The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part V: Holy Scripture
Part V: A docetic-dictated-propositional Bible
Growing up as I did within the folds of evangelicalism, I learned from a young age to have a very high doctrine of Holy Scripture. The Bible was to be revered as truly the Word of God. We had Bible drills in Sunday School and played Bible trivia games which tested our knowledge of obscure facts, usually a law in Leviticus or a name in Judges. And, of course, I prided myself on being the star student. (After one Bible trivia session, a man visiting the church came up to me and said that he saw in me a modern Gideon.) Finally, lest we forget, we sang, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”
Little did I know that I was witnessing a crisis in the church. I began to notice the problem when preachers would speak of Jesus as the Word, but then could not seem to decide whether they preferred to call Jesus or the Bible the actual “Word of God.” They were caught in a dilemma—mostly theological—and often they gave the impression of elevating the Bible over Jesus. However, the problem became blatantly evident this past year, in the wake of Bart Ehrman’s rise to popularity. Ehrman, as I have written before, is a Moody, Wheaton, and Princeton Seminary graduate who subsequently discarded with his evangelical upbringing and now embraces academic agnosticism, which essentially states, “I know too much to believe in God.” Ehrman’s problem is theological, in that the doctrine of Scripture which he was taught could not withstand the onslaught of textual criticism. Faced with the historical evidence, he could only reject the authority of Scripture. The problem for evangelicalism is that it has no response to Ehrman other than to reject textual criticism wholesale.
Here is where I enter the picture. On the one hand, I greatly value the high view of Scripture that evangelicalism gave me at a young age. On the other hand, I also value the academic enterprise of textual criticism and the historical-critical method. To view the two sides as mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy, not unlike the analogously false dichotomy between a doctrine of creation and evolution. One side does not cancel out the other. To put this in thesis form, in our doctrine of Holy Scripture, we must not so elevate the Bible as a spiritual document that we lose its historicality, and we must not so lower it as a human document that we lose its function as the Word of God, as the witness to God’s revelation. It is my contention that evangelicalism in America has fallen prey to the former, which has hindered both evangelicals in the academy and preachers in the pulpit. I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, of these heresies can be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the Bible.
Beyond Inerrancy: I must make clear up front that inerrancy is not my sole target, though it surely falls under my criticism. Inerrancy is part of the problem, but more as the consequence and not the cause. I have already discussed inerrancy elsewhere; suffice it to say that this whole argument is really a complex debate between Catholicism and Protestantism that has its origin in the Reformation itself. In other words, the debate over Scripture is really a debate over authority. Where is ecclesial authority located? Is it in the church structure and leadership? in Holy Scripture? in ourselves? or elsewhere?
A quick history lesson is in order: First, the magisterial Reformers were upset over the abuse of authority being exercised by the leaders of the Catholic Church, who used their socio-political power for selfish ends. The Reformers placed the authority of the Bible as a damning witness over against the ecclesiastical structures which they viewed as hopelessly corrupt. Along with the elevation of the Bible, the Reformers—Luther in particular—made the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” a central tenet in their theology. Ecclesial mediation was drastically reduced and altered, though the magisterial Reformers still held on to the importance of the sacraments and tradition despite their clear break from Rome. Fast forward a couple hundred years. In the late 19th century, the world was changing at a dramatic pace. The industrial revolution, Freudian psychology, modern philosophy, textual criticism, and evolutionary biology all converged to create an environment seemingly inhospitable to traditional religious belief. The Catholic Church asserted its authority over against modernity by establishing the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, giving certainty to all teachings ex cathedra in the face of a changing world. Conservative Protestants, under the leadership of B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, acted similarly by instituting the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. We can see here that modernity was a wedge that drove the two branches of the western church further apart by aggravating their own predispositions—Catholics toward ecclesial authority, and Protestants toward biblical authority. If Catholic made an idol of the church, then Protestants made an idol out of the Bible.
The question about the Bible is, at its heart, a question about authority. When put into this light, both sides of this debate are wrong to the extent that they reject the claims of the other party. (To be sure, both Catholics and Protestants, in general, have stepped back somewhat from these two positions. However, I still find the two positions to be a useful typology, even if they oversimplify what Catholics and Protestants truly believe.) Roman Catholics, in elevating ecclesial authority, threaten to forget that the institution itself stands under the divine No and Yes contained in the gospel witness. The institution is not God-on-earth but merely a witness to the Lord who judges heaven and earth and all people. Protestants, in elevating the biblical narrative, threaten to forget that this written Word of God belongs to and for the church as the people of God, and thus it is not to be viewed as an individual document to be read and interpreted by individuals (e.g., “God’s love letter to me”). The third (caricatured) position is that of the academic who views the biblical text as purely human and without authority, but who also rejects the authority of the church. Such a person makes an idol out of human knowledge.
The three idols—church, Bible, and human intellect—are each dangerous temptations. Those who wish to give the church worldly authority will always want the church to be divine; those who wish to give Scripture worldly authority will always want the Bible to be wholly divine; and those who wish to give human intellect religious authority will always want reason to be divine. My argument is that all three find their proper balance when placed in dialogical relation to one another under the lordship of the triune God. Of course, Catholics and Protestants would never see their positions as anything other than the necessary means of honoring God’s lordship, but it is my contention here to suggest the following: The church is only properly honored when it is a “creature of the Word” guided by the command of God in Scripture, aided by human intellectual pursuits, and ordered toward God’s purposes; the Bible is only properly honored when it is the “Word for the church,” read and interpreted by the people of God, and critically analyzed as a faithful and true witness to God’s revelation in human history; and human intellect is only properly honored when it is guided by the command of God given in Scripture to the church, ordered toward the purposes of God, and carried out by the people of God.
The Doctrine of the Word of God: Before I offer my practical suggestions for how to rectify the situation, I believe we can find an appropriate understanding of Scripture in the theology of Karl Barth. This is where we need to start. A doctrine of the Bible that upholds biblical authority as the sole witness to God’s self-revelation while also answering Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of its textual history are necessary in order for evangelicalism to have a voice worthy of being heard. As long as Ehrman remains unanswerable, evangelicalism shows itself to be like the ostrich who buries her head in the sand. For the Christian, this is not an appropriate response. Barth offers another way.
In both the Göttingen Dogmatics and in the Church Dogmatics I/1 (§4), Barth speaks of the “threefold Word of God.” By this he means the Word of God takes three forms, each equally important and necessary. We may think of concentric circles: in the middle stands the Word of God incarnate and revealed in Jesus Christ, in the next circle stands the Word of God written in Holy Scripture, and in the final circle we find the Word of God proclaimed and preached in the church. Each requires the other two. Barth is not speaking about three different Words of God, but always and only one Word. Barth thus writes the following on their unity-in-distinction:
It is one and the same whether we understand [the Word of God] as revelation, Bible, or proclamation. There is no distinction of degree or value between the three forms. For to the extent that proclamation really rests on recollection of the revelation attested in the Bible and is thus obedient repetition of the biblical witness, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation itself. As the Bible and proclamation become God’s Word in virtue of the actuality of revelation they are God’s Word: the one Word of God within which there can be neither a more nor a less. ... So, to give a survey of the whole, the following brief schedule of mutual relations may be drawn up.Now to the average evangelical, Barth’s threefold distinction will sound rather confusing, because if she is anything like me, she will have been taught to identify God’s (special) revelation with the Bible. The two are indistinguishable. However, it is precisely this distinction between general and special revelation which Barth contests. What Barth strives to recover is the affirmation that Jesus Christ alone is God’s special or self-revelation. The Bible, he makes clear, is the witness to that revelation through the prophets and apostles who witnessed God’s revelation first hand. We are hearing the report of God’s actions in human history through the mediation of these human writers. The Bible is authoritative because these writers were so grasped by the event of revelation that they could do nothing but recount the details in their own cultural idiom. The biblical narrative is thus wholly human and yet wholly divine. Holy Scripture would be nothing without the commandeering force of God’s revelation upon those who witnessed God’s involvement in the world, but it would also be nothing without these human witnesses declaring God’s revelation in language that seemed appropriate to them at the time. In other words, we cannot divorce Scripture either from God’s history or human history.
The revealed Word of God we know only from the Scripture adopted by Church proclamation or the proclamation of the Church based on Scripture.
The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which fulfills proclamation or through the proclamation fulfilled by revelation.
The preached Word of God we know only through the revelation attested in Scripture or the Scripture which attests revelation. (I/1, 120-21)
Evangelicalism needs to come to grips with its relationship to both ecclesial authority and academic textual criticism. The way often chosen by evangelicals has been an individualistic hermeneutic, in which the individual Christian has the sole authority and power to interpret Scripture for herself, guided perhaps by the occasional sermon. What we commonly find today are scholars who have almost no biblical literacy and evangelicals who have almost no awareness of the history of these texts and their cultural-historical contexts. Ehrman learned about these contexts and felt he had to jettison the Bible’s authority. Is there another way? I believe when we distinguish between God’s revelation (in Jesus) and the human witness to revelation (the Bible), we have a way of preserving divine authority in and through Scripture without feeling threatened by the awareness of the Bible’s historical development.
All too often, evangelicals have opted for a docetic Bible—to use a christological heresy—in which Scripture is a divine text given directly by God. Evangelicalism leads toward a dictated Bible by speaking of it as God’s direct Word to humanity without reservation. The one major reservation should be that only Jesus is God’s Word to humanity, and even he is not a direct revelation. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is an indirect revelation mediated in the form of human flesh and then mediated again through the witness of Holy Scripture and the testimony of the church. Scripture is not revelation, but rather the witness to it. Hence the need to distinguish between the terms “revelation” and “Word of God”; the two are not coterminous. Finally, proclamation is the Word of God, but at one more remove from God’s revelation, mediated as it is, a third time, through the human agent who proclaims the gospel in the here and now. Human and ecclesial mediation is inescapable, but what we must never do is idolize such mediation such that the church or the biblical text becomes anything more than a witness to God’s acts in history.
Finally, a proper doctrine of God’s Word will insist on its nature as story, not as a collection of propositions. Theological and doctrinal propositions are important, but they are interpretations of the Bible, not part of the Bible itself. Of course, the Bible contains propositional truths—“the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4)—but these must be situated in the context of the narrative of God’s acts in history. The Bible is not a collection of timeless truths or theological axioms, but is rather the witness to the complex relation between the holy God and sinful humanity. The Bible does not primarily tell us what to think, but rather declares who God is and what God has done, and thus, in light of that, who we are.
If I had to replace biblical inerrancy with any doctrine, I would choose the one articulated by Bruce McCormack in his essay, “The Being of Holy Scripture Is in Becoming.” McCormack coins the phrase “dynamic infallibilism,” by which he means the Scriptures do not have a fixed-in-stone inerrant essence but are rather made to be the infallible Word of God by the actualizing power of the Holy Spirit in the historical setting in which they are read and received. In other words, the Bible is a being-in-becoming that receives its identity as the authoritative witness to God’s revelation from God’s own agency; the Bible does not have authority in and of itself as simply a human document. It must “become” revelation to us, but such “becoming” is only possible by the power of God working in the present:
For particular individuals, God must first make the Bible to be what it is. The Bible must become what it is. And this is a becoming whose actualization rests solely at the divine discretion. The being-in-becoming of the Bible as Word of God, which took place “there and then” under the experience of inspiration, must take place “here and now,” so that the being-in-becoming of the Bible “here and now” is made to correspond to the originating “being-in-becoming.” Therefore, the “sacramental union” of divine Word and human word is a union that must always be realized in relation to particular individuals if what is true of the Bible “essentially” is to known as true by them.A more in-depth explication of this doctrine will have to wait until another occasion. For now, I wish to offer my suggestions for how to reorient the direction of evangelicalism.
Solution: As Barth said, “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis.” Evangelicalism is plagued by a lack of knowledge of Scripture. But knowledge of what the Bible says is insufficient apart from the knowledge of why the Bible says what it does. The Bible is not a subject in itself; it is the record of many past witnesses who felt God’s claim on their lives and were compelled in spite of themselves to declare the truth of God as the truth of our lives. We must know the Bible, but we must know it as the witness to God’s revelation to the apostles and prophets. That means having the highest possible doctrine of Scripture, but never so high that we threaten to forget its very human history.
Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God honors Holy Scripture, but it also gives the highest honor to preaching as itself a mode of the Word of God in the present. Scriptural exegesis and theological investigation are only worthwhile if they translate into church proclamation. We honor the Word of God incarnate and written when we preach effectively and faithfully, never turning the Bible into an idol but also never turning it into just another human document of ancient history. The Bible is indeed living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. But it is only this because of the Holy Spirit and the power of God at work in the church. The church itself, for that matter, only has authority because of the God’s agency in the Holy Spirit who constitutes the church as the gathering of the people of God.
Finally, as Christians, we need to relearn how to read. We live in a media-saturated age when reality TV and .mp3 players dominate our world. Books are foreign to the rising generations. Biblical literacy gets worse and worse with each passing year. This does not bode well for the church, and the only way to rectify it is to follow the command of God to the Israelite people:
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 6:5-9)