September 15, 2019

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)

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    “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.”

    I agree with so much of what Allert has to say in this post, but when he makes the above affirmation, I can’t help but suspect that he is surrendering to the conservative and reactionary expectations of those for and with whom he works. Surely the final source for faith and life cannot be a document or text of any kind, but God himself, understood by Christians to be Jesus Christ. To locate that source in Scripture is to make the fatal mistake of confusing the identity of the witness to the Word of God with the Word of God himself. This is a mistake that Christianity has made again, and again, and again, down through the ages.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      I dunno, Robert. I trust a map to get me where I’m going, but I don’t want to set up camp on it once I get there.

      • Robert F says

        I don’t see how what you’re saying contradicts what I said in my comment, Mule. The map also can’t tell me everything I will find when I reach the destination, or along the way, for that matter. Only exploration and discovery will do that. I do believe that the Bible is a uniquely indispensable witness to the one who is the source of the church’s life and faith — this map is the one that leads to the destination of life in Christ — but the difference in wording makes a difference in understanding.

      • Robert F says

        Later in the post Allert says something more accurate for describing the place of the Bible in the church’s life, and aligns well with your analogy of a map: “Our reliance on the Bible as our guide for faith and life….” The Bible is a unique guide for the church’s faith and life, not its source; furthermore, it is the guide the church by hisotical consensus has agreed to use in worship and for study, and as such is a unifying text, an ecumenical text, important for the unity of church.

        • That way lies ambiguity. And people don’t like ambiguity. Inerrancy and verbal plenary inspiration may be logically contorted and intellectually restrictive… but at least there’s no ambiguity. That’s God’s very Word, right there in that book.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Yep.

            Inerrancy, does not eliminate ambiguity; it permits one to place one’s cultural biases on an pedestal of divine authority. Sadly.

            • It does eliminate ambiguity about the source material. Of course, there is no ambiguity about one’s own ability to utilize it. 😛

          • –> “Inerrancy and verbal plenary inspiration may be logically contorted and intellectually restrictive…”

            Yeah, that’s the thing that gets me about people who’ve gone all-in with inerrancy. By doing so, they’ve almost literally boxed themselves into a theological corner that won’t allow for any new learning or ideas, and they’ve pretty much boxed God into that corner with them. The Bible and God are so much bigger than “inerrancy.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I’ve noticed Judaism is a LOT more comfortable with ambiguity.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          “””it is the guide the church by hisotical consensus has agreed to use in worship and for study, and as such is a unifying text, an ecumenical text, important for the unity of church.”””

          The definition works for me. But I do not require precision – and whatever “God Breathed” means Scripture does not provide precision in any case.

    • Robert, if you told most evangelicals that Jesus Christ is our final source for faith and life, I doubt you would get much argument. But where do you go to learn what Jesus taught? You go to the New Testament. And that is why people say things like “the Bible is the final source”. We believe that the Bible is the final source because we believe that God, through the use of human writers, is ultimately the author. If an employer had his secretary write a note about a job he wanted an employee to do, the employee would look to the note as his source for knowing what to do, but the note only has authority, because ultimately it came from the employer. Now if you take away the inspiration of Scripture, if you say that God isn’t ultimately the author or in some way involved in those writings, then yeah it doesn’t make sense to look to the Bible as the final source for faith and life.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        “””if you say that God isn’t ultimately the author or in some way involved in those writings”””

        However, nobody is saying that.

        I am in agreement with your employer note analogy – – – except that you dropped the use of “final” in that parable, and then put it back for the last sentence: “look to the Bible as the final source for faith”. That breaks the parable.

        The employer doesn’t have an employee to obey his notes, he has the employee because the employee has value surpassing his wage. The note is not “final” in any meaningful way. The employee will interpret the note, do something – maybe even, rightfully, not what the note says ‘literally’ – and create value in what they bring, as a person, to the action of the command.

        The note is Authoritative, because of the Employer, and in the context of the Employee’s value.

        As an Employee I have ‘disobeyed’ my Employer on many occasions. Because I know my Employer, and I can see the Intent of the directive so I pursued satisfaction of that intent over the command – – – especially true when a directive stands in contrast to other directives from the same employer. Doing so does not diminish the authority of my employer, it recognizes it.

        • “Nobody is saying that”. While most wouldn’t deny any inspiration, plenty water it down so much that it is meaningless and allows them to determine what is really inspired and what is not.

          • Robert F says

            The whole Bible may be inspired, but it is not all inspired in the same way, and it is not all equally inspired. You can tell that’s true because, whatever they may say, nobody, but nobody treats all of the Scriptural texts as if they are all equally inspired, or inspired in the same way. Everybody “waters it down”, even those who pay lip service to biblical infallibility/inerrancy

        • –> “…then put it back for the last sentence: ‘look to the Bible as the final source for faith’. That breaks the parable.”

          Ah, semantics. Gotta love the English language.

          How about “best” source? How about “most trustworthy” source or “most reliable”?

          • I like all those, as well as primary source. For me it comes down to this; if someone makes a claim about God, or says that God commands us to do something, I want to see it backed up by Scripture. Of course we may not agree about interpretation, but Scripture is at least the starting point we go back to

            • Adam Tauno Williams says

              I like primary, or my favorite: “central”.

              > if someone makes a claim about God, or says that God commands us to
              > do something, I want to see it backed up by Scripture

              Works for me. [semantics again, I would prefer “sourced from” than “backed up by; the Scripture-is-my-backup turns into Scripture-is-my-cudgel too easily in my experience].

              The fallout of this however is saying much LESS about God and what he commands. Because a lot of stuff just isn’t really there.

            • Yep. Using your employee analogy, it’s the difference between the person at the water cooler saying, “I heard secondhand what boss said,” compared with the note the boss’ assistant handed you. Secondhand news MIGHT be right… but best to compare it with something more reliable and trustworthy.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > Gotta love the English language.

            It is truly a mess.

            • A glorious mess. The pure logical languages are the ones who die out the fastest.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              Biggest vocabulary, most irregular spellings and grammar, and fastest mutation rate of any human language. Typical of a language that started out as a fusion of trade pidgins from two or three separate roots and grew by itself from there. The upside to this is its extreme flexibility and ease of coining new words and names.

  2. Burro (Mule) says

    I can think of no concept more damaging to any understanding of Christian continuity than the idea of the “corrupt” immediate post-apostolic church. It shames me that I swallowed it for the better part of my life, even to the point of nodding in agreement when a well-fed, comfortable Baptist minister told me that my admiration for Saint Patrick was well-placed because of the rigor of his missionary labors, but that he “didn’t have a saving Gospel to preach by that time, or a Bible to preach it from.”

    Imagine my surprise when I started reading Basil, Athanasius, and Gregory I and found that I was the one who didn’t have a saving gospel, and that yes, they most certainly had a Bible, but theirs was all fire.

    • It’s not that the post-apostolic church was “corrupt” it’s that the early church was very diverse in its views, right from the start. The NT is full of arguments. The traditions of the church were defined by arguments.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The early church had a LOT of Jewish influence, and arguments and differing perspectives are part of Jewish theology.
        Ever heard of the expression “Two Jews, Three Opinions”?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I can think of no concept more damaging to any understanding of Christian continuity than the idea of the “corrupt” immediate post-apostolic church.

      But necessary for the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Landmark Baptists, Calvary Chapels, and every Reverend Apostle Joe Soap restring the One True New Testament Church. All must have that same view of church history (going off the rails into Satanic Apostasy almost immediately and staying in Romish Popery until OUR ONE TRUE CHURCH finally got back to the Way it Was in the Days of the Apostles. (Any similarity to Wahabi restoring Islam As It Was In The Days of The Prophet is NOT coincidental.)

      It is necessary to de-legitimize all the other churches out there.

  3. Burro (Mule) says

    The passage in John 20 where Christ breathes on the apostles and says “receive the Holy Spirit’ has always seemed to me unduly obscure and unremarked upon. I think it is more significant than the Church has historically emphasized, and certainly more significant than the ‘theopneustos’ passage in 2 Timothy. Here, as it were, is some real theopneusis.

    My wife is a Hispanic Pentecostal. She carries her Bible everywhere. It is kind of a badge of honor with them, like saying ‘I read and believe the Bible’ The practice has always kind of irked me, especially now that I have my Bible on my phone. Catholics don’t do this so it is one way they distinguish themselves from the unregenerate ur-rabble of Catholics in their countries. When I commented that a printed Bible you could lug around with you was a very recent development and was not an option for even the most fervent Catholic until the last 400 year’s or so. She asked me what people did before they had their own Bibles. ‘What the priest told them to’ I replied. ‘But that’s just what we complain about with Catholics.’

    • That might also have been a factor in drawing people to worship services. If you wanted to hear the Bible… That was pretty much your only venue to hear it.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        +1 Informational Poverty.

        How does this circumstance change in the context of Informational Flooding? I have any version of the Bible, and every notable teacher of the Bible, available to me 24/7/365. It is interesting to look at rates of church attendance in light of who lives in the context of Informational Flooding [as not everyone does – it has a $$$ cost].

        A reason the modern church service is so unappealing to many? Why listen to That Guy talk for ~30 minutes? One either needs to provide a reason, have That Guy be amazing [very hard], or do something else for that ~30 minutes.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “”” but etymology is not determinative of meaning “”””

    THANK YOU!
    THANK YOU!
    THANK YOU!

    So often Theological Types treat language like a kind of machine code – if people know what “assembler” means – that can be decompiled and recompiled to the exact same effect.

    Or somehow, right along with Scripture, that Miriam Webster [or Strongs!] is also “God Breathed”. As if we can always assume that any writer is using all terms in the exact denotation as specified in the big book [and connotation is for Liberals!]

    So many, see word, cite definition, BOOM-Mic-Drop, conversations.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So often Theological Types treat language like a kind of machine code – if people know what “assembler” means – that can be decompiled and recompiled to the exact same effect.

      Don’t forget looking for back doors and cheat codes.

  5. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “””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.”””

    Perhaps they were simultaneously corrupt and wise? It happens, humans are confounding creatures. 🙂

    And when were the non-corrupt church elders? Peter? Yeah, no critique of him is possible….

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “Perhaps they were simultaneously corrupt and wise?”

      Aren’t we all? Isn’t that a primary theme of the entirety of scripture? Just read the headings sprinkled throughout Isaiah.

      A Rebellious Nation. The Mountain of the Lord. Judgment on Jerusalem and Judah. Assyria, the Lord’s Instrument. The Lord’s Anger Against Israel. God’s Judgment on Assyria. The Remnant of Israel. A Prophecy Against X, Y and Z Nations. The Lord’s Devastation of the Earth. Praise to the Lord. Deliverance of Israel. Woe to Ephraim. Woe to David’s City. Woe to an Obstinate Nation. Woe to Those Who Rely on Egypt. Joy of the Redeemed. Jerusalem’s Deliverance Foretold. Comfort for God’s People. The Helper of Israel. Israel Blind and Deaf. Israel’s Only Savior. God’s Mercy and Israel’s Unfaithfulness. Israel the Chosen. Jerusalem to be Inhabited. Stubborn Israel. Israel Freed. Restoration of Israel. Israel’s Sin and the Servant’s Obedience. Everlasting Salvation for Zion. The Cup of the Lord’s Wrath. The Future Glory of Zion. Invitation to the Thirsty. Salvation for Others. Comfort for the Contrite. Sin, Confession and Redemption. The Glory of Zion. The Year of the Lord’s Favor. God’s Day of Vengeance and Redemption. Judgment and Salvation. Judgment and Hope.

      It’s a train wreck, I tell ya! And we’re all a train wreck!!!

  6. Actually “the only criterion for the canonicity of the New Testament documents” was apostolic authority. They needed to be traced back to the witness of the apostles. This is why the anonymous gospels were given titles and the later documents and letters were ascribed to authoritative witnesses of earlier generations.

    Saying “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” is question begging at its most blatant.

    • Christiane says

      Stephen, I always wanted to know why fundamentalist-evangelicals ACCEPTED the canon of the early Church for the New Testament books..
      I never understood any of their explanations, which still don’t seem to make sense to me.

  7. Christiane says

    “the Bible was formed and grew within the community of faith. This means that the Bible did not drop from heaven”

    fundamentalist-evangelicals need to ponder this, especially when , in the world of ‘inerrancy’, the powerful and the famous who interpret for them what ‘the Bible clearly says’ may be doing it OUTSIDE of the community of faith, in that strange atmosphere where CELEBRITY pastors and theologians are held up as ‘authoritative’.

    Goodness, even in Catholicism with all of its Papal and Hierarchist trappings, there is still a recognition of the principle of ‘collegiality’ among the bishops wherein the Holy Spirit is hoped to have influence over the gathering whose prayers open themselves to His inspiration . . . . . . this is seen in the collegial voting that elects a pope when the cardinals gather for this purpose and are sealed in privacy whilst they deliberate and vote until someone is chosen as a result, hopefully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit

  8. Dana Ames says

    This discussion of canonicity is all well and good, but still leaves out the interpretive piece. Will Allert say something about that in the book? The post-Apostolic Christian writers – those who were recognizably within the mainstream of Christian thought, not Gnostics or others who admired Christianity but were not disposed to becoming Christians – had a consensus about the meaning of who Jesus is and what he was up to, and that surely was part of the recognition of which writings had “apostolic authority.”

    To Jon’s parable above, if the secretary were unclear about the meaning of the directions in the employer’s note, but the employer were unavailable/away from the business, it would make sense for the secretary to seek clarification from the Department Heads, others who know the employer, the employer’s intent, and how the employer works. (I’m not talking about a setup like the Catholic Magisterium or simply any old hierarchical system. All analogies break down eventually…)

    Not just “authority” – interpretation, my friends, interpretation.

    Dana

    • Rick Ro. says

      Good additional thoughts to the “boss/employee” analogy, Dana.

      Oh, boy… my mind is really going now. “The boss’ note says, ‘If your enemy asks for your coat, give them your shirt, too.’ Do you think he REALLY means that?!”

      • Christiane says

        “Oh, boy… my mind is really going now. “The boss’ note says, ‘If your enemy asks for your coat, give them your shirt, too.’ Do you think he REALLY means that?!””

        Yep.

        and if a little refugee child who cannot talk is suffering and cries for need of a bath and diapers and clean clothes, it might be good to remember that Our Lord spoke for the little one’s sake, too;
        even though Trump says the baby’s parents are villains who deserve to lose their children and to be herded into concentration camps.

        I think if we are helping those we perceive to be our ‘enemies’, then we are capable of calling ourselves ‘Christian’ because ‘even the gentiles help their own’. . . . . . but today that term ‘Christian’ when you say it publicly, people don’t think of Christ anymore, they think of someone else, someone who spreads lies and fear and has policies that wound innocent people badly. The witness has been damaged. But people have chosen their ‘master’. And little children are suffering in the ‘master’s’ camps. And ‘the master’ wants his ‘base’ to know this so they will keep him in power.

        strange new world we live in where the ones who blindly follow their human ‘master’ also claim so stridently that ‘the Bible plainly says’ . . . . ‘suffer’ the little children

        (?)

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          The False Prophet is always the drooling flunky of The Beast.
          “Who is like unto The Beast? Who can stand against Him?”

  9. senecagriggs says

    For a closer look – not so lovingly as Chaplain Mike;

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2007/06/response-to-craig-allerts-recent-book.html

    Allert isn’t home free – by any means

  10. senecagriggs says

    Another take found on “sharperiron.”

    While attempting to remain clothed in Evangelical garb, Allert reveals himself to be the progeny of a long line of men who have set their sights on the view that Scripture is a supernatural revelation of God Himself. This is not a “high view of Scripture” as the title promises. He would have us drop verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy as defining characteristics of evangelical Christianity and ultimately swallow a sugar-coated modernism in its place.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Verbal plenary inspiration (AKA “Just like Automatic Writing, Except Christian!”) and Inerrancy have their problems. Serious problems (including ease of weaponization). I spent a couple years on the receiving end of them in the Seventies.

      All too often Scripture(TM) seemed predigested into a simplistic word-for-word Party Line of buzzwords.
      “Effective Propaganda consists of Simplification and Repetition.”

  11. senecagriggs says

    My final thoughts:

    There is a theological process for all kinds of churches and denominations. Allert’s book is going to enter into the Evangelical theological process.

    A) Allert offers a different perspective as a “Evangelical”
    B) Other Evangelicals are going to thoughtfully munch on Allert’s offering for the next couple of years.
    C) There will be arguments and counter arguments.
    D) It will go back and forth for awhile.

    Conclusions will be reached that Allert’s thesis is within Evangelical thought or it will be rejected.

    If it is rejected, Allerts will leave Evangelicalism and find another home or become a “none.”

    • Seneca, Allert’s book is 12 years old now. He’s still going strong. And many evangelicals have benefited from his honest historical work. Alas, the vast majority still continue on with their deification of scripture and have little or no clue about how we really got the Bible.

      • OOPS!! Gotta hate it when one’s beautiful theory is mugged by a brutal gang of facts..

        • Rick Ro. says

          Even funnier…
          The blog post Seneca pointed us toward was posted back in 2007. Double OOPS!!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Facts?
          You mean FAKE NEWS(TM)?

          Eagle refers to today’s political rhetoric as being a “post-truth era” and Christians have gotten too mixed up in that kind of politics; it’s rubbing off on them.

  12. senecagriggs says

    But I’m seeing current stuff – it’s ain’t over yet C.M.

    • All I’m saying is that Allert continues to teach at an evangelical institution and is in good standing. Though you suggested in your earlier post that the “evangelical community” will somehow sift out wheat from chaff, there really is no one “evangelical community” to do that. The spectrum is so broad that Allert may receive some criticism from the hardline conservative inerrantists who tend to play watchdog on anything outside the usual talking points. Most won’t even be aware of him. Or care.

      • I noticed that there wasn’t a single comment at the blog post Seneca directed us to.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          Triablogue is not well known for discussions. They speak, you listen.

          • senecagriggs says

            True –

          • Robert F says

            You say that as if you think it’s a bad thing, yet you pine for the days when the laity had no copy of the Bible of their own to read (even if they were not illiterate), and had no choice but to believe and do “‘What the priest told them to’” …

            • Dana Ames says

              I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Mule say that he pines for those days, Robert. In order to have a discussion, there has to be careful reading (in this medium).

              Fact is, in the Eastern Church, if you were literate – and a lot more people were in the east than the west – and you were able to obtain even part of Scripture as a book (i.e. the Psalms or a NT or one Gospel), you were expected to read it.

              Dana

          • I viewed it more as, “They speak, nobody listens.”

  13. I noticed that there wasn’t a single comment at the blog post Seneca directed us to.

  14. senecagriggs says

    I wrongly thought it was published 2014