The first two articles of the Together for the Gospel statement relate to the Bible. I’m going to deal primarily with the first article in this short essay. The article reads:
I find myself so fundamentally in disagreement with this article that practically every word requires some sort of response. Since I have written fairly extensively on Biblical inspiration in articles available on the internet, I will refer to those where possible and only summarize my difficulties.
We affirm that the sole authority for the Church is the Bible,
It’s interesting that the major portion of the history of faith in the world in general occurred without the Bible, and even more without the Bible as we have it today. If the Bible is the sole authority, God took his time about creating that sole authority. Where in the Bible is there a statement that the Bible is the sole authority? If one is to hold to this type of exclusive view of “sola scriptura” then there should be a basis in scripture for:
- The canon of scripture, which is nowhere specified in scripture
- The use and interpretation of scripture, again unspecified, though we have examples of some interesting approaches
- The precise text of scripture.
Note that I don’t have a major problem with these issues. The Bible is the foundation of my faith, but then I don’t make any claim that the Bible is the exclusive authority. One of the key errors that stands behind the T4G view is the understanding that when the Bible refers to the “word of God” one can apply all those things that are attributed to “the word” to the Bible. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see the pamphlet What is the Word of God.
Throughout Biblical history the church was led by prophets, apostles, and other leaders who were said to be in some sort of communion with God. There is no indication of a time when a collection of literature would become the sole authority. This does not mean that the Bible is not fundamental, or that it is not extremely important, or that it does not convey God’s word. In fact, I would say that its authority is foundational, but it provides the foundation for a structure. The Christian church is not founded on a book, but on a person.
verbally inspired, inerrant, infallible, and totally sufficient and trustworthy.
You will search the Bible in vain for scriptures that actually affirm these doctrines. Skipping over the more complex theological definitions, verbally inspired is generally understood to mean that the words of scripture, and not just the thoughts or the message, is inspired. Some of those who hold that the Bible is verbally inspired also hold that it was verbally dictated, that God provided the very words of scripture to the prophet. Others hold that God protects the words so that we can safely say they are God’s words, even though the personality of writers show through. The end result is very similar, because one assumes that each word is there by God’s direct choice; not God’s choice of a writer or a message, but his choice of a specific word.
Inerrancy is normally understood as the claim that the Biblical autographs are without error in all it affirms, no matter what the topic, thus including science and history. A minority will hold that a particular translation or manuscript contains the perfect word of God. This latter position is clearly nonsense, because no matter what translation of manuscript one chooses, one also excludes the majority of the readers of the Bible throughout history from having such an inerrant scripture. Inerrancy of the autographs suffers from a lack of any autographs by which one might check the claim. If God was concerned that the autographs be without error, he was apparently inexplicably unconcerned with seeing that the actual copies that you and I can read are without error.
Infallibility is a vacuous claim to make about a book, simply because the book does not, in fact, do anything. Interpretations can clearly be in error. It seems more important to me to understand how people get information from the book. Infallibility that is inaccessible is of little interest, and one need only read a few commentaries or books on Biblical theology to see that infallibility is apparently inaccessible.
Totally sufficient and trustworthy causes me to wonder what it is that the Bible is totally sufficient for. Normally theologians will say “totally sufficient for salvation,” though many will maintain that under appropriate circumstances considerably less than that is sufficient. This claim seems to me to hardly go beyond saying that the Bible is what it is. I agree! And I think it is sufficient to its purpose. I also find it trustworthy, provided we are careful to understand what its purpose is. It is no trustworthy, for example, as a science text. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. It was never intended as a science text. It does not replace one’s personal communion with God. Again, it was never intended to.
More important than the items of definition I have pointed out is a common failing of all these claims about scripture: They all rely on a particular approach to developing a Biblical theology of the Bible. The common approach is to take a passage such as 1 Peter 2:19-21 or 2 Timothy 3:16, and then decide on the basis of these texts what the Bible ought to be. Other than the circularity of this approach, which can be ameliorated through other theological approaches, I find it interesting that in the face of a substantial history of the Bible and how it came to be, so many theologians prefer to define what they want it to be, rather than simply observing what it is.
2 Timothy 3:16 provides us with the word “theopneustos” or “God-breathed” which has been made to carry a great deal of freight. But when God breathed into Adam he didn’t make him inerrant, he made him alive. What exactly is the content of a text that is God-breathed? But this issue applies much more to verbal inspiration. The evidence against verbal inspiration is very strong in the text and the history itself. There are certainly words that are attributed to God, but there are also words that are clearly not attributed to God. The synoptic problem presents us with clear evidence that the gospel writers copied from one another, that there are different sources in the Pentateuch, Samuel, and Kings, just as examples.
My point here is not to recite again the details of the inspiration of scripture, which I have deal with elsewhere (Inspiration, Biblical Authority, and Inerrancy and my posts on inspiration in my studies on Hebrews), but rather to suggest that we need to use a different method. If the history of the Biblical text were completely obscure, we might have an excuse to determine its nature by creating standards based on texts, but instead we have extensive material available. We know that one author copies from another, we know that there are various sources, we know that there are differing viewpoints. (I will comment on this issue a bit more in my entry on Article II.)
We deny that the Bible is a mere witness to the divine revelation,
I don’t get the phrase “mere witness.” To me, the most wonderful thing about the Bible is that it is a witness to divine revelation and to divine action in history. The fact that it is written by humans who are subject to error as I am makes it much more accessible. I know that one can live by faith because Abraham, Moses, and Jesus did. This witness is not mere, it is critical. The author of Hebrews uses it as a showcase for his argument in Hebrews 11.
or that any portion of Scripture is marked by error or the effects of human sinfulness.
But the copies that we actually have are marked by error. I do not mean extensive error, but Biblical inerrantists will not allow the smallest error in the autographs, and yet are satisfied with a 98% or 99% accurate copy. Of course one can’t determine that for certain again, because we don’t have the autographs. I don’t think this is a serious problem for Bible study, interpretation, and application, but that is because I don’t believe that inerrancy is relevant to those issues at all.
The effects of human sinfulness are all around us. The very fact that we need to hear the word through prophets or read it in books is the result of sin and our separation from God. Without human sinfulness there would be no need for the Bible at all.
Inspiration is an incarnational process, God breathing life into imperfect words in imperfect human language to be preserved imperfectly by imperfect copyists, read imprefectly by imperfect readers, preached by imperfect preachers, and discussed by very imperfect bloggers such as myself.