Superstimuli and the Terrible Ten Biblicist Claims

Today I want to turn to those terrible ten claims made by Biblicists.1

My aim is not to discuss whether, or how much, Evangelical scholarship may have been infiltrated by these ideas. Nor am I really trying to answer the question I was asked on Facebook of how many on the list I could support. Even though this post began with my surprise that DeYoung’s response to them seemed (almost) more negative than mine. He wrote:

I agree with point 1 and would affirm points 2, 7, 8, and 9 with the right nuance. But I disagree with points 5 and 6, and I am not comfortable with the wording in 3, 4, and 10.

Before going further here is the list (with some first comments):

  1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
    Right at the start DeYoung and I disagree, he accepts this, I cannot. The words of Scripture are clearly human words, I would claim that the message is divine while the words are human. I think this is what some of the biblical authors themselves claim, like Luke’s account of his process in writing (Luke 1:1-3) or the movement from vision to speech in the prophets (e.g. Amos 7:1-9; 8:1-3). The untruth of 1. is also demonstrated, it seems to me in the fact that Jeremiah does not usually sound like Isaiah, nor Luke like John.
    In this case the untruth of the proposition at best wrongly and badly states the claim that the Bible texts are inspired Scripture.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
    This again is an overstatement. Scripture is NOT the “exclusive mode of God’s true communication” but might be closer to the truth if we inserted the word “authoritative” before communication, and perhaps toned down the claim to exclusivity.
  3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
    This one is plainly bonkers. No way does the Bible address every modern concern. Yet, the claim that Scripture is sufficient – that it tells us what and even “all” we need to know about God and for our salvation – is really important.
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
    The perspicuity of Scripture is vital to Baptist life and ecclesiology, but it should never be misstated like this, there is much in Scripture that is difficult, often reading in the light of serious study helps clarify, and yet (again, what we need to know about God and for our salvation) is clear and we have to (intentionally) misread, or be mislead, to miss it.
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
    This one is sneaky. Did you spot “literal sense” in there? Very little in Scripture is expressed literally. Yet the desire to read the plain sense, and not to get carried away with allegorising and spiritualising is a sound one!
  6. Solo Scripture: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
    This one is plain untrue. Take the doctrine of the Trinity as example, it fits with and makes sense of so much in Scripture, yet it can nowhere be read as the plain teaching of a Bible passage. The truth it overstates is that our doctrine and practice should be subjected to the test of the text. They should conform to Scripture and not the reverse.
  7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
    Such a univocal text does not describe at all the Bible I read. (I am currently supposed to be marking short essays on the topic “Did God want Israel to have a king” and the nuanced and diverse attitudes to theologies of kingship expressed in just 1 Samuel, let alone more widely in the OT are sufficient to give that claim the lie.)
    Yet, the consistency of Scripture is surely the reason for the claim that 1 Tim 2:11-12 cannot be read in its most obvious plain sense, that sense (that women should not teach or speak in church) is wrong – it does not “fit” with Paul’s own practice. So, I want to affirm the principle of consistency, while denying the excessive claim in Smith’s formulation.
  8. Universal applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
    This one is a case where DeYoung’s casuistic approach may have merits, for “certain values” of “taught”. The theological understanding that the writers were teaching are indeed true for all times, places, and people,2 But much that they teach (about other more time-bound matters) is not similarly eternal. Thus the laws about wearing clothes of mixed fabrics are not “revoked”  yet do not control my clothing choices. They ought to stand as a warning though against living in ways that are indistinguishable from the Pagans around us.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
    Here I am with DeYoung, “with suitable nuancing” this is one I can affirm as stated, though sometimes the inductive process is quite lengthy with several steps.
  10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
    Even without the (rather naughty?) inclusion of “romance” this is one to resist. And yet even here there is at its heart the admirable desire to take seriously to sufficiency of Scripture. That is a truth worth retaining even while we deny the “supertruth” of the claim.

That last comment will bring me back to my title. But first let me draw your attention to the way this reflection on the claims in the terrible ten have run. In most cases the claim is untrue, yet in every case the claim intends to protect an important truth. This is the insidious nature of these (rightly identified as) terrible ten. They seek to protect truth but affirm a lie. At their heart they are ways in which Evangelicals (certainly in the “wild”, but often in the captivity of the academy too) seek to protect the claim that the Bible is Holy Scripture – the self-revelation of God. But each of them does this by insidiously claiming “more”. In this the terrible ten are like the “superstimuli” that ethologists and pornographers (like the Orange Overlord?) have identified or cashed in. They present something “more” or “better” than the truth, and thus lead the animal astray.

  1. Christian Smith, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011) 3-5. []
  2. As I affirm strongly in the first episode of Deep Bible. []

Getting the PIP and the Deep Bible project

Christian Smith (American sociologist of religion, who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic Deism”)  published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture with Brazos Press back in 2011. His list of ten characteristics of “biblicism”1 was recently cited by Scott McKnight as part of a brief affirmation of the thesis of the book. This made it onto my Facebook screen just a few days after we spent Saturday recording for the first episode of Deep Bible.

Several Evangelical scholars reviewed Smith’s book largely to rebut his claim that these ten features are characteristic of Evangelical (or at least of academic Evangelical) Bible reading. Though they have also criticised his thesis.2 This thesis considers the ten marks of Biblicism in the light of the phenomenon Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (hence forth “PIP”) claiming that this fact of multiple readings makes these tenets impossible.

Getting the PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism)

This post is not a review, or even a notice, of Smith’s book (I have not read it) nor is it a review or response to his critics, rather it is my response to his list, in the light of recording the first episode of Deep Bible. You see one of the core problems with the Bible today for Evangelicals (and other Bible-centred believers, like Baptists) is PIP. You do not have to look far to get the PIP, perhaps all the current (and past) hot button topics among Christians reveal that interpretative pluralism is indeed pervasive. Take the discussion between “Egalitarian” and “Complementarian” camps, they read the same Bible passages, but come to different conclusions. Even the arguments over “gay marriage”, are fueled by different hermeneutics leading to different conclusions.3

Therein lies the rub at least for those who live and have their being in church as well as breathing the more rarefied air of the academy. For, in church (at least in the pews)4 most or all of the terrible ten are believed as gospel truth, and hermeneutics is either an unknown concept or code for “attempting to avoid the plain sense of Scripture”.

Hence the importance of PIP for Deep Bible episode one.5 My contribution offers two strands of practical everyday response to PIP.

Radios and telephones

First, I suggest we need to recognise and distinguish two ways in which God uses Scripture to communicate with us, let’s call them the radio and the telephone. Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses a Bible passage (or even verse or phrase) to give a particular message to a particular person (or group). When this happens it is a bit like the Spirit inspiring Jeremiah with the message that God watches over his word to fulfill it (Jer 1:12) that message came from a pun on the Hebrew word for an almond branch (Jer 1:11). The message has nothing (at all) to do with almonds or branches or trees. God just used the (bad?) pun as stimulus. When God gave Barbara and I a comforting message about our move to New Zealand (following the traumatic shock of being evacuated from Congo and losing contact with so many of our friends and colleagues) that comforting message had nothing to do with the message of the book of Jonah, but God used the familiar story to make his point – and, as with Jeremiah’s pun, it worked for us. That experience is God making a personal telephone call.

OTOH when God inspired the writers of Scripture to reveal truth about the world and especially about its Maker, Sustainer and Redeemer that message, like a radio broadcast is intended for anyone who has the equipment and listens in.

Failure to distinguish these two sorts of meaning leads to much of the most pernicious misuse of Scripture, and so is responsible for much of the PIP that we get today. For we live at a time that prefers the immediacy of “the spirit”6 to the work of rightly handling the word of life.

Let’s just agree to disagree

Another cultural tendency also impacts the PIP. Tolerance  is a virtue (it is perhaps both the most important, under practiced, and yet over-rated virtue today). In the face of multiple interpretations of Scripture this core virtue of the pomo world kicks in, and we find ourselves tempted to “agree to disagree“. Agreeing to disagree is fine and desirable when we have really discussed, understand where the other is coming from, still respect them, yet despite this disagree.

It is not so fine or desirable when it is almost our first response to differing understandings of what the Bible teaches. Because it suggests that the Bible can (rightly and properly, and not merely because of human sinfulness) teach different things to different people. If the Bible can mean anything, then it actually means nothing!

In everyday life we accept restrictions and limits on what texts can mean. Two key and common restrictions are the meaning of words and phrases (literary restraints on possible meaning) and authors’ intentions (historical restraints on meaning). Much of the rest of the Deep Bible series will consider these two sorts of limit and how we can move between these towards deeper and fuller (yet more restrained) understanding of the Bible.

  1. He seems to use the word as a shorthand for what is wrong with self-consciously “Evangelical” readings of Scripture. []
  2. Kevin DeYoung, “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, August 2, 2011, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/ and “Those Tricksy Biblicists,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, (September 1, 2011), https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/09/01/those-tricksy-biblicists/; Peter J. Leithart, “A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism,” First Things, August 26, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/08/a-cheer-and-a-half-for-biblicism; Robert H. Gundry, “Smithereens! Bible-Reading And ‘pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.,’” Books and Culture, October 2011, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/sepoct/smithreens.html.

    []

  3. Though in this case one side sometimes denies that this is the case, it is more charitable to recognise that both are reading and trying to follow Scripture. Though in this case for both sides the big picture rather than the interpretation of individual passages is usually the driver.  []
  4. Or even the comfortable padded seating that serves the “same” function today. []
  5. I plan to consider the terrible ten in another post, as I was surprised to find that I was more positively disposed towards the statements than DeYoung! []
  6. Sadly often without the discernment needed to distinguish “the Spirit” from “my spirit”. []

What is the Bible?

Michael Pahl has an excellent post (a really long one comprising several from his church website) on What is the Bible and how should we read it?

The post is simple (any intelligent Christian should have no trouble understanding what he says), profound (many readers will be able to continue to draw sustenance from the post over years of Bible reading) and explained with some powerful picture stories.

Any Christian who has not done “Bible college” should read it, and many who have may find things their teachers said make more sense after reading this post!

Have I burbled on enough to get you over there? If not I’ll need to repeat what a fine post this introduction to Bible introductions is!

Returning to e-commentary

Over a decade after the peer reviewed citable edition of the Amos commentary was published, and after several false starts and a lot of unproductive work, I am returning to explore the possibilities for e-commentary.

One thing that has changed for the better is that now OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard) is more firmly established. It will allow the material coded in such a way it can be shared across, and used within a number of Bible software front ends. Screenshot below shows a mockup of some commentary on Amos 1:1.

amos
One thing that has not changed1 is that OSIS is infernally difficult to code and no convenient tool exists to let anyone but a markup geek work with the markup.

I am learning lots, I now know about modern Bigendians and why they are dangerous to meet. I am discovering the delights of disappearing titles and the vagaries of front end designers, more than I ever thought I’d want to know about file formats and relative paths… One detail I learned is that if you put a BOM where you should not everything blows up. But that is not why everything blew up this afternoon, I still have to discover that new piece of information!

If anyone reading this knows of a decent way for a human (who is not a markup geek) to compose text in OSIS markup I would be delighted to hear from you!

As part of my preparation I have been rereading my old papers describing how I envisaged the project a decade or a decade and a half back, in case anyone else would find them interesting I am uploading them to Academia.edu here are the 2004 ones I have been looking at recently:

  1. As far as I know so far. If you know otherwise PLEASE tell me! []

Guerilla Bible

The battle is over, modernity won, but guerilla Bible readers still fight back.

the_empire_strikes_back_final_by_1darthvader-d45d5p6The battle for the Bible was over before war was even declared. Modernity won the battle, and people today (both Christians and Atheists) read Scripture using modern categories and methods. It is a history book, a manual, a book of poetry, full of myths and legends… all categories modernity imposed on Bible readers.

But there is another way, guerilla reading. Reading the Bible as it was meant to be read. The Bible is God’s love letter to humanity. Along the way it tells the story of his dealings with a chosen people, his entry into human life in the child born at Christmas, his death on the cross and triumphant rising to new life as the Spirit of God filled the church…

This series will teach you to read the Bible as it was meant to be read, to discover God through the ancient words of Scripture and to apply that knowledge today.

If you have read this far how does this sound as the sales pitch for a simple how-to series on reading the Bible? Does it claim too much? Is it too warlike? Or just fun?

Eucharist: when Fundamentalists fail to read Scripture literally

I love old hymns. They are so often full of such deep theology.  I love the eucharist, I need the grace that this sacrament transmits. A couple of us had a stimulating Facebook conversation about the riches of those old hymns. For me “old” here means before the invention of printing, not the 18th and 19th centuries ;)  I said in passing that two of my all-time favourites are Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” and Fortunatus’ hymn of the same name – perhaps it is no accident that they start with the same exhortation Aquinas seems to have shared my delight in Fortunatus’ fine hymn. My liking for Aquinas hymn, though, shocked my interlocutor, unused (as they were) to high-church Baptists.

Actually I am more shocked by all those low-church Baptists, who persist in praying lengthily over the bread and wine carefully informing God, and through him the assembled people, that whatever Jesus may have meant by the simple words “this is my body given for you” he did not mean them to be taken seriously, let alone literally.

It’s funny how these words, so important in our regular celebration of the story of Jesus (I’d say “worship” but today worship means singing I’m told), are read paradoxically differently by “Fundamentalists” and Catholics. Catholics read the Bible (at least these words) over-literally. For it seems quite clear to me that, whatever Jesus meant, he did not intend to be understood literally. Just imagine his disciples’ reactions: “But the law forbids us to consume blood!” (Lev 17:14) On the other hand for my Fundamentalist friends, not only did Jesus not mean these words literally (however keen they would be to read other words – like the “days” in Gen 1 – literally), he hardly meant them at all! (Though for such low Baptists Jesus words about remembering seem for some reason to be less overlooked. Perhaps because they hold to the doctrine of the real absence of the risen Christ they are keen that communion should remember Jesus’ death.)

“This is my body, broken for you.” surely means, in some sense (though not a literal one), that the bread of the eucharist is the broken body of the Son of God who died for us. If we can believe in two-a-penny miracles, like healings and gems or gold teeth from heaven, what is so hard about the promise of the real presence of Jesus in the bread of the Lord’s Supper?

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starsinthesky.jpg#/media/File:Starsinthesky.jpg (edited)

“Starsinthesky” by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starsinthesky.jpg#/media/File:Starsinthesky.jpg (edited)

I confess, I have never really read the famous “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”, the idea of defining the authority of Scripture in terms of lack of error in propositional statements strikes me as so wrong headed that I have never been really tempted to start. However a friend on Facebook showed me a post that linked to a copy of the statement.

Now I’m really puzzled. Article 12 reads:

Article XII.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

The first part of “WE DENY” seems to claim that the Bible (regardless of the intentions of its human authors?) can be used to learn about scientific questions – I assume this means things like the age of the universe/earth, how species came to be etc… and not that somewhere in Scripture Boyles Law is taught.

OK… but the second part seems to claim that whatever Science may with high degree of confidence assert cannot be used to “overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood”. Which seems to imply that those passages of the Bible that teach about creation and flood are exempt from the first statement?

Is there (even a twisted sort of) logic here, or is the statement just daft? In either case why do so many American, and American influenced, religious people find the statement helpful?

Please, these are serious questions and I just do not understand, so help me!

Reading the Bible Faithfully (as seen on TV?)

book-623163Well this has been a roller-coaster of a 24hr day.

First it seemed that 1 Samuel and the delights of biblical story-telling were so unattractive, or I am, that there might be no students for my class (the journey is worth it though, as Barbara has a big class for her teaching about dealing with adolescents – I guess some human issues are really cross-cultural in this globally franchised world). Then there was the possibility of doing a series for Swarga TV using the Reading the Bible Faithfully material.

That is a possibility that really excites me! Encouraging people to read the Scriptures well, faithfully to the ancient meaning, yet attentive to contemporary application is fun and rewarding. To do it via TV and video with a professional crew, lighting, two cameras etc. is a dream (possibly) coming true! That it seems likely that they would be willing to either let me use the video or to make it accessible online, opens possibilities of it being useful in NZ as well.

So when, this morning under the monsoon rain, it became final that there were no students interested in 1 Samuel, the rest of today was spent preparing the first few sessions. This evening an email came to say that the studio is fully booked while I am in Colombo, but that there is a day free when we are meant to be at the beach. (Enjoying a few days rest before heading home, in a plush resort no less!)

Barbara understands how much this project means to me, so she is willing to curtail our restful time on the beach… so, currently the plan is to spend Mon 21st trying to record 12 sessions of 22 mins each. All before heading south in the middle of the afternoon… Please if you are the praying sort (as they say, but really – as they also say – “there are no atheists in foxholes”, in extremity prayer comes naturally to us all) please ask that somehow this may all work for the best!

Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)

On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

Inspiration and Incarnation

For the Introduction to the Old Testament I am teaching at APTS one of the set books students must read is:

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

I do not intend to do a thorough review of this book here, not least because one of the assessments asks the students to  review it ;) But I do want to venture a few comments, and may add more as I read further.

First some general remarks: The book is clearly and simply written, Enns has taken trouble to make the material accessible to beginners. Yet his topic is useful to students further on in their serious study of Scripture. It shows some signs of haste in production, alongside the times when I am delighted by how well Enns has expressed some idea there are many places where it seems to me his expression has been careless and a more careful editing (by Enns or by his editor(s) could have strengthened his delivery of his message. Overall the “delighted” sections well outnumber and outweigh the “I wish he’d taken more care” ones. This is a book that would have been ideal for a proper electronic edition that enabled readers to question such places and enabled Enns to edit and improve the text!

Among the places where I have been saying “Amen” and singing (in my heart for my voice is not up to the task) praise to God for what he is saying – which seems to me so far (I am at p.102/172) to do for big picture practical biblical hermeneutics what Duval and Hays1 for small scale practical hermeneutics – that is, codify and explain the sort of practice and understanding most/many trained Bible readers have been doing (sometimes unconsciously) for years in useful and clear ways that a beginner can access, or help a more experienced student to develop.

My takeaway gem so far:

[t]here is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things Just shouldn’t happen. And. if they do. they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research. and if you’re patient enough. you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others.however (including myself). such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is.rather. to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament. it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?2

Now there’s an important and potentially most productive question for everyone who desires to take the Bible seriously as Scripture. Especially it is a useful question for those of us in traditions that make the Bible the authority for faith and practice!

  1. J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word : A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI.: Zondervan, 2001 and in a shorter version: J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word : Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI: Zondervan, 2008. []
  2. Enns, 102. []