Thursday, November 30, 2006

Heterodox Aftershocks 10: Faith, Hope and Love

I used to know my place in the universe by my doctrine. I felt secure because I knew I was right. I knew I was right because I was surrounded by those who agreed with me. How much I felt I was absolutely right about has changed. Why? Because I find it presumptuous to believe that I, (or my religious subculture) out of deafening roar of the multitudinous past, have heard and believed the Pure Truth. When I survey Christendom’s history I find so much variety in doctrine, attitude, works, and form that I find it unintentionally humorous when I hear or read my fellow evangelicals make huge, sweeping statements based on the proposition that they, out of all Christendom, are the ones who got it right. We are ready and willing to argue our interpretation of scripture and God down to the jot and tittle with our last breath, because to do less would be to compromise the Gospel, right? Yet we claim – at least most of us do – that we are not sectarians. We claim that the rest of Christendom has a less accurate, but still sufficient, understanding of God.

And this leaves me wondering: What are the essential doctrines? Lewis states in the preface to Mere Christianity that he knew he could not please all branches of Christendom with his definition of ‘mere’ Christianity. Because while some say certain issues are ancillary to the core of the Gospel, others would argue that they are absolutely foundational. A while ago our home group did an exercise where we tried to distil our conception of Christianity to the bare essentials. “What does one need to believe or do to be Saved©?” It was astounding to me that a group of people with very similar economic, cultural, religious backgrounds could barely scrape anything together. I don’t think this speaks to a failure on the part of the church. I think this speaks to the failure of the question. Because the question assumes that if you don’t have the right formula you can not be Saved©. With such high stakes the task becomes pedantically loaded. It essentially places the burden of an omniscient God on the woefully inadequate shoulders and minds of mortal humans.

And this is how I am beginning to view all doctrine. At least when it is made a spoken –or more often unspoken – litmus test for Salvation©. I have no problem with creeds and statements of faith. Without those you can’t get a very large group together. (But then, I question the validity of the need to get a large group together in the first place.) I believe a problem arises when we as humans presume to dictate who gets heaven or Hell®. And I believe this is a problem specifically because it’s predicated on the false assumption that there are eternal winners and eternal losers. Those who presume to play the referee in such a game are taking on an impossible task. And the result of the endeavor is the folly that our fractured and bloated Church has demonstrated. Because we are not omniscient, because we can not see the human heart, because we only see through a glass dimly, our attempts at roping off heaven ends as a pathetic joke.

So where does this leave me? I no longer know my place in the universe by my doctrine. I no longer feel secure because I “know I’m right”. And yet… I don’t feel lost and I do feel secure. Why is this? What has replaced my locating dogma? How am I secure when I’m not sure that I’m right? As I prayed about this, this verse came to me… Right after what must be the greatest treatise on Love ever written, Paul says this:

1Co 13:13 Right now three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

He just finished comparing agape Love to prophecy, tongues, and, what’s this?...” understand[ing of] all mysteries and all knowledge” I’d call that perfect doctrine. Doctrine we know we can never have in this life. Here, Paul speaks of a power that supersedes what the Church has attempted to use to define Herself in all Her splintered forms. Looking at the History of the Church, how often do we find Her defining Herself as Love, rather than drawing lines, shooting anathemas at Herself and burning the outside world? Could this lack of Love come from wrong priorities? Could the relentless pursuit of perfect understanding of all mysteries and knowledge, (i.e. doctrine) have so tired Her out that She barely has the strength to Love anymore?

I’m doing a mental exercise and trying to think of what would happen within the Church if everyone suddenly dropped the pretext of declaring who is Hell bound and who isn’t. What if our frame of mind switched from, “We have to Save© the lost!” to “We want to Love God and others as much as ourselves. We want to demonstrate a better way to live.” To most, those statements mean the same thing. But notice what happens when the Hell® part is removed. Without a guiding directive to determine the course of action that one must take when confronted with an Unsaved© individual, (i.e. get them to say the Sinner’s Prayer) we are left with a wide open playing field. Our agenda is gone and we can only –gasp!- rely on God’s Spirit to guide us in loving that person. Of course, if we are truly God’s workmanship and our lives bear witness to that fact, we will show them a “more excellent way” to live. But the guidance will not be based on a false notion of an off/on, light switch Salvation©, where the work is done once we get them across that magical line. With a humble appreciation that we just can’t know what God knows we can stop categorizing people. And ridiculous doctrinal debates like ‘Once Saved©, Always Saved©’ become pointless.

I really don’t know what good the categories do. In fact, I think they only harm us all. Once Saved©, we have a tendency to create a country club mentality, rather than “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” After all, our name’s on The List, why fear and tremble? Maybe because that distinction we’ve created for ourselves, based on presumptuous doctrine, isn’t real. Maybe because our tradition has given us a false sense of security and our human nature turns that into lording it over those who aren’t In. I think we have plenty of reason to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I think that’s because our salvation is a life-long (and probably extending into the next life) process. And those who don’t take is seriously – those who think they can coast through life without lifting a finger for others because they believe a certain doctrine so they are “in” – will have hell to pay. I think they will be weeping and gnashing their teeth as they realize what utter asses they have been to others simply because they subscribed to a doctrine from particular group from a particular time. I think every missed opportunity to show Love to another human on this earth will feel like a tongue of flame, burning their conscience. But that’s all speculation, and applies to me as much as anyone else. And finally, after we have been cleansed to absolute purity, and are formed into creatures who can be true Sons and Daughters of God, He will embrace us all, wipe away our tears, and we will all have a good laugh about our experiences and the hell we put ourselves through.

So here I am…. Doctrine-less. (Sort of) Am I just another post-modern Gen-X wash out with no direction or motivation? No! Because what I have is so far greater than doctrine can ever be. I have Faith, Hope, and Love. That is why God brought me to this scripture. I believe this is the foundation of a relationship with God. This is how I can worship in Spirit and in Truth when I hear the Spirit imperfectly, and can not claim to know the Truth. These three… things… fundamental things, that God has given us are the key to transcending the limitations of humans and our understanding. These are our only way to escape the chains of our culture, religion, dogma, intelligence, historical place, etc.

Faith

My understanding of Faith is that it provides the framework for interpreting the reality we live in. What we put our faith in will color that interpretation. Those who put their faith in humanity, science, or self, will interpret reality far different than one who put’s their faith in Jehovah. I see the events of my life as an unfolding story about the grace and sovereignty of God. I see my attributes and attitudes as provided by God for the purpose of Loving Him and others. I see the world and interpret it this way because of Faith. Is there doctrinal presupposition in that? Of course. (I’ll get back to that.) Could I be wrong in my interpretation? Of course. But it couldn’t very well be Faith if it was for sure.

Hope

If Faith is the rode that I’m driving, Hope is the fuel in my tank. Without it there is no point of going anywhere, because anywhere could be just as bad as here. I HOPE that God has particular attributes and attitudes towards me and my fellow humans. I Hope He is as described by my Judeo/Christian scriptures. I Hope that He is Love. I Hope that He is Just. I Hope that He is Merciful. I HOPE that He doesn’t only let a small group of people who happened to get all their doctrine right into heaven and let everyone else burn in Hell®.

Love

Love is the compass on my dashboard. I know where to go and what to do because of it. (Most of the time.) How I express Love is based on how I interpret reality. (by Faith) I try to listen to God and do what He says. For in that procedure, I know by Faith and Hope, that I will be accomplishing Love. It’s telling that Paul would put a higher premium on Love than Faith, Hope, and even perfect understanding. Those things are great, and help us to Love better. But if they are not directed and restrained by Love they are counterproductive. I think about 90% of the Church’s contradictory doctrine falls under this category.

I want to get back to the doctrine issue. Because I love the logical side of parsing texts and determining doctrine. I love the scholarship, wisdom, and wit that goes into it. I’m not a sentimentalist who thinks that “All you need is love.” What I’ve become disenchanted from is the way doctrine is used once it is created. Rather than doctrine being presented with a humble spirit; “Here is what makes sense to me. I think it honors God the most.” It is invariably presented as a dividing line: “This is the way it is. If you don’t see it this way you must be blind.” I think this is because of two factors. First, it is human nature to club each other over the head with ideas. You see it in politics and philosophy as well. As humans, we think we have the ability to know it all, and that we actually achieve that status. So naturally, those who disagree with us must be stupid. (Or in theological lingo: more sinful.)

The other reason I think doctrine is used divisively is because it is directed towards determining who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. I wonder what would happen if the fuel that fed the doctrinal machine were switched from Hellfire to Lovefire. If the basic question was changed from: “What does God require for us to be Saved©?” to “What is the best way to Love God and our neighbor?” I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of good doctrinal work in that department. But I’ve never seen it as a focal point for theological dialog and consumption. ‘How to love’ is typically preached, but not studied or built into doctrine.

Doctrine is inescapable. If you have any thought about what God is or how to live your life you have doctrine. When I say that I am doctrine-less I mean that I am no longer holding to my opinions as anything more than that. I believe they are true by faith. And I believe in Truth that exists outside of myself. What I don’t believe is that I have the power to know exactly what that Truth is fully. I believe God gives me parts of it, and allows other parts to be murky. I don’t see how anyone can take any other position without committing grievous arrogance. Whether it is personal arrogance or submission to communal arrogance makes no difference. You can personally say that you have all the answers, or you can say your faith community has all the answers. Neither option is viable given the facts of reality and the multifaceted nature of the Church.

So if I can’t say, “I AM RIGHT!” what can I say? How about, “I think I am right.” How about just living according to what I believe to be right, and seeing what happens? Why not say God is always right, and He blesses us with little glimpses of Truth when He sees fit? See, I’m not a relativist because I’m not saying everyone has their own truth. I’m saying that only God has the complete Truth that exists outside of us and our experience or ability to attain. Knowing that ought to make one humble. So humble, that one can not pronounce ones doctrine to be Truth. So humble that one can only say what they think or believe.

Does that diminish the power of our witness? Does it render us as merely another voice in the pluralistic universe? Guess what Church; that’s what we always have been. Let’s drop the delusions of grandeur and simply live our lives with Love for others. Let’s have Faith that God is guiding us. Let’s Hope that He’s taking us somewhere good. And let’s Love as if it were our sole purpose of existence rather than a means to an end. (Salvation© for us and others.) Let’s drop the pretext of having the “understanding of all mysteries and knowledge”. We should still pursue that, but never for use as a weapon to club the heathen. (Or more often, our brothers and sisters.)

Love and Truth must coexist in order to work. If you believe it is true that killing a baby is mercifully loving, then you won’t actually be Loving. But we have to admit that we don’t KNOW all Truth. And therefore admit that our Love will be diluted by our fallen state. I’m sure that I do things that I think are loving for my wife and kids and coworkers, that, because I’m missing some crucial information, will end up not being the best thing for them. But that can’t paralyze me. Neither should a shift in doctrine attitude paralyze a Christian’s Love output. Does it make us less loving to say, “I’m not certain that I understand the Truth.”? No, it makes us less certain. And less certainty means more humility is necessary. And humility does nothing but aid Charity. So Truth and Love must work together, but in the absence of the assuredness of the truth as we understand it, Love must supersede all. You and I don’t KNOW that we are right. We have faith that we are. Let’s keep that open and on the table at all times.

Monday, November 13, 2006

My first sculpting class



I was at the Tacoma Dome Holiday Food and Something or Other Thingy a couple of weeks ago thanks to my friend, Dennis the Santa sculptor. He heads up Artists In Action which is a group of artists like me who go to art fairs and stuff and actually make art, rather than sit in the back of our booth doing crossword puzzles.


I don't have anything to sell yet, so I was trying to get people to sign up for sculpting lessons taught by me.


Well I got about a dozen people who showed enough interest to actually put their name on my list. But when I sent out emails to everyone only one person actually got back to me.

So she and her husband were the only students I had yesterday. Which I guess isn't a bad thing. I got to teach my first class with very low demand and stress, and get a feel for how to teach people who have never touched Sculpey before. We ended up doing Santa heads. It was a very interesting challenge to constantly view their work and try to figure out exactly what needs to be done to get to the next step. The process of evaluating a current, underdeveloped position and assessing the best way to proceed reminds me of the theological research I'm doing. I suppose it's a life skill that is applicable in many situations. I seem to be pretty good at it, and they ended up with quite nice little Santa heads by the end. And to top it off, the lady emailed me this morning telling me how great the lesson was and invited me to her house to give the same lesson to 6 of her friends!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Heterodox Aftershocks 9: How to read the Bible?

I’m including this entry under my Heterodox Aftershocks category even though it does not deal specifically with Hell®, Free Will™, or theodicy. Though not explicitly connected with those topics, one’s stance on the nature of the Biblical will radically affect ones determination on those issues. So I have been working on this in the background concurrent with my other studies.

I’ve involved myself in a broad ranging debate about this issue on the CARM forum, and have been studiously following links to papers, sermons, books, and other material on the subject. In that quest I came upon a bunch of lectures from a professor at Covenant University, Dr. Michael Williams who is an inerrantist. One of those lectures helped to organize this topic for me, so I’m following his lesson plan for the first part of this entry.

The hot topic on the issue of Biblical authority is inerrancy. The second hottest topic is what inerrancy even means. Orthodox Christianity had used the term ‘infallible’ until the American Presbyterian tradition came up with inerrancy. This was apparently done in order to counter the Higher Critical Method and Des Carte’s philosophy of critical doubt. In other word: assuming all assertions to be false until proven otherwise. Obviously, if you approach the Bible with that philosophy you aren’t going to get much out of it. I would say that if you come to the Bible with an adversarial stance, assuming that it is wrong, than there is no way for you to accept the transformative nature of its claims.

Since that time inerrancy has become a sort of litmus test for orthodoxy. On the surface that seems reasonable. Do you believe the Bible is true or not? If yes, you’re one of us, if no, than you must one of them liberals who marry gay bishops in the Anglican Church.

But Dr. Williams concedes that there are several objections to inerrancy that even conservative Christians can make. Here are a few of them.

1. The term is overly scientific. It presents an aura of precision, exactness and specificity that is alien to ancient cannons of science, history and truth. The issue of inerrancy forces questions on the Biblical text that the authors were not asking.

2. The very word "inerrancy" is a negation. It is not an affirmative claim. It only states what it is not. Better to speak of infallibility or inspiration of scripture. An analogy would be getting set up on a blind date, and when you ask what she looks like, the answer is, "She's not ugly." Saying the Bible does not lie does not make any statements about what it DOES say.

3. The term, applied as it is to the autographa, (The original writing.) is in fact a hypothetical position. We don't possess them, so there is no way to validate the claim.

4. The term inerrancy is relatively new, and not part of the classical heritage of the church.

5. Inerrancy is impossible to verify. How can you prove the absolute truth of every single statement in the Bible and test it? Claims such as God is Love, or Jesus’ claim to be the Way the Truth and the Life can not be verified in any measurable way.

6. Without testing, this term is no more than a deductive, a priori dogmatic presumption. One that closes down real investigation and discussion concerning the Biblical phenomenon. Sinclair Ferguson states: "Many evangelicals have hidden behind the doctrine of inerrancy.”

Here is a taxonomy of Christian attitudes towards scripture that Dr. Ericson defines. It starts on the far right/fundamentalist side and swings to the left/why-bother side.

1. Absolute Inerrancy. These are the people who say that every jot and tiddle in the Bible is absolutely perfect and true in every sense. They insist that there must have been two king Jehoiachins since 2 Kings says he became king at 18 and 2 Chronicles says he was only 8. And what an amazing coincidence that one of them reigned for 3 years, and one of them for 3 years and 10 days! Yes, they are in fact crazy.

2. Full Inerrancy. Full Inerrantists say that the Bible is not about science or history per se, and thus its treatment of such things is phenomenological. (Meaning: As seen from the point of view of the human author.) So when the Bible speaks on such matters it is not trying to be objectively precise by modernity’s standards. So things like approximations are not seen as problematic since the nature of the text is not about scientific accuracy.

3. Limited Inerrancy. The Bible is meant fundamentally as a revelation about God’s person and will. The scientific and historical references in the Bible reflect the understanding current at the time the Bible was written. The Bible authors were subject to the limitations of their time. Revelation and inspiration did not raise the writers above ordinary knowledge. God did not reveal science or history to them. Consequently, the Bible may contain what we would call errors in these areas. This however is of no great consequence as the Bible does not purport to teach science or history.

4. Inerrancy of Purpose. The Bible faithfully accomplishes its purpose. That is: to bring people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, and an obedient life. However, the Bible is not about the communication of truths. It’s about the communication of persons and relationships. It is therefore improper to equate inerrancy with factuality. After all, in the Bible, erring is a spiritual or moral affair, rather than an intellectual affair. So this group would say that the term inerrancy is simply inappropriate. It’s a category error. It’s mixing apples and oranges. Since the Bible is not about facts in any sort of scientific sense. It is about persons and relationships.

5. Inspired but not Inerrant. The idea is that the Bible came through normal, human channels. And thus it participates in all the shortcomings of human nature. This can also pertain to the confessional matters. There could even be problems in the doctrinal issues. Examples of Paul and James apparent disagreement about works and John does not agree with Paul on every issue. So while the Bible is authoritative and inspired, it is not inerrant.

6. Revelation is non-propositional. Revelation is about acts, not words. Deeds, not propositions. Thus the Bible itself is not revelation. It is merely a human and fallible record of God’s revelatory acts.

One of the things this list makes apparent is that words like ‘inspired’, ‘authoritative’, ‘infallible’, etc. are quite hard to pin down. And one mindset can see them quite differently than you or I. So when dealing with these issues in relation to the Bible, it seems that some level of miscommunication is par for the course. And I can see merit in parts of all of these views. Well, maybe not number one. Another thing this continuum shows is that it’s oversimplifying and dishonest to phrase a question, “Do you believe the Bible is true or not?”

Here is Ericson’s definition of inerrancy:

“The Bible, when correctly interpreted, in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was written, is fully truthful in all it affirms.”

Notice he does not cite the autographa.

C.H. Dodd, in his book The Authority of the Bible claimed that the autographa -or autographa idea- is the fatal flaw in the doctrine of inerrancy. He says, "When you cite an autographa you are making an assertion about a document which is forever inaccessible to us."

Hans Klum (?) states that, "Despite the lack of original manuscripts, and the fact that in many cases authentic readings were not fixed until a late date, textual criticism has succeeded in establishing with the greatest possible certitude, the original wording of the Biblical writings in the earliest form available to us."

F.F. Bruce claims in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, that we have 99.9% of the original text.

One of the things that surprised me in my research on this topic is how inaccessible the manuscripts from which we derive our Bibles are. I have no way of examining such a bold claim about how we have it 99.9% right. I've asked several scholars about how I can look into the inconsistencies between the existing documents. Because the general party line is that the differences are so minute that they are inconsequential. But then I find that there are all these chunks of scripture that are not in many older manuscripts, like the last section of Mark 16. The disputed section features the idea that Mary Magdalene had 7 demons cast out of her, that Jesus shape-shifted to test the Eleven's faith; it states that those who are not baptized are condemned, and that that believers can take up serpents and drink poison without harm. (By the way, that's a very cynical spin on those verses.) Another verse that many scholars say was redacted is John 5:2. It says an angel would occasionally come and stir the pool at Bethesda and whoever went in would be healed.

Now when I think about it, I can see how those passages don't seem to fit with other doctrine. They seem a little… kooky. But I have no way of confirming or denying these claims easily. I'm going to keep looking into it though.

In the mean time, here is my current take on the matter of inerrancy.

I've seen this argument a hundred times now… "If you don't believe that every word of the Bible is the inerrant word that God specifically chose, than you will simply create a god of your imagination. Picking and choosing what appeals to you and discarding what does not."

But very few of the non-inerrantists I've read are advocating a distrust of scripture. They trust scripture. They don't trust translators, corporations who pay for the translations, or partisan Bible commentators. Every translation is done through the lens of the translator's beliefs. This fact is axiomatic and inescapable. We wouldn't need more than one English translation if that was not the case.

Do you trust the Catholic Church in everything it pronounces and produces? Well the shaping of what we commonly refer to as the Bible was produced by them. Notice I'm not saying it was created by them. They merely compiled what they found to be relevant and true. I have an anthology of George MacDonald's writings edited by C.S. Lewis. If I believed that George MacDonald was inerrant, (I don't) but I knew that C.S. Lewis was a mere human, (though greatly inspired by God) I would know that the compendium I own is not going to contain all the truth and wisdom that George MacDonald had to offer. I would want to read the originals.

But with the Bible, we don't have that luxury. But we are awfully darn close since we have so many copies to compare. (Praise God for that!) So we are really close to knowing what Christ said, and what Paul said, and what Moses said, etc. But we irrefutably do not have it in all perfection.

This conclusion does not leave me free to discard whatever I like from the Bible and redefine a god or Jesus that I'm happy with. I can still conform myself to the standards and teaching of God through Christ revealed in scripture.

This entire debate reminds me of the one happening in politics right now concerning Freedom Vs. Security. The Freedom crowd quotes Ben Franklin when he says, (I'm paraphrasing here) Those who would give up a little freedom for the sake of security will lose both and deserve neither.

They deny the obvious fact that every nation has a mix of security and freedom. We in America are not free to do anything we like. We can't carry six shooters around and shoot them into the ceiling whenever we get exited. (That's my personal freedom fantasy.) Why is this not legal? Because we balance freedom of the individual with security of the community at large.

This balance is what every mature Christian must bring to bear when we study whatever translation of the scripture we have. For instance, there are Bible translations out now that reference God as a 'she'. I can clearly see this as an error on the part of the translator's due to a particular world view. I am not bound to their interpretation because of my knowledge. Those of you who say God would not let His Word be distorted are shown to be wrong in this case. If I shouldn't trust the modern scholars at Tyndale (or whoever publishes that Bible) why should I trust any other translator completely? I showed in my last entry why you shouldn't.

And if we can't fully trust the myriad of translators out there, what are we left with but our reason, intellect, and most importantly God's Spirit to guide us into understanding?

Ultimately we in modern day America are left with some very good translations based on very good scholarship, based on many good manuscripts, based on either perfect words from Gods or very inspired writers. Whether they are perfect words or inspired words matters very little to us since we are neither fluent in ancient Greek and Hebrew, fully understand all the nuances and situations the words addressed in their time, and most importantly, we don't have the actual writings. By the time these words reach us - after having gone through literally hundreds or thousands of hands, eyes, minds, and hearts, not to mention the cultural and time differences – we are left with an approximation of the revelation the original authors had. And that will just have to be enough for us since no other reality exists. Apparently, God in His infinite wisdom knew this to be enough for us to know and obey Him.

The slippery slope towards pick-and-choose theology is one we must all navigate. An inerrantist simply chooses to believe that a document that no longer exists was perfect, and somehow transposes that with a belief that the Bibles we have today are perfect. Though I have yet to see one say which Bible they have is perfect. Either way, they are using their will and intellect to determine that their modern Bible is perfect. Yet somehow, they don't see eye to eye with each other on numerous issues. If inerrantist A denies the modern validity of Paul's words about long hair on a man being unnatural, inerrantist B can claim that they are on a slippery slope leading to a "god of their imagination." Then if B says that women are allowed to speak in church than A can make the same attack.

Don't you see? NONE of us are conforming to every word of the Bible as true for our lives. We recognize that not every word in the Bible is of the "Thus sayeth the Lord" type. Every one of us is using our reasoning ability and hopefully guidance from the Spirit in our assessment of the scriptures. It is unavoidable. We are ALL on a slippery slope. Inerrancy does not protect us from it. Can a belief in infallibility rather than inerrancy lead to liberalism and a god of the imagination? Of course! And getting pregnant can lead to a miscarriage, and helping a stranger could lead to a mugging, and missionary work in prisons or jungles can lead to death. Does that make any of those things wrong? God forbid! Inerrancy can lead to legalism and infighting. Are we living in a police state now since we have the Patriot act in effect? No. We are forced to use our intellect to determine a balance between safety and liberty. And we are forced to use our intellect and rely on God's Spirit when we apply scripture to our lives.

One of the assumptions that inerrantists make is that if the Bible we have today is not perfect, than that is a declaration that God must not be perfect. They would see an imperfect representation of His acts in history as a failure on His part. The assumption is that God wanted to perfectly preserve accounts of His acts that He perfectly penned through the bodies and minds of the authors. But what if this is not the case? What if God simply arranged for the right kind of people with the right kinds of skills to be around Him when He acted so that they would record what they saw and heard? This scenario seems much more consistent with the presentation of the Bible. We have a collection of letters and history. All from human's point of view. If the assumption of the inerrantist was correct, wouldn't we have simply had a single revelation of God's instructions channeled through a single writer? Or even through multiple writers. Why is the Bible all accounts and commentaries of acts of God that are perceived by men? I think this fundamental issue should be addressed when we approach the Bible. We seem to have ignored the medium and thus interpreted the message differently than we should have. I'm trying to think about why God would have chosen this method of transferring information.

If I'm not mistaken, most of the other religious texts out there are sort of monologs from holy men or prophets. We have some of that in the Bible. But most of the New Testament is letters from some guy to some other guys. Then some accounts of guys who were with Jesus a lot. In the Old Testament we have a lot of contradicting histories, and a bunch of statements about God that seem… well… wrong. We don't make doctrine out of:

Psa 78:65 Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a strong man shouting because of wine.

And

Gen 18:20 Then the LORD said, "Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know."

And

Gen 6:7 So the LORD said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them."

Why don't we make doctrine out of these verses? Because we can see that this is a flawed human perception of God. So we reject those passages as mere human perception, but because we have this idea that our holy texts should be like all the other holy texts, we try to read whatever we can as perfect revelation. Even though there is no distinction between those verses that are so obviously human and those we claim to be divine. An inerrantist has to come up with some kind of explanation for these kinds of passages. They have to explain why God would want us to think that He sleeps and wakes up yelling because of wine. Why does God want us to think that He has to "come down" to earth to know what's going on? How could an omniscient God be sorry for making something that He knew He was going to make and planned out? Here we have words directly and emphatically attributed to God that contradict His revealed nature.

It seems so much more consistent to view the Old Testament as the writings of a culture that God was cultivating and preparing. In which He was going to grow out of, into the history of His creation. Everything just makes so much more sense that way. Here, we see the history of a people as they see it. Not as a NASA probe would record it. It has all their values and biases worked into it. They didn't have the concept of an unbiased historical record like we do today. (Which probably made them more honest since our modern conception is a fraud.) We have the interactions of a chosen people with the Creator of the universe as they saw it. We see the way that God slowly shaped their society and values. The way He slowly evolved their understanding of Him and His ways. But never from a God's-eye perspective. Always as recorded in the oral tradition that the Jews had. Even when we read the words attributed to God we can find many places where "His" words don't fit in with later revelation.

So then I wonder: what is the harm of viewing scripture this way? As the records of those who interacted with God and had a story to tell about it. Rather than as a set of historical facts perfectly recorded by a God who wanted His every word known. For if it is that later, God has failed. We don't have those original documents. And the ones we do have contain discrepancies. To accord with reality we would have to rephrase the axiom as: 'God wanted X% of His words to be perfectly known'. But what if instead, God wanted us to read the accounts of those who interacted with Him. He wanted our hearts to sing when they heard the music that is His. What if Jesus Christ is The Word (as it says in John 1:1), and the Bible is words about Him? The Bible contains words from Him. But can never replace, or even sit side-by-side with Him. Jesus is The Way, The Truth, The Life. No such claims should be made about a bunch of writings concerning Him. Especially since we can see all the telltale signs of the imperfect memories of the writers. The written words are instrumental in bringing knowledge about Him, but they are not Him. Not The Word. At least those are the conclusions I'm coming to right now. Of course, I could be way off.

The obvious question to me is this: "I can go on and on about what how Jesus is this that and the other, but if I don't regard the Bible as 100% true, how can I make any claims about Jesus, since the Bible is our only source of knowledge about Him?" Now that statement is a composite of about a hundred such statements I've read in this argument. And my answers have to do with some of the wording and implicit definitions in it. First of all, when someone demands that the Bible be taken as 100% true, we need to understand in what sense are they demanding that it be true? The literal sense? The historical sense? The psychological sense? The spiritual sense? The ontological sense?

No one takes all of the statements in the Bible literally. Everyone accounts for parables and metaphors. The trouble comes in if you want to make doctrine out of parable or metaphor. That usually requires denying the purpose of the text, and misapplying it. I think a great example of this is the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. The parable ostensibly speaks of actual people as though it is a historic narrative. But when you consider that in context it is one part of a multiple-part parable, and take into account Jesus' statement that He only spoke in parables, it seems odd to demand any sort of literal reading of this passage. No one reads the parable of the Prodigal Son as a historic narrative, yet they will assume that because an afterlife is described in Lazarus and the Rich Man, it must be literal.

So when we are assessing in what sense a passage is true, it behooves us to use a lot of care, and to pay close attention to the style of the writing. The gospels are clearly accounts of history and truth claims. (Though sometimes conflicting in small matters.) You can't claim them to be poetry, prophecy, or metaphor. (Though they do contain all of those things in parts.) And Jesus' statement about cutting off body parts to escape gehenna is not a plan for salvation. To read them that way would be to betray the obvious intent behind the words.

This idea of what kind of truth that the Bible proclaims is particularly important in the Old Testament. If the historical facts listed turn out not to be facts, does this mean that God is a liar? Or does it simply indicate that those who wrote it were people with finite knowledge? And how do we know the authors' attitudes towards the oldest stories like Noah and the Ark, and the creation? Could these stories be metaphorical or mythological and still be "true"? As I examine the nature of truth, and its modern interpretation I think I'm seeing a bit of a discrepancy between what we modern Christians expect out of the ancient writings in the Bible and what the writers were actually implicitly promising. When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, was he scribing God's words, or was he simply recording the folk tales and wisdom of his people? He doesn't say.

2Ti 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

What does it mean to be breathed out by God? This is the proof text that inerrantists always bring out. They assume it means that God dictated every word. I wonder why they assume that. Because if the story of the creation is a myth of the Jewish people, it could still be called God breathed. If He is involved with the culture and their perceptions, then everything they produce could fall under that category. The myth would be based on facts, and the transmission of those facts would be an act of God. By the way, I'm using the word myth in its literary meaning, not the popular one which is 'fake story'. I mean a true story that has been distilled to its core truths despite having characters changed, names added, numbers adjusted, etc.

It's possible that the Jews were better at keeping facts and figures straight than the cultures surrounding them. But reading through 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles seems to indicate otherwise. With that in mind, how does a humble Christian approach the stories of the OT that have all the earmarks of myth? I used to think it was arrogant and presumptuous to even consider that those stories could be mythologized. But now I feel like that was a brash assumption: the idea that God wanted to give us the facts, but He failed to do so because of scribal error or other transmission issues. Because if He had the power to tell the original authors what to write, He certainly had the power to keep the scribes straight. So instead of making that assumption about God, I would rather approach the text we have today with the humility to say to God, "I don't know what class of writing this is. What do you have to tell me through it?"

It seems to me that the attitude with which one approaches the text of the Bible will determine what one takes away from it.

There are two reasons that I can think of off the top of my head that contribute to my attitude of reverence towards the Bible. The first is the demands it makes to be taken seriously as revelation. It contains the most verifiably accurate written record of what Jesus Christ said that we have available to us. The historicity of the accounts it contains are unparalleled in ancient writings and the claims it makes stretch it to the limit that its unparalleled nature will support.

The second reason I approach the Bible with reverence is because of its utility. It has simply proven itself as a trustworthy standard by which to organize my life. I want to be careful here not to diminish the scripture to a mere utilitarian mandate. The utility I speak of is inextricably bound to its revelatory nature. It is not a self-help book. But its precepts are proven in the real world. The 'fruit' that it bears in my life is enough proof for me to take it very seriously.

It is with that seriousness that I want to reevaluate my perception of the Bible and what it claims about itself. Rather than imposing a framework that may work against its message. I want to read it on its own terms. Though determining those terms may be difficult. All I know is that the terms we evangelicals bring to the text seem foreign to it. I think that seriousness makes me just say, "I don't know." About many things. I don't know if Adam and Eve were actual individuals or icons. I don't know if humans and some other entities were mating and having giants before the flood. I don't know how to take the story of Babel. I have no way of directly applying the specifics of these stories to my life in the same way I can verify what Jesus said. He said all who are thirsty could come to Him. I did, and I thirst no more. He said to love your enemies, and now I don't have any. He said that anyone with heavy burdens could come to Him, and I did, and now my burden is light.

The Old Testament seems to lack that sort of verifiability. At least on the personal level. I can see all sorts of claims regarding or recording the nature of humans that reality bears testimony to. Critics will say that the Bible is not true because it has inconstancies and lacks historical proof for many claims. But here is the real difference between a critic of the Bible and myself: I don't feel a need to disprove anything. I'm OK with not knowing. I can still say the message of the Bible is true despite inaccuracies that some of the authors had. That doesn't diminish God in any way because He never promised that He would oversee the compilation of perfect texts and make sure they got transmitted and translated perfectly. He obviously made sure we got the point. We have a coherent, core message about the state of humanity and His dealings with them that brings about salvation. We have plenty of information about how to live our lives. If we love God and want to please Him than that's all we need. We don't need a 'perfect' document.

If we are on the fence, and kind of want to be a Christian, but also kind of want to get away with as much as we can, than a fallible Bible wouldn't help us. We would redefine it to our hearts content. We would drop the verses we don't like and add to the ones we do. I think this is what the church at large already does.

I think this is the crux of my argument. Marginal Christians are looking for a rule book to make them feel better. They feel a need for an inerrant Bible. They would not be able to organize their lives and organizations without one. True lovers of Christ don't care about rules because they are focused on loving God and those around them. They don’t need a book. They need Christ. The book is nice. But the Spirit is their guide and Jesus is their Word. I want to clarify that I'm not saying that only immature Christians argue for inerrancy. I'm only saying that I don't believe mature Christians need to.

This all seems very mystical and 'out there'. But I've looked into as many epistemologies as I could – including those based on an inerrant Bible – and find them all lacking. They all end up in circularity. And I think that's because they depend on a human mind. Revelation is the only epistemology that seems rationally tenable because it is based on a transcendence that we can't reach. But the trouble with revelation is that it's terribly subjective. But so is choosing any other epistemology. As I see it, we are all hopelessly lost without God's light. My belief in the perfection of a book doesn't change that. I'm no less lost with a perfect book of perfect revelation. My perception of it and reaction to it are inescapable filters that must be overcome by God.

Back when I argued for inerrancy I had the following argument… Without an absolute, visible standard with which to appeal there is no way to organize Christendom. Well, there are two assumptions in that argument. One is that a standard must be visible to be real. And the other is that Christendom should be organized. The first seems like a lack of faith in God and a reliance on the works of men. The second one seems to me like the manifestation of human endeavor. "Of course we need to organize. Of course we need to create a movement with political and social power behind it. Of course we need to consolidate that power base so we can be more effective! Why meet in houses when we can buy buildings? Why meet in buildings when we can meet in stadiums? Why leave it at that? We need church governing bodies and multiple levels of management. Higher budgets, taller hats, bigger stars!" That is the nature of man. It is the spirit of the tower of Babel. Take away the Christian labels and the church today would look like any other corporate entity. It provides a service, the consumer pays for said service, the profits are distributed to salaries, advertising, and some good will charity.

So I really do wonder, do we need to organize Christendom? Are we really more effective in this form? We are certainly more effective politically. Is that what Christ was about? Did he advocate changing social policy to bring about a more godly society? Or did He touch one soul at a time? Was His leading from an inerrant book and a religious hierarchy, or was it directly from God? How did He relate to the established religious organization that he was raised in? Could His appraisal of its nature indict our current enterprise of organized religion? I think it can and it does.

But the question becomes: what would Christendom look like without all the business and organizational trappings? Well, frankly, I don't think it is possible given human nature. People organize. It's what they do. If the current structure of Christendom collapsed tomorrow, it would reform almost immediately. But let's say in a theoretical world that didn't happen. What we would have is thousands of separate branches of Christianity with different doctrines, beliefs, attitudes, cannons of scripture, and cultural bents. In other words, we would have what we have now. My point is that I don't think the theory of inerrancy actually creates more unity or organizational power.

Back to the first assumption in my former argument. I used to say that the Church needs a perfect, visible standard by which they can test their doctrine and keep it coherent. Well, if you define the Church as all of Christendom, there is no hope for any such consensus. If you define the Church as a single body of Christians in your local area, then I can see the value of such a standard. But to me, the problem comes in when we make such a demand of a group of documents that weren't designed for such a task. Certainly parts of the Bible were written specifically for the purpose of solving doctrinal issues and providing clarity and unity. But those didactic portions are pretty small. And I think that is why we can have so much disunity in a group that ostensibly believes in the same material. People want to read non-rule passages as rules because they view the entire Bible as a rule book rather than the writings of those who encountered God and wanted to share their experiences.

It seems to me that viewing the Bible as a front-to-back rule book comes from an attitude of "What do I have to do?" But if you have the attitude of "What can I do to be more like Christ and to share His love?" you will be more than willing to carefully study what those who actually walked and talked with Jesus have to say about their experiences. You will study what the first believers did with the information they had. You will emulate those who show great wisdom in their writings, and be more than willing to organize your life by the principles they espouse.

So I don't believe that if we abandoned our churches and met in much smaller house groups that Christendom would fade. I think it would thrive as Christians would be forced to confront their beliefs and the people around them on a personal level rather than the abstract, organizational level. Pastors can advocate feeding the poor all they want and only a small percentage of the congregation will actually do it. In a small community of believers there is not the option of sitting in the back and not participating.

The threat of incorrect doctrine would be ever present. But if you think the current Church doesn't have to contend with that now you are kidding yourself. In the early Church God raised up great teachers like Paul as a corrective to the deceivers. If you think a governing council is necessary to maintain good doctrine I think you are putting your faith in a man-made institution rather than the living God who created the people. As an example I would point to places and times where the organized Church is outlawed. What kind of reports do we hear about the Christians who don't have a governing body or bishops, councils, teen outreach groups, television studios, massive publishing arms, etc.? Are they more powerful in the Kingdom of God or less? It seems to me that they are lean and reliant on God. They don't have the 'fat reserves' of marginal Christians filling useless pews and paying for stadiums and Star Bucks in the lobby, buying ridiculous Left Behind and Bible Diet books, and watching TBN.

My point is that Christendom does not need a perfect error-free text in order to survive. I don't think we ever had one. But we took our faith off of God and put it in a book about Him, then made that faith an acid test for acceptance into our multi-billion dollar organization. What a Christian knows as Truth does not come from the perfection of a book, but from the Spirit of God bearing witness to it. This is not as easy as having a rule book to follow. Just as Jesus' command to love God and your neighbor is not as simple as obeying the 10 Commandments. The New Covenant is active, alive, and different for every individual when it comes to acting it out in their given situation in life. For example, my expression of loving my neighbor as myself involved divorcing my wife to protect the safety of my sons, and later it meant not kissing my fiancé. Try getting that out of the 10 Commandments, or any list of rules for that matter. And those particular things I was led to do will not be for anyone else. I did those things as I was seeking God and His will for my life, not from following rules. The Word of God is Jesus! Not a book.

Heb 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Rev 19:13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.

Joh 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Joh 5:39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

Jesus is God's Word put to action, interacting with His creation on its level. Thank God that He placed people around Jesus that would listen closely to His words and record them for us! Thank God that He raised up great thinkers like Paul and Peter who would give us great theology and doctrine concerning God! Thank God that He led His people to compile so many of these writings, and for the Church organization that worked so hard to preserve them! Thank God that we have writings unlike any other religion! And thank God that He is so much greater than any record of Him could ever be! Thank God that He did not leave us with a rule book, but comes to lead us individually through our lives that are so complex that no rule book could ever cover.

Of course I could be completely missing something obvious here. I could be completely deceived. This is a fascinating subject to me and I'm not even close to finished studying it from all angles I can find.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Heterodox Aftershocks 8: Case in Point

In my quest to fully research the claims of Universalism I'm re-reading the entire Bible to verify a couple of claims that they make. First of all, I'm not just going to just believe that every time eternal Hell® is mentioned the 'eternal' was derived from aion or aionios simply because they say so. Also, there may be other arguments for the eternity of Hell® that don't actually use the word eternal or some derivation thereof. There are a lot of proof-texts for Universalism, and so that means a lot of context to study.

Anyway, one of my first arguments at the beginning of this whole thing was that the translations of the Bible that we modern Americans are reading were doubtlessly shaped by the theology of the translators. To what extent that effect pervades the text is unknown to me since I've never translated a text and don't read Greek.

Well, I was reading in my New Living Translation Bible, (published by Tyndale) the following verse:

Rom 5:10 For since we were restored to friendship with God by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be delivered from eternal punishment by his life.

I noted the reference to eternal punishment, and went to my computer to check the Greek and see if the word was indeed aion/aionios. I have a program called E-Sword that you can download for free from www.e-sword.net where you can compare many translations and languages and has built in concordance, commentaries, etc. It's basically like having an entire seminary's library on your lap. Amazing. Anyway, one of the translations I don't have on there is the NLT. But here are the results of looking up the verse in several other translations:

Rom 5:10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (ESV)

Rom 5:10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (KJV)

Rom 5:10 For if while being enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life; (LITV)

Rom 5:10 for if, being enemies, we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved in his life. (YLT)

I can go on and on, but that should suffice. Notice anything missing in these verses?

Like, maybe something I underlined in the first example. That's right. No mention of

eternal punishment. I understand that in order to translate an idea from one language to another you have to move a lot of stuff around. But this is not a matter of shuffling. This is a completely different idea that was added to the text. The text says we are saved in His life. The translator assumes (doubtlessly because of his orthodox schooling) that this salvation is from eternal punishment, and so he doesn’t see any harm in adding that in. That may not bother most Christians because they see it as axiomatic that Christ died to save us from Hell®. Even though the statement is never made in scripture, to my knowledge. ... Oh, wait... NOW it is!

But let's take an idea that was axiomatic at the beginning of the Church and has since died off and add it to a verse and see what you think. Here's the actual verse from the ESV:

1Co 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Now I'll take the same liberty that the translators of the NLT took and splice in a little dogma of my own:

1Co 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? And why do they pray to the dead for intercession?

Not so acceptable now, is it? This sort of thing should not be tolerated.

I'm not jumping to any conclusions here. I don't know how widespread this problem is. Maybe it's a fluke of this one instance in this one translation, but I doubt it. It seems to me that if such a brazen addition to the source material goes by unnoticed, then the subtle shades of meaning can be easily manipulated by a biased translator much more easily. Even without their knowing that they are doing so.

Of course I'm am not without my own biases. But without knowing the original Greek, I have no way of determining a translator's biases. It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that I need to learn ancient Greek.



Additional information:

I found another transgression:

Rom 6:21 And what was the result? It was not good, since now you are ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. (NLT)

Here is the same verse in some other versions:

Rom 6:21 … For those things resulted in death. (ISV)

Rom 6:21 … for the end of those things is death. (KJV)

Rom 6:21 … for the end of *them* is death. (Darby)

Rom 6:21 … The end of those things is death. (ESV)

The Greek word translated “death” in every other version, and ETERNAL DOOM in the NLT is Thanatos: than'-at-os

From G2348; (properly an adjective used as a noun) death (literally or figuratively): - X deadly, (be . . .) death.

I wanted to understand where the translators were coming from so I read the introduction. It’s the same as most Bible intros. It talks about what a great team of spirit led people put it together and how this version is important. They talk about the difference between Formal Equivalence and Dynamic, or Functional Equivalence. In other words, do they try to translate word-meaning for word-meaning, or thought-for-thought. They are clearly far on the thought-for-thought side of the spectrum.

It states: “Of course, to translate the thought of the original language requires that the text be interpreted accurately and then be rendered in understandable idiom. So the goal of any thought-for-thought translation is to be both reliable and eminently readable. Thus, as a thought-for-thought translation, the New Living Translation seeks to be both exegetically accurate and idiomatically powerful.”

Another statement: “In order to guard against personal biases and to ensure the accuracy of the message, a thought-for-thought translation should be created by a group of scholars who employ the best exegetical tools and who also understand the receptor language very well.”

So I have to wonder… what is this exegetical tool that ranks among “the best” that allows them to insert their own ideas into the scripture? Would that same tool allow them to add the word Trinity in the scripture somewhere? Why not? The whole group of translators believes that the Trinity is the only logical conclusion of the scripture as a whole. The same way the whole group believes that the only logical conclusion of scripture is that many people will spend eternity in Hell®, so why not throw that in whenever the opportunity arises? This is truly sad.

Here are the specific names of those responsible for these rash additions. They are the mini-team assigned to Romans for the New Living Translation.

Gerald Borchert, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Douglas J. Moo, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Thomas R. Schreiner, Bethel Theological Seminary

Marriage Retreat in Whistler

Last weekend I went to Whistler Canada with my honey for a marriage retreat. My mom, the superhero, came up to watch the kids for us. The marriage material was a video of a speaker who wrote the book Love and Respect, which is based on the passage in Ephesians 5 about wives respecting their husbands and husbands loving their wives. Men tend to respect rather than love, and women tend to love rather than respect. Yet each gender needs what the other doesn’t naturally give. So that's why the Bible tells them to do what does not come naturally to them. We need to recognize that our needs are fundamentally different and that's ok. This is almost the exact same stuff our pastor taught us in our pre-marriage counseling, so I don't think we got anything out of the class part of our trip.

I guess the fact that my wife has different needs is just plain obvious to me. And really, the thing that most marriages seem to suffer from is ungodly expectations. (This is from an 11 year long lesson I had.) That is: they expect their spouse will make them happy, and when that doesn't happen they get resentful about it rather than looking to God for fulfillment. I told Heather the thing I love most about her is the fact that she does not expect me to fulfill her. And that she does not let unrealistic expectations rule her emotions. She would love to have a house, but we can't have one now, and that doesn’t make her upset. She didn't have the normal expectation most 'good Christian girls' have of marrying good, rich Christian doctor or lawyer with no baggage. She was open to being called into a marriage of ministering to a family with immediate needs. She is truly beautiful in this respect.

But the rest of the trip was really great. The mountains are of course very beautiful. On Saturday we went zip lining over some big valleys and trees. (That's where you are in a harness attached to a rig that is on a thousand foot long wire suspended from trees. You push off and 'fly' over the forest.) That was really fun. We also had dinner and a movie with a couple that we got along well with. She was Justin's 4th grade teacher, and they had just been married a month or so ago.

My favorite part of the trip was just having long conversations with Heather in the car about spiritual things. We are such good friends and I still can't believe how great our relationship is. My eyes still well up a bit when I watch her sleeping and think about how God has blessed me beyond my dreams with her.