Monday, July 09, 2007

Test of Scripture

In a prior post, I explored what I there called "Perfect Guide Inerrancy". It was a response to those who defend a much stronger sort of inerrancy, a sort that I called "Perfect Truth Inerrancy".

I characterized PG Inerrancy in this way:
(i) We mean [by PG Inerrancy] that the Bible tells us all that we need to know about how to reconcile ourselves to God. (ii) We also mean that, in its primary purpose, the purpose of reconciliation, the Bible will never lead us astray. It will, if followed, always help us along on the path to reconciliation. (iii) Finally, we mean that the Bible's plan of reconciliation is optimal. There could be no better.
Before I presented this as a mere hypothesis. Now I think that I must embrace it.

There is much in the Old Testament, and a little in the New, that I find morally abhorrent. In the Old, we are told that disrespectful children should be stoned. In the new, we are told that women should not speak in church. (I do not think that the two are equally abhorrent. The former is much worse than the latter.) What is the Christian to do? There seem to be two possibilities. He might so transform his moral view that it becomes permissible to stone a child, or he might reject the bit of Scripture where a parent is told to stone a disrespectful child. Let us say that we do that latter. This worry will now inevitably arise: if Scripture makes such a serious moral error as this, how do we know that it isn't rife with error, moral and otherwise?

In answer, we must find a foundation for our faith - a foundation outside simple trust in Scripture - that would allow us to distinguish those parts of Scripture that are authoritative from those that are not. But where is this foundation? Where are we to begin if we attempt to build up our faith from what is most certain?

My answer is this:
The foundation of our Faith is not the Bible alone. Instead the foundation of Christianity lies in God and His salvific work in the world, and though this includes Scripture, it is greater than Scripture. The book that we call the Bible is simply the record - the human record - of that work. It is a guide to our salvation, to be sure; and it is authoritative at points. But one doesn't simply surrender to whatever it says; rather what is says must be tested, sifted. The tradition of Christian reflection - a Spirit guided affair the Christian must say - is in part the history of this; and its conclusions must be accepted by the Christian. The primary conclusion of this tradition of reflection - and this is surely the primary message of the New Testament - is that Christianity is a religion of love, of God's love for humanity, our love for him, and our love for one another. Scripture must be read through that lens, and when one does, one has no choice but to reject certain things.
This is my exegetical principle. The Bible is a work whose primary purpose is to aid humanity's salvation (and it is, of course, not the only aid - the Spirit is at work in many ways in the world); and that salvation consists in the perfection of love of God and neighbor. So then I think it necessary to embrace PG Inerrancy. We cannot do more, for Scripture contains moral absurdity (absurdity that does not bear ultimately upon what it has to teach us of the way of salvation). But neither can we do less, for if the Bible we not a sure guide to salvation the Christian would have no use for it at all.

I find that, if I keep this exegetical principle firmly in mind, much that once worried me about Scripture worries me no more. If one were to read the Genesis creation stories in accordance with this principle, for instance, one would ask this: what is this story is essential for us to believe if we are to be brought to the perfection of love? It seems clear to me - indeed patently obvious - that belief in a six-day creation is inessential. But it seems equally obvious that we must believe that the world is has it source in God and God alone. To love God as we ought, we must believe that are from him and him alone. But to love God as we ought, we need not believe that the world was created in six days.

Apply this now to the command to stone a disrespectful child. Must we believe this if we are to be perfected? Or course not. Or must we believe that it is right for women to keep silent in church. Again, of course not.

Is there any Scriptural basis for the view I put forward? I think that there is. Most relevant is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: ""All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be equipped, prepared for every good work." I do realize of course that the passage speaks of all Scripture; that does seem to count against my view. But notice what the stated purpose of Scripture is here: to teach and to correct. It is then pedagogy of a practical sort. It is written so that we might know better how to live. This is precisely the view I have adopted. Indeed one might say that this passage from Timothy tells us that genuine Scripture must have this pedagogical purpose, and that the parts which plainly do not are not to be thought authoritative. I'm out on a hermeneutic limb I know, but what I say does seem to keep with the spirit of the passage.

7 comments:

SteveK said...

In the Old, we are told that disrespectful children should be stoned. In the new, we are told that women should not speak in church.

For me it's difficult to determine which commands are cultural, situational and/or everlasting. The "everlasting" covenant God made with Moses and the Israelites was not directed at non-Jews, and in fact it wasn't everlasting as God amended it several times in the OT.

I have a question for you and it centers around this article.. The idea is that God is the author of life and he has the right, as God, to take it away for any reason. Intellectually this makes sense, but emotionally it seems wrong (morally). What do you think about this subject?

Franklin Mason said...

I think you put it well when you say that emotionally, such commands seems wrong. When I consider them, I feel a sense of moral revulsion that I cannot (and do not wish to) put down.

I'm familiar with the argument of the article you link. It goes something like this:

God is our creator (not co-creator, no Platonic demiurge that forms us up out of pre-existent matter, but creator ex nihilo).
Thus God may do whatever he pleases with us.

(I seem to recall that William Lane Craig defends a view like this.) Usually added here in the observation that, though God may do what he wishes with us, by a free act of grace he holds out the possibility of salvation to some; and we are told to praise and thank him for this.

The problem with this is that it seems to contradict the law of love. God loves us, Scripture tells us again and again. I would think, moreover, that this is essential to him. He could not choose not to love us, for he is love itself. But how is it that love is compatible with, for example, the command to stone a disrespectful child? I don't think that it can be. Would a parent do such a thing out of love? Would love be the primary motive as a father stoned his child to death? Of course not.

What brought me to Christianity was the primacy it gives to love.

SteveK said...

But how is it that love is compatible with, for example, the command to stone a disrespectful child? I don't think that it can be. Would a parent do such a thing out of love? Would love be the primary motive as a father stoned his child to death? Of course not.

I agree with you here except that maybe, just maybe, there is something significantly to consider when viewing a loving act from a human perspective vs. a Godly perspective. Specifically I'm talking about limited knowledge vs. complete knowledge.

I'm thinking about the dentist analogy that you're probably aware of. Would a loving parent "command" a child to suffer at the hands of a dentist? The limited knowledge perspective of the child fails to see how this is loving, but the parent knows that it is. The only meaningful difference is the parent's more complete knowledge.

This is different than what you present here:

by a free act of grace he holds out the possibility of salvation to some; and we are told to praise and thank him for this.

Here no additional knowledge will change the situation. It is permanent and would be like commanding the child to sit in the dentist chair for eternity. I don't see any love in that. I too reject this possibility, but I'm not so sure about the other OT examples you cite.

In the OT examples it seems to me there is room for God's commands to be compatible with love in the same way the parent's commands are compatible with love in the dentist analogy. It's just that we don't have enough information to know for certain and so we assume the worst about God. But is that the correct thing to do?

Franklin Mason said...

I see the point of your analogy about the dentist's chair. But when we make a young child sit there, we do it for the child's good though she might not realize that we do. This is why it does not contradict the law of love; though it causes the child pain and distress, it is for her good and thus an expression of love. But how can it be good for a child to be stoned? Who really is it good for? It seems to me like it's good for no one.

But perhaps there's a possibility that I've overlooked.

SteveK said...

But how can it be good for a child to be stoned? Who really is it good for? It seems to me like it's good for no one.

But perhaps there's a possibility that I've overlooked.


That's exactly the point. I don't claim to know what God knows and so there is a very real possibility that I've overlooked something out of ignorance.

I would say that the argument against a loving God as written in the OT is the same as the classic Argument From Evil. The AFE presupposes to know that God is NOT acting out of love or goodness when he created humans, knowing full well that some would suffer, die and spend eternity in hell.

The question I pose for both arguments is: On what basis do you presuppose God is unloving when

a) God has complete knowledge and you don't

b) there are examples in life that parallel these situations enough to give rise to an understanding that it MAY be a loving thing to do? In other words, these situations aren't completely foreign to our understanding of love.

At the end of the day, if the bible is inerrant as written then it doesn't automatically mean God is unloving, nor does it destroy the concept of a moral law. It just means we lack the ability to completely understand what is going on, just like the child sitting in the dentist chair.

Franklin Mason said...

I think you've persuaded me to state my case differently. How about this:

There are commands in the OT that look as if they may be wicked, but given our finitude, it also may be that they are in good in some way unknown to us as present.
But we do not need to suppose that we know that they are good, for we simply do not need Perfect Truth Inerrancy. Perfect Guide Inerrancy will do, and thus in discussions of inerrancy we can place question of the truth of each and every passage to the side.

SteveK said...

I like that. Thanks for the conversation.