§19.2~ Biblical Inerrancy = A Denial of Grace

Jason Micheli —  March 19, 2014 — 17 Comments

barth_in_pop_art_5There’s something fragile, foolhardy and yet frighteningly beautiful about the vantage point that ministry offers upon the faith of ordinary believers and their extra ordinary, in the pejorative sense, priests and pastors.

On more than a one occasion, I’ve sat through a pointless church meeting or an inane clergy gathering and been struck by this realization: the very testimony to which we respond every Sunday ‘The Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God’ was written by believers who, in all likelihood, were every bit as sinful, ignorant, and only partially faithful as the people gathered around me right now.

Prefixing the author of Luke with ‘Saint’ lends him beatific hues. Thinking of the author of Luke as the chair of your Church Council, however, might give you pause before you chime in ‘Thanks be to God’ next Sabbath.

And yet ministry also offers a glimpse into the mysterious depth of an ostensibly ‘simple’ faith. Alongside the regular dosage of bitter reality, ministry also provides concrete confirmation that, in spite of ourselves, the living God can be known and, even more remarkably, the unknowable God can be witnessed to by people like us who don’t know nearly as much as we pretend.

Now, there are Christians for whom those initial sentences constitute not just a couple of paragraphs but heresy.

For them, scripture is a miracle on par with the incarnation itself. Some many Christians would describe the miracle of scripture as ‘inerrancy;’ that is, God has miraculously kept the Bible free from any error. The Bible’s power and authority then derive from its being devoid of any historical mistakes (worldwide census in Luke 2), theological inconsistencies (Mark’s Gospel vs John’s), or scientific problems (Genesis). Indeed many Christians treat the ‘Word’ as though it fell from heaven, printed and bound and translated in to the King James; therefore, it must be without error.

Such a ‘high’ view of scripture, however, comes with much risk, for if scripture’s power and authority derives from its inerrancy then even the most inconsequential of historical, scientific, or theological errors threaten to undermine the whole.

When the authority of scripture is based not on God but on a particular doctrine about scripture, confidence in God can easily unravel.

The recent debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and that idiot creationist from Kentucky is but one obvious example. At stake in that particular debate was neither science nor faith in God but in one particular doctrine of scripture.

The same is true of the debates around same-sex marriage. At their most base, in both senses of the word, their debates about scripture’s authority.

One of features that first drew me to Karl Barth was how he charts a fresh, vigorous way forward through the stale liberal-conservative divide over scripture.

According to Barth in §19.2, the “miracle of scripture” is not its inerrancy- the groundless supposition that God kept the Bible free from humanness, especially human fallibility and sin.

No, the miracle of scripture is indeed a subset of the miracle of incarnation:

God makes himself known through what is human, always limited and partial, and frequently mistaken:

… the prophets and apostles as such, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.

To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.

Around Christmastime, Christians make a lot of hay out of the fact that in Christ God takes flesh- and not any pristine, idealized flesh but the very ordinary stuff of our lives. As the ancients believed: ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ In other words, for our entire fleshly selves to be redeemed our entire fleshly selves are somehow mysteriously present in the Incarnate One.

Seldom however do we make the same hay out of scripture’s incarnational nature, yet the miracle is the same. God can use the most human of mediums for revelation and grace. In a certain sense, for Barth, to wish the Bible were something other than what it is (a fallible, human witness) is akin to wishing the Incarnation were less human and more spiritually sanitized than it was:

If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition… but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.

That is, to ground the Bible’s authority and power in something other than God is to unwittingly long for a God other than the God we have: the God who reveals himself through corrupt, finite, sinful things.

For Barth, biblical inerrancy is a rejection of grace: it rejects the gift God has given us (an unmerited, incarnational text) in favor of something we deem, through our doctrine, to be better.

But ‘better’ is not an appropriate category when speaking of grace.

Jason Micheli

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17 responses to §19.2~ Biblical Inerrancy = A Denial of Grace

  1. Forget about me for a moment… I’m sure you’ll delete this comment as you have a few others recently. But why do you do stuff like this? Why?

    “The recent debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and that idiot creationist from Kentucky is but one obvious example. At stake in that particular debate was neither science nor faith in God but in one particular doctrine of scripture.

    The same is true of the debates around same-sex marriage. At their most base, in both senses of the word, their debates about scripture’s authority.”

    So… people who argue, alongside most of the universal Church, that God intends marriage to be between a man and a woman are no better, no more theologically sophisticated, have no better exegetical sense, than an “idiot creationist from Kentucky.” (Isn’t Ken Ham Australian, anyway?) “The same is true,” you say.

    How is the same true?

    Believing that scripture is authoritative and therefore ought to be taken seriously is not at all the same as being an inerrantist. It’s not even close! You know as well as I that plenty of fair-minded, non-fundamentalist, non-inerrantist Bible scholars and theologians believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sex outside of marriage is a sin—based on good exegesis of the text. It doesn’t take a Bible-thumping fundamentalist to believe that.

    But, no, you imply… They’re all as bad as a fundamentalists who argue for a literal six-day creation! Or is this point at which you say that, of course, you don’t really mean it that way?

    But if you don’t mean it that way, why do you say it that way?

    • Ken Ham’s creationist museum is in Kentucky, last time I checked. And this isn’t the point at which I say I didn’t mean it that way. Obvious hyperbole aside, I do mean that way. With notably few exceptions (and even someone like Hauerwas would agree), the ‘traditional’ perspective on sex and marriage has little more sophistication than the creationist ‘perspective.’ In fact, I tend to think the reason the former has failed to be compelling to the wider culture is because their arguments are so much like the latter. Both reduce the narrative to a wooden,literal reading (why is quoting Genesis 1 for sexual norms any more sensical than quoting as a literal explanation for the universe?), both insist on an interpretation in isolation from science, both employ reductionistic natural law approaches, both make Christology less urgent than dogmatic claims about the Bible.

  2. Well, it’s Genesis 2, and of course that’s only a part of the biblical case. Nevertheless, you’re well-acquainted with the other texts, I’m sure. So… Could the Bible alone say anything on the topic of homosexual behavior that would convince you that our culture has got it wrong? Do you have to have some spiritual feeling to accompany it? How do you decide what God is saying versus what you are imagining, if not by sound exegesis? Why are Richard Hays, N.T. Wright, Wolfhart Pannenburg, and Robert Gagnon, among many others, so dumb on this issue?

    I feel like you’re about to delete me again. But we’ve made progress. I find your viewpoint fascinating.

    • I promise I’ll give up reading this blog, and you won’t hear from me again soon…

      But you’re kidding if you think that there’s some science on the subject of homosexuality that settles the question in our culture’s favor. First, there’s nothing genetic that determines one’s sexual orientation. At best, genes can only influence to a small extent whether someone will experience same-sex attraction—as research on sexual orientation of twins has demonstrated. As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said, genes can only influence; they can’t determine.

      I’m sure there are a host interesting psychological and sociological reasons why people experience same-sex attraction. For some, this attraction will be relatively fixed. For others—especially women—it’s more fluid.

      I’m curious: Did you share your convictions regarding homosexuality with the Board of Ordained Ministry? Did you tell them that the people in our church who try to argue the Bible to support the church’s traditional stance are basically fundamentalist morons?

      • I don’t mean to imply that being “born that way” matters. Children are born with birth defects, but that doesn’t mean that’s the way children “ought to be.” We all choose whether to act on our sexual impulses, whether or not we choose to be gay.

        • That you would say disable kids ‘aren’t the way kids are supposed to be’ is precisely the sort a-theological, problematic perspective with which I disagree.

          • But we intervene medically to help children survive birth defects. Should we not do that because, after all, this is just the way they’re supposed to be? You’re not proving your point.

            Regardless, see my comment before that. People aren’t born gay.

            Why didn’t you respond to my other questions? I thought they were more interesting.

          • Oddly, I know enough folks on my BOM to know that most of them would identify with my position over yours and, more so, would find your comments about children with disabilities even more repugnant. Your analogy is exactly what’s wrong with natural law-based arguments against homosexuality. They inevitability lead to codifying some definition of ‘normal’ that leaves the other as other. I assumed you knew no gay friends but now I wonder if you have any friends with autistic children either.

            When I said your position was theologically bereft, this is what I had in mind. A Christian position that has no place for the theology of the stranger (it should start there) isn’t sufficiently Christian. That all life is gift surely is the right starting place even for someone in your perspective.

            That you would make such an argument suggests you’ve not read nearly as much Hauerwas as you should.

          • “A Christian position that has no place for the theology of the stranger (it should start there) isn’t sufficiently Christian. That all life is gift surely is the right starting place even for someone in your perspective.”

            Jason, what do you mean by this? Theology, at least good, Christian theology, doesn’t start with the “Gentile” who is “lost in the futility of their minds” (Eph. 4), but with Jesus Christ, who came, in large part, to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

            You seem to miss a core Christian doctrine which insists we are not born as whole-selves but as sinners, with “disordered loves” (Augustine). The image of God in us all is broken, and can only be restored through regeneration by the Holy Spirit (Wesley). So yes, while all life is a gift from God, it does not mean that all life is equally holy or pleasing to God.

            I find the opposite of what you suggest to be most loving and kind to the “stranger” in that a solid, biblical theology rooted in a God who changes lives is the better good. To offer people a joy and peace that surpasses understanding when they “deny themselves” and take the “hard, narrow road” which Jesus insists is the ONLY way to life eternal, life with God. The “broad way” you suggest, which might tickle the ears of the stranger, won’t save him or her. How is that loving?

          • Hi Chad, I think we’re probably talking past each other in that I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you’ve written. My stranger reference was in reference to the previous analogies drawn to the disabled and, in particular, Stanley Hauerwas’ work on the subject. However, I would argue with Stanley and the Church Fathers that Jesus Christ comes to us as the Stranger~ that’s the painful, gracious mystery of Cross and Empty Tomb. So in a sense we agree, but I mean that good theology has (at least one) starting place in the recognition that the God who created from nothing is distinct from everything is therefore always Other and we, as believers, should expect to meet the Other in the other. Too much of the sexuality debate acts as though conservatives have no grace to receive/learn from gay Christians.

            And I also tend to think that the ‘stranger’ is usually in a better position to judge how loving we’ve been. If the vast majority of them think we’re not then, right message or not, the mode of that message needs to ameliorate. Thanks for the response. Peace.

          • Jason, I am happy to endorse a love hermeneutic and oppose human judgment. But there is a huge difference between blessing a sin and being judgmental. Blessing a sin is actually un- or non-loving; it’s the opposite of loving, because it separates rather than reconciles us to God and it usually harms the sinner. I don’t believe that God gave us morals and ethics because he’s a kill joy, but because he loves us and wants us to flourish.

            I think you’re treading on dangerous ground if you conclude that certain NT writers are wrong about this ethical issue or another. Remember that we are creatures and not the creator. We believe that scripture is the inspired word of God.

          • My hyperbole might not be as obvious as I think, danger of blog posts.
            I’m certainly not suggesting we just jettison traditions, teachings or texts. We have though, as the Church, over time concluded by consensus that certain teachings are no longer normative or constitutive of Christ. To shut the door on the possibility is to deny the activity of the Spirit.
            I think Barth cautions us towards caution in how we use the scripture to justify our agenda, for not only are we sinners but the authors of scripture too. Therefore, it’s not a matter of blessing sin vs being biblical so much as being repentant, humble and hospitable. I tend to think salvation is God’s business and don’t feel particularly anxious that I will get in God’s way of what God wants (or doesn’t want) to do.

          • There is quite a bit here to disagree with, but one thing that jumps out at me is that for a pastor, one is an ambassador for Christ and there are other NT passages that place a responsibility on the pastor to lead his/her flock correctly. There is also the commandment not to misuse the name of the Lord God.

            Now, if a pastor uses the divinely created institution of marriage to bless or facilitate a sinful relationship, the pastor is not only deceiving the couple, but the pastor is bringing divine condemnation on himself/herself. There is no love here by or for anyone.

  3. I believe in the authority of scripture as much as Ken Ham, however I also believe that a literalistic hermeneutic is often unfaithful to texts like Genesis 1. One can miss the inspired inerrant theological truth by interpreting poetry or symbolic literature literally.

    The evolution/creation debate among Christians (I’m not refering to Nye’s position) is not analogous to the same-sex marriage debate, because as far as I can ascertain from my own study as well as my reading of many respected bible scholars, there is no credible exegesis for overcoming the OT and NT categorization of same sex sexual conduct as sin.

    What we can never do is simply decide for ourselves which parts of scripture no longer are authoritative.

    • I agree totally with the first part, Jean. I guess what I see (and what I’ve posted about before regarding Barth and scripture) is that literalism tends to flatten out the arc of the biblical narrative, making all passages equally authoritative. In the same you don’t think we can decide for ourselves which passages are no longer authoritative I don’t think we can decide for ourselves which passages are more authoritative. For large parts of the Church, sexuality has become on par with the creed, a reason to leave the Church over.
      For me, I think Barth’s view of scripture allows the saints of the past to have gotten homosexuality ‘wrong.’ It’s not simply that we have to acknowledge the different forms of text in scripture; it’s that they’re human, fallible, imperfect texts that God chooses to speak through nonetheless. The Spirit, I believe, has the power to reveal those failings with time- and has revealed on any number of other topics. Bottom line, though, I believe that the best way to approach scripture is through the “love hermeneutic” introduced by Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana. If a reading of scripture doesn’t edify my love of God or neighbor it’s not prescriptive nor is it, in all likelihood, correct.

  4. In case anyone is keeping score at home, Rev. Micheli just made an ad hominem argument. My problem is that I don’t know gay people or lack compassion, therefore let’s just disregard whatever else I say.

    Needless to say, you don’t know me at all.

    As for birth defects, I think you’re being coy more than indignant. Inasmuch as it’s possible to prevent, treat, or ease conditions (including, you know, death) that prevent a life (good and God-given though it is without qualification) from thriving (even if our definition of “thriving” accidentally corresponds to what is also normative), we do so—out of compassion. What parent would complain? If medical science finds a cure for autism, any parent would avail themselves of it, as you well know. We also enable disabled people to be mobile, as much as possible—even though mobility is, again, normative. We do so without doubting that the disabled are intrinsically worthy and loved by God.

    My point of even bringing it up, as I think you know, is to say that you don’t prove your point by saying gay people are born that way. And of course, they’re not born that way, which I point out because you said that we fundies (I feel deeply sympathetic with Ken Ham, all of a sudden) fail to grasp the “science” of the issue. In this case, we don’t.

    I’ve always said that if liberals on this issue would just confess that the Bible is wrong on homosexuality, I would respect them more—instead of their engaging in exegetical gymnastics to make scripture say what it doesn’t say.

    So here’s a case in point: your argument is that the Bible is wrong on the issue—I mean, in a woodenly literalistic sort of way. Yes, Paul (and let’s face it, very likely the Jesus of history) thought homosexual behavior was immoral. But it doesn’t matter because there is this higher hermeneutical lens through which we need to read our benighted Bible writers. And once we see it through that lens, homosexual behavior (if not all those other sexual behaviors that the Bible condemns in the same language, in the same context, which we still happen to agree are immoral) is perfectly OK.

    Right? This is a different twist on liberation theology—you’ve found a hermeneutical principle by which you can disregard much of what the Bible says.

    Regardless, I used to say that I would respect people who just came right out and said what you’ve said—that the Bible is literally wrong on homosexual behavior. But it doesn’t help, I’ll be honest. It leaves me feeling empty.

    Well, that’s a personal problem, obviously.

    Take care!

  5. By the way, my point in saying that Ken Ham was from Australia (which he is) is to defend my fellow southerners. You said “idiot creationist from Kentucky.” Why? If he lived in New York, you wouldn’t point that fact out in your description if him and you know it! “Idiot creationist from New York.” “Idiot creationist from Massachusetts.” “Idiot creationist from Australia.” See, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. But Kentucky… You may as well cue “Dueling Banjoes” (even though that relates to my fair state).

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