July 18, 2019

Wednesday with Michael Spencer: Gods Words and the Word

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
In which Michael cuts through the noise and makes a central point about the Bible.

I believe that confessional Christianity wisely focuses on the ultimate, final purpose of the Bible, and not on the mechanism used to achieve that result.

This is wise, because there will always be vast disagreement over the nature of the Biblical material, and what kind of books they are. This diversity of views has always been true, and will continue as the Bible is studied.

What must be noted, however, is that those who see, for example, the Gospels as exact reports of conversations and events, and those who see the Gospels as literary creations drawing portraits of Jesus for theological purposes, will both sit under the teaching of the Word, with open Bible and open hearts, listening for the Spirit to illuminate the Word so that Christ may be known, worshiped, obeyed and loved.

We may disagree on whether the Bible meant to tell us the age of the earth in scientific terms. We may disagree about dinosaurs on the ark. We may disagree over why there are two temple cleansings by Jesus at two different times in his ministry. We may disagree over whether there are multiple authors to Biblical books. We may disagree over whether all of Jesus’ exorcisms were demon possession rather than physical/mental conditions unknown at the time. We may disagree on these things and still say:

All we know about Salvation by grace through faith by Christ comes from the Bible. That is what I believe. I have a view on Genesis, and a view on Job and a view on the Gospels. My views are, as best I can understand it, in line with what I believe these books are, and what they were written to be. I want to understand these texts so I can clearly hear their message. But at the end of the process, I read the Bible as God’s Word to me about the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. I come to scripture to know Jesus, and to hear the Word of my salvation.

An Evangelical Takes Evangelicals to Task about Inspiration

An Evangelical Takes Evangelicals to Task about Inspiration

Today, let’s consider more from Craig D. Allert and his book, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. As we do, here are just a couple of reminders:

  • Craig Allert is an evangelical who teaches at an evangelical university, Trinity Western Seminary.
  • Here is his affirmation about scripture: “I affirm the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity, and as such I affirm that it is the final source for the believers’ faith and life.”
  • Nevertheless, Allert says this about evangelicalism and the Bible: “…we evangelicals have come close to deifying this collection of texts with little to no understanding of how they came to be collected into the Bible. Even when evangelical treatments of Scripture cover the issue of canonicity, this near deification of the Bible sets the agenda.”
  • In contrast, his position is this: “My position is that a high view of Scripture demands an understanding and integration of the Bible’s very formation. The Bible’s living authority in the life of believers is implicated in this formation because the Bible was formed and grew within the community of faith. This means that the Bible did not drop from heaven but was the result of historical and theological development.”

• • •

In his chapter, “Inspiration and Inerrancy,” Allert deals with some of the most important fundamental commitments of evangelicals regarding the Bible and questions the accepted narrative. For evangelicals, two concepts, “inspiration” and “inerrancy” are key. With regard to inspiration he writes, “Many have stated that the only criterion for the canonicity of the New Testament documents was inspiration, and that when the church recognized this inspiration, the New Testament canon was a done deal” (p. 147).

Allert is skeptical of this approach, noting that the idea of “inspiration” in the early church was broader than simply the inspiring of the sacred writings that became the canon of scripture. Knowing that evangelicals like himself will base their arguments ultimately on what the Bible says on the subject, Allert examines some of the most common texts regarding scripture and inspiration, making two extremely important points.

1. There is no “Bible” in the Bible.

2 Tim 3:15-17“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…”

Craig Allert convincingly makes the point that, first of all, “Scripture” here does not and cannot mean “the Bible,” for there was no “Bible” at the time these words were written. Nor does it refer to the Old Testament canon, for the church at this time had not yet inherited an OT that was complete as a single document. Certainly, the early church had “scriptures” or “sacred writings” that they looked to, but to posit that they had anything like what we know today as “the Bible” is anachronistic.

2. “Inspired by God” — your guess is as good as mine.

Secondly, Allert notes that the word theopnustos, translated as “inspired by God” or in some versions as “God-breathed,” is a hapax logomena — a word used only once in the New Testament, and possibly one that was even coined by the author of 2 Timothy himself.

If you break down the word etymologically, it yields “God-breathed,” but etymology is not determinative of meaning. For example, if I, a minister and hospice chaplain, carry a “briefcase,” it is unlikely that I am using it daily to transport legal documents to and from court. In 2 Timothy here, it is probable that the author is talking about the divine origin of scripture — yes, the sacred writings we have been exposed to come from God, he affirms — but to build any kind of detailed definition of “inspiration” from these words is a questionable enterprise.

Here is Allert’s conclusion.

When it comes to the issue of inspiration, the biblical data are surprisingly vague on a theory of inspiration. They certainly affirm that Scripture is inspired, but how that inspiration functions is not explained. When the biblical passages used to undergird verbal plenary inspiration are understood in light of the later formation of the canon, this should tend to correct some unwarranted presuppositions about what the Bible does and does not say; it also affects the related concept of inerrancy.

The presupposition that any reference to Scripture is to be understood as a reference to canon is foundational here. If we make this assumption, we actually end up questioning the canon that we employ today as God’s Word. As we have seen, the church fathers often refer to noncanonical documents as Scripture. If we were to make the assumption that Scripture equals canon, we would be forced to adopt a much wider canon than we acknowledge today. No evangelical that I am aware of would make this argument.

If we were to argue that the church fathers were wrong to claim scriptural status for these documents or that they belonged to the postapostolic (i.e., corrupt) church, we would be faced with a further difficulty. We would need to explain how the Bible can remain the pure and uncorrupted word when it was canonized in large part by supposedly corrupt church leaders in this church. How could the leaders in this church have been correct about what went into the canon but wrong about the scriptural status of other books? If we trust them for the canon, how can we distrust them on the issue of noncanonical documents? Our reliance on the Bible as our guide for faith and life certainly implies that we affirm that those who collected Scripture into the canon did so because they were led by the Spirit in the church.

There is nothing that necessitates understanding Paul’s appeals to Scripture as an appeal to a closed canon. There is little warrant for this anachronistic presupposition. The fluidity of the New Testament documents even into the fourth and fifth centuries should caution us about making broad claims concerning what the biblical data says about “canon.” The Bible does not speak of how the various documents came to be included into a canon. So when a claim is made that the definition of inspiration requires a “careful study of those biblical texts that speak of the formation of the canonical literature,” we see this presupposition at work. (p. 171)

How We Got the Bible: An Evangelical Scholar Speaks

We’ve talked about (and critiqued) the evangelical view of how we came to have the Bible. I want you to see a video today to show you that I have not given you a caricature of their position. As you watch this, please note how Prof. Grudem completely omits the human side of the process of the writing, editing, and compilation of the biblical books and the history of canonization. It’s a short step from this approach to “the Bible dropped from heaven” understanding of many laypeople in the churches.

This is almost a perfect representation of the “binder” mentality we talked about in our post about Craig Allert’s book.

Dr. Wayne Grudem was a professor at the seminary I attended while I was there. His view is essentially how I was taught throughout my evangelical education. Grudem since has become a leading voice in evangelical theology and is currently Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona.

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