Sunday, June 14, 2009

One Wesleyan view of Chicago Inerrancy Statement 4

I'm glad this is almost over, trying to contrast a broad Wesleyan understanding of inerrancy in contrast to a narrower, more Calvinist Chicago Statement of inerrancy. There are some Wesleyans who are happy with the Chicago Statement, and they are legitimately Wesleyan. There are others for whom the word inerrancy should not be specified too much, because there are many specifics we can disagree on while still affirming the authority and truthfulness of Scripture.

Here we are so far:

1. Preface and Summary Statements
2. Articles 1-10
3. Articles 11-13

Getting very close now...

Article 18: Grammatico-historical exegesis is the bomb... no treatment or quest for sources that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching or rejecting its claims to authorship.
I've decided to go slightly out of order today. Article 18 is, in my opinion, is another potential example where Chicagoans say one thing and seem to do another. There is lip service given to "grammatico-historical exegesis," which at least aims at the original meaning. But whenever the pursuit of the original meaning hits a bump, the normal rules of exegesis are suspended and a clean up crew is called in.

What is grammatico-historical exegesis? It's a name I frankly didn't hear at Asbury or at Southern Wesleyan. I must have read it somewhere during my Wesleyan education, although I couldn't tell you where. I first really heard it used as a polemical term in a blog debate I had with a Reformed pastor from Michigan who called himself, "Once a Wesleyan." In other words, as a lifelong Wesleyan who went to a Wesleyan college and seminary, got a PhD in New Testament, and taught for about 8 years at a Wesleyan college--then I first really heard this Calvinist term.

I can use the term if you want me too. In my mind the phrase means interpreting passages using a knowledge of grammar and historical backgound. It is a phrase, again, with a fundamentalist Calvinist ethos surrounding it. Those who use it, as we might expect, mean more than what I just said, just as they mean more when they use the word inerrant.

In my mind, it should differ not at all from the "historical critical method," which is often blasted as filled with heinous "higher criticism." OK, fine, I'll call the method "historical-cultural method" then. In the end, those who use these phrases all claim to mean the same thing--trying to read biblical texts in their literary and historical contexts.

The phrase reminds me of a quote from Melanchthon, which says that exegesis is nothing more than the application of grammar to the biblical text. And of course Melanchthon is absolutely wrong! Exegesis does involve grammatical analysis, but words only have meanings in contexts. "Context is everything." Take away the "historical" part and you inevitably are substituting yourself and your traditions.

And thus so many of those who use this method, John Piper or Wayne Grudem, for example, are really practicing grammatico-fundamentalist-tradition exegesis. Piper makes this clear in his critique of Tom Wright's view of justification. It is not historical background but Reformation tradition that he uses as the context of his exegesis.

You can tell from Article 18, that "grammatico-historical" is meant to distance exegesis from "source criticism." Source criticism is the investigation of sources behind certain biblical documents. The word "criticism" is unfortunate, for all it means as far as I'm concerned is that you are making decisions (kritikos) about things.

Source criticism of the gospels does not seem to be too controversial a thing, where the dominant hypothesis is that Mark was written first and then Matthew and Luke used it as a skeleton, along with some other source of Jesus' sayings. For the Chicagoan, source analysis of the gospel cannot be used to "dehistorize" anything. This seems to me a straight jacket for a gospel scholar, and I don't think I am smart enough to pull it off if I were at a Wheaton or Moody.

Let me just give a small example. Mark 6:1-6 tells of Jesus' rejection at Nazareth. It has the key line, "What is this wisdom... Is not this ... the son of Mary, brother of..." In Mark, the incidence is narrated after the healing of Jairus' daughter and the woman with a hemorrhage and before the sending of the 12 and the telling of John the Baptist's death.

In Matthew 13, the setting is slightly different, although the same elements are all nearby. We have similar key words, "Where did this man get wisdom... Isn't this the son of the carpenter? Isn't Mary his mother...," which tells us we are looking at the same story. As in Mark, the telling of John the Baptist's death follows.

But in Matthew it comes right after Jesus talks about parables (which in Mark is chapter 4) and material on the mission has come further back in Matthew 10 (instead of just after in Mark). The healing of the daughter and the woman with a hemorrhage are back in Matthew 9.

It boggles the mind to suggest that these are different events where the chronology is not quite the same as Mark. I'm sure there have been extreme Chicagoans who have suggested such, but we have the inescapable conclusion for anyone interested in truth that Matthew and Mark simply do not narrate Jesus events in quite the same order--which means at least one of them is less historical at certain points than the other.

I doubt most of us care. Most Wesleyans don't. I doubt most Chicagoans do in terms of this story, although the Calvinist Lindsell might have back in the day.

The real questions come then when we get to Luke. In Luke, Jesus begins his ministry in Nazareth. It's the "inauguration" scene where he picks of the scroll and reads, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me." If I remember correctly, my NIV Study Bible doesn't list Luke 4 as a parallel to Mark 6. Why? Because it is significantly different from Matthew and Mark in its historical setting.

Let me play this out a little so you can see that "higher criticism" was not just a bunch of anti-supernaturalist, evil kooks ripping up the Bible. Luke 4 has very similar key lines to Matthew and Mark. They are amazed at his gracious words (i.e., his wisdom) and say, "Isn't this Joseph's son?" So we have in Luke 4, as in Matthew 11 and Mark 6, an initial contact of Jesus with Nazareth and an initial reaction to Jesus of amazement because he grew up there and a rejection of him.

Source criticism would say that these are three versions of the same event, especially since the general conclusion is that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used it. But there are a number of potential "dehistorizations" in pursuing this line of thought. Luke has a rather expanded scene that he uses to set the tone for Jesus' entire ministry. Did Matthew and Mark not know this? Or was Luke novelizing the story a bit to bring out the essential nature of Jesus' ministry, putting it as the first event as a kind of keynote message?

All that is to explain the "dehistorizing" potential of looking at sources and supposed oral traditions behind the gospels. The Chicagoan says you just can't go there, even if normal reasoning makes a bee line for a certain conclusion. The Chicagoan insists on this because truthfulness to this person is connected to historicity. I believe this is a faulty standard. Who said that truth equals historicity? I don't know the answer to the Luke 4 question for sure, but the story stands true as one summary of Jesus' good news either way, even if Luke novelized what in his sources was a very bare bones event.

Source analysis of the gospels has generally been more allowed than source analysis of the Pentateuch. I can only think of two reasons: 1) the fact that Jesus refers to Moses material and thus raises the question of Mosaic authorship and 2) because Pentateuchal criticism hit the fan first. This gets us to Article 16 where we indeed will argue that fundamentalism and the inerrancy movement of the mid-twentieth century was a reactionary response to negative higher criticism.

So the suggestion that there are strands of sources behind the Pentateuch, wielded by German hands not experienced as faith-full, was experienced as a challenge to Christianity in the 1800s. Today it wouldn't have to be. I see the negative reaction to it largely a product of the circumstances in which it was introduced, including the shock of Christian thinkers who were caught completely off guard.

But again, when you place the Abraham stories that use Yahweh in one column and the Abraham stories that use Elohim next to each other, it's awefully easy to wonder if these are different versions of the same story. I was more than happy to go into New Testament--and to spend my time in Paul and Hebrews--so I didn't have to worry about these sorts of things.

Maybe there are reasonable answers to such questions from the Chicagoan side. I used to insist that there had to be. But I wasn't smart enough to figure them out. And though many smarter than I have suggested ingenious walk arounds these sorts of things, their suggestions often seem more in the category of possible rather than probable.

What I'm about here is openness. I'm not insisting anyone change their conclusions on the specifics above. But I wonder if the Chicago statement shuts down legitimate discussions and potentially negates any claims we have to being people of truth. The stories of Genesis, in my opinion, can be poetic and true, and God can speak through them no matter how poetic they are. Parables are not historical and they are true. As I've said before, error is a question of standard and target. What was God aiming at? Certainly He hits the target every time.

Article 15: Jesus' teaching of Scripture cannot be dismissed...
Absolutely. But what did the Chicagoans mean by this statement? Did not Jesus speak in the language and categories of his audience? If not, how would they have understood him?

I read recently of the Wesleyan expectation of righteous living. In a brilliant analysis, someone said that we 1) have a lower sense of what God's standard is but 2) have a higher sense of His expectation that we keep it. This plays itself out in relation to Jesus. We as Wesleyans believe that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be "tempted in every way, and yet be without sin" (Heb. 4:15), just as Jesus.

These words, of course, are used in Hebrews of Jesus. But because we believe Jesus was truly and fully human, we do not believe that the life he lived, also under the power of the Holy Spirit, is a life that we cannot live also, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The implication with regard to Jesus is as I have just shared: 1) we potentially have a lower sense of Jesus' earthly perfection and yet 2) have a higher sense of the potential for us to keep it.

This dynamic might consistently play itself in our understanding of Jesus' knowledge on earth. Clearly he was not omniscient on earth, for he did not know the day or the hour of his return (Mark 13). Presumably Jesus did not know he was the second person of the Trinity at the age of 12, perhaps not even that he was the Messiah until his baptism. In order to be fully human, he had to submerge his omniscience somewhere that his conscious mind would not choose to access it. It is hard at least for me to imagine that Jesus in his human understanding did not come to knowledge of such things as he walked through life in communion with the Father.

The purpose of this small thought on Wesleyan Christology is to argue that we would not need to suggest that Jesus' knowledge of the world was absolute in order for him to be completely sinless. Indeed, it is hard for us to believe that Jesus was fully human if he was not capable of forgetting where he left his car keys from time to time. These are thought experiments and I do not put them forth as anything but thoughts--they may be wrong and I welcome being shown that they are. But as the Calvinist has an incorrect standard for sin--anything short of absolute perfection (cf. the faulty NLT translation of Rom. 3:23)--so I would argue the Calvinist Chicagoan might have an incorrect standard for Jesus' earthly knowing.

Article 16: Inerrancy has been integral to the Church's faith forever, not invented by scholastic Protestantism or a reactionary position in response to negative higher criticism.
Here we get at an incredibly crucial point and a sore spot for the Chicagoan. I have heard strong reactions to the idea that fundamentalism was a historical reaction to late 1800s higher criticism and early 20th century modernism. The Chicagoan sees himself preserving what the Church has always taught.

And they can make a superficial case because Christians over the centuries have indeed tended to assume that the details of the text were historical. But here's where I wonder these thoughts involve a faulty understanding of how meaning and language work. Let's call it the picture theory of language.

In the picture theory of language, words tend to correspond to things, like a picture in a bubble above your head when you hear the word. In that sense, words are tied down to specific meanings in a rather simple way. Translation becomes correlating sounds to the bubbles above your head. You think that Greek or Hebrew simply give you different words for the same bubbles.

In my opinion, this is Newtonian semantics and it underlies a lot of the Chicago statement. We basically then expect that the New Testament reads the Old Testament with the same bubbles over their heads, that the Christians of the ages did, and that we today do.

The quantum revolution for me here came from Wittgenstein. His basic understanding of meaning is far too obvious to question. Meaning is a function of the way words and sequences of words are used. In other words, they take on meanings in specific concrete contexts, cultures, and symbolic universes. These meanings aren't keyed to some Platonic bubble, and words rarely translate from one language to another with the same precise connotations.

The Chicagoan sense of meaning thus seems flat, two-dimensional. This is true no less of its sense of 1) what the words meant in contrast to what they mean to us, 2) what words in one part of the Bible mean in contrast to what words in another part mean, and 3) in what the word inerrancy means to them in contrast to what similar words throughout church history might have meant. More on #2 in the next article.

What I am saying is that it doesn't matter whether you can find words in Wesley where he talks about errors in the Bible or if you can find places in Christian writers where they assume the historicity of various details. The real question is whether these statements "did" the same things in those contexts that the word "inerrancy" did in the mid-twentieth century.

Certainly the flavor of the Chicagoan seems colored by the fundamentalist modernist controversy. I raised this question at the symposium. Clearly the late nineteenth century holiness authors operated with a different hermeneutic from Stephen Paine. I'm not qualified at this point to say exactly what all the differences are. But I raised the question to point to at least one conclusion we will certainly draw from the comparison--whatever sense of error they might have had, it wasn't the same.

I thus find myself shaking my head at the Calvinist Harold Lindsell when he protests that Christians have always believed in inerrancy, even though the word comes from nineteenth century Reformed thinkers who themselves arguably used the word differently than Lindsell himself. I shake my head like a modern physicist reacting to someone insisting that Democritus knew about the atom in the 400s BC because he used the word atomos in relation to a fundamental building block of the world.

Article 14: Affirmation of the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.
Here is another point of contradiction, I believe, within the Chicagoan hermeneutic, enabled by a faulty view of language. It says it wants to read individual passages in historical context. Yet it wants to read individual passages in a canonical context.

Kevin Vanhoozer has been on a pilgrimage from a focus on the original meaning of the Bible toward seeing the Christian meaning of Scripture as a matter of the whole of the Bible as a divine speech-act. I think I know where this line of thought will end, although I wonder if Vanhoozer will ever take the final step.

I as a child of the nineteenth century holiness movement was easily able to take the final step long before Vanhoozer as a Reformed evangelical. The final step is to recognize that there is necessarily a discontinuity between the meaning of the words of the Bible when read canonically--in the light of the whole--and the meaning of the individual books read in their historical-cultural context. This follows naturally from the fact that meaning is a function of context, and a canonical context is simply a different context from the varied original ones.

But the long and short of it is that the Christian reading of Scripture is really the canonical one and it seems to me light years away from the Chicago Statement and its priorities. Reading the Bible as a whole with Christian glasses is such a fundamentally different way of reading it than the Chicagoan preoccupation with precise authorship, correlation to specific scientific positions, and questions of authorship. It seems such a monumental step backwards to focus on these things at this point. A canonical reading of the Bible allows us truly to read the Bible the way Christians really have throughout the centuries and yet without ignoring genuine issues raised by historical criticism. Read canonically, those issues don't go away. They just become largely irrelevant.

Article 17: The Holy Spirit does not operate in isolation from or against Scriptures.
I've already pointed out that the Wesleyan tradition is more open to pneumatic exegesis than the Calvinist Chigagoan would ever be. There's a great quote in Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in This Text that well fits this article of the Statement--the Spirit can blow when He wills but He cannot blow wherever He wills. In other words, the Spirit can't make the text mean something it didn't mean before.

Poppycock. The Spirit can do whatever He wants, including making the biblical text mean things it never did before. The word "against" is pretty strong and I would not use it of such new meanings. But certainly contexts can differ enough to where Holy Spirit inspirations can appear to go against biblical teaching.

In general, the Spirit is first a matter for the Church at large and only secondarily for the individual. In that sense, drastically novel leadings I would expect to be confirmed on a massive scale. I think the Spirit did that with slavery where, although not exactly in contradiction to Scripture, but going beyond it, the Spirit led not only Christendom but the world to abolish it. The same movement is underway in relation to the empowerment of women. Such things do not go against Scripture although they go beyond where it ended (I would argue they are still on its kingdom trajectory nonetheless).

Article 19: Signing is not necessary for salvation but it is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of Christian faith.
Not necessary for salvation, absolutely. Vital to a sound understanding? Some Wesleyans will say yes. Some Wesleyans like myself will say that it focuses on issues that, at best, are tangential to what is important (which is hearing God speak through His word) and at worst skew the very nature of the Bible, set up our children for faith crisis, and (possibly) reflect poorly on God as a God of truth.

1 comment:

James Pate said...

Hi Ken. I like your blog--both the things you say and the down-to-earth manner in which you say them.

I once was discussing Luke 4 with some of the people who visit the Triablogue (which is fundamentalist). They came to my blog because James McGrath mentioned a post I did about his debates with them. When they visited and we discussed inerrancy, I brought up the point that you do in this post: that the scene of Jesus in Nazareth is in various chronological places in the synoptics. They conceded my point, but they said that chronological order did not really matter to ancient historians, since historians could leave out facts, put certain things in a different order, etc., to convey the point or emphasis they want to make. For Luke 4, although that seems to be the beginning of Jesus' ministry, v 23 says that Jesus before that scene did miracles in Capernaum.