November 30, 2020

Can I Have My Bible Back?

twobible.jpgJoel Hunter wrote this absolutely outstanding piece about the Bible and propositional, positivist versions of truth. I believe IM readers will resonate with much of what he is saying, and it’s said well.

The post was prompted by this post from Dr. Lawson Stone on “Hindenberg Theology,” (continued here), and is indebted to Calvin Seerveld’s Rainbows For The Fallen World. Joel welcomes your comments here at IM in the comments threads.

The Bible is unlike any other book, be it history, science, poetry, devotional, or confessional, in that it sets us in the Truth by God’s speaking intimately to us in the same way that he directed Adam and Eve, Moses, Isaiah and Daniel. Only in the Bible is God telling it like it is and is to be. It proclaims the way that we are to walk into the light of life. So the first problem with wearing the positivist spectacles of so-called “propositional revelation” and unbaptised theoretical postures is that they stop up our ears from hearing our Father’s voice speaking.

Positivist theories of knowledge and truth are unchristian and should not be yoked to Holy Scripture. If the Bible is God-speaking literature (and I believe that it is, in accord with WCF 1 and Belgic 5-7), then it is not just a record or a communication to be intellectually apprehended. Rather, it is a historically proclaiming, two-edged sword in the hands of the Holy Spirit that cuts us into the wisdom of God or estranges us further from our Creator. It is written for our obedient, Spirit-directed faith-response and to be heard with childlike ears.

So the Bible is unequivocally a true story of what’s going on. Here’s how Seerveld describes that one true story:

the faithful convenanting Yahweh is gradually unfolding his Reign historically upon the earth, our rich, sin-plagued creation, by his providing, reconciling Word fully revealed and focused in the birth, death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ, whose adopted body of believers, and creatures at large, are being used to bring about the magnalia Dei until He return to be completely glorified.


not a narrated exodus from creation to salvation of starkly disembodied individuals (??) [but] re-creation: God’s reconciling the world back to Himself through Jesus Christ, calling to Himself a peoplehood as the body of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Called to the task of recreating reconciliation, the body of Christ is to move all things, prayer and politics, labour, arts, sciences, sex relations, daily life and church worship, all under the leading power of the Holy Spirit towards a saved normality.

Next we may ask: how does it tell this story? Literarily: historiographic books, festive recitations, lyric poetry, visions and dreams, eye-witness journals, discursive letters. The whole of these rainbow-fashioned ways of proclaiming God’s Good News, down to their very details, are given for our paideia, our cultivating and nurturing training in the kingdom come and coming of the Triune God. To grasp the unique kind of literature that God has placed in our hands we believing children must take hold of its true-story primacy. Before we bring our analytical instruments for determining lexical and contextual meaning, before we fix on a method of Bible-reading, there must be the humble, expectant, trusting reception of the richly variegated yet integrated true story of God’s saving presence on earth.

The Bible is not a collection of shards of supernatural information waiting to be archeologically exposed, arranged and displayed. It is not a collection of atomically reducible bulletized proof-texts (whose main function then becomes ammunition with which to shoot people). Too often it is read literalistically until one gets stuck and then opts for the inferior second-choice figurative mode.

If the Bible is written God-speaking literature, then we have to read it literarily to understand its wisdom-making knowledge for faithful childlike people. Without its aesthetic dimension, its literary character decisively governing our reading, the Bible is easily trivialized and denatured into a privatized sandwich-board of spiritualized truisms.

So I want the contrast to be very clear between these two ways of receiving, hearing and thinking about the Bible: the inscripturated true story of what God is actually doing in the world versus propositional revelation. The latter way yokes the Bible irrevocably to positivist notions of knowledge and truth.

We may define “propositions” as “analytically informative statements”. What one gains by this biblical hermeneutic is the authoritative presence of scientific protocol statements of sense-facts. The “propositions” dictated by God to human receptors of those “propositions” is the only conduit for reliable and certain knowledge. This view of the Bible displays admirable zeal to rectify liberal heterodoxy and re-dignify God’s Word. During a time of heterodox proclamations emanating from historicism and irrationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, it seemed a safe maneuver for conservative scholars to seize upon the paradigm of positive, scientific fact knowledge and to set about harmonizing and codifying the Bible as analytically informative statements between two covers. But this pharmakon is a medication that also poisons, for it censures the narrative veracity of the Bible and misunderstands the unique nature of faith knowledge.

We do not have to swallow the positivism pill in order to reaffirm the fact that the Bible gives knowable, communicable directives and that it quite simply means what it says. If we begin from a standpoint of scientificity according to the dicta of positivism, then we are also taking up arms against the confessional statements of the Scriptures in which we humbly receive it, “believing without any doubt all things contained in them”. To keep little ones from stumbling we must affirm that factual knowledge is present in the Bible literarily, not scientifically, and that it attests to that by the way in which it communicates its knowledge to us. The Spirit convicts us in our hearts, imparting faith knowledge. This is about as far as you can get from “propositions” corresponding to sense-verifiable facts.

If we weld Scripture to the positivist Alamo-stand on knowledge-by-propositions, then the Bible is reduced to an apologetic text of doctrines. Of course it is completely legitimate to analytically x-ray Scripture to systematically lay out doctrines and theological dogmas. But surely the Bible is more than the skeletal innards that we can distill with our analytical tools. It is precisely the aesthetic flesh on the doctrinal bones that is the living literary Word that convicts men and women in their hearts by Spirit-led story of repentance, changes lifestyles, sets our consciousnesses on the Lord’s ordinances, and grows in us knowledge for walking around doxologically in the world.

This makes all the difference in the world for the church. Propositional revelation spells trouble for it takes the heartfelt convicted knowledge of Christ the Lord and the great acts of our covenanting God as marvelous, praiseworthy and celebratory deeds, and replaces it with submissive intellectual assent to authoritative teachings. Instead of preaching being an amazing “Fear not!” announcement of glad tidings woven throughout the older and newer testaments, it becomes academic lecturing. Because it is humanly impossible to wholly eliminate the aesthetic dimension from worship, the hymns and special music provide the back-door individualized sentimental spasm tacked onto the “means of grace”.

And what depressing exercises when propositional revelation dominates theological discussion. Competing sense-verifiable facts inject uncertainty and tension into discussions of Genesis because we have to make sure what can and cannot be maintained against secular biology, geology and astrophysics. By contrast, how very relaxing it would be if we stopped the word play and immersed ourselves within the paragraphs, chapters and whole books to “prove” creation. Instead of declaring by fiat one’s insight into the divine meta-language, or self-confirming one’s method by bad-faith process of elimination, why not turn to the Psalms and Job to understand the Genesis creation?

The consequence of propositional revelation for Bible reading is that the book becomes a bone of contention in God-talk disputations. Gone from our hermeneutics is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while we waste our time in scholastic pursuits like determining the ipsissima verba of Jesus. It is the yoking of Scripture to an unchristian positivist theory of knowledge and truth that substantiates the charge of bibliolatry. If we search and use the scriptures to reinforce our jots and tittles then our myopia will be too all-consuming for us to point others toward the Lord’s rule.


  1. After seeing the word “positivist” in Joel’s post I started having flashbacks of The New Testament and the People of God.

  2. “It is the yoking of Scripture to an unchristian positivist theory of knowledge and truth that substantiates the charge of bibliolatry.”

    holy cow good stuff. i was raised in bible-worship circles… and i mean circles of christians who were ready to bow down and worship the bible.

    anyway, a hint of András Visky here (read a great interview with him featured at The New Pantagruel, delicious stuff).

    unfortunately, when you start backing away from the magic book christians they start accusing you of denying the scriptures and so on. it can be really disheartening. reading this, on the other hand, was very encouraging.

    as ever, monk, encouraging stuff. thanks.

  3. Hello, Joel. I read Dr. Stone’s 2 Hindenburg posts (or the Hindenburg post and the Goodyear blimp post). I also just read your post.

    I found all three excellent food for reflection, particularly personal reflection. How do I approach faith? And what do I seek to find in scripture: doctrine or God? How does God speak through his word?.

    I’ll try to state a basic underlying theme of the three with this summary “Biblical faith is a journey of restored relationship with the living God who divinely disclosed in his word the history of his restoration of fallen humanity through Jesus Christ, his son. Biblical faith is not reducible to a doctrinal system of propositions”. I hope that’s fair.

    Now here is what I’m pondering:

    The way I just put things may have its flaws (people could sharpen that statement or add something big that I have overlooked), but would we really find Christians who disagree? Here’s what I’m getting at. There is a big divide in contemporary Christian circles (at least of the evangelical variety): Some are saying: “Scripture has been falsely reduced to doctrine, we need get over that and recover the true purpose of God’s word.” Others are saying “we are slipping in our doctrine, we need to retrench and firm up our doctrine–let’s look to what scripture teaches”. The two camps seems to be getting in each other’s faces . . .

    But I wonder if we don’t actually have a disagreement fuelled by temperament and reaction more than of substance. Most of the people I know who are very staunch in asserting doctrine and speaking the language of propositions also “get” the fact that God’s revelation in scripture goes way beyond the propositional. They know that God is all about living, breathing relationships with him. Temperamentally, they may emphasize the doctrinal content of scripture, but in their personal lives, they know that they scripture is about relationship.

    Then there are the Christian people I know who emphasize relationship. But most of them actually would affirm the importance of doctrinal content, too.

    But it seems like these two camps can’t talk to each other, although in their lives, they end up affirming both the living breathing nature of faith as walking with a God who is making a new creation and they both affirm that Christianity is a faith that has some propositional content (even in an Elightenment sense of proposition, although both would be quick to say how scripture goes far beyond that.)

    So I guess I wonder what you think about this? (The idea that there is the appearance of two camps, but that it might be an issue of not being able to communicate with each other). Even the most doctrinally oriented people I know constantly are talking about the need to live the faith.

    So I guess what I’m wondering is: is there really a true divide here? Is it perhaps a failure to communicate? I don’t know. I’d be interested in in hearing your thoughts on this.

  4. David, you make some great observations and ask a good set of questions. Let me respond by way of cherry-picking a few of your remarks for reaction:

    “a disagreement fuelled by temperament and reaction more than of substance.”

    I think you’re right about this. I think it is one of God’s gifts to the church that he has raised up believers with specialized technical skills for what I called the x-ray of Scripture to penetrate to the doctrinal backbone by analysis of linguistic, historical and formal considerations. This is a great service to the body of Christ, a diaconal task, and it is right to thank God for it. But that backbone, if it is the spine of the living Word and not a corpse, must remain supple. By that I mean that one’s reading and hearing of Scripture cannot be by x-ray alone, it must be put to cultivating use as we trustingly hear our Father’s voice speaking to us as His children. These are not mutually exclusive ways of handling the Bible (but they can be if we yoke faith knowledge to unchristian theories). We should have a Holy-Spirited sense that our faith knowledge cannot be found in the Bible scientifically (inductively, deductively, empirically, rationally, or what have you) even though the scientific attitude can serve as a heuristic tool (parsing, cross-referencing, cracking tough conceptual translation nuts, etc.) for devoted theological training.

    So I agree with you that as Holy Spirit-indwelled people, such technical specialists will thirst for the living Word to work upon their ways of life, consciousness, and grace-growing. And it shouldn’t take much communion with the saints for them to realize that their technical interests are a gifted speciality (much like artists) that not very many in the body share nor understand. But the body should be ready to receive their insights (again, as it should the artists’) with gratitude as part of God’s providing care for his covenanted people. The challenge for the “doctrinally-oriented people” is to take their sense of “applying” or living out their knowledge beyond easily-jettisoned platitudes and mere vague unease with intellectuality. That’s what this post was mainly about: pointing out that God-speaking Scripture has a particular character that I am calling literality (or we might say “literatureness”) and that of all the other ways that we could read Scripture, they should be submissive to the way the Bible actually communicates. And it does not lecture or preferentially punch out propositions in third person present indicative.

    Wow, this comment has become an essay unto itself! Let me just make some remarks about the other people “who emphasize relationship.” I am not a big fan of the word ‘relationship’. It is an abstraction of a concretely real, living, directed, reconciling activity and involvement of the Lord God Yahweh in which we are caught up in the story of His mighty works on earth and heaven. Even when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, would we characterize the heart-rending nitty-gritty value-subverting loving fellowship between Jesus and his disciples as “relationships?” It’s just such an arid, disembodied term that I cannot find a use for it. “Communion,” “fellowship,” “intercourse,” paraklesis; these strike me biblically.

    Is there a failure to communicate? Undoubtedly, for subtle sin can pervert intentions and grow cataracts over our biblical eyesight. But the Bible is an equal-opportunity gospel proclamation that requires childlike ears to hear. No dazzling feats of intellectual dexterity nor sincerest squishy sentimentality can withstand the Spirit-wielding sword that is an instrument for our healing and restoration, to God, to one another, and to neighbor.

  5. Thanks very much for a great article (even though I could just barely understand it… should have taken more philosiphy classes I guess…)

    Would this be a good example of what you’re talking about? (I think it is at least an example of “Hindenburg” theology)

    I find it disturbing and I’ve been trying for some time to figure out why… I haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts in words. I think you’ve at least pointed me in the right direction. Thanks.

  6. Joel: I like the word “relationship.” Maybe because it includes all the facets in which God and I relate: Father-son, Teacher-student, Master-slave, Fixer-fixee, etc. The word may not be specific enough, but God and I aren’t limited to only one… relationship. Sorry, can’t get away from it. Plus there’s facets to it that I haven’t recognized yet, and even so, God’s upholding His part. I don’t see it as abstract. If anything, I find the bibolaters see it as an abstract when they aren’t trying to reduce it to formulas of “I do this, hence God must do that.”

    iMonk: I’d also like to toss this in: Ever notice how seldom the people who reduce the bible to bullet points ever actually read the bible? It seems they’re more familiar with Nave’s than King James (not that it would do any good; because they don’t understand the KJV’s vocabulary, they’re preaching the dictionary half the time anyway). I find these folks are regularly startled when I refer to context; and what’s worse, I catch them preaching from the same misappropriated text later, as if my pointing out context was only a minor interruption!

    Great article. Keep posting ’em.

  7. joel hunter says

    Yes, db, I think the linked site is an example of how positivism reduces the Bible to an apologetic text. If you were to visit the site wondering “How are we to proclaim God’s revelation?” the answer you get is: according to the dogmatic principle of “rational presuppositionalism.”

    And I can’t resist making one other observation and I hope this doesn’t come across as a gratuitous shot: I think their web site is easily the most aesthetically sterile I’ve ever seen. No people. No pictures of places or things. VERY small font size. I know the title claims “church,” but there aren’t a whole lot of visible clues of it. Perhaps their site is under construction, I don’t know. But I’m not surprised that the primacy of the Bible as God-speaking literature is lost in such an aesthetically stunted production.

  8. joel hunter says

    Ah, I hear you K.W. I had in mind human rela… er, fellowship. Philippians 2:1-11. But considering our, okay, *relationship* with God, we have to reconsider that flesh-and-blood, embodied presence that we take for granted with one another. And yet, He took on the form of a servant and dwelt among us: Immanuel. And yet again, if we do to the least of these, we have done to him. In and through Christ we enjoy the communion, fellowship, intercourse, paraklesis with God himself. That’s pride-crushing reality.

    He makes his dwelling with us. We are grafted into his covenanted working promise to Abraham as he has set about reconciling the world to himself. He *joins* us to himself. “Thou my great Father, I Thy true son; Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.”

  9. Joel –

    Great points, though I think your earlier comments were required to alleviate certain fears about exactly where you were taking this thing.

    Chesterton once said that the role of the Church in any particular time is to stand against that time’s particular heresies. In a culture where every imagined heresy seems to be given equal merit, thanks for fighting the insanities which it isn’t particularly popular for Christians to fight.

  10. I loved this bit from the Westminser RC paper…

    “But believers still have sin and have to contend with the noetic effects of sin in themselves. Believers have to struggle to avoid being taking captive by prevailing unbelief in the culture in which they live. But by recognizing the need for the renewal of oneÂ’s mind, by benefiting from the understanding already achieved in historic Christianity, and by engaging with the remaining internal and external challenges to the faith, believers can come to a mature understanding of the clarity of general revelation.”

    Wesleyans have “moral perfectionism”, and evidently the TR’s have “doctrinal perfectionism”. Why one is worse than the other, I’ll leave to you to judge…

  11. I found Joel’s post very rich and thoughtful. I affirm that a good bit of propositional truth is presented in the scriptures–which I sense he would not reject–but I also appreciate so much his stress on coming to scripture to be formed. Being “in” formed by facts, propositions, etc. is a vital part of formation, but at the same time separating those propositions from the formational work of the spirit risks separting God’s truth from God’s reality, presence, and work. Joel clearly doesn’t want that, and I’m happy to hear it affirmed as he does. Since the note indicates his post was in some way inspired by mine, I sincerely hope he found me helpful and not injurious!

  12. joel hunter says

    Thanks, Dr. Stone. You got right to the heart of the matter. Your Hindenburg illustration described so well the problem I’ve been trying to articulate for many years (unsuccessfully). I think it is the *fragility* of such a daring and imposing structure that has always struck me about a faith that relies so heavily on systematicity. You used the word “brittle”–that’s it.

    BTW, I had the pleasure of sitting next to your colleague Dr. Hunter on the short plane hop from Cincinnati to Lexington a few years ago. We had a very pleasant conversation about genealogy and philosophy.

  13. Interesting. You know this whole “hindenburg” vs. “Goodyear Blimp/Memphis Belle” thing started ‘way back in 1987 when I first started teaching at Asbury. I expected my students to freak out over things like the authorship of the Pentateuch, but they barely cared. But when I gave my archaeology lecture and commented on the neolithic era a student shot up his hand and challenged me that the earth was no more than 10,000 years old, so how could neolithic Jericho’s walls be much older? I was FLOORED–so much had changed in the scant 5 years I’d been in graduate school. That’s when I began to notice this macho all-or-nothing approach in certain students and coined the metaphors of the Hindenburg and Goodyear Blimp, and hemophilia. I’m happy to have the chance to talk across the fence with my reformed friends, too.

  14. The last two chapters of D.A. Carson’s “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church” are the best that I have seen on this issue. He concludes by saying, “Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.” I don’t believe propositional truth is so easily separated from other things, at least not to the degree that so many have claimed. Think of the Nicene Creed: is it a story, or is it a collection of propositions? I think the best answer is “Yes.”

  15. As a life-long literature student, I have no quarrel with the poetic and genre characterizations. However…

    I read recently that various Church Councils convened in response to particular heresies, and that dogma should be read in that context. In that way, perhaps much of the literalist clinging to propositional truth has been triggered by antinomian trickles-into-waves in the teaching and mores of those who take the Bible as genre and poetry and as a means to pretty much adapting the Law to their own liking. It takes considerable social confidence and intellectual astuteness to meet this on its own terms, without proof-texting.

    Of course, reading Scripture as poetry could produce pious, observant, deeply compassionate virtuous self-sacrificers, irenic toward their literalist brothers, constraining their own liberty for the sake of the weak. For the most part, it hasn’t.

    A little more generous-to-the-unwashed good-faith narrative might produce a lot less desperate literalism.

  16. ah, I’m having difficulty following you. I’m not sure how to connect the dots between my post (couched as a plea for hermeneutical reform) on what I understand the Bible to be and your points about the Law (antinomianism, Christian liberty). My concern is that if the Bible is not heard the way God actually speaks through it, we end up in a tyranny of bad choices, either logicistic or sensationalistic restrictions which shuck the truth-bearing aesthetic dimension. It is this *dimension* (not reducible to a particular genre) that I think is worth reclaiming.

    One example I would point to where this makes an obvious difference is Proverbs. If we begin with the commitment (methodologically) that this book *as a whole* is an ingredient in the one, kerygmatic, true story of God’s rule as it is and as it is coming, that it calls us to repent, obey the Lord and be led by his Spirit into praise and reconciling service, then I have set my heart in a different attitude than is typical. What attitude do I find these days? Proverbs as an anthology of moral maxims. If one is “liberal,” then one detects the external sources that the Hebrews have appropriated, adjusted them for Yahweh-talk, and turned to kosher instructions. If one is a standard “conservative,” then one reads God-breathed statements, sanctified common sense (especially for young people). I believe both “liberal” and “conservative” mistake and mislead by their prior theoretical commitment to what constitutes truth-talk. Both treat Proverbs as a collection of atomic propositional statements strung together like pearly quips on a string, a rapid-fire succession of oracular one-two punches of inspired insight. Is faith in Christ or libraries of supplementary textual aids going to help us open the book if we’ve already closed it by treating the verses like arbitrary formulae with no context?

    Instead, if we begin with the commitment I mentioned at first, then we can read Proverbs as God’s artful comparisons, just as it is written. And it is literarily fashioned with beautiful artistry both in detail and in its larger connected units (e.g., Prov 1-9 as a three-stanza narrative and commentary that spells out the shalom that is brought about by God’s will lived out with Holy Spirited Wisdom and the complete ruin that is brought about by setting up house with godlessness and illicitly used good gifts). It is a book of parables, not precepts; oblique runes rather than a how-to-do-it textbook manual. It is a chorus of nuanced “Yes, but” dialogic reflections that are common throughout the Bible (Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs, and of course Jesus’ beatitudes). This is very sketchy, I realize, but concretely speaking, this is an example of what I think the practical implications are if we will dare to shuck the commitment to positivism.

  17. I appreciated your article Joel and am reminded of C S Lewis writing that there is no point trying to be more spiritual than God (or words to that effect) How else do we describe our relationship with God without resorting to the use of this severely inadequate word – relationship. Is that why He gave us the right to be sons so that we can call Him Father?

  18. I am not familiar with “positivism” and “propositional” in the manner employed here. Could someone post a quick summary definition of both terms?

    Now “Magic book-ism” I understand; I call it “Bible as Grimoire”, with verbal-component one-liner spells indexed by chapter and verse, ever ready to use as weapons. (OK, I used to play a LOT of D&D. At least I admit to it, unlike Magic-Book Christians who are actually playing live D&D with emphasis on Clerical Spells. You know, back in D&D days one of the signs you had a serious flake on your hands was obsession with game magic systems.)