Search This Blog

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A new faith paradigm -- Part I

I want to quote, with very slight emendation, an email I sent to my family yesterday. I may regret being quite so open about this, but I figure I should plunge ahead anyway. I am hoping my "testimony" will be helpful to someone who might not otherwise find any way to hold onto the faith they once received and laid hold of with joy. . . .
I am praising God right now. I have just finished reading one of the most liberating (for me) books I have ever read. Twelve or thirteen years of miserable “wandering in the darkness” with respect to Scripture (especially), but with respect to an awful large portion of the rest of my faith as well: I sense it may be coming to an end.

About a month and a half ago [no; I just looked it up: I bought the book on July 23!]—I don't know how I found it, but, somehow, I came across Kenton L. Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture. I read it after having read (not necessarily in this order; I do not remember in what order I read these books, but I read them all in the last year to year and a half): Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns, God's Word in Human Words by Kenton L. Sparks, and The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith. These books, themselves, came on the tail end of two or three others that I read several years ago: Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution by Deborah B. Haarsma and Loren D. Haarsma (read back in late 2008 . . . which actually gave me hope), Evolutionary Creation by Denis Lamoureux (finished in mid-2009), and, finally, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden (finished reading in May of 2011).

All of the other books certainly contributed, in some fashion, to my willingness or ability to read Sparks’ latest book (Sacred Word, Broken Word), but it is this book, in particular, that, in my opinion, completely shattered an intellectual logjam or ice wall that has held a huge reservoir of deep anxiety for me.

Before I get into the details of the book itself, let me note that the logjam or ice wall was my growing conviction (that I absolutely did not want to embrace) that the doctrine of Scripture with which I was raised and that I was taught at seminary was untenable. Put most starkly: I was losing hope—even as I attempted manfully to hang onto hope—that the kinds of doctrines of Scripture promoted by the churches in which I grew up—the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy and the doctrine of Sola scriptura, the doctrines taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith, promoted by Harold Lindsell in his 1976 bombshell The Battle for the Bible, and carried forward by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and its 1978 document called The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy . . . –I was losing hope that these doctrines were really tenable. (If you want to see the details of the doctrines I am talking about, I urge you to read my lengthy post titled Why Are Certain Questions Forbidden? –Part 1 and Part 2.) Basic ideas:
  • The Bible “in its entirety is inerrant, being free from falsehood, fraud, or deceit.”
  • Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are not limited to “spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes.” Rather, they also apply to “assertions in the fields of history and science.” Therefore, for example and preeminently, scientific hypotheses about earth history may not “properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”
  • The Bible “speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else.”
  • While “in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations,” such data can never “disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.”
If you spend a few minutes thinking about some of these statements, you might understand some of my angst. The problem comes down to defining “what the Scripture teaches” and/or, actually, what the Bible even “touches on.”

In my “Why Are Certain Questions Forbidden” posts, mentioned above, I go into detail on the kinds of conservative statements of faith I believe I was raised on . . . and the problems they engender. But here are just three minor illustrations of how these statements of faith can cause problems (taken directly from the second “Why Are Certain Questions Forbidden” post):
  • When the Bible speaks of us being "knit together" by God in our mother's wombs (Psalm 139:13), is it not touching on a matter pertaining to nature? Is it, then, not speaking truth? So, then, on what grounds--what biblical grounds--can we be sure that it is acceptable for medical personnel to teach us of sperm and eggs, mitosis and meiosis, and all the other details of what they call the "birthing process"? If we listen to them, how can we be sure we are not permitting their scientism or their extrabiblical views to "disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it"?
  • Or in the case of meteorology: When the Bible speaks of the storehouses for rain and snow and wind and the windows of heaven and so forth (Genesis 7:11; 8:2; Job 38:22; etc.) . . . and when it tells us how God controls these storehouses and windows (Job 38:22; Jeremiah 10:13; and so forth), is it not touching on matters pertaining to nature (as well as, on occasion, history)? And assuming this is the case, then when meteorologists speak of high- and low-pressure systems and evaporation and transpiration and sublimation and precipitation, are they not attempting to "disprove the teaching of Scripture or or (to have their extrabiblical views) hold priority over" Scripture? If someone wants to say that this is surely not the case, then I would like that person to explain, on Scriptural grounds alone, how and why he or she is right and I am wrong!
Finally (for the sake of this post),
  • When the Bible speaks of a tree reaching up into heaven so it can be seen "to the end of the whole earth" (Daniel 4:10-11), and when it tells us that Satan took Jesus to a high mountain so that he could show Him "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory" (Matthew 4:8), is it not "touching on" something ("matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else")? And, to use the language of the Westminster Confession, must we not, "by good and necessary consequence," conclude that it is teaching that the earth is flat? For how else might a tall tree be seen reaching into heaven? It matters not how tall a tree might be on one side of a globe: people on the other side will never be able to see it; its height makes no difference. And, similarly, it matters not how high the mountain might be: if the earth is globular, no one could possibly see "all the kingdoms of the world." So, therefore, must we not oppose those who, on extrabiblical grounds, insist that the earth is anything but flat? If not, why not? On what grounds can we be sure we are not permitting extrabiblical views to hold priority over Scripture?
By raising questions such as these, am I making mountains out of molehills?

I think not. Not when I have—personally—been caught in the ripsaw of Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (who is convinced—and seems to have convinced the majority of Christian homeschoolers—that any interpretation of Genesis 1-11 that doesn't accord with his own view is the result of an unbiblical practice of permitting man’s wisdom to hold priority over Scripture). Nor when I and the company of which I am a part owner have been thrown out of the Christian Home Educators of Colorado convention because that organization’s faith statement about the Bible (“The Bible, in its original autograph, is without error in whole or in part; including theological concepts as well as geographical, historical and scientific details.”) leads it to reject any company from its convention hall that includes any materials in its curriculum that fails to deride evolution as a foolish, ungodly, man-inspired idea. If you don't teach with conviction that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old at the most, then you're letting man’s ideas hold sway over the Bible.

[Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, to use their logic, they haven't gone far enough. But for some reason, as far as I have been able to discern, they permit “man’s wisdom” to overcome the “obvious” biblical teaching against Copernicus. (Do a search on the word Copernicus when you visit my Young- and Old-Earth Creationists: Can We Even Talk Together? Article to see what I am talking about.)]

But all of what I have said so far is mere background to what I wanted to say about Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word. Sparks has shattered the logjam in my mind about how to honor the Bible as being truly God’s Word and authoritative in life and faith and practice (“Sacred”) even while it is full of contradictions, errors, foolishness and worse (“Broken”).

Let me stop here for a moment so you can catch your breath.

In some ways, I "can't believe" I just said what I did! How dare I? Coming from where I am coming, what I've just said is tantamount to blasphemy. You can't have a truth-speaking God inspiring a Bible that has one contradiction, error, or foolish teaching (let alone "worse" teaching!) in it. Can't be done. If God is God, then his word must be perfect, without error, without contradiction. . . .


Anyone who has read the Scriptures seriously for any length of time is familiar with the “problems” of the Bible. There are books that seek to explain these difficulties away so that conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists can hold onto the kinds of doctrinal statements I have mentioned above. But, frankly, there comes a point where one has to exert some serious effort to “suspend one’s disbelief” in order to continue holding. And though I have exerted those efforts for all of these years, I must say that I found the efforts rather exhausting and enervating and joyless–not exactly the kind of words one would want to use to describe one’s Christian life!

But I have “held on,” nonetheless. What other option do I have if I am to remain a Christian? It’s the only way, isn't it? If you want to be a true Christian, you have to “stand alone on the Word of God,” the “inerrant, infallible, perspicuous, perfect-in-every-regard-down-to-the-very-jot-and-tittle” Bible. Yes?

I hated the intellectual position. But I wanted my God. And so I have been holding on. Waiting. Wondering. Hoping. And, every now and then, looking to see if I might find some way out of my quandary.

Was there—is there—no way out?

It was one chapter in Sparks’ book that shattered the logjam or ice wall—the blockage—for me: Chapter 3: “The Contribution of Christology.” There was a lot of cleanup that had to take place after the initial breakage, but just to see the glimmer of a way out gave me unbelievable hope.

So what did this amazing chapter do? It teased out, in the space of 6 1/2 pages, the key contours of the primary issue that faces us, I believe, in the doctrine of Scripture: What is the relationship between the human and the divine in the Bible?

Sparks begins the chapter by talking about the doctrine of Christ.

He notes that early on in the church's history, the church rejected two—what it viewed as—extreme and too-narrow positions and adopted a third view that embraced both of the extremes at one and the same time. The two extreme doctrines are known as Docetism and Adoptionism.
  • Docetism, in essence (“close enough for government work”): Jesus was God and not human; he was God pretending to be human.
  • Adoptionism, in essence: Jesus was human and not God; God adopted him as his [God’s] only begotten son.
  • And the orthodox teaching? Jesus is fully God and fully human. There is a “hypostatic union”—a joining together—of the divine and human natures, and Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, . . . incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and . . . made man.”
So what does this have to do with Scripture? Sparks makes two points.

1. We should probably recognize that Jesus himself lived and taught in some limited manner as a human being.

Sparks comments:
Jesus was a finite person who grew up in Palestine, learned Hebrew and Aramaic, and was not only born Jewish but, culturally speaking, became Jewish. . . . [B]eing a man, [Jesus] lived out his life within a finite human horizon. . . .
Okay. That seems unremarkable. What about this:
Though Jesus was undoubtedly sinless (see Heb 4:15), did he nonetheless embrace not only our finiteness but also our fallen condition? Did Jesus Christ have a fallen human nature? . . .

As a rule, the [church] fathers were not very comfortable with the idea that Jesus had a fallen nature, but I find it more reasonable—and more scriptural—to affirm that Jesus was both finite and fallen, in all respects like us, "sin excepted" (Heb 4:15). This is possible because the sinful nature and sinful deeds are two different things (infants may have a sinful nature, for instance, but they are not yet "sinners"). . . . In fact, many theologians would describe [the belief that Jesus had a fallen nature] as “good news.” After all, what victory did Christ win for us if fallen flesh itself were not redeemed and resurrected? [pp. 24-26]
In sum, then, Sparks says:
Jesus lived within the limits of his humanity and, it would seem, shared in our fallen nature. To what extent did this human horizon influence his teachings? . . . [I]t seems to me that [to borrow a phrase from Colin Gunton (Christ and Creation [Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1992]), p. 41] “no Christology is adequate which tries either to evade the material determinateness of Jesus or his Jewish particularity.” In principle, the theology of Jesus was largely the theology of a first-century Jew. And where that first-century theology was limited in its vision, so too was the theological vision of Jesus. Orthodoxy only demands that Jesus was sinless, not that his teachings were wholly insulated from the human condition.
Oh, boy!
If there are difficulties in [this] thesis, these involve the long-standing Christian debate about the communicatio idiomatum (“sharing of attributes”) between Jesus' divine and human natures. To what extent were divine qualities of Jesus Christ "communicated" to his humanity? Did the insights of divine omniscience in some way inform his human perspective? And if so, did this insight prevent Jesus from using theological images from his own day that are now, by our standards, problematic? . . . [I]f we attend to the general theological, biblical, and anthropological evidence available to us, my sense is that the evidence sides strongly with [the idea that] Jesus did not depend on unusual divine resources to live a holy life. Rather, he lived in holiness by the same resource that animates every Christian: by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. . . .

God did not redeem us in Christ by coming "alongside" the fallen cosmos as a human-looking phantom. His redemptive work came in and through that fallen order itself, by full human participation in a world that needed healing. Docetists judged that this gospel would be too "messy," entailing as it does God's close contact with a soiled world. But orthodoxy holds that, in God's wisdom, this is precisely the point: fallen creation is redeemed only when God participates in the fallen creation. So far as we know, there was no other way to save us or our world.
You just “know” where this is going, don't you? Sparks is angling to insert error into Jesus' teaching. “He was sinless, but he didn't teach without error.” –Or something like that.

But/and/so—assuming that this is where Sparks is going—why don't we think about that for a moment?

Is it a sin to teach something that “isn't true”? I mean, for example, should we charge Jesus with sin for claiming that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds? Just for example.

  • Suppose, somehow, he had supernatural knowledge—beyond his historical and cultural context. And, therefore, suppose he knew there were smaller seeds than the mustard seed. Would it matter that he claimed it was the smallest seed? Supposing it did, then to whom would it matter? To his hearers—who, apparently, didn't know? . . .
  • Suppose he didn't know there were (or are) smaller seeds? Would that matter? Why?
Back to Sparks. The second point Sparks makes with respect to Christology and the Bible is this:

2. While Christians understand Jesus is a hypostatic union,
whatever Scripture is, it is not a hypostatic union in which divinity and humanity are mysteriously joined in one person. . . . Neither Paul, nor Luke, nor any of the other biblical authors were both divine and human. They were human beings only—good men, perhaps, but also fallible sinners in need of redemption, who wrote texts that the church has nevertheless embraced as God's word.

A direct analogy that moves from Christology to bibliology does not work. Rather, if we wish to draw a theological analogy from the old Christological debates that explains Scripture's character, I would suggest that the adoptionist metaphor is closer to the mark. Understood in this way, Scripture is God's word because God providentially adopted ancient human beings, like Paul, as his spokespersons. In doing so God "set apart" or "sanctified" their words for use in his redemptive activity.

Hence, we can affirm with a straight face that Scripture, all written by sinful human beings, is rightly referred to as Sacred or Holy Scripture. . . .

But . . . To repeat the main and important point, the Christological analogy does not really apply directly to a doctrine of Scripture and, even if it did, it would not support but would more likely weaken arguments in support of [the inerrantists’] view of Scripture. . . . We may assume, for theological and practical reasons, that the human beings who wrote Scripture erred [even in their writing of Scripture—JAH] as all humans do. [pp. 28-29; bolding mine--JAH]
Now. Where Sparks goes with this, how he is going to handle the doctrine of inspiration (“all Scripture is inspired by God [‘God-breathed’]”—2 Timothy 3:16), and how he can possibly help anyone avoid falling over the precipice into complete skepticism that the Bible has any divine import at all: well . . . that will have to wait for another time. I'm sure this post has taxed your patience as it is. And I need to get on to other matters. But I wanted to at least "announce" what I have been thinking about and where I sense my mind and heart are at the moment . . . and where I am sensing I am heading.