Honest Conversations about the Bible

I’ve written a few posts about biblical inspiration, and some of the conundrums we face in trying to understand the human and divine interface in the Scriptures, and what that means for interpreting and applying  the Bible. Someone might ask, Why talk about this at all? Just believe!

Quite a few reasons, compelling ones for many people. (In no particular order), first, with widespread exposure to other cultures and the world religions today, many people ask “How is the Christian Bible different than any other religion’s Scriptures? Why would I consider it more authoritative than any other one?”  As hard as this may be for some Christians to comprehend, circular arguments that basically boil down to “because we say so” or “because the Bible claims that God says so” do not convince people. I’ve watched many young people walk away from church because no one would offer them better answers than “just believe what we tell you.”

Secondly, people know that the Bible has been used by Christians to promote some pretty terrible things: slavery, Crusade, racial prejudice, hatred, to name a few. This makes them wonder if the problem is in the Bible or Christianity itself and if there is anything good and life-giving to be found in either. They also know Christians have used the Bible to disagree with science, (for example: Galileo, Copernicus, and the earth revolving around the sun), and latter realized  science was actually right.

Third, people have enough information today about history, archeology, the human input to the Bible, and how the Scriptures were gathered together, they wonder how to reconcile the human aspects of this Book with the claim that it is Divinely inspired. As I’ve mentioned before, when they read Paul saying things like “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else” or “now this isn’t a word from the Lord, it’s from me…” they wonder how many other places like this reflect the human element in Scripture, and in what sense it is Divinely-inspired. Psalms about bashing infants’ heads on the rocks in revenge cause them to wonder the same thing.

Fourth, people have figured out that certain parts of the Bible are true-er than others, and we are to treat certain parts of the Bible differently than others. For example, look at the book of Job. Throughout the book Job’s friends make theological arguments they insist are true. But at the end of the book God Himself declares that they were wrong and so were their statements. So, throughout the book of Job, we have theological statements about God that God later says are incorrect. We clearly would be mistaken to assume that the speeches of Job’s friends are to be understood as revealing the truth about God. If we are to learn the lesson from the Book of Job, we have to see the larger picture painted by the whole book, and not assume every verse is equally true about God. God Himself says they aren’t. We would mis-understand the clear intention of the book of Job if we treat each verse as equally, literally true.

I want to keep this short, so I will come around to this subject again later. But suffice it to say, 21st century people have many, and sometimes new, questions about the Bible’s true-ness, and working through a doctrine of Inspiration that makes sense of everything we know is important for those who don’t want to “check their brains at the door and just believe” whatever we tell them.

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The Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration

Once a brilliant friend of mine who works for Compassion International told me about a theory of biblical inspiration he had heard about in graduate school. He had never been able to find any information on it, and neither have I, but both of us were intrigued by the potential movement forward that could possibly be in, near, or around this idea. He had heard it called The Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration.

“It’s like a Hallmark card,” he said. “You pick one up and read it and say ‘that’s a good card! That’s exactly how I feel about my wife.’ And you buy it.” In a similar manner, this theory says, God did not inspire human authors proactively while they were writing, but He looked at what some people who loved him/ were sensitive to His Spirit,  were saying about Him and started picking things. “That’s a good letter, I’ll take that. That’s a great story, it describes exactly what I’m like, I’ll take that too. I’ll take these four gospels about Jesus – they got it right…” etc. etc.  In this view, God is picking the best, the truest things that have been written about Him and pulling it together into what we have today – the Bible.

A theologian friend of ours, Dr. Eric Flett of Eastern University, commented, “Ah, like the adoption theory of the atonement, except for Scripture.” Well, yes.

This reverses the order in which we typically imagine Inspiration occurring in. We tend to think top-down. This is bottom-up. One thing for sure, bottom up is how the books of the Bible were collected. The people of God agreed that this letter, this gospel, these psalms, etc.  are life-giving and spark and nurture our relationship with God when illumined by His Spirit. Even in cases where a portion of Scripture is given (the Mosiac Law Code), the people of God still decided, generation after generation, to keep it.

I suppose that the assumption of the Hallmark idea is that it isn’t that every word of the Scripture is the absolute truth about God, but that the book/letter/collection of psalms/etc. as a whole reveals important things about God, the best available at that time. This Hallmark idea, though it certainly doesn’t solve all our questions about Inspiration, (and in fact raises plenty of its own), brings several things to my mind.

1) Brevard Childs’ thought on canonical exegesis.

2) C S Lewis once commented on what he figured was the relative nature of inspiration, or inspiration by degrees. He said something along the lines that he assumed that the prophet Isaiah felt a much stronger thrust of inspiration from the Spirit than, say, the writer of 1 Chronicles. Upon hearing it, this seems common-sensical to me. Did the court historian of 1 & 2 Chronicles even have any idea he was writing Scripture? I’m going to go with “probably not.” Did Isaiah know he had a message from the Lord? Absolutely.

3) I have also heard something similar described as an “incarnational” model of Scripture, in which God accommodates inspiration to the limitations of the world-view, such as the historical and scientific knowledge, of the writers.

So, if there is anything helpful in the Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration, where do we go from there?

Next time: Why talk about this at all?

Christian Mysticism? Calvin, Wesley and Spurgeon say ‘Yes’

A couple days ago I stumbled onto YET ANOTHER blog warning of the terrible dangers of mysticism.  Typically these sites warn of the mysticism in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the new emergent churches. The world is a fascinating place, and I find it ironic in the extreme that Fundamentalism, in order to protect Christianity from the modern scientific worldview, adopted the modern scientific worldview toward the Bible and the faith! Somehow these good folks are convinced that the Christian religion is a head-oriented, logical, rational set of beliefs devoid of mysticism.

No mysticism in Christianity? How about the Holy Spirit being present INSIDE believers? How about prayer? How about  communion and baptism? How about the Spirit testifying to our spirit that we are children of God? How about dreams and visions? How about the Creation itself yearning for the sons of God to be revealed? How about the Inspiration of Scripture? How about “You will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”? Can you call all that something other than mysticism?

No, no – they say –  mysticism is part of Eastern religions.

Ummm…  Judaism and Christianity were born in the Near EAST. They ARE  Eastern religions! They aren’t French or German. Christianity actually predates Calvin and Luther.

The blog I stumbled onto traced the etymology of mysticism to ‘mystery’ – aha! The mystery cults! Uh, box canyon. Blind alley. Circular go-cart track. Etymologies don’t really prove a point in this context.

Words, you may have noticed, are like bright-eyed toddlers who refuse to sit still where you tell them to. They run all over the house – and the pandemonium gets even livelier when they collide with their Latin cousins.[1] The word ‘mystical’ has been used by Christians to describe the mystical, spiritual experiences  of Christians throughout our history. Even many of the fundamentalists’ favorites!

John Calvin speaks of “the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union…”; refers to Jesus’ words at The Last Supper as “a mystical benediction” and calls our incorporation into Christ’s church “a mystical marriage” throughout his sermons and Institutes.

Charles Spurgeon uses the word these same ways, and calls both the prophet Daniel’s visions and dreams “mystic,” as well as the Apostle Paul’s experiences.

John Wesley called Psalms which pointed forward to Christ  ‘mystical references to Christ’;  any reference in Scripture to Jerusalem that he took to indicate the church he said mystically refers to the church; throughout his sermons and commentary he refers to the church as Christ’s ‘mystical’ body and believers as “members of Christ’s mystical body”;  he refers to the Mystics of his day and the Middle Ages “those pious men who are usually styled Mystics” and calls the prophetic allusions in the Old Testament “mystical promises of abundant grace poured forth in gospel-days.”

The long and short of it is this. Somehow our fundamentalist brothers and sisters have gotten the idea that mysticism is something foreign to biblical faith and Christian experience. Whatever twists and turns of history resulted in them earnestly believing this, the fact is that mysticism – mystical experiences – have always been a part of both Jewish and Christian faith, starting in the Bible.


[1] Thank you Tom Wright for this delightful illustration.

Paul didn’t have a BACKSPACE button

I went down to Hagerstown, MD yesterday to have lunch with a blisteringly smart and gifted colleague who also used to happen to be one of my protégées. We were riffing back and forth on the subject of inspiration and how evangelicalism has a strong feel for the ‘divine’ part in Biblical inspiration, but we don’t have a very robust sense of what it means that the human writers were involved. As a result, many folks end up with an operationally Qur’anic view of Scripture (the words falling directly from God’s lips – the human hardly involved at all except as a typewriter). In contrast to this, my friend says “It’s not like Paul had a backspace button.”

In fact, it appears Paul didn’t have his laptop with him a lot of the time – he can’t even look up (nor remember) who all he baptized. And that faulty memory… is part… of Holy Scripture (1 Corinthians 1: 14-16).

And so here’s Paul, pacing back and forth, ripping off a letter (with his secretary writing as fast as he can to keep up), dealing  with whatever church issue he was responding to, ranting at times, and he makes a side comment to further illustrate the point he’s making. He makes it on the fly, not sitting around wordsmithing at a computer screen. We preachers  do this all the time in sermons. Add a line or two spontaneously that we think helps further illuminate what we are saying from a different angle. But after the sermon, if pushed, we might say “Wait, no – that one comment wasn’t the point of the sermon – I was just adding that – don’t try to make that one example carry too much water – it only works if you look at it this way…”

If this is the case, we have a problem when we get a Qur’anic view of Scripture lodged in our heads, (all divine – virtually no human influence) and as a result start acting like all verses are equal. So you end up with Luther grabbing a sentence or two from Paul (made on the fly?) and concluding that the Mosaic law was a bad thing. Later you have Calvin come along, take a much broader look at what the whole New Testament  –including Paul – has to say on the subject, and conclude that the Law was a good thing.

Paul didn’t have a backspace button. And it looks very much like he was ranting in some of his letters – moving fast, making his point, falling into poor grammar and mile-long sentences. In everyday human life we give people the benefit of the doubt and say “Well, he didn’t mean that the way you are taking it. He was just making his point. Don’t take that with the same level of seriousness as when he is calmly, carefully stating his point…”

Is there a way for us to accommodate the human factor in Scripture as well? Paul’s memory in 1 Corinthians 1 isn’t the only place we come across indications there is more to the human aspect of inspiration than simply being flesh-and-blood keyboards. Luke states unapologetically that he did a bunch of research  in order to get the story straight about Jesus (Luke 1: 1-4). The Psalms express a range of very human emotions, including the desire to kill an enemy nations’  infants by smashing them on rocks (Psalm 137:9). Anyone ever heard of the phrase ‘noncombatants’ ? Whatever we are going to do, it seems we ought to be thinking carefully  how to deal with the very human aspect of what we mean by ‘Divine Inspiration.’ What sort of metric can we use to factor this in?

Brian McLaren on Choosing a Church

A week or so ago  I saw on a blog where someone asked Brian McLaren what church or denomination  he would recommend. (Yes, that Brian McLaren, whom our fundamentalist and hard-core Calvinist friends consider the Anti-Christ). Brian responded with a list of 5 issues important to him in choosing a church. I think this is one fantastic list.  I wish I had written it myself. I am copying it from his blog at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/brianmclaren/2014/01/qr-which-denomination/

A List for Choosing a Church/Denomination:

1. Hand/Mission: Is this denomination more oriented toward maintenance, self-benefit, or the common good of the world? In what ways is this denomination practically expressing its commitment to join God in bringing blessing to the world? Is the denomination more dominated by tradition/the past than by mission/the present and future.

2. Heart/Spirituality: Does this denomination promote personal and communal encounter with God, the neighbor, and the other and enemy, or is it preoccupied with correctness, numbers, politics, and institutional maintenance or aggrandizement?

3. Head/Theology: Does this denomination create space for vibrant theological reflection, imagination, and investigation? Or does it suppress theological curiosity in order to unquestioningly support a predetermined set of conclusions? Does it expect the Spirit to continue to guide us into truth?

4. Backbone/Structure: What kind of support and accountability does this denomination provide to support its staff and members in mission? How nimble and flexible is the structure?

5. Open arms/Ecumenism: Does this denomination wall itself off from other Christian communities, and other faith communities – or does it use its structure as a bridge to facilitate collaborative relationships? And is this denomination interested in welcoming me?