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What the Bible Really Says? Really?

What the Bible Really Says? Really?

bible_really_saysI opened my mailbox today to be greeted by a slick flyer inviting me to discover what the Bible really says about a variety of things. Among the the questions I’m told I can get answered: What is the future of our country during this economic downturn? What does the Bible really say about the second coming? What does the Bible really say about law and grace? What does the Bible really say about a vacation every week?

I’m rather well acquainted with this type of brochure, because I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist. We had plenty of opportunities to see this sort of advertising. We were supposed to be the people who were right, and thus who would eventually straighten out the rest of the world. Well, at least those who were not destined for the lake of fire.

One of the things that my SDA teachers wanted me to learn was to go to the Bible about everything and to study it for myself. I did, and as a result I decided that the SDA church wasn’t the church for me. Especially on the topic of eschatology, I came to very different conclusions.

That’s the critical thing. The internet and the airwaves are filled with people who claim that they know precisely what the Bible teaches about almost any subject you can imagine, even when the Bible may not say much of anything about it.

To discover God’s message for you in scripture, you need to study for yourself. Now one of the things I was taught to do as a child was to look up the texts the evangelist used to see whether he was citing them correctly. There’s nothing wrong with doing so, but in a way this is a trap.

Studying the texts that someone else provides in the order and in the structure in which they provide them will very often lead you precisely to their conclusions. What you need to do is study the scriptures for yourself, in an order that you may discover, prayerfully, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that God promises to you, not just to experts or ordained leaders.

While you’re doing that you need to examine just how it is that you come to understand the text, and especially to understand the way in which the text applies to you and to your life.

You can illustrate the problem with the way that the brochure I received talks about a “weekly vacation.” What the writers of the brochure mean is the seventh-day Sabbath. For various reasons that seem good to them, they believe that the command to keep the seventh day holy still applies, while other commands, such as various sacrifices do not. I don’t mean here to argue that they’re wrong about that, but rather that their view comes from a particular way of understanding scripture.

Some of our presuppositions and their impact.

I remember a certain book about the King James Version, one that advocated it as the only Bible Christians should use. “It’s a very scholarly book,” I was told. “It’s filled with footnotes.” The problem is that the footnotes varied between those that were to unreliable sources, those that were plain wrong, and those that were to other examples of the author’s own work.

Similarly, just because a presentation of scripture has a large number of texts doesn’t mean it’s scriptural. Neither does it mean it’s not. What it means is that you should examine it and decide for yourself.

When I cite SDA documents many people approve. Of course we should examine (and dismiss) the claims of schismatics like Seventh-day Adventists. They are, after all, wrong! But there is no type of mistake in understanding scripture that is truly exclusive to SDAs. You’ll find these mistakes in many denominations and tradition streams.

You need to examine everything. Think about these things for yourself. Get multiple scholarly opinions and test your own work against those. If you do this, you may be surprised at how many opinions about the Bible are predetermined by the presuppositions of the person holding that opinion.

Including mine.

Discussion Tonight: Violence in the Bible

Discussion Tonight: Violence in the Bible

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On the Energion Hangout tonight at 7:00 PM central time, we’ll be discussing the topic of violence in the Bible, with a particular emphasis on the Old Testament. But as participant Dr. Alden Thompson will doubtless remind us tonight, there’s violence in the New Testament as well. Alden Thompson is author of the very first title in the Energion catalog, now in its 5th edition, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. Joining Alden will be Dr. Allan Bevere, author of The Character of Our Discontent, a book that resulted from his decision to preach from the Old Testament more, even though he’s a New Testament scholar.

I’ve known Alden Thompson for a long time. He was my professor for two years of undergraduate Hebrew and for my first quarter of Aramaic. It is no accident that Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? was first in the Energion catalog. It was out of print and I ask to reissue it because I wanted to use it in my own teaching.

I would say, in fact, that Alden is one of the major reasons why, despite all the doubts I’ve had over the years, I’m still a Christian. No, he didn’t prevent me from leaving the church following seminary, and I’m no longer a member of the same denomination, but the kinds of approaches to the various problems in both biblical studies and theology have stuck with me. In addition, I use some of the approaches he teaches, both to inspiration and to dealing with diversity in the church, quite frequently.

Alden takes a kind and gentle approach to working with those who disagree, no matter what their perspective. He’s careful with questioners’ faith, while still being willing to take their questions seriously.

I met Allan Bevere more recently, through the medium of blogging and then of print publishing, but I’ve also developed a friendship with him. Allan takes orthodox Christian doctrine seriously and is a pastor first and foremost. He is also an adjunct professor, and helps prepare other pastors.

Tonight I intend to challenge both these scholars regarding difficult passages of scripture. Can we bypass the violence? Can we look at some aspects of scripture as just plain wrong? If not, how do we deal with such passages as Numbers 31?

I think this discussion will be lively and lots of fun!

If you prefer YouTube:

Yet Again on the Meaning of Inerrancy

Yet Again on the Meaning of Inerrancy

John Hobbins is again correcting the rest of us regarding the meaning of the word inerrancy. The interesting thing here is that I can affirm everything he says about inspiration in his post.

He writes in opposition to the approach taken by by Michael Heiser and C. Michael Patton, each of whom have written posts regarding how to deal with errors in the Bible.

Now I’m going to be brief (don’t laugh!). Michael Heiser and C. Michael Patton aren’t idiots. I don’t mean here to imply that John Hobbins says they are. But a point I have made previously about inerrancy in response to John is that the common usage of the word “inerrancy” does not agree with the way John uses it.

That doesn’t make Heiser and Patton more right about the inerrancy of scripture, but my observation is that their view accords with the more common understanding of what inerrancy means. Maybe people ought to mean something different, but they don’t. But I’m of the school of thought that suggests the meaning of words is to be determined by their usage, and by that standard, calling Hobbins’ view “inerrancy” is misleading. Most readers, at least non-academic readers, will understanding him to believe something different than he does.

People in the pews tend to believe someone who claims to accept biblical inerrancy would be concerned with discussing whether Jacob bought or conquered Shechem (as Heiser does), or the details of gospel stories (as Patton does).

But Hobbins says:

Now, if you believe that it is part of the Holy Spirit’s teaching office to reveal to us that Jesus (say) healed two blind men at Jericho, not one; that Jacob (say) bought Shechem and then conquered it at a later time, you are claiming that the Holy Spirit speaks, not through Scripture, but through harmonizing exegetes. I oppose such outlandish claims.

But if I ignore the vocabulary, I find I can affirm, indeed that I really like many of the phrases that Hobbins uses in regard to scripture and inspiration. I like to say that when we discover the message God has for us in scripture (always through the power of the Spirit), it is always true. Recently I have had to add the affirmation that we can discover that message. We have no need to walk in darkness.

So why not use another term, such as simply stating that one has a high view of scripture?

Spong vs Mohler

Spong vs Mohler

I found this video interesting, even though I don’t consider Spong one of the better advocates of a liberal approach to the Bible.  From my perspective he’s slipped off the far edge of the map.  I would suggest there is a position that does not affirm biblical inerrancy, yet maintains biblical authority.

(HT: Exploring Our Matrix)

Michael Dowd, also debating with Dr. Mohler (who seems to be keeping busy!) claims that biblical Christianity is bankrupt. I intend to respond from my “passionate moderate” viewpoint a bit later. For now I would just note that I see problems with the definition of “biblical Christianity.”

(Another HT to: Exploring Our Matrix)

Origen: Stumbling Blocks in Scripture

Origen: Stumbling Blocks in Scripture

The following is from Origen, On First Principles, 4.1.15.  All emphasis is mine.  (Also from CCEL.)

But since, if the usefulness of the legislation, and the sequence and beauty of the history, were universally evident of itself, we should not believe that any other thing could be understood in the Scriptures save what was obvious, the word of God has arranged that certain stumbling-blocks, as it were, and offences, and impossibili­ties, should be introduced into the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not, through being drawn away in all directions by the merely attractive na­ture of the language, either altogether fall away from the (true) doctrines, as learn­ing nothing worthy of God, or, by not departing from the letter, come to the knowledge of nothing more divine.  And this also we must know, that the principal aim being to announce the “spiritual” connection in those things that are done, and that ought to be done, where the Word found that things done according to the history could be adapted to these mystical senses, He made use of them, concealing from the multitude the deeper meaning; but where, in the narrative of the develop­ment of super-sensual things, there did not follow the performance of those certain events, which was already indicated by the mystical meaning, the Scripture interwove in the history (the account of) some event that did not take place, sometimes what could not have happened; sometimes what could, but did not.  And sometimes a few words are interpolated which are not true in their literal acceptation, and sometimes a larger number.  And a similar practice also is to be noticed with regard to the legislation, in which is often to be found what is useful in itself, and appro­priate to the times of the legislation; and sometimes also what does not appear to be of utility; and at other times impossibili­ties are recorded for the sake of the more skilful and inquisitive, in order that they may give themselves to the toil of investi­gating what is written, and thus attain to a becoming conviction of the manner in which a meaning worthy of God must be sought out in such subjects.

The more things change, the more they are the same!  We discuss these same sorts of things today.  The more I read Origen, the more I like him!

Inerrancy – Romancing the Term

Inerrancy – Romancing the Term

I’ve previously expressed my surprise about what some people can believe about the Bible and yet call their belief “inerrancy.” As an example, I responded to Earnest Lucas’s excellent commentary on Daniel in which he maintains that one can hold both inerrancy and a late dating of Daniel. I think a good one sentence summary of the approach is to say that what is asserted by a text differs by genre, and that inerrancy refers to what the text is actually asserting.

Thus if Jonah is fictional, it is not trying to assert an actual size for the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3), thus this is not an error, even if that information is incorrect. Jonah is not a book about the sizes of cities, but rather a fictional account designed to deal with other issues. (Which those are is not important right now.) If Daniel relates a history of the Babylonian Empire which does not conform to history, that is not a problem, since it is a pseudonymous work of apocalyptic, and this was a common practice in apocalyptic. If Genesis does not relate well to science, it is not a problem, because Genesis is not a science textbook.

Now I have no problem with any of those statements as such, but I do have some problem with their relation to the doctrine of inerrancy, though not in equal measure. But before I discuss why I have this problem, let me refer to a post today by John Hobbins on inerrancy. In this he is discussing people with relatively similar views about the inspiration of scripture, but a disagreement about the words. (The views are not identical, but they are close enough for my purposes.)

In fact, I agree with most of what I read about inspiration on John Hobbins’ blog. I think in some cases he comes out more liberal on the issue than I am, as in this post on legend and history. It seems to me that he and some others are trying to assert that they can believe both in Biblical inerrancy and also that the Bible is a collection of myths and fairy tales.

Now I think that “myth” and “fairy tale” are actually quite complimentary terms. I have no problem with finding myth in the Bible. In fact, for many purposes I find it to be a more admirable form of literature than some sort of pure, objective, narrative history. Each has its place, but we tend to treat history as good and myth as bad.

And therein beings the problem. I must note in passing that I don’t think that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says quite what some folks are saying it says. I keep getting told that it allows for all this flexibility, but when I go back and read it, it doesn’t look that way to me. But that is a side issue for me.

I find it odd that people who can recognize the changing meanings of words in a translation context fail so miserably in seeing the “street” meaning of a word in current usage. Apart from a few people who are trying to save the word “inerrancy” for their own use, almost nobody understands inerrancy to mean that a Bible book that claims to come from Paul might have been written by someone else after Paul was dead, or that a book can claim one author but have been written by quite a different author.

Thus when someone claims to believe in inerrancy and then writes a commentary on Daniel, for example, it is not expected that the commentator in question will say that Daniel did not write the portions attributed to him in the text. Similarly, it will not be expected that a commentary on Ephesians written by someone who espouses inerrancy will suggest that it was not written by Paul.

John Hobbins suggests a solution:

To which I would say, where evangelicalism rules the landscape, it is time for saner voices to take courage with two hands and patiently, ever so patiently, advocate for a broader and safer use of the word “inerrancy.” This is precisely what I see Michael Horton doing, and I commend him for it.

I would suggest that this is a fool’s errand. People who consider themselves intellectual leaders are constantly trying to save one or another term from the people who use it. It rarely works. If one salvaged inerrancy from those who use it, one would just have to invent another term to distinguish one from of belief in inspiration from another.

I should note that I believe that the “rescuers” of the word inerrancy have another problem, which is that I don’t think it meant quite what they claim when it was first used. But that would take a different blog post and a number of additional references, so I’m going to leave it aside for now.

For what it’s worth, my own view is that God always speaks his Word into a human matrix, to be understood by humans according to their knowledge and referents at the time. I believe that God’s Word in a situation is always true and that the Bible is precisely what God wanted it to be. But at the same time, that human matrix was not inerrant, and it impacts the message. I’m quite certain, for example, that early hearers of the story of Genesis heard it as a literal week, evidenced by references in Exodus 20, though not in the liturgy of Genesis 1. (Nonetheless, worshipers using that liturgy would not have distinguished the liturgical presentation from the historical events as I do.)

That means that the message God sends to me is different in some way from the message that was first heard. Hearing God’s message requires prayerful care and interpretation. Once you have heard God speak, that is truth. In addition, I believe that if we knew all that God knew about those to whom he first spoke, we would understand why things were said as they were.

It appears that some call that inerrancy. I think I would deceive most who heard me were I to do so.

Fallibility, Inerrancy, and Mystery

Fallibility, Inerrancy, and Mystery

I think Mark at Pseudo-Polymath is absolutely correct in his excellent post Of Scripture and Tradition.

When I first decided that inerrancy didn’t work, it was because I found errors as they would be defined by the people that first taught me to regard the Bible as inerrant.  At the same time I remained convinced of Biblical inspiration.  Over time this has evolved in my mind to the position that inerrancy causes us to ask the wrong questions of scripture, something I still believe, despite the efforts of many to frame inerrancy so that it does not have that effect.  My problem is that once one has so framed inerrancy, it appears meaningless to me.

It seems to me that we try to judge the Bible as a book amongst books, and that we err in doing so whether our judgment is favorable or not.  As scripture, the Bible is a unique phenomenon.  There is no standard by which we could judge it.  There is no category “books inspired by God” which as a set of criteria (presumably also divinely inspired) against which we can judge the Bible.

I like Mark’s statement “The mystery is the experience …”  That is a very good descriptive phrase.

Now I don’t think there is any problem evaluating the Bible’s impact on some area of study, for example, its value to historical study, and so forth.  But its value to historical study is not the same thing as its value as God’s message.

Your Brain on Inerrancy

Your Brain on Inerrancy

This video is cute and edgy and well-produced. It has all the characteristics that make a good YouTube video. Since I also don’t accept the doctrine of inerrancy, what is the problem?

I think it perpetuates the equation of biblical literalism, the verbal dictation view of inspiration, and the doctrine of inerrancy.  I have a problem with the wide variety of doctrines that go by the name “inerrancy” but many of the folks with whom I work and worship do accept the doctrine of inerrancy, and the main difference between their view and mine is the word we use to label it.

There are many people who believe in inerrancy, or who use the term inerrancy for what they believe about inspiration who do not accept verbal dictation and are not Biblical literalists.

(HT: Ketuvim)

Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?

Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?

When I teach people about how to study the Bible, and especially when I talk to them about handling difficult passages, there is one category of passage that dominates:  Violent and sometimes difficult to understand passages from the Old Testament.  How can a God of love command the slaughter of thousands, even women and children?

Christians have many different ways of handling these passages.  Some will say that we live in the New Testament era, and that things are different now, which both tends to dismiss the Jewish scriptures as a poorer set of writings, and also to leave open the question of why God would have behaved so poorly then.  It’s comforting to think he doesn’t do it now, but does that really answer the question?
Others positively revel in the violence, joyful that not only is God a powerful God, but he’s willing to exercise that power and wipe out the bad guys.  Fortunately for the world, most of these people are far less violent in reality than they sound when preaching.  Doubtless most would be horrified to see some of these stories actually take place.
There was one book that was critical when I was developing my view  of scripture, and especially of the difficult passages:   Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? by Dr. Alden Thompson.   I generally find that Alden’s views are a bit more conservative than mine, and also that he is usually a bit more gentle in presenting them, which is not a bad thing.

I was Alden’s student at Walla Walla University, then just a college,  in the years before he first published the book, but we dealt with a number of the same issues in his classes. The book is now in its 4th edition, and I’m now the publisher as the sole owner of  Energion Publications.  There have been few changes through the editions, except for some adjustments of style and language. I find that new readers find it as relevant today as its first readers did in the early 1980s. Christians have struggled with these types of issues for a long time, and many have either been told not to question or have been given pat answers. Sometimes these answers are given as “offers you can’t refuse.” The attitude is “who are you to question God?” and thus if you don’t accept the explanation your faith is weak, or you may even be an infidel.

Alden takes these issues head on, and finds grace in the Old Testament where others find anger. He doesn’t tell you that you shouldn’t ask such impious questions.

He starts by suggesting that we need to see the Old Testament for itself (Don’t let your New Testament get in the way of your Old Testament), then puts the entire discussion in a Biblical context through discussion of creation and the fall. This is a fairly traditional chapter, and evangelical Christians should find themselves quite comfortable with this outline. He points to the “very good” of Genesis 1 and the “totally evil” of Genesis 6 showing the deterioration of humanity, and then asking how God is to deal with this state of rebellion. He uses the “great controversy” or “cosmic conflict” theme as a background. Some will want to get right to chapter 3, “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” and here there is a unique view of the role of Satan in scripture.

Then he gets down to the meat of the problem, successively dealing with the apparently strange laws (Strange people need strange laws), relationships between Israel and the Canaanites (Could you invite a Canaanite home to lunch?), and then the worst story in the Old Testament, Judges 19-21. I’m not sure this is the worst story, but it is certainly an excellent example. Alden applies his approach to questions of why such a story is included in the Bible, why God would allow such things to take place among His people, and what it is that we are to learn from the story. If you haven’t read it, do so now, possibly even starting with Judges 17 (Micah’s Images). If you find it difficult to see God’s grace in action in those chapters, you might find it valuable to read Alden’s discussion–it might transform your view of Old Testament history.

From there Alden turns to “The best story in the Old Testament: The Messiah.” Here he discusses the Messianic prophecies and their application to the ministry of Jesus. Both conservatives and liberals will find some things to question here, because he neither affirms every Old Testament prophecy in the way that many conservative Christians would prefer, nor does he discard the notion of fulfilled prophecy. This chapter in itself is a worthwhile study for anyone who plans to discuss these Old Testament prophecies and their application.

Finally, he deals with the prayers in the Psalms. We tend to read the Psalms a bit selectively, sticking with thoroughly comforting passages. But what about Psalm 137:8-9? How comforting is that? Is such vengefulness Christian? He titles the chapter, “What kind of prayers would you publish if you were God?”

A common theme throughout the book, though it is not addressed head-on, is Biblical inspiration. Why are there things that are this difficult in the Bible if God is trying to communicate with us? How can we be sure of getting truth from the Bible. Alden doesn’t address Biblical inerrancy by that title, but he does look at the process of inspiration and how it works, and helps us find an anchor in the two laws (love God, love neighbor) as presented by Jesus to help us work our way through passages that are difficult to interpret.

I have thoroughly appreciated this book from the time I first read it. I have taught a number of classes using it. I have found that it consistenly is a faith building book. At the same time it is honest, and allows the reader to question and feel confident in doing so. I would especially recommend this to Christians who have never been able to enjoy reading the Hebrew scriptures. It will help you get comfortable reading those passages and letting them speak for themselves.

[I am editing and adapting this review from a post on my personal blog, reviewing the same book.]