Saturday, June 13, 2009

One Wesleyan view of Chicago Inerrancy Statement 3

Previous posts looked at:

1. The Preface and Summary Statements
2. The first ten articles

This morning I want to look at 3 more articles of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. My purpose is mostly "in house" for my church, The Wesleyan Church, although I am glad to dialog with others. My claim has been that some Wesleyans legitimately understand our affirmation of inerrancy to be defined in relation to the kinds of things the Chicago Statement affirms and denies.

At the same time, I argue that many Wesleyans, including most of our Bible scholars and denominational leaders, legitimately have a more general sense of inerrancy, not limited to the specifics of the Chicago Statement. My argument has been

1) that the very term "inerrancy" entered into our tradition from the outside as somewhat of a foreign (Reformed) body in our tradition, a cultural artifact of the mid-twentieth century largely at the urging of a single individual. Of course Wesley was only a "hair's breadth" from Calvin, so there can be such a thing as a Calvino-Wesleyan. I'm just not one of them :-)

2) that The Wesleyan Church has never connected its use of the word to the Chicago Statement, a statement that, again, is primarily a product of Calvinist circles (who have emphasized it, who signed it, where its original is kept, etc...) and that the vast majority of Wesleyans have never heard of it, and

3) that from my perspective it is a good thing we aren't limited to it, because the statement itself functions on the basis of a number of oversimplifications that at least seem debatable.

Wesleyans affirm that the Bible is inerrant, but there are those for whom this is a technical term and there is the vast majority where this is a general affirmation of the authority and truthfulness of God's word. I am not an "errantist," nor am I a "pick and choose-ist," nor am I a "only becomes the word-ist."

But I am a hermeneutist. Error is a function of intent and purpose, not of measurement against some supposed absolute, timeless, and universal framework of truth, not least that of a collection of mid-twentieth century white males in defensive mode against encroaching cultural threats. And every part of the Bible--including its statements on faith and practice, on things pertaining to salvation--was revealed within the categories of its original audiences at a particular point in the flow of history. And we cannot be fully evangelical in our beliefs unless we allow for the continued outworking of the significance of Christ in the church beyond the pages of the New Testament.

Articles 11-12
The 11th reiterates the truthfulness of Scripture and has nothing really objectionable in what it explicitly says. It is in what it specifically implied for these individuals, as I've said. Similarly, #12 distinguishes infallible and inerrant but does not consider them incompatible. OK, fine.

Here let me do a rare thing and compliment Kevin Vanhoozer for his distinction between what the terms inerrant and infallible might mean. "Infallible" for him means that divine speech acts in the Bible accomplish what they set to do. "Inerrant" then is restricted to those instances where the purpose of the divine speech act is to communicate truth, in which case such claims are true.

I think these are fine definitions that Wesleyans can adopt. They are sufficiently broad that they allow for us to have a discussion about what exactly the function of various Scriptures are as divine speech-acts, as well as of what communicative speech-acts are meant to affirm. These definitions thus allow for the sophistication of a quantum discussion, while also accommodating the Newtonians among us.

The problem in my opinion is that such breadth of possible meaning undermines the very purposes of raising these terms by the "Chicagoan." The Chicagoan wanted nothing of this sort left open for vagueness or discussion. Indeed, the very purpose of these 19 articles was to nail down the boundaries of what is allowed so that we can tell clearly who is in and who is out, what is true and what is not.

And so no doubt among Wesleyans there are those who think we already know the answers to all the key questions and that allowing for discussion of those questions will only bring harm. And there are Wesleyans who wonder if the answers are more profound than previous generations anticipated and, in any case, see closing off our minds to the questions--especially in our current context--to be a grave mistake for the faith of our children and for our witness to the world around us.

Article 13
This article affirms the "complete truthfulness" of Scripture and then says what it is not worried about in this regard. I don't find anything to object to in this statement except what these authors were thinking when they said "complete truthfulness." The lawyer like mentality of the article's writers shows up here:

"Complete truthfulness" for them is not negated by 1) lack of modern technical precision, 2) grammatical or spelling irregularities, 3) observational descriptions like sun rise, 4) reporting about falsehoods, 5) hyperbole and round numbers, 6) arranging material in a topical fashion, 7) varying selections of material in parallel accounts and 8) free citations.

See what fascinating attention to detail these scholars had! But you can also read between the lines to what they did not think would be "completely" truthful. Here are the issues they had in mind:

1. historicity
#7 above allows that the gospels have "selected" different material from the life of Jesus. But it would be very clear from the Calvinist Harold Lindsell's Battle for the Bible that it was important for these signatories that you be able to harmonize the four gospels on the level of historical detail. By the way, Paul Rees--son of one of the founders of the Pilgrim Holiness Church--wrote the Preface to the evangelical Jack Rogers' response to Lindsell's fundamentalist approach.

You've heard no doubt the old story of four people on different street corners describing an accident and conflicting a little on the details. I haven't found that analogy very helpful for a long time now, not least because only one of the gospels claims that it comes more or less directly from an eyewitness (John; Luke claims indirectly). Even if we go with traditional authorships (the first three gospels are anonymous and John never tells us who the Beloved Disciple was), only Matthew and John would be eyewitnesses.

But more to the point, it is not clear to me, from comparing the gospels themselves, that their primary function was to relate history, although certainly in my mind this was one of their purposes. Their primary functions were to proclaim and teach Christian faith (Matthew, Mark), to defend Christianity in relation to despisers and doubters (Luke-Acts), and to bolster the faith of a particular Christian community (John 20:31). They engage with history to do these things, but they are not written primarily to document history.

Here is where the Chicago Statement says something very profound that I do not believe it carries out. It says, "We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose." Ironic--that's exactly what I would say. The problem is that, when it comes to specifics, we differ on what that "usage and purpose" was in some cases. I would say the standards of truth and error they largely brought to bear on the Bible were modern standards.

I do not think that precise historicity, to where we need to worry about harmonizing the details of material relating to history, is an appropriate standard. Indeed, such harmonizations almost always create "fifth" accounts that differ from the actual accounts more than they differ from each other. This is typically (that is, in the hands of a Chicagoan) an ironic practice that ends up disregarding what the individual accounts say in deference to someone's idea of what they should say.

Here is the bottom line for me and most: I have found it impossible in my pea brain mind to accommodate the historical standard of the Chicagoan and to listen to each gospel, to Acts and Paul, to Kings and Chronicles, etc. So I have chosen to listen to the Bible rather than to this cultural artifact of the mid-twentieth century. I listen to the Gospel of John when it seems to say Jesus was crucified the morning before Passover. And I listen to Matthew, Mark, and Luke when they seem to say Jesus was crucified the morning after. The Chicago Statement, ironically, would require me to ignore one or the other and find some ingenious and far fetched, usually hilarious scenario that, in the end, would do violence to all the gospel accounts.

Thus, in my opinion, far from respecting Scripture, in practice the Chicago Statement will consistently require me to do violence to Scripture, to rip it, to rape it, to cut things out--all ironically in the name of a high idea of the Bible. The approach deconstructs itself because it requires me 1) to ignore Scripture to sustain it and 2) it makes a mockery of our claims to be interested in truth. You tell me which approach truly loves the Bible more! Is it the one that is willing to listen to its most likely interpretation or the one that frequently forbids you to let it say what it seems to say in the name of some "high idea" of it?

2. scientific matters
The topic of evolution seems to have been a driving force in the origins of fundamentalism. As I've mentioned before, the problem for many at that time was not so much the question of Genesis as 1) the outworking of social Darwinism in society and 2) the fact that evolution was a tool used against Christianity. Nevertheless, I don't want to pretend that I do not find it hard to fit evolution with my faith. There are real issues here, I think.

The problem for me on the other side is that the overwhelming majority of those who know the evidence and the history of the scientific discussion are united on the topic from a scientific standpoint. And as far as bias is concerned, it seems overwhelmingly clear to me that it is we Christians who have a clear presupposition influencing our conclusion far more than that of the evolutionists themselves. Evolutionists come from incredibly diverse contexts and thus can't be lumped together into some monolithic conspiracy theory or anti-supernaturalist framework. They operate in a conflictual world and thus might actually be motivated to disprove each other on this issue if they could to make a name for themselves. And evolutionists include among their number a good many Christians who have a vibrant faith.

I'm simply not qualified to pass judgment on such issues scientifically. But I find it deeply problematic to tell a Christian scientist that he or she simply cannot go there because of a particular reading of Genesis 1--and one that seems to divorce it from its near eastern context at that. I've said before that the real biblical problem with evolution is not Genesis 1 but Genesis 2 and 3, as Romans understands them. I've heard some ingenious suggestions by theistic evolutionists here. But my basic point is that, if we are really interested in truth like we say we are, we had better be very careful about what discussions we close off here out of hand. How many grad students in biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, etc. do we consign to potentially irresolvable faith crises in the process--especially when you and I are not qualified to judge the evidence scientifically?

I wonder if the view of Genesis 1 that arose in the 1970s by Calvinists like Henry Morris and Duane Gish (yes, they signed this statement) would have looked familiar to generations of Christians before them, let alone to ancient Israel. Yes, I went to their debates in the 70s and 80s. Yes, I was cheering them on. I was somewhat disappointed--even though I was rooting them on. Even as a high school student longing for them to go in for the kill (against Kenneth Miller), I found them surprisingly unconvincing (kept quoting philosophical statements of evolutionist rather than getting down to the evidence). I wanted to get up and take over for them because I thought they were messing it up.

My grandfather--who was almost certainly more conservative than anyone reading this blog--was sympathetic to the gap theory, which the Calvinist group of Chicago signers would find abhorrent in their literalness. The gap theory is the idea that Satan fell between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 and that then God started all over again in 1:3. He might have put the dinosaurs in between the first two verses. My point is that Morris' approach is not the only conservative Christian or Wesleyan one. It is one, just not the only one.

A literal reading of Genesis 1 has God separating the waters above from the waters beneath and then putting the sun, moon, and stars in between. Is that what we must believe? You go straight up past the sun and stars before finally getting to primordial waters at the top of the creation? It certainly isn't the pretty picture on the cover of Henry Morris' Scientific Creationism! At the very least, we must surely consider Genesis 1 to be somewhat poetic.

My point is not to argue for evolution, not at all. My point is to leave this question open for scientists of faith and theologians of faith to continue to explore. Are we really so sure we know what God thinks on these issues and intended to say in these biblical texts? If so, on what basis? On the basis of an interpretation that doesn't even try to read what these texts would have likely meant at the time they were written but blindly reads them as if they were written today in the context of an evolution debate?

3. genre matters
A key issue for the Chicagoans was that when Jesus referred to the books of Moses, or said "Isaiah says," or when 2 Peter says "Peter to x, y, z," that we must take these as literal attributions in order for the Bible to be truthful. In other words, we must conclude that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that Isaiah wrote chapters 40-66, and that Peter literally wrote 2 Peter.

In my opinion, the first two issues are more significant than the third, although probably more people get bent out of shape over the third. In class I privilege literal authorship, but I have a hard time understanding why it would contradict inerrancy to say that, for example, Ephesians is an inspired encapsulation of Paul's thinking on the unity of the church directed at the churches of Asia a couple decades after his death. What if everyone knew this at the time? How would that be lying or untruthful? It would be a genre thing.

But them's fighting words. Fair enough. I don't understand. Inerrancy is not a matter of how something looks to us but of how it looked to them when it was inspired. Anyway, not something I'm interested in fighting for.

I understand the Moses and Isaiah issue better, because of how Jesus refers to them. The question is whether this was just the way people referenced these books and Jesus was following suit. Or is it necessary for us to assume that Jesus would not have spoken in the categories of the audience in a way that was not actually the way it happened?

In terms of the books themselves, however, we can understand why the issue came up. The Pentateuch itself does not say Moses wrote it. Genesis doesn't mention him, and Exodus through Deuteronomy refer to him in the third person, not as if he was writing it. It even narrates his death. In terms of listening to the Pentateuch itself, it is not telling us that Moses was its author any more than Jesus is the author of the gospels because he is the main person they are about.

In Isaiah, the prophet is not mentioned after chapter 35. Chapters 36-39 are almost word for word identical to four chapters in 2 Kings. The last 26 chapters picture a time several centuries after Isaiah. These chapters themselves--which would have been on a different scroll from the first chapters--are not worded as prophecies of the distant future. They do not present themselves as prophecies from Isaiah about two centuries later. The issue is the packaging (that the book as we find it in our Bibles has the heading, the vision of Isaiah) and the fact that Jews at the time of Christ referred to Isaiah as the author, including Jesus.

I consider this a very serious question, because it has to do with Jesus. So do we ignore the very rules the Chicago Statement itself endorses--the "grammatico-historical method"--when it comes to situations where one part of Scripture refers to another part in a certain way? From the standpoint of inductive Bible study, we would not conclude that Moses authored the Pentateuch. But the Chicagoan assumes that if Jesus referred to this material as from Moses or Isaiah, they must have been the author.

The difference between them and me is that I'm not sure I want to assume Jesus would not have used the conventions of his day in referring to these books. It is a question of whether we, in the name of truth and the Bible, are willing to allow for a broader range of intent by God rather than restricting it to a more narrow literality. Again, the Chicagoan wishes to end the discussion. In my opinion, the broader inerrantist is more interested in what is true. He or she does not preclude the position of the Chicagoan on a particular issue--indeed, because we are interested in the truth we must be open to them. But I personally think it does little to say we are about the truth if we aren't open to the evidence at hand.

Well, that's too much already so I'll have to do one more post. Sorry. I don't really enjoy the topic. I just thought this was an appropriate time to clarify yet another thing I appreciate about my church and its wisdom in not closing down discussions like this one. We don't specify how to baptize or what end time view you have to have. We insist you live a righteous life by the power of the Holy Spirit, that you truly love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, that you do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God, that you fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the all of humanity.

Nope, nothing in there about the 5 points or the Westminster Confession or the 39 articles.


::athada:: said...

Just finished Wright's "The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture". Helpful, introductory, and concise. Think it could fit well in an IBS class.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Ken, for your last group of posts. I'm trying to digest them.

bk said...

You wrote: John never tells us who the Beloved Disciple was

But this statement is not logical, since the unnamed "other disciple, whom Jesus loved" wrote the fourth gospel, and since the facts in the plain text of scripture can prove that WHOEVER this person was he could not have been John.

The ONLY Bible writer that mentions the unnamed beloved disciple is the beloved disciple himself - in the fourth gospel. No other Biblical writer ever mentions him, so for one to imply that John is somehow unique in this regard is incorrect.

Ken Schenck said...

I didn't follow you, bk. All I am saying is that we do not know who is the alleged source of the fourth gospel's information. The last chapters suggest it was this "beloved disciple."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pushing on the door a bit Ken. You can do it more safely than I can.