An Admitteldy One-Sided Conversation on Theological Liberalism

A liberal Catholic with a PhD from a liberal Catholic institution saw my article in Answers Magazine critiquing one of the more famous put-downs Richard Dawkins has made of Christians; he liked the article and wanted to dialogue with me. I acquiesced, but soon found that he liked my article’s arguments for their apparent utility without really grasping their biblical origins. When it comes down to it, he rejects the authority of Scripture in what I take to be a more dangerous way than Dawkins does—because he still honors it with his lips. Any time its authority is pressed on him, he worms out of the way.

This is not my experience with all Roman Catholics—and it is my experience with certain Protestants! We are all tempted to squirm when God contradicts us. The only thing I can say for my conservative Protestant tribe is that we make it an article of faith that it’s our squirming and not God’s word that is the problem.

I don’t want to ask my liberal Catholic interlocutor for permission to publish his email remarks to me. And I won’t post them without permission. So you get, if you really want to, to listen to just one side of our conversation. I apologize for this indulgence, but perhaps persevering readers will find something of use in the following.

Here we go:

Dear X,

1) The idea you propose, namely that the Bible is culturally constrained, is often presented to me by non-evangelicals (Christians and non-Christians alike) as if it is likely to be brand new to me, and as if it is a recent (and rock-solid) conclusion of historical-critical scholarship.

But this idea is not a conclusion of historical-critical scholarship at all; it’s a premise of it, a presupposition, an article of faith in their creed. The Bible is for them, at most, a record of different people’s experiences with the divine, no more normative than any other ancient text—especially when the opinion polls go against it.

2) I like talking methodology, I really do. I think it’s extremely important. But one of the things I do to make sure my methodology doesn’t float away on clouds of subjectivism into the warm bath of secular approbation (borrowing a phrase that’s been echoing in my head all day from this fantastic article) is try to apply it to actual Bible statements and see what happens. So Micah says, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” I can’t find anybody who complains about that particular imperative, anybody who proposes allegorical or metaphorical interpretations of it. And what’s more, I can’t find anybody who says, “That’s time-bound—Micah meant that for the culture of his day, but we know better.” And I say, by what standard may we judge that Micah 6:8 is normative as it stands, but Gen 1–11 isn’t? Why accept “blessed are the poor in spirit” but not “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”? Why, indeed, accept what Paul clearly means to be a timeless statement—”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”—but then reject as culturally constrained what he says about homosexuality a few paragraphs earlier (“Paul didn’t know about stable, monogamous homosexual relationships”)?

Really, the question is easy to answer: people pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe and which to reject because they accept an authoritative standard other than the Bible. The idea of cultural constraint is an ex post facto justification.

I’ve just been reading J.I. Packer’s first book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, and he demonstrates with citation after citation that Christ and the apostles viewed the Old Testament as authoritative. I won’t pretend that there are no difficulties in figuring out how to apply the entire Bible, especially the Old Testament, to the life of the Christian. But if revelation is ongoing and evolving, then I need some other standard by which to judge which parts of it are still valid and which aren’t. I’d rather have to study Jesus and Paul’s statements about the law (Matt. 5:17; Gal. 5; etc.) to discern the Bible’s own unity than adopt a model in which they cannot and need not be reconciled.

Actually, conservative evangelicals have long recognized that the Bible is a divine revelation that is progressively unfolded through a story. Paul spoke of “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints,” and in his letter to the Ephesians he explains that this mystery was the way Christ would bring the Gentiles into one body with the Jews, namely the church. Conservatives are eager to recognize—indeed, it’s impossible to deny—that God used the personalities and experiences and even the literary proclivities of the biblical authors. What he did not do is tell Moses and Paul that homosexuality was against nature while silently adding “wrong for now, I mean—just wait till at least 1999 or so.”

Interestingly, I just saw that very Star Trek episode. I remember it well. I do not view the Bible, however, as having been dropped into civilization like the Klingon’s guns were dropped into that primitive culture. In 35 years in conservative Protestant circles I have a few times heard people talk about it that way (like as if “the paths of the seas” in Psalm 8 were a secret revelation of ocean currents, not discovered until centuries later—I abjure that approach).

Yes, Protestants split over scriptural interpretation. But don’t Catholics? How many different parties and sects are there within Catholicism? Do they all interpret the Bible or church tradition or the pope’s utterances the same way? It seems to me that having a magisterium has not saved them from division.

Also, I’ve read about Galileo’s story in a great little book by a guy at Johns Hopkins, Lawrence Principe, and I don’t accept the standard read of the story. I commend the book to you.

I really have trouble seeing the view of Scripture as culturally constrained as anything other than 1) a not-very-sophistic but rather pretty bald exercise in evading what God said and 2) a way to give our current culture hegemony over the Bible whenever the former says to the latter, “Shut up!”

Is God permitted to oppose the consensus view of science, of morality, of economics, of anything in contemporary Western society?

I also think you and I may have reached the sloganeering stage of the argument over biblical hermeneutics, so I’d like to see if we can focus on an individual scriptural text. And I’d like to zero in on one that deals with homosexuality, in particular, because the culture is definitely saying, “Shut up!” about that.

The Catholic tradition of which you’re a part has uniformly said homosexuality is wrong, and wrong intrinsically, for 2000 years. They based that judgment on Holy Scripture, as Protestants today do, and on natural law, as many Protestants actually do as well. (We, in turn, base natural law on Scripture, because without the Bible to tell us that the world is fallen, it is impossible to tell what is “natural,” i.e., created, and what is “unnatural,” i.e., fallen.)

No Christian tradition has ever said that sinners of any sort should be mercilessly mocked instead of offered help—because God doesn’t treat sinners that way in Scripture. I’m certainly glad God has not treated me and my sin this way.

But if the Bible is the culturally constrained record of past individuals’ experiences of the divine (is that a fair representation of your view? If not, please do correct me!), then it’s time we didn’t just treat homosexuals with grace but with complete acceptance. Acceptance of homosexual marriage seems like a perfect example of the kind of thing that we ought to recognize as new light from on high. And we’d better do it fast, before we have to pay any more price for our bigotry.

So, I ask, what did Paul mean when he wrote the following? “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

I think I’m gathering that you personally oppose homosexual practice? But by what standard can we say that Paul is right if the culture, not the Bible, is our standard? I am not saying that we can interpret the Bible without regard for the cultural distance between us and the original writers and readers. But that distance is not always as great as people assume, because people are just as created, just as fallen, and just as in need of redemption as they were in Paul’s day. Illicit sex, gluttony, thievery, prevarication, and pride are pretty much the sins they were in the first century. Is “Humble yourselves before the mighty hand of God” culturally constrained? Is “Lie not one to another, seeing you have put off the old man with his deeds” culturally constrained? Is “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” culturally constrained? How about “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty”?

When you try to apply (what I take to be) your view to actual Bible statements, it simply doesn’t work. It looks like special pleading: find the stuff in the Bible you don’t like, and slap the label on it: “NO LONGER APPLICABLE DUE TO ANCIENT CULTURAL CONSTRAINTS.”

Interested in your thoughts. I kind of had to write with bluntness because of constraints of my own—not cultural ones but chronometric ones!

Denying What Anyone Can See

Here’s what strikes me about this oft-shared-on-my-timeline video: Christians (and creationists in particular) have been roundly criticized by scientific naturalism for denying “what anyone can see with their two eyes,” for denying the “clear evidence” against the faith and for macro-evolution. What this video illustrates is that everyone relativizes the evidence we experience to an authoritative standard to which we don’t have empirical access. These young people are clearly not dummies; they know just what their moral standard is and what it dictates, and they obey flawlessly. They laugh a little nervously about it, but they know their job is to stand up and proclaim the “obvious truth”: we have always been at war with Eastasia. And this is why Postman was right when he said that Huxley’s Brave New World gave the better prophecy for the future than did Orwell’s 1984: it wasn’t a totalitarian regime inflicting pain that forced these bright young bearers of God’s image to deny the evidence of their two eyes. They have been brought to heel by a regime that, instead, inflicts pleasure.

I have compassion on these college kids. I’m not angry at them. And Christ knows just what to do with the blind.

Freedom from Inerrancy?

X, a friend of a friend, wrote an autobiographical tale of his journey from Protestant fundamentalism to the evangelical parachurch and into a (currently) non-inerrantist, post-evangelical view which is indebted to people like Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns. I won’t link to the post, not because I think you should be an ostrich but because I don’t want to put the focus on this individual. I wrote the following response for the benefit of the friend who brought the tale to my attention. So many things could be said; I chose the historical angle. When Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them,” he was talking in particular about wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15–20), and he was therefore recommending precisely that angle. It takes time to observe someone’s fruits. C.H. Toy—early Southern Seminary professor after whom there is still a street named in Greenville—was given time, and his fruits became clear. After being fired by a reluctant Broadus, Toy became a Unitarian. Let’s give Peter Enns—and X—time.

Stories like the one X tells make it sound like those who escape the shackles of inerrancy have gone from dogmatic darkness into the marvelous light of freedom. Such stories are powerful for Americans, including this one, who tend to hold self-determination and autonomy as implicit cultural values.

But X isn’t the first person to come up with the ideas in his article. Neither is Peter Enns. These ideas have a history. And I wouldn’t say it’s the history X points to, the history of the ancient Christian tradition. I’d point instead to the history of the Protestant mainline (as told, for example, in Gary Dorrien’s threevolume work or in George Marsden’s). They, too, escaped inerrancy, beginning (depending on where you want to start the story) in the 19th century; and they insisted that they were preserving Christianity rather than destroying it. They were protecting the faith from its cultured despisers.

And what have the fruit of these non-inerrantist ideas been? Historically speaking, the fruit has been the loss of any norming norm for Christian faith. There are some honest mainliners, such as Will Willimon, who have said much the same thing:

I remember listening on TV—it’s the only place I can hear evangelicals preach—and he’s up there saying, “You’re good and you mean well and God loves you and you need to work harder and believe more in yourself.” I’m old enough to remember when you used to count on evangelicals to say, “Hey, it’s in the Bible. Sorry that doesn’t appeal to you, but God said it, we believe it, that ends it.” I think we’re really missing that kind of theological authorization for the church.

I acknowledge many of the difficulties X raises, and I have asked similar questions to his. But I simply don’t know of any Christians who openly pit the Bible—who pit God’s word—against itself and have managed to hold on to the Jesus of the Bible.

X writes that Jesus should be our baseline when interpreting Scripture, that he must be the standard by which everything else is tested.

But what actually has happened when inerrancy is dropped is this: the culture becomes the new norm, the new authority.

Willimon says his church tried (and is still trying) cultural accommodation:

I feel that in reaching out to the culture, we fell in face down…. We woke up one day and there was no difference between church and Rotary, and Rotary at least meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch. (Modern Reformation magazine; cf. Douthat’s Bad Religion)

And how does using Jesus as the baseline actually function? Do we take Jesus’ words as the canon within the canon? And what about issues Jesus didn’t speak to directly, such as the full import of his own death and resurrection? Do I get to relativize remarks from Paul about penal substitution because Jesus is my standard—and because the culture doesn’t like them and never has? And if the Bible contradicts itself, why go with the Jesus of the Gospels over the Jesus of Paul, anyway? The Gospels weren’t written by Jesus. Once the Bible is no longer seen as coherent, it’s a very short step to the current critical orthodoxy (in other words, the view of the culture) that “every text is first and foremost evidence for the circumstances in and for which it was composed” (that’s N.T. Wright summarizing critical orthodoxy). In other words, if the Gospels aren’t reliable, then they aren’t windows on events. They don’t tell us about Jesus so much as they tell us about the Gospel writers and their faith communities.

I won’t say that every non-inerrantist of the past was sliding down a slippery slope to hell. I love me some C.S. Lewis, for example, and he was distinctly not an inerrantist. Before their own master people stand or fall, and God is able to make them stand—even on what I take to be a slippery slope. I pray X stands, and that in twenty years he’s holding firmly to Christ as his only hope of salvation. I don’t wish X any harm. But I don’t see why I should accept him as a healthy guide on the questions he raises when many others, having gone down his path, have shipwrecked their faith and their once-Christian institutions.

No, the Bible doesn’t have any verses mentioning “inerrancy.” Nor does it have any mentioning the “Trinity,” the “hypostatic union,” the “incarnation,” or the “Great Commission.” These have proven to be useful labels summarizing biblical truths, but no true Christian cares about the labels more than the truth they summarize. The truth summarized by “inerrancy” is that “God’s word is true,” or, in the words of Jesus, if he is to be our baseline, “The Scriptures cannot be broken.” “Inerrancy” just means (and here I borrow from Don Carson), that when the Scriptures give a proposition, that proposition is true.

Careful evangelical scholars such as J.I. Packer (see “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God) have thought through the necessary qualifications for inerrancy—such as genre distinctions and the role of free citation and summary; and I fully expect the church to continue to wrestle with Bible difficulties. Even if the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy hasn’t come up with answers that are satisfying to X, I’d urge him to look not just at the immediate relief he gets from letting go of a fully truthful Bible but at the historical trajectory of people and groups who have done the same thing since long before he was born.

I watched a hokey Christian movie once, against my better judgment, that despite its B-movie acting and preachiness managed to hit me with two arresting scenes. One of them I’ve written about elsewhere; the other was this: a theology professor from the 19th century travels to the future to see the results of a new doctrine he is proposing. He is shocked and dismayed to see the results, and he immediately retracts his views. I am certain that members of the Presbyterian Church of 1920 would feel the same way if they could see their church in 2016; but neither they nor their opponents could have predicted any of it. Fruits take time to mature. And to rot.

Al Mohler Talks to Stanley Fish

I love Stanley Fish, and I was thrilled to find this morning in my podcast feed that he has showed up again on Al Mohler’s “Thinking in Public.” I was even more thrilled as I listened on the bus—at single speed, so I didn’t miss a thing, an honor I rarely show my podcasters—that Mohler asks him some of the questions we all want to ask.

Mohler does a great job bringing out of Fish an introduction to his thought and his critique of liberalism. He also leads Fish to distinguish himself from the anything-goes textual relativism that he often gets unfairly accused of.

I’d push back a little bit against Mohler and for Fish on one issue, though I really want to dig deeper into it and I’m not ready to issue any pronouncements: Mohler argues for the hermeneutical textualism of Scalia against the intentionalism of Fish (though both agree that the two positions are part of the overall “mother ship” of originalism). This means that Scalia says, according to Fish, that we have no reliable access to the intentions of the framers of any law except through the texts they produced. Fish says we necessarily form up some idea of the intentions of the framers of any law; they were not writing from nowhere and nowhen but wrote as part of a history, a story. So we might as well, he says, make the search for their intentions an explicit part of our hermeneutical inquiry.

Mohler says, in his customary wrap-up comments after the guest is off-air, that in the case of the Bible all we have is the text. This is the only access we have to the mind of the Author. And I see what he’s saying. But the Bible is a special book: we do have some access (though still largely through the Bible) to the historical circumstances and likely intentions of the human authors God guided to form the Bible.

ScaliaI need to dig deeper into this. I really need to sit down and do the requisite reading. I’ve read Fish. Now I need to finish this:

Colin Gunton on Frameworks of Belief

All interpretation is shaped by the frameworks of belief which we bring to it; the hope is that the text—or rather the Holy Spirit’s opening up of the text—will enable us both to use and to transcend those frameworks with ever new insights into the truth of the gospel.

—Colin Gunton, Christ and Creation

Right on. The postmodern insight that everyone, by definition, sees through his own eyes and from his own location must not forget the fact that in reading the Bible we are not merely dealing with a static text but the living words of a person. My hope as I read in the Bible is not, finally, in my hermeneutical skill or theological knowledge—though these are important secondary means. My hope is not in myself at all; it’s in God’s mercy and grace, as it is in all areas of life.