Friday, June 12, 2009

One Wesleyan view of Chicago Inerrancy Statement 2

In the previous post I mentioned the Preface and Summary parts of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. I think all Wesleyans can wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of the Preface and most of the summary statements. The point of debate has more to do with the concrete playing out of the summary statements into concrete specifics. Some Wesleyans will agree with the specifics. Others such as myself think they have too superficial an understanding of meaning, culture, and genre. Both can be venerable Wesleyan perspectives.

The third part of the Statement is where it gets into specifics. 19 affirmations and denials. Today I want to start looking at them.

1. The first is an affirmation that the Scriptures are the authoritative Word of God and a denial that they receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any human source.

I agree. I do pick up the subtle assumption that the text has had a relatively constant meaning from its origins till now. From my perspective, that is a Newtonian assumption in a quantum world. The question of whether the Bible is authoritative really pales before the really hard question, namely, what meaning of these texts is authoritative.

2. Scriptures are supreme. The authority of the Church is subordinate. Creeds, councils, declarations are of lesser authority.

Given the assumptions of the authors, I agree. I think the "Church" here is understood in a political sense--the political bodies of church history, not least the "Catholic church." I certainly do not think any political church holds such authority, and the creeds and councils are still political statements. In my opinion, however, when these authors say "Scriptures," they really mean the Bible read Christianly, the Bible read as Christian Scripture. They would disagree that they meant this, but in my opinion they cannot see their own glasses and how those glasses color their perspective.

From my point of view, these sorts of statements involve subtle but significant misunderstandings of language. It poses as contradictory options things that, on deeper examination, I believe are virtually the same. I'll agree to it in the same way I agree when my son says something like, "So it's better to score a touchdown than strike out, right Dad?" What I'm thinking, though, is that he's a little confused.

In my opinion, so many of the meanings these signatories themselves found so authoritative in the text of Scripture were themselves products of their own Christian tradition. The signatories would deny that this is the case, but they do not properly see themselves, in my opinion.

The NIV is a wonderful example of the "say one thing, do another" dynamic I see necessary for this hermeneutic to sustain itself.

Say: We are listening to the Bible. Our interpretations come from the plain sense of the text. We are under the authority of the text and not letting the Church have a higher authority.

Do: Let's translate "form of God" as "very nature God" so the full divinity of Christ is not in question (Phil. 2:6)--is "shape" really the same as "very nature"?! Let's translate "firstborn of creation" with "firstborn over creation" (Col. 1:15) so there is no question of whether Jesus is created or not. Let's add a word out of nowhere to "did not give" so it reads "did not just give" (Jer. 7:22), even though there is no such word in the Hebrew--we don't want to leave any question about whether Leviticus was written at the time of the exodus. Let's add another word out of the blue so that "to the dead" reads "to those now dead" so there is no room for the dead being saved (1 Pet. 4:6)--Protestants don't believe such Catholic ideas. Again, let's take the word "entirely" out so that we give no room for a completely allegorical interpretation in 1 Cor 9:9-10.

Most of these moves have no clear basis in the text and seems in each case to be motivated overwhelmingly to maintain the perspective of the neo-evangelical tradition, thus deconstructing the fundamental claims of this hermeneutic. When push comes to shove, those of the Chicago Statement approach consistently trump the most obvious meaning of the Bible with evangelical tradition, in my opinion.

The Church is something more profound and Spiritual than any of the specific creeds or councils... and the Church led by the Spirit is already assumed in much of what the crafters of this Statement call the "Scriptures."

3. ... is directed against those who only consider the Bible a "witness" to revelation or who are Barthian saying it only "becomes" revelation or that it depends on human response for its validity.

I don't maintain any of these things in the form attacked. I believe each book was a moment of inspiration to its original audiences. I believe that the Bible was the word of God, even though the Holy Spirit does make it "become" the word of God regularly beyond the original meaning (they were attacking Barth in this one). So I won't spend any time on this one.

4. God uses language for revelation. Our creatureliness/fallenness does not "thwart" it or make it inadequate.

I agree. However, I see no way that our creatureliness and enculturatedness does not make revelation relative to a particular framework. The authors of the Chicago Statement might have denied this. I see no way around it. All language is cultural, even though some elements might appear in every culture.

5. We affirm progressive revelation... but later revelation does not correct or contradict it... and no normative revelation since the Bible.

But what about the "eye for an eye" rule that Jesus rejects or the allowance for divorce that Jesus says was a concession to Israel's sinfulness and not God's plan. What about Jesus' sacrifice as the end of the sacrificial system--I personally can't see that Leviticus was expecting this at all. Look at what Paul does with the Sabbath Law. And I think Arius had a pretty good bibilical case for a view of Christ a little less than Athanasius was looking for. The debate was not settled on the basis of the Bible alone.

I just don't think things are as nice and neat as the Statement makes them out and I'm really worried about a paradigm that, rather than trying to follow the most likely interpretation, expends its energies and ingenuity trying to explain away difficulties.

6. Total inspiration. OK, but let's see what they meant.
7. Not just human insight. Indeed!
8. God used their personalities, didn't override them. Yep.

9. Inspiration did not confer omniscience on the authors, but enabled them to speak trustworthy. Their finitude or falleness did not introduce distortion or falsehood.

Yes, trustworthy to the target of what God was trying to say to their particular audiences at a particular time and place. But such revelation at a time and place will rarely apply to many other times and places with equal directness or poignancy.

10. inspiration a matter of autographs, but it has been transmitted faithfully.

Yep. Not an issue... although, I would not preclude the possibility that God at some times and places has spoken through texts that were not the original text. The Chicago paradigm finds this idea problematic. The Wesleyan, because of our affirmation of the Spirit, should be quite comfortable with this possibility.

The Chicago paradigm would find this lying on God's part. Surely He could not be a truthful God and speak as if a particular verse or wording were in the original. But this is such a misguided understanding of truth. When we humans always believe many things about the world that are not correct, God could hardly speak to us at all if He did not start with our understandings, even though He knows they often aren't quite right.

This distinction gets at the heart of the difference between the two understandings of inerrancy I am discussing here.


Pat Hannon said...

Your frustration with the NIV is evident in these posts. What is your preferred English translation?

I assume it's not the ESV...

Ken Schenck said...

The ESV is a very good translation, at least of the New Testament. It seems to me its translators primarily wore their theology on their sleeve when translating the OT (thus "virgin" is not at all the most likely original meaning translation of Isaiah 7:14). I have thus far refused to buy a copy of the ESV, but I do regularly use it from my Logos software.

I have decided to use the TNIV in my evangelical writing because I reject the Piper/Grudem crowd and their reasons for creating the ESV. I'm using the TNIV in all my writing for the new seminary and in all my writing for the Wesleyan Church. I would suggest that the Wesleyan Publishing House either adopt it or the NLT as its new default translation in the next few years. (The NLT may be preferred in terms of communicating the gospel)

In worship at College Wesleyan and in scholarly writing when I don't do the translations myself, I use the NRSV. As far as the original meaning, I consider it the best translation, although it does translate dynamically with "brothers and sisters" and such, which means you can occasionally infer that the original literally said something it different in some cases. David Riggs thinks I'm a baby on this point and says I shouldn't be using the English at all anyway.

John Mark said...

Is there a short answer to the question "How is the TNIV 'better' than the NIV?"

I have been using the TNIV and the NLT primarily on your recommendation (and some general comments by Dr. Kinlaw), although I have had one older man in my congregation take me to task for not using the NIV. I think I have convinced him that it is biased, but most of my people use it, of course.

Anyway, is there a brief answer to the question of preference of the TNIV?

John Hobbins said...

Hi Ken,

I followed the link from fellow blogger James McGrath.

I think your criticisms are on target, at least in part, but I don't see them as particularly damning.

It does sound as if you might think Arius and Athanasius are about equally within their rights in terms of their claims to maintain continuity with the witness of scripture.

If so, I would invite you to reconsider that. As a reaction to Sabellianism, Arianism is understandable, but Arius's view that the Father alone is God in the proper sense, absolutely transcendent with respect to the Son, who is distinctly inferior to him, "other" in nature as well as hypostasis, ends up in a very different place than the New Testament taken as a whole, unless one puts the Johannine witness to one side.

Of course the exegesis of evangelicals tends to be forced here and there, in terms of providing a basis for doctrine. It has been ever so.

Nonetheless, one of the great joys of historical theology involves the realization that, no matter how much the Fathers may have forced individual passages into a particular pattern, that hardly disqualifies their take on things, or the development of Nicene Christianity.

That's because Nicene Christianity has to be compared with the alternatives on the ground. Once that is done, Nicene christology begins to look pretty good, with a better foundation overall in scripture than the live alternatives.

And that is the strength of classical forms of Christianity to this day, evangelical Christianity included. They have plenty of blind spots and weaknesses. But, compared to liberal Christianity, which seems to dissolve at soon as any pressure is put on it at all, they look pretty good, not least in terms of their organic connection with the tradition of scripture.

The problem with liberal Christianity is simple. If all it amounts to is an affirmation of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God (the great Harnack) or similar, why not just become a Buddhist, for God's sake?

That's what Lisa does on Homer Simpson. I'm with her, that is, with the logic of her choice, though I remain a Ned Flanders myself.

I assume, however, that you would not self-identify as a liberal, but that you are looking for a Third Way of some kind. From a historical point of view, I doubt that Wesleyanism ever has been a Third Way.

For the rest, ESV is a very good translation. That's because the RSV was a very good translation, on which ESV is based. It is also a very good translation of the Old Testament, and improves on RSV in many instances. I'm doing a series on these things on my blog.

Ken Schenck said...

John Mark, my preference for the TNIV over the NIV (talking specifically of these two) are:

1. The TNIV fixes a number of idiosyncratic and outdated translations of the NIV (like 1 Cor. 7:1). Basically, the second and third generations of evangelicals have the benefit of 30 additional years of learning and discussion among scholars.

Romans 1:17 is a great case in point. Even Lutheran and Reformed scholars would now acknowledge that Paul is talking about God's righteousness here, not a righteousness from God. Thirty years of revolution in Pauline studies here. The NIV wasn't able to capitalize on it at the time.

2. Even the ESV (to the irritation of those in its clientele who are sexist, I might add) has recognized that it is misleading to translate non gender specific language as "he" or "man." In our day and age, "man" no longer refers to both men and women. It means a male and is jolting to younger generations in its bias.

Some in the older generation might say, it means both to me. But why in the Sam hill would anyone with a Christian heart want to put an unnecessary obstacle before some others, even one other!!!, when it is not even accurate to the original language? The TNIV, like the ESV, is more accurate in its translation of these passages than either the NIV or the RSV was.

3. When we are using the Bible as God's word for today, rather than doing a historical or theological exploration of the original meaning, our translation should lean toward a dynamic rather than formal equivalence translation. Using "brothers and sisters" for the original "brothers" both includes who Paul and others were including and yet does so in a way that makes it clear that God is addressing the sisters in the congregation as well as the brothers in those admonitions.

4. There was a lot of hype against the TNIV as being inclusive. Most of it skewed the facts. It never is inclusive except where it believed the original to have been.

Ken Schenck said...

John, thanks for the response. I affirm the creed of Nicaea, although I find it very difficult not to conclude that it is a distinct and normative development beyond the New Testament.

I do not think the Wesleyan tradition is uniquely poised to posit a third way. I think the Anglican tradition from which it sprung might do so just as well. But I do believe the Wesleyan tradition, particularly the Wesleyan holiness tradition, is a fine environment for a third way because

1. It has been generally open to typological, spiritual, and more than literal interpretation.

2. It also is quite Scripture focused in orientation, at least Wesley originally and the holiness tradition has remained so.

3. It has a significant place for experience and prioritizes life change over theological ideas, a very promising starting point post modernism.

4. Other traditions have distinct disadvantages: the Roman Catholic because it has difficulty changing, the Reformed because it is too cognitively oriented, the Lutheran because of the new perspective on Paul that, even when toned down, pretty much undermines the most basic foundations of the tradition.

John Hobbins said...


Since I serve as a pastor of a United Methodist and I am a Wesleyan in a very broad sense, you will imagine that I am also in broad agreement with your positive statements about Wesleyanism.

I say I am Wesleyan in a very broad sense because I am also a Calvinist in a fairly strict sense, but of the irenic kind, wanting to see as much as good as possible in Wesleyanism. I concur with Charles Simeon's famous take on Wesley.

But I am not convinced by your negative comments about Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, or Lutheranism.

The Holy Spirit is alive and well in all of these places. The "evangelical Catholic" movement, for example, is very promising, and so is the Focolare movement, whose founder, Chiara Lubich, was a great innovator who effectively taught bishops, cardinals, and popes more than a thing or two.

Calvinism is a powerful influence among the cognitively oriented. No wonder Tim Keller has been so successful in Manhattan among a very smart and very driven set, intellectually speaking.

I don't think the NPP is nearly as persuasive as you make it out to be; in any case, Lutherans as different as Eberhard Jungel and Oswald Bayer continue to actualize distinctively Lutheran insights in ways that are insightful for us all.

For the rest, I agree that any Wesleyanism worth referring to as such is going to be Scripture-oriented. My feeling is that it is best to develop that Scripture-orientation in polemical contrast not only with the ossification of the Scripture principle on the part of fundamentalists, but with its abandonment on the part of liberals.

Ken Schenck said...

Certainly I value elements of all Christian traditions, including Calvinists and Lutherans. And I am very willing to be irenic with all such individuals. My assessment had to do with ideas, and you simply disagree.

I find it interesting to find Calvinists in the United Methodist Church (you are not the first). I assume this phenomenon, if indeed it is bigger than the few blips on my screen, is due to a vaccuum of orthodoxy in some Methodist circles, coupled by the broader cultural phenomena that have fueled a reaction to liberalism in various forms. Interesting!

I will again ask forgiveness of Calvinists, Lutherans, and others for my strong critiques of their ideas. It is just a shame to me that Wesleyans are tempted to borrow from these traditions, when they have proved to be decks of unbiblical and deconstructive cards that blow over with a puff of concrete first century evidence.

John Hobbins said...

Ken, it was a pleasure conversing.

I think it's great that you want to recover the strengths of the Wesleyan tradition, and the larger Holiness movement. That can be done in an ecumenical spirit, and I have never doubted that you concur.

And keep the polemics coming! They enliven the discussion.

It would be fun to go back and forth on the NPP, where it is persuasive and where it is not, but that will have to wait for another time.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Again, let's add another word that isn't there in the original so that "is not concerned" reads "is not just concerned" so we give no room for allegorical interpretation in 1 Cor 9:9-10.

Which translation is doing this? I cannot find it in my copy of the NIV, which says: "Is it about oxen that God is concerned?"

Ken Schenck said...

Quite right, Stephen. The NLT says, "Do you suppose God was thinking only about oxen when he said this?" The NIV only omits "entirely" from verse 10 (which the ESV, to its credit, leaves in).

John Hobbins said...

The ESV needs a makeover in terms of unnecessarily awkward syntactic constructions. In the Old Testament, it might adhere to the diction of the Hebrew and Aramaic more than it already does.

Still, it has a lot going for it.

True, some of ESV's godfathers are are unsavory in the eyes of some. So were some of RSV's godfathers! I remember well being told to stay away from RSV because so-and-so was behind it.

But it doesn't make sense to reject a Bible translation because someone behind it is problematic, or seen to be so, rightly or wrongly.

BTW, Jerome was a very problematic character. He could be really nasty. With people like him around, no wonder the doctrine of Purgatory got going.

But I'm not going to stop using the Vulgate, the RSV, and now the ESV through guilt by association.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for the clarification, Ken. Yes, there is a lot of stuff going on in the translations of 1 Cor 9:9-10. Thanks for pointing it out.

Christopher Heard said...

@ John Hobbins: The problem with liberal Christianity is simple. If all it amounts to is an affirmation of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God (the great Harnack) or similar, why not just become a Buddhist, for God's sake?

Because Buddhism is technically atheistic, John, and therefore cannot affirm the existence of God, let alone "his" "fatherhood."

John Hobbins said...

Hi Chris,

I think it's fair to say however that for Harnack the fatherhood of God was "pure symbol." Or if it wasn't for him, it is for many liberal Christians. From an "it's all in the golden rule Christianity" to a vague embrace of Buddhism, the distance is not far.

The atheistic form of Buddhism is referred to as Theravada Buddhism. Most Buddhists I've met follow the Mahayana. It is sometimes said that the Great Vehicle also is "at base" atheistic. Maybe so, but ordinary believers don't seem to know that. For all the world, their bhakti (devotion) to Buddha and/or other Lords looks like that Mesopotamians gave their gods, complete with washing and feeding their images, treating them at the same time as heavenly, able to answer prayer and mete out punishments. The ancestors in general have (limited, but nonetheless real) divine powers. I say this based on plenty of fascinating conversation.

In teaching a world religions class, I asked a colleague in the anthropology department to send me over a Buddhist who could speak about what is was like to grow up as such in Thailand. What she said was fascinating. Her strongest memories were of her family going on pilgrimage and the monks preaching. What did they preach, I asked? All about how we would be damned to hell if we did this or didn't do that. 12 circles of hell, she remembered.

Where have I heard that before? I thought. Now, maybe the monks who preach this way do not back it up with the notion of a divine enforcer. Somehow, however, I suspect the opposite might be true.

Anonymous said...

Buddhist hells are slightly different from Christian hell because you do get out of them after a couple trillion years of torture.