Why Nazarene scholars won’t embrace inerrancy

So I received in the mail one of those little books who people with a burning message on their hearts find the resources for which to mail a copy of their book to every pastor in America, or, in this case, every pastor in a particular denomination. This book was mailed to Nazarenes, and addresses Nazarenes specifically and by name throughout, arguing that the C/N has walked away from an inerrancy view of Scripture and that we are in grave danger. Nazarene theology texts, and even letters and emails to and from Nazarene theologians, from both today and several generations ago, are quoted throughout.

I read the whole thing while grilling some fabulous tilapia (give your tastebuds a shot of shalom and baste with McCormick’s Baja Citrus mix). There were no new arguments here, just the same ones we are familiar with: if you can’t trust the bible in every single assertion, no matter how far from the subject of salvation, you can’t trust it for ANYTHING. (Somehow, I have been able to be deeply in love with Jesus, and follow Him intentionally and in every way I can think of, all these years, without believing in the kind of inerrancy the author does… but that’s not good enough). The author does, however, with his selected texts, cause it to appear that Nazarene theologians once, several generations ago, held a strict inerrancy, but then those same theologians moved away from it within their lifetimes.

And that’s the thing. There’s a reason Nazarene scholars won’t embrace a strict inerrancy (we hold that it is inerrant in all things pertaining to salvation). The reason is that we can’t unlearn things we know about the Bible. We can’t unlearn all the places throughout the Scriptures where it is apparent we are not dealing with the words dripping from God’s own mouth, Qur’an-style. Paul can’t remember who all he baptized. People who bash enemy infants’ heads in on stones are blessed. Paul requests his coat be brought, cause its chilly. Paul says “now the following words aren’t from the Lord, they are my opinion…” The Book of Daniel is a hodge-podge cut and paste of languages and first-person, third person, with several dating issues, highly unlikely to have been written by one person named Daniel. It’s clear the Pentateuch really is comprised from multiple sources. Big deal, what’s the problem? I don’t’ have time to list the examples. The author of the mailed-to-you-free! book does the typical inerrant argument: if Jesus referred to Moses as the author of the Torah, then the documentary hypothesis can’t be true! This is such a strange idea, as if Jesus’ goal were to correct any historical or cultural or scientific misunderstandings  his generation entertained! And ignores basic concepts of how language works. (I call my son’s car ‘Tanner’s’ even though it’s legally mine.)

So anyway, here’s my takeaway. Nazarene scholars won’t embrace the fundamentalist inerrancy view, because of the evidence right in front of them as they look at the Scriptures.  Apparently our early scholars also came to that conclusion as the evidence stacked up in front of them. Interesting, to me, is that hundreds of years ago committed Christians were noticing the same things in the texts – including Adam Clarke, John Wesley, John Calvin and Matthew Henry! Our fundamentalist friends indicate you can’t really embrace the Scriptures and follow Jesus without strict inerrancy, but history shows that plenty of people do.

Why this blog?

The reason for this blog is because I believe that Christianity is once again moving through a phase change, shifting, morphing, as it has many times in the past 20 centuries. At this intersection of the modern and postmodern ages, many people are trying to reassemble a Christian theology that makes sense to them and takes into account the new things we are learning (as happens in every century of rapid discovery). They are trying to hold onto (or find for the first time) a Christian faith that has new answers because the answers we inherited from modern evangelicalism do not actually work satisfactorily. Doctrines like original sin, hell, the Bible, other world religions, predestination, Greek ideas about omniscience, what the Gospel IS, atonement, eschatology and many more are all in play. And they need to be, because this is what Christianity does, it responds in new ways of faithfulness to the time in which that group of Christians is living.

The idea that Christian theology has always been this beleaguered set of doctrines, now under attack from liberals is simply untrue to history. Christian theology has morphed and changed dramatically down through the centuries, always integrating new insights, new things learned by experience, in symbiotic relationship with the culture around us or the new ones we enter, just like Jewish theology was doing before and after the time of Jesus.  An easy example is atonement theory. Western Christianity has cycled through at least six major atonement theologies in the past 20 centuries. Each of them made plenty of use of Scripture and each of them made sense in the culture of their time. Old ones gave way to new ones when the old ones no longer made sense in the culture of the day. Wherever Christian theology ends up in 50 or 100 years, it is of course not the end of the process. We are simply swimming in the part of the stream we are in at this time in history.

And that’s the point of this blog. To be part of that process, part of the conversation, give people a chance to read and think through some of the things that friends and colleagues of mine are talking about these days. It’s part of loving God with all our mind.

Some Christians will refuse. They will plant stakes in the ground and hold to whatever theology was last compiled in their tradition, as if it were the finale, the sin qua non, the age-old perfect expression of True gospel (even though it was compiled 500, 200 or 100 years ago!)  That’s ok, no use fussing with them all day. In the mean time, there’s work to do.



Was Jesus Omniscient ?

I grew up with an image of Jesus as God stuffed inside human skin. Among other ramifications (like not making the cross seem very scary for a Superman like that), this caused us to picture Jesus as omniscient just like God: a toddler already knowing E=mc2, a 5 year old staring off into space and when called to attention by Mary, saying “oh, a cheetah just took down a Thomson’s gazelle 1000 miles south of here, cool.”  Of course, that gazelle wouldn’t be known as a Thomson gazelle until named after explorer Joseph Thomson in the 1800s, but Jesus  Already. Knew. That. At 5. Cause he’s omniscient.

Except that the Bible doesn’t picture the pre-Ascension Jesus like that. The Bible says Jesus grew in wisdom. The Bible says Jesus was surprised at the centurion’s faith. The Bible says Jesus asked “who touched me?” Hebrews says Jesus learned. ‘Knowing what they were thinking’ does not mean Jesus was a mind-reader. I know what my kids are thinking quite often. Jesus was insightful.

And so, even if Jesus spoke of Noah’s flood as historical fact, even if Jesus spoke of Jonah as if it happened rather than being parable, (and we don’t know that he actually thought either of these things), but even if he did, it could mean he thought of these stories the way everyone else in his generation did. Because he wasn’t omniscient in the way we tend to think.

So when Ken Ham says that Michael Gungor needs to believe in the exact historical accuracy of the Genesis flood account because obviously Jesus and Peter and Paul did, and so you can’t rely on anything they said if you don’t believe the Flood narrative is 100% accurate history, Ham is doing what Rob Bell called, a long time ago, ‘brickianity’ – where we build up a brick wall of doctrines, all supported by ones lower down, and we believe the whole construction will come toppling down if we wiggle a brick toward the bottom.

This is a very frightening thought for our fundamentalist friends. And so, whenever they hear something as inconsequential as the views of a Christian singer concerning a six-day Creation (or the Flood narrative, or whether Adam and Eve are historical or parable), they react strongly and defensively. Because, in their minds, all of Christianity is under attack. But Gungor is right. Many, many, many of us follow Jesus without taking everything in the Bible as literal.

I wonder if the same people upset by Gungor’s “unbiblical” views will be just as outraged by the next idiotic, unbiblical Left Behind movie?

Urban gardens – A Kingdom issue

Instead of focusing a disproportionate amount (or all!) of our energy dickering over some of today’s  hot button  issues, such as the various ways of how to interpret Paul’s doctrine of justification, or who thinks what about hell, Christians should be focusing some serious energy on this. Poor people living in cities end up eating trash from gas station marts because there are no grocery chains around. This is not yuppie-hippie-foodie nonsense, this is an issue of how does God want people to live? In parts of New Orleans where my oldest son spent the summer in ministry, residents would need to take three consecutive busrides to secure groceries. Obviously they aren’t going to do that – how would you even get more than an armful home with you, not to mention keeping cold stuff cold? Christians, of all people, should be very concerned that people are stuck eating processed junk that lands you right into diabetes and anti-Shalom. This is a Kingdom issue, if you think the Kingdom is about more than escaping Earth before Armageddon. This is a matter of Christian conscience, and should be a part of the evangelical conscience. See this encouraging story about NYC. We need more of this:


There are no unholy things, only unholy actions

I don’t believe anything in the cosmos is unholy. It’s all sacred, by virtue of being created by God. (Which might lead us to why hell can’t be what modern evangelicals imagine it is, but that’s a talk for another time). {And Ken Ham’s assertion that any extraterrestrial beings from other planets would have been contaminated by Adam’s fall, yet outside the chance for redemption since Jesus was a man, is so utterly ignorant and idiotic I don’t even want to talk about it.} So: there are no unholy things, only unholy actions.

I believe the entire separation of ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ or profane things in the Temple/Tabernacle/Levitical codes are one big object lesson. One bowl is not more holy than another. We cannot treat that as literal, intrinsic composition. Set apart or not, it’s not the point. In fact, “set apart” theology ultimately leads to screwed up, hideaway behavior by the community of faith when we pull back from the world in order to imagine we are holy and they are not. Contamination. Yes, it’s often been the story of 20th century Christianity, and we can see where that’s gotten us.

I don’t know too many evangelicals who think mixing meat and milk or wool and flax are inherently evil. Or that one shouldn’t trim the edges of their beard. These are object lessons. The rule had a telos, not a rule for the sake of a rule. It was a lesson, not an ontology.

Matter is not evil.  Irenaeus settled that well. By definition, anything made by God must be holy. God cannot make evil. There are unholy actions. Things we can do that are evil. There are not evil objects. When we apply ‘unholy’ to objects, we end up calling people evil or unholy: children conceived out of wedlock, people who haven’t heard certain things about Jesus, neighbors we know who are loving and kind but don’t know the Messiah consciously. To call them evil or unholy is a category mistake, an insult on the doctrines of creation and imago dei, a variety of Gnosticism, and very poor, unworthy theology.  People have used that kind of theology to justify killing others, including non-combatants,  for a long, long time.