Letter to an inerrantist

February 7, 2011

This little post on atheism a while back inspired a lengthy and interesting discussion on a friend’s blog. In the course of that discussion, I offered this very brief defense of Jesus’ bodily resurrection (with the understanding that while Jesus’ resurrection was at least physical, it was more than we can explain or comprehend). Later, someone chimed in his support for my argument and wondered if I—like him—believed that the resurrection of Jesus proved that the Bible is “inerrant” (a loaded word if ever there was one).

Here’s what I wrote in reply:

Thanks for the kind words. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I can’t go with you down this path. As to what I believe, I think the Nicene Creed captures it nicely—and this is part of the problem. The Nicene Creed is a statement of Christian faith that predates your view of the authority of scripture by about 1,600 years. When it comes to Christian faith, I’m automatically biased towards things that are older. In other words, your view of the authority of scripture is way too modern. The Church fathers (and mothers) knew nothing of inerrancy.

In my view, scripture has authority inasmuch as it bears witness to the Word of God, who is (I hate this word, but I’ll use it anyway) literally Jesus. I believe that God’s perfect revelation of God’s self is not words on paper (even in their original “autographs”) but a person. God is absolute; everything else, including scripture, is relative. By all means, we understand the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in light of scripture—the overarching story of God’s plan to put the world to rights through Israel, of which Jesus’ passion/death/resurrection is the climax. The resurrection, contrary to what you argue, doesn’t vindicate the Bible, it vindicates God.

This might make our footing seem a bit slippery as we grope with the challenges of our lives and our world, but our faith is in God, not the Bible—which is not to say that the Bible isn’t inspired by God or isn’t essential for forming as Christians. I believe that we encounter God through scripture by the power of the Spirit. Isn’t that enough? Do I need scripture to do anything more?

Logically, your argument about how the resurrection “proves” the other miracles in scripture doesn’t hold up. For one thing, all of Jesus’ words about Adam, Noah, or Jonah are true whether or not these people were historical people. To say that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days is true: in the ironic and funny story of Jonah in the Old Testament. Jonah is, among other things, a great work of comic literature. In my view, you flatten the story if you insist on its being historical.

The good Samaritan or the father of the prodigal son aren’t historical people, yet who would argue that their stories are impoverished because of it?

Also, given my view of the Word of God, I don’t share your burden of believing that the historical Jesus corresponds in every detail to the Jesus that emerges in the words of the gospels. The gospel writers are themselves “reading” Jesus through the lens of resurrection, and that necessarily affects how they tell the story of Jesus. I don’t believe that Jesus was walking around with a self-understanding that he was God incarnate. I certainly don’t believe that Jesus shared God’s knowledge. I take the Christ hymn of Philippians 2 quite literally (ha!) when it talks about Christ’s emptying himself. To be human is necessarily to be limited in knowledge.

I believe Jesus understood himself in the context of a first century Jewish worldview. I believe that Jesus saw himself as Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Even words about “son of God” has a more nuanced meaning in the context of Israel and Davidic kingship than simply “son of God=Second Person of the Trinity.” One of the great benefits of Jewish-Christian dialogue over the past 50 years or so is that we are better able to read Jesus’ life in the context of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish thought.

But I hope you see that how Jesus understood himself is less important than what God communicated about Jesus through the events of the cross and resurrection. The Church arrives at its christological formulations about Jesus Christ only after reflecting and elaborating on the implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection over time.

O.K., I’m now officially boring myself. Sorry. Anyway, thanks for your input.

13 Responses to “Letter to an inerrantist”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, as the one whose comment on the blog you responded to, I want to make a clarification and a further thought or two. As to the clarification, I did not mean my questions as to the effect of accepting Jesus’ bodily resurrection leading to “deductions” as to other biblical events to be an endorsement of “inerrancy.” I personally don’t have a firm opinion as to whether the Bible is “inerrant” in the sense of having no mistakes of any kind. Rather, the issue to me is, did the events which are recounted actually occur, irrespective of whether all the “details” are correct.

    As to further thoughts, I think it is important to consider whether there are not at least SOME “logical deductions” which necessarily follow from believing the biblical accounts that (irrespective of “inerrancy”) Jesus physically rose from the dead. Particularly, the “supernatural” must exist to some degree if Christ rose, since that is not something we ever observe to “naturally” happen. So, where’s the limit? Is it really more “astounding” insofar as the “miraculous” is concerned to say, for example, that a whale could swallow a man and then “spit him back out” than to say Jesus could rise again?

    Second (and last), what does Jesus’ resurrection mean to you in terms of Jesus’ “divinity”? Consistently throughout the gospel accounts Jesus referenced himself as of the same nature as God, or God’s “Son.” “I and the Father are one.” “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” And etc. I see the resurrection as at least a “verification” of those claims. I would be very interested to know your thoughts on this issue.

    Tom Harkins 02/08/2011

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Tom,

    I’m sorry if I misinterpreted you by ascribing your perspective on the authority of scripture to “inerrancy.” But your second paragraph above is softer than what you wrote earlier: You were arguing for the historicity of Noah and Jonah based on the fact that Jesus spoke of them. The resurrection proves that Jesus was who he claimed to be, and if that’s the case, he’s not a liar. Therefore, Noah and Jonah were historical people to whom these amazing and miraculous things happened. Right?

    If that’s what you’re saying, your logic doesn’t hold up. Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t prove, for instance, that the historical Jesus said the words attributed to him in the gospels. (I take at face value that he did, but it seems likely to me that at times the authors are reading the resurrected Lord back into the words of the historical Jesus or tailoring them to the needs of their local churches. Regardless, those words are still deeply true, so I believe them. The resurrection doesn’t settle the question either way.)

    If he did say them, it doesn’t prove that Jesus didn’t mean these words figuratively. In fact, he certainly meant them figuratively! He wasn’t citing these Old Testament figures to make a point about the authority of scripture or miracles. Rather, he was using them to speak to the theological and historical crisis that his contemporaneous audience was facing.

    Whether, in addition to this metaphorical meaning that Jesus had in mind, Jesus also believed in the historicity of their stories, I have no idea. Focusing on that seems to be beside the point, to say the least. I actually have no idea how people living in the Ancient Near East understood or interpreted Jonah and Noah—but however they did, I’m happy to accept that Jesus understood and interpreted them the same way. I’m happy to locate him in his time and place, while at the same time maintaining that he is also fully God.

    I’m certain that people in the Ancient Near East didn’t share our modern categories of thought: history, as we understand it today, didn’t exist. The word “literal,” as we understand it today, if it existed, likely didn’t have the same meaning it has today. The questions we bring to texts like Noah and Jonah were not the same questions Jesus and his contemporaries brought to the text. They didn’t think like us. They didn’t see the world the way we see it. That’s neither wrong nor right; it’s just different.

    Whether you’re an inerrantist or not, one major problem I have with inerrancy is that it imposes a modern worldview on the text. It assumes that our questions today are the same ones that preoccupied the writers of the Bible. They’re not. It’s unfair of us to judge the texts by our historiographical and scientific standards, when those standards didn’t exist back then. And who says our standards are all that great, anyway?

    As for your last paragraph, why the scare quotes around the word “divinity”? I’ve already told you I believe in the Nicene Creed. Read the creed and tell me what the resurrection means to me. What the Council of Nicaea said… That’s what I believe. But the point of Nicaea, by the way, was to address genuinely difficult exegetical questions—questions that emerged from scripture itself—questions surrounding Jesus’ divinity and his relationship to the Father. Both sides of the question of whether or to what extent Jesus was divine had their own proof texts and their own ways of interpreting these texts.

    The Aryan side looked at the same scripture you cite above and said, “Well, by all means, Christ was God’s Son! This means that God created him first, as the first rank and highest of his Creation, and then created everything else through him. But Christ is not fully God. There’s only one God, after all—the Father—as Jesus preached and taught. And of course when Jesus said he and the Father were one, he meant that they were of one accord, they were ‘on the same page,’ they were of the same mind. But how could they be ‘one,’ when Jesus was a human and God was eternal?”

    I hope you see my point. Fortunately, by the grace of God, the right side won! But it was a big and important fight that engaged very serious and smart people on both sides of the question.

    Tom, it’s not going to shatter my faith if I’m wrong about whether someone named Jonah lived inside a fish for three days. I really have nothing at stake in the question. The Book of Jonah is at least great literature, employing humor and irony, which makes a powerful point about God’s grace and mercy, and God’s love for the outsider and enemy—the main reason it was written.

    By contrast, I have a great deal at stake in the question of Jesus’ resurrection, because if Christ conquered death that means, among other things, I get to share in his victory over sin, evil, and death. If Christ didn’t, I’m with Paul: I’m still in my sins.

    Jonah and Noah have nothing to do with that, so I don’t get worked up about it.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I understand your general point or principle of scriptural interpretation that just because the Bible says a particular thing doesn’t mean it happened that way. To my surprise, even the great C.S. Lewis felt that way as to both Noah and Jonah in particular. But I would think one has to be pretty careful about that approach. Specifically, our proof of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is anchored in the biblical accounts. Even though there is some secondary evidence, it is the gospel accounts which are central. So, if we disregard some other things which appear just as clearly stated in those same gospels, I think this weakens the resurrection “proof.” We can, of course, cling to the resurrection in particular if we so choose (and certainly I agree that is more important than Noah or Jonah) and jettison much of the rest, but the intellectual congruity suffers somewhat, I think.

    Aside from the exegetical question, I am not sure why there should be any “bias,” as I might characterize it, against Old Testament miracles (or, for that matter, other New Testament miracles besides the resurrection). Clearly “the greater includes the lesser” as a matter of logic. I just see no reason why a person who subscribes to the Nicene Creed, as you say, should have any particular “doubt” as to the other content in scripture. Indeed, if we limit the “literal” content of scripture to the resurrection, it seems we leave out the vast bulk of the biblical accounts.

    I’ll finish this comment out by noting that even “post-Christ” interpretations of Old Testament passages (as well as Christ’s) took them “literally” in numerous instances. Most notably as to the creation and the Flood, for example, Peter says that those who doubt that Christ will come again “deliberately forget” that creation was “by God’s word,” and that the world was “destroyed” by the Flood waters, just as it will ultimately be destroyed by fire. 2 Peter 3:7. In fact, I cannot think of even a single instance where either Jesus or any New Testament author referred to any Old Testament account as being anything other than historical, and indeed relied on such “historicity” as a ground for their “present-day” conclusions.

    Tom Harkins 02/10/2011

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom,

      You wrote:

      “Specifically, our proof of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is anchored in the biblical accounts. Even though there is some secondary evidence, it is the gospel accounts which are central.”

      I disagree. Strongly! The resurrection is rooted in many different threads of historical evidence, only a part of which are the gospels. (When it comes to the Bible, Paul’s eyewitness account in 1 Corinthians 15 is more authoritative evidence, anyway.) Scripture gives us clues, insights, and pointers to historical events undergirding the gospel accounts, but it is not on the basis of the gospel accounts themselves that we can defend the resurrection as an historical event.

      It couldn’t be any other way, Tom. You can’t defend scripture with scripture. That is, as someone pointed out on Paul’s blog, a hopelessly circular argument. If someone rejects the authority of scripture, appealing to its authority to make your case is worthless. That’s why this statement is completely wrong: ‘Clearly “the greater includes the lesser” as a matter of logic.’ Only as a matter of circular logic. As I’ve said, the resurrection doesn’t establish the authority of scripture, whereby the “greater” miracle magically enables us to prove the “lesser” miracles.

      There are so many reasons why, as I point out earlier: We don’t know for sure that Jesus spoke the words attributed to him about Jonah and Noah. We don’t know how he understood those words if he spoke them. Even if he understood them literally, deeply ambiguous questions of christology, incarnation, and self-understanding come into play. (See my earlier comments.) With these questions looming, I haven’t established the authority of scripture. I can’t therefore appeal to that authority to “prove” other miracles of scripture.

      If you want to read a good scholarly and apologetic book on the subject, check out N.T. Wright’s _Resurrection of the Son of God_.

      I accept the authority of scripture. I don’t believe its authority rests on the question of whether Jonah lived in a fish for a few days or there was a worldwide flood. It’s not authoritative because everything must have happened exactly as described, or else the whole thing falls down like a house of cards. It’s authoritative mostly because God speaks his Word to us through it—continues to speak. The Holy Spirit meets us in the words of the Bible.

      But I haven’t said enough… There’s a part of me that simply doesn’t care whether the stories of Jonah and Noah happened at some point in history. If I’m wrong in doubting their historicity, fine! Some day, Jesus will show me the error of my ways. You and I can laugh about it in heaven. Regardless, the stories communicate an important truth about God and his creation, so they are essentially true, whether they happened as described or not. When I read these stories, there is not even a small voice in the back of my mind saying, “You know this didn’t happen, right?” The question of historicity isn’t important to me, yet I still get a lot out of reading them.

      On the other hand, what do I gain by believing that they’re historically true? Please tell me. What am I missing? How does believing in their historicity make me a better disciple of Jesus? How does it help me?

      And the larger question is this: How can I make myself believe something? Either we believe it or we don’t. If believing is something we simply muster on our own, through strenuous mental effort, then faith itself is just another meritorious work that we perform in order to be saved—and Luther nailed those 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door for nothing! If we’re Protestant, by all means let’s be good Protestants!

      You’ve asserted the importance of my believing something that is difficult to believe, for which there is much counter-evidence, and which doesn’t seem to have any bearing on my Christian faith. Do you see how unhelpful that is?

      For more of my thoughts on miracles, see here:

      https://brentwhite.wordpress.com/2010/12/09/some-thoughts-on-miracles/

  4. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, first, as to believing in scriptural authority being circular because it is based on what the Bible says, I think that is a misimpression. I believe the Bible comes from God because it “matches up” with the human condition. I believe it because it has better historical support than most substantial ancient texts. I believe it because the Spirit within me bears witness to me of its truth. Once I have all those factors at work, then I do become “more and more” convinced of its truthfulness the more I read it. I don’t find these are “weaker” bases to believe in the truthfulness of the text than I have to believe the truth of any “ordinary” human recitations of history; rather, I find them to be stronger.

    As to why it is important to believe in the “miraculous” parts of the revelation, for one thing, if you try to cut them out, you get a fairly disjointed and “cut and paste” account. If we believe Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, what do we do with the ten plagues? Or the parting of the Red Sea? Did the Jordan River part to allow Israel to cross over into Canaan to begin conquering it? Don’t you think it rather undermines the historicity of the “historical” chronology to rule out the truth of such “miraculous” events woven all through them?

    And what about with Jesus? Are you going to chop out maybe a third of the gospel accounts because they deal with miraculous manifestations of the fact that Jesus was God? Aside from the simple “excision,” this leads to the importance of belief in miracles as a theological matter as being “confirmation” that we are hearing from “God” when we read scripture, as opposed to just listening to another bunch of “philosophers” talking. Certainly this is most clearly true of the miracles of Jesus, since he claimed to be the very “Son of God.” The miracles, if we accept them, elevate him beyond the level of the Buddha or Plato.

    Clearly this is the case with the bodily resurrection of Christ. You agree this happened. In fact, you say you agree with the Apostle Paul that without this conviction, “we are still dead in our sins.” So there is no question that it is essential to believe in this “grand” miracle to have true Christian faith at all, regardless of how incredible it may seem to “modern man.”

    “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Since the Bible makes it plain that “miracles” (at least one) must be believed to be a Christian, what is our basis to say, “But you just need to believe in that one”? While it may not be necessary to believe in any particular one, clearly we are to believe in a “God of the miraculous,” and if we believe that, why “hem and haw” around ones such as Noah’s Flood just because some moderns find it hard to believe in the miraculous at all?

    Also, I don’t find in scripture any seeming compulsion on God’s part to make the Christian faith “easy to accept.” It is a “stumbling block” to many, but to those who do believe, it is the power of God unto salvation. Jesus said, straight is the way and narrow is the gate which leads to life, and few there be that find it. I happen to believe that upon a very thorough investigation, Christianity is the best contender on the market, complete with its miracles, but there is no reason to believe that God just wants to drop salvation into people’s laps with no effort on their part. Study to show yourself approved, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. Jesus gave a “hard saying” in John, as a result of which many stopped following him, but Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life.”

    As far as this requiring some “works” so that salvation is not by “faith,” I don’t find faith to be a total disconnect from works in scripture. Paul means that we can’t “earn” salvation through works because we all fall short at some point or another, and James says falling short at one point is equivalent to falling short at all insofar as being entitled to salvation is concerned. But James goes on to say that faith without works is dead, and then he gives examples of two who showed their saving faith by the “risks” they were willing to take based on it–Abraham and Rahab. James 2.

    Finally, you ask how anyone can “force” themselves to believe anything, in favor of faith being something along the lines of just “dropping into your lap.” I don’t think any scripture takes the position that somebody just “wakes up” one morning in a believing state of mind. Reading scripture with a “searching mind” is certainly one way that faith may arise where it did not exist before. In my case in particular, when I moved from my atheistic state back into “believing again,” my “receipt” of belief came from both beginning again to read the Bible, some personal experiences, and, finally, at the “moment of truth,” I told my family that, “You are so happy, and I am so miserable, that even though I don’t see how it can be true, I am going to try to believe it.” That’s what I said. And, surprisingly, almost immediately I did begin believing it. It’s like taking steps down a road and then as a result reaching a point of decision, which you can take or not. Then God himself can give “confirmation.”

    A very long response to why belief in miracles is “important,” even though accepting some particular ones does not operate to preclude salvation. If we scare people off because they don’t want to believe in ANY miracles, then they cannot be saved, because they have to believe in at least one, the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Without that, we are still in our sins, and have no hope of heaven (another “miracle”?).

    Tom Harkins 02/15/2011

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom,

      Christian faith is not believing in many hard-to-believe propositions. It’s a relationship. Believe in the miracles of scripture or don’t believe in them… The hard part of Christian faith is not giving intellectual assent to the miracles of scripture, even the resurrection; the hard part is taking up one’s cross and following.

      You misread me if you think I’m discounting or disbelieving many miracles in scripture. I don’t even necessarily disagree with much of what you say above. I find the premise of what you say troubling: Again, faith is not intellectually agreeing with hard-to-believe things. If that’s you’re starting point—are you able to believe these difficult things in the Bible?—I think it misses the point of faith, which is (primarily) about loving with Christ-like love. The goal of faith is love. If we’re not becoming more loving, if our lives are not being transformed into the image of God’s Son, what’s the point?

      By all means, the Bible rings true for me, too. Many miracles of scripture ring true. I accept them at face value. But my faith isn’t in the Bible. It’s in the God to whom the Bible bears witness.

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, just one more quick question since I have to get back to “work”? Do you believe in Heaven and Hell? That how we respond to Jesus makes the difference of an eternal home, one place or the other? This will give me a great key in how close or far apart we are in our views.

    Thanks!

    Tom Harkins 2/16/2011

  6. brentwhite Says:

    Tom,

    I told you I believe in the Nicene Creed. It’s really a beautiful and orthodox statement of faith. Or read the United Methodist Book of Discipline’s Articles of Religion. That’s what I believe… The historic Christian faith. What do you think I believe about heaven and hell and salvation and Jesus? Why are you so suspicious?

    blw

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Brent, I see that you say you believe in the Nicene Creed, but while you ask me about being “suspicious,” I don’t by the same token understand why you can’t just say one way or the other about heaven and hell in particular. A substantial number of people say they believe in Christianity, yet doubt heaven, or at least hell.

  7. Tom Harkins Says:

    And, just as a further thought along the same line, isn’t it necessary to have SOME “cognitive content” to true faith, even if it is just in the resurrection, to be a Christian?

    Tom Harkins

    • brentwhite Says:

      AAAAAAARRRGGHH! This is me clawing my eyeballs out… If you’ve read what I’ve written thus far (not to mention perused my blog, etc.), you should see that your question about faith’s having “some” cognitive content is beyond silly. As for your other questions, I’d be happy to give you a straight answer, except that I don’t trust anyone who would ask me those questions.

      If you were struggling to understand heaven and hell and salvation and exclusive Christian truth claims, I would happily talk to you. But you’ve already got all the answers, so why do you ask?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, our discussion has been about whether it is important to believe in certain miracles or not to be a Christian. You say not as to Old Testament ones. You seem to say yes as to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I’m simply asking whether the minimum amount of the “miraculous” a person must accept (if I am trying to persuade him to “become a Christian”) does or doesn’t include belief in the afterlife of Heaven and Hell. I really don’t see what is so apparently inappropriate about my question.

        Tom Harkins 02/16/2011

  8. brentwhite Says:

    If that’s your question, then I’m with the apostle: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” So, yes, resurrection is the bare minimum.

    But let me add this: Saving faith itself is a gift from God (Eph 2:8-10). It’s not something we have to muster on our own. We can never believe sincerely enough or strongly enough or with enough conviction to be saved. Fortunately we don’t have to! I’m with N.T Wright (in _Simply Christian_), faith is much more like falling in love than possessing other kinds of knowledge. The gospel makes sense; it rings true. It puts to rest some of these questions and concerns. Faith is also trusting in Jesus. I believe in him. And, yes, by all means, _who_ Jesus is is revealed in scripture. But we’re saved through God in Christ, not through our intellectual efforts to “believe in” the miracles of the Bible.


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