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Errant Notions Part Three: The Self-Authorizing Book

Third in a series of posts examining common arguments and assumptions regarding “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible is without error in its every claim.

These next two posts will explore what are probably the most popular arguments for inerrancy today, namely that the Bible is inerrant because it claims to be (this post), and more emphatically because Jesus said that it is (next post). These assertions are closely related but I think they deserve to be treated separately. Distinguishing the perceived authority of the Bible from that of Jesus is a helpful and fruitful maneuver and most relevant to my goals in this series and this blog in general.

Because It Says So

Before we can explore what the Bible may or may not say in reference to its own inerrancy, there are some questions to ask and clarifications to be made. As with most of the arguments we’re considering, there are technical considerations that eventually give way to the more subjective and spiritual questions at the heart of this debate. The first question we need to ask is how any text, let alone the Bible, can be said to authorize itself. If someone asks, “how can I know that this book is reliable and free of error?,” how satisfying is the answer “because it says so”? Texts can make all manner of claims, but the claims themselves cannot constitute authorization. This type of self-authorization is not legitimate in law, science, or philosophy, so why should the Bible be any different? Without verification from an external authority or, better yet, personal experience, how can any book convince us that it is not only good, not only true, but correct in its every affirmation?

What “The Bible” Can Say About Itself

This forces the bigger question of exactly how “the Bible” might be said to make such a strange claim in the first place. The scare quotes aren’t meant to belittle or disrespect, but to highlight the problem we have whenever we claim to represent what “the Bible” says on a given topic. The Bible is a diverse and multivocal library of texts; some are conversant, some represent conflicting points of view, some are surely unknown to others, and all are absolutely unaware of their place in the context of a future canon. How can any single passage be said to address the inerrancy of every other passage in the whole collection, even those of other times, places, authors and communities?

It is germane at this point to examine the popular passages frequently used to make the appeal for inerrancy. I will divide these into two groups: passages which use an approximation of the phrase “word of God,” and those which directly address the topic of written texts.

a. “Word of God” Passages

In many Christian traditions, especially those which emphasize a doctrine of inerrancy, the phrase “word of God” has become synonymous with “the Bible.” This is usually bound up with the notion of God as the true author of all canonized scripture, with no human voice or opinion strong enough to obscure the divine truth. As a result, any passage that uses this phrase (or anything like it) can and tends to be treated as a reference to the whole Bible and its inerrancy. But while the phrase does indeed appear in the Bible (unlike other doctrinal catchphrases like “the fall,” “original sin,” or “trinity”), we will observe that it never refers to the full collection of canonized texts we know as “the Bible,” and that it usually has something to do with the personal decrees and purposes of God. A few examples will illustrate this:

Psalm 12:6 – “The words of YHWH are flawless, like refined silver…”

In this Psalm, attributed to David, the poet laments the absence of “godly” and “faithful” leaders to care for the poor and disenfranchised in Israel, until YHWH announces in verse 5 that He will “now arise” and answer the cries of the needy. The “words of YHWH” in verse 6 refers to this promise to care for the poor. There is nothing here about written texts, just an artistic juxtaposition of human failure and divine faithfulness.

Proverbs 30:5-6 – “Every word of God proves true…; Do not add to his words lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”

Taken as an isolated statement and out of context, this might sound like a warning not to alter the infallible words of scripture. However, reading the full passage, we discover a text in the Hebrew wisdom tradition that is not concerned with written words or books, but with human integrity. God’s “word” is not a text but His wisdom and provision. Those who “add to” those words are greedy ones who seek more than what God provides, who chase riches, lie, and mistreat the weak. The human author of the text beseeches God to save him from these people and their folly.

Isaiah 55:11 – “…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose…”

This is our first example that presents God as the speaker, and this passage is ubiquitous in inerrancy culture as a pronouncement of the unflappable power of the Bible. In context, however, it’s not about the Bible at all, it’s about the end of exile and Israel’s return to her homeland. The “word” that goes out from God’s mouth is the promise that rescue and restoration are at hand, and that this particular historical nightmare is finally coming to an end.

b. Passages About Scripture

Other selections deal explicitly with issues of texts as sacred scripture. These actually do concern the authority of the text, though the major contention continues to be the breadth of that authority. Can any Bible passage be construed as referring to the authority of the whole canon? These are the two most likely candidates:

2 Timothy 3:16 – “All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness…”

In Paul’s second letter to a young pastor named Timothy (authorship is disputed, though not by most inerrantists), the apostle gives advice to his protégé on dealing with his troubled congregation. In this verse, Paul reminds Timothy that scripture should always play a role in his teaching and ministry. He declares that scripture is “breathed by God,” which is the closest we’ve come to the idea of God as an author, or at least an inspirer, of written texts. But a question persists: to which texts does “all scripture” refer?

It might refer to any of the Hebrew Scriptures, or just to the Torah, or to some unknown configuration of early Christian texts. We know that it cannot refer to the New Testament, which would not be fully written, collected, or canonized for at least another century. It’s also worth noting an alternate but valid translation of this verse which reads, “all scripture THAT is breathed by God is useful for teaching…,” which is even more ambiguous. In any case, this passage concerns the inspiration and value of some unspecified collection of sacred texts, not the inerrancy of every word in our Bible.

Revelation 22:18-19 – “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

Since it lands on the final page of our canonized Bibles, it’s been easy to assume that this warning applies to the whole collection. It’s pretty clear at face value, of course, that the author is referring specifically to the prophecies contained in the latter chapters of this book, and that his concern is the integrity of the prophecy, not the inerrancy of the text. At the same time, textual scholars shine additional light on something else that may be going on here. Authors and scribes of ancient texts would often include warnings to plagiarizers and forgers not to mess with the contents of a scroll. This might well be a warning to other writers or pastors not to co-opt or alter this prophecy for their own purposes.

Humble Texts, Infallible God

These texts make strong claims, some about their own value, most about the character and goodness of God. What none of them do is assert or establish the inerrancy of the entire library in which they will one day be collected. No single text in the canon was ever equipped or positioned to do such a thing. The value of these ancient works is not their own inherent integrity, but their inspired witness to divine faithfulness. The texts of the Bible testify to the goodness and infallibility of God, not the other way around.

Here’s a reminder that my criticism of the inerrancy doctrine in no way constitutes an attack on the Bible. Quite the contrary, it is the claims of inerrancy which mischaracterize the Bible and sabotage an honest and fruitful reading of scripture. By imposing false uniformity and foregone infallibility upon the books of the Bible, we actually damage the witness of the individual components of the Bible and thwart opportunities for authentic learning and genuine revelation. The authors of biblical texts would surely be disheartened to know that the onus of glory and power had been transposed from God to their books.

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The Strange, Small Universe of “God’s Not Dead”

GND 5I’m not shocked that I didn’t enjoy the movie “God’s Not Dead.” I’m used to being underwhelmed by products of Christian pop culture and tend to avoid Christian movies altogether. But while “God’s Not Dead” has been largely ignored or dismissed by the wider culture, it has been celebrated in evangelical circles and is the subject of much ecstatic buzz on the occasion of its DVD release. So this weekend I dutifully watched it and was deeply disappointed, if not surprised.

“God’s Not Dead” is a strange and contrived story about a Christian college Freshman who stands up to a bullying atheist Philosophy professor. A series of clumsily related storylines converge, and this young man’s crusade to prove the existence of God brings several lost characters together at a climactic Newsboys concert (yes). Much has been said about the film’s cartoonish portrayal of a villainous atheist straw man, so I’ll focus on five other major problems I had with “God’s Not Dead.”

1. It’s Deeply Confused

As the title indicates, the movie features a dramatized philosophical debate about theism (the question of God’s existence). But then, suddenly and without explanation, it’s about accepting Jesus who says “if you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father” (Matt 10:33). And then, in a flash, it’s preoccupied with evolution. Now, I think I understand the assumptions being made by the evangelical filmmakers in connecting these three distinct questions, but the screenplay simply conflates them with no explanation. It must be dreadfully confusing for outsiders, the very people it is eager to reach.

The verse from Matthew (the only Bible verse quoted in the whole movie, if I’m not mistaken) is a statement from Jesus concerning Israel’s failure to recognize him as Messiah. It has nothing to do with theism or denying the existence of God. In fact, it assumes God’s existence and identity as “Father.” Jesus is speaking to fellow God believers (Jews), not atheist professors. Then, late in the movie, after the protagonist’s heroic deconstruction of evolution, a fellow student announces that he is “ready to follow Jesus!” These bizarre non-sequiturs betray the flawed presuppositions upon which the story is built.

2. It’s Profoundly Dishonest

“God’s Not Dead” has much deeper issues than its convoluted themes. It is also brazenly dishonest in its portrayal of, well, everybody. Every Christian in the movie is a happy, stable hero who has his or her affairs well in order. Every non-believer is a miserable failure or a hate-filled monster. This, more than any of the its other flaws, is why I’m so disheartened to see Christians embracing and celebrating this movie.

Christian characters succeed in this movie because they are Christians. Not even because they understand and embody the character and love of God revealed in Jesus, but simply because they have prayed a magic prayer and are on the correct team. Likewise, non-believers are bitter, angry and lost, suffering through life because the God they refuse to acknowledge is withholding his blessing from them. In the final act, the movie stops short of promising that belief in God can cure cancer, but they come perilously close.

We all know too many broken, unhappy people (and too many wise ones) from all walks of life to fall for this movie’s self-serving lie. The ethos of the Christian God is selfless love and reconciliation in spite of human failure, but this movie seems more interested in winning a modern day culture war. Good guys wear white hats, bad guys wear black.

3. It’s Both Pseudo-Intellectual and Anti-Intellectual

Like many evangelical apologetic exercises, “God’s Not Dead” wants to be taken seriously for its own intellectual engagement while mocking and denigrating its opponents for thinking themselves “too smart for God.” The movie’s hero Josh Wheaton rises to the challenge of atheist Professor Radisson and constructs complex arguments for theism using quotes from figures like Stephen Hawking and Charles Darwin (we get the sense that the screenwriters spent some late nights on apologetics websites). Elsewhere, Radisson and his academic colleagues openly mock and antagonize anyone they find less than erudite. It’s OK to be smart, but learn too much and you become one of the bad guys.

4. It’s Oddly Myopic

So maybe I’m not the target audience for a movie like this, but then again that’s sort of a major problem. The premise of this movie is that every human being on earth has a choice to make: to believe in God or not. The story it tells should be as meaningful and compelling and relatable as possible to the largest possible audience of humans. But the world of “God’s Not Dead” is a tiny one, wherein the brotherhood of humankind is represented by suburban Americans and a few stereotypical foreigners, and God is represented by a sub-sub-subculture of American Evangelicalism. I’m sure the writers and producers imagined that their movie would have a global impact, but their view of the world is weirdly small.

According to this movie, what do you get when you acknowledge God and “give your life to Jesus”? A Newsboys concert. With a special appearance by the guy from Duck Dynasty. What, that doesn’t sound appealing? Sorry, it’s all we’ve got. Maybe God just needs to open your eyes a little more! “God’s Not Dead” isn’t selling God or Jesus or even Christian values, it’s selling itself – American Evangelical entertainment. It’s about our team winning and dominating the culture. But even with the full toolkit of cinematic fantasy, they couldn’t imagine anything beyond what they’re already doing.

5. It’s Not a Very Good Movie

This is a low budget religious movie, so I’ll cut them slack when it comes to acting and technical accomplishment. But even as a low budget movie about Christians versus atheists, it fails to be believable, relatable, or compelling. The end credits reveal the true agenda of the movie, as a long list of court cases precedes the cast and crew. These are cases of Christian clubs and organizations claiming persecution by their host colleges and universities. If all along this was a movie about systemic persecution and suppression of Christian viewpoints in places of higher learning, they chose a most curious and ineffective way of dramatizing it.

Professor Radisson is an evil opponent of God, to be sure, but as far as we can tell he is acting as a renegade, not as a representative of a corrupt system. What he does in this movie is so absurdly wrongheaded and unethical (forcing students to sign a declaration that “God is dead,” telling a non-compliant student “I’ll make it my mission to destroy you!”), even the ACLU would surely side against him.

 

In the real life conversation about theism, I am happy to affirm my belief that “God’s Not Dead.” Unlike the makers of the movie, however, I see this affirmation as an opportunity for dialogue, transformation and reconciliation, not supremacy, exclusion and insulation. An increasing number of Christians like myself think the real question that deserves our attention is not “does our God exist?” but “what is our God really like?” and “how does what we believe about our God affect how we live and interact with others?” In the world of “God’s Not Dead,” these questions are silly and off-point. This is not an exploration or examination of what Christians believe and why, it’s a litmus test for evangelical culture warriors. Are you in or out? I guess I’m out.

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