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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

who needs inerrancy?

What does it mean to say the Bible is inspired by God? In some theologies, this phrase means the Bible cannot be in error.

Matt Perman, the author of the article linked above, elaborates, "The process of inspiration extended to every word of every book of the entire Bible." Evidently, if the Bible says "the", it's a true "the".

The great proof text for inerrantists is 2 Timothy 3:16.

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

It is odd that the doctrine is based on a single verse that contains only half of a sentence. To the credit of Perman, he does include verse 17, the remainder of the sentence.

so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

But as we'll see below, he ignores the plain meaning of this phrase.

The second great proof text of inerrantists is 2 Peter 1:21.

because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Again it's not a complete sentence. I don't know what that says about inerrantists, but.

Now, before I go any futher, I want to state that I've never met Matt Perman, I don't know anything about him other than this one web page, and I only selected the page at random from a Google search. So I'm not saying anything about him personally. However, if he is accurately presenting the case for inerrancy (and judging by past conversations with other inerrantists, I think he is), I've got some issues with the doctrine.

According to 2 Timothy 3:17 there is a reason that all Scripture is God-breathed and therefore without error. In the context of 2 Timothy 3, Paul is talking about the peril of apostasy (false teaching) and the need for protection from it. In order to stand firm in Christ and the truth, we must have a solid foundation, since many will oppose the truth (v. 8), "evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived" (v. 13), and "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (v. 12). If the Bible contains errors, it is not a solid foundation. Therefore, the entire Bible is God-breathed so that we may "teach, correct, reprove, and train in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." If all Scripture is not God-breathed and inerrant, the man of God is not adequate, and certainly not equipped, for doing the work of God. The standard for our beliefs must be fully backed by God's authority, or it will fall, and we will go with it.

First, Perman presents the "work of God" as nothing more than professing the right doctrines. This is impossible to reconcile with the teachings of Jesus himself, whose message was centered on bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

- Luke 4:18-19

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

- Luke 10:2-9

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

- Matthew 25:34-40

For Jesus, faith was nothing if it did not make itself known in our actions. He was not impressed with the Pharisees' extensive knowledge of the fine points of Scripture. For followers of Jesus, faith is a verb.

The early church understood the meaning of "social gospel," even if they never used the phrase. When trouble arose because some of the hungry were not being fed, the disciples took action:

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”

- Acts 6:1-4

Did you catch that? Being "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" was an essential qualification for distributing food to widows. God's people need to be equipped for much more than the intellectual side of faith.

Ignoring all this, Perman continues:

If only parts of the Bible are infallible we are even worse off--how are we to determine which parts are true and which are not? We would be free to make Christianity whatever we want it to be. And if one believes, for example, that the Bible is inerrant when speaking on spiritual matters but not on historical matters, a major problem is encountered--if the Biblical writers were incorrect in their historical picture, considerable doubt would be cast upon their trustworthiness in other areas that we cannot verify. In fact, many of the Bible's teachings on "spiritual truth" would be meaningless if certain events were not real, historical, and factual.

This goes well beyond the text of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The Scriptures are "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." Nowhere does it say the Scriptures are useful for lessons in history or science. In fact, reading the Bible as a science or history book distracts from its message, the story of God's redeeming love.

Perman's first example is in fact a good counter-example:

For example, in Romans 5:12-21 Paul contrasts Adam's disobedience and its consequences (sin and death) with Christ's obedience and its consequences (salvation). If Adam was not a literal, historical individual, Paul's point would be meaningless.

On the contrary, Paul's point is that Adam represents all of us. Because of human sinfulness -- our own sinfulness -- we all must live with the consequences of our actions, but because of Christ, we have been justified wholly apart from our efforts. Paul is not speaking of Adam as a historical individual, but as "a type" (verse 14). Paul states twice that the free gift is "not like" the transgression, because the sinful nature is within each of us, but our justification comes from Christ alone.

That's not the only place the New Testament writers saw typology or allegory in the Jewish Bible. Here's Paul's take on Isaac and Ishmael:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.

- Galatians 4:22-26

"This is an allegory." Does that mean that Paul thought these were not real people? No, but neither does it mean that he thought the historical information was the meaning of the text. For Paul, it was the symbolism that mattered.

The author of Hebrews saw symbolism in Israel's temple, a shadow of what Christ would bring:

They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

- Hebrews 8:5-6

This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.

- Hebrews 9:9-10

Again, the anonymous author is not denying the historical temple, but at the same time he recognizes that its significance is in its symbolism.

If the writers of the New Testament -- those men who were inspired by God -- read the Bible allegorically, it seems to me that we would be wise to follow their example.

So if two gospels don't agree about some historical point, such as whether Jesus answered Pilate's questions during his trial (John 18:33-37) or not (Matthew 27:12-14), or whether Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his ministry (Luke 19:45-48) or the beginning (John 2:13-22), maybe it's because the intent was not to write a newspaper report or a chronology of his ministry. Maybe there's a deeper meaning for us too, if we are willing to read the Bible as a book of theology.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

how literal is literal?

It is currently the hottest story in the blogosphere: The First Baptist Church of Watertown, New York has dismissed 81-year-old Mary Lambert -- who has taught Sunday School for more than half a century -- from her teaching duties. The church's new pastor does not believe women should be allowed to teach men, and Ms. Lambert was leading an adult class.

There's more to the story than that. Obviously, if it were only a matter of women not teaching men, Ms. Lambert could have been moved to a women-only class, or to a children's class. But according to a statement released last Saturday by the church's pastor, this appears to be part of an ongoing power struggle between some long-time church members and the new church leadership. Last May, Ms. Lambert and other church members publicly aired their grievances in an article in the local newspaper. Among other things, Rev. LaBouf has removed crosses and other religious items from the sanctuary, stopped the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, and forbidden lay members to read the weekly Scriptures during worship.

Because the controversy has spilled over into the Waterton community, where Rev. LaBouf also serves on the City Council, he has clarified in a written statement that he believes "the qualifications for both men and women teaching spiritual matters in a church setting end at the church door, period." LaBouf adds that he was educated in a Catholic school, where he was taught by nuns, so he evidently does not have a problem with women teaching male children.

So there's more at issue than simply forbidding a woman to teach men in church.

And yet, there is the issue of forbidding a woman to teach men in church.

The church's policy is based on instructions found in 1 Timothy 2:12.

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

This is being interpreted according to the "Golden Rule of [Literal] Hermeneutics", which Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind novels defines as, "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise."

There are several problems with such a hermeneutic. First of all is the fact that immediate context is not always adequate. Here's the immediate context (1 Timothy 2:8-15) for the passage above:

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

On the surface it looks clear. A women cannot teach or have authority over a man. Men should pray and women should keep quiet and raise the children.

But how does that square with biblical mentions elsewhere of women in authority? Romans 16:1 speaks of a woman named Phoebe who was a minister or a deacon. In verse 7 of the same chapter, Paul mentions a (married?) couple, Andronicus and Junia, who were both apostles. And in verse 3 of the same chapter Paul mentions another married couple Priscilla and Aquila, whom he refers to as co-workers. This couple is said to have taught Apollos (Acts 18:26). If women worked alongside their husbands in ministry in the early church, how could Paul say he forbade them?

Was 1 Timothy really written by the same Paul who not only allowed women to have positions of authority, but personally worked with women in ministry? Is this the same Paul who said in Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus"?

If 1 Timothy was written by someone else, should it have the same authority? And even if it was written by Paul, should his words be taken as an absolute rule? Are Paul's words as authoritative as Jesus's? Didn't Jesus commission Mary Magdalene to share the good news of his resurrection (John 20:17) with his disciples?

Elsewhere (1 Corinthians 7:10, 12), Paul draws a distinction between the words of the Lord and Paul's own advice. Is it possible that the "I" of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is meant to indicate that this passage is a matter of opinion, or is advice from a mentor to a protege and not applicable everywhere?

Or if it really is from the hand of Paul, and he really does mean "every place" in verse 8, he evidently doesn't mean at all times, since Paul had worked with women teachers in the past. Or did Paul change his mind? And if so, what else might have changed in the past 2000 years?

A simplistic hermeneutic that looks strictly at immediate context and ignores the larger biblical context (and the even larger context of church tradition) won't wrestle with these questions, but they are essential if we are to understand the passage in question. No Bible verse was written in a vacuum. Building a doctrine on a single sentence is not a solid hermeneutical principle. The "plain sense" of a passage doesn't always give us the big picture.

The Bible is not always an easy book to understand. Sometimes it takes a lot of wrestling to get to the heart of the matter. I can understand why some people might be tempted to take comfort by oversimplifying isolated passages to promote an underlying agenda. But it seems to me that God expects better from us.


Friday, August 18, 2006

moderate christians blogroll

Henry Neufeld of Threads from Henry's Web has started a Moderate Christian Blogroll, open to anyone who meets these qualifications:

  • You identify yourself somewhere on the blog as a Christian blogger.

  • You either self-identify as a moderate or your posts clearly demonstrate that you're moderate.

  • You post predominantly on non-personal topics. These don't have to be religious, but purely personal logs don't fit the purpose of this aggregator.

If you think you might qualify, see his Standards page for a further definition of moderate. It's a rather inclusive definition, and a person can even be theologically liberal or conservative yet still qualify as moderate. The most important qualification is being open to those who disagree.

In some quarters, moderate is a dirty word, an implication that one is wishy-washy or has no convictions. In reality, it simply means one is not ideologically driven. How our society has managed to confuse conviction with ideology, I'll never understand.

Now I'm not a dead-center moderate. I do lean a little to the left both politically and theologically. Still, I could never be convinced that liberalism is the answer to all the world's problems. Honest dialogue and thoughtful discussion almost always yield better fruit than knee-jerk reaction. Granted, that means I sometimes don't form an opinion until I've heard a lot of discussion of the issue. But I'd rather admit I don't understand than take a firm stand that turns out to be wrong.

There are some who interpret this lack of dogmatic certainty as a belief that there are no absolutes -- a belief that everyone is entitled to their own truth. We're all right and nobody's ever wrong. In fact, I believe just the opposite: We're all wrong and nobody ever has all the truth. Applied personally, this belief can be humbling. I will never be completely right. I will always have a lot to learn. That in itself gives me a reason not to be dogmatic about my beliefs.

On the other hand, being moderate does not mean that I don't ever have strong opinions. Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows what I think about social injustice, for example. Or Bible literalism. After all, I'm not dogmatic about being uncertain.

Ultimately, the defining characteristic of moderates is the refusal to toe any ideological line. It's better to think for oneself than to blindly accept anyone else's ideas wholesale. And that's the absolute truth.


Friday, August 11, 2006


Joel at the Connexions blog has challenged other Methodist bloggers to write about the war in Lebanon.

Honestly, the reason I haven't said anything about the conflict is that I don't have any answers. Who is wrong? Who is right? Or are both sides wrong? I don't know. But I do know this: God doesn't like to see any of his children hurting each other.

Thousands of years ago, the prophet Micah foresaw a time when:

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
   and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

- Micah 4:1-4

Those days, obviously, have not arrived. Is there anything we can do to bring this vision to reality? Is there any way we can make a difference in God's timetable?

As I said above, I have no answers. I simply ask that you join me in prayer over this and other conflicts in the Middle East.

Jehovah Shalom, God of peace,
  of mercy and compassion, of grace and reconciliation,
  pour your power upon all your children in the Middle East:
    Jews, Muslims and Christians,
    Lebanese, Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis.
  Let hatred be turned into love,
  fear to trust,
  despair to hope,
  oppression to freedom,
  occupation to liberation,
that violent encounters may be replaced by loving embraces,
and peace and justice could be experienced by all. Amen

(Adapted from The Reverend Said Ailabouni's prayer in Prayers for Peace for the Middle East, 2003)

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

pat robertson feels the heat

I've been critical of Pat Robertson in the past, and I'll likely be critical of him in the future. But right at the moment, I'm pleased to report something positive: Pat Robertson has become convinced that global warming is a fact. This summer's weather has been a decisive factor.

Robertson is one of a large number of conservatives who are finally acknowledging the reality of climate change. His change of heart is particularly notable because he had criticized other evangelicals who announced last fall that they supported efforts to curb global warming.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

united states of atheism?

It is not uncommon in fundamentalist circles to hear the claim that the United States is largely an atheistic nation and that even most nominal Christians don't really believe in God. In our culture, the fundamentalists maintain, true believers are a minority.

But this idea isn't limited to fundamentalists.

Though there may have been periods in the history of the West when its "official" values roughly coincided with the central values of the Christian tradition, that time is no more. In the modern period, a yawning gap has opened. The dominant values of contemporary American life -- affluence, achievement, appearance, power, competition, consumption, individualism -- are vastly different from anything recognizably Christian. ... Modern culture functions as a rival lord in our lives, conferring values and identity and demanding obedience, all in conformity to its vision of reality. ... Jesus is a vivid challenge to our notion of reality, the "practical atheism" of much of our culture and church.

- Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision

There was a time when unbelief also appeared to be adventuresome, when the denial of God was experienced as an exciting new possibility, a heroic refusal to participate in oppressive social convention. In our day, unbelief is the socially acceptable way of living in the West. It no longer takes courage to disbelieve. As Alasdair MacIntyre has noted... we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve! A flaccid church has robbed atheism of its earlier pretensions of adventure.

- Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens

What these mainline (Hauerwas and Willimon) and liberal (Borg) scholars have observed is one of the great paradoxes of modern liberal democracy. When the government backs off and lets people practice their faith in accordance with their own consciences, many people choose not to practice at all. Freedom of religion -- even for many who say they believe -- becomes freedom from religion.

Christian dominionists would stop this trend by blending church and state, creating a theocracy. This solution might get more people into the churches, but it wouldn't do much to change our culture (except probably to create a backlash).

On the other side of the coin, religious freedom allows ordinary people to find ways to serve God that wouldn't be possible under theocratic rule. What would the world be like if Habitat for Humanity, Ten Thousand Villages, or Bread for the World did not exist? These and countless other ministries were begun, not by official church decrees, but by lay people who saw a need that was not being met.

It is in religious practice that faith reaches its fullest expression. For some people, this practice might be expressed in acts of devotion: prayer, worship, study of Scripture. For others, it might be expressed in acts of service, whether to other church members, to the community, or in overseas missions. Either way, faith must be put into action. "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." (James 2:26)

Take a look at the websites for the nation's most prominent megachurches. You'll see a lot of information about how the church can serve your needs, but not much about how you can serve others through the church. Maybe these churches feel that they must appeal to visitors' self-interest in order to continue to grow, but is that really the best way to make Christian disciples?

I don't have any answers. Personally, I think Borg, Hauerwas, and Willimon are overstating the case somewhat. But I think they do have a point: American churches have not taken their role seriously to be the church. Probably we do have many "practical atheists" in the church. Perhaps the culture of the church needs to be transformed. Before Christians complain about the problems in the general culture, perhaps we should remove the log from our own eye.