Dialog about the Nature of Scripture

Rachel Held Evans has recently asked readers whether or not there is room for Christians to “debate the nature of Scripture – like what we mean by ‘authority’ or ‘inerrancy’ or ‘inspiration’?” (source). In her own writings, Evans has certainly been calling these issues into question, and she has been giving answers that consistently land on the liberal end of the theological spectrum. She reveals that she herself long ago stopped believing in the “Bible’s exclusive authority, inerrancy, perspicuity, and internal consistency” (source). I for one am grateful that Evans is willing to engage this conversation. These issues do in fact relate to the nature of scripture, and I can hardly imagine a more important topic.

Nevertheless, Evans’s most recent contributions to the discussion seem to me a bit of a rabbit trail. After critics called into question her commitment to scripture, she wrote an essay titled, “I love the Bible.” In short, she expresses admiration for the Bible even though she rejects its inerrancy and exclusive authority. In her own words:

I love the Bible, but I love it best when I love it for what it is, not what I want it to be…when I live in the tension and walk with the limp

In other words, she loves the Bible not as the inerrant and authoritative word of God but as a flawed collection of stories. Loving the Bible for “what it is” means loving it warts and all. And Evans believes that the Bible has warts.

Yet this approach differs drastically from the Bible’s own testimony about itself. When biblical authors write in praise of scripture, they do not praise the Bible in spite of alleged shortcomings. They extol scripture on the basis of its excellencies. As the Psalmist writes, “Thy word is very pure, Therefore Thy servant loves it” (Psalm 119:140; cf. 119:129).

And that brings me to the point of this post. The discussion that we’ve been having the last several weeks has not been about how we feel about the Bible. Rather the discussion is about what the Bible is. That is where the real difference is between us.

20 Responses to Dialog about the Nature of Scripture

  1. Stacy October 22, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    I disagree with RHE as much as you do, and I think it’s good for us to engage what she writes and point out her errors, but I don’t think what you’ve written here is entirely fair to her. In her “Loving the Bible for what it is” post, she doesn’t say that she “long ago stopped believing in the ‘Bible’s exclusive authority, inerrancy, perspicuity, and internal consistency,'” only that as a young adult, she began to doubt this during an angry stage. That doubt may have caused her to reject those things, I don’t know, but she doesn’t say that in that post, and I’m sure there are many who have wrestled with these things in young adulthood and ultimately embraced them.

    • Denny Burk October 22, 2012 at 8:45 am #

      Stacy, RHE made the statement about no longer believing in inerrancy here: http://rachelheldevans.com/bible-series. She says very clearly that she came to the conclusion that she could no longer believe what she used to believe about the Bible–namely, that it was inerrant. Instead, she now approaches scripture with a different set of expectations–expectations that do not include a belief in the Bible’s exclusive authority and inerrancy. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment! Blessings!

      • Marci Johnson October 22, 2012 at 11:53 am #

        I agree with Stacy. I think you are being unfair to Rachel. I have read and reread the blog post that you mention above, but no where do I see where “She says very clearly that she came to the conclusion that she could no longer believe what she used to believe about the Bible–namely, that it was inerrant.” Yes, she mentions doubt and questions, but I can’t see a “clear” statement showing that she has outright rejected exclusive authority and inerrancy – perhaps she has, but it’s not clear from the post you mention. Can you point to a specific quote stating that? Thanks!

        • Denny Burk October 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

          I linked it in my response to Stacy.

          • Marci Johnson October 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

            Somehow I’m missing it. The link simply takes me to her blog post. Is there a specific quote in there that I’m missing somehow? I really am trying to understand where you (and others) are seeing this. Thanks! Blessings on this fall Monday!

          • Marci Johnson October 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

            Hi Denny, I realize written word is often difficult to understand tone; please understand that I don’t mean to sound contentious with this question. I’ve read several of your blog posts and agree with you on many points (disagree on some, too). Likewise, there are some things that RHE and I see eye-to-eye on and many things that I disagree with her on. A number of times, I’ve seen you criticize Rachel for saying things that I just haven’t seen/read in the same way. I truly wonder if I’ve missed something and I’m trying really hard to understand where you’re coming from on these criticisms. It often feels as if you’re making inferences and perhaps even twisting her words. But I don’t want to assume that. I typically do not engage in the comment forums on blogs, but I finally drummed up enough courage to jump into this particular conversation to ask for clarification. I have read and reread the blog post you linked to in the response to Stacy and I simply don’t see anything clearly stating what you imply. Is there a specific, “clear” quote that I’m missing somewhere? (Please note that the link in your response to Stacy is simply taking me to the blog post, not to a specific quote.)

  2. Scott October 22, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Denny

    First off, was the quoting of Ps 119:140 off?

    I appreciate who you are and your passionate heart for God’s truth, Scripture, and the grace by which you engage. And I know RHE can push at times. But there are plenty that accept infallibility (truth with intent) but not inerrancy (truth in every detail). Inerrancy is not what defines evangelicalism. It’s the evangel, or better known as the gospel. We have got to take this to heart.

    I think RHE’s thoughts on ‘exclusive authority’ has to do with seeing the Bible as not the only and exclusive authority on all issues, such as mathematics, growing coffee beans, learning Spanish, etc. That’s a given. Of course, she (or I) would claim this includes it’s not the exclusive authority on science. But that makes some uncomfortable (I suppose you too) because the Scripture does make claims in regards to areas that are engaging in ‘science’. But addressing the science issues aren’t easily covered up just by saying the Bible is the exclusive authority on ALL things. Otherwise it’s turning a blind eye to the reality of WHY Scripture was given.

    In all, I think you’ve unfairly misrepresented RHE on her thoughts on ‘exclusive authority’.

    Also, many evangelicals, in their attempt to make systematic theology the highest theological priority, wrongly apply certain passages to their doctrine of Scripture. For example, the psalmist in Ps 12:6 or 119:89 was not thinking of a canon of Scripture. But we make it out as if they were. Rather they were speaking in regards to the direct word of God. Scripture is the mediated (non-direct and non-dictated) word of God. There is a difference we need to take note of.

    We have got to let specific texts about the written graphe inform us about the written graphe.

    • Nick Norelli October 22, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      Scott: Your take on this, from what I can make out, raises a number of questions in my mind.

      For instance, I’m curious to know what the material difference is between God’s mediated vs. unmediated word in your opinion. Do you believe that the unmediated word of God (i.e., that which is direct and dictated) is inerrant while the mediated (i.e., the non-direct and non-dictated) word is not? If this is the case—and I don’t know that you believe this—then isn’t it self-defeating to employ the mediated word in order to say something about the unmediated word (as you did, e.g., in referencing Ps. 12:6; 119:89)?

      Also, I don’t think anyone disputes that “word of God” is used differently in Scripture. When we read that the Word became flesh (John 1:14) we don’t envision the Bible becoming human. But pointing out the obvious doesn’t really address the issue as I understand it, which concerns the nature of God’s word. God’s communication, in whatever form it takes (be that mediated, unmediated, or in the person of the Son) has a certain nature and character, does it not? So what can we say about that? Can we say that the Word made flesh was perfect, while the spoken word, which was later recorded, was not? What are your thoughts on that?

      And one last question—if I may—but what do you make of Scripture’s dual authorship? You referred to the psalmist not having a canon in mind in his comments; but can God not have something in mind that the psalmist might not have been aware of? Or take Paul’s statement to Timothy (assuming Pauline authorship) about all Scripture being theopneustos. As far as they knew “all Scripture” at the time of writing was the OT, but if we’re to say that the NT is Scripture as well, then doesn’t Paul’s statement apply beyond what he knew at the moment of writing?

      • Scott October 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

        Nick –

        Thanks for the interaction.

        #1) I don’t think the word ‘inerrant’ is the best word to employ for Scripture. As far as I can tell, the normative passages employed to show Scripture (the written graphe) is inerrant, these passages don’t have the written graphe in mind. It’s not self-defeating to utilise Scripture’s teaching to help us understand Scripture or God’s direct word. You’d expect Scripture to teach about itself and God’s direct word(s). Of course, unless we want to employ an absolutist and modernist epistemology to understanding truth. even the truth of Scripture. But I think this is not viable for finite (and fallen) human beings. I think we can reasonably and practically deal with the revelation in Scripture to help us understand what Scripture says about Scripture and God’s direct word(s). Absolute, objective, empirical data? No. But very reasonable and practical with regards to the testimony of God’s people for thousands of years.

        #2) Of course, I wasn’t getting at John 1:14, and Christ as the living word, when I spoke of this. I’d project 90-95%+ of the references to ‘the word’, ‘word of God’, ‘word of the Lord’, etc, are not actually speaking of a biblical canon/Scripture. I think to project onto Scripture what is true of the living Christ and God’s direct word is not something ‘allowed’ in Scripture. It’s not there, as far as I can tell. God’s direct word and the Living word remain inerrant. But direct and absolute inerrancy, I believe, is not plausible for finite and fallen humanity and their communication of God’s revelation. Still, this bothers me not, as I am not wrapped into the absolutist view of truth from a modernist perspective.

        #3) I know we speak normatively of a ‘dual authorship’. I suppose the best place we find a ‘definition’ of Scripture in Scripture is 2 Tim 3:16-17, and it says Scripture is theopneustos (God-breathed), not dual-authored. I’m still ok with using the terminology you suggest. But theopneustos isn’t speaking in particular of a ‘dual-authorship’. It’s speaking of the activity of God while the authors penned and compiled what we have. I see a difference. And I’d also challenge the idea that says: ‘Well, those guys might not have known what they were writing, but it’s ok because God superseded what they were writing to make sure he got out what he wanted.’ For me, this is overstepping the boundary. God is a father-shepherd, and this outworks his sovereignty differently than most evangelicals allow in the giving of his revelation. God’s word coming via humans comes into their language, their culture, their construct, their worldview. If it’s an abstract, spiritual ideal, then I think we are forgetting how God comes into OUR context. Christ was a real first century, second temple, Jewish male who thought like one, ate like one, talked like one, worked like one, walked like one, etc. We might be prone to point out that, ‘Oh, but the OT writers were speaking about Christ when they didn’t know it.’ The NT writers employed the OT passages to help bring out the Christocentric purpose of God throughout all his revelation in Scripture. But those first people were writing and speaking into THEIR context. Isaiah had in mind the Israel of his day. Only later would it be employed with a Christocentric focus. And I’m not saying it’s not there. I just think we kind of employ a get-out-of-jail-free card when we say, ‘Well, these guys didn’t know what they were talking about, but God made sure it said what it needed to say.’ This basically denigrates the actual real people that were utilised in making God’s revelation known. It speaks of superseding the personality of the writer.

        Of course, this isn’t as nice and neat if we simply ascribed to absolute inerrancy. But there is one, God alone, who is absolutely inerrant. His direct word comes absolutely inerrant. His mediated word, via finite humans, calls for interpretation, even for those who would have even heard his verbal voice. To then turn around and re-speak it, write it, tell others of it, it is calling for finite (and fallen) humans to engage with it. I’ve not yet met an inerrant human, outside Jesus Christ. But I still believe it is sufficient and good to reasonably and practically give us God’s revelation as God intended when he decided to take up this amazing partnership project in the giving of his revelation in Scripture.

  3. Don Johnson October 22, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    The Bible is a collection of ancient scrolls collected into a single book. The exact contents of the Bible is different for (A) Roman Catholics, (B) Eastern Orthodox, (C) non-Messianic Jews, and (D) protestants and Messianics. I accept the latter contents (D) as being inspired by God and authoritative for faith and practice. I accept UBS4 for the Greek Scriptures and BHS for the Tanakh as being the closest to the original manuscripts, with the proviso that it is possible a few of the books in the Greek scriptures were originally written in Hebrew.

    I accept the claim of perspicuity as formulated by the original Reformers, that one does not need an institutional church in order to read Scripture and determine what is needed for salvation. I reject the claim that all of Scripture is equally perspicuous (as did the Reformers) but for some reason some claim that all Scripture is clear today, even in the midst of pervasive interpretive pluralism over even “milk” doctrines (Heb 6:1-2) like baptisms, which as Alice in Wonderland said is “Curious.”

    So I need to approach Scripture with humility, as a gift from God. I need to realize that I might be misinterpreting it, despite my best efforts to not do this. I need to avoid decontextualizing it, to the best of my ability and I need to avoid reading it in a way to give myself an advantage over others.

  4. Scott October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    Hi Denny-

    First off, was the quoting of Ps 119:140 off?

    I appreciate who you are and your passionate heart for God’s truth, Scripture, and the grace by which you engage. And I know RHE can push at times. But there are plenty that accept infallibility (truth with intent) but not inerrancy (truth in every detail). Inerrancy is not what defines evangelicalism. It’s the evangel, or better known as the gospel. We have got to take this to heart.

    I think RHE’s thoughts on ‘exclusive authority’ has to do with seeing the Bible as not the only and exclusive authority on all issues, such as mathematics, growing coffee beans, learning Spanish, etc. That’s a given. Of course, she (or I) would claim this includes it’s not the exclusive authority on science. But that makes some uncomfortable (I suppose you too) because the Scripture does make claims in regards to areas that are engaging in ‘science’. But addressing the science issues aren’t easily covered up just by saying the Bible is the exclusive authority on ALL things. Otherwise it’s turning a blind eye to the reality of WHY Scripture was given.

    In all, I think you’ve unfairly misrepresented RHE on her thoughts on ‘exclusive authority’.

    Also, many evangelicals, in their attempt to make systematic theology the highest theological priority, wrongly apply certain passages to their doctrine of Scripture. For example, the psalmist in Ps 12:6 or 119:89 was not thinking of a canon of Scripture. But we make it out as if they were. Rather they were speaking in regards to the direct word of God. Scripture is the mediated (non-direct and non-dictated) word of God. There is a difference we need to take note of.

    We have got to let specific texts about the written graphe inform us about the written graphe.

  5. Sarah Flashing October 22, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Her position on inerrancy and the authority of scripture is what leads to statements like these found in her book: As a Christian, I do take some comfort in the fact that Jesus got himself into quite a bit of trouble for his own selective literalism. (53)

    Jesus once said that his mission was not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And in this instance, fulfilling the law meant letting it go. It may serve as a little comfort to those who have suffered abuse at the hand of Bible-wielding literalists, but the disturbing laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy lose just a bit of their potency when God himself breaks them. (54)

  6. Don Johnson October 22, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Rachel misunderstands what is going on in those Scriptures. Jesus could not have broken Scripture or it would have disqualified him from being Messiah. But I think it is a lack of knowledge on Rachel’s part.

    • Kelly J Youngblood October 22, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      @Don Johnson What do you mean by “Jesus could not have broken Scripture”? He couldn’t have possibly abided by *all* of the Scriptural laws in place at the time as the laws were for a *community* comprised of individuals, not for each individual.

      @Sarah Flashing When I think of Jesus “fulfilling” scripture, I think of it as not letting it go or making it irrelevant, but showing how it should be lived, and showing how Israel’s story through scripture was happening again (being fulfilled) in Him.

  7. A. Amos Love October 22, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Denny

    In my experience with most who claim the Bible is “innerrant,” Is…
    Little by little, their “Tradition” becomes more important then the Bible.
    They soon become inconsistant and they say one thing and do another.

    Mat 23:3
    …but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

    Look at your own SBTS Misson Statement saying things NOT in the Bible.
    http://www.sbts.edu/about/truth/mission/

    1 – “SBTS … totally committed to the Bible as the Word of God…
    Now, I believe all believers would benefit from this belief. But…
    I would add “And totally committed to “Jesus” as the Word of God.”

    2 – “the Great Commission as our mandate….”
    Now, That term, Great Commission, is NOT in the Bible. It’s Non-biblical.
    And, In Mat 28:20, Jesus instructs His Disciples what to do as they go.
    Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:

    And, In Mat 23:8-10 NASB, Jesus commanded His Disciples…
    Do NOT be called “Rabbi,” For “ONE” is your teacher, all ye are brethren.
    Do NOT to be called “Leader” for “ONE” is your Leader, that is, Christ.

    But, in the SBTS Misson Statement it mentions; Development of Leaders.
    “…an environment of spiritual nurture for the development of
    Christian leaders, including lay leaders…“

    Hmmm? Lay Leaders? Lay Leaders is NOT in the Bible. It’s Non-biblical.
    Can’t seem to find this “Clergy – Laity” split in the Bible. It’s Non-biblical.

    Jesus, commanded His Disciples NOT to be called leaders.
    And NONE did. In the Bible…
    NOT one of His Disciples called themself “Leader.”
    NOT one of His Disciples called another Disciple “Leader.”

    His Disciples ALL called themselves “Servants.”

    When instructing folks at SBTS about this so-called Great Commision…
    Do you teach them NOT to be called teacher? NOT to be called Leader?
    As Jesus commanded His Disciples?

    If NOT? Then is SBTS really…
    “totally committed to “the Bible” as the Word of God”?
    “totally committed to “Jesus” as the Word of God.”?

  8. Don Johnson October 22, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    By “Jesus not breaking Scripture” I mean that Jesus could not have violated the commandments for himself found in Scripture nor could he have taught others to violate them. This was the continual testing the Pharisees were trying to catch him on, if he would violate (Written) Torah, by his actions or his teaching, then they would know he was not from God. What Jesus did was violate the Pharisee’s own so-called “Oral Torah” (traditions of men) when it negated Scripture (Written Torah). (We are also to do this, we are to not follow a tradition when it negates Scripture.

    • Kelly J Youngblood October 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      I understand what you are saying. I agree they were always trying to catch him, but I’m not so sure that it was expected at that time (or for Jews today) for the Messiah to perfectly follow halacha, because part of halacha to be followed contains laws for repentance and atonement. i remember having a conversation about it some years ago with some Jewish friends, but I can’t quite remember what the belief was/is.

  9. A. Amos Love October 22, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Don

    Amen
    “we are to not follow a tradition when it negates Scripture.”

    Also – In my experience with most who claim the Bible is “inerrant,” Is…
    Most “Will Ignore” or “Will Twist” the qualifications in the Bible
    for Elder/Overseer so they can obtain a position of Power and Prestige.

    Hasn’t anyone ever wondered why – Paul would give
    such very tough qualifications for “Elder/Overseer?”
    If NOT important? For something? For some purpose?
    Can we dismiss them all? How many are NOT important?
    Which ones are NOT important?

    1. Must be Blameless? 2. Holy? 3. Just? 4. Rule well their own house?

    Hasn’t anyone ever wondered why…
    Someone, who believes the Bible is God’s Word, “inerrant,” would want
    to be a “Elder/Overseer” – When they do NOT qualify?

    1 – A bishop (overseer) then *must be* **blameless**… 1 Tim 3:2 KJV
    1 – For a bishop (overseer) *must be* **blameless**… Titus 1:7 KJV

    *Must Be* is Strongs #1163, die. – It is necessary (as binding).
    Thayer’s – necessity established by the counsel and decree of God.

    That *must be* is the same word as: You *must be* born again. John 3:7.
    Seems to be a small word – but very important. Yes?

    1 – **Blameless**… How important is this word?
    Strongs #423 – anepileptos – inculpable, blameless, unrebukeable.
    Thayer’s – cannot be reprehended, not open to censure, irreproachable.

    Dictionary – Without fault; innocent; guiltless; not meriting censure.

    1 Tim 3:2 ASV – The bishop therefore must be without reproach…
    1 Tim 3:2 NIV – Now the overseer must be above reproach…

    How many “Elder/Overseers,” who honestly examine themselves,
    seriously considering this one **qualification,** (*Must Be* **Blameless,**)
    can see themselves as **Blameless,** without fault, above reproach,
    and thus qualify to be an “Elder/Overseer?”

    And if you can see yourself as **blameless:** Is that pride?
    And no longer without fault? Oy Vey! 😉

    If there are those who believe the Bible is God’s Word, “inerrant,”
    Aren’t ALL the requirements important? Which ones can we ignore?

    Jer 50:6
    *My people* hath been *lost sheep:*
    “their shepherds” have caused them “to go astray”

    1 Pet 2:25
    For ye were as “sheep going astray;” but are now
    returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  10. Keith Johnston October 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Since the Bible does not explicitly teach the ‘pre-trib rapture of the Church’ (only the rapture of the Church at the time of Christ’s return), does that mean that people that teach this doctrine reject inerrancy? In addition, the Bible does not explictly teach ‘young-earth creationism’ — that is an inference that some have drawn from the story in Genesis. Does that mean that people that hold to ‘young-earth creationism’ do not hold to inerrancy? If inerrancy refers to what the Bible ‘affirms’ rather than to inferences drawn by those who believe in what the Bible ‘affirms’ why then do those extra-biblical doctrines deserve to be treated as if they deserve the status of special revelation?

  11. wggrace October 30, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    The call to debate the meaning of ‘“authority” or “inerrancy” or “inspiration”‘ as RHE ends the post to which Denny points us is entirely legitimate, whatever view one takes about them. It is only as we understand them that we can adopt them.
    The assertion by Denny that RHE ‘herself long ago stopped believing in the “Bible’s exclusive authority, inerrancy, perspicuity, and internal consistency”’ is inadequately referenced as another has already commented. Which is a pity as Denny is a scholar and knows how to support assertions.
    Again, Denny’s assertion that RHE ‘she loves the Bible not as the inerrant and authoritative word of God but as a flawed collection of stories.’ is also unsupported, although perhaps evidence could be provided. As it stands, Denny’s assertion is tendentious.
    RHE raises in her post that the Bible is more than merely a reference book of truth; it is a Word that is meant to do things. The Bible is the living and active Word of God. And this is something with which Denny is presumably in complete agreement, as long as the referential aspect of the Bible is not dismissed.
    This leads to an observation on an important difference between authority, inerrancy and inspiration. It seems to me that inerrancy refers only to the referential aspect of the Bible. However important it might be, it must not be allowed to overshadow the ideas conveyed by authority and inspiration. And I think Denny would agree, using inerrancy only to buttress the authority and inspiration.
    In a response to a challenge by Stacy, Denny makes the assertion that RHE does not believe in inerrancy and refers us back to the post from RHE which again does not seem to support Denny’s assertion. On the contrary she says that in future posts she will examine different views of the meaning of inerrancy. So Denny would appear to be quite unfair, quite unscholarly, in his assertions.
    Scott referred to RHE’s thoughts about the ‘exclusive authority’ of scripture and I have struggled to find these. I am also rather struck by his assertion that ‘many evangelicals… to make systematic theology the highest theological priority’. I was not aware of such a priority and would see it as rather undermining of the biblicism that is usually seen as a key evangelical characteristic. Are there such evangelicals? Are such evangelicals truly evangelical? It seems to be precisely what Luther rebelled against.
    I look forward to RHE’s discussion of inerrancy as being a Brit, the term is somewhat alien to me. Evangelicals here do not espouse it. It is certainly not a litmus test of evangelicalism here. Finding out what it means will be valuable to me.

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