Ricky Gervais, the boss (“David Brent”) in and also co-writer of the fantastic BBC series The Office, keeps me “havin a laugh” and entertained. Besides The Office, he also co-wrote and starred in another great BBC comedy series, Extras. I highly recommend both.
Months back a friend made me aware of some Youtube videos wherein Gervais works through, if you will, Genesis 1-3, offering reflections. I watch these on a monthly basis, sometimes weekly depending upon my mood.
Beyond being ridiculously funny, these videos also highlight various perennial issues and questions people in our culture(s) have with some traditional Christian positions related to and stemming from Genesis 1-3. So, watch these, “have a laugh,” and enjoy an entertaining encounter with some typical questions people have about various of our more traditional approaches to Genesis 1-3, creation, beginnings, etc… (more…)
Monday I returned from the SBL. My main reason for going was to visit friends, though I hoped to be inspired to new thoughts by some sessions. The latter was hit-or-miss (though mostly miss), though one of the more interesting sessions was on Kent Sparks’ recent book God’s Word in Human Words, which was heavily attended.
I’ve not read the book, though after the session think I’ll probably need to. The main point though, as most of you probably know already, is to present a case for a Christian approach to the Bible that takes much more seriously the advances of Biblical scholarship–i.e. by acknowledging that the Bible contains myth, composite texts, imbibes the historical/hermeneutical context of its day, and trying to find a sensible way of understanding “what the Bible is” and “what it’s purpose is” that makes sense of that.
Fascinating session for me on one front. All three respondents emphasized how good the book was, how necessary it was to fill an important gap, highly recommended it, etc. The only “major” criticism was Sparks tone which the respondents felt was a bit too forceful, though Sparks responded that he considered being softer, though felt that it would actually undermine the forcefulness with which he wanted his argument to be received, particularly by an evangelical audience that was prone to look for excuses to dismiss his argument altogether. I thought that was totally understandable. The sad thing is that some people will choose to dismiss him still because they’ll think he’s being a pretentious jerk and therefore not worth taking seriously (which is wrong: all the respondents said he presented the issues very judiciously). But honestly, this is an awfully lame criticism: it basically says that Christians are too sensitive to give an author the benefit of the doubt and hear what he has to say, and if that’s true to an extent, I think the blame falls more on the readers than the writer. Writers can’t constantly be worrying about that sort of thing and readers ought to know how to read judiciously and give a writer the benefit of the doubt and/or read through the tone.
Of the three respondents, two (Stephen Chapman and Bill Arnold) openly argued that from their perspective, it is a bit strange that Sparks holds onto inerrancy since the way he wants to use it empties the term of its practical value. That is, if you’re willing to admit there are both errors of fact and intent, as most scholars do, does “inerrancy” make sense as a descriptor? Bill Arnold then made a further observation from his Arminian standpoint that I found very interesting: he said that the whole question of trying to “save” inerrancy is strange because it’s never been a major issue for Arminians. According to him, they believe in Biblical authority, infallibility, etc., but they don’t think that for the Bible to ultimately accomplish its purpose for the church requires it to be perfectly “true” in the modern sense, nor that if it contains historical errors that it impugns God’s credibility. The Bible is true and effective in the sense that it accomplishes by God’s Spirit what He intends, not because it is subject to verifiability under a microscope. This point was fascinating to me because I didn’t realize the extent to which the pursuit of inerrancy was so varied. Arnold’s attitude very much reminded me of the one I often encountered while doing my MA and the Jewish Theological Seminary: for them, the starting assumption of why they read and use the Bible in religious life is that it’s from YHWH and is for His people; given that, the “problems” become puzzles to be solved rather than threats to faith.
I’m totally with Chapman and Arnold here. On the one hand, for a long time I’ve felt that if I’m willing to admit certain historical and textual problems, then continuing to call the Bible “inerrant” not only didn’t make much sense, but also made me sound duplicitous to those I explain my views to. Sparks defended his use of the term inerrancy, though his argument ultimately devolved into the claim that the Bible was inerrant in the sense that God superintended its writing, editing, etc., and was ultimately what he intended. For me, that’s perfectly fine: I’m jokingly fond of saying “I think God inerrantly inspired an errant Bible,” although that obviously doesn’t actually say anything about the factual content of the Bible (which I’m aware of when I say it). Rather than a claim of inerrancy, it is actually a claim about God’s providence; it’s a theological claim more than a bibliological one (if that’s a word). So incidentally, I don’t actually think Sparks, Chapman, or Arnold actually differ in what they actually think the Bible is, they’re differing only in the words they’re using to describe it.
A couple of points that I thought were important to draw from the discussion. First, people often refer to taking this line on the OT as a “low view of the Bible.” If anything, this session pointed out that the “low view”/”high view” distinction is a false one: the goal of the Christian is to properly understand God’s word, how it works, and how it applies to the Church throughout the ages. As such, there are right and wrong decisions, right and wrong beliefs, but not high and low ones. People like Arnold, Chapman, and Sparks aren’t saying the Bible is “low”; rather, they’re saying if these things are true, given that the Bible is God’s word, this is how we should read and use it.
Second, it is a category mistake to say–as some ignorant systematics profs have–that context can never be allowed to trump the Bible, or that choosing claims of scholarship is directly opposed to taking the Bible on its own terms. The fact of the matter is that interpretation always requires importing a context–whether we supply it unconsciously from our own life experience, whether we construct it from our own imaginations, or whether we try to supply it from our analyses of the worlds that gave birth to the documents. No matter what we do, we always sit in judgment over the texts we read; no matter we do, we are the arbiters of their meaning–even if along the way our study is attended by the work of the Holy Spirit.
(Dr. Peter Enns has posted a personal reflection about his growing realization of the significance of his teacher Harvie Conn, the namesake of this blog. He plans to follow up on the home page (the “blog” portion of the site) with a series of quotations from Conn’s most important book, Eternal Word & Changing Worlds.
About that book, Enns says
There are numerous literary high-water marks in the WTS tradition, and EWCW is one of them. In my opinion it is the single most penetrating and insightful theological work the WTS tradition has ever produced. One of the things that distinguishes this book from any other written by a WTS professor is the book’s missional (or as Harvie called it in the lingo of the day, “missiological”) focus, and how missional concerns should and in fact invariably do affect our theological constructs and how, as a result, we need to rethink the task of theological education.