Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

God Is Love: Understanding the Doctrine of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is the primary conception of God in Christianity, distinguishing it from other world religions, especially the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam. While pointing to the deepest truth of Christian faith, it is also a divine mystery that is difficult to state adequately.

The purpose of this article is to present a helpful way of understanding the Trinity. As we contemplate the nature of God for the purpose of conceptual clarity, the mystery of the Trinity will not be resolved but deepened. If you finish reading this article and think to yourself, “Now I have it all figured out!” then I have failed you. While I intend to clarify the purpose and meaning of this central doctrine, I don’t want to mislead the reader into thinking that we can exhaustively grasp the being of God in human thought. God does reveal Godself in history, and we can trust that revelation, but we must also maintain intellectual humility in light of the qualitative distinction between God and human beings (i.e., God is the creator and we are the created).

Even though the Trinity is an essential teaching of the Christian faith, it is nowhere explicitly stated in the Bible, though some passages are suggestive (Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19; II Corinthians 13:14). Rather, the doctrine was officially formulated by leaders in the early church, especially at the first two general councils in Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). Although the church drew some of its technical language from Greek philosophy, the doctrine was not developed to satisfy a penchant for esoteric philosophical reflection. It was carefully formulated in an effort to explicate the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Christians have always made three essential claims:

  • God is the transcendent creator.
  • God saves us in Jesus.
  • God sustains all of creation and leads it to ultimate fulfillment. 

Understanding the meaning of these three fundamental claims and how they hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity is what the Trinity is all about.

GOD IS THE TRANSCENDENT CREATOR

God is the creator of all that exists. There was a time when creation was not and there was only God. But God made a decision in eternity to create the world in love and freedom. Thus, God creates space for a genuine other to exist as a creature distinct from God. Then God releases the creative power of being into that space so that the world as we know it can emerge. In simplest terms, God creates the world and sets it free.

We find poetic accounts of creation in the Bible. Genesis 1:1-3 states:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless  and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

When Christians read this passage, they tend to associate the term “God” with God the Father, but the attentive reader will also notice the presence of two other characters. First, we see the presence of God’s Spirit: “ . . . the Spirit (ruach) of God was hovering over the waters.” Second, we see the presence of God’s eternal Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Anyone familiar with the prologue of the Gospel of John will notice a connection with this verse. Just as the first words of Genesis 1:1 are, “In the beginning . . .,” so it is with the first verse of John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)

The gospel continues, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Clearly, the author of John is drawing an explicit connection between God’s eternal Word and Jesus Christ. Thus, Christians find it fitting to claim that the Father creates the world through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and does so as the one transcendent source of life. In the poetic language of scripture, God creates the world and reigns over it from heaven above. God transcends the world as its creator.

GOD SAVES US IN JESUS

At the same time we say that God is Creator, we also say that God is Redeemer. God creates the world and sets it free in love, but God also enters that world to personally encounter us in Jesus Christ. When Christians talk about God sending Jesus, they are not saying that Jesus is merely a wise prophet or heavenly messenger. Rather, they are saying that God looked down upon the suffering of creation, had compassion, and resolved to become a human being to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

Christians believe that only God can save, but they also claim to experience salvation in Jesus. Therefore, God must in some sense be fully present to humanity in Jesus. Returning to the Gospel of John, we read: “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). The Greek term translated “Word” is logos, which connotes knowledge, wisdom, reason, and revelation. The author of John uses this term to refer to God’s mind, heart, character, will, and creative power. When he goes on to say in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us . . .” he is making the outlandish claim that God’s heart, mind, reason, logic, and will was incarnate (literally, “enfleshed”) in the man Jesus of Nazareth. This is why he can go on to say, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God . . .” (1:18). Jesus is recorded as saying in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). In light of such passages, Christians believe that Jesus embodies the eternal Word of God. God reveals Godself to humanity in Jesus. The invisible God become visible in Christ.

Since Jesus is the incarnation of God’s eternal Word, whose glory we have seen as “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,” we can say that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Since God is fully present to us in Christ, Jesus has the power to save. A messenger can tell us about salvation and even inspire hope for salvation, but only God can accomplish our salvation. And this is what Christians claim about Jesus, that God acts decisively in his life, death, and resurrection to save the world.

When contemplating God’s saving work in Jesus, it seems fitting to focus on the work of God the Son. But in a way similar to the creation accounts in Genesis, the New Testament stories of Jesus include the presence of three divine characters: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Consider, for example, the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (3:16-17)

Indeed, throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is always accompanied by the Father and the Spirit, and this leads to another threefold claim: The Father saves us through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. All three work together as one God in perfect love and unity to accomplish the salvation of the world.

In summary, Christians not only claim that God reigns over the world as its transcendent creator, but also that God encounters humanity in Jesus Christ and works decisively through him to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

GOD SUSTAINS CREATION AND LEADS THE WORLD TO ITS ULTIMATE FULFILLMENT

In addition to creating and redeeming the world, God also sustains the world by his Spirit. God creates the world and sets it free, but then floods the world with his life-giving presence. The Spirit of God is the energy by which all things exist, and if God were to withdrawal his presence (even for an instant) then it would vanish into thin air. As we read in Acts 17:28: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This is what Christians mean when they say that God is omnipresent—God’s powerful presence saturates the entire created order. There is literally no place where the Spirit of God is not. In addition, we claim that God is constantly working through the Holy Spirit to open the hearts and minds of human beings to faith and love, and to bring the entire creation to its full completion. The Holy Spirit woos us in love toward reconciliation with God and lures all of creation toward its ultimate fulfillment.

Importantly, the Holy Spirit is not some kind of impersonal or unconscious energy that we might find in some New Age circles. Nor is the Spirit an independent, quasi-divine power. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus sent by the Father and the Son to continue and complete the work of Christ as we await the new creation. Thus, Christians find it difficult to talk about the Spirit without also talking about the Father and the Son.

THE CENTRAL QUESTION

Now we arrive at the heart of the matter: How do all three of these claims hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity? Christians experience the presence of God as the one who creates, redeems, and sustains, and we experience God in these ways all at the same time. It’s not as if God ceases to reign over creation when God acts decisively to save the world in Jesus. It’s not as if God stops saving us in Jesus in order to fill all creation with his sustaining presence. Rather, we say that God reigns from heaven as Creator, and at the very same time acts decisively in Jesus to save us, and at the very same time fills the entire creation with his sustaining presence. This is how we experience the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus, and the only meaningful way to talk about this is to talk about the Trinity.

According to the doctrine of the Trinity, there is only one God, but this one God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God confronts us in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son. But God is also apprehended as the Father who sends the Son and to whom the Son points. And God is also known as the Holy Spirit who sustains the world, opens the hearts and minds of human beings in faith, and leads the world to its ultimate completion. The words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” point to one God, but we cannot properly think or speak about this one God except by thinking and speaking about all three at the same time.

FROM ECONOMIC TO IMMANENT TRINITY

An important final point is that God does not lie or deceive. If God reveals Godself as triune, then God is triune. We don’t say, “Well this is how we, from a human perspective, see and experience God, which requires us to think and speak about God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. But God could be different in and of Godself.” While Christians are careful to acknowledge the limitations of their theological language, they absolutely refuse to accept that there could be a different God behind the God we see in Jesus. To use the language of scripture, the God we worship in heaven is the same God we encounter in Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.

This means that there is relationality in God! As the Cappadocian Fathers recognized, there is a sense in which the one God we worship is constituted by a community of self-giving love. God (in-and-of-Godself) is the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What makes the Father the Father is his eternal self-giving love to the Son and the Spirit. What makes the Son the Son is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Spirit. What makes the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Son. What makes God one is the eternal, self-giving love that continuously flows and unifies the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is the deep meaning of the claim, God is love (1 John 4:8)

CONCLUSION

For Christians, to say that God is love is to say that God is triune. To say that God creates is to say that God is triune. To say that God saves is to say that God is triune. To say that God sustains creation is to say that God is triune. To say that God is one is to say that God is triune. One reason that the doctrine of the Trinity is so important to Christians is because it contains in itself the entire story of God’s activity in the world and reveals what kind of God we serve—a God that is love.

 

To watch the sermon on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2QK_LdXbls  

If you liked this post, then you might also like “Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition: Grace Upon Grace.”

All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

This is the fifth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed an idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him” (Leo Tolstoy).

Have you ever read a book a second time only to discover something new that escaped you the first time? New meanings emerge, but the book is the same and you are looking through the same eyes. What’s different? Over time, you had a vast array of new experiences that altered your horizon of understanding, generating new interpretative possibilities and evoking fresh insights. What changed is your perspective.

This strange experience of reading with “new eyes” gestures toward an important principle in philosophical hermeneutics: all reading is interpretation. The meaning of a piece of writing is “not an automatic and unproblematic exercise of deciphering a set of consistently identical signs on paper in front of us” (Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics, 1). The meaning of a text is not objective and self-evident, as if any well-intended reader could easily discover “the right meaning.”

When talking about the Bible, some people argue the contrary. They claim to have easily discovered the correct meaning of a passage with a simple, literal reading. No interpretation is necessary, only common sense. “Look!” they say, “The meaning is plain as day, right there in black and white.” But this naïve, uneducated, and highly personalized approach is shallow, misguided, and dangerous.

To the contrary, hermeneutics helps us understand that the meaning of a text (including the Bible) is not an objective fact waiting to be discovered like a quarter under a couch cushion. Rather, meaning is something that is created when our minds interact with a text. Simply put, meaning is an event. Since the meaning of a text emerges through the application of a particular perspective, it is important to remember that our perspective is always limited.

So what shapes our perspective? An extensive list is beyond the scope of this article, so a few general examples will have to suffice. First, we might consider how a wide range of formative experiences in early childhood influence how we see the world, especially in our family of origin. It would also include our education, both secular and religious, and how this influences our views on things like politics, morality, and religion. Our perspective is also shaped by the way we see ourselves and others in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation, as well as the way the dominant culture interprets and assigns value to such identifiers. When it comes to interpreting sacred texts, our past and present experiences in a community of faith will generate various “pre-understandings” that must also be taken into account. For example, before we ever start reading the Bible on our own, most of us begin with a particular image of God and a wide range of assumptions about what the text could possibly mean and how it should be interpreted. These pre-understandings usually come through the inculcation of religious traditions in a specific community of faith, but they can also be acquired through the absorption of cultural stereotypes. Regardless, these pre-understandings serve to highlight and privilege certain interpretive possibilities, while obscuring and repressing others.

The main point is that a wide range of continuous experiences generate innumerable interpretive filters and pre-understandings that come together to create a person’s limited perspective. This perspective provides a world-view that functions like a pair of glasses through which we see everything, including our sacred texts and traditions. When different perspectives interact with a text, different meanings emerge. So, a twenty-three year old Columbian woman living in extreme poverty will interpret the Bible differently than a wealthy, white, fifty-five year old American man. They will focus on different passages and, in some cases, discern divergent meanings.

Since meaning is an event that happens when different people’s perspectives interact with a given text, multiple meanings are possible. Texts are polyvalent. While we are not entirely enslaved to our own perspectives (see below), no one can achieve a perspective-less God’s eye view. This does not mean that interpretation is a free-for-all in which we can make a text say anything we want. When it come to the Christian Bible, there are interpretive boundaries established by the community of faith, by the academic disciplines of Biblical studies and theology, and by common sense. But firmly grasping the role of perspective in the event of meaning and the polyvalent nature of all texts will help keep us humble in our interpretation.

One of the biggest dangers for religious people is forgetting that they are reading with a pair of interpretive glasses, that they are reading through a worldview constituted by a complex set of interpretive filters and pre-understandings. If we are not even aware that we are interpreting through a particular perspective then we unwittingly become a slave to the limitations and dangers of that perspective and foreclose on the possibility of deeper and more transformational meaning. Henceforth, anything we can do to become more aware of our interpretive filters and pre-understandings will encourage humility, expand our horizon of understanding, and hopefully evoke fresh insights that will make us more faithful interpreters of the Bible. The best way to do this is to read the Bible in conversation with others, especially those who are different!

One important conversation is between the reader and the author(s) of the text. Anyone who has engaged in the academic discipline of Biblical studies knows that the contemporary reader does not have direct access to the original intent and audience of the author. These must be tentatively reconstructed using tools provided by multiple disciplines like archaeology, history, ancient languages, literary and form criticism, and cultural studies. This attempt to determine what an author was trying to communicate to the original audience is the work of exegesis, and (since this is reconstructive work) it too requires interpretation.

While historical-criticism does not operate on the basis of certainty, much can be learned about the ancient world, the perspective of the author, the context of the original audience, and the message being communicated. As those who live on the other side of the Enlightenment, the perspective of the author and intended audience will be very different from ours. Acknowledging these important differences allows us to distance ourselves from our own interpretive filters so we can listen to the text on its own terms. While we never do this perfectly (because we cannot completely escape our own perspective), to a certain extent we can resist the urge to blindly project our own modern presuppositions on ancient texts, effectively collapsing the radically different worldviews of the author and contemporary reader. In hermeneutics, this is known as distanciation. We can provisionally bracket our own presuppositions and allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in ways that will illuminate, challenge, and even change our interpretive filters, as well as broaden our horizon of understanding.

In addition, Christians believe that God somehow works through this interpretive conversation with the Bible to speak to us in transformative ways. God can and does speak to us through the kind of scholarly exegesis described above, but God also speaks to us in more devotional readings of scripture, like the ancient practice of lectio divina. Indeed, both of these approaches are important as we seek to understand the Bible and encounter God through it. (See my article, “Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible.”) As God speaks to us in and through the interaction of our perspective with the Bible, it becomes the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This encounter with the Word can illuminate, challenge, shape, and even alter our interpretive filters in ways that broaden our horizon of understanding and allow us deeper access to divine truth. This is at least part of the process by which we mature in the faith and grow in wisdom. The more spiritually mature the reader, the more faithful the interpretation. This is why the Bible should also be read in conversation with spiritual directors and teachers who have become wise through contemplation.

It is also important to read the Bible in conversation with the larger Christian tradition, both synchronically and diachronically. Gaining more knowledge about how Christians have interpreted the Bible in different ways over the course of 2,000 years will help surface and evolve our interpretive filters, as will contemporary conversations with other Christians around the globe who occupy very different perspectives. We not only ask how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Wesley interpreted the Bible, but also how Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia interpret the text today. We study the history of Christianity but also Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist and Womanist Theology, and Minjung Theology, all of which confirm the added benefit of conversations with philosophy and critical-theory. One could also argue the benefit of reading in conversation with people of other religious traditions. A great example of this is the interreligious dialogue between Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Again, it should be clear that we don’t have to be slaves to a narrow and shallow interpretive framework. While our reading is always perspectival, our perspective can evolve and deepen over time by disciplined engagement in the various kinds of conversations mentioned above. One way of understanding this truth is by reference to the hermeneutical spiral.

Hermeneutical Spiral

As you can see in the diagram above, we start with pre-understandings that give us an interpretive framework for understanding the text. As we practice distanciation by bracketing our presuppositions, we allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in the interpretive process. New insights emerge that are appropriated and assimilated in ways that transform our pre-understandings.

In conclusion, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the idea that textual meaning is a neutral, univocal, and static object that is passively waiting to be discovered by a well-intended reader. I am also trying to destabilize the idea of reading as a literal one-to-one correspondence between the human mind and printed words on a page. Taken together, I am criticizing what Merold Westphal calls “cognitive transubstantiation” and emphasizing the importance of interpretive humility. Furthermore, by sharing some key insights in philosophical hermeneutics, we have seen how important it is to be aware of our own perspective and to read sacred texts in conversation with others so that our interpretive filters can evolve and our horizon of understanding can be expanded.

The faithful interpretation of scripture is a life-long process, and our hope is that as we continue to grow in this regard that the Bible will continue to be a narrative space where we can encounter the risen Christ and be conformed to his image.

(Image Source: http://www.metanexus.net/essay/entangled-narratives)

Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition: Grace Upon Grace

What does it mean to be saved? According to John Wesley, salvation cannot be reduced to an isolated decision to make Jesus your personal savior so you can go to heaven when you die. Rather, it points to a process of real transformation in which God graciously empowers us to participate. This not only includes what God does for us in Jesus, but also what God does in us through the Holy Spirit. It not only includes pardon from sin but also resurrection power to be renewed in the image of Christ and made a new creation. In this teaching video, Pastor Mark explains prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, and glorifying grace to paint a more holistic picture of salvation in the Wesleyan tradition. This video was filmed as Pastor Mark taught Theological Heritage I (Fall 2015) in the Course of Study at Candler School of Theology (Emory University).
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God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the third essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

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There are many different theories that attempt to explain how the Bible came to be. What follows are some informal reflections on the origins of scripture that are consistent with my experience and studies in theology.

In his book, Good and Evil, Edward Farley explains that human beings experience redemption in three spheres of existence: the personal, interpersonal, and social. In the personal sphere, we experience redemption as freedom from the dynamics of idolatry and the courage to live by faith. In our relationships with others, we experience redemption as forgiveness, reconciliation, and the freedom to love unconditionally (agape).  In the social sphere, we experience redemption as social justice and emancipation from oppressive systems. In these ways, divine redemption breaks into our lives in very concrete and specific ways.

As people in the ancient world experienced the freedoms of redemption, some felt inspired by God to theologically reflect on what had happened and to communicate these reflections with others, first through oral tradition then through writing. The people who were obedient to this divine calling spoke and wrote as human beings. This means that they drew on whatever was available to them in their specific cultural-historical context to describe their experiences of the divine. This included their given language, symbol systems, traditions, religious ideas, and communal stories.

It is important to note that all of these expressions of divine redemption were limited by at least two things. First, divine transcendence. There is always mystery in God’s activity. As theologians have argued extensively, God does not act in the same way that human beings act. Peter Hodgson explains:

“The causality exercised by God is not that of a first cause or material cause, which bring about specific, predetermined effects, but that of a final cause, which offers a possibility, an invitation, a goal. God’s creative power also works as a formal cause, providing patterns or ideals for the shaping of events, but not controlling outcomes. Final and formal causes exercise real influence within a framework of contingency, freedom, and indeterminacy. God orders the world, orients it to the attainment of value, but God does not mechanically control the dynamics of the creative process.” (Christian Faith: A Brief Introduction 56).

Since there is an ontological distinction between God and the world, and since God does not act with the same kind of agency exercised by human beings, theologians like Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich emphasize that divine revelation has a paradoxical character. It is not only an unveiling but also a veiling. There is a sense in which God remains hidden even as God is revealed. Taken together, all of this points to the fact that God is a (rational) mystery. To speak of God is to point to a higher rationality, a higher truth, which cannot be exhaustively known by means of human language. As those in the mystical tradition remind us, when we say that God acts, there is a sense in which we don’t know exactly what we mean because there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between the words we use and the events they seek to describe. All theological language is analogy or metaphor. This is the first limitation of our attempts to expression divine redemption.

The second limitation has to do with the perspectival nature of human thinking and language.  The way that we experience, interpret, understand, and express the “coming forth” of redemption into our lived existence is always already shaped by a particular symbolic-linguistic worldview, which is limited by all of the blind spots and knowledge gaps associated with finite, located, human beings. There is no unmediated or uninterpreted encounter with God.

Going back to those in the ancient world who played a role in the shaping of biblical content, it is important to remember that most of the stories of redemption started as oral traditions that were passed down for many years before they were recorded by scribes. As these stories were passed-down from generation to generation they were told and retold, interpreted and reinterpreted, adapted and readapted in ways that met the evolving needs of the worshiping community in an ever changing context. The goal was not to construct a modern historiography, but to engage in ongoing theological interpretation that could help a religious community make sense of God, the world, and the relationship between the two in changing and challenging circumstances.

Over time, these oral traditions generated more conceptual thinking about the character of God and God’s relationship to the world. More sustained reflection on the fluid, pliable, theologically interpreted memory of the community functioned to generate theological norms that served in the ongoing adaptation and reinterpretation of the stories (as well as stories and ideas received from other religions). As Walter Brueggemann argues in his book, Theology of the Old Testament, Israel started by attributing verbs to YHWH, then adjectives, and eventually nouns. As the community experienced the redemptive power of God over significant periods of time, they began to see patterns that allowed them to make more general claims about God’s character. All of this gave the community tools for theologically interpreting every aspect of life, which helps us to understand why there are so many different genres in the Bible. As the oral traditions were written and used by the community for various purposes, some of them proved to have enduring value and were collected together as sacred scripture. So the content of the Bible is the community’s theologically interpreted memory of how God acted to save them through a covenant relationship in various ways and in various times and places.

While I reflect on biblical authority and inspiration in another article (see “Why the Bible is Important to Christians“), it is appropriate to mention that part of what we mean by “divine inspiration” is that the Holy Spirit was somehow at work in the traditioning process described above.

All of this helps us to understand that the Bible is not a book but a library of books. The content constitutive of the Bible was shaped by many different people, who lived in different periods of history, spoke different languages, endorsed different worldviews, wrote in different genres, and addressed different problems and needs in the worshiping community.  If you doubt this, simply compare the life and times of Abraham and the Apostle Paul. Some of the books of the Bible have multiple authors and all of them were copied, edited, redacted, and reinterpreted as they circulated among various communities across generations. So the finished product is not a single author book, but a library of books that span the course of centuries.

All of this helps us to see that while God is active in the development of the Bible, it is also a very human text. God acts in redemptive ways and inspires people to think and write theologically about these experiences.  But God did not write the Bible as John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill. Neither did God negate the humanity of the authors by making them passive secretaries or giving them miraculous knowledge of modern science or historiography. The good news is that God does not need to author a perfect book to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and bring us salvation. Just as God did in Jesus of Nazareth two-thousand years ago, God works in and through the humanity of the biblical authors, with all of their limitations, failures, and blind spots, to ensure that they tell the truth in ways that can lead (in the power of the Holy Spirit) to knowledge of salvation.