The Unfortunate Side-Effects of the Doctrine of Inspiration

I tried to come up with a less-wordy title for this post, but simply couldn’t.  I considered replacing the word “unfortunate” with “unintended” because I really do think what I’m about to discuss is completely unintended by those who hold to a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture. But I felt like “unfortunate” communicated better how I really feel about this issue.  “Unintended” can still be good.  In this case, what is unintended is, in fact, quite sad.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (NASB, or otherwise translated as “All Scripture is God-breathed…”).  In the past, I have (in places on this blog) raised questions about how that verse should be treated.  Is it saying that the 66 books of the Protestant canon of Scripture are inspired?  Is it only referring (as it does in context) to the Old Testament?  Is it saying that only those books included in the Protestant canon are inspired and no others? Or is it saying something else?

This post is not about answering those questions, however. Maybe I’ll get back to those questions again in a future post, but for now I want to examine the side-effects of believing that all 66 books of the Protestant canon are completely inspired by God in their very words.

On the surface at least, I really don’t have an issue with believing that all 66 books are inspired by God.  Or maybe, to be completely accurate, I should say that I don’t have any problem with someone who does hold to that viewpoint. However, the doctrine of inspiration, especially since it is based so heavily (exclusively, even??) on this statement by Paul leads to some interesting issues.  These are, in my opinion, issues that are problematic.

Issue #1: The Doctrine of Inerrancy

The doctrine of inerrancy flows naturally from the doctrine of inspiration.  If God is actually the author (through the Holy Spirit) of the words of the Bible, then it follows rather plainly that the Bible is without error.  This raises some questions, though. For example, what about apparent contradictions in the Bible?  Well, to the strict “inerrantist”, there are no contradictions. If in one passage (2 Samuel 24) it says that God caused David to take a census, and in a parallel passage (1 Chronicles 21) in another book by another author, it says that Satan caused it, then the strict inerrantist has to reconcile those two passages.  This is usually done by saying that God used Satan (or allowed Satan, or instructed Satan, or whatever) to accomplish his (God’s) purpose in the situation.

This answer is not entirely satisfactory to some, though (myself included). It’s a bit of a circular argument.  Here’s a contradiction, but it can’t be a contradiction because the Bible doesn’t have contradictions. And the Bible doesn’t have contradictions because we’ve explained away all the contradictions!

It doesn’t really make sense, though, to say that every word of Scripture is inspired by God and then to have “errors” in the text. So you can’t really believe in verbal inspiration without going down the inerrancy path.  This, in effect, paints us in a corner, then.  It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the doctrine of inspiration that we have to then explain away any contradictions or apparent errors.

Issue #2: The “Every Verse is Equal” View

This is perhaps the worst side-effect of the doctrine of inspiration, in my opinion. Because Paul’s words are interpreted to mean that every verse of Scripture has a use for teaching, instruction in righteousness, etc., people have done two things that are detrimental to our understanding of Scripture: 1.) Pulled individual verses out of context and used them to support whatever cause the person is passionate about, and 2) Use verses to support points even though those verses are actually contradicted elsewhere in the Bible.

Recently, this became very clear to me in the wake of the murder of Osama bin Laden by a US Navy Seal special ops team.  Immediately upon announcement of the news, my Facebook feed split dramatically into those who were whooping it up in jubilant celebration and those who felt like the situation required a certain amount of sobriety.  And I’m not talking about the difference between my Christian friends and my non-Christian friends. I’m just talking about my Christian friends.

Those of us who posted messages of a more sober nature were put down by a lot of those “jubilant celebrants” because we weren’t rejoicing that “justice had been done” or that a mass murderer was finally taken out.

What surprised me, however, was that those who were rejoicing so jubilantly were quick to throw some proof-texts into the mix claiming that there was scriptural precedent for their joy and that, in fact, it was quite appropriate for believers to celebrate in that way.  And when some of us tried to counter with the teachings of Jesus regarding loving our enemies, etc., we were called “naive” by some, attacked by others as taking scripture out of context (really?!?) and put down by still others who claimed that we would gladly stand by while assailants came into our homes and raped and murdered our wives and children.

All of this came from a use of scripture that says that any verse can stand on its own as support for a position.  I could not disagree more strongly, and I think that this, as I have already said, is the worst side-effect of the doctrine of inspiration.

So what is the alternative?

Well, I certainly don’t claim to have all (or even any!) of the answers, but I think that we can look at this from a couple of angles.  Those who believe in a very conservative, strict view of inspiration claim that viewing the scripture as anything but completely inspired by God leaves us with absolutely nothing to hang our faith on.  In other words, if any of it means something other than what it says, we can’t trust any of it.

I think this is a very simplistic and faulty view.  It’s not an either/or proposition.  Much as western Christianity thrives on its “either/or” positions, truth is almost always somewhere in the middle!  Note that I am not saying that truth is relative.  But truth is not always found by contrasting two polar opposite views.  First of all, we need to recognize some things about the revelation we have been given in scripture.

Scripture itself attests to the fact that revelation is not always immediate.  It is most often progressive in nature.  Getting back to the two passages about David taking a census, rather than trying to absurdly reconcile two very different statements, it perhaps makes more sense to see that when Samuel wrote his narrative, he did not understand that actions that violated God’s principles and plan were not actually initiated by God.  But later on, when the writer of the Chronicles comes along (some estimates are that the books of the Chronicles were written approximately 500 years after the writing of the books of Samuel), some development has taken place in the understanding of the role of Satan.

This nature of progressive revelation is attested in Hebrews 1, which makes it quite clear when it says that in past times, God spoke through prophets, etc., but now he has spoken through Jesus.  In other words, the past revelation was insufficient in revealing the Father to us. This is a very important point.  It is important because it gives us a good indication of how we should approach Scripture.

I like to phrase it this way: We must read Scripture through the lens of Jesus.  In other words, we must pass everything we read in Scripture through the revelation of the Father in Jesus.

To put it bluntly, the believers in Old Testament times did not understand the Father.  They didn’t understand the battle between God and Satan.  They did not understand the character of God.  They did not understand the plan the Father had to redeem all mankind to himself.

So, when Jesus comes along and reveals the heart of the Father to us, it necessarily changes some things.  For example, Jesus addresses issues of retribution and “justice” by referencing the Old Testament law in a strange way.  He says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye’, but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you.'”

Note his choice of words: “You have heard it said.” This is highly significant.  Because when we return now to the Old Testament law and attempt to make it the standard for civil law or for even personal action/reaction toward others, we ignore the teaching of Jesus.  One cannot simultaneously love their enemy and rejoice over their demise.  When people quote Old Testament verses about rejoicing over their enemies, or wishing their enemies harm (i.e., the so-called imprecatory Psalms), they do so at the expense of Jesus’s revelation.  Why would we want to return to a “darker-glassed” view of the Father?

(A side note: Some have attempted to use Revelation 18 to defend the rejoicing over Osama bin Laden’s death, as well.  However, I think it is important to note that the rejoicing in Revelation is not over the death of a person or even a group of people, but rather the destruction of a system, referred to as Babylon–a system that stood in opposition to the character and kingdom of God.  That is very different, in my opinion.)

So, again, what are the alternatives?  The alternative is to understand first of all that we don’t know for sure what Paul was trying to say in his comment about inspiration. We know that there is value in the Old Testament in pointing us to Jesus (see Jesus’s statements in John 5).  And we do know that God, from time to time, spoke through the prophets and revealed some of his heart and passion (although they rarely understood what he was saying).  But was Paul specifically saying that every single verse of the Old Testament is still useful for teaching us how to live our daily lives? I seriously doubt it because Jesus himself had a different view of the Old Testament. (“You have heard it said…but I say to you….”)

Secondly, we must, as I have already pointed out, interpret Scripture not just with other Scripture, but more specifically with the teaching of Jesus.  If Jesus says that “an eye for an eye” is not how we are supposed to view our enemies or those who hurt us, then that verse in the Old Testament cannot bear weight on our lives anymore.

To the strict inspiration-believer, this sounds like we simply pick-and-choose what to believe in the Bible.  But I say that is a straw man.  It is a serious misunderstanding of what I am saying.  Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would come to us and teach us all truth.  We must recognize that interpretation of scripture comes through the Holy Spirit.  And if we listen to the voice of the Spirit, we will find that many things begin to make sense in a way different from what is traditionally taught.

In summary, I would encourage anyone who holds to a strict view of inspiration to carefully weigh the side-effects of that view. Don’t allow that view to put you in a position where you end up demeaning the teaching of Jesus or the progressive revelation that took place over 1,000’s of years. And do not quench the Holy Spirit in your use of the Bible. One need only to look at the way New Testament writers used quotes from the Old Testament to see that a strict view might not always be the way to go!

Until next time,

steve :)

Posted in Doctrine, Scripture Interpretation | 9 Comments

Does “All” mean “All”?

I was typing a comment on a friend’s blog that ended up getting quite lengthy. I thought it might be more appropriate to post it here on my blog instead of clogging up his post with such a lengthy comment.

The comment is in relation to a post regarding Rob Bell’s latest book “Love Wins”. If you’ve paid any attention to the blogosphere in the last couple of months, you’re familiar with Bell’s book, or at least the controversy surrounding it. It’s an interesting discussion to have, and one that definitely needs a lot more civility all around. But, at any rate, my former college classmate has been blogging chapter-by-chapter through Bell’s book. We have discussed this a bit on Facebook and privately, and in response to his post on Chapter 6, I have responded with the following:

Thanks for addressing the 1 Cor 15 passage that I mentioned to you privately. But I want to take the exegesis even farther and resolve this “all” issue. Your exegesis says that the “all” is defined by the context to mean something other than “all”, which I think is not entirely accurate (although I can understand why you would think that). There are some problems with that conclusion.

1. Paul draws a very clear analogy through the use of the simile comparing death in Adam to life in Christ. To define the second “all” differently than the first loses the analogy. (2 Timothy 4:17 is, in my opinion, a red herring because here we have a very clear definition of “all” dying in Adam, so the passage defines the scope of “all” in that way.) More on this in a moment.

2. Your interpretation seems to rest on the idea that “enemies” are people. However, the passage does identify the enemies as dominion, authority and power. Then, he adds the “last enemy”: death.

So, let me tease out these two points a bit. If we start with the face value of the simile, we start with an understanding that the first “all” is the same as the second “all”. This is the common sense reading of the simile. He doesn’t say “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will some be made alive.” He says that in the very same way that Adam’s sin caused death, Christ provides life. In the first case, it was pervasive to the entire human race. Therefore, it would appear that logically, Paul is saying that Christ’s life is also pervasive. (And why not?! His sacrifice is certainly greater than the sin, no?)

But, you said that the second “all” is defined by the context as those who belong to Christ. Well, besides other passages that indicate that the Father has given all things to Christ, let’s look at the progression in the passage. First, Christ is raised, then those who belong to him, and then the end comes when he hands the kingdom over to his Father. But, before he hands it to his Father, he has to defeat his enemies.

As I’ve already pointed out, though, these “enemies” are not defined by the passage as those who do not belong to Christ. Instead, it defines them as systems of man and of the power of sin. Dominion, authority, power…ultimately death itself. The very curse of sin (death) is, itself, destroyed by Christ. How can there be continued death (torment in Hell) if death itself is destroyed? (One could also ask how “enemies” could be people if God tells us to love/forgive our enemies, and then does not do so himself. That would be a double-standard, would it not?)

You said, “What places all of God’s Creation under His authority and brings it all into unity in both heaven and earth is the final reward and punishment of humanity based on their faith in or rejection of Christ.” But this passage does not support your interpretation. It doesn’t mention punishment of humanity or faith or rejection, or any of the other things that you have placed on top of the passage. Not in the least.

The clearest interpretation, allowing the passage to speak for itself, actually supports the superlative. “All” means “all” each time it is used in the passage. “All” doesn’t mean “all” in the first half of a verse and “some” in the second half. And ultimately, “all” are made alive in Christ because ultimately he defeats the very enemy that keeps them separated from the Father, namely death. And so the progression is: Christ, then those who are asleep, then those who belong to Christ, and then Christ defeats the enemies that continue to separate the rest from Him, and “all” are made alive.

This remains consistent with much of Paul’s writing. For example, in Philippians 2 when he references “Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” that is definitely superlative. And he does not qualify it as “Every knee/tongue belonging to those in Christ.” He simply says “Every knee/tongue”. There is no qualification of that superlative.

And it’s not limited to Paul. 1 John 2 goes even further in saying that the propitiation is not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world. Here, John draws a distinction between those who have believed and “the whole world”.

You can say that it is simply the possible scope, but that is not the clear reading. And the point becomes really moot if the meaning is “possible scope” and yet that scope never becomes realized. Why even bother addressing it, then? But John chooses to make a point of saying that it really is for the sins of the whole world.

I’ll draw this lengthy response to a close here, but I did want to point out the problems that I see with your exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15. You’ve started with the presupposition that the second “all” can’t possibly mean “all” and have therefore used that lens to interpret the rest of the passage. Exegesis should not start with a strong presupposition such as that.

One final quick note: Bell never endorses salvation through anything other than Jesus. He may offer some thoughts on what salvation through Jesus means, but he does not indicate that salvation (even if possible post-hell) comes through anything but faith. Your post indicates otherwise, and misrepresents Bell’s book in that regard.

Until next time,

steve :)

Posted in Discussion Topics, Scripture Interpretation, The Gospel | 5 Comments

Oh, Was It Easter?

It’s been a long time since I posted on here (last July, I think, so almost nine months).  And the title of this first-in-a-long-time post is meant to be  somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The reality is that I was fully aware that today was Easter. But what struck me the most today was that today was not really that different from any other day.

Since leaving the traditional institutional expression of “church” about six years ago, there have been so many changes in my thinking and perspective. Things that used to be so important to me ceased to seem that important. And other things that seemed to be so trivial or unimportant before suddenly took on new meaning.

Easter is one of those things that ceased seeming to be so important. No, I do not mean that the resurrection of Jesus ceased to have any importance for me! But what I mean is that the single day of celebrating that changed dramatically for me.

When I was working in the institution, Easter was one of the biggest days of the year work-wise. It usually involved quite a bit of musical preparation (perhaps a cantata, or just extra-big congregational music). We would celebrate the resurrection and all that it meant to us like we would never have the chance to do so again.  At least we wouldn’t really get that chance for another year…

So what has changed for me? The resurrection now seems significant to me every day of the year. It’s no longer something to be singled out one day a year, but rather is a life-changing, life-altering, life-encompassing thing for me now.

For me, the resurrection “tops off” the work that was done on the cross. Jesus gave his life to ransom us from the power of sin and death. And because of his sacrifice in this regard, the Father rewarded him by bringing him back to life after he had done the work necessary to purchase us back from the powers of darkness.

So, the resurrection is important to me because it means death is not the end of the story. As Paul wrote, and I paraphrase here, since Jesus was resurrected, we have hope for life beyond the grave as well.

Today, I was aware that many churches were putting their all into celebrating the resurrection. And I think they should. I just think it shouldn’t be a one-day-a-year event. As for me, it was pretty much just another day. Another day of living in gratitude for the resurrection of Jesus. Just like every other day.

Until next time,

steve :)

Posted in American Christianity, Christian Behavior, Living It, Relationships | 8 Comments

What Would You Say?

Saw this tweet from a church pastor that I know personally.  This makes me sad on so many levels, but I will refrain from offering commentary on it. Just am curious what thoughts any of you have in response to this.  What would you say in reply? (And unlike Twitter, you don’t have to limit your reply to 140 characters if you don’t want to.)

Been Preaching for 51 years. Only 2 times felt totally satisfied. Something lacking. Spend much time thinking about it. Begins early Monday.

Until next time,
steve :)

Posted in Church, Discussion Topics, Ministry | 29 Comments

Does a Concept of Faith Blame the Victim?

In the most recent episode of “It’s Really That Simple” (the podcast that my lovely wife Christy and I co-host), Christy and I talked about our thought of simplicity in trusting God.  If you have a half-hour free, I’d encourage you to go and listen to that episode, as it will form the basis for this post.  However, I’ll also try to summarize as much as I can so that you get the gist of what we discussed.

As an example of trusting God, we talked about the daily provision of food.  Jesus told us in Matthew 6 that we should not worry about food or clothing, but that we should seek after the kingdom of God, and everything that we need will be provided for us.

In response to that episode, my favorite skeptic/agnostic/atheist (depending on the context in which he labels himself!) Sid Faiwu (not his real name, by the way, and it’s pronounced FAY-woo, as I have taken a long time to learn!) asked a very good question.  I will repost the entire relevant part of his comment here so that you don’t have click over if you really don’t want to…

Taking literally the idea that if one trusts God, then one will be provided with food, clothing, etc. is morally problematic. Every true statement’s contrapositive is also true. The belief you hold to be true is:

If one trusts God, then one will always have enough food.

It’s contrapositive is:

If one doesn’t [sic] not have enough food, then one does not trust God.

It means that if someone starves or is starving, then it’s their own fault for not trusting God. It blames the victim. I’d imagine this is why so few people take this part of the Bible as literal truth.

Secondly, I’d argue that such a belief is simply false. It suggests that Christians should never starve if they truly trust God. I would argue that of all the Christians who have died of starvation over the centuries, at least one of them trusted God in this way. She/He trusted God to provide and he failed to come through.

I completely understand where Sid is coming from on this.  And on the surface, I would agree that it sounds more like blaming the victim.  But I think there are some assumptions made in Sid’s argument that could use a little scrutiny.

First of all, I don’t think there’s any way to argue the actual point regarding contrapositives.  Sid is entirely correct that the contrapositive must be true.  It’s in the evaluation of that contrapositive that I think there are some problems.

Sid says that the original statement by Jesus is morally problematic.  I’m not sure about the “morally” part, because I think that putting the responsibility on someone is not necessarily “blaming the victim”.  In fact, the very phrase “blaming the victim” causes problems because it assumes victim status where none has been established.  In other words, if the words of Jesus here are, in fact, correct, then one who does not heed his words would not be a victim.  They would, in the words found elsewhere in scripture, “reap what they sow”.

So, from that standpoint, I think we need to withhold judgment on whether or not someone is a “victim”.  Let me explain a bit further.  The concept of trusting God (or “faith”) appears many, many times in the New Testament (especially, the four gospels) in conjunction with healing.  Now, I know that we’ve discussed this on this blog in the past, but I think that often we put the cart before the horse. Rather than assuming that Jesus was telling the truth, we try to find other explanations for what we see.

I’ve said it before here: Read the four gospels and make a note of anytime Jesus heals someone from a physical illness.  In those instances, note how often Jesus comments about their faith.  Statements like “your faith has healed you”, or “if you believe, all things are possible” jump out at me.  They are not isolated statements. They are woven consistently through every physical healing with very little exception.

Today, however, when someone does not get healed, and one dares to raise the question of faith, emotional responses often claim that we’re “blaming the victim”.  But if that is true, why did Jesus talk so much about faith in those situations?

From that standpoint, the passage regarding food and clothing is not anything out of the ordinary for Jesus.  In fact, I think it is entirely consistent with the rest of his teaching.  Faith is an integral part of receiving what the Father provides.

Take the story of the prodigal son.  While he was sitting in the pig pen wishing he could eat the scraps he was feeding the pigs, was he a victim?  He was the son of a man who was providing everything he needed — food, clothing, shelter — and yet he had not received what his father was providing because he left home.  He was not a victim.  He received the consequences of his own choices.

Sometimes the situation is not so clear.  One may claim they are trusting God for their provision, but maybe they are hiding their own doubt and worry.  Maybe they are seeking after their own provisions and not really seeking first the kingdom of God, as Jesus instructed.  We can’t judge their hearts, obviously, but I think it doesn’t really make sense to just throw out the words of Jesus in our own lives because of what we think is going on in someone else’s.

Let me turn, now, to the second objection Sid raises.  I have to admit that Sid surprised me with this one, because Sid is usually very concerned about empirical evidence.  Verifiable facts.  And yet here, he throws in a highly hypothetical situation, rolling the dice of history and assuming that somehow he can roll the right number.

Sid says, “…of all the Christians who have died of starvation over the centuries, at least one of them trusted God in this way.”  This pits the statement of Jesus against some “odds” that seem pretty incredible.  I would argue that this is not a logical argument, and therefore is not valid.

It’s not able to be proven or disproven because we can’t go back through history and interview those who have died.  In fact, I would say that there is stronger evidence (eyewitness, even) for the resurrection of Jesus, yet Sid rejects that account, by his own admission.  Yet, in this case, Sid is willing to pit the words of Jesus against unknown, unverifiable, unrecorded “witnesses”.

All I can offer, Sid, is my own testimony.  My own eyewitness account.  I have shared some of these accounts on this blog and on the “Beyond the Box” podcast in the past, so I won’t recount them now.  But if there are any questions, I’ll gladly share them again.  I can’t answer for anyone else, but I have found the words of Jesus — all of them that we have recorded — to be accurate, truthful, and consistent in my life.  When I have trusted my Father, I have never been disappointed.  I have never been rejected by him.  And whatever he has promised has come to pass.  When I have not trusted him, I have found that the consequences of not trusting him have borne out the very promises he made — I have, indeed, reaped what I have sown.

Now, before I close, allow me to say a brief word about “faith”.  Hebrews 11:1 defines faith for us.  I like the way the New International Version words it: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  Faith is not always based on what we see or what we can touch or what we can prove with our senses.  Faith believes that truth can sometimes supercede evidence.

I know that sounds wacky to some, but I hope you can understand where I’m coming from.  Right now, in fact, we are going through another mini-financial crisis in our family.  A check that was supposed to arrive over a week ago (a substantial part of our monthly income) has not arrived.  We honestly don’t know how we will pay for stuff this week.  Bills that are due, rent that will be due on the 1st, food and gas that are needed this week — we don’t know how we will pay for all of that.

But we trust.  Why? Because of our faith.  Because we know that God has promised.  And in addition to that faith, we have the track record behind us to prove it.  Whenever I have sought the kingdom of God first in my life, all of my needs have been provided for.  Sometimes in really cool “miraculous” ways, sometimes in much more ordinary ways.  But always, always, always, my Father has kept his word.

So, does believing that faith is something we possess and exercise put blame on someone else who doesn’t?  That’s not really the point.  The point is, Jesus said that we can trust the Father for this, and I have found it to be true in my life.  That is the testimony I provide.

Until next time,

steve :)

Posted in Beyond the Box, Christian Behavior, It's Really That Simple, Personal, Scripture Interpretation | 11 Comments