Posts Tagged With: inerrancy

Authority: Who Has It and How Should It Be Handled? (Emergence Christianity Once More)

This should be my last post on my interactions with the Emergence Christianity conference a few weeks ago.  I keep thinking of everything I’d like to say, but can’t manage to get it in one entry.  So here is one more bite at the elephant.

I think Phyllis Tickle put her finger on one of the biggest issues in Christianity today: authority.  Authority matters have divided Christians since the first century.  Divisions over circumcision between Christians at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a good example.  Should the Gentiles be circumcised since the first century bible (the Old Testament) required it?  The Christian literalists thought this was a slam dunk (v. 5): the Bible requires all believers to be circumcised.  That’s it. Game over.  The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.  But Peter disagreed.  So did Paul and Barnabas.  All these guys used their personal experiences an argument.  At this point, a Bible literalist’s head will explode.  Personal experience should always bow to the Bible; and in the first century, that was the Old Testament.  What’s worse is the fact that James quoted Amos 9:11-12 (LXX) [and alluded to Isaiah 45:21] which have nothing to do with circumcision.  A Bible literalist, would have to say that James, Peter, Paul and Barnabas lose and the Pharisee Christian converts win.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead the church issued a statement freeing the Gentile converts from the circumcision requirement.  Consequently, I’m sure the circumcised Gentiles were pretty peeved.

Who had the authority to decide what God required and what he did not? The leaders of the church: apostles and the elders (15:22-23).

During the 1500s, corruption in the church went unchecked until the Protestant Reformation opposed the church’s authority.  The basis for their revolt was that the Roman Catholic church was contradicting the Bible, which should be man’s sole source of divine authority.  Thus, Sola Scriptura was one of the enduring battle cries of Protestants.  The printing press made it possible for more people to have the Bible and to see clearly what it required.  Now that people had the complete Bible translated in a their native language, they could hold the Church accountable to do what it required.  God wrote the Bible, so it is infallible; there can be no contradictions in it (if you think there are, you have either misunderstood or are rebelling against God).  If we all study the Bible correctly, we will see the one message that God wants to convey.  As Phyllis Tickle stated, the Protestants exchanged a physical Pope for a “Paper Pope.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  Each and every Christian is a priest with that right  (1 Peter 2:9).

Centuries later, the Catholic church made their own rule about infallibility.  The rule of ex cathedra, the Pope’s infallible utterance, was dogmatized during Vatican I (1869-70) and reaffirmed at Vatican II (1962-65).

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church leaders who are approved to interpret the text correctly, and infallible statements may come from the Pope via ex cathedra.

These days postmodernism has affected us all.  We acknowledge that there is more than one approach to truth because all our perspectives will always influence how we see and interpret information.  The Protestant idea of the Bible being the only source of divine truth is still a pleasant idea–it is comforting to know that something is in black and white–but the fact that there are thousands of protestant denominations in the world today is certainly not encouraging.  Many of these denominations evangelize by saying things like “Do you know for absolute certain that you will go to Heaven when you die?  I mean, do you know that you know that you know?  Is there any doubt in your mind?”  Well, considering the fact that there are 6 different Christian churches on this street alone, and that I have about 5 different English translations of the Bible on my shelf…there is at least a little doubt.  But I trust Christ and participate with him in worship.  I’m certain that is enough–relatively speaking.

Tickle mapped this framework out in her lectures and suggested that we are currently in a Wikipedia kind of Church age, where authority is really a matter of public discourse than determining who has the right to give us direction.  So Christianity becomes much more broad, we listen to those other Christ-followers who have different ideas, learning to love and respect their views even if we disagree.  Pledging allegiance to Christ and participating in worship is the center of gravity.  We must allow the latitude for others to disagree.  Let the Spirit of God work in that person and stop thinking that you will turn argue that person out of their “wrong thinking.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church community via discourse.  Regularly engage in respectful dialogue and let authority take care of itself.

I found these ideas very intriguing and wonder where we will be in the next 10 years.

Categories: Emergence Christianity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks–Comments from a Former Fundamentalist

When I returned from the SBL annual meeting a few weeks ago, I told lots of folks about my experiences and about a few of the books that I purchased or had hoped to purchase in the near future. The one I began reading on the bus ride home was Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks. I posted the picture of the book on my Facebook account, which led to a flurry of mostly negative comments. I don’t suppose most of the folks knew Sparks or anything about his book. They might have reacted to the title which calls the Bible both sacred and broken, and I’m sure Sparks’s quote from Bonhoeffer that I posted helped egg on the discussion:

“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Sparks, 1; Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible)

A former fundamentalist, I understand the concern. People assume (as I did once) that any insinuation about the Bible’s brokenness is simply an attack on the Bible’s authority. Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me uneasy, but it is also one of the more wonderful and refreshing things I’ve heard about the Bible in a long time. The more I study the Bible through an academic and critical lens, I am less convinced by the traditional ways to reconcile Bible contradictions and difficulties. It is one reason I could no longer tow the fundamentalist party line. But old habits and theological positions die hard, and Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me nervous yet hopeful in my search for a different approach to Bible interpretation. But Sparks intrigued me with his first quote, so I eagerly dove into the rest of the 156 pages for the next week. I read it slowly, marking it up in several places with some !’s, some ?’s and a whole lot of circles, underlines and comments. Overall, I was enthusiastic about the message.

He began his book by affirming that the Bible is God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, and written by those who were moved by that Spirit (8-9). It contains God’s truth and elements of divine beauty. Yet it also contains some features that are very disturbing to modern readers–to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is pretty clear that one of the basic messages in the Bible is that the world was created by God and yet contains a great deal of pain and evil. Sparks touches on different theological approaches to the creation narrative and the effects of the Fall on the universe, probably to show the theological complexity of the issue. He also offered a very brief argument himself, but ultimately stated that no one can really prove conclusively that the Christian view of evil is correct (17-19). I agree, especially since the Bible itself offers several approaches to the problem of evil (compare the messages of Job and Ecclesiastes for example). Furthermore, Sparks observed that God expresses himself through creation even though it is fallen and warped (20-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-3). I had never considered this before; and so as I read I could feel my hope grow. The Bible can and does reflect a redemptive message through the pens of depraved authors.

Next Sparks devoted a few pages to Christology..which is a little weird until you see where he is going with it. The coming of Jesus is an example of how God seeks to communicate with mankind. God became incarnate, taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” to redeem and communicate with those people who were condemned (Rom 8:3-4). Therefore, the fallen world is only redeemed when God interacts with it (27). But unlike the nature of Christ himself, the scriptures were written by sinful men whose works were adopted or sanctified for God’s uses. To claim the scriptures themselves were sinless all together, insinuates a kind of hypostatic relationship between God’s divine perfection and text or its authors. Since none of the human authors have a simultaneously divine and human nature, a perfectly written text seems unlikely. This was a difficult section for me, but I largely agree with Sparks and I think that it honors God more to separate him from the text in this way. An inerrantist view of Scripture seems to idolatrously elevate the Bible to a divine status.

After giving some samples of the “broken” elements in the Bible, including logical and theological inconsistencies along with moral difficulties such as genocide and slavery, we get to the heart of the book where Sparks makes his main arguments. The fact that some of the laws of the Old Testament codify actions that are morally troublesome these days, indicates that the Bible is not simply a divine yardstick to measure all morality for all people. In Sparks’s estimation, “biblical error became God’s wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience” (53). The idea that the text cannot have errors because it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) cannot stand since, “the Greek word itself does not really imply anything in particular about how the transaction between God and the human authors took place” (56). Strengthening his case, Sparks shows that other key theological figures have made similar remarks in Church history.

At this point, I’ve agreed with Sparks a great deal, though I feel some trepidation. When he states, “By virtue of its human form and character, Scripture is an adequate human voice that does not fare so well when judged by the yardstick of divine perfection” (61, emphasis his), I must wonder if there is a yardstick at all. What makes Scripture so special? Should we trust the Bible’s documents with the fate of our souls if it doesn’t fare so well against divine perfection? It’s here my hope begins to fade, giving way to despair. But Sparks doesn’t leave me entirely dead in the water. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is a divinely motivated witness to God’s work of redemption in the world through Christ (63). But this still doesn’t answer my questions.

The chapter on epistemology was foundational to the book and one of the most intriguing parts in my reading, probably because I’ve been exploring postmodern ideas on my own. It is important because the way a person determines truth has direct bearing on that person’s ethics. Sparks promotes what he calls “practical realism” (73), which is a tempered postmodernist view. He acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence in the pursuit of truth, but recognizes that personal experience, culture, and traditions carry a great deal of weight as well. Thus, church tradition and history inform and guide church theology and ethics.

With this in mind, Sparks then revisits some of the diversity of ideas and difficulties in the Scripture again. In anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, Paul stated that people should avoid marriage (1 Cor. 7), but Sparks states that these days one is better off looking to Genesis 2 when deciding to marry (115). Good advice, I think. Regarding slavery: “We should not try to argue that biblical laws which allowed Israel to buy foreign slaves (Lev 25:44) fit very nicely with biblical texts that call for justice, equality, freedom and love of neighbor. At a crucial point the two views are simply incommensurable” (105). These slavery texts may have more self-serving purposes for the human authors than divine mandate. And, of course, there’s the church’s old view of geocentrism they finally had to abandon based on new scientific evidence.

Okay! I get it! But how can I know if my reading of the Bible is correct? I’m a Reformed Protestant, so I cry “Sola Scriptura!“and have placed little emphasis on church tradition for my hermeneutics. But recently I have joined a church that does place a great deal of weight on church tradition; so his points resonate with me now. Sparks notes that more Protestants are like me are recognizing the importance of church traditions in Bible interpretation (125). And so my hope grows even more! (FYI: See also the emphasis on tradition in 2 Thesselonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2) We also have confidence that the Spirit of God guides the church as she interprets the Bible. As mentioned earlier, we should also consider the natural world and scientific knowledge, since God also reveals himself in nature. Furthermore, Sparks argues that we should always consider our own experiences. He notes that he was taught as a child that Catholics could not be Christians, but working with several devout Catholics over the years has taught him that this is not the case. The church should take a similar approach when reading the Bible. Sparks also gives a list of guidelines and principles for validating one’s interpretation of the text. Part of it includes the mystery of God’s Spirit interacting with the church throughout history, and part of it recognizes one of the most obvious points of all the canon: God is on a mission to redeem the world.

If I could, I would thank Dr. Sparks personally for writing such a great book! It stretches the limits of my accepted doctrines and has given me the groundwork for an alternative to an inerrantist position. I had abandoned this position a few months ago, but Sparks’s writing has given me a nice blueprint for constructing a new hermeneutic. To me, the Bible remains authoritative even though it has clear evidence of human frailty behind it. Sparks affirmed my suspicions about the Scriptures, pointing out some difficulties I had never considered, and then gave me some guideposts with which I can chart a better hermeneutical method that still shows great reverence to Gods word. Now, I feel that I have stronger supports for my position.

Yet, I do have some criticisms and points of disagreements, but there is really only one matter I care to address. As a former fundamentalist, I was drilled with one doctrine above all: the Bible is inerrant. Without the Bible’s inerrancy, I had supposed with everyone else that all was lost. Without inerrancy, we can’t know God and his requirements. With an inerrant view, we can be certain who God is and what he requires. So when my friends saw the title “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and the Bonhoeffer quote, some felt two things: anger and despair. Anger because to question inerrancy is to question God himself, and despair because the recognition of errors in the Bible can feel like the foundation of one’s faith has been compromised. I’m a trained Biblical scholar, and I felt it even while reading Sacred Word, Broken Word; I can only imagine the layperson’s struggle through such a text. Sparks doesn’t seem to anticipate this tremendous emotional and existential struggle. Simply put, he is not pastoral anywhere in his approach. To be fair, he is a theologian and does a great job arguing his point. But this is a sensitive issue for some, and I didn’t see that he is aware of that.

The model I was taught as a fundamentalist is like that of so many: the Bible is my one foundation for truth. Sparks doesn’t replace that foundation with another, instead giving principles for good Bible interpretation via the church, tradition, experience, and nature. After reading Sparks’s book, there is no more singular foundation upon which a Christian can build his house (life). Thus, despair or anger for the fundamentalist reader. As one who has a so-called Calvinist perspective on the sovereignty of God, I find that this is a great replacement foundation to fill the fundamentalist void. The Spirit of God sovereignly moves through the church and through its members to eventually redeem us. We get it wrong sometimes, but through those errors, shortcomings, and even sins, God will be faithful to accomplish his purposes. A little emphasis on something like this would have been appreciated!

 

 

Categories: Biblical Studies, Calvinism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Practical, Theology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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