This post is part of a continuing conversation with Greg Boyd surrounding my book Disarming Scripture
and its treatment of the problem of Violence in the Bible. If you want some context, you can check out my previous post
, or better yet, begin with my first reply to Greg
Before I embark on my response to Greg's most recent posts to me (part1
) in our continuing dialog, I wanted to say a bit about what has been happening behind the scenes (and why I did not reply sooner).
It often happens in a debate that the two parties talk past each other, and because of that I thought it would be good if Greg and I could talk face to face. So Greg and I arranged to have a talk on Skype.
It was a really fruitful conversation, and I think we both left with the impression that -- while we do not agree on everything (and, hey, who does?) -- perhaps there is a way to understand our two perspectives as working together, rather than as being in conflict. Perhaps I'm the peanut butter and Greg is the chocolate in a Reese's (two great theologies in one candy bar...)
So with the goal in mind of understanding how our two perspectives might be able to work in tandem -- functioning as compliments to each other -- in this post I wanted to clarify the different ways we are each using terms like inerrancy, infallibility and inspiration with the hopes of getting us all on the same page.
To do that we'll need to dig a bit into Evangelical history. So put on some bell bottoms, set your time machine's dial to 1978, and let's take a look at the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy
The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy purports to be a definitive statement on how Evangelicals understand Scripture. Does it speak for all Evangelicals? That's debatable. Many who identify as Evangelical would disagree with the Chicago Statement, but what is certainly the case is that the signers of the Chicago Statement fully intended to speak for all Evangelicals with the statement.
It reflects the belief among conservative Evangelicals that inerrancy is central and indispensable. For example, long before the Chicago Statement
, upon its founding in 1949 the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS)
made affirming the doctrine of inerrancy its sole doctrinal requirement for membership. Affirm inerrancy and you can be a part of this club. Don't and you will be out.
The ETS tried to expel Evangelical scholars Clark Pinnock and John Sanders on heresy charges in 2003 for affirming open theism. If Boyd had been part of the ETS at the time he would have been on the chopping block with them. Instead he spoke before the ETS and defended Pinnock and Sanders.
What does this all have to do with inerrancy you ask? The charge of heresy was grounded on the claim that open theism was incompatible with inerrancy. In the aftermath of this, the ETS voted in 2006 to define their understanding of inerrancy based on the Chicago Statement
in order to avoid any future ambiguity in how inerrancy was understood by its members, spelling things out for everyone.
Here's the bottom line: While not everyone within the Evangelical camp affirms inerrancy (or infallibility as defined in the Chicago Statement for that matter) this "biblicist" understanding has been the key battle line of the 20th century that many conservative Evangelicals have drawn to determine who is in and who is out. Those who have denied it, or even attempted to tweak it, have faced the very real possibility of losing their jobs or even their careers.
Why don't you hear much about open theism these days from Evangelicals in books or academic articles? Because the ETS did a pretty good job of shutting down the conversation, and Chicago-style Evangelicals have also done a good job of shutting down lots of other conversations as well -- whether it's on Scripture or gender or politics or a host of other issues. That's kind of their thing. They are the Pharisees of our day, and they have a lot of influence and power behind them. They are the ETS, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, The Southern Baptist Convention, IHOP (not the ones with the pancakes), and host of other institutions who seek to influence not only theology, but social issues and politics as well.
It is important to understand this history and how it impacts us. For those of us who come from an Evangelical background, this all has had a huge impact on how we see the Bible. This is not just a minor hiccup or the view of a small minority, it has shaped how Evangelicalism has developed throughout the 20th century in regards to how Scripture is understood and applied.
Now, it's important to stress here that Boyd and I both do not accept the understanding of inerrancy or infallibility as they are expressed in the Chicago Statement. This is not simply because the Chicago Statement sees inerrancy and infallibility as inseparable (i.e they insist that you can't affirm infallibility without equally affirming inerrancy). Much more pertinent to the topic at hand (which in case you forgot is the moral problem of divine sanctioned violence in the Old Testament) is that the Chicago Statement insists that Scripture must be interpreted by grammatical-historical exegesis.
We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed.
In other words, what Boyd refers to as the "surface meaning" of the text, according to the Chicago Statement, is the only legitimate way to read it. If the text says that God commands genocide, then this is what is infallible and right. That is how Chicago-style Evangelicals understand infallibility. This understanding represents the dominant view among Evangelicalism. Take a class in exegesis in seminary and that is what you will learn.
The Myth of a Purebred Doctrinal History
I love Chicago-style pizza, but I am not a fan of Chicago-style infallibility. Greg agrees (on the Bible part anyway, I don't know about the pizza part). Greg, in affirming infallibility, clearly does not understand it as those Evangelicals who affirm the Chicago Statement
do. In his most recent reply to me
, Greg refers to Chicago-style infallibility and inerrancy as a "recent, and unfortunate, application of this doctrine" by "certain Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in the 19th and 20th century."
At the same time, in that same post
, Boyd maintains that "theologians within the historic-orthodox church have always confessed that Scripture is 'infallible' or 'inerrant.'" Since Greg sees the Chicago-style understanding of inerrancy and infallibility as an unfortunate misapplication, this would mean that Chicago-style Evangelicals – who have dominated the Evangelical theological scene for the past century or more, and who themselves claim to be the gatekeepers of that very orthodoxy – have been getting their orthodoxy completely wrong all this time.
That's a possibility, and I do think Evangelicalism has gotten a lot of stuff wrong. That’s why, as a progressive Evangelical, I want to see it reform. I think Greg and I are pretty much in the same camp in that regard. However, I want to suggest that the problem is not just with the misapplied doctrine of these Chicago-style Evangelicals, but also with how they (mis)read church history. Allow me to explain:
Greg bases his declaration
that the church has always believed in infallibility and inerrancy on a book by J. D. Woodbridge entitled Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal
. Woodbridge is one of the original signers of the Chicago Statement
, and his book is an attempt to argue that the church has always believed in inerrancy, understood precisely in the way it is defined in the Chicago Statement
In other words, the author of the book that Boyd is citing to back up his claim that the church has always embraced infallibility would completely disagree with Boyd on what infallibility means, since Boyd holds to infallibility but not inerrancy.
That was a kind of a mouthful, so let me sum things up: First Lindsell writes Battle for the Bible and makes the case that the church has always believed in Chicago-style inerrancy, and calls out all sorts of Evangelical groups who he feels are not towing the party line in that regard. Rogers and McKim write a book in reply and say, nope, the church has always believed in infallibility, but not inerrancy. Woodbridge then writes a book rebuking them, arguing that Lindsell was right and the church has always believed in Chicago-style inerrancy so get with the program boys.
Now, I suppose it would have been better for Boyd to have cited Rogers and McKim since their book makes the point he does, rather than citing Woodbridge, whose book has the sole purpose of debunking that point. But there is actually something bigger going on with all of these books that I want to draw our attention to:
All three of these books cite Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin as advocates of their particular view. That is, they are disagreeing with each other, but all citing the same sources to back up their divergent claims.
What we can observe in all of these works, therefore, is an example of an unfortunate tendency among Evangelical academics to read anachronistically -- projecting their own doctrinal assumptions into a text because they find similar words being used, rather than looking to uncover how these terms are being understood by the historical sources, who (not surprisingly) see things in a very different way, being from a different time.
In the 2004 book Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics
, Thomas Buchan presents a study of these three books, and concludes that Woodbridge -- along with these other authors -- is guilty of "reading his late-twentieth-century evangelical conception of biblical authority back onto the historical sources" rather than recognizing the "historical diversity of perspectives on Scripture held by prominent figures in the history of the church." (p. 53)
Now, I certainly think there is great value we can derive from looking at how prominent figures from church history such as Origen or Luther have understood Scripture. However, I do not believe we can look to a single view that has always been held. Instead, what we find is that there has been a wide spectrum of diversity as to what inspiration (let alone infallibility or inerrancy) means and how it is understood.
So when Greg states in his post
that "[no one] in the historic-orthodox theological tradition has felt bound to the surface meaning of biblical texts" I must object. While this may be true for Origen and others in the Patristic Period who followed his allegorical reading, it is certainly not true for the 300 signers of the Chicago Statement
, including Woodbridge, who insist that it is this very "surface reading" that is authoritative, inerrant, and infallible. Nor does this reflect the view of Martin Luther and the other Reformers who, as a whole, rejected allegorical readings and insisted instead on what Greg calls the "surface reading" (which they refer to as the "historical sense" of the text). As Luther puts it,
"It is the historical sense alone which supplies the true and sound doctrine ... The bare allegories, which stand in no relation to the account and do not illuminate it, should simply be disapproved as empty dreams. This is the kind which Origen and those who followed him employ." (LW 1:233. Emphasis added)
That said, it's worth noting that it's doubtful Luther would have agreed with the Chicago Statement
either, since he advocates judging all Scripture in the light of Christ, which causes him to question some books (compare this with Article 1 of the The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics
). Luther says the following in the context of critiquing the book of James, which he declared to be "an epistle of straw" (LW 35:362). Luther writes,
"This is the true test by which to judge all these books: seeing whether or not they promote Christ . . . What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if Peter or Paul teaches it. Conversely, whatever does preach Christ, that is apostolic, even if it were done by Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod" (WA:DB7:386. My translation from the German. Compare LW 35:396)
I note this neither to endorse Luther's view, nor to disparage Origen's, but to underline that there simply is no single view of inspiration or interpretation that is shared throughout church history. Rather, we instead find a wide spectrum of diversity in how Scripture is read and understood. The fact is, our Evangelical heritage is that of a mutt, not a purebred poodle. That's who we are, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
Making Sense of our Messy "Mutt" History
What we can perhaps see as a common thread in all of this is that the inspiration of Scripture (understood in various ways) has been maintained throughout church history. That is, I believe, one of the reasons why Greg stresses the importance of holding on to the doctrine of inspiration and infallibility. He recognizes something good there that he wants us to hold on to, even if that's hard.
For Greg what is important here is that we not let go of the affirmation that all Scripture -- including its morally troubling parts -- is somehow, nevertheless, inspired. We may have to dig deep to uncover this, but we should not simply cast it aside -- we must continue to wrestle with the text as a part of our own sacred Scripture.
I would agree with all of that. What I want to stress is that in doing this, there needs to be room for an honest moral critique of these troubling texts, which includes a repudiation of what they plainly say. We must allow people to state that these texts are not Christlike, not praiseworthy, and indeed that they are immoral in what they affirm. So if we are going to employ a hermeneutic that looks past the "surface meaning" of the text, this cannot mean that we say that those who call out the clear moral problems in the text are somehow misreading it. The text itself really does say bad things, and this is critical for us to face and own.
Scripture is inspired, and at the same time it says some things that are wrong and immoral. Holding these two truths in tension simultaneously is hard to do. The tendency is to want to pick one side or the other. Consequently those who question the Bible are often seen as being on the outside of the faith, or perceived to be rejecting or attacking it somehow.
I think, to a certain degree, this has happened in Greg and my conversation. For example, in his most recent reply to me
, after I stated that I affirmed the inspiration of Scripture, Greg voiced some lingering doubts to this, citing my discussion in Disarming Scripture
of how Jesus declared some Old Testament passages to be "the way of the devil," wondering how I could claim this and still believe in the inspiration of Scripture,
I honestly don’t understand how he could affirm that “all Scripture is inspired.” My bewilderment increases when I consider Derek’s claims that, Jesus and Paul felt free to reject portions of Scripture and that Jesus even attributed some narratives “to the way of the devil, rather than the way of God” (42). Since Derek offered no explanation as to how a narrative could be “breathed by God” and yet be rejected and even attributed to “the way of the devil,” I was led to the conclusion that he did not affirm that “all Scripture is breathed by God.”
An episode from Jesus’s ministry similarly reflects the radical way Jesus repudiates the violence of the Old Testament, even when it appears to come from God. After being rejected by some Samaritan towns, James and John asked Jesus if they could “call fire down from heaven to destroy them.” Jesus “rebuked” them and, according to many early manuscripts, added: “You do not know what spirit you are of” (Luke 9: 54– 55). What’s most interesting is that the disciples were simply asking to follow the precedent set by Elijah in the Old Testament when, in this same location, he twice called fire down from the sky to incinerate foes (2 Kings 1: 10, 12, 14). While it raises many questions we cannot address in this context, I see no way of avoiding the conclusion that Jesus would have rebuked a person who is held up as a hero in the Old Testament for participating in a violent supernatural feat that Jesus clearly would have considered to be ungodly, if not demonic. (p. 182, emphasis added)
So what's going on? Why is it that I can say something virtually identical to what Greg does, and it sounds to him as if I must be denying the inspiration of Scripture?
That's the tightrope we are walking on. It is genuinely hard to hold these two ideas together in tension. It's not just intellectually challenging, it is challenging to one's faith. It requires that we re-think some of our assumptions of who God is, and that's really hard. I feel that. I find that scary... I think we all do.
So what I think is needed is a lot of generosity towards one another as we work through this. Not just between Greg and myself, but with all of us post-Evangelical mutts looking to find a more Christlike faith and more Christlike way of reading the Bible. We need to make room for honest moral critique of Scripture to take place as an accepted expression of our faith, and making room for that means allowing people to say scary honest things sometimes. That's part of the normal and healthy process that moves us towards real and deep trust in God, and a life of compassion and grace. Like anything deep and real in life, this is a messy process, and we will need to give each other a lot of grace along the way. Here I am reminded of the words of Peter, "Above all, love each other deeply. For love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet 4:8). That does not mean we cannot disagree. But it sets the context for it to produce good fruit.
The fact is, we both affirm the inspiration of Scripture, and we both repudiate violence in the Old Testament. The difference is that we do this in slightly different ways.
Where I see inspiration is in how God works with the totality of the multi-vocal Old Testament canon to lead us to Christ, including the immoral parts. I do not believe that Jesus endorsed all of Scripture in the sense of endorsing the content of every verse in the Old Testament and what it affirms. Rather, I believe that Jesus endorsed all of Scripture in the sense of endorsing it as a whole, including the immoral parts, in how they all together, understood as a dialog rather than a monolog, can be read as leading us to Christ. In particular, the immoral parts can act to send us to our knees in recognizing our human tendency to use religion to justify our own hurtfulness -- just turn on the news and you can see that kind of scapegoating in the name of God and country is alive and well today.
That understanding of the Old Testament helps me, and I hope it is helpful to others as well. It differs from most other treatments of the problem of violence in the Bible in that it does not seek to justify or downplay the reality of divine-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. Greg's approach is similar to mine in that it likewise does not seek to justify or downplay the problem of OT violence, and further in that its goal is towards a Christlike understanding. However, Greg does not get there in the same way as I do, and instead focuses on what I would identify as a theology of the cross reading which seeks to find God in Christ, even in the depths of our human depravity.
I think Greg is on to something really big here with this cross-shaped reading, and I look forward to his forthcoming book. I believe it will be helpful to a lot of people. My appeal, however, is for a "generosity" in how we approach Scripture. Our approaches are indeed different, but I see no reason why they cannot work together. What Greg is affirming with his understanding of infallibility is a reading that rejects OT violence as normative, and points us to Jesus-shaped love. I affirm the same, but articulate it in saying that the OT canon as a whole needs to be read in a way that leads us to Christ. I do this by laying out a practical proposal for how we can identify in the multi-vocal OT texts what is Christlike and what is not. Greg's cruciform reading actually presupposes that deliberation since we can only know to go "deeper beneath the surface" once we have identified that a particular text that claims to speak for God is in fact un-Christlike, requiring us to dig. So in that sense you could say my book tills the soil for Greg's.
The fact of church history is that there have been many different ways that people have approached Scripture, and we can see this diversity further in the different ways that Greg and I both get to our understandings of inspiration. I propose that, rather than looking for the one right view or formulation, we should instead make room for many ways of approaching the issue. What matters most is where we land when we do this -- that is, the fruit our theology bears. From what I can see, Greg and I both land on trusting in a God who looks like Jesus, and on committing to show that Jesus-shaped enemy-love to others.
For further reading, see my post The Bible is flawed and inspired: Learning to read Christocentrically with Karl Barth
Labels: Bible, books, Disarming Scripture, Greg Boyd, series