Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Is the Bible the word of God?

As is obvious from recent inactivity on this blog, I’ve been rather preoccupied outside cyberworld: parents, getting ready to move etc. All the same, Tim has (sort of) asked me to respond to a post by one of his pals asking this very question. Having had a look, I felt immediately overwhelmed! Those are big big questions, and it seems to me that it’d take a while to disentangle all the various issues and assumptions, and they each in turn deserve substantial replies. The blogging format just isn’t ideal for this task, and in any case, I don’t consider myself having the knowledge or wisdom to do justice to them.

With those caveats in place, I will tentatively venture into the savage grasslands with some thoughts and observations. (Pray that I’ll return unharmed! :->) Quick briefing before heading into the wild, however. On an autobiographical note, my struggles as a Christian pilgrim on this journey called life have often been on the moral/ethical/relational side rather than intellectual, i.e daily battles with sin, loving others etc. I have more or less felt comfortable with the intellectual moorings of Christianity, although I also believe that’s simply a subsidiary rope, at most, that secures people into faith. I did feel a little apprehensive about how my Christian faith would fare in the crucible of Oxbridge, but as it turned out, my faith grew much stronger during the university years. However, the one exception is the doctrine of Scripture. The Bible? Authoritative? Inerrant? Revelation from God? And how about them French dudes (and that German eccentric mumbling about armies and metaphors)?

This is something I continue to have to grapple with, and maybe writing this will help me clarify some of my own thoughts. Maybe. Apologies in advance as I’m gonna be pretty essayistic, not ideal for the blog! This isn’t just an intellectual exercise, however; it has implications for how we view the world, help each other as Christians and in day-to-day living. I’ve really been helped here at my current church to see the importance of a high view of Scripture and its centrality in pastoral work as well. The Word of God is key not just at conversion but in growing as disciples (eg. Col. 1:6). I’ll try to unpack why that is in what follows. So I think this is too important to simply be ignored or left in the land of the esoteric. Also, what little I’ve read in this area has given me confidence that evangelical theologians are doing robust work to rearticulate the traditional doctrine of Scripture in fresh ways. So I am content to follow Tim Keller’s counsel to “doubt your doubts” even as I seek to be both honest and faithful.

Sorry for the long preamble but hopefully that will convey a little of where I’m coming from. I hope what follows may be in the spirit of Romans 14:19 – "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification"! Here’s a basic outline of where I’m going: I’ll try to summarise Mat’s post along with some general observations, hopefully representing him fairly, and then rather than try to respond point-by-point, I think it would probably be better if I restate and defend the Bible as God’s Word and interact with Mat (and Tim’s) post along the way, all the while keeping in mind Spurgeon’s famous remark: “Defend the Bible? I’ll sooner defend a lion!” Scripture doesn’t really need me to defend it, if it’s God’s word, it can do so perfectly well on its own. Finally, I’ll say some stuff on what this might reveal about the state of evangelicalism and also pastorally. There will be points where I will cite Scripture quite a bit, where I do, I’ll try not to clutter up too much space but at the same time try to put quotations in their context. I will link all Scriptural quotations which will open up in a new window so you can look them up if I don’t quote them in full.

Mat’s reflections and challenges
Mat is not a fan of red-letter Bibles, and neither am I, although having said that, my pocket Bible happens to be one! I think they’re unhelpful because they communicate an unnecessary distinction between God’s words and implies a “canon within a canon”. Pastorally, they can be damaging, as I think might be the case here, since many people end up with mistaken notions of the Bible. However, to be fair, when red-letter Bibles were first printed (quite a recent invention, at the turn of the 20th century), the guy who printed them did so not because he was making such distinctions but simply because he wanted to draw attention to the symbolism of Christ’s blood, which he was particularly struck by. It was simply an editorial decision, just as chapter and verse numbers and section headings in our Bible are editorial decisions (remember, those aren’t inspired either!). So on one level, it’s not a big deal.

But as I read Mat’s opening paragraphs several times and tried to understand what he was getting at – and I’m still not entirely sure I get his point – I see that Mat has different reasons for his antipathy towards them and consequently, the claim that the Bible itself is the very Word of God. Let me try to succinctly state his case.
  1. Red letter Bibles imply a distinction between God’s word explicitly spoken, that is, by Jesus, and other words.
  2. Why? Do we have, in Mat’s memorable quip, a "God-of-the-Red and God-of-the-Black?" And why quote God specifically when he’s talking the entire time? (The implied rhetorical answer here seems to be: “well, he isn’t!”)
  3. Typical Christian reply: “Well, those words, you know, the one not coloured in red, i.e not spoken by Jesus, is inspired by the Holy Spirit”. So the whole Bible is still the Word of God.
  4. Mat’s retort: eh? What about those contradictions? If you’re saying there’s none, well, conversation’s over ‘cause I definitely think there are and we have to face up honestly to them.
  5. The rest of Mat’s post builds on the above. If there’s distinctions as above and contradictions in the Bible, why bump up Paul’s words to the status of God’s? The only words worthy of elevating are Jesus, and maybe Enoch and Elijah, but we don’t have their words. And what about the canon? Besides, God’s wordzzzzz...
Mat might be aware of this and simply chose not to highlight it, but as I read through his post, I was also struck that his take on Scripture is fairly Barthian/neo-orthodox, nicely summarised in the line: "Let’s take it as a word ABOUT God, not the word OF God...". Karl Barth, arguably the most influential theologian of the 20th century similarly held that the Bible was not God’s revelation per se, but a witness to his revelation, although he also insisted that when a person encounters the Bible, it becomes the Word of God. Barth believed that it was impossible for human language to hold God’s words, which is a position that Mat also argues (though with some modifications, since Mat argues that 3 people could perfectly channel the word of God). Barth also believed his view of Scripture better safeguarded God’s integrity and his “otherness”, and I notice Mat also perceives his proposal as upholding the reputation of God and Christianity better by robbing those that seek power and control of their power, as it were, and as a way to maintain intellectual coherence by sidestepping the question of biblical contradictions (“this claim harms Christianity much more than it helps.”) So I wonder if Mat has been reading Barth himself (in which case, I can only fall on my knees and cry: “How unworthy am I!” :-p) or been reading/listening to Barthians. I also draw attention to this to show that Mat’s proposal is not completely novel, the understandable appeal of Barthian views, and that subsequent critiques of Barth’s views more or less apply to Mat’s views as well. We’ll come back to this later.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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Blogger David W. Congdon said...

It would be more accurate and helpful to remember Barth's "threefold Word of God": the Word of God incarnate (Jesus Christ), the Word of God written (Scripture), and the Word of God spoken (preaching). We cannot forget that Barth spoke of each as the Word of God, including the preaching of the Word, though the latter two only in relation to the first. Only Jesus is the Word of God by nature.

7:56 pm  
Blogger BK said...

haha - i should say first that i'm starstruck that a fairly big-hitter in the theo-blogging world has seen it fit to leave a comment here! (Yes, I'm geeky). Maybe I should be aiming to get Ben Myers here next... :-p

Thank you for the clarification. I have never read Barth myself, only overviews of Barth by others. I was aware of the "threefold Word of God" but I understood Barth's treatment of the relationship between the 3 was meant to be very sophisticated, so at best I could only present the simplest of sketches; no reason to include something I didn't have a firm grasp of myself. Afraid my blog audience is pretty different from yours, no graduate seminarians here! Thanks again, your comment is helpful.

9:09 pm  
Blogger The Hedonese said...

Hey BK

Heard from DiscordantDude that ur now working with some student ministry? Fulltime?

Interesting topic... am going thru this very issue w some of my friends in church. No time to blog abt it though

Yesterday i met Sam who preaches at an Anglican church near Oxford, do u know him?

3:50 am  

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