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A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

I was given the title “liberal charismatic” (not as a compliment) because I believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are potentially in operation today and that God speaks to people now as much as he has at any time in history. On occasion, this makes for trouble, as people expect me to accept a variety of professed prophets as somehow authoritative due to the office they claim or that is claimed for them. In other word I believe in prophets and prophecy, but I do not consider any particular prophet authoritative as such.

Going further, I very much doubt that I would have considered any ancient prophet authoritative solely on the basis that the individual made such a claim or that the claim was made about them. I doubt that the prophets themselves would expect such obedience to them apart from discernment. Moses is regarded as the greatest of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, and the record shows him making errors and being aware that he had done so. As a Christian believer in the incarnation, I would have to make a partial exception for Jesus, bearing the divine imprint (Hebrews 1:1-4), yet even here, I would suggest that one with discernment would note the message and the life and then be convinced.

It is important here to distinguish inspiration from authority. Isaiah, for example, was an inspired person. This is my belief and the conclusion of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Further, both of those traditions have declared the book that bears his name authoritative. If we had lived in Isaiah’s time, however, while many of us would consider him inspired, we would find that his authority was much less accepted. I’m guessing, in fact, that Isaiah may have said many uninspired things in the course of his life, and many things that should not have been considered authoritative. He may well have said many things that were of divine origins that never made it into his book. If we found a fragment of a scroll the purported to contain sayings of Isaiah, and if these seemed, by the best scholarship available, to date back to Isaiah and to share literary characteristics with things we consider to come from Isaiah, would this fragment automatically have authority in the church? Absolutely not. We have canonized a book, not the theoretical potential output of a person, however inspired it may be. The homilies of St. John Chrysostom are quite inspiring, and perhaps inspired, yet they do not have the authority of scripture.

Many are uncomfortable with the canonization process because however one interprets the process, it is a process in the church that results in the canon. In other words, church authorities are responsible for the collection of materials we regard as authoritative. I think it is necessary that we consider this a Holy Spirit guided process (or even more that the church is a movement guided by the Spirit, to the extent we’ll follow!) or we do not have a good basis for faith. There are those who believe the books have certain identifiable characteristics, and there are certainly some similarities, yet debates about canonicity have resulted from the fact that it’s not quite that smooth and well-defined. (I recommend chapters II [Canon] and III [Authority: Influence and Acceptance] in Edward Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully [Energion Publications, 2011], pp. 17-72, for a detailed exposition of these ideas.)

In my own book When People Speak for God, I make the statement: “The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you” (p. 4). I mean that very seriously, whether we’re dealing with the interpretation of scripture or hearing a word from one who claims to be a prophet, you need to hear, discern, distinguish, and act. I believe that anyone can hear from God. I consider this very scriptural, perhaps as scriptural as anything can be. It is demonstrated repeatedly in the text. We make the people who heard, such as Abraham, Samson’s mother, or Mary, very holy and so separate them. But when they heard from God, they were ordinary people carrying on rather ordinary lives. Anyone may be inspired. Authority results from discernment.

Let me refer you to a  couple of tests for prophets in Deuteronomy. The one we hear most is from Deuteronomy 18:22, which is that if their word is not fulfilled, they are false. (Jonah would have fallen on this test, but that is for further discussion. See Jonah: When God Changes.) But there is another passage, Deuteronomy 13:1-3, which provides another test. There it says that if someone makes this claim, and even provides a sign which comes through, if they then tell you to worship other gods, they must not be obeyed.

As a final point on theory, there are those who consider that if a modern word contradicts the Bible it must be rejected, while if it is in accord with the Bible it is redundant. I would suggest that this presents a false (and possibly dangerous) dichotomy. Throughout the stories in scripture, God worked with and guided people, without ever giving an indication that this would change. In fact, I think the best reading suggests that God speaks a great deal and the limitation is more in the fact that we decide not to listen. When a spiritual movement is young and lively, people listen and generate ideas. Then comes structure. Structure is designed to limit and control this spirit. So the authorities tend to want to shut it down at the source. God is done speaking and he ended with the last book we want to see as authoritative. There is room for freedom, and there is some need for structure, but death follows allowing either of those needs to become absolute. Let there be authority, but let authority by challenged.

I wrote all of that to form the basis for the following. I listen to and apply discernment to any claim, whether the person claims to be a prophet or not. I have generally found in my experience that those who make no claim to speak for God, but just speak what they have learned in their own communion with God speak with much more authority and wisdom than those who make the claim. I think there is a great deal of indiscipline, lack of wisdom, and general confusion in much of the current prophetic movement in Christianity. I will only make specific charges if a person is part of a community of which I am a member, but for myself I work to discern what God is saying. Part of that process is listening myself.

The one way not to be manipulated is to be a student, a learner, a thinker, and to let the Spirit of Truth work. When that is said, don’t be arrogant. I could be wrong. You could be wrong. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world as long as you keep your mind, your hearing, and your discernment active.

From Inspiration to Understanding eBook Editions

From Inspiration to Understanding eBook Editions

from inspiration when peopleOne of the joys of being a publisher, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple (hundred) times before, is the authors I get to work with. I have long considered our understanding of biblical inspiration and authority to be critical to discussions of Christian theology, polity, and ultimately our day to day life. Often we can at least get our bearings in serious debates by at least identifying the differences in how we are using the sources.

Because of my interest in this I wrote the book When People Speak for God, which is generally at a popular level. After I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Vick through one of my other authors and received his manuscript for From Inspiration to Understanding. If his book had been written before, rather than after mine, it would have contained numerous footnotes referencing Dr. Vick’s work.

When we laid out From Inspiration to Understanding at Energion, we were using Scribus, which is actually an excellent page layout product, but is not quite the thing for an extended, thoroughly referenced book. The footnotes had to be laid out by hand, and were done as chapter end notes. This doesn’t convert well to electronic format, so there has been a considerable delay in getting the ebook editions out. But now they are complete.

You can get more complete information on the News blog. This is a book I strongly recommend, and the pricing of ebook editions makes it much more accessible.

Inerrancy according to the Chicago Statement

Inerrancy according to the Chicago Statement

Tim Bulkeley is asking a question about the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. When I say that I reject biblical inerrancy, a frequent (and valid) follow-up is to ask what kind of inerrancy I reject. The answer, for me, is the inerrancy of the Chicago Statement.

If you’re wondering what about that statement I reject, I could point to plenty of items, but the short answer would be Article XII, which Tim Bulkeley quotes, especially this: “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

I’ve written on all this before. For now I just want to provide the link and open the discussion.

Note the recent series of articles on the Energion Discussion Network:  Creationism: A Denial of the Authority of the Whole Bible, A Literal Reading of Genesis 1-3Which Creation is the Greater Witness?

Links and Notes on Textual Criticism

Links and Notes on Textual Criticism

Grid Search Pattern by Scout,

Jeremy Myers at Redeeming God has an interesting post on textual criticism (HT: Thomas Hudgins). Myers is comparing the textual commentaries written by Bruce Metzger (with input of the UBS committee) and Philip W. Comfort. It’s fun to watch the critical scholars disagree!

If anyone believes I consider that a negative comment on critical scholars, let me disabuse you of that notion. It is, instead, a comment on the texts and sources we have to work with. The reason we have disagreements is not that scholars are somehow stupid or unnecessary, but rather that the evidence is, in fact, complex and requires serious study. Often there isn’t enough evidence to come up with any real conclusion. Where I would criticize critics, and in fact any biblical scholar, is in making conclusions that imply evidence that is better than they have or are likely to acquire.

When attempting to make the evidence solidly in favor of one conclusion, Christian apologists like to spend their time talking about the New Testament. Why? Because the New Testament evidence is much clearer. Not necessarily clear, but clearly than that for the Hebrew scriptures (or Old Testament). You have an abundance of New Testament manuscripts that tends to put most issues into pretty strong consensus territory. Such is not the case for the Old. We have, in many cases, just enough evidence to suggest that there is a great deal we’d like to know but lack the evidence to study. Looking at the differences between the Septuagint and the Massoretic Text, for example, suggests many possibilities, but leaves us without a detailed trail of evidence to study.

There are a number of responses to this complexity. We can give up on knowing what scripture teaches. We can decide that the inspiration of scripture operates in very different ways. Or perhaps we can think that the Holy Spirit guides people in the church (and out of the church, for that matter) as they study, and that God doesn’t mind that we come to different conclusions.

I choose the latter, and apply this to various higher critical methodologies as well as textual criticism. The details are fun to study, but we don’t have to settle all the details in order to be followers of Jesus. We don’t have to settle all the doctrinal issues in order to be followers of Jesus. Yes, it’s fun, and I think even useful to study all those things, but settling them is not necessary. God can guide you when you study your English (or other native language) Bible as well as he can study me when I read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Maybe even better, for all I know.

Because I believe that inspiration resides in God’s actions in history and that one of those actions was the production of scripture (yes, scripture in its various debated forms), I think it’s still useful to study everything about the text, from its prehistory to it’s canonical state, to it’s dissemination and variety of translation. I don’t believe God resides at just one point. I may hear from God as I apply source criticism to Genesis, for example, seeing two different creation stories and looking at them independently. I can also hear from God when I see those as combined into the larger volume of the book of Genesis and the Pentateuch as a whole. I can still see God when I look back at that creation story from the perspective of the New Creation which is in Christ Jesus.

When I read scripture in this fashion, debates about inerrancy and historicity tend to fade into the background as I hope to listen to every echo of God’s voice in the texts I have using whatever means I have to dig out that echo.

I’m an Amateur Radio operator (KT4B for those who care). I remember when I was in my teens how I would try to contact different parts of the world. It was nice to do so using a reasonably high powered (200 watt at the time) transceiver and a directional antenna on a tower 50 ft high. I could hold conversations with people on the other side of the world if I did the work right. Sometimes, however, things didn’t work so well. Careful listening and careful sorting through the interference could still get a message through.

I remember once operating from Georgetown, Guyana (WB4BUQ/8R1 at the time) and trying to contact a station in Iceland that was using just 200 mW of power. To qualify for the award he was seeking we had to be able to exchange a certain amount of information and then verify the contact via mail. In normal conversation it would take less than 30 seconds. Using Morse Code and his low power station it took close to a half an hour.

The information was of no value to me or to him, other than to confirm the effort and its success. But there was great growth in my skills (I don’t know about his) to be gained simply from the effort.

That is my view of digging into the shadowy, difficult details of scripture. It’s a learning process. It doesn’t really matter whether I come to the same conclusion as you do. I’ve spent time searching for and looking at the echoes of God’s work, and that is enough to justify the effort.


The Importance of Experience

The Importance of Experience

I was thinking of titling this “In Which I Annoy My Evangelical United Methodist Friends,” since so many of them are talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and trying to privilege scripture within it in some way. I am not entirely in sympathy with many of these approaches.

You see, the moment I decided to take a closer look at the United Methodist Church was when I read in the United Methodist Discipline (1992, I think), about the sources of our faith. It’s not that I thought this statement was unique. Neither was it because I thought that Methodists had discovered the way to understand scripture correctly. Rather, I thought it honestly described what we actually do. And by “we” I do not mean just Methodists, but all Christians who use the Bible. We do not understand the Bible without our experience and our tradition, which is just experience collected across space/people and time. Reason ties these things together. Without our reason, we don’t come up with any interpretation of scripture at all.

What privileges scripture, to the extent that it is privileged, is that it is the most universal, most tested, and most accepted source. My personal experience may be very important to me. In fact, it is. My personal encounters with God have an enormous impact on how I understand my faith. But the fact that I believe that God has told me a certain thing doesn’t make that determinative for someone else.

Each congregation has a tradition, built on the collected experiences of that group. There will be similarities within a denomination, but there are local traditions. There are family traditions as well, collections of the experiences of members of that family over time. Denominations have traditions of their own and stand within broader tradition streams. For Methodists we have the Church of England as a source of tradition. Yes, we do carry things from that background. Then we have many who have broken off based on various elements of our own tradition.

All of these experiences have an impact, conscious or otherwise, on how we understand and apply scripture. It cannot be any other way.

This is one reason why I dislike the inerrancy debates, even though I’ve participated. I do not affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. The usual response to that is for someone who does affirm it to ask me for my list of errors with the intention of providing his or her list of resolutions for those errors. I don’t have a list of errors in scripture. I believe the Bible is what God wanted it to be. But that’s a belief that derives from my doctrine of God and not from any observations about the Bible and history or the Bible and science.

Each item on such a list of biblical errors can be translated as “My errant understanding of subject X says that my errant understanding of scripture passage Y is in error.” Where’s the inerrant standard, inerrantly understood, that lets me determine whether the Bible is actually inerrant?

So I make a different affirmation: When you’ve heard the message God has for you in scripture, that message is true. I follow it with an additional note: To the extent you need to, you can discover God’s message for you in scripture. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I have absolute confidence that God is speaking. I have similar confidence that my hearing is defective. That goes whether I’m feeling God’s presence as I listen to Mahalia Jackson singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” hearing God’s voice in my head as I pray and spend silent time listening for it, or interpreting a passage of scripture.

So what advantage does scripture have over my general impressions? To paraphrase Paul, much in every way. I’m tremendously thankful to folks like Abraham who had to listen to God’s voice without having that huge body, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) whose testimony has been tested over and over again. It’s the church’s testimony and it’s of paramount importance as I work my way through my own experiences.

Here’s a discussion of this very issue. Thomas Hudgins and I don’t agree on all the details, but we do agree that these things work together to give us confidence in God.

But it’s also a training ground. Read about maturity in Hebrews 5:11-14. The Bible fails if we treat it as systematic theology, as a science text, or even as a history text. That failure is not because of some list of theological, scientific, or historical errors. Rather, it’s because God has chose to speak through the testimony (witness to experience?) of many different people at different times and places. He requires us to use discernment and to see what is right and wrong as the decisions are placed before us.

quad1So back to the quadrilateral. I treat it both as quadrilateral and as equilateral. We can enter by any door. Any one of these elements may provide the right question and might contain the right answer. It will not always end at scripture.

But … and it’s an important but … there is a problem with the way United Methodists use the quadrilateral all too often. We tend to use it as a four lane highway. Which of the lanes can I get my idea through? If I get my idea through one, that’s enough. Instead, we need to use this as a four layer filter. Every answer we get to a question needs to interact with all elements. How does it relate to scripture? How does it fit with experience? What can we learn about this sort of thing through tradition? All of those questions will, of course, be processed by our reason. But that’s what the Spirit of Truth is for, after all, to guide us into all truth (John 16:13)! I illustrated this process with the diagram to the left in my book When People Speak for God.

I believe that the nature of scripture is absolutely intentional on God’s part. Rather than giving us easy answers to easy questions he has given us a combination of testimony to God’s action in the world and principles (embedded in the testimony) by which we can make such decisions. When Jesus says, “On these two hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40), he provides us with such a principle of interpretation. This is not a principle that helps you discover what the historical intent of a writer was. We have quite useful techniques of exegesis for that. But it provides us a principle for how we, as Christians living in the 21st century should apply it. Sometimes it says that the people who were doing their best to follow God didn’t live up to it. We should take those stories and try to hang the lessons we think we learn from them from the two commands as Jesus said.

It’s interesting to compare the stories of Patriarchs in Hebrews 11 to their sources in Hebrew scripture. Moses left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king (Hebrews 11:27), but he was afraid (Exodus 2:14). A biblical error? A contradiction? No! A testimony to what is seen by the eyes of faith.

We need to struggle with these stories if we’re to see where we are and where we need to be brought to greater maturity. How many of us need to learn not to fear the wrath of the king? But if we look earlier in that same passage, how many of us need to learn not to take God’s work into our own hands through violence?

Testimony, the telling of our own stories and experience, doesn’t give us the sort of systematic set of answers we might prefer. But it does train us to think, to discern, and to decide.

My guess is that’s what God was after in allowing scripture to come into being as it did.

Oh, and one more thing …

Tonight I’ll be talking with author Doris Horton Murdoch about testimonies in a Google Hangout on Air titled Lent: Season of Testimonies.

Craig Blomberg, Reviewed by Louis Markos, Commented by Mike Licona

Craig Blomberg, Reviewed by Louis Markos, Commented by Mike Licona

… or On the Meaning of Words, Particularly Inerrancy

There’s a post on First Things titled Ehrman Errant. Now criticizing Ehrman is apparently great sport, and Blomberg has replied to some of the types of criticisms Ehrman presents in a book, which Louis Markos reviews. The reason I mention Mike Licona, a colleague of Markos, is that he makes a comment on precisely the section that led me back around in a circle to the beginning of the piece. As a quick note, I previously reviewed Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus, but  have not read either The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture or Blomberg’s book that is reviewed here. I’m basing my comments strictly on the review and the comments to it.

The problem, as I see it, is one of language and communication. How do you communicate a message to a particular person in particular circumstances? When we are communicating in a way that might later be read by others, how do we accomplish this. As a simple example, if I want a two-year-old not to fall off the porch, I might try explaining gravity, acceleration rates, and probabilities of various injuries based on the height of the porch and the nature of the ground below. Or, more intelligently, I might just close the door, or say no (and enforce it). In fact, preparing to write this led me to write a humorous (I hope) short story for my fiction blog titled Genesis Wasn’t Written This Way.

When we start talking about biblical inerrancy, however, we are by nature talking about language. What does the word “inerrancy” mean? How are people going to perceive me if I say I believe in inerrancy? What if I say I don’t? And that, in turn, depends on who you are. If you’re a professor in an evangelical seminary, it seems to me that you understand this term differently than the people in the pews of the United Methodist church I attend. So the question is this: Who am I talking to?

Let me start from the end. Louis Markos complains about Blomberg’s chapter on gender-neutral language. He says:

Blomberg, along with the translators of the NRSV, NLT, CEV, and NIV 2011, take it for granted that the convention of using “man” or “mankind” to designate the human race is merely cultural. It is not. It is God himself who originally made the designation: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2; ESV).

To which his colleague, Mike Licona objects in the comments:

… There are some passages that call for a gender neutral translation….

And the reason, I think, that there are passages that call for a gender neutral translation is that language changes. It is not that we have new discoveries in Hebrew and Greek that mean that we should translate gender references differently. Rather, our usage in English has changed. Markos can quote the ESV, “God created man,” but the word used was not the English “man,” but, of course, the Hebrew adam. That word refers to humanity (in this case), not just the male persons within that broader designation. So the question in translation would be how we refer to humanity today.

Similarly, consider the Greek adlephoi. It’s a plural and at one time would have been translated “brethren.” For some time, it was translated in that way and it was often understood to refer to the whole congregation, male and female together. But does it mean that to audiences now?

Some years ago I tested this with a couple of classes I was teaching on translation. The classes broke somewhere between 30 and 40 years of age. Those older than that thought “brethren” referred to the guys. Those younger thought it referred to everyone. I suspect the break point would be younger now as the culture moves.

Now you can complain about the culture, but nonetheless in those mythical “good old days” people were understanding verses that used the Greek adelphoi, translated as “brethren” to refer to both genders. If you translate that way now, you introduce an inaccuracy, because your audience doesn’t understand it the same way as their ancestors did. You can complain all day that they should. You can wish they would spend more time reading older literature and thus understand this important (to you) point. But they aren’t going to. Now if you want a scriptural admonition to refer to the whole congregation, you need to use something like “brothers and sisters.” Not all instances of adelphoi should be so translated. That depends on the intent of the writer. Who was he referring to?

I recall a pastor, a good friend, who complained to me about the NRSV because it used “brothers and sisters.” He preferred the RSV, because it kept the traditional language. The next Sunday he was preaching and read a verse from the RSV that included “brothers.” He immediately looked up and said to the congregation, “And that means you sisters too!” His pastoral instinct was better than his translation theory.

But how does this relate to inerrancy? Inerrancy is, of course, a word, and it has meaning—to people. Meaning apart from meaning to some person or group is meaningless. Somebody understands a meaning. Blomberg is arguing that there are errors in transmission, but they are not critical, they don’t damage the message or the value of the whole. But that is not the same as the absence of errors. It is an absence of important errors. Blomberg’s position isn’t some new thing. It’s pretty standard evangelical theology. If preachers, teachers, and other church leaders made this point from the pulpit or the lectern somewhat more often, we’d probably have less problems with a critic such as Ehrman. But people out there in the pews pretty generally think that “without error” means there are no errors, not that there are no errors that theologians deem important.

The same thing applies when we criticize others for using “verification system that has only existed for some 250 years” (1st paragraph). This is the verification system and the level of factual and numerical accuracy that people expect these days. If I say, “_____ is without error” they generally assume it is without error as they perceive errors. Yes, there are variations in this, but we actually tend to put words on them. It might not be precisely inaccurate for me to say it’s 80 degrees outside if it’s 78 or 79 degrees. But I’d normally be expected to say “about” if I were to mess with numbers in this way.

Well, the Bible doesn’t use numbers in the way we moderns expect them to be used, and it’s inappropriate to expect it to. Biblical literature has genre and literary standards and they are those of the time and place when those texts were written. But if you’re going to then label the Bible inerrant, a term that is itself new, you have to specify the standard by which that is measured. (I’m not claiming that the concept, depending on which concept of inerrancy is involved, is new.) So if we’re going to expect people to apply a different standard when determining whether something in the Bible is an error, then we need to make sure they understand the standard.

There is a tendency amongst scholars now to use words that mean definite things to most hearers, but then to back off and ask to be judged by a different standard. The gospels are not histories in the modern sense. Just so! They aren’t. But if they aren’t histories in the modern sense, then don’t expect to use them as such without having them judged as such. If I claim that Jesus performed miracles (and I do), I can’t say that the reason is simply that they were recorded in inerrant gospels. Why? Because I’ve also just said that those gospels don’t meet modern historical standards. Personally, I think it’s a good thing that they don’t. I think they are much more important than any document that met modern historical standards would be. Not that a modern style history wouldn’t have it’s uses, it just wouldn’t have the same uses as a gospel.

But I think that we play sleight of hand with the terminology. “The gospels aren’t modern history so you can pretty much accept their view of Jesus without judging them by modern historical standards,” is a philosophical and historical way of having your cake and eating it too. I believe in Jesus, but I do not do so because the gospels demonstrate this in a sense a modern historian could accept.

One more thing. Someone is bound to suggest to me that I should always apply the definitions used by qualified theologians. Those are the definitions that matter. I think that’s wrong. I don’t communicate with very many trained theologians. I don’t write for them, I’m never invited to speak to them (probably for good reason), so I’m not going to use words that communicate with them but not with the audience I’m actually addressing. For me, because I teach Sunday School classes in a United Methodist church and occasionally speak as a guest at various churches, the appropriate meaning of inerrancy is the one they’re going to hear when I use the term.


Speaking for God: Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation

Speaking for God: Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation

1893729389In about a half an hour I will be leaving for church where I will teach a small Sunday School class. The class has chosen to go through my book When People Speak for God (wow!). I start my discussion in this book by looking at the human factor and the divine factor. It is not enough to claim that God has spoken. We also have to understand what it is that God has said.

This came up in a helpful e-mail exchange with a friend this week, in which I discussed certain views of certain Bible passages and whether these would be consistent with inerrancy. The discussion led me to wonder if I was ignoring the human factor in looking at others. The human factor is most directly involved in our interpretation. I don’t accept the term “biblical inerrancy” as it applies to me. What I do believe is that if we discern the message God has for us, that message is true, and we should act on it. I think it should be our goal to discern this message correctly. A true message ignored is of no value. A true message wrongly understood can be dangerous. We never get away from the need to apply our minds.

As I reread my own material, however, I was reminded of another distinction: inspiration and authority. Just because something is inspired doesn’t mean it’s necessarily authoritative for any particular person, congregation, or for the whole church. I may hear the voice of God leading me to some action. My hearing does not obligate others. This idea could be helpful for those who believe in the continuation of the gift of prophecy in the church. I’ve been asked how words received by a modern prophet relate to the Bible. Ignoring the issue of whether the modern speaker is, in fact, speaking for God, his or her words would only have authority of so discerned and accepted by the broader body, i.e. if they became part of the canon of scripture for the whole church.

I do not mean that the church would make the words authoritative. Rather, the church would recognize that the words were authoritative, and the authority would become active in that way. “Inspired” does not mean “authoritative,” and “authoritative” in one place does not mean authoritative in another place or everywhere.

I’m going to add an extract here that fleshes out some of the difference between inspiration and authority. I’m not saying precisely the same thing, but I am influence by this text. (The author is Edward W. H. Vick, and I publish the book, From Inspiration to Understanding.)

(8) A further category mistake is to relate the notion of the authority of the Bible to the process whereby the books came to be written. The writer was inspired. So the writing has authority. No! These words do not have authority because, in  some manner, they issued out of a process of inspiration. They may have done so. That is a problem to be settled on the basis of appeal to the available evidence. But if they did they do not have authority because they did. They have authority because they are relevant, living words, because something happens of importance when they are read and interpreted. The event of revelation happens. These words provide the means. They are the vehicle of that happening. These words are caught up in the dynamic of God’s revelation. This means that inspiration is a less adequate and less important concept than revelation.

Since they are not the only writings to function in this way, they are unique in that they are the only words which have a unique historical connection with the original Christ-event, with the coming of Christian faith into the world. They are for this reason primary. They are the words which have in the history of the church proved to be the means for God’s continuing revelation of himself. The church asserts the historical givenness of these and not other words. It also asserts the contemporaneity of the revelation of God these words mediate. ‘The Spirit breathes upon the word and brings the truth to sight.’ God revealed himself. God reveals himself.

(Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, p. 81)

I think I place more emphasis on the recognition of the words by the church and less on their functioning. This is because I believe all inspired words will function, in their proper sphere, in similar ways. The question is whether a particular text was meant for the Church, a church, a small group, or a person, and whether it was meant for a moment in time or to have broader application.

So I’m distinguishing inspiration, authority, and interpretation/application (hermeneutics). How important is the distinction?


Disruptive Inerrancy?

Disruptive Inerrancy?

Scot McKnight wrote a very interesting post on inerrancy today. I have long rejected use of the term biblical inerrancy, yet have watched as people more liberal (another dangerously slippery term) than I am claim to be inerrantists. This article is very helpful in clarifying the terminology somewhat, though much more could be said, and has been!

My take-away line?

Inerrancy is a disruptive child in the theological classroom.

I wrote more extensively on this in my book When People Speak for God and then published From Inspiration to Understanding by Dr. Edward Vick, which is a senior cousin to mine. I would have footnoted Vick quite a bit had his book been written before mine!


Starting Ecclesiastes in Sunday School

Starting Ecclesiastes in Sunday School

9781938434662mWhile I was off teaching Revelation elsewhere, my Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola studied from Harvey Brown’s new book Forgiveness: Finding Freedom from Your Past. Harvey’s book is just 40 pages (it’s in our Topical Line Drives series, and that’s the limit), and we discovered just how many questions can be raised in 40 pages!

Today we’re starting a study of Ecclesiastes, using the participatory study guide just published in November. This guide is written by Russell Meek of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and though I may be biased as editor and publisher, I think it’s one of the best studies you could do on the book of Ecclesiastes. Still, I’m going to have to tell the class that I disagree with a number of the conclusions in the book.

But that, you see, is the great thing. Russ presents those conclusions so well, that I’ll have a run for my money making a case against things that he says, even with him absent. And in that discussion, I hope, the members of our small Sunday School class we’ll learn how these things are done.

We’ll be talking about date and authorship today. This is an area of biblical studies that I think lay people in the church need to understand better. They take dates given in their study Bibles and assume they are either absolute, or at least they are a scholarly consensus. But how is it that serious biblical scholars make determinations about these things. Russ’s lengthy and very readable discussion of authorship is an excellent place to start.

As I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes in preparation for this class, I’ve been struck by the interesting question of what the inclusion of such a book in scripture means about inspiration. No, I don’t mean about inerrancy, but rather about the way in which God chooses to communicate with us. I think we are often misguided in our discussions of inspiration because we are asking the wrong questions. Then we adjust our views of inspiration according to how effective scripture is at answering our questions. But what if God never intended to answer those questions through scripture in the first place? We might be doing something like querying our physics text to learn how to deal with our emotions.

So I will also ask the class to think about just what questions might be answered by the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the canon as well as by the text of the book.