Monday, August 13, 2012

ReKnew

ReKnew has been launched! I'm excited to share with you my new website and updated blog posts HERE. You'll find a wealth of material on the new site that wasn't on the old site.

Blessings,

Greg

Monday, June 11, 2012

Divine Accommodation and the Cross: where Calvin was onto something


Over the last few posts, I’ve been arguing that the cross represents the thematic center of everything Jesus was about. Hence, rather than striving to have a “Christocentric” theology -- which is so broad it means next to nothing—we ought to sharpen our focus by striving for a “cruciform” theology. I then offered some suggestions about how adopting a cruciform perspective might adjust our understanding of biblical inspiration.

Beginning today, I’d like to reflect on how a cruciform perspective might affect our understanding of “divine transcendence” and “divine accommodation.” The former is usually understood to refer to God as he is in himself, apart from his relation to creation. The latter refers to various ways God has had to adjust his appearance in order to communicate to us, given that our brain capacity is so limited, and our hearts so tainted with sin. The two are inseparable inasmuch as the second presupposes the first. That is, we could only recognize that God is accommodating himself in a given passage if we already know something about what God is like in himself, when he’s not accommodating.

I thought it might be fun to start my reflections on this topic with John Calvin, since he used the concept of accommodation more than anyone else in church history. Everyone assumes I don’t like brother John, but it’s not true. Well, maybe a little. I’ll readily admit that I find aspects of his doctrine of God, especially as it concerns “election” and “reprobation,” to be utterly horrific. I should also acknowledge that what I’ve learned about his personal life, especially the way he treated enemies like Michael Servetus, does little to boost my respect for him. At the same time, however, I want it to be known that I have found much in both his Institutes of the Christian Religion and his massive commentaries that I consider to be very insightful. Seriously.

I find some aspects of his use of the concept of divine accommodation to be helpful. In previous posts I’ve said that to read Scripture through the lens of the incarnation and the cross means we should read it with the awareness that God is a God who stoops to enter into our humanity and bear our sin. Calvin’s use of divine accommodation, at times, points in this direction. For example, regarding the depiction of Yahweh as a warrior waking up with a hangover in Psalm 78:65, Calvin said that this was a divine portrait that was “accommodated to the stupidity of people.” [1] So too, Stephen Benin documents the manner in which Calvin occasionally “pushed his approach [to accommodation] so far as to assert that the Holy Spirit…accommodated itself to vulgar error in order to enhance the meaning of its message,” as when he noted how the Psalmist expressed the erroneous view that cobras could make themselves deaf in Psalms 58:4-5.[2] Most surprising of all, Calvin wasn’t afraid of admitting that some portraits of Yahweh in the OT, such as his commanding his people to mercilessly slaughter defenseless women and children, were “utterly barbaric,” “crude,”  “savage,” and “atrocious.” However, Calvin concluded that because it was God who did these things, and because God transcends our moral categories, we must acknowledge these otherwise “atrocious” actions to be “holy.”[3]

What I find intriguing, however, is that as much as Calvin used the principle of accommodation to explain difficult passages, and despite the fact that he was close to affirming that the Holy Spirit is willing to stoop to bear our stupidity and erroneous views, when it came to explaining depictions of God acting violently, Calvin instead appealed to his doctrine that God is above our moral categories (a doctrine which, if you think about it, implies that we have no idea what we mean when we claim God is “good”). Had Calvin placed the cross at the center of his concept of divine accommodation, I believe he could have explained the passages that depict God acting in “crude,” “savage,” and “atrocious” ways without having to say that “crude,” “savage,” and “atrocious” behavior becomes “holy” when applied to God.

Had Calvin made the cross central to his understanding of accommodation, he could have explained these violent portraits of God (as well as a multitude of other embarrassing or difficult passages) the same way he explained passages where the Spirit accommodates our “stupidity” and error. Had Calvin incorporated God’s sin-bearing character into his understanding of accommodation, he could have said what I would say: these violent, “savage” portraits anticipate the cross by pointing to a God who, out of love, stoops to bear the sin of his people, and thus takes on the semblance of a deity that is far less beautiful than he actually is-- just as he did on the cross.


[1] Cited in F. C. Battles, “God was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity,” Interpretation, 31 (1977), 19-38 (35).

[2] S. Benin, The Footprints of God: Divine Accommodation in Jewish and Christian Theology (New York: SUNY, 1983), 195.

[3] See D. F. Wright, “Accommodation and Barbarity in John Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries,” in Understanding Poets and Prophets: Essays in Honour of George Wishart Anderson, A. G. Auld, ed. (JSOT, Supp. 152: 413-27; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 413-27 [427-28].  See also “Calvin’s Pentateuchal Criticism: Equity, Hardness of Hart, and Divine Accommodation in the Mosaic Harmony commentary,” Calvin Theological Journal, 21 (1986), 33-50.

Image by Vincent Kaczmarek. Used in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr

Thursday, June 7, 2012

2 Announcements From ReKnew



You’ve heard whispers of a “cool new website” promising to have all the content from Greg’s old site, while also taking the blog to the next level...

You’ve caught glimpses of Greg’s vision for the site, and become eager with anticipation...

You’ve waited patiently as we postponed the launch. More than once...

You’ve started to wish the future was a little less “open”...

...and begun to wonder if the title of Greg’s next book will be “Myth of a Christian Website.”

Well, we’re excited to tell you something.


ReKnew.org is set to launch Saturday, June 30!


The ReKnew team has been working like crazy to make this happen. It’s obviously taken a lot more work than we originally thought. But baby, ready or not, June 30, here we come!

What’s that you say?
Can’t wait for June 30?
Want something a little more…now?

No problem.


ReKnew goes live on Facebook and Twitter now!


“But wait,” you say, “I’m already connected to Greg Boyd’s Facebook and Twitter.”

Fantastic. Greg will keep tweeting on his personal Twitter account. No change there. But ReKnew’s Twitter and Facebook is going to be a little different. Different posts. Different purpose.

Besides simply being a way to alert you when new content is posted to ReKnew.org, we really hope to use ReKnew’s Facebook and Twitter as a hub for mobilizing a movement. We want to help you discover and network with other bloggers, websites, and ministries that resonate with Greg’s vision of God’s Kingdom. We also want our Facebook to be a place for the ReKnew community to meet each other, share thoughts, questions, prayer requests, articles, stories, and anything else of interest. It’s here for you. Today. And we hope you’ll be a part of it.

Please join us and be one of the first to help get this conversation started.
https://www.facebook.com/ReKnewOrg
http://www.twitter.com/rekneworg

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Answering an Objection to a Cross-Centered Approach to Scripture [Q&A]



Editorial NoteThrough Greg’s Facebook and Twitter, we’ve been getting some great feedback and questions regarding his cross-centered approach to Scripture. Several have voiced questions similar to the reader’s (below), so we thought it would be helpful to post Greg’s answer here on his blog.
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READER: I normally like what he has to say, but Greg’s cruciform hermeneutics strikes me as dangerous. Doesn't this thinking make us (as flawed humans) the arbiters or judges of truth? If the Word of God can be defined and explained away through our definition of what we (again, as flawed humans) believe to be the character of God, then doesn't that (in a sense) make us like God? Aren't we saying that we know what parts of the Word are "really” true and what parts were inaccurately written down? With this thinking, isn't ALL SCRIPTURE up for debate as to whether is it is true or not? How can we tell if ANY Scripture is true, or just the misinformed opinion of the author?

GREG:  Thanks so much for your question. I appreciate the seriousness with which you take this important theological topic. I’d like to make four comments by way of a response.

1. We are arbiters of truth (whether we like it or not)

As much as we might wish it were otherwise, I’m afraid that we flawed human beings are already the "arbiters of truth." For example, you, as a flawed human, had to decide to accept the Bible as the Word of God rather than the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, or any other book. Even after deciding to believe the Bible, you, as a flawed human, have to decide what you were going to do with (say) its pre-scientific view of the earth and sky resting on pillars; its view of the sky as a rock-solid dome that holds up water with windows that get opened when it rains; and its view that the earth was created in six days, with light being created three days before the sun, moon, and stars. And, finally, you as a flawed human have to decide what parts of the Bible you think are still relevant for today, and which aren’t. For example, you must decide whether you think God still wants people to stone children to death if they sass back to their parents, whether God still wants people to keep slaves, or whether God still forbids women to speak in church and to wear braided hair and jewelry. So I'm afraid we have no choice but to decide matters of truth.

2. It’s not as dangerous as its alternative.

While you worry that my view is dangerous, I’d like to suggest that the truly dangerous view is one that believes that the Bible must be 100% accurate to be God’s inspired Word. This view means that your confidence in Scripture depends on your ability to resolve every one of the contradictions, scientific errors, and historical problems associated with it, and as I noted several blogs ago, most who explore these issues in a thorough and an intellectually honest way eventually come to the conclusion that it can’t be done. But as I also argued in that post, if God “breathed” the most perfect revelation of himself on the cross by, in some sense, becoming our sin (2 Cor. 5:21), why should anyone assume the way he “breathed” through Scripture completely rules out human imperfections?

3. Not all Scripture is created equal, according to Jesus.

It seems you’re concerned that I am not treating all parts of the Bible, and all portraits of God in the Bible, as equally authoritative. The thing is, the NT itself teaches us to not read the Bible this way. For example, Jesus said his teachings carried more weight than that of John the Baptist (Jn. 5:36), yet he also said that John the Baptist was greater than anyone leading up to his time (Mt. 11:11). So if Jesus’ teaching has more authority than John, then it has more authority than the entire OT. No wonder Jesus felt free to not only cancel, but to even reverse the OT command, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In its place, he commanded us to “turn the other cheek,” and to “love [our] enemies” (Mt. 5:38-45). Jesus at one point dared to claim that “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Mt. 11:27). I have to believe there’s some hyperbole going on here, but Jesus is at least claiming that his revelation of God is so much greater than anyone before him that it’s as though they had no knowledge at all! Something similar is found in the Gospel of John when John contrasts Moses and Jesus by saying that, while the law came through Moses, “grace and truth” came through Christ (Jn. 1:17). This again must be somewhat hyperbolic, for it makes it sound like there was no truth prior to Christ. But it at the very least demonstrates that revelation of God in the OT is not on a par with Jesus.

This is what we find throughout the NT. For example, the author of Hebrews contrasts the way God spoke in various ways in the OT with the way he now speaks through his Son, for the Son alone is “the radiance of his glory “and “the exact representation of God’s essence” (Heb. 1:1-13). So too Paul, as well as the author of Hebrews, compares the OT to a “shadow” next to the reality, which is Christ (Col.2:17; Heb. 8:5; 10:1). I could go on and on, but I hope this is enough for you to see that the NT does not allow us to read everything in Scripture as being equally authoritative.

4. It’s not all up for grabs if the Crucified Christ is the measure by which we judge and interpret Scripture.

Finally, you wonder how anyone can know what is, and is not, “really” true if we allow any part of Scripture to be inaccurate. You also worry that to judge any part of the Bible to be inaccurate is to throw the whole Bible up for grabs. First off, I want you to know that, in submission to the authority of Christ, I believe that, rightly interpreted, all Scripture is true and “God-breathed.” But as I said above, I see no reason why this should require us to deny that it contains contradictions, an antiquated cosmology, and historical inaccuracies. As Luther, Calvin, and most Protestants since have insisted, to interpret Scripture rightly means that, whatever else we find in a passage, we must interpret it in a way that bears witness to Christ (Jn. 5:39-46; Lk. 24: 27). This is how we can know what is and is not “really” true. If our interpretation of a passage – including any portrait of God – doesn’t point us to the God who revealed his true character by bearing our sins and dying for his enemies on the cross, then I submit we have not yet arrived at the “right” interpretation.

In this light, what should we do when we come upon gruesome passages such as those in which an author prays for God to melt his enemies like a slug in the desert heat (Ps. 58:8), to burn them up alive “like tumbleweed” (Ps. 83:13-14; cf. 21:9), to “tear [them] to pieces” (Ps. 50:22), to “rain fiery coals,” “burning sulfur,” and a “scorching wind” upon their heads (Ps. 11:6; cf. 140:10) or, worst of all, to “go down alive to the realm of the dead” – that is, to be buried alive (Ps. 55:15)? How could God “breathe” such terrible prayers that are so contrary to the attitude Christ demonstrated when he prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him with his dying breath? Even more challenging, how do macabre passages such as this point us toward the one who died for, and prayed for, his executioners in this way?

It’s at this point that I suggest we remember that the God who “breathed” these passages is one and the same as the God who on the cross bore the sin of his people, and thereby took on the semblance that was far beneath his actual beauty – namely, a God-forsaken, guilty criminal. If the cross reveals who God truly is, and thus what God has always been like, then I suggest we read the Bible with our eyes open to ways in which he bore the sin of his people in the past, and took on appearances that were far beneath his actual beauty. All passages are “God-breathed” and “true,” but the truth of some “God-breathed” passages is found not in what they say, but in the fact that the humble God of covenantal love was willing to stoop this low to bear the sin of his people by owning these passages as his own.

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Image by David Campbell. Used in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr

Monday, May 21, 2012

How the Imperfections of Scripture Reveal God Perfectly

Even in the imperfections, God is breathing.

In my previous blog I discussed one important implication of a cruciform (“cross-centered”) approach to biblical inspiration. On the cross, I noted, God revealed his perfection by identifying with human imperfection. Jesus in some sense became our sin and our curse. In this light, I argued, why should anyone find it surprising, let alone disturbing, that God’s revelation in Scripture contains human imperfections (inconsistencies, historical and scientific inaccuracies, historically conditioned theologies, etc.)? In this post I’d like to take this discussion a step further.

Largely on the basis of I Timothy 3:16, Christians throughout history have confessed that the Bible is “divinely inspired.” However, the word Paul uses to describe Scripture (theopneustos) literally means “God-breathed.” It’s a powerful metaphor that sets Scripture apart from every other book in the world! But as with all metaphors that are applied to God, we need to take care to discern what aspects of the breathing process are to be attributed to God, and which aspects are not. Since breathing is an activity we do completely on our own, conservative Christians have usually assumed that the Bible was “breathed” by God completely on his own. And since there were no outside influences in God’s “breathing” process, it is usually concluded that the Bible must reflect God’s own perfection. In other words, it must be completely mistake–free or “inerrant.”

I believe that this is a mistaken and unfortunate application of this metaphor. As I noted in my previous blog, and as many of us know from our own experience, this way of thinking about biblical inspiration has set many up to have their faith smashed when they discover they have no intellectually honest way to deny that Scripture contains things such as contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and antiquated cosmological and theological ideas. It’s tragic and entirely unnecessary.

Instead of assuming we know at the start what the process of God’s “breathing” entails, I suggest we ought to anchor our reflections of this process in the cross. If the cross is the definitive revelation of God, as I’ve argued, then it reveals what God is truly like and thus what God has always been like in all of his activities. We should therefore try to understand God’s “breathing “of Scripture in this light. As we assume this approach, we find we have no reason to think that God’s “breathing” was something he did completely on his own, excluding all outside influences. To the contrary, God “breathed” his self-revelation on the cross not merely by acting toward humans, but also by allowing others to act on him. In other words, there was an active as well as a passive dimension to God’s revelation on the cross at Calvary.

Active and Passive Dimensions of God-Breathing

Think about it. God obviously took action toward us when he devised the plan of salvation and then began to implement it by becoming a human being. And he obviously took action toward us when Jesus taught and acted in ways that provoked authorities and insured that he would get him arrested, beaten, and crucified. But it’s also evident that God was, to some extent, passive in his self-revelation on Calvary inasmuch as he allowed wicked humans and fallen forces of evil to violently act towards him. Indeed, it’s only because the process by which God “breathed” his definitive revelation on the cross included a passive dimension that it was able to manifest his humble, other-oriented, self-sacrificial love. God thus “breathed” his self-revelation on the cross not only by taking action, but also by subjecting himself to the action of others.

Since the God who “breathed” Scripture is also the God who revealed himself on the cross, and since the most fundamental purpose of Scripture is to bear witness to the revelation of God on the cross, we have every reason to assume that the process by which he “breathed” Scripture included an active as well as a passive element. As a matter of fact, the correctness of this assumption is confirmed by the simple fact that the books of the Bible all reflect the distinct personalities, writing styles, and cultural conditioning of their human authors. God clearly allowed the humanity of these authors to act on him and condition the content that he “breathed” through them.

Even more importantly, this passive aspect of God’s “breathing” is confirmed in the fact that Scripture incorporates the questions, confessions, and even mistaken perspectives of the human authors. When the grief-stricken Job exclaims that God “mocks at the calamity of the innocent” and “covers the eyes of [earth’s] judges” so they rule unjustly (Job 9:23-24), for example, it’s evident that God is allowing Job’s mistaken theological perspective to condition his “breathing.”

A God Revealed Perfectly Through Imperfection

What this means, among other things, is that we must read Scripture with the understanding that, while it is all “God-breathed,” it is not all the result of God’s action. As is the case with his self-revelation on the cross, some of what God “breathed” in Scripture is the result of him humbly subjecting himself to the action of others. And this means we must read Scripture with the awareness that, while all Scripture reveals God, it does not all do so directly. The revelation of God in passages such as Job 9:23-24 is not found directly on the surface of the text, for this content, we saw, is mistaken. Rather, Job 9:23-24—as well as every other passage that reflects the limited, culturally-conditioned and fallen perspectives of its author—indirectly reveals God by bearing witness to his humble, other-oriented, self-sacrificial love. That is, while the content of passages like this reflects the limited and fallen humanity of its author, the very fact that God was not above stooping to embrace it as his own by incorporating it into the canon indirectly bears witness to his humility and grace.

When we understand God’s “breathing” in light of the definitive revelation that he “breathed” on the cross, we are in a position that allows us to see how Scripture’s imperfections are not only not a problem; we can now see how they bear witness to Christ. The revelation of God on Calvary is not found in what is directly visible – that is, in the apparently God-forsaken human dying an agonizing death. The revelation is rather discerned with eyes of faith as we see in this crucified man the humble Creator, stooping to identify with our humanity and our sin. So too, the revelation of God in passages that reflect the imperfect, culturally-conditioned, fallen perspective of their authors is found not in what is directly visible – namely, in their expressed content. It is rather discerned with the eyes of faith as we see in this content the humble Creator who is not above allowing humans to impact him and condition his “breathing.”

Finally, once we understand that God’s “breathing” includes a passive as well as an active dimension, we can admit that some biblical portraits of God reflect the culturally-conditioned and fallen perspectives of their authors without thereby denying that these portraits are “God-breathed.” In fact, we begin to see how these imperfect portraits of God nevertheless perfectly reveal God by indirectly bearing witness to the crucified Christ. To the extent that any portrait accurately reflects God’s true character, as definitively revealed in Christ, we may surmise that it is a “God-breathed” direct revelation. To the extent that any divine portrait does not accurately reflect God’s true character, however, we may surmise that it is a “God-breathed” indirect revelation, bearing witness to a humble, other-oriented, self-sacrificial God who is not above stooping to make such portraits his own, just as we was not above stooping to make our limited and fallen humanity his own on the cross. 

And now, I submit, we are in a position to begin to see how a portrait of Yahweh commanding his people to “show no mercy” as they murder every man, woman, child, and animal in Canaan might not only be consistent with, but might actually point to, the God who became a man who gave his life for enemies on the cross while praying for their forgiveness with his last breath.

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Image by Alvin Trusty. Used in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Scripture’s God-Breathed Imperfections

“Inerrancy” of Scripture

As a conservative evangelical who accepted the “inerrancy” of Scripture, I used to be profoundly disturbed whenever I confronted contradictions in Scripture, or read books that made strong cases that certain aspects of the biblical narrative conflict with archeological findings. Throughout my college and graduate school career, I spent untold hours and no small amount of anxious energy trying to figure out ways to reconcile Scripture’s many contradictions, harmonize problematic narratives with archeological data, and refute a host of other “liberal” views of Scripture (e.g. the documentary hypothesis, the late dating of Daniel, etc.). At least twice during this period I came dangerously close to abandoning my faith because, despite my best efforts, I could not with intellectual honesty find my way around certain problems.

In my previous blog, I expressed one of the reasons why these things do not bother me anymore. The ultimate foundation for my faith is no longer Scripture, but Christ. I feel I have very good historical, philosophical, and personal reasons for believing that the historical Jesus was pretty much as he’s described in the Gospels. I also feel I have very good reasons for accepting the NT’s view that Jesus was, and is, the Son of God, the definitive revelation of God, and the Savior of the world. I, of course, can’t be certain of this, but I’m confident enough to make the decision to put my trust in Christ, and live my life as his disciple. I continue to believe in the inspiration of Scripture primarily because Jesus did, and his Church has done so throughout history. But because the intellectual feasibility of my faith no longer hangs in the balance, I simply don’t need to get bent out of shape if I conclude that it contains contradictions, historical inaccuracies, or other human imperfections.

As an incidental aside, I’d like it to be known that I more often than not find myself ending up on the conservative side of things as it concerns the many debates surrounding the accuracy and consistency of Scripture. I find that if you accept that God is real, and accept the possibility of miracles, the arguments for highly skeptical views of Scripture tend to be surprisingly weak. But the more important point is that I no longer feel I need to end up on the conservative side of things (for on certain matters, such as the dating of the book of Daniel, I actually don’t). I don't any longer feel that anything of great consequence hangs in the balance on where these debates end up, for my faith is anchored in something much more solid than what either side of these debates can offer.

Inspiration of Scripture

In any event, there’s a second and more recently discovered reason why these flaws no longer bother me. I simply no longer see any reason why God’s infallible Word should exclude human flaws. In another blog, I shared why I believe the cross expresses the thematic center of everything Jesus was about. God was most perfectly revealed when, having become a human in Christ, he bore our sin and our curse on the cross. On this basis, I argued that our theology must not only be Christ-centered; it should be, from beginning to end, cross-centered.

If we accept this perspective, it fundamentally changes the way we think about the nature of biblical inspiration (as well as a host of other things). If the ultimate revelation of the perfect God took place by God making our imperfections his own – that is by, in some sense, becoming our sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and our curse (Gal 3:13) – on what grounds could anyone assume that the process by which this perfect God reveals himself in his written Word must exclude all human imperfections? I would think a cross-centered approach to biblical inspiration would lead us to the exact opposite conclusion. Think about it. If the cross reveals what God is truly like, it reveals what God has always been like, in all of his activities. And it is this God who reveals himself by “breathing”(theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3:16) Scripture. In this light, I submit we should expect to find human imperfections in Scripture.

Infallibility of Scripture

Does this mean that we must reject biblical infallibility? It all depends on what you mean by “infallible.” “Infallible” means “unfailing,” and for something to “fail” or “not fail” depends on the standard you are measuring it up against. So when you confess Scripture is “infallible,” what standard are you presupposing? If your standard is modern science, for example, I’m afraid you’re going to have a very hard time holding onto your confidence in Scripture, because last I heard, scientists were pretty sure the sky wasn’t a dome that was “hard as a molten mirror” (Job 37:18) as it held up water (Gen.1:7) with windows that could be opened so it could rain (Gen. 7:11). So too, if your standard is perfect historical accuracy, or perfect consistency, you’re going to sooner or later run into trouble as well for similar reasons. In fact, I would argue that you’re going to run into problems if your standard is even uniformly perfect theology. For example, we instinctively interpret references to Yahweh riding on clouds and throwing down lightning bolts to be metaphorical (e.g. Ps. 18:14; 68:4; 104:3). But ancient biblical authors, along with everybody else in the Ancient Near East, viewed God and/or the gods as literally doing things like this. They were simply mistaken.

The Cruciform Standard

But why should anyone insist that Scripture conform to any of these standards of accuracy? If we accept the view that all theological concepts should be centered on the cross, then it means that our understanding of “biblical infallibility,” as well as “biblical inspiration,” should be centered on the cross. And as I said above, if God most perfectly revealed his perfection by identifying with our imperfections on the cross, then we should have no problem affirming that the Bible is a “God-breathed,” “infallible,” and even a “perfect” book while at the same time accepting that it contains human imperfections. And it’s not simply that Scripture is inspired despite having human imperfections, as many argue. If we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, we should rather affirm that God “breathes” through Scripture’s human imperfections as readily as God “breathes” through any and every other aspect of Scripture.

Finally, if we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, then the cross becomes the standard against which Scripture’s “infallibility” must be assessed. In this light, to confess that Scripture is “infallible” means, most fundamentally, that it will not fail to bear witness to the crucified Christ if properly interpreted through the power of the Spirit, and with our eyes focused sharply on Christ. As Luther, Calvin, and most Protestants since have understood, all Scripture was written for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to Christ (see Jn 5:39-47; Lk 24:27). If you go to Scripture with a heart that is open to the Spirit and with the ultimate goal of finding Christ and growing as his disciple, it will not fail you. And when this is your highest aspiration, Scripture’s occasional inconsistencies, historical errors, outdated cosmologies, and conflicting theologies simply fade into insignificance.


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Photo by Les Chatfield. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Why Christ, not Scripture, is Our Ultimate Foundation



In a previous blog I argued that all our theological reflection must not only be Christ-centered, it must, most specifically, be cross-centered. I now want to begin to unpack some of the most important implications of adopting a cross-centered theological perspective. My ultimate goal is to show how a cross-centered theology is able to resolve the conflict between the revelation of God on the cross, on the one hand, and the OT’s portraits of God as a violent warrior deity, on the other. The place to begin our reflections is with the inspiration of Scripture. But before I adopt a cross-centered perspective of inspiration, in this blog I’d like to first offer an important preliminary reflection on what I consider to be a mistaken use of biblical inspiration.

Scripture: A Shaky Foundation for Why We Believe

Evangelicals typically ground the credibility of their faith on the inspiration of the Bible. If they were to become convinced that the Bible was not inspired, their faith would crumble. I think this posture is as unwise as it is unnecessary. I want it to be clear at the start that I fully embrace Scripture as the “God-breathed” (theopneustos) Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16), and I believe that, if properly defined, it is “infallible.” I also believe that Scripture should be the foundation of what we believe. But I think it’s very mistaken to make Scripture the foundation of why we believe.[1]

If the reason you believe is anchored in your confidence that Scripture is “God-breathed,” then your faith can’t help but be threatened every time you encounter a discrepancy, an archeological problem, or a persuasive historical-critical argument that a portion of the biblical narrative may not be historically accurate. Your faith may also be threatened every time you encounter material that is hard to accept as “God-breathed” -- the genocidal portrait of Yahweh I discussed in my previous blog, for example. When biblical inspiration is made this important, people are forced to go to extreme and sometimes even silly lengths to explain each and every one of the “encyclopedia” of “difficulties” one finds in Scripture (I’m alluding Gleason Archer’s apologetic book, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties).

As has happened to so many others, throughout my seminary training this foundation became increasingly shaky and eventually collapsed. I know a number of former-evangelicals who completely lost their faith when they experienced this. One is Bart Ehrman, who I’m sure many of you recognize as one of Christianity’s most well-known contemporary critics. He and I were in the doctoral program at Princeton Seminary at the same time, and we fell through our crumbling Scriptural foundation at roughly the same time and for many of the same reasons. But while Bart gradually fell into agnosticism, I fell onto a different and much more firm foundation. I fell into Christ.

Christ: A Firm Foundation

For a number of reasons (none of which have to do with the inspiration of Scripture) I believe the crucified and risen Christ is the definitive revelation of God’s character, and the definitive revelation of what God is up to in this world. Many of the reasons I have for believing in Christ are historical in nature. I find there are compelling historical-critical reasons for concluding that the Gospels are generally reliable, for example. (I and Paul Eddy address some of these in The Jesus Legend). Some of my reasons are philosophical in nature. The story of the God revealed in Christ that is centered on the cross makes better sense of the world to me than any other competing story, for example. And some of my reasons are rooted in personal experience. The story of the God of unsurpassable love who gave up everything to save a race of hopeless rebels “rings true” in the deepest part of my being. Moreover, I sometimes experience Christ in ways that make it hard to deny his reality.

I have a lot of reasons for believing in Christ, but the inspiration of Scripture is not one of them. I don’t deny that there are a handful of fulfilled prophecies about the coming Messiah that are rather compelling (e.g. the suffering servant of Isa. 53 and the pierced Lord of Zech. 12:10). But I also think evangelical apologists are misguided when they try to use this as the rational foundation for the Christian faith. When Gospel authors say Jesus “fulfilled” an OT verse, they don’t mean that the OT verse predicted something that Jesus did or that happened to Jesus. If you check out the OT verses Jesus is said to have “fulfilled,” you’ll find there is absolutely nothing predictive about them. The Gospel authors are rather using a version of an ancient Jewish interpretive strategy called “midrash” to simply communicate that something in the life of Jesus parallels and illustrates a point made in an OT verse.

In any event, if the intellectual credibility of your faith is leveraged on the prophecies that Jesus is said to have “fulfilled,” I’m afraid your faith will be literally incredible. I would instead advise you to anchor the plausibility of your faith, as well as your identity, your core sense of well-being, and your ultimate security and hope in Jesus and in Jesus alone.

Why Believe in the Inspiration of Scripture?

So where does the inspiration of Scripture come into the picture? While I do not believe in Jesus because I believe in the inspiration of Scripture, I do believe in the inspiration of Scripture because I believe in Jesus. Jesus is the center and culminating point of the entire biblical narrative, and it’s impossible to understand who Jesus is, and what he was up to apart from this story. Not only this, but historical-critical considerations have led me to conclude that the Gospels are generally trustworthy, as I said above, and these Gospels consistently present Jesus equating the Hebrew Scriptures with God’s Word. They also give some indication that Jesus expected the Holy Spirit to inspire some of his followers to bear witness to him in a way that would allow the world to believe on him through their word (e.g. Jn 14:26; 15:26-27; 17:20).

Along similar lines, Jesus promised that that he would be present in his corporate body by the power of the Spirit to continue to guide it (Mt 28:20; Jn. 14:18, 26). Under his guidance, this community has always acknowledged that both the Old and New Testaments were “God-breathed.” As part of this community, I feel compelled to do the same. And even apart from these considerations, I have trouble believing that the God who consistently inspired a written witness of his interactions with people leading up to Christ would not continue this pattern following Christ. Why would the One who always taught his community to rely on a written witness now suddenly lead his community with no written witness?

Because I believe in Jesus, therefore, I am led to confess that all Scripture is “God-breathed.” Yet, because it is Jesus and not Scripture that serves as the ultimate foundation for my faith, my faith is no longer threatened by the “encyclopedia” of “difficulties” one finds in Scripture. In fact (as I’ll attempt to show in my next blog) if we ground our faith in Christ alone, and begin all our theological reflections with Christ alone, things such as the discrepancies in Scripture and persuasive historical-critical arguments suggesting that sections of Scripture may not be historical cease to be difficulties at all.


(Image by Nic McPhee. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.)

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[1] For those who care about such matters, I consider myself a “soft-foundationalist,” and a “soft-rationalist,” which means I stand in-between “post-foundationalism” and “na├»ve evidentialism,”as well as between “rationalism” and “fideism,” on the other.