Peter Enns on Biblical Inerrancy

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Peter Enns on biblical inerrancy.

No doctrine in evangelicalism is anywhere near as contentious as the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  I am no big fan of inerrancy; you know this if you have been tracking with me for long enough.  If not, then you have probably suspected it after reading my last post.

Inerrancy is a philosophical/theological system imposed upon the Bible in response to objections raised by the intelligentsia of a prior historical era–and a deeply flawed one at that.  It is philosophical/theological overkill–like taking a thermonuclear device into a fight where a switchblade would have done just fine.  Worse, it is like taking a thermonuclear device so unstable that it might melt down and kill you from radiation poisoning before you ever get to the fight.

Inerrancy may have seemed like a good idea a couple of centuries ago when higher criticism was all the rage and the intelligentsia of that era were hell-bent on explaining away the Scriptures and reducing them to nothing more than myth, legend, and folklore.  But nowadays, we know a lot more about the history surrounding biblical times and how the people of biblical times understood their world, God, and the Scriptures.  Our conception of inerrancy is ill-suited to this new knowledge and rather than a robust system with ample explaining power, it is something which we are always scrambling to prop up, lest it should collapse and drag all of Christianity down the slippery slope to the level of myth, folklore, and fairy tales.

Inerrancy dies the death of a thousand million qualifications.  You have to qualify the shit out of it before you can even begin to use it in any meaningful theological discussion.  For starters:  Most everyone (except perhaps a few KJV-only fanatics running around out there somewhere) asserts inerrancy only for the original biblical manuscripts.  We don’t have them.  Isn’t there a problem here?  What about the use of figurative language in the Bible?  Or instances of actual language that are now figurative (such as “The sun rose”–we understand that the sun doesn’t really rise, it only appears to do so from our vantage point in the universe, but the ancients had no such understanding and believed that the sun actually rose)?  What about the Bible’s silence toward and apparent acceptance of things that appear morally reprehensible to our sensibilities (such as slavery, polygamy, and the treatment of women as second-class creatures)?  By the time you have accounted for all of these issues as well as any others that may need to be accounted for, your conception of inerrancy is so big that you need the entire warehouse district of a small to midsize city to store it, and a dedicated fleet of hundreds of 18-wheelers to transport it anywhere.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is regarded as the definitive statement on the subject of inerrancy.  I had to page down 17 times to get to the end of it.  (Results on your browser may vary.)  When it takes a document this long to articulate a doctrine that is as essential to the Christian faith as the proponents of inerrancy make it out to be, something is not right.

Okay, now that I have said enough bad things about inerrancy to get myself barred from ministry in any evangelical church anywhere on the face of the earth, I will let you read what Peter Enns has to say.

In this post Enns critiques a panel discussion recently held by Al Mohler and other faculty members at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the subject of inerrancy.  The discussion is available online if you want to watch it yourself.  Enns lists and pushes back on several of the key points made by speakers during the course of the discussion, such as:  Inerrancy grows out of who God is.  (If the Bible is not inerrant, then God is not truthful and not worthy of our trust.)  Doubting inerrancy puts you on par with the serpent in Genesis 3 who deceived Eve by causing her to doubt God’s word to her.

Read Peter Enns:  Inerrancy: If it Was Good Enough for Jesus….

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Do I Believe in the Bible?

No.

I believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit, three Persons and one God.

I believe that Jesus Christ came to earth, was born of a virgin, suffered and died on a cross and rose again three days later.  By virtue of this, all who are identified with Christ by faith shall rise again just as He did.

I believe that Jesus Christ is coming again at the end of the age to judge and restore all things, and His coming kingdom will have no end.

I believe that the Bible is true.  Jesus said so.  When someone dies and then comes back to life a couple of days later, you go with whatever he says.

But the Bible didn’t come down to earth.  It was not conceived of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It did not die on a Roman cross so that my sins might be forgiven and I might have eternal life.

The Bible did not rise from the dead three days later.  It did not ascend into heaven and it does not sit at the right hand of the Father.

The Bible will not come in glory to judge the living and the dead and to rule a kingdom that will have no end.

So I have nothing invested in the latest archaeological discovery that is supposed to prove to all the world once and for all that the Bible is true.  I have nothing invested in anyone’s attempt to look at science “from a Christian perspective” as if all the facts and figures must be reinterpreted to line up with what we think the Bible says.  I have no interest in anyone’s attempt to mine the Scriptures for principles for better finances, better relationships, better families, better diet, etc.  I have no tolerance for anyone’s attempt to line current events up with end-times prophecy in the countdown to the Rapture.

I have nothing invested in all the debates about how long were the days in Genesis 1? Were there dinosaurs on the ark? Was Jonah a real person who really got swallowed up by a big fish? Did the sun really stand still during that battle in Joshua?

Everyone talks about these things as if it is all just a long line of dominoes.  Tip one over and all 66 books of the Bible come crashing down one after the other until all we are left with is “myth, legend, and folklore”.

Come on, people.

If the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) were not real people, does that make heaven and hell not real?

If Jonah was not a real person (I believe he was.  Jesus talked about him as if he were a real person.  When someone dies and comes back to life a couple of days later, you go with whatever he says.  But I digress.)

If Jonah was not a real person…

If there were no dinosaurs on the ark…

If the flood was not a worldwide event…

If Genesis 1 was not a six-literal-day event…

…does that mean that Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead and I am still in my sins and my faith is in vain?

There is no logical necessity here.  You have to prove that there is.  All those slippery-slope arguments which attempt to convince me that if we can’t trust the Bible when it says X then we can’t trust it when it says Jesus rose from the dead are not convincing to me.

Ken Ham’s big thing these days is that there were dinosaurs on the ark.  How does he get this?  In his way of looking at things, creation was a six-day event that took place 6,000 years ago.  We have evidence of dinosaurs in the fossil record.  Given that timeline, dinosaurs had to be living with humans during the early years of humanity.  We know this is true because all those legends about Beowulf and the dragon, the Loch Ness Monster, St. George and the dragon, etc. didn’t just come from nowhere–they had to have some basis in fact so all those legends had to have been inspired by dinosaurs living with people.

Don’t believe this?  Then it’s evolution and “millions of years” (Ham’s big catchphrase–say it slowly and with an Aussie accent to get the full effect).  And if you believe that, then of course you don’t believe what the Bible says about creation.  And if you don’t believe what the Bible says about creation…well, you can’t just pick and choose what parts of the Bible you want to believe.  The Bible isn’t an all-you-can-eat buffet where you take what you like and leave the rest.  It stands or falls as a whole.  So if you don’t believe what the Bible says about creation, then you don’t believe what the Bible says about Jesus rising from the dead.  Your faith is in vain, you are still in your sins.

Come on, people.

The Bible is a collection of books written by several different authors in several different places.  It has a bewildering diversity of perspectives but is held together by one unifying theme:  Jesus Christ is Lord.  He came to earth, died on a cross, rose from the dead, and he is coming again at the end of the age.

I believe that the Bible is the authoritative, divinely inspired word of God.  It is completely adequate to fulfill its intended purpose, which is to point people toward Jesus Christ.

To get from “Jonah was not a real person” or “There were no dinosaurs on the ark” to “Jesus did not rise from the dead” is an extremely long way to go.  There is no logical necessity here which says that if you start at either of these points you will end at “Jesus did not rise from the dead”.  To say that there is, requires some creative thinking to say the least.

The Bible did not come to earth and die on a cross for the forgiveness of my sins.  Its purpose is to point me to Jesus Christ, who did exactly that.

Tim Gombis on Philemon

Tim Gombis, a professor of New Testament studies at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who blogs over at Faith Improvised, has recently completed a series of posts on Philemon.  This letter, tucked in towards the very end of Paul’s epistles, is less than a page in most Bibles and can easily be read in one sitting.  It is a letter from Paul to Philemon, a wealthy and influential member of one of the Christian communities which Paul regularly visited, on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who left Philemon’s household on less than pleasant terms but has since come to Christ through Paul’s ministry.

Gombis keys in on the phrase “both in the flesh and in the Lord”, tucked away at the end of verse 16.  The full passage reads as follows in the New King James:  “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

The conventional wisdom regarding this phrase is that “in the Lord” refers to Christian fellowship while “in the flesh” refers to the general “brotherhood” that we all share by virtue of being human.  This bias shows up in many of today’s translations; the NIV renders it “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord”, the New Living Translation has “both as a man and as a brother in the Lord”, the Contemporary English Version has “both as a person and as a follower of the Lord”.

Gombis argues that Philemon and Onesimus were actual brothers.  Two possible scenarios:  First, they were both from the same mother and father.  Onesimus was the younger brother; he received a smaller inheritance which he squandered and wound up selling himself into slavery, like the prodigal son of Luke 15.  A more likely scenario is that both were from the same father, but Philemon was the legitimate son while Onesimus was the product of a union between Philemon’s father and some slave girl.  That sort of thing was common in Greek/Roman households of that historical era, and in such situations the child shared the slave status of his mother and had no claim on his father’s estate.

Gombis argues against the viewpoint that “brothers in the flesh” referred to a common humanity because that view was revolutionary in the Roman culture of that era.  Slaves were not considered human at all; they were merely property.  The idea that masters and slaves shared a common humanity was completely and totally foreign to the thinking of that era.  It was advocated by the philosopher Seneca, but he was a minority voice and there is no evidence that his views gained any widespread traction.

Read “Philemon & Onesimus: Brothers in the Flesh“, the capstone piece which summarizes all the big ideas of Gombis’ series.

Read the rest of the series:  Introduction  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

Alastair on Sexual Purity

Today I would like to direct your attention to a post over at Alastair’s Adversaria entitled “The New Purity Ethic“.  Alastair is a favorite blogger of mine that I like to check in with every so often.  His posts are long and heady and it takes a good deal of effort to wrap your mind around what he is saying, but you will find it to be well worth the effort.

This piece starts out as a riff on another piece on the subject of Christian purity by Elizabeth Esther at A Deeper Story entitled “Purity Culture vs. Purity Ethic“.  The problem in the discussion of Christian purity these days is that much of it centers around rule-keeping, where the rules are seemingly arbitrary lists of taboos.  Esther’s piece attempts to create a positive purity ethic where purity consists not of avoiding things but pursuing something, and finds its meaning in the context of a consistent, integrated moral ethic.

Esther’s piece is not without problems, which Alastair goes on to enumerate.

For starters, it is vague.  For example, Esther says that “purity is similar to integrity in that it means acting in accordance with a set of core values” but she never says what those core values actually are.  Instead, she relies on buzzwords such as “wholeness of humanness” and “living wholly”.  These can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean.  Furthermore, these words carry positive connotations; this leads to fewer searching questions or attempts to pin her down on what exactly she is saying here.

But there is a bigger problem here:  Is any of this stuff recognizably Christian?

Some money quotes from the Esther piece:

Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me.

Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?

Purity is knowing myself and honoring the whole of my personhood – because once I know myself, I am living honestly.

Sounds great to Western ears, but is any of this recognizably Christian?

A Christian sexual ethic does not take ourselves as a starting point.  Instead, it all starts with God.  It is all about realities much greater than you or your own personal authenticity.  As a Christian, you are now integrated into Christ’s body and you should conduct your sexual life accordingly.  Scripture is quite clear on what this looks like:  Adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual practice, lasciviousness, public celebration of lust, debauchery, coarse jesting, obscenity, etc. are all strictly forbidden.  This is in sharp contrast to the pagan culture of the day, which tended to regard all sins as more or less equal.  Instead, sexual sin, along with murder, is held to be in a class all its own because it is a direct attack upon the image of God which we as Christians are to represent to the world.

As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: ‘In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.”’ Or as Paul says, ‘Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.’ In Scripture, our purity is not about some private ‘authenticity’, but about the worship that we owe to God, and the honour that we owe to each other. Christian sexual ethics are about community, about the way that we are stewards of our bodies for the sake of God and each other, rather than predicated upon the notion of bodily autonomy as contemporary liberal and feminist sexual ethics typically are. I am responsible to people beyond myself in my use of my body and consent and authenticity alone aren’t a sufficient foundation for a Christian sexual ethic.

Because Christianity is about our integration into realities that are much bigger than ourselves, the true center of Christian sexual ethics comes from outside of us.  It has to; we are not capable of figuring this out on our own.  As Christians we are daily and gradually being conformed to the image of Christ, but we aren’t there yet; thus the Christian sexual ethic and its integrating principles are not yet internalized and must come to us from without.  We may not understand the integrating rationale behind the Scriptural commands and prohibitions concerning sexuality, but they are still in force.

Furthermore, Esther’s ideas on purity are virtually indistinguishable from modern liberal ideas about the body beautiful and self-expression:

Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me. I must ask myself: am I taking care of myself? Am I taking drugs? Am I drinking too much? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I over-eating? Am I getting enough exercise? Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?

There is nothing here that wouldn’t be said by those of the modern liberal bent who want us all to eat healthy, quit smoking, exercise, get lots of sleep, buy organic food, be environmentally friendly, etc. so we all can have lots of casual, adventurous sex.  It’s all about health and wholeness of the body.  Nothing about health and wholeness of the soul.

The Bible is the exact opposite of this.  It has little if anything to say about our distinctively American fixation upon exercise and dieting.  Instead, Christ and the apostles had horrible things done to their bodies and were quite willing to forgo sexual relations.  They did not give a rip about bodily/sexual fulfillment or actualization.  Instead they had much more to say about glorifying Christ through suffering in the flesh as the inward man was renewed daily.

It is right to push back against the abuses of the purity culture that make it all about keeping lengthy lists of petty rules.  But we must do so because it goes against a proper Christian purity ethic, not because it goes against the bourgeois liberal sensibilities of our day.

Read “The New Purity Ethic” at Alastair’s Adversaria