Saturday, September 01, 2012

Grudem: Authority of Scripture

Now continuing my review of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology
It is fascinating to read Grudem's footnotes, because in them you can probably see the critiques of the years since this book first came out.  It is also important to realize that these critiques surely have not come from the faithless.  After all, this is not the sort of book a person without Christian faith would even read.  The critiques have almost certainly come from other Christians, people like me who see in Grudem's theology a well-intentioned disaster.

For example, there is a revealing section in this chapter where Grudem responds to the objection that his version of the authority of Scripture is a circular argument.  A circular argument is an argument that assumes its conclusion as it tries to make its conclusion.  For example, what if I were to say something like, "You can trust everything I say because I never lie."

Grudem's response: Of course it's circular, just like all appeals to an ultimate authority (78-79).  This at least seems very clever on the surface.  What he is saying, very badly, is that ultimate starting points are generally assumptions rather than premises that can be proven. And that is true. We use basic reason without really being able to prove it. We expect ideas to cohere with each other without being able to prove that coherence is an indicator of truth. Postmodernism has emphasized our uncertainty about such things and basically said that life "works" when we operate on these sorts of assumptions.

But then we make some observations. First, the Bible isn't really the same sort of "ultimate authority" as the ultimate assumptions he compares it to--things like reason, logical consistency, or empirical data (79).  He's not comparing "like" things. In fact, Grudem's very assumptions about what it means for the Bible to be true are based on the sort of ultimate assumptions he is contrasting the Bible with! The basic reasoning and coherency he implies are not the ultimate authorities for him--he uses them in every sentence.  In fact, they stand at the heart of his definition of the truthfulness of Scripture.

So what does he really mean when he says the Bible s an ultimate authority? Surely he means the set of specific truth claims he thinks he is getting from Scripture are assumptions without need for proof.  But this is something different from ultimate criteria for truth, which turn out to be the same as those he is trying to defend himself against. He still assumes that if the Bible is true, the world will correspond to it. And he still claims that for the Bible to be true, its parts will cohere with one another. And he claims that the truths he finds in Scripture will work in the real world.  He still operates with the same criteria of truth we learn about in philosophy: correspondence, coherence, pragmatism.

The Bible is thus not the same kind of "ultimate authority" as the tests for truth we have just mentioned. The Bible for Grudem rather provides the content of truth. But these truth claims are not "necessary truths."  They are assertions that could in theory be true or false.  Not so with basic reasoning. If we do not assume basic reasoning, we cannot talk meaningfully at all about anything. Communication of any kind disintegrates.

So Grudem is right to say (badly) that the ultimate foundations of truth will involve unprovable assumptions. However, the content of the Bible largely does not involve that kind of assumption. The claims Grudem thinks he gets from the Bible do not have the nature of unprovable assumptions.  You know the child's game.  I say something.  You say "Why?"  I give a more basic answer.  You say, "Why?"  We keep this game going until I say something like, "Just because" or "Because I said so."

When you get to a "Just because" answer, you've hit assumption (which, again, Grudem clumsily calls an ultimate "authority"). Certainly some of the assumptions of the Bible may fit into this category.  The philosopher Alvin Plantinga thinks that the existence of God is such a "warranted Christian belief."  But "Jesus healed a blind man on his way to Jericho" is hardly a claim of that sort. So what sounded very clever at first, a snappy come back, actually doesn't make sense in the way he has posed it.

Even more clever than Grudem's resort to "all ultimate authorities are circular" is his fail safe device.  Since everyone with the Holy Spirit recognizes his understanding of the Bible, anyone who disagrees with him obviously doesn't have the Holy Spirit.  It's incredibly convenient and fitting for a 5 point Calvinist to say something of this sort.  No doubt if I were predestined, I would immediately recognize that he's right.  So much pressure!

Of course I could use this same argument to claim that the world is run by little green men that only the enlightened see.  That's how cars run, you know.  There's one green man on the top of each piston and another one on the bottom. What looks like gas exploding is really these little green men farting back and forth. Don't believe me?  It's because you're evil and God hasn't revealed it to you.

I'm not discounting the need for faith--not at all. There are much more intelligent versions of "truth is revealed" than the one Grudem seems to assume here.  For example, Kierkegaard believed that the most important truths in life were subjective, a matter of blind faith. Karl Barth's Dogmatics and the movement for radical Christian orthodoxy see basic Christian faith as matters we should be "unapologetic" about, where "apologetics" is the attempt to prove Christian claims using "evidence that demands a verdict." Rather, they would say, they are things we believe by faith.

But, again, the Bible isn't really the same kind of literature as Barth's Dogmatics or the kinds of truths that Kierkegaard takes a leap of faith over. Barth writes in a somewhat poetic way as if to say, "The truth of God is beyond what can be captured in simple propositions.  We try to point to it in human language in analogical terms."  Kierkegaard's leaps of faith are not so much leaps about truth-claims but about deep existential truths.

In the end, Grudem's way of reading the Bible doesn't fit with the Bible itself. He reads certain words in the Bible in a certain way and concludes that the Bible teaches certain things about itself.  But when it turns out that the way he is reading it is untrue to its own nature, the entire foundation for his theological enterprise crumbles. That is not to say that there is not truth in his thinking. Truth is bigger than the method by which we arrive at it.

But Grudem's method and his way of using the Bible disintegrate. First, as we already showed above, he uses the very tools of correspondence and coherence he wants to trump with the Bible, Second, he uses all sorts of non-biblical tools like textual criticism and of course his chapter on canon must thoroughly rely on factors outside the Bible.  Third, he does not understand how genre impacts meaning--the Bible does not present itself as a set of truth claims. Fourth, he has a naive understanding of language, as if words have something like fixed meanings, which means, fifth, that he doesn't understand how context determines meaning, as I have said previously.  We see this in his "proof-texting," ripping words from the Bible and reading them in a way that makes sense in his context, rather than listening to their full meaning in their original context.

2 Timothy 3:16 is an excellent illustration of 1) the fact that his ultimate assumptions come from outside the Bible and 2) that he is not self-aware in his use of them. All Scripture is God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, correction, discipline, and moral training. Because of Grudem's assumptions, he assumes such functions will come from the literal meaning of the OT text. He would not have to, by the way, he could see the Spirit-illumined meaning of the text as something different from what it seems to mean literally to him.

But ultimately, the inspired meaning that NT authors often saw was a different meaning than the original one. Paul for example finds it hard to believe that God would be concerned with oxen (1 Cor. 9:9). No, wasn't Deuteronomy 25:4 "entirely" referring to the Christian mission, and how those who work for the sake of the gospel should be materially supported by those to whom they minister. In other words, the God-breathed meaning is an allegorical one, not a literal one.

You run the risk of losing your faith if you try to maintain Grudem's hermeneutic and are exposed to any true expert on the meaning of the Bible. For most people blind faith does not work well when reality pummels you, and if faith is not at least minimally reasonable, what would that say about God's desire for us to put our faith in him? It works fine, of course, if you think God has predestined certain people to see it. Indeed, irrationality becomes a badge of honor.

So what is the authority of Scripture...


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Children are born with a curiosity and hope about the world. Parents are the main influencers in a child's development. The parent's "thumbprint" always impacts a child's self concept and ability to succeed. I think of Condelezza Rice's statement at the RNC convention about her parents and what they gave to her, despite the persecution of "Negroes" in the South!

A child's "hopes and dreams" are about the transcendent realm, because the child feels he cannot accomplish or attain his "hopes and dreams" without help. A child is helpless, but develops his own sense of independence as he grows to maturity. While it is true that all humans need "a little help from our friends", a child's ability to gain independence and emotional maturity is dependent on whether independence and maturity is valued and encouraged in the child's home environment..

Correspondence of "truth" for Condilezza was that what her parents wished for her, her own happiness, she could attain, even if her ambition/desire meant the Presidency. Condilezza's parents exposed her and gave her opportunities and let her come to terms with her own ambition. This brings a coherence about life that grants pragmatic "ends" to young adults.

Personal faith is about "hopes and dreams" for oneself. And just as Feurbach or Freud understood, human "hopes and dreams" are the internalization of human desires and projection of those desires from our environment upon "God", humans are somehow different from the animal kingdom in seeking rational ends to life's meaning. Humans do not just live to exist/survive. Humans love to prosper ( and that has different "ends" according to personal values/goals).

Human minds look for causes and when a child's "First Cause", his parents have been absent, unattentive or abusive, it has ill effects on his "person" (hopes and dreams, as well as his sense of "self"). The child does not grow in his sense of security about himself or the world, which inhibits his ability to attain any goal apart from an interested teacher/mentor.

As the young adult matures and understands that though the brain seeks to explain "First Causes", the world is too complex to simplistic theologizing. Life has a tendecy to dissolve coherence, if one is honest and looks beyond the context of "group think". The Bible is not a "proof text" upon life anymore and an understanding of religion is coming to terms with "self"; one's childhood upbringing, tradition, and the impact and meaning it had/made. Then, there can be a realistic assessment of re-evaluating what is important and what matters. Such questions aren't answered universally, but personally. Faith then, becomes a commitment to personal values, an understanding of oneself, which leads to self acceptance and possibly a challenge to grow in areas one desires. Such "faith" isn't about an outside authority, but an autonomous authority, where one owns their own life, taking responsibilty, and not blame-shifting, nor feelings of entitlement....

John Mark said...

If I understand you, Grudem rejects any allegorical reading of scripture, whereas we would not understand scripture at all, or certainly not the doctrine of the Trinity without the use of allegory.....I'm thinking of Philo here (whom I know very little about- I have been reading a bit of history in the last few days). I may not follow your argument at all, even though I read it several times....

Ken Schenck said...

I think the implications of what I'm saying will become more clear next weekend in his chapter on inerrancy. I believe he takes inerrancy to mean that the accounts in the Bible must have happened more or less exactly as the stories present them or that the Genesis stories need to be taken rather literally, etc. These are examples of assuming that instruction must only take place in a certain kind of literal way.