One of the first threads that we collaborated on here on the site was one about “Authority” in Christianity. It is something that all non-Roman Catholics need to think about. We went over some bible and sola scriptura stuff. But a few recent comment threads have begged the question again of what Scripture is by it’s nature.
The exchange is usually in agreement that Scripture is authoritative, and even inspired, but how it is and what that means is what we tend to disagree about. So I thought I’d give this another stab, though, as always, I make no claims to being infallable (or is it inerrant?) on this.
I want to start first with some apophaticism (or ‘negative’ theology). It might be easier to begin by asking what is Scripture not?
The Bible is NOT:
- A ‘pure’ reproduction of “God’s words” – That is, the writers were not transcribers. Our understanding of God’s Words in the bible are absolutely different than an Islamic understanding of Allah’s words in the Quran.
- A list of propositional truths about God’s actions or nature – There are two ways I mean this. A) I do not support the “univocity” of God’s “being” and our “being.” And so, even if we took a certain statement from Scripture concerning God to be “true”, it is to us only analagous to what God is in his essence. B) ‘A “proof-text” does not a proposition make’
- Inspired in the same way throughout the whole – Ad hoc pastoral direction in pseudo-pauline letters are not as authoritative as sustained theological reflection in, say, Romans or the Gospel of St. John
- A single massive book – It is a collection of books which where shaped canonically and which underwent a canonical history (btw, I happen to think the Hebrew Bible order makes the most sense theologically)
- In any way shape or form; Inerrant OR Infallable – The two are, after all, exactly the same thing. One for the ballsy fundamentalist, the other for the conservative Evangelical who wants to read the scholars. *more comments on this below*
- Authoritative – WHAT!? That is to say, the book, lying on a coffee table, does not in itself have authority. God exerts his authority through Scripture upon the reading community. The unread text has no authority.
I imagine that is enough of a bee’s nest to get me in trouble around here (with some). But I want to explore some other things which I feel must be accounted for in a theology of Scripture. I myself do not know how to reconcile them all together, nonetheless I feel that they all contribute to what Scripture IS. Though, it seems to me that what Scripture IS is not quite as important as what it DOES.
A theology of Scripture must include…
- The reality of the history of individual texts – To understand how God reveals himself to his people, and how Scripture is itself a “revelation” of God, then the idea of God’s inspiration of the biblical texts must be open to the embodied, political, checkered history of individual texts and texts as they relate to one another. For instance: It is standard scholarly opinion that the prophetic book of Isaiah is a redacted collection of three distinct books, written at three distinct times, collected, elaborated upon, and redacted together at a point in the late exilic/early post-exilic period. This is not to say that they do not contain a fair amount of the real words and trajectories of the prophet Isaiah, nor is it to say that as it stands it does not provide a coherent piece of “prophetic imagination,” nor is it to say that it should be interpreted chopped up to bits. It is to say that the complex history of the text as it came to it’s final shape as a unity, and as a book in the canon, must be accounted for in a theory of its “inspiration.” This is one example why I place the work of the Holy Spirit in the believing Community at the forefront of my understanding of what Scripture is.
- The relation of texts to one another – There are times, within the Scripture themselves, when one text purposely aims to alter the theological and/or historical claims of other Scriptural texts. A paradigmatic example of this is the history of Israel given to us by the Chronicler over and against many parts of the “deuteronimistic” history of Kings or the other related historical texts. Or the tensions in the NT between the chronology/theology of Acts and Paul’s own picture in his letters, or the corrective of the letter of James to the writings of St. Paul.
- The comparison of the hard texts themselves, via Textual Criticism – I am well aware that the vast majority of textual variants are minor and irrelevant. But not all are, and the method can only bring us “back” to the “earliest texts available” and not necessarily the “original text.” What does it mean to say that the book of Acts in Codex Bezae is inspired?
- The reality of “borrowing” from other texts/cultures/myths – What does it mean to say that Genesis is both inspired and that it is a creative and subversive retelling of other creation myths from other peoples?
- The ad hoc nature of certain parts of Scripture – As for instance in certain parts of St. Paul
So far, this is all to say that what Scripture IS cannot be separated from where it has come from and how it came to be. Because, it seems to me, that what is of greatest importance in all this is how God reveals himself, and only secondarily how he does this in/through Scripture.
For a variety of complex reasons, most of which are probably beyond my comprehension, I have slowly come to place Holy Scripture into a larger framework of God’s revelation. Karl Barth’s 3-fold understanding of the Word of God has been helpful for me in reflection:
- The Word of God in/as Christ… – Jesus Christ himself is the logos of the Father. Especially in his death and resurrection, we get a the supreme picture of what God is and what his will for us is.
- …Witnessed to in Scripture… – If we want to use Scripture to understand God, it must be read through a Paschal lens
- …Preached in the community of faith – It comes to us as something handed down which transforms us and re-imagines us and the world.
So there it is. My completely unsystematic understanding of what it means to say that Scripture is inspired. It’s not pretty but it’s where I’m at. It is still the primary source of theological reflection for us as Christians, it is functions authoritatively in the Church, and when used faithfully can be counted on to unveil the God whom we worship. To use Anglican terminology, it is “sufficient unto salvation”
*epilogue* – If someone can give me a thorough and clear way to differentiate inerrancy and infallability I’ll give them $5. Adding qualifiers like “in matters of faith” as opposed to “matters of history” do not count since they can and have applied to both terms. As far as I can tell, these terms are used to safeguard the authority of Scripture in a community and are not actually relevant or true in regards to the nature of Scripture. Hence why a 5-fold Pentecostal can be fully recognized by a conservative Baptist. They are tied into the agreed formula of authority in Scripture, despite their wildly varying readings of Scripture. Their differences are no less wide than they are to Mainline understandings of Scripture, but as long as they have the “secret handshake” of “inerrancy” or “infallability” they get along. The more Evangelicals do exegesis, the more qualifiers they add to the terms. Just get rid of them!!!