The End of the Metaphor

I am reviewing Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann’s massive God of the Living: A Biblical Theology for an academic journal, and I am thoroughly enjoying this journey. Perhaps I will have more to say about their volume in the future, but for now I want to draw attention to a particularly poignant observation they make about a particular set of divine behaviors, “Hiddenness and Wrath” (chapter 11, pp 339-60):

The combination of wrath with love and hiddenness with revelation would suggest that both involve complementary options for divine behavior. Such, However, is not the case. By no means does the God of the Bible have “two souls in his breast.” Instead, the God who is “slow to anger” is known by the characteristics that express his intention not to be angry: by his graciousness and mercifulness and his abundant love (ḥesed). Accordingly, the New Testament says that God is a God of love (2 Cor 13:11), indeed , that he is love (1 John 4:8, 16), while the contrary statement, that he is a God of wrath, indeed, that he is wrath, is inconceivable. One can even intensify this clear asymmetry between wrath and love and between hiddenness and revelation further. God hides and grows angry because of his love and for the sake of his love. It must, therefore, be asserted emphatically that God’s wrath is his reaction to injustice and defiance (see Rom 1:18), not a divine affect, not one of God’s dark sides, and certainly not a divine attribute. (339-40)

In a quote recently highlighted by Charles Halton, Feldmeier and Spieckermann make it abundantly clear that “the craft of exegesis developed in academic theology” is an “indispensable path” for the knowledge of God. These two demonstrate great capacity for theological reflection as they navigate the text and the channels of life, be they ancient or modern. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the weight of the task of talking about God. In the conclusion where they reflect on “The Bowls of Wrath in the Revelation of John” they write:

The Revelation of John is the radical response to a situation experienced as radically corrupt. The fact that it opposes injustice and, in all its distress, still introduced a hopeful perspective, constitutes its significance. On the other hand, it bears the mark of an undifferentiated black-or-white viewpoint that results in the one-sidedness and gruesomeness of the vision cycles that require theological correction by reconnecting them to the overall witness of the Bible. The danger that lurks in language about God’s wrath if not appropriately distinguished from the wrath of believers is conspicuous here. (360)

This need to exercise caution concerning John’s portrayal of divine wrath reminds me of something which Terence Fretheim argued in The Suffering of God, “There is always that in the metaphor which is discontinuous with the reality which is God. God outdistances all our images; God cannot finally be captured by any of them” (8). To speak of the Bible as an “indispensable path” for the knowledge of God is not to resolve the challenges one faces in the task of talking about God.

John Goldingay on God’s Plan

Due to a recent decision I have been presented with, I decided to pick up John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology series and do some casual reading from it. This paragraph resonated with me:

The First Testament story never talks about God having a plan for the world or a plan of salvation or a plan for people’s individual lives, and the story it tells does not look like one that resulted from a plan. God certainly had an aim, a vision, some goals, and sometimes formulates a plan for a particular context, but works out a purpose in the world in interaction with the human beings who are designed to be key to the fulfilling of those goals. God is not a micro-manager who seeks to make every decision for the company, but the wiser kind of executive who formulates clear goals but involves the work force in determining how to implement them, and also recognizes that the failure of members of the work force will require ongoing flexibility in pursuing these goals. The story does not give the impression that from the beginning God had planned the flood, or the summons of Abraham, or the exodus, or the introduction to the monarchy, or the building of the temple, or the exile, or the sending of a messiah. It portrays these as responses to concrete situations, while all are outworkings of God’s purpose and character. Our security lies not in the world’s actual story being the outworking of God’s plan (that would be scary) but in its unfolding within the control of an executive who will go to any lengths to see that the vision gets fulfilled–even dying for it. In this sense the lamb of God was slain before the world’s foundation. God has always been that kind of God. (1:60)

I love how Goldingay is asking what impression the biblical story leaves us with. This is methodologically challenging to those who would assert that certain attributes, say divine sovereignty, should serve as our hermeneutical foil for understanding God and Scripture. Goldingay places greater emphasis on the impression left by the story than on anything we might impress upon the story.

What’s New On the Internet?

First, James Crossley calls for biblical scholars of the world to unite. In the wake of economic woes, one must wonder what the future holds for universities with biblical studies programs. According to Crossley, biblical studies belongs at the heart of the humanities and must be engaged if we are to understand human beings. John Hobbins agrees, as does Jim West (a.k.a. Zwingli Redivivus). I, too, find Crossley compelling. Our increasingly secular society does not fully dis-engage with the Bible is because it is rooted in our culture, something even Richard Dawkins is willing to recognize, though Chris Heard aptly remarks that we must not look at this solely from a secular perspective.

Second, 13.7 asks if technology has rendered our society suicidal, if the petroleum steroids that fuel our societal growth have developed muscles the collective wisdom of our society is not capable of controlling. The ancient Israelites understood that wisdom was fundamental to the warp and woof of the cosmos (e.g. Pro 8:22-31). As a biblical studies companion to the secular ecological movements emerging in our culture, pastors, theologians, and lay Christians alike should consider what an eco-oriented hermeneutical perspective has to offer. Those who study the Bible have a unique opportunity to explore how ancient, pre-scientific people developed and fostered a worldview that sought to maintain the harmony between the divine, the people, and the land. This is the wisdom our own society today lacks, and we should take seriously our opportunity to speak out on the subject.

Third, Yann Martel, author of the very popular Life of Pi has written another book. The NPR reviewer is not as enthused about this new book. I hope the reviewer is wrong, but having read some other of his work previous to Life of Pi, I am aware that Martel’s pen is not infallible. If you haven’t read Life of Pi, then you should. Bob Cargill writes of 50 cultural references one should know to understand him. Life of Pi should be on every theologian’s need-to-know-to-know-me cultural reference list. Here is a blip from an old NPR interview of Yann Martel:

I think unfortunately religion is plagued by fundamentalists. Now, every good idea can be kidnapped, and I found in my own research that most people tend to know about religion only what they need to know to dismiss it, and so they will be aware only of the scandals. They’re not aware of the people who go to church who are not hypocrites, who are not homicidal fanatics. You know there are about a billion Muslims, that doesn’t mean there’s about a billion fanatics who at the least provocation will chop your head off.

Why I am Not an Inerrantist – Part Five

5. Inerrancy construes the Bible as a mere repository of truth.

Inerrancy is hardly ever about error. I believe that the core concern of the inerrantist movement is that of truth. Error only enters the discussion insofar as it is assumed to be antithetical to truth. Thus, for many, the mere presence of error in Scripture suggests that Scripture’s truth is in question. This assumption itself is worth questioning. Could not error be a medium through which truth is communicated? All of this really boils down to my previous post where I discussed the problem of actually finding a standard against which biblical error/truth could be measured. Let us assume that science is a standard against which we should measure the Bible. Is there any question that the ancient Israelites were erroneous regarding the nature of the cosmos (flat earth, solid dome sky, earth surrounded by cosmic sea)? And yet, have they not been successful at using that erroneous cosmological worldview to communicate what is certainly the more important truth, that of God’s own activity and presence within the cosmos? Nevertheless, short of a definitive standard for truth or error, we will forever be debating what actually constitutes error, and thus incapable of ever really addressing the real issue of biblical truth–what I would like to do now.

I am not one who would deny that the abstract concept ‘truth’ actually exists, and that it is a meaningful concept in relation to the biblical text. Just because a concept is notoriously difficult to define and nail down does not mean that concept doesn’t exist. The significant question, as I understand it, is What is the nature of Scripture’s association with truth? I am afraid that inerrantists construe this relationship too simply, as though Scripture is merely a repository of truth or truths. Thus, one need only open the pages of the bible and one will find truth scattered throughout the pages. Maybe. But then again, the Bible gives naysayers and skeptics plenty of room to plead their case on the pages of the Bible, the book of Job being a classic example. It cannot be as simple as opening the Bible, reading something, and knowing that what you just read was error-free (thus true), because the Bible testifies  that it isn’t so (Job 42:7).

When the Bible is understood as merely a repository of truth or truths, the significant question arises as to what one is to make of conflicting truths. I believe one of the most liberating things about not being an inerrantist is giving up the false notion that the Bible doesn’t contain contradictions. The problem with the problem of contradictions in the Bible is that contradictions are the warp and woof of Christianity. Paul’s glorified reading of Abraham as the model of Christian faith demonstrates this well. “In hope, he believed against hope . . .” (Rom 4:18). People don’t rise from the dead. If this were not true, Christianity would ultimately be rendered meaningless. And yet, Christianity simultaneously declares as true that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead. In hope, we believe against hope. Contradictions in the Bible are an extension of our faith. The reflect the way we live and what we we experience in life (see this video, particularly 33:50-the end). Thus, I believe it is natural to see the Bible contain and entertain contradictions. In this vein, Scripture is often described as dialogical. I believe that this is, at present, the best way we know how to approach the truth of Scripture.

Scripture’s truth is not a collection of true assertions but a dialogue of voices asserting, counter-asserting, refuting, and defending what is true.  The truth is not in any one voice, but in the world that emerges from the many voices through whom God has chosen to equip and direct us. Inerrancy does not allow us to conceive the full vision of this world because it demands that we deny much of how this world is expressed.  It defines truth, and understands our capacity for grasping it, in ways that are significantly problematic. Earlier last year, Chris Tilling wrote an exceptional post entitled Negotiating Tensions In the Bible in which he made this observation: “Truth is a multifaceted complex beast, not easily domesticated, tamed or boxed.” To quote Wayne Meeks in a lecture he gave in 2007 at Abilene Christian University, “The next time you hear someone say, ‘The Bible clearly teaches…’, please say to yourself, if not to the speaker, ‘no it doesn’t.’ The Apostle Paul knew the Bible better than any of us and he said, ‘now I know only in part.’ If the Bible ‘teaches’, it does so only through a mirror darkly until the end of time” (HT: Ben Griffith). And should either of these two quotes bother you, or should you find yourself strongly in disagreement, please consider viewing this TED video where the presenter demonstrates and concludes that “only through uncertainty is there potential for understanding.”

In the end, it really all boils down to something  David Kerr said in a recent post: “Those who read the Bible in a way it was not intended by its author do more violence to the spirit and intent of the Scriptures.” Simply put, I don’t think the human authors or the divine author ever intended us to read Scripture with the baggage of inerrancy. And that is why I am not an inerrantist.

Why I am Not an Inerrantist – Part 4

I would encourage those who are following this series and who have not read the comments by John Hobbins (cf. Jim West and Art Boulet) to do so. Much of the discussion of inerrancy is really a matter of semantics, so though we are saying different things, much of the meaning and significance we attribute to our own articulations of Scripture is the same. I might add that since the semantic significance of inerrancy is so flexible, simply confessing inerrancy hardly fulfills the burden often placed on such confessions. If certain bodies of Christians are going to use inerrancy to define them, then we must pay particlar attention to how they are defining inerrancy. If you twist the word to fit your own understanding of Scripture and then suggest that you are in agreement with the tradition of Christianity that confesses inerrancy, particularly when you know your confession is drastically different than this larger tradition, you are masqarading as something you are not. This is a large part of why I choose to emphatically state that I am not an inerrantist. I believe I would be willing to confess, as John does, that Scripture is perfect, flawless, even inerrant–in so far as I am understood to be speaking of Scripture as I might speak of my wife (who is, after all, perfect and flawless). But if my confession of inerrancy is ultimately liturgical, then why would I place myself within the stream of tradition that does not understand inerrancy as a liturgical expression of faith? When the evangelical world insists on defining its boarders using a rational concept of inerrancy (and this is how must in my own faith tradition would understand the word), I cannot help but to polarize myself by rejecting such a confession. Perhaps in doing this, I sacrifice the term inerrancy, but I do this in order to preserve that aspect of Scripture that I believe makes it truly unique. After all, it is not the term inerrancy that is important, it is what we mean by it. While I maintain that I am not an inerrantist, I am yet someone who confesses Scripture to be God’s Word, a message that is useful for those things Paul mentions in 2 Tim 3:16-17. (This was supposed to be a brief comment preceding my main point, but I seemed to have gotten carried away. Now on to the main thesis of this post.)

4. Inerrancy assumes an external standard of truth exists against which Scripture can be examined.

I want to begin by saying that this objection to inerrancy equally applies to errancy. If you want to call yourself an errantist, by what standard of error do you examine Scripture to determine it is errant? Both inerrantists and errantists alike (I would consider myself neither) must be able to provide the standard they use to draw their conclusions regarding Scripture if those conclusions are to be taken seriously by others. Regarding those who would identify “error” in Genesis 2-3, John Hobbins writes:

The notion that Gen 2-3 is errant because Eve is made from one of Adam’s ribs and there’s a talking snake is just perverse. The notion that the story is made up if we couldn’t take a time machine back to the events recounted and make a home video of it all is no less perverse.

I wholeheartedly agree. That the ontological existence of women is not rooted in a male rib does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that the author of this text in Genesis “got it wrong.” Perhaps a more ridiculous example would be from the New Testament, Jesus’ parable of the Mustard Seed. The Gospel of Mark records Jesus as describing this seed as “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” Naturally, there are smaller seeds on the earth, but Jesus can hardly be faulted for this statement. If our everyday speech was always subjected to such ridiculous scrutiny, language would become dull and uninteresting. If the communication of truth were restricted to historical narrative (conceived of by modern standards), then many truths, even in our modern age, would cease to be told.

Returning to inerrancy, the only way for inerrantists to cogently argue that Scripture is without errors is to appeal to an external standard of truth and/or error. In this light, the Bible cannot be as it is in so many creeds and confessions, the norma normans, the norm that norms all other norms. Its function of norming might be sound, but it does not hold precedence to the norm against which it is being justified. I find it funny that those most interested in inerrancy are likely those most inclined to confess that Scripture is the norma normans. This aside, where is the external standard of truth against which Scripture can be examined? This is the crucial element missing from the confession of inerrancy, namely a standard upon which all men can reasonably agree against which Scripture can be examined for error. Because of my ignorance in this matter, I simply cannot make the empirical observation that Scripture is inerrant.

Why I am Not an Inerrantist – Part Three

**Disclaimer – There is no monolithic inerrancy movement, but rather many different competing conceptions of inerrancy. When I say, as I do below, “Inerrancy assumes . . .” I know that such a statement may be true of some conceptions of inerrancy and not of others. My full series should eventually address reasons that speak to many if not most conceptions of inerrancy.**

3. Inerrancy assumes that Scripture, in order to communicate truth, must be error-free.

Many who confess that Scripture is inerrant operate under an unfortunately narrow conception of “truth.” Essentially, that truth is error-free. The simplicity of this equation is no-doubt alluring, but it is ultimately indefensible. A simple mathematical joke will serve as an excellent counter-example. “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who cannot.” I doubt there will be any who contest that an error exists in this joke. According to the Law of Excluded Middle, it must be true that, either I can count, or that I cannot count–no third option exists. Given the categories being discussed, it is an error to suggest that there are three kinds of people. But it is important to recognize that this error has the potential to communicate truth. Let us assume that I am not trying to tell a joke when I make this statement. The error communicates the truth that I belong to the latter category–I cannot count! Let us assume that I am trying to tell a joke when I make this statement. The “error” communicates that I am not really funny (though whether it is because the joke itself is not funny or because jokes are inherently void of humor when I tell them is a subjective judgment only you can make). Whether the error was intentional or unintentional, it communicates truth.

Of course, some may suggest that the error in the above example is merely the vehicle for the truth, which is itself error free. Hence, such people will argue that while Scripture can contain error as a vehicle for truth, its essential message–the truth it is communicating–is error-free. I could be de-contextualizing or otherwise abusing John Hobbins’ words, but I was struck by something he said in his recent post, A Language Without Literature is a Disemboweled Corpse:

Those who think it’s possible to disassociate form [metaphor] from content [propositions] do not know the first thing about language, communication, or cooking.

Whatever we say about the content of Scripture should not be so radically divorced from those things we say about the form of Scripture, though I invite John to expand upon his statement and my appropriation of it. But even if we accept this dichotomy between vehicle and content, we have moved beyond the confession that Scripture is inerrant to confess that Scripture’s truth is inerrant, which is an entirely different confession!