Friday, April 18, 2008

Inerrancy of Scripture and Contradictions in the Bible

Not too long ago Joe was invited to a church meeting in which all the participants were asked to give arguments against Christianity. The leader of the meeting, who happens to be a friend, arranged to single handedly out-debate all of the devil’s advocates and defend Christianity. As I was helping Joe prepare some anti-Christian ammunition to take to the meeting, our conversation naturally turned to some of the apparent contradictions in the Bible.

At some time or another, every believer will come up against sceptics who are ready to dismiss the Bible because of a handful of contradictions. While it is possible that, through careful study and exegesis, we may discover that each one of the apparent anomalies in the Biblical accounts can actually be explained, it is still important to ask the hypothetical question, “What if the Bible did contradicted itself - how would we handle that?”
On this question it is easy for Bible-believing Christians to react against modern deconstruction and liberalism by adopting dogmatic views of Biblical inerrancy that are ultimately anachronistic.

Most Christians who hold a high view of the Bible would agree that scripture, in the original manuscripts and when interpreted according to the intended sense, speaks truly in all that it affirms. Where fundamentalists and sceptics alike usually go wrong is in failing to properly think through the implications of “the intended sense.”

In the interpretation of scripture, as in other forms of literary criticism, authorial intent is crucial to a correct understanding. If my interpretation of a text is not governed by the meaning that the author intended, then the result is hermeneutical chaos and ultimately we would be forced to concede that those postmodernists are correct who maintain that objective communication is impossible.

If we are to get at the intended meaning of scripture, we must ask whether any of the various Biblical writers were claiming the kind of technical precision that both fundamentalists and enlightenment modernists have come to associate with “truth.” If I am reading a legal document, any slight anomaly can count as error because the author is claiming, either implicitly or explicitly, a high degree of precision. But if you tell me that my neighbour is middle aged when he is really 38, I would be a fool to accuse you of falsehood. There is a qualitative difference in what counts as error in a legal brief or in a poem, in a letter or in a casual remark, in a road sign or in a theological treatise. It follows that veracity and falsehood cannot be determined independently of genre.

This being the case, when presented with a contradiction or an apparent contradiction in the Bible, what we really need to ask is whether the author intended the kind of technical precision that most fundamentalists have come to expect from scripture.

“Perhaps the best way to resolve this confusion,” Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “is to [ask] what counts as an error? If I say that my lecture lasts an hour, when in fact it lasts only fifty-nine minutes, have I made an error? That depends on your expectation and on the context of my remark. In everyday conversation round figures are perfectly acceptable; no one would accuse me of getting my figures wrong. In other contexts, however, a different level of precision is required. A BBC television producer, for instance, would need to know the exact number of minutes. The point is that what counts a an error depends upon the kind of precision of exactness that the reader has a right to expect. 'Error’ is thus a context- dependent notion. If I do not claim scientific exactitude or technical precision, it would be unjust to accuse me of having erred. Indeed, too much precision (‘my lecture is fifty-nine minutes and eight seconds long’) can be distracting and actually hinder clear communication. Let us define error, then, as a failure to make good on or to redeem one’s claims. The Bible speaks truly because it makes good its claims. It thus follows that we should first determine just what kind of claims are being made before too quickly ruling ‘true’ or ‘false’. If error is indeed a context-dependent notion, those who see errors in Scripture would do well first to establish the context of Scripture’s claims. To interpret the Bible according to a wooden literalism fails precisely to attend to the kinds of claims Scripture makes. To read every sentence of the Bible as if it were referring to something in he world, or to a timeless truth, may be to misread much of Scripture. Just as readers need to be sensitive to metaphor (few would react to Jesus’ claim in John 10:9 ‘I am the door’ by searching for a handle) so readers must be sensitive to literary genre (e.g. to the literary context of biblical statements).”

Sensitivity to the literary context of Biblical statements should exclude those models of Biblical inerrancy which claim more for the text than the authors themselves intended. To assume that every statement of the Bible must have the kind of precision that we normally reserve only for mathematics, is not only hermeneutically irresponsible, but it is also to compromise with the assumptions of modern liberalism. Both modern liberalism and religious fundamentalism work on the assumption that if even one contradiction could be found in the Bible then it would spoil the whole show. Such an approach simply makes Christianity vulnerable to the attacks of our critics.
If a critic of Christianity shows me a contradiction in the Bible, I will respond by asking them to first prove that the author was claiming the degree of exactitude necessary to render the contradiction problematic in the first place. It is true that scripture, in the original manuscripts and when interpreted according to the intended sense of the author, speaks truly in all that it affirms, but it is not true that the intended sense of the author is always what our ideas of inspiration compel us to insist upon.
The following outline is from John Frame's Doctrine of the Word of God.

The "inerrancy" of Scripture, then, may be further defined by saying that Scripture makes good on its claims.
(a) It does not always claim absolute precision. In fact, it contains many phenomena which would be incompatible with such a claim:
i) Inconsistency with modern historiographical conventions:
a) Non-chronological narrative
b) Imprecise quotation
c) anachronistic references (Gen. 14:13, etc.)
d) historical telescoping (Mt. 9: 18, Luke 8:41,49.)
ii) Other "imprecisions"
a) round numbers
b) unrefined grammar
c) pre-scientific phenomenalistic description ("The sun rose")
d) omission of pedantic qualifications (Mark 1:5)
e) use of figures, symbols
(b) Do these phenomena refute inerrancy? Only if Scripture ~ to avoid such practices, while failing to make good on that claim.
(c ) Scripture, however, does not make such a claim.
i) Scripture follows historical practices common in its day--e.g. loose quotation of sources, giving the substance, rather than the precise words being referred to.
ii) The purpose of Scripture is not to provide us with a precise scientific treatise, but to motivate us to faith in Christ, with all its implications (John 20:31).
iii) To carry out that purpose most effectively, it was not only permissible, but even necessary, to avoid pedantic side-trips, to speak the ordinary language of the people, to use figures and parables, etc.
(3) Scripture, then, is not inerrant in the sense of being absolutely precise, and/or of meeting every conceivable demand. Rather, it is inerrant in that it makes good on its own claims and carries out its own purpose.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

What and Where is the Church? A debate between Robin and Patrick Phillips

(For more on this subject, see DEBATE: Is Protestantism Heretical?)

That is me on the left and my twin brother Patrick on the right.
When we were growing up, our family did not attend church regularly. Since being adults, Patrick and I have both independently come to understand the importance of church in a believer's life. Patrick's spiritual journey led him to join the Eastern Orthodox church, while my journey led me to the Anglican church (when I'm in England) and a reformed Presbyterian church (when I'm in America). Since joining these churches, Patrick and I have often enjoyed discussing the nature of the church and comparing and contrasting the canons of our respective traditions. Believing that a wider audience might benefit from these discussions, I asked Patrick if he would like to join me in a public discussion on "what and where is the church?"
The basis of the discussion is Patrick and my mutual belief that friendly ecumenical dialogue across denominational barriers is crucial for a healthy body of Christ. Barth said it well when he noted that, "Strange as it may seem, it is still true, that those who fail to understand other churches than their own are not the people who care intensely about theology, but the theological dilettantes, eclectics, and historians of all sorts; while those very men who have found themselves forced to confront a clear, thoroughgoing, logical sic et non find themselves allied to each other inspite of all contradictions, by an underlying fellowship and understanding, even in the cause which they handle so differently and approach from such painfully different angles. But the cause, it may be, is nothing less than Jesus Christ and the unity of the Church.”
Patrick 1: The topic Robin has proposed for discussion is, ¨What is the church and where is it?¨ Of all questions a Christian can ask this seems the most important, for it is through the church that we encounter Christ. We should use the early fathers as our starting point because they spell out clearly the criteria for determining which gatherings are indeed apostolic (or biblical). I would like to see a renaissance in evangelical culture whereby there is a return to the writings of these Church fathers. The answer to the proposition proposed would naturally follow and evangelicals would seek to align themselves with the Orthodox churches in their cities. All other expressions of Christianity spring from Orthodoxy, so in going back to the roots of Christendom we should be able to find the most biblical expression of our faith.

Robin 1: Thank you Patrick. When you say that "we should use the early fathers as our starting point", I am interested to know how you are defining "early fathers". Does the category 'early fathers' include the canonical writers?

Patrick 2: “Yes I do include the cannonical writers in that.”

Robin 2: You write “evangelicals would seek to align themselves with the Orthodox churches in their cities”. What is the definition for “Orthodox churches”?
Patrick 3: Orthodox Churches are churches which hold to the most ancient expressions of Christianity, in doctrine and practice. Orthodox just means right doctrine in Greek. These churches are held together by Bishops which can trace their spiritual lineage back to the apostles. But it’s more than just a spiritual lineage, since every Bishop has hands laid on him, along with certain prayers, from past Bishops that date all the way back to the twelve apostles. Of course, Orthodoxy is neither eastern nor western but rather, apostolic, since now there are Orthodox Churches in Brazil, England and well as Jerusalem and Greece. I write that evangelicals would seek to align themselves with these Orthodox Churches if they really knew the teachings of the church fathers because, once one looks at the writings of these fathers, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that church was very important to them. Which church Christians attended was equally important. We can’t just dismiss the priorities of men who were so close to the very well-spring and fountain of our faith. In fact, the bible and the Holy Spirit was very important to them as well...but, according to their instructions, needed to be interpreted within the framework of already existing churches. Do you define Orthodox
any differently and what criteria would you have for determining right doctrine?

Robin 3: To answer your question, I would use the teachings of the early church fathers to determine right doctrine, with the canonical fathers taking precedence. I would also include the Hebrew fathers whose writingswe have in the Old Testament. I believe both these practices are necessitated by 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
When you write that “we should use the early fathers as our starting point,” would you agree that the canonical fathers should take precedent over the non-canonical fathers?
Your discussion of the Orthodox church is more of an explanation than a definition. If taken as a definition, it is so broad that it could include many Presbyterian and Anglican churches within its scope. For example, the ‘bishops’ in the Presbyterian church I attend (although we do not
call them bishops they are bishops in the original sense of ‘overseer’) trace their spiritual lineage back to the apostles (as do the lay people), and we do generally seem to have ‘right doctrine’ when tested against scripture and the historic creeds, so does that make us an ‘Orthodox’ church?
Patrick 4: The Hebrew fathers were being referred to in 2 Timothy 3 and they have a lot to show us about being God´s people. They thought in terms of: one people, one nation, one church. There is no room here for ecclesiological relativism.
While the New Testament writers have a certain precedence, they are read every day in church, ---St. Ignatius is not, they are in no way opposed to the later fathers anymore than the council of Jerusalem, recorded in the book of Acts, is more important, or qualitatively different than Nicea.
A definition of Orthodoxy would be right doctrine or right praise. Other churches may fancy a spiritual lineage to the apostles, Orthodoxy has a physical one or apostolic succession. If the Church makes bold claims about Herself it is because Christ also made bold claims. Although truth is found everywhere, Orthodoxy is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).
But belief in the Church is like belief in God: it cannot be proven logically. There are, however, many miracles which attest to the grace of God, the main one being the incarnation and a lesser one being the holy fire which appears every year in Jerusalem.

Robin 4: Before I respond to that, it would be helpful to know if you actually disagree with
anything I have said up to this point.
Patrick 5: Not really.
Robin 5: Your new definition of Orthodoxy (P4) is not immune to the earlier objections which
I raised (R3) which you say (P5) that you agree with. Also, what do you mean by a physical apostolic succession?
Patrick 6: I did not offer a new definition of Orthodoxy, merely repeated what I had said already which is that Orthodoxy means right belief or right praise. I agree with you that some explanation or narrowing of focus is necessary because, as you say, other churches have Bishops as well, although I would question weather this is true of your church. The very term Presbyterian would seem to exclude the notion of a Bishopric. To the extent that any church has right doctrine---and many do, these churches are a little Orthodox. While they are not The Church, it is true to say that the church is working through them, which should be an ecumenical impetus.
To what extent, though, does right doctrine matter? Is it confined to the creeds and a few other
theological particulars, or is it part of something broader? Saints and icons and midnight processions around the church, holy days and holy mountains; Slavonic liturgies and women in headscarves; sacraments added to sacraments, from birth to marriage to death: the same unbroken tradition for two thousand years. This is what is implied by right doctrine and the
implications are ecclesial.
The central issue I think we need to look at, though, is the history of the church. Because there was only one church from the time of the apostles until the close of the first millennium, it is obvious Christ and St. Paul were referring to this when they spoke of God preserving the Church in the fullness of truth (John 17:21 and 1st Timothy 3). Here is where scripture has to be interpreted in light of what we know came afterwards, not visa versa. Do you agree with
this hermeneutical method?
By physical apostolic succession I mean a direct link to the apostles, not a spiritual succession (through an attempt to imitate or rediscover scriptural truths). The parishes that the apostles founded are still in existence and every new priest and bishop has hands laid on him by other priests and bishops who had hands laid on them, along with prayer, going back to the original apostles. In this way the church was preserved because the outgoing apostles only consecrated men with the same vision.

Robin 6: If you were not offering a new definition in P4, but merely repeating what you said earlier in P3, then the burden of proof remains on you to overcome the objections I raised in R3. I am not convinced that your latest entry achieves that, not least because you yourself concede that “some explanation or narrowing of focus is necessary.” While acknowledging that, however, you still fail to offer a more focused definition! This effectively brings this debate to a standstill rendering your latest entry unintelligible, for while your latest entry is peppered with references to “the Church”, which is in some sense equivalent in your mind with the Orthodox church, you have not defined the latter in a coherent way.
Finally, the objections I raised in R3 can be reinforced by pointing out that if Orthodoxy, in the ecclesiastical sense (because that is the sense in which I assume you mean it, given the topic of this debate) means ‘right belief’, then if I have right belief about two and two equalling four, does that make those correct thought-processes the Orthodox church? Until this basic problem of definition is resolved, I am unable to respond to the other points you make because your basic terminology remains unintelligible.
Patrick 7: In P3 I offered a definition and then went on to give examples. The objection you raised was that because other churches have some characteristics of how I explained Orthodoxy, including bishops (which wasn’t part of the original definition, but part of the explanation---as you pointed out), as well as right belief, that some narrowing of focus was necessary. I later conceded that these churches were a little Orthodox where this overlapping of right belief occurred, which should have made clear that right belief was more broad than you apparently thought I meant by it.
To be more specific about right belief then it is spiritual right belief and spiritual praise. Right belief, however, is inferred from the definition or Orthodoxy, which technically is right doxology. Right (or wrong) belief about two plus to equaling four is not right belief in this sense, no matter what Peter Singer might have to say about the matter.
What we should really be debating, with scripture aiding us, is: what is right belief? Would this include Islam or churches without an acceptance of the 7th ecumenical council?
In my opinion this standstill over the definition of Orthodoxy, which is a technical matter, not an interpretive one, is pretty much invisible to the real questions at hand.
Why don´t you tell me how you define Orthodoxy and then I’ll tell you if I agree.
Robin 7: In R3 I pointed out the inadequacies of the definition you gave in P3, and you agreed with my refutation in P5. Your latest entry, to the extent that it reaffirms P3, contradicts P5 I can diagram this using propositional logic if that would help.
Notwithstanding these anomalies in your position, let me see if I have correctly understood your definition of Orthodoxy. Are you saying that all churches are Orthodox if and only if the following two conditions are met:
1) The church must have right belief in ‘spiritual matters’, this being equivalent to the most ancient expressions of Christian doctrine and practice.
The church must be held together by Bishops which can trace their spiritual lineage back to the apostles, which means that the bishop must belong to or be in communion with a parish that the apostles founded.
Patrick 8: I have probably been too diffuse up to this point. But what followed in P3 after my definition was, as you pointed out, an explanation; and one that needed clarifying in light of your two questions, which I then did by broadening the scope of what was covered under the auspices of right-belief.
I do not agree with the second condition. In fact, I’ve said the opposite. I’ve said that a church can be somewhat Orthodox without Bishops; in P6 I said this and gave the example of your church. It should have been clear that I was referring to your church when I took up your example of right creeds as a point of commonality. I then repeated this theme in P7 saying that other churches could be a little Orthodox by overlapping with our right-belief.
I fail to grasp the relevance of this debate about the debate. There is probably more than one legitimate definition for Orthodoxy that could function within different spheres. By right-belief,
I tried to offer the simplest definition. Would you like to debate a specific aspect of right-belief, like Mariology or the Eucharist? Otherwise, I am inclined to agree with you that this debate is at a standstill.
Robin 8: I would only be willing to explore issues like Mariology and the Eucharist if you can first prove that they are relevant to the topic of this debate, which is “What and where is the church?”
Earlier you wrote that, “Other churches may fancy a spiritual lineage to the apostles, Orthodoxy has a physical one or apostolic succession…. By physical apostolic succession I mean a direct link to the apostles... The parishes that the apostles founded are still in existence and every new priest and bishop has hands laid on him by other priests and bishops who had hands laid on them, along with prayer, going back to the original apostles. In this way the church was preserved because the outgoing apostles only consecrated men with the same vision.” (P4 & P6) When I summarised this as meaning that “The church must be held together by Bishops which can trace their spiritual lineage back to the apostles, which means that the bishop must belong to or be in communion with a parish that the apostles founded” you replied that you “do not agree” and have “said the opposite”. But unless your words in P4 & P6 mean something radically different to the plain sense of language, I do not see how my second condition can be anything other than a faithful summary of the above quotation. Perhaps it would help if you could explain where my summary does and does not depart from
the views you express in
P4 & P6 (cited above).
You appeal to your comments in P6 to substantiate that you disagreed with my second condition, but even in P6 when you said that other churches “are a little Orthodox” you emphasise in the next sentence that “they are not The Church.” Presumably, you think that ‘The Church’ is defined by the parameters of physical apostolic succession (as cited above from P4 & P6) despite your latest ambiguity. Is that correct?
Patrick 9: I was objecting to the if and only part of the second condition because I wanted to leave room for other churches to have Orthodox beliefs, without not being the Orthodox Church. This economia is central to Orthodox ecumenical thought. I also objected because I do not think Bishops or antiquity defines the Orthodox church nearly as much as Christ does. I would be more comfortable with a definition that emphasized the body of Christ (which is one and material, not a plethora of sects).

I have now talked for great length about how I see the church and have apparently only confused matters. Why don´t you tell me what is your vision for the church; how you define these things, maybe with some Venn diagrams thrown in, then we can go from there.
From reading your blog, it appears we Orthodox have much more in common with the reformed tradition than any other evangelical group that I am aware.

Robin 9: Even assuming that the double negative of the second clause of your first sentence is a mistake, your distinction between churches with Orthodox beliefs vs. the Orthodox church remains unintelligible since you have not coherently defined and distinguished between these two senses. Given that your last entry only explains how you do not define these terms, I remain none the wiser.
Perhaps it would help to distinguish between these senses with the nomenclature of definite and indefinite: a church like mine would be an orthodox church (indefinite) whereas your church would be the Orthodox church (definite). If you accept these categories, then as soon as you define Orthodox in both senses for me, we are ready to rock and roll. (Note that I have not yet said whether I actually agree with these distinctions, or even with the notion of Orthodoxy; rather, I am trying to understand what you mean by the words that you use.)
My definition of the church is quite simple. I believe that when the Bible speaks of the church it means the people of God.
Finally, I am thinking about exiting this debate shortly since I am unable to understand most of what you say. Your last comment, focussing on our commonalities rather than our differences, would seem to be a nice ecumenical note to end on.

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