Vick), and Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Alden Thompson). Both of these books are substantially longer than my own book, which is in turn massively longer than this essay. My own position lies somewhere between the two books, based on theology much like that of Edward Vick, yet seasoned with the more pastoral concerns of Alden Thompson. I’m going to put widgets for those two books and my own below, and you can find a larger collection of works on biblical inspiration in my aer.io story collection.
Table of contents
The single most frequent topic on which I am questioned is my view of Biblical inspiration. When a correspondent discovers that I do not believe in the doctrine of inerrancy in any form, I am often asked, “Then why study and teach the Bible?”
This question illustrates a portion of the problem. The value of the Bible has become attached in people’s thinking to the notion of inerrancy. Imagine for a moment that, instead of announcing that I’m a Bible teacher, I were to say, “I teach English literature.”
Someone asks, “Do you consider Shakespeare inerrant?”
“No, I don’t,” I respond, looking puzzled.
“Then why do you teach English literature?”
The question sounds ridiculous in that context. (We could use any English author in the question.) Now many Christians may be thinking about now, “But the Bible is more important than Shakespeare, or any of those other English authors.” I’m not disagreeing with that assessment. I believe that the Bible is extremely important. At a minimum it is important because of the strong influence it has had on culture and literature. But the point remains, that Bible is the only subject in which a Christian teacher is expected to make the claim that the subject matter source is without error of any kind, whether or not that error is related to the subject matter at issue.
Others may wonder why one would bother arguing against what appears to be excessive reverence for the Bible. “Perhaps inerrantists are overstating their case, but they certainly do have respect for the text,” these folks say. I do not believe that using an inappropriate standard to judge any piece of literature is a mark of respect for that literature. I’m certain inerrantists do indeed have great respect for the scriptures, but the question is whether or not the standard they are applying to the scriptures is an appropriate one. Note again that I’m not talking about the standard being too high; rather I’m talking about it simply being the wrong one. Is their respect for the scriptures as they are, or as they imagine them to be.
Let me illustrate with a piece of literature for which I have great respect, but which nobody of my acquaintance considers inerrant, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” Suppose someone takes this series and determines that it indeed describes a real realm or universe, and that the description is inerrant. He begins to describe how the earth in its present state developed from the world of Middle Earth and insists that every principle, moral or otherwise, contained in the trilogy is binding and totally without error. He then insists that everyone who says that the books are “merely” great literature, fine and uplifting reading is showing disrespect for them, because they are truly inerrant, the words of a prophet. Who is showing respect for Tolkien’s work? Clearly the person who respects and appreciates it for what it is.
Some peoples immediate response to this illustration is to ask whether I really believe the Bible is fiction. If that is your response, look again at the illustration before you continue. I am not claiming that the Bible is fiction. It is actually a collection of many types of literature, including fiction. My purpose in the illustration is not to show what the Bible actually is, but to show that one respects a literary work by appreciating what it actually is, not by claiming it is something else, however uplifting that something else might claim to be. Thus, if the Bible is not inerrant, or if in some other way it is inappropriate to judge it by the standard of inerrancy, then we do not show respect for it by making that claim.
The question then is, what is the Bible? Once we have determined that, we can ask: What is its role and authority? How should we approach it?
I will first indicate why some traditional models to fail to adequately handle the objective evidence and the experience of Christian individuals with God and the Bible. First let me list and define some approaches as I understand them.
Verbal Dictation – the idea that God, through the Holy Spirit, dictated the very words of scripture, such that it is proper to say that these are the actual words of God. People who hold this idea will normally reject any notion that the personality, attitudes and culture of the prophet has any impact on the meaning of the text nor does the nature of the audience. Often the words of scripture as they occur are applied to situations far different than those in which they were spoken.
Verbal Plenary Inspiration – while rejecting the notion of verbal dictation people who hold this doctrine believe that every word is protected by God. Neither the prophet’s views, nor those of the audience have real impact. [See below under Communications Model.]
“Hard” Inerrancy – no statement in the Bible can contain false information of any type.
“Soft” Inerrancy – the Bible is always inerrant in that which it intends to state. Thus, while that which is being communicated must be accurate, the idea could be communicated using ideas which are current in the surrounding culture. This is the version of inerrancy which I understand most American evangelicals to espouse.
Note that there is a difference between a small group of people who hold to inerrancy of a particular translation, usually the King James Version, and those who hold to inerrancy of the autographs. Those who hold a doctrine of inerrancy of the autographs will generally admit that there have been errors in copying and transmission but consider these errors negligible and as having no impact on teachings necessary to salvation. There is an intermediate position which would maintain the inerrancy of the majority text [Maj] (or sometimes of the Textus Receptus[TR]) for the New Testament, and of the Masoretic Text [MT] for the Tanak.
The difference between the approach to the inerrancy of the autographs or of a modern text or version may be illustrated by the handling of differences between the age of Jehoiachin at his accession to the throne of Judah. In the KJV (and in the MT on which it is based) 2 Chronicles 36:9 lists Jehoiachin’s age as eight years, while 2 Kings 24:8 lists his age as 18. (A “soft” inerrantist might not find this issue worth dealing with, but some do.) If one checks the modern versions one will find in many cases, either in the text of 2 Chronicles 36:9 or in a note at that passage that some versions read “18” there as well. The New Century Version [NCV] reads “18” without any note. These passages do not pose any difficulty for one who believes in the inerrancy of the autographs, however, because it is quite easy to claim that the problem is a copyists error. One who believes in inerrancy of the KJV, or of the MT on which it is based, must explain the difference in ages in some way. These descriptions can become extremely fanciful.
It is not my purpose in this paper to attack the doctrine of inerrancy, thus you will find here no list of errors or contradictions in the Bible. My purpose is to show why I feel that inerrancy is inadequate to the task and what approach I espouse as an alternative.
What is this task?
“All inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man of God may be capable and equipped for good work of every kind.” (2 Tim 3:16 Revised English Bible [REB]) The New International Version uses the alternate translation: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Either translation is workable for what I am about to suggest. This is probably the most quoted Biblical statement on the scriptures. In my view this text in fact defines what a complete view of inspiration must entail.
First, it discusses “all scripture” or “all inspired scripture.” Most Christians accept the books of the canon as inspired. Only a view of inspiration which shows how all scripture is useful will coincide with this statement. (Note here that I am aware that 2 Timothy was written before the canon as we know it was accepted. To apply the text, one must both accept the validity of the verse itself, and also the validity of the process of canonization. In its original context, however, this text did not refer to the canon of scripture as accepted by either Protestants or Roman Catholics.) In practice, however, many Christians do not really accept everything in the scriptures as profitable. For example, I believe that most Christians discard the books of Leviticus, Numbers and large portions of Exodus and Deuteronomy. I’m sure some will protest that they do not such thing, but that they view these things as pointing to Christ and done away with at the cross. But how much profit do you get from them in that case? Do we even seriously read and study them? If, in the words of Paul, the law was a schoolmaster, it was a master whose lectures we no longer remember.
Second, it requires a view of the text which sees all of scripture as profitable for these various goals. But in what way are certain passages profitable? If we go to the scripture to get doctrine, of what value are the following?
“Everything that confronts them, everything is futile, since one and the same fate comes to all, just and unjust alike, good and bad, ritually clean and unclean, to the one who offers sacrifice and to the one who does not. The good and the sinner fare alike, he who can take an oath and he who dares not.” (Ecclesiastes 9:1b-2)?
"Babylon, Babylon the destroyer, happy is he who repays you for what you did to us! Happy is he who seizes your babes and dashes them against a rock." (Psalm 137:8,9)
Or in Numbers 31, after the people have returned from attacking Midian, and bring with them alive the women and children from the conquered territories: “Now kill every male child, and kill every woman who has had intercourse with a man, but you may spare for yourselves every woman among them who has not had intercourse.” (Numbers 31:17)
In what way are these texts profitable? Under a view of the scriptures which finds in them largely a compendium of doctrine, I see very little use.
Lastly, I think a valid view of inspiration must take into account the purpose of the entire collection. Why, in fact, do we want inspired writings at all. The answer given in 2 Timothy 3:17 is: “. . . so that the man of God may be capable and equipped for good work of every kind.” Here is a final goal. I note that verse 17 is very often ignored by those who quote this passage. They are especially interested in how the Bible functions as a vehicle for bringing them doctrine, and for validating that doctrine. It is with the doctrinal authority of the scriptures that they are most concerned. But the expressed concern of this text is with the practical goal.
Now some people reading this section may be thinking that I am using circular reasoning here by looking within the Bible for the characteristics I wish to see comprehended by a view of inspiration. Indeed I am being circular. But I agree with the position stated in this scripture. Let me state these principles concerning inspired writings out in non-scriptural terms. In looking at a set of works which we see as authoritative, we need to ask in what way the entire collection is authoritative. Why, in fact, the entire collection? Because if we answer the question by making part of the collection not scripture, then we are simply redefining the question. In addition, not all sections of scripture need be authoritative in the same way. (See below for a further discussion of the term “authoritative”.) Secondly, if something is authoritative, we need to see its function, or in what way it is authoritative. A set of regulations is defined in terms of accomplishing a particular task or managing a particular process. Each has its context and basis. As Christians, we generally claim the Bible as an authority. Authority for what? Thirdly, I believe we need to look at a final goal for our community. If the Bible is an authority in our community, what is it that we intend to accomplish by means of following or observing that authority.
There is a problem in general with circular reasoning in dealing with a written or verbal revelation in all cases, because there is no separate standard by which one can judge a revelation. What characteristics should a divine revelation have? We don’t know unless we find out from within a divine revelation. How should we determine the truth of any particular item of divine revelation? Again, we look to divine revelation. In 1 Kings 22, Ahab and Jehosphaphat are presented with this problem. With many people claiming to speak for God, yet saying different things, the audience was confronted with the need to choose which message to regard as divine. Both Jeremiah (23) and Ezekiel (14) were confronted with a similar situation. How were the people to choose the correct message? One couldn’t do so by checking the fulfillment of the prophecies, as that would be too late to make the correct choice.
I discern two major problems with the doctrine of inerrancy, derived from these observations.
First, the doctrine of inerrancy leads to a view of the text as a series of statements, suitable for fashioning into doctrines, which can then be treated as true or false. This view appears to me to contradict the very nature of the text, most of which is dedicated to issues which do not fashion readily into doctrines. I suspect this view of greatly reducing the real study of the scriptures, because such a small portion of the scriptures appear useful in this model. One seems more knowledgeable of the scriptures when one can quote the proof texts for one’s doctrines, but this knowledge is of a small portion of the whole.
Second, I believe this view fails on the basis of standard. By what standard does one test an inerrant scripture? I have been presented with the view that if one does not believe that all of scripture is inerrant, that one is left without an objective basis for proving scripture. The conviction of the inerrancy of scripture, however, must come from errant sources, such as scientific and archeological study. The only way the Bible could be objectively proven to be the word of God would be if we had something other than the Bible which was an already accepted standard to which we could compare it.
The fact is, unfortunately, that the “errant” sources to which we compare inerrant scripture do not tend to support its inerrancy. If one takes the dominant trends in the various fields of history, archeology, geology, and others, one will find that these trends tend to differ from the content of the Bible. One can object that we need “true” science and the “right” results, which will support the Bible. And as long as one chooses these sources according to whether or not they support the Bible, one will, of course, find support. But choosing only that evidence which supports one’s thesis is not an objective approach.
My objections here do not prove that the Bible is not inerrant. What they do show, I believe, is that we have no way of determining whether the Bible is inerrant because we lack any accepted, inerrant standard to which to compare it. In addition, the best judgment of the human sources we have available is that the Bible is not without error.
I believe that it is very unlikely that anyone who starts a study of the Bible without a pre-existing bias in favor of inerrancy will determine that it is inerrant. There are a number of fine people who would disagree with me on this point, among whom I include Dr. Gleason Archer, and Dr. Norman Geisler. I am led to believe that individuals who approach the study of the Bible from a skeptical view, and are then converted to Christianity by their study, and often become advocates of inerrancy, in fact encounter God, the real authority, in their study, and their discovery of inerrancy follows from that. I am not challenging their experience, sincerity or honesty on that basis, but I would ask a similar favor for those of us who cannot honestly accept the inerrancy of scripture and nonetheless have encountered God.
I really cannot cover this subject solely as an examination of the role of the Bible as a written message, because this must be combined with both epistemology and with the notion of any divine message transmitted to any human at any time.
For many centuries, the only form of revelation which the community of faith claimed was actually oral, rather than written. Modes by which divine communications were thought to be received included the casting of lots, the Urim and the Thummim carried by the High Priest, or speech offered directly by a prophet under the immediate moving of the spirit of God. Did these methods of communication differ greatly in reliability compared with modern Bible study?
It certainly seems that in many cases, the word of the prophets was quite uncertain. 1 Kings 22 contains an incident in which various prophets were giving different messages, and indeed, the writer of the story appears to hold that God is the source of the lying messages as well as of the true ones, however indirectly (1 Kings 22:19-23). The true prophet, Micaiah, only tells the truth when he is forced to swear to do so. Then he prophesies Ahab’s destruction. In this case, God is presented as lying through the prophets (or moving the prophets indirectly to lie) in order to bring about the destruction of Ahab, a king who was in opposition to His worship. Ezekiel 14:9 presents a similar problem.
The situation in 1 Kings 22 presented, in addition, the problem of determining who was actually the true prophet. One man is said here to carry the message from God, whereas another 400 carry a false message. I believe this problem relates closely to the modern problem of acceptance of particular literature as inspired and the problem of canonization. (I treat canonization, and inspiration of a book as two separate problems.) It is common to approach the problem of who is a true prophet through the test given in Deuteronomy 18:22, “When a word spoken by a prophet in the name of the LORD is not fulfilled and does not come true, it is not a word spoken by the LORD. The prophet has spoken presumptuously; have no fear of him.” This test is a test for things which have already happened. It is a judicial test for dealing with someone who claims to speak for the Lord. It is not a test which is of value when one is listening to the prophet. In the case of Ahab and Jehoshaphat, they each had to make their decision before they would be able to apply the test of Deuteronomy 18:22. There is a second test for a prophet given in the book of Deuteronomy:
Should a prophet or a pedlar of dreams appear among you and offer you a sign or a portent, and call on you to go after other gods whom you have not known and to worship them, even if the sign or portent should come true do not heed the words of that prophet or dreamer.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-3a)
In this case there is a test of the prophet which can be done at the time of the prophecy. If the prophet asks you to follow gods you have not known then you are not to follow him. The experience of the hearer is related to the experience of the prophet so that the individual hearer can determine who speaks for God. Indeed, the test of Deuteronomy 18:22 is not universally applied. In the story of Jonah, by simply observing the test of fulfillment, one would have to consider Jonah a false prophet.
I think it is never the case that the term “Word of God” as used by Bible writers can properly be taken to refer to the Bible as Christians now have it, and it is only rarely the case that this phrase can be taken to mean such portions of written scripture as were available at the time. The prophet brings God’s word for the intended audience at the time. No prophet, of course, would claim to actually contain God’s word. It is the Word which creates (Psalm 33:6-9), surely not a function of a written book, or even of the words spoken by the mouth of a prophet. Thus, in applying the Biblical texts which relate to the “Word of God” to the written scripture we can get a very skewed idea of what the Bible writers meant by that phrase. One should also be continually aware of what would have constituted written scripture at the time of writing.
To understand properly the role which scripture should play in the life of a person of faith, it is necessary to first look at our basic epistemology, then the place of divine revelation as a whole, and finally to narrow this concept to that portion of divine revelation and how it is presented in scripture. Epistemology is the study of how we know things, how we determine what is true and what is false. People make these determinations in very different ways. Often the most bitter arguments occur because we misunderstand what someone else thinks is evidence, what is trustworthy, or what can be known.
First, we look at epistemology. This is a seriously neglected branch of study. Everyone who believes that he or she knows something will have some basis for that belief. Often arguments occur simply because two people are approaching their knowledge sources differently. For example, a person who believes that the earth was created in six literal days, and is absolutely certain of this fact, may debate with someone who believes the earth is quite old and that one species has developed from another through the operation of evolution. Upon pointing out any flaw in the theory of evolution, the creationist will think that he has won the debate because, while his view is monolithic and unflawed, that of the evolutionist has a weakness. He may, in fact, be very surprised that his opponent doesn’t simply bow out. Why? Because to him, the fact that Genesis 1, read literally, refers to six days as the time during which the creation of the universe took place, means that this is a fact. No further evidence is really necessary to his way of thinking. Any one flaw in the theory of evolution will be sufficient to prove that it is much less believable. On the other hand, the supporter of evolution is likely to be quite shocked at this notion, since he sees no evidence at all (since he doesn’t count the literal reading of Genesis 1 in the category of evidence) that the creationist’s argument is true. This difference in epistemology will generally prevent constructive debate. An earlier question must be resolved first, namely, “What is evidence and what is not?”
Though I cannot go into great detail on the subject of epistemology in this paper, I must summarize a few points. First, most people, even the most conservative, accept the results of modern science as it impinges on their daily life. Thus, they are willing to believe, or even to know, that their vehicles will function, that airplanes will fly, or even that their physician can prescribe an appropriate medication. These things are accepted as facts by the average person, and I think all but a few of the very religious. Can we know things for certain based on our reason and on application of appropriate methodology, the scientific method being the primary case in point? If we wish to obtain absolutely true information, the proverbial TRUTH, then we cannot do this. We are always operating on the basis of theoretical constructs, even when those constructs are very reliable and have been tested again and again. An electronics engineer can design a circuit with full confidence, despite the fact that one cannot be certain, in an absolute sense, that atomic theory is the true explanation of how electricity functions. Within our current ability to observe and test, we know of no case which these laws do not explain, but that doesn’t mean we won’t find one.
My point here is that these methods do not provide absolute knowledge, and indeed cannot provide it, but that we nonetheless live with this uncertainty on a regular basis. The arrogance of the suggestion that we possess absolute truth is something we must give up. What we possess is our best approximation of the truth within our current and individual limitations. (Note that while electricity works both for the electronics engineer and for me, my own understanding of the processes involved is considerably less accurate.) We thus do not possess absolute knowledge in the physical realm. We possess working knowledge.
Realization of this point for some people results in their believing that in the spiritual realm they can have that absolute certainty which they lack in the physical realm. This is an interesting view if for no other reason than that there are multiple claimants to the status of divine revelation. These include individual intuition, revelations directly from god(s), various written scriptures, including the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon, and the statements of particular religious authority figures. Out of this morass of supposedly divine revelations, how does one come to this absolute truth? I submit that one cannot, and that coming to believe that one can is a great destructive force in one’s life, both intellectually and spiritually. What I am working towards is a functional knowledge in spiritual matters, not an absolute knowledge.
There are some additional considerations about spiritual knowledge, in that, when we speak of God as transcendent, we must understand that we cannot understand that which transcends our own experience. What we can understand is what we actually experience. We then postulate what it might be “out there” which causes that experience. The objective portion of Christian experience for the individual is that which he experiences. For the world, it is the community of faith which is the objective evidence. Paul says, “Now you are Christ’s body.” (1 Corinthians 12:27). What can be objectively seen about the Christian religion is what can be observed about its members now and in the past. Often we’d rather people didn’t see this, but this is, in fact, the only objective evidence for them to look at.
It is not the objective value of the scriptures themselves, but the validity of the experience they reflect which counts. And if that experience was only something which happened back then, then it will not ring true now. It only matters if the past experience was authentic and acted with power in the lives of the believers if the same power is present within the community now. I don’t think the Christian church has done well in reflecting this fact. In terms of our understanding and doctrines about God, however, we must have a great humility, along with Paul.
Once we step outside of the “real” universe as we know it, and start speaking of eternity, timelessness, infinity, omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience we are beyond our own capability to comprehend or catalog. It’s no surprise to me that the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 said, “we know partially.” If one has any idea of what one is talking about when one says the word “infinite” one should take “partial knowledge” as a given. Less than infinite mental capacity makes for less than full knowledge of something or someone who is, in fact, infinite.
For example, the logic of the “uncaused cause” escapes me. It appears that one is saying, “My premise is true, therefore my premise is false.” That is, “Since everything must have a cause, there must be an ultimate cause which is itself uncaused.” This is a natural problem of trying to carry the logic of the universe outside its bounds, if it is proper to speak of the bounds of a universe as we do in theological discussions.
How could we then be said to experience the infinite? I contend that we don’t. We experience something which seems less but is actually much harder to deal with. I would say that the message of scripture, especially in the Psalms is that God is adequate, that He is sufficiently powerful to accomplish what is needed, sufficiently knowledgeable to know what is needed and sufficiently present to be there when needed. “God is infinite” is actually an easy statement to make, because it actually has no meaning to the human mind. It essentially means “Someone-beyond-our-understanding is something-we-don’t-comprehend.”
This is not to argue that God is not infinite, but rather than we cannot comprehend infinity, so that it is more important to understand how we experience God than to play with phrases which try to describe an actuality which is beyond us. I have tried statements such as “God is infinite”; “God is omnipotent”; “God is omniscient” or even “God is good” on various audiences and found that few people are terribly certain what these statements mean.
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. (Ephesians 3:18,19 NRSV)
That which cannot be known cognitively is nonetheless experienced personally. We need to perceive this directly. For too many people the scriptures become the sole way in which they can approach God, or to know him. The scriptures become a block between their perceptions and God, rather than a source of illumination. I illustrate this as follows:
At a more basic level, I think this is precisely the kind of problem John is addressing in 1 John 4:20 (NIV). “. . . For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” Apart from this concept, the statement “I love God” is simply a version of “I place a value on someone-beyond-my-understanding.” Most common, everyday Christians are well ahead of the theologians on this one. Look at Psalm 78. Here we have the illustration of the greater miracle, and therefore the less comprehensible and personal, not guaranteeing belief in the lesser miracle. Psalm 78:19-25 discusses the refusal to believe God could provide food following the rescue from Egypt and the passage of the Sea of Reeds. The experiential statement from this story is that one miraculous event does not necessarily cause trust for a future event.
Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus of Nazareth–all of these people who have contributed words to what we call the Bible were innovators. They were unafraid to challenge what people around them thought. They were not slow to reinterpret to present things in a new light, to adapt old laws to new situations.
Who are the heirs of the literature they produced, either as the fount in the case of Jesus, or as actual writers in the other cases? Can they be people whose best response to a new situation is to say, “My Bible says,” when most of them haven’t the faintest idea what it actually does say? Are the traditionalists, the “Bible believers,” the heirs of Ezekiel (“This proverb will no longer be said in Israel”, Ezekiel 18), Jeremiah (“I will make a new covenant” Jeremiah 31) or Jesus (“You have heard that it was said in old times . . . but I say unto you” Matthew 5)? Real Christians would be a dynamic force in society because they would really be presenting a way of life to the world. “Today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil.” Deuteronomy 30:15. We call on people to make a choice, but if they don’t want to accept the Bible as inerrant, or infallible, or whatever it is we try to make them accept it as, we are unable to show why this way is any better than theirs. Why is this? Because Christians are in fact living no better, accomplishing no more than their non-Christian counterparts. We don’t exemplify the message of Deuteronomy 30:15. And we haven’t the intellectual equipment or the training to explain why our moral values are actually better in any case.
So wherein lies the authority of the Biblical writers? Is there such a thing as authority in scripture?
Let me approach a study of inspired writings from three different angles. These are by category of literature, by the process which produces the canonized work, and by communications model.
Let’s first divide the literature of the Bible into categories and look at the type of material presented and the claims which are made for it. (This list is not intended to be detailed or exhaustive.)
We have a considerable amount of narrative in the scriptures. This narrative is usually claimed as historical, though on occasion it is presented as a story which is told by one of the characters. In the narrative portions of the Bible we do not have a claim that God is speaking, but we have a description of what the writer believes God has done and an expression of the meaning of this action to the people of the writer’s time. For example in the books of Kings Israel is presented as prospering when they worship the Lord and failing when they fail to follow him. The events of Israel’s history, seen as actions of God with respect to his people, are presented with a particular meaning. We have few words attributed to God, but we have many events attributed to him. The claim of revelation in this type of literature is one of God’s actions in history as observed by people. It appears clear that the author of Kings is not claiming that his story is directly revealed by God, as he references the chronicles of the kings of Judah or of Israel as a source for all the deeds of various kings. Probably he is collecting history from those chronicles and presenting it with a particular “spin.”
We might chart this as follows:
Interpretation is a serious part of any story writing or telling. Let’s take, for example, a modern story about a person who is shot in their home during a robbery. The person who commits the crime is carrying a handgun purchased legally. The victim is unarmed. A gun control advocate might tell this story with the lesson being that, were there just tighter laws controlling guns, the criminal might not have been in possession of the weapon. This version of the story would emphasize that the criminal had a legally purchased weapon. It might also emphasize the difficulty of committing the crime with a knife, or with no weapon at all. Another person, an advocate of self-defense training and of gun possession for self defense might tell the same story with the emphasis on the weakness, lack of training and lack of defense of the crime victim. The conclusion in this case might be that if only the victim had been armed and perhaps trained in self-defense, he would today be alive. The events remain the same but the story is different.
Parables are especially subject to this type of interpretation. If we look at the parable of the unjust steward, we see a number of potential endings or morals drawn from the story (Luke 16:1-18). (Note that some would question whether all the sayings given in verses 9-18 were actually related to the parable in the oral tradition. But it appears that Luke finds them relevant.
Second, we have a number of songs, poems and prayers presented in connection with certain events. Again, these don’t purport to be the words of God, indeed, they claim directly to be the words of men, often presented to God. An example of such literature is Exodus 15, or Judges 5. Does anyone really believe that God celebrates the treacherous murder of a guest (Judges 5:24-27)?
In this type of literature, people respond to what they perceive as God’s action, or to the actions of men which causes them to call upon God. We might chart it as follows:
Fictional writing attempts to create a scene or scenario, or bring out some aspects of personality by telling a narrative which is not necessarily historically true. Included in this type of writing in the Bible are the parables of Jesus, the parable of the trees (Judges 9), and some would say the books of Ruth, Jonah and Job. It is certain that at least part of the book of Job is fictional, in that one doubts anyone was around recording these lengthy speeches in fine poetry, or in fact that such speeches would be given in conversation with a man in terrible pain. Each of these teaches a lesson or lessons through the narrative just as much as if it were narrating a true story.
The chart would be as follows:
Each of these general categories of literature has a different approach used in its creation, and the same things cannot be said with regard to inspiration in all cases. Can Psalm 137:8,9 (“Happy is he who repays you for what you did to us! Happy is he who seizes your babes and dashes them against a rock.”) be compared in inspiration to Leviticus 19:18 (“Never seek revenge or cherish a grudge towards your kinsfolk; you must love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.”)
Another way in which we can divide the notion of inspiration is by stages in the production of what we later consider to be scripture. It is rare that a writer originally sets out to write scripture. When Paul wrote letters to churches, he was not trying to create the Bible, he was trying to respond to situations in the Christian communities of which he was often the founder. When Jeremiah is told to write his messages in a scroll, the purpose is clearly stated: “Perhaps the house of Judah will be warned of all the disaster I am planning to inflict on them, and everyone will abandon his evil conduct; then I shall forgive their wrongdoing and their sin.” (Jeremiah 36:3) There is no sense here of writing scripture which is applicable for all time. We are actually spectators in a process which has everything to do with the moment at which the message is presented. Neither Jeremiah nor Paul are speaking directly to us; each is addressing a particular situation in his individual community at a particular time.
Following this addressing of a specific situation, the community recognizes the value of what the prophet or other writer has done, and collects, preserves and transmits the message. This may involve writing an initially oral tradition, as is likely in the gospel accounts about Jesus, or writing under the dictation of the prophet, as in the case of Jeremiah. It may involve editing several existing traditions as appears to have happened in the case of the Pentateuch.
With the material collected, it is copied and transmitted. It is hard for us to realize the immense difficulty involved in this, because we live in an age when printing is easy, and in fact electronic transmission is rather trivial. I intend to post this particular essay on my web page and e-mail it to a number of people. For others I will print copies on a laser printer. I will be able to do in a few moments what would take many hours or days of effort for somebody in ancient times. Each copy had to be made by hand. The potential for errors is enormous. I can’t help but be awed by the preservation of scriptural texts considering the difficulties involved.
Various materials which are accepted by the community of faith as somehow authoritative or useful in worship and determination of doctrine are then collected together, and we call the entire collection the Bible or scripture. This is known as the process of canonization. Canonization is somewhat misunderstood. Being included in the canon does not make a writing somehow more inspired than it was before. It is a recognition by the community of faith that a writing is inspired, and that its inspiration extends beyond the limitations of the time and place in which it was written.
The community interprets the writings, creating a tradition of interpretation. Many people do not realize the extent to which our individual experience and the experience of our faith community impacts the way we understand certain writings. One need only compare a Jewish view, a Christian view and a historical-critical view of the servant passages in Isaiah, which include the much cited Isaiah chapter 53 to see how much a different perspective will change the way one reads a particular passage. Very often our doctrinal views color our perception of scripture rather than the reverse. A common question I hear in Bible classes upon presenting an interpretation is: “But how does that fit in with the doctrine of ________?” The concern is not whether we are reading this particular author in context and understanding what he has to say, but how the passage relates to a creed.
As individuals, we interpret and apply the scriptures to our lives. It is this part of the process which can cause a great deal of difficulty. We each apply our own experience to our own understanding. We need also to apply the experience of others, and a view of objective reality.
We can understand a process of communication as involving a communicator, or speaker, a message and a listener. I will limit this discussion to getting a single message from one person to the next, without regard to responses. We can illustrate this process as follows:
When we speak about a writing which is divinely inspired, we add significant complexity into this picture. At a minimum we will have:
God provides a message by whatever means to a prophet who then speaks the message to a listening audience. I distinguish message(1) from message(2) because there is no fundamental reason to assume that the message received by the prophet is the same as the message spoken by the prophet. For this, further proof would be needed.
In the case of canonized scripture, however, we add additional factors into the pattern:
In this case, if we assume we have a message from God, that message is passed to the prophet, who passes it to his audience. We observe the message as it passes between the prophet and the audience.
Now there are a number of possibilities in terms of how this process can be viewed.
1. God [dictates to] -> Prophet -> Scripture [Scripture = Words of God; Prophet and audience have no effect]
2. God [inspires and directs] -> Prophet -> Scripture [Words are protected; Prophet determines form but not meaning, audience is of negligible effect]
3. God [inspires and directs] -> Prophet -> Message -> Audience [Both prophet and audience determine the form, but not the message. This is typical of the standard view of inerrancy amongs lay persons.]
4. God [inspires] -> Prophet -> Message -> Audience [Both prophet and audience condition the contents which are directed to that audience, overall message is protected. Note that for some people this is compatible with inerrancy as described in the Chicago Statement, though most lay members find this a little loose.]
5. God [inspires] -> Prophet -> Message -> Audience [Both prophet and audience condition the contents which are directed to that audience, message is in human hands after the inspiration]
6. Prophet [feeling inspired] -> Message ->Audience [Inspiration consists in how much the reader agrees with the feeling of the prophet, in other words does the reader feel inspired as he reads?]
The first three forms do not give adequate place to the audience and the prophet. If the prophet is simply a tool, why does God make use of one? Why not simply speak? On the other hand, the sixth, and to a lesser extent the fifth tend to leave God out of the picture. Now one can understand why an atheist or agnostic would leave God out of the picture, seeing as he or she does not believe in God. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that anyone doesn’t believe that the audience exists. By the very fact of reading or perceiving the message the audience will place its own interpretation on the message.
Without further evidence to indicate otherwise, I would suggest that the prophet also leaves his or her mark on the message, as the widely varying styles of writing and even attitudes in the scriptures make very clear. It is only by ignoring the individual characteristics of the individual books or compositions which comprise the Bible that we can imagine that the whole was somehow dictated by God. The stamp of individual personality and of the time is all over the material.
Let me examine some approaches to application of scripture to our lives.
1. The proof text method. In this approach we see the Bible as a set of dicta about how to live and act. In looking for guidance in a particular situation, we search for a text which provides a command for that particular situation. This method can run aground on complex, modern situations which are not directly addressed, and also on the appearance of disagreement between various proof texts. For example, if someone in my church offends me, should I handle it as Matthew 18:15-17 says, ending with “. . . treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector” or as the nearby Matthew 18:22 says by forgiving him 70 times seven? (Those who solve this using context or comparison are not using a pure proof text method.)
2. Proof texts in context. Even if we place these texts in context, what we often do is try to avoid what one or the other is saying. We give precedence to a certain text. Many theological disputes are perpetuated in this manner precisely because, in the Biblical texts, two views are in a state of tension. When I was college age and working in a small Christian school with my sister, we had a dispute over this. If you are working with a group of kids and having trouble with the group, is it proper to punish the entire group by detaining them after class, or must you carefully pick out the perpetrators. Most Americans, being individualists, will argue for the latter. In the dispute with my sister, however, we both had perfectly good texts to fall back on. Exodus 20:5, “. . . punishing the children for the sins of the parents . . .” or Joshua 7 with the story of Achan’s entire clan being stoned for the sin of one of them would tend to support the group response, whereas Ezekiel 18 which says “It is the person who sins that will die” (v 4) supports the individual response. Even if I carefully see each of these passages in their literary context, they appear to support different courses of action.
3. Principles. This view involves extracting the principles behind various commands and trying to separate them from the cultural context. God is seen as communicating what he can within the limitations of the understanding of the people receiving the communication. In this case, we might suggest that the passages in Exodus and Joshua, cited above, come from a time when guilt was considered more collective, and the individual was seen as a part of his tribe and not as a separate entity. As the culture grows, with the Israelites under the pressure of the exile, a message is sent relating guilt and salvation to the individual. This would be necessitated by people observing who was and was not exiled. Is the entire nation suffering, including the good, for the actions of an evil leadership? Where is justice? This view is a variety of progressive revelation. The main difficulty with progressive revelation is that it is often difficult to tell which way the revelation is going, for example, is seeing the tribe or clan as collectively responsible for its behavior more or less advanced than seeing the individual alone as responsible?
4. Experiences. The Bible can be seen as a collection of the experiences of the people of faith with God, and a record of the action of God in history. We then look from our experience to the collective experience throughout the history of the people of God for authentication. In this view, which I will advocate in this paper (with a number of caveats on the short statement given here) the Bible is not primarily a source of laws or doctrines but a source of continuity and authority in the experience of the community as a whole, and from that, for the individual. As an example of the difference in approach, I recall when I was first approached with questions about the Pensacola Outpouring (revival at Brownville Assembly of God in Pensacola FL). Immediately I called to mind 1 John 4:1, “My dear friends, do not trust every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are from God; for there are many false prophets about in the world.” But just how does one test the spirits? (Read the next few verses, though you many still wonder just how you do it.) A common approach is to take the following requirement of acknowledging “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” as a kind of a doctrinal statement. To accomplish this, one would have to collect a list of the doctrines of those who speak at the revival and compare them against some kind of doctrinal list. I didn’t and don’t take it that way. I listened to the testimonies of those who had attended with one question in my mind: Have these people been brought into an authentic experience with Jesus? How do I determine authentic? By comparing the visible results of the experience with the historical experience of others in the community of the faith (Matthew 7:16). Are all the results right? No. Some people respond with pride and feel more righteous and holier than others, because they have been revived. (See Matthew 13:1-23 for the authenticity of an experience which also involves misunderstanding and misuse.)
A typical approach of Christians in presenting the gospel message is to attempt first to prove that the Bible is true and trustworthy, and then from there to lead a person to understand and affirm a set of doctrines about Jesus Christ. In this connection I consider statements such as “all people are sinners,” “all people are in need of a savior,” and “salvation is a free gift of God” to be essentially doctrinal statements as long as they are presented as affirmations of theological fact.
This process attempts to first establish the authority, scriptures, and from there to derive a set of data from the authority, which then may lead to an experience. But we establish the authority before the experience.
I believe that this approach to spiritual experience is backwards. We need to view the present, personal experience with God as the most important part of our message, and as the most important source of authority in a person’s spiritual life.
I expect that you are beginning to think I am advocating an approach which is totally subjective, that what the person feels is by itself a standard. This is only partially true. Everything is seen through the experience of the individual mind. We can’t get away from this. However, one can compare one’s personal experience with the experience of others. In addition, wherever one’s spiritual experience impinges on material reality, one can objectively check what has happened. For example, if the story of Peter walking on the water is true, then were one to find a time machine and go back to the time in question and watch, one would see Peter walking on the surface of the water. If Peter in fact sank, then one would find that a spiritual claim–I am empowered to walk on water–is not objectively true.
In addition if one’s experience leads one into completely uncharted waters from the point of view of one’s community, though this doesn’t mean one is necessarily wrong, it may mean that one must ever more carefully check what one is doing.
I see the final authority being in the individual’s connection and experience with God, growing out of the experience of the community as a whole. Not only are the scriptures important here, but all of the history of Israel and of the church. In addition, the knowledge of other sources with reference to religious experience are important because we cannot truly understand the experience we possess in a vacuum. We cannot afford to pretend that traditions other than our own don’t exist. It is not an abandonment of one’s own tradition to seek actively to understand the traditions of others.
Am I advocating relativism here? No. I am advocating first a humility concerning our knowledge of the truth, and second a serious and continuous search for expanded truth. I believe truth is one, but I believe that no human mind is capable of totally comprehending it. This means that each of us should remain humble. The existence of absolute truth does not mean that I can know it; admitting my limitations does not mean that I have abandoned the value of truth itself. Admitting that I will change if new evidence is found doesn’t indicate a lack of confidence in my present experience; it means rather that I am open to new experience and new truth as it may be found.
Is there truth to be found in traditions other than my own? Yes, I believe there is. It is common among Christians to believe that all other religious systems are perversions of the truth. I believe instead that there is truth and falsehood in all traditions (including my own) but that we must work to gain more truth and reject falsehood wherever we find it. I am personally convinced that Jesus of Nazareth perfectly represented God to the world and is the savior of the world (Hebrews 1:3 is especially pertinent), but this does not mean to me that only Christians have any true knowledge about God or that all other systems started with truth and perverted it. Romans 1 contradicts this, for example.
Drawing from my Methodist tradition, let me borrow the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in order to present my view of the sources of authority and how we understand and validate our religious experience.
The quadrilateral is as follows:
I represent this in addition in the following form:
Scripture is the selected, authoritative core of our faith tradition. That is, we select from those things which God has revealed to us as a people the writings which are most important to us and which we hold in common. This selection we call canonization. Canonization, as I have said, is not a process of making something more inspired or holy, but rather is the recognition both of the inspiration of the work and of its abiding and general importance. A message could be very inspired, but only of importance to a small group of people or for a limited period of time. It would be no less holy in the sense of which I am speaking, but would nonetheless not share in the authority of the canonized writings.
What do I mean here by authority? Is this different from the authority above? No. It is only different in perspective. That is, in this case we are asking what joins our religious experience together as a community. That commonality is the canon of scripture. Our personal experiences differ seriously. Our traditions diverge at many points. John Wesley is very important to my tradition as a member of the United Methodist church, but he is not recognized as a source of authority or doctrine by Presbyterians. Presbyterians use Calvin as a source, but would not award the same value to Wesley as I do. Now neither tradition is asking for a place for either of these individuals in the canon of scripture, but they are part of each tradition, and they have an impact on how we understand tradition and scripture. Augustine is not recognized as scripture, but he is a part of the more general Christian tradition.
I believe this works into a process somewhat as follows: We observe the core of our faith, and our scripture through the understanding and organization provided by our tradition. We understand our tradition in relation to our personal experience and we sort all of this via our reason. I believe that the concept of “sola scriptura” or “the Bible alone” is not a reality. Even those who claim most to be following it are very much tied up in their creeds and in the tradition of their groups. I do not even think that “sola scriptura” is desirable. Without a present experience, and without the participation in the community of faith, I think the Bible is just another book. It is when we meet God in the Bible, and when we meet and become part of the community of faith through our common experience of God that the Bible becomes more than a bunch of words on paper.
Thus again, authority is in the divine and in the joining of the experience of the individual with that of the present and the historical community.
I believe that the Bible is a book of experience. I am often asked for a verse in the Bible from which I get this. It’s not a verse as such, and I note that there is no verse which says that the Bible is a series statements of doctrine or theology either. (Note that 2 Timothy 3:16 in the KJV says that scripture is profitable for doctrine, not that it is doctrine. I believe that experience is more profitable for doctrine than any number of statements.)
A passage of scripture which I believe illustrates this approach is Psalm 78. In this teaching Psalm, the great acts of God in the history of Israel are recounted, and Israel is enjoined to keep them in mind.
"They were charged to put their trust in God, to hold his great acts ever in mind and to keep his commandments." (Psalm 78:7)
It is the recounting of the things which God has done, of the actions of God in the history of the people of Israel which leads to the keeping of the commands and to an understanding of the teaching. In Psalm 104, following the poetic description of the creation and the natural world, we have the statement:
"Countless are the things you have made, LORD; by your wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures." (Psalm 104:24)
This is followed by the response:
"As long as I live I shall sing to the LORD; I shall sing psalms to my God all my life long." (Psalm 104:33) And only then the following of the law, or the right action: "May my meditation be acceptable to him; I shall delight in the Lord. May sinners be banished from the earth and may the wicked be no more!" (Psalm 104:33-35)
This theme is so prevalent in scripture that we have the term “Heilsgeschichte” or “salvation-history” which is commonly used in studies of the theology of the Hebrew scriptures especially. But this same theme is carried over into New Testament writings, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew goes to great pains to draw parallels to similar themes in the Hebrew scriptures and to root the understanding of Jesus in the community experience and understanding of the past. In many cases in which it is thought that Matthew is trying to claim a fulfilled predictive prophecy, he is actually pointing out such a parallel theme.
An example of this is Hosea 11:1 which is quoted in Matthew 2:15. If one reads the Hosea passage in context, it is clearly not a prediction at all, and in fact is an historical reference in the prophet’s writing:
When Israel was a youth, I loved him; out of Egypt I called by son; but the more I called, the farther they went from me; they must needs sacrifice to the baalim and burn offerings to images. (Hosea 11:1,2)
To turn this into a prophecy would involve making some rather undesirable connections. Would we really care to apply “the more I called the further they went” to the life and ministry of Jesus? What Matthew is trying to do here, however, is parallel the notion of Jesus ministry with the spiritual journey of Israel. This can then be followed by making a parallel of the liberation from sin provided by Jesus with the liberation from physical bondage provided by the exodus from Egypt. Thus, for Matthew, the present experience is related to, and compared to the experience of the past, and also to the understanding of that experience.
Let me clarify here the difference between an event and a theological understanding of that event. To slaves escaping from Egypt, I would imagine that the experience was not directly spiritual. They would not look at the deliverance in symbolic terms because there was a very real, physical meaning to the deliverance before them. The more symbolic and theological interpretation develops over time, in this case through the prophets and leading up to the understanding which came as the result of the exile. The exile could then be interpreted or understood in terms of the exodus experience. An example of this is found in Ezekiel 20.
Note that the impact of this type of experience is both ways. Not only do people come to understand their present experience (the exile and restoration, the ministry and death of Jesus, etc.) in terms of past experience, but they come to understand the past experience differently by reference to present experience. The Exodus had new meaning for the Israelites in exile and after their return. Christians will understand the exodus experience differently based on their understanding of the mission of Jesus.
This clarifies some very important things about a book of experience. First, the experience grows in the telling. This isn’t a bad thing. As we collect experiences with God our understanding should grow. Many Christians are uncomfortable with this, thinking that the old understanding was wrong and therefore useless if a new understanding comes along. But experience is not like that. I have come to understand experiences I had as a child or youth in much different ways as I grew. This didn’t invalidate the experiences or the understanding that I had at the time. As a matter of fact, I can find great value precisely in those experiences in which I was most wrong at the time. Second, the book of experience is not simply a narration of past events. It is rather a book of interpretation of those events and of an understanding of their meaning. And an event need not have just a single meaning. The facts and details of the event are not the most important part here. It is the growth of understanding of that experience in the community.
Notice where the doctrine comes in each case. Very little direct doctrine is taught in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). We see both an experience of God and we see commands. One of the reasons I believe Christians find this portion of the Bible of little interest is that they are looking for neatly packaged observations about God. There are a few of those, but mostly there is an experience, interpreted, and then there are commands. I would relate these commands to “training in righteousness” as discussed in 2 Timothy 3:16. These commands shaped a people; the very literally made generations of experience. The Jewish people are what they are today because of how these laws have shaped their lives and their relationship to the world. If we do not look at what these laws accomplished in action we will not understand them. If we ignore them, or essentially dismiss them as a whole bunch of types pointing to Jesus as antitype, then we lose a major block of the experience of our community. And I do consider using these simply as types to be essentially a dismissal. What is the point of chapter after chapter of laws which simply point, not very clearly at that, to the Messiah and then have no further use? Christians need to deal constructively with this material in terms of how we understand our history if we wish to claim any sort of authentic Jewish heritage.
We then have the books of history, and only after that do we have the prophets and writings which take this experience and make of it a more theological construct and begin to develop the great theological themes. The soaring poetry of Isaiah 40-66 is a major example of a near redefinition of the understanding of an experience, building it into serious theological themes. But even that is an interpretation built to deal with a particular experience, and we can look back at it now as another facet of the experience of the community of faith.
It is in this interpretation of the experience that we build doctrine. We cannot comprehend infinite God. We can only perceive Him as he is manifested in His creation. We should have a great deal of humility about our doctrines and about how we relate those doctrines to an ultimate reality. I like Tillich’s phrase “ground of all being” for God, even though I don’t agree with all of his theology. We can’t claim to even understand all being; how much less can we claim to comprehend the basis of it all! Thus I would see doctrine as what leads us to an understanding of our own spiritual experience and allows us to communicate in a limited way our understanding of the creator. But all must lead from experience to experience. That which we can communicate in words is simply inadequate to describe the personal experience, and belief in a set of doctrines is nothing like a personal, spiritual experience.
Read the first chapter of Ezekiel quickly, concentrating on the struggle for words to describe what the prophet sees, or look in Revelation chapter one to see a struggle for words to express a vision. Any new Christian I know struggles for words to describe the personal experience which he or she has had. It is the long term Christians who have a font of words, but often those words sound hollow. If your experience, your goals, your pursuit of righteousness turns easily into words, perhaps you should examine that experience and see if it is still living.
I’m not necessarily speaking here of some kind of esoteric vision experience, the kind of “moment I met Jesus” experience which some can relate. For some people this is a very slow process. For some there is no conversion, because they began the path with their earliest memories, and each experience is only a further commitment to something which is already a part of them. I am talking about a living enthusiasm for doing what one knows to be right, for following truth wherever it may lead, for loving and caring for those one finds in need. A real, living experience will be a source of energy. Paul describes the gospel as the “power of God . . . beginning in faith and ending in faith.” Unfortunately it seems that for many the experience is one of cutting themselves off from people, of making them feel superior and arrogant, as though the gospel gave one a corner on God.
There may be some who are concerned that I am taking the objectivity away from their view of Christianity. Frankly I don’t believe that the objectivity was ever there. A portion of our beliefs is objective. But we cannot prove past events, especially past miracles to the extent that they become proven or certain. It is when these events match an experience in our own minds that we attain belief. As the song says: “You ask me how I know He lives; He lives within my heart.” Despite the metaphorical nature of the imagery (living within the heart) this expresses the personal experience. We find the answer in our experience and in our hearts and consciences (2 Corinthians 4:2b). Certainly there must be a basis for the experience, but the only reason we need an external kind of validation is if we wish to force our view and our understanding on someone else. The comment in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus comes to mind. “And Abraham said, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets they will pay no heed even if someone should rise from the dead.'” (Luke 16:31) I think part of the point here is that it’s not about believing that someone rose from the dead, or even will rise from the dead, but about accepting an experience with God. Matters of life and death will follow on nicely after that experience. A genuine experience can function without a club to force others to agree.
I note that when the distinction between the saved and the lost is described in Matthew 25:31-46, it is not on the basis of what doctrines one believes, but on action. The point is made especially in verse 40: “And the king will answer, ‘Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however insignificant, you did for me.'” Just as we can’t describe our experience fully in words we can’t judge another’s experience (Matthew 7:1) but we can look at fruits (Matthew 7:16). I’m afraid it is in the last category that we, as Christians, fail the most often. Too often we are heard proclaiming a set of doctrines, but not a way of life, and to the extent we proclaim a way of life, we often fail to live it. The one objective test we are given, we fail.
I want to discuss briefly methods of interpretation, or how we get from this experience to an understanding of what the experience means in our own lives.
In my view there is a distinct difference between historical study of the Bible and application of it to doctrine. Historical study should be as neutral and scientific as is possible. I approach this by use of the historical-critical method and I read material by people of a variety of belief systems in using this approach. Paul makes this statement: “An unspiritual person refuses what belongs to the Spirit of God; it is folly to him; he cannot grasp it, because it needs to be judged in the light of the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) I believe that this verse has been used too often to justify intellectual laziness. If someone doesn’t understand my interpretation of a particular passage, then I can accuse him or her of being unspiritual. If this were the case, how would anyone every become a Christian? They would have to somehow cross that barrier. I believe that the meaning in the context of a passage is plain enough, and that the best way to determine this historical meaning is through scientific study. What requires spiritual discernment, and indeed a spiritual experience is the application and comparison to an individual experience. But this is a separate issue from determining what a text actually says.
I’m not afraid of what might be found in historical study. I personally tend to be fairly conservative in my use of critical methodologies and my acceptance of the results. But acceptance of this type of study as a scientific endeavor is necessary, I believe, if we are to have any integrity in our understanding of what the experience of the Christian community actually is. Thus I don’t describe those whose results are more liberal than my own as being under the influence of Satan (as I’ve heard it said), but rather simply as those who disagree with me on technical points. The argument here is methodology. We can disagree on spiritual issues, and probably will, but this is a completely separate issue from historical study.
How do I apply this idea to dealing with Biblical problem passages. I will deal with some briefly by category as carrying out extended exegesis on each passage is beyond the scope of this paper.
These include Numbers 31 (command to kill all but the virgin girls), Psalm 137:8,9 (rejoicing over the death of an enemy’s children), and Judges 5 (celebrating treachery and murder of a guest). One could place beside these the rather bloody stories of Judges 17-21. In these cases I read, as always the experience and state of the people at the time. These are not projections of an ideal. As a matter of fact the Bible rarely projects an ideal and because of this it can be a very dangerous book in the hands of a thoughtless person. As part of the total record of the community of faith, this is simply authentic. I know of no other tradition which is as self-critical as is that of the Hebrew scriptures.
Let me illustrate this approach further using 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. In the first of these passages David’s choice to number Israel is credited to God’s moving and in the second to Satan. (I’m indebted to Alden Thompson in his book “Inspiration” for this illustration.) I am not so much interested in explaining who really did it, as in noticing that the attribution of the action is different in the one written earlier. This attribution reflects a distinctly human understanding of the cause of the event in each case.
For example, Matthew 27:9, a quote which is either composite or taken from Zechariah is attributed to Jeremiah. I can hardly awaken an interest in this one, but let me just note that in Hebrews 2:6, the author appears to be unable to remember the source of a quotation at all. This is a problem for those with a view of verbal dictation, but for nobody else.
These fall into two categories, first quotations of and allusions to literature which is considered uninspired, and second quotations which appear to be taken out of context or with a meaning which would not have been attached to them by the original author.
In the first category we have Jude 14, which is quoted from the book of Enoch. I know of nobody who would consider the book of Enoch authoritative or authentic, though under the view of experience presented here it does constitute a part of the tradition and experience of those who became Christians, yet Jude quotes it as authoritative and attributes it to the patriarch Enoch. “It was against them that Enoch, the seventh in descent from Adam, prophesied when he said: ” I saw the Lord come with his myriads of angels, . . .” This quotation comes from Enoch 60:8. I would give more than one possible solutions to this. First, that Jude may have regarded the book of Enoch as authoritative. In looking at the book of Jude, we look for his message, and how he brought it. Second, it may be that, whatever Jude thought about the book of Enoch, his audience considered it authoritative. In any case I don’t believe that quoting from a book authenticates the content of the book from which the material is quoted.
In the second category we have usages such as that of Hosea 11:1 by Matthew (2:15) which was discussed earlier. This is simply a part of Matthew’s approach to scripture and it has some relation to the entire approach to interpretation of his time.
In dismissing the importance of these types of problems from the point of view of inspiration I am in no way dismissing them as being of no interest. They are the kinds of problems which led me to the view which I have of inspiration. If I felt that the use of quotations by Biblical writers was scientific and always in context, I would not look for a reason why it was not! It is because of these types of problems, however, that I reject the notion of a purely divine revelation, that is, of words given by or dictated by God.
The primary goal of authority in spiritual matters is in developing the personal experience with God. A believer recognizes the authority in something written or spoken because the message matches what is given by the spirit to the individual. We say with Paul that “It is by declaring the truth openly that we recommend ourselves to the conscience of our fellow-men in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2b). We maintain an objectivity and a continuity by comparing our experience not just with the present, but with the experience of the community as a whole. We do not, however, have an external, objective standard by which we can force these conclusions upon anyone else. A willingness to admit one does not know is an important part of any study of theology.
As for the Bible I believe we have this treasure in earthenware jars (2 Corinthians 4:7). It is the guidance of God in the experience of the community of faith as a whole which is recorded, and which has been selected through the understanding and use. Inspiration is not just of a writer, but it also requires an audience to hear and to recognize what has been said.
It is the combination of the experience, the writing, and the understanding of the audience which constitutes the word of God in the community of faith.
Historical-Critical method – an approach which views the text using a set of critical methodologies in its historical context, and from a naturalistic perspective. The text is assumed to have meaning and relevance to its immediate audience.
Maj – Majority text of the Greek New Testament. A text built strictly by counting the total number of manuscripts, regardless of date, which support each reading, then accepting that reading supported by the greatest number of manuscripts.
MT – Masoretic text, a text of the Hebrew scriptures preserved by the group of scholars known as Masoretes in the 6th through 9th centuries CE. This is essentially the Hebrew text found in modern Hebrew Bibles.
Scientific Bible Study – studying the historical meaning of a passage in context using the best historical methods available. This is how one determines what the passage originally meant to the speaker and to the hearer at the time it was first spoken. It does not refer to relating accomplishments in the natural sciences to Biblical statements.
Tanak (sometimes Tanakh) – the Hebrew scriptures. I use this term rather than Old Testament both out of respect for the Jewish canon, and because I find the division into Old and New Testaments inappropriate.
Torah – broadly the first five books of the Bible and the associated oral Torah and teaching surrounding this.
TR – Textus Receptus, or received text. The text which developed from the work of Erasmus and others which in most cases agrees with the majority of Greek manuscripts, but in some texts, such as 1 John 5:7,8 accepts readings which are practically unknown except in very late manuscripts.