Sunday, October 11, 2015

SA8. The Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant.

This is the eighth post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
The Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant.

1. In the previous article we discussed some of the variations among Christians with regard to their conceptions of the Bible and some of the terms currently used to describe the Bible. That article focused especially on some possible missteps and extremes in relation to those terms and conceptions. In this article, we want to lay out a more coherent way of thinking about those terms in relation to the Bible.

2. When a person thinks of meaning as static and as something that inheres "in" a text, it is natural to think it sufficent to say that, "the Bible is inspired" as a sufficient encapsulation of its origins in God. But since a text is subject to multiple interpretations, we must ask "which interpretation" of the Bible is the inspired one.

It had an original meaning, so we can say that the original meaning was inspired. We might go further to say that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire meanings in dialog with the text as individuals read with the eyes of the Spirit. The first centuries of Christendom also developed traditional readings of certain key texts, and certain Christian traditions also have traditional readings of certain key texts.

Not all of these readings are or were inspired, but perhaps many are. When we say that the original meanings were inspired, we must mean that they were inspired within their original contexts, because meaning is always contextual. These books were inspired to speak to a certain time and place within whatever their original parameters were. At times those meanings were situational or for a particular time. At other times something more universal was meant

What was God thinking as far as "all time"? Even more, what was God thinking for my time and context? This is where we must often work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). [1] Many want certainty and absolute clarity, but this is the road to making the Bible into an idol. Surely we might consider many of the common Christian understandings of key verses to be inspired understandings (creation out of nothing, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity).

Meanwhile, the interpretations of some traditions may be God speaking to those traditions, giving them an emphasis for a particular place and time. And some of the meanings I as an individual see could be God speaking to me. The problem of course is telling when God is speaking and when he is not. Any meaning we see that falls outside the law of love or rule of faith is immediately to be ruled out. And there is good reason for us to read the Bible in community so that the Spirit can correct us if we are on the wrong track. [2]

3. God's word never fails. It is infallible, unfailing. God's word does many different things. It commands. It promises. It informs. Sometimes it gives us an opportunity to express our anger, sadness, or thanksgiving.

God's word, as we have said, is bigger than written words. The words of the Bible give us the most important of God's words for his creation, the final Word of which is Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God's words are, in the first place, his will in action, his commands to the creation, the instruments through which he acts in the world. [3] They include words of hope and words of truth.

4. When God's word commands us to do something, that word is authoritative. When we speak of the authority of Scripture, we are most naturally referring to those words in Scripture through which God gives us his commands. It is not the purpose of every passage to give commands, and some of God's commands were for specific times and places. When God speaks a command to us, his command holds absolute authority over us. [4]

Much of Scripture is narrative. It describes things. Sometimes the narratives of Scripture do imply God's will. [5] In other cases they describe events that happened. Description is not prescription. Just because Gideon used a fleece to find God's will does not necessarily mean that we should.

The commands of God to Israel were commands of God to Israel. The New Testament tells us that Gentile believers are not bound by circumcision (Gal. 5:2-4), the food laws (Mark 7:19), or the Sabbath law of Israel (Col. 2:16). There is a drive among some to find some universal principle behind these commands to apply still to today and perhaps we can find some, but this drive is more our obsession than God's. Paul feels no need to find some universal principle behind the law regarding the Jewish Sabbath or Jesus behind the food laws.

Some commands in Scripture had to do with the context or situation in which it was commanded. Do women today need to have authority on their heads because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:10)? Do we need to be careful about wearing clothing of mixed thread (Lev. 19:19)? We have difficulty even understanding the original purpose of these instructions. To require them today would simply be to follow a rule for its own sake with little sense of purpose. Most likely, these commands had everything to do with their original cultural contexts.

So while God's commands hold absolute authority over us, the Church must work out salvation with fear and trembling. God said it to them and that settled it for them. But we need the Spirit and the Church to wrestle with how to apply some commands to today.

5. Some of God's purpose in Scripture is to give us hope. He has made promises to us, promises to come again. Promises to save us from judgment, from Satan, and from the world. He has promised us his love and his justice within the context of his love.

Some of his promises in Scripture were conditional. He sent Jonah to preach coming judgment on Nineveh, but that promise was not absolute. There was the possibility of forgiveness and repentance. In the same way he has promised the world judgment, but he has given us a way out.

In the same way, his promises to Israel at any one time were contingent on their obedience. His election of Israel is "without repentance" (Rom. 11:29), but it is contingent on their obedience. So God's promises are unfailing, infallible, but some of them are conditional.

6. When God's word tells us truths, those truths are inerrant. As we mentioned in the previous post, many American Christians in the twentieth century were preoccupied with the Bible as a source of propositional truths. There was not a little cultural blindness here, for the unexamined assumption here is that the Bible is mostly about ideas and beliefs.

When we read the narratives of the Bible in context, however, their purpose was not primarily to tell us places, dates, and people. Ancient histories and biographies were much more about good and bad examples of character, as well as identifying who God is and who we are, than about historical precision in the way we demand it today. The stories of the Bible give us good and bad examples of character. They tell us who God is and how we are to be as his people. These were the primary purposes of ancient stories.

God also revealed himself in the categories of the people to whom he was speaking. This is the principle of incarnation--God is a God who takes on our flesh (John 1:14). He is a God who meets us where we are. He does not make us come up to his level, which is impossible. He speaks our language. He uses anthropomorphisms. He met them in their categories.

So the picture of Genesis one has two layers of water with the sky in between them (Gen. 1:7-8), and the stars, sun, and moon placed in the sky (Gen. 1:14-17). Paul thinks of himself taken into the third sky (2 Cor. 12:2). Adam is a living soul made up of dust and breath (Gen. 2:7), and the Thessalonians are body, soul, and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23).

The pictures here were not the point of the revelation, they were the flesh in which the incarnated message was clothed. God created the world and has given us light to find our way during the day and the night. Paul was taken into the very presence of God. God has given us life and expects our whole person to be his.

God's word never fails. His words have different purposes. When his purpose in Scripture is to reveal a truth, then that truth will most certainly be without error. [6]

7. Some of God's words are meant to give us hope or to give us a mechanism by which we may express our thanks, joys, sadness, and even anger. God's word always accomplishes what it sets out to do (Isa. 55:11), so in these instances, as in all instances, his word is infallible, unfailing. We might certainly learn something from a psalm of thanksgiving, a psalm of lament, or an imprecatory psalm (one expressing anger toward enemies). But the primary purpose of these psalms was not to inform. The primary purpose of these psalms was to express something.

So we can rejoice and give thanks as we read thanksgiving psalms. We can identify with the sorrows of the psalmist as we read a psalm of lament. And we can vent our anger as we read an imprecatory psalm.

Even here we must be careful. The authority of Jesus demands that we love our enemies. So if we would dwell on an imprecatory psalm while thinking of our enemies, we would be using Scripture to sin. Similarly, God does not want us to lament forever. At some point we must move on, for there is work to do for the kingdom.

8. Inspiration thus speaks to the source of God's word in God. God has breathed words to his people in Scripture. Infallibility is the overarching category for the unfailing nature of those words. God's words never fail to accomplish what he set them out to do. They are authoritative when they command. They guarantee hope in promise. They are without error when they inform. They are a means of catharsis when we are joyful, sad, or angry.

Yet the most important way in which God uses Scripture is to change us. To make us, both individually and corporately, into a holy people. He makes us Christlike. He makes us like him. Ultimately, Scripture is God's word. He can do with it whatever he wants.

Next Sunday: SA9: God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

[1] The books of the Bible do not say, "And for those of you reading in a specific context in the twenty-first century, here's how these principles or these contextual instructions would play out."

[2] We might apply something like Wesley's quadrilateral to "impressions" we think we are receiving from the Holy Spirit. First, does my impression fit with the accepted principles of Scripture--the law of love and the rule of faith? Second, does it fit with what the Church in general has believed and taught, realizing that individual Christian traditions can get things wrong. Thirdly, what do other wise individuals have to say, given their experience--have I sought the counsel of others? Finally, what does common sense seem to say--is it reasonable?

God has sometimes done "unreasonable" things in the past, but most crazy impressions just that--crazy. The more "unreasonable" the impression, the greater the certainty you should expect to have. But if it is unloving and harmful, it is not God speaking.

[3] This is the Hellenistic Jewish background for the word logos as it is used in the Gospel of John and perhaps implicitly elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Colossians 1:15; Heb. 4:12-13).

[4] There is a sense in which the word infallible does not fit neatly with God's commands, because God often gives us the freedom to disobey. But God has not failed in any respect in this case, because God in his sovereignty gave us the choice. So Romans 3:3 denies that our faithlessness in any way nullifies the faithfulness of God.

[5] This is the so called "evaluative" point of view of a story, God's point of view.

[6] I have been influenced significantly by Kevin Vanhoozer in formulating the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture in this way. **

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you. You have, as usual, made some complex subjects more comprehensible.