I made a mistake the other day. In trying to summarize what areas of theology are worth fighting for, I listed two: the authority of Scripture and the gospel. I think this is true, but it sounds an awful lot like a pronouncement, and it doesn’t really answer what’s worth preserving. Is it a particular view of inspiration or inerrancy? What about the gospel? Does it mean a particular view of gospel (e.g. Calvinism)? I wish I had been more nuanced.
The resulting discussion shows that it’s important to carefully define what we’re talking about. I’ve been doing some thinking since that post about Scripture, and how Scripture, in the end, contradicts us all.
The Issue: Can We Trust the Bible?
Tim Keller left a couple of helpful comments on Bill Kinnon’s blog a while back. First this:
My pastoral experience is that lay people can’t understand any difference between infallibility and inerrancy. I’ve never met anyone but a seminary trained person who could make the distinction. Here’s how ordinary people reason: if the Bible isn’t inerrant, there are errors in it. And if there are errors in it, there are some things in the Bible you don’t have to follow or believe. And if there are some things I don’t have to follow or believe, it’s not infallible. I definitely understand that inerrancy can be defended in such a way that concedes too much to Enlightenment rationalism, etc. But if, at the pastoral level, I refuse to use the word ‘inerrant’ when asked, it leads to tremendous confusion, I think.
As a pastor I have often been asked by ordinary people if I thought there were errors in the Bible or not. Very seldom are they looking for a fight or for heresy. They want to know if they can trust the whole Bible or if they had to pick and choose what to believe. If you say, “oh, you can trust the whole Bible completely, but I wouldn’t say it is inerrant” it sounds crazy to them. Even if you are more careful–‘the Bible is infallible but I wouldn’t call it inerrant because that imposes an artificial rationalistic standard on the Bible’–it will only confuse people hopelessly. This doesn’t mean I use the word all the time. It is inelegant and abstract. I talk about the full authority, clarity, sufficiency, and inspiration of the whole Bible, etc etc. But if someone asks me if the Bible is inerrant, I unhesitatingly say ‘yes,’ because not only do I believe it, but it is good pastoral practice.
I think what Tim Keller says is wise. What we’re talking about here is not some abstract enlightenment principle. It’s the very basic question, “Can we trust the whole Bible, or do we have to sort through and pick out what’s right and what’s wrong?” While I can appreciate some of the commenters at Bill’s who think the whole discussion is a waste of time, that is in fact an important question, and a very practical one.
That’s why I think this is an important issue. I realize it can go wrong when it becomes only a defense of previously held convictions, or when we stop listening to each other, or especially when we start to lose sight of the type of literature we’re reading. But the question of whether or not we can trust what Scripture says is a very important one, removed somewhat from the question of angels dancing on pins. If we decide that Scripture can’t be trusted fully, that has some pretty huge ramifications on pretty much everything else.
How Scripture Corrects Us All
Ultimately, Scripture corrects those who are conservative, who may sometimes be tempted to fit Scripture within a theological matrix and tame it. We have our propositions and our theologies, and they’re important. But the Bible is unmanageable. It’s untidy. It stands above our systems and calls for not just systems, but for participation in the theodrama. Eugene Peterson writes:
Within this large, capacious context of the biblical story we learn to think accurately, behave morally, preach passionately, sing joyfully, pray honestly, obey faithfully. But we dare not abandon the story as we go off and do any or all of these things, for the minute we abandon the story, we reduce reality to the dimensions of our minds and feelings and experience. The moment we formulate our doctrines, draw up our moral codes, and throw ourselves into a life of discipleship and ministry apart from a continuous re-immersion in the story itself, we walk right out of the concrete and local presence of God and set up our own shop. (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places)
In Eat This Book, Peterson writes of the danger of systematizing Scripture:
We obscure the form when we atomize Scripture by dissecting it, analyzing it like a specimen in the laboratory…when the impersonal objectivity of the laboratory technician replaces the adoring dalliance of a lover, we end up with file drawers full of information, organized for our convenience as occasions present themselves. It ceases to function as revelation for us.
Peterson is not opposed to exegesis, which he calls “an act of love,” loving “the one who speaks the words enough to want to get the words right.” He is, however, concerned with exegetes who see the Bible as a “warehouse of information” or anything other than a “story that is intended to shape our entire lives into the story of following Jesus, a life lived to the glory of God.” “Exegesis doesn’t take charge of the text and impose superior knowledge on it; it enters the world of the text and lets the text ‘read’ us.”
I believe Peterson is right. It’s easy for those of us who are conservative to overly analyze and systematize Scripture. Scripture invites us into a story in which we are a part, but in which we are not the main point, and we can’t afford to lose this.
But Scripture also contradicts those who are more liberal, and who may think Scripture is smaller than it actually is. We face the danger of trying to fit Scripture into our world, rather than seeing our world within the much larger world of Scripture. Peterson writes:
Tell-tale phrases give us away. We talk of “making the Bible relevant to the world,” as if the world is the fundamental reality and the Bible something that is going to fix it. We talk of “fitting the Bible into our lives” or “making room in our day for the Bible,” as if the Bible is something we can add on or squeeze into our already full lives…
As we personally participate in the Scripture-revealed world of the emphatically personal God, we not only have to be willing to accept the strangeness of this world – that it doesn’t fit our preconceptions or tastes – but also the staggering largeness of it. We find ourselves in a truly expanding universe that exceeds anything we learned in our geography or astronomy books.
Our imaginations have to be revamped to take in this large, immense world of God’s revelation in contrast to the small, cramped world of human “figuring out.” (Eat This Book)
Ultimately we all need to be corrected. Some of us need to be saved by imposing standards on Scripture that don’t honor it. Some of us try to tame it. Some of us try to make it relevant, as if our world is more relevant than it is.
I wish I had come at the subject differently the other day, but ultimately this is the issue: learning that the world revealed in Scripture is more massive and true than the one we observe with our eyes. The issue is how to learn to live within the world as God has revealed it, rather than “the small, cramped world” we’re used to. That’s why the issue of Scripture is such an important one, far too important to be relegated to debates only among the theologians.