Bible Faculty Summit 2016


Last week for the third time I attended the Bible Faculty Summit. For the third time I delivered a paper. For the third time I was encouraged, edified, and fattened.

This year we all went to Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin. (I managed to enjoy a little pick-up ultimate in Milwaukee the night I arrived—it was awesome!) Larry Oats and the folks at MBU were very welcoming and generous. I got in a bit early and spent all day Tuesday in their beautiful library finishing up my paper.

Untitled pictureSome time ago I thought it might be interesting to dig into the BDAG entry for ἀρσενοκοίτης, look up every single reference it makes, and discover the argument underneath it all. Hidden in all the tiny print, abbreviations, and obscure citations is a “story” that Danker is telling, and I wanted to bring it to light. The BFS gave me the opportunity and impetus to pursue this interesting project.

It’s incredible how much information is packed into that one little paragraph, and unbelievable how much work went in to this one entry, let alone into the thousands of entries in BDAG. I came away with a deep appreciation for Danker—and probably just one disagreement (though a fairly significant one).

I’m not yet releasing the paper, because it needs some revision and I hope to publish it, but you can listen to the audio here.

The other papers were quite good. No duds, even if I didn’t alway agree with every point! We had good discussions, and I was once again impressed with both my alma mater (represented in 9 of the 12 papers) and the other schools in our orbit. It really was great to hear from people like Ryan Martin, who never went to BJU at all but still somehow managed to get a really great education in self-described “fundamentalist” schools. =)

Next year the BFS will be held at Detroit, and I’m pushing for a debate that may attract some of you readers. The BFS is not for everyone; it’s for PhDs, PhD students, and full-time religion faculty at schools in the orbit I just mentioned. But there are more people in that group, some of whom read my blog, who should be there. Join us!

(More pictures of the Summit here.)

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!

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.

JA! In Which I Answer the Top Biblioblogger

  1. Doug Wilson wrote a post asking a provocative question about Bible translations.
  2. I wrote a post for the Logos Talk Blog answering that question.
  3. One of the top bibliobloggers out there just flatly contradicted my answer—the title of his is a (Barth-like) “NEIN!”
  4. I wrote the following comment on his blog, and will post it here as well:


In true blogging style, I won’t back down. I claimed a 23% improvement in understanding, and I’m sticking to it. =) But I don’t think we’re as far apart as your post title would seem to indicate.

Because I’m happy to confess that you’re right about a great deal, and as one commenter on my post put it, echoing Warfield, “What! than ten translations, along with the Greek?” I’d never, ever want to “denounce the originals.” Perish, perish that thought! And I have been quacked at by the heirs of the people who quacked at Luther and Jerome—I know from many years of personal experience with Greek and Hebrew the kinds of things that can only be known by knowing the original languages, and I am deeply impatient—yea, righteously angry—with the anti-intellectual insistence that such knowledge is superfluous. I even (mostly) agree that “only those who read the biblical text in the original and can make sense of it are worth hearing as expositors of it.” In my experience, preachers who don’t know Greek or Hebrew suffer great lack, and I find it hard to listen to them without continual wincing. (I only mostly agree because I don’t want to throw under the bus all of the Bible teachers around the world who have genuinely had no opportunity to study Greek or Hebrew; but I’ll happily throw under the bus those who did have the opportunity and didn’t take it up!) I’m all for direct exegesis in the originals.

But I wasn’t speaking to expositors; I was speaking to lay students of the Bible. And I made my argument precisely because “translations are interpretations and commentary both at the same time.”

One paragraph that my good editor suggested I cut from the piece might help you see what I mean:

Let’s acknowledge that it is possible for one person to have a better grasp of Ephesians than someone else. The 21-year-old me knew it a lot better than the 17-year-old me, because in between those two birthdays I listened to a riveting, extended sermon series on the book by a world-class expository preacher. Christian—and physical, and intellectual—maturity surely also played a role for me and the many other college students who sat in the pews for that series. But being led through the book by a skilled teacher is supposed to increase your knowledge, right? Ephesians 4 says so.

In my experience, the greatest leap forward I ever took in my understanding of Ephesians came from a man gifted to teach it to me in English—in reliance upon Greek. To this day, after doctoral level training in Greek and a dissertation which focused a great deal on Greek linguistics, I find it best to read in English and refine in Greek. On the macro level, it’s English Bible translations (and even good paragraphing) which have best helped me understand Paul. On the micro level, it’s Greek.

The layperson without Greek training must not be told that he can only hear God’s word through a sheet; he can hear it, and hear it clearly, through the work of translation. He can be rooted firmly in good doctrine, Ephesians tells us, through the work of teachers Christ gave to his church. And some of those teachers, those gifts, are the translators who have given us our embarrassment of riches in Bible translation.

Because of the anti-intellectual quackers out there, I’m sensitive to defend the value of Greek and Hebrew exegesis. But because of the priests out there, I’m sensitive to defend the value of lay Bible reading.

And I think my confidence in translation is a trust Jesus and the New Testament writers shared—because you can see their continual reliance on the Septuagint in the pages of the NT.

You say, “Those who rely on translations alone, no matter how many, are simply parrots repeating they know not what.” Really? Luther’s hilarious and accurate boasting is appropriate to direct at fellow clerics, but do we really want to tell laypeople that they can only ever be parrots?

I won’t back down; I can do no other.

Richard John Neuhaus on the Secular University

This comment from a brief article by the late Richard John Neuhaus is brilliant, and important:

A secular university is not a university pure and simple; it is a secular university. Secular is not a synonym for neutral. Not to say that Jesus is Lord is not to say nothing. Not to say that Jesus is Lord is to say that saying Jesus is Lord is unnecessary to, or a hindrance to, being the kind of university you want to be. A Christian university does not have a dual identity but a clear identity—a clear identity based upon a definite understanding of the kind of university it intends to be. There is no such thing as a university pure and simple.

I happen to think that everybody’s a fundamentalist, even if most people’s ultimate epistemological foundation is confused and unacknowledged, almost not worth calling a “foundation.” But somehow I end up running into people’s fundamentalisms whenever I get to talk to them long enough. The other day I met the fundamental axiom of a professing Christian guy on the bus who plans to move in with his girlfriend: “But I feel it’s right, so I know it is.” (I know that sounds like a caricature, but that is literally what he said.) He’s a “fundamentalist.” The question is whether there’s any utility in that term “fundamentalist” as a self-description. Admittedly, it’s comments like this one from Neuhaus that make me doubt:

A Christian university rejects the dichotomies that pit truth against truth. There is an unrecognized alliance between anti-intellectuals outside the university (often called fundamentalists) and intellectuals within the university, both of whom propose a dichotomy, even an antithesis, between faith and reason, heart and mind, facts and values, belief and knowledge, devotion and learning. A Christian university has as its premise the knowledge that all truth is one and all ways to truth are one because the Author and the End of truth is One.

But, Neuhaus, may I be a “fundamentalist”—someone who bases his life on the fundamentals of the Christian faith and isn’t willing to grant Christian recognition to those who don’t—and yet title my very blog in such a way as to attack that antithesis between faith and reason? May I write a dissertation at a self-described fundamentalist seminary that works to display the God-given unity of heart and mind? May I work for years for a self-described fundamentalist publisher to bring together devotion and learning?  May I write a big textbook for that publisher that unites facts and values, belief and knowledge? I hope I may, because I did.

In fact, I wonder (just wonder!—I’m not divine) if the pressures of secularization will leave only “fundamentalist” institutions still standing as orthodox in time to come (to be clear, I don’t mean only institutions that are willing to use that label, but institutions at whom it is commonly thrown). That is, if what Neuhaus said is true:

Today the Christian university is in crisis. There are no doubt many parts to the crisis. It is often described as a crisis of secularization. It is more accurately described as a crisis created by the ambition to imitate other kinds of universities that falsely claim to be universities pure and simple. It is most accurately described as a crisis of Christian faith. The question that those who lead a Christian university must answer, and answer again every day, is whether the confession that Jesus is Lord limits or illumines the university’s obligation to seek and serve Veritas—to seek and serve the truth.

Before their own master(s) other institutions stand or fall, of course, and he is able to make them stand. I pray that he does. And fundamentalist institutions can surely fall. But insofar as secularization is a “crisis,” which Christian university is more likely to insist in 50 years that “Jesus is Lord” illumines the university’s pursuit of truth—the one which hires Peter Enns or the one which won’t even let him on campus? I just wonder.