Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART THREE

I meant to get back to this a lot sooner, but life intervened. This is Part Three of some thoughts on the doctrines of Original Sin and the Fall as they’ve come down to us in the West, predominantly with Augustine’s influence in mind, and how those doctrines are intertwined with Creationism, vs. evolution, etc. A Facebook conversation got this all rolling; here are some more of a sort of stream-of-consciousness response I wrote:

One more thing. I don’t want to suggest that evolution is the opposite of Creation. I don’t even think Darwin thought that. I assume any evolution that (perhaps) did occur, was set in motion by God. Also, I don’t want to assume that the world is how God made it nor wants it, of course not! I don’t see God using evolution in Creation is the same as saying the world full of violence, idolatry and rebellion is how God made it nor intends it to be. Many people have suggested that death’s entry into the subject refers to spiritual death, though this is nuanced, but meaning that natural death was an original part of the world. When snow geese eat grass, they kill it, because they don’t graze, they pull it up by the roots. Literalizing no death in the natural world in Genesis 1-3 would mean originally snow geese didn’t kill grass when they ate it. That seems a stretch regarding everything we know about the natural world. Rather than perfect, in the sense of flawless and deathless, this view goes, God made a world still in development, with the ultimate goal being perfected when even the physical death in the current world will be swallowed up. This take (not described very well by me in a small space) may not be one everyone wants to utilize, but if it helps people find Jesus, get over the hurdle of a view of the natural world they feel is as absurd as the medieval ascending spheres of perfection, I’m for letting people hold various views toward Creation etc so these things don’t unnecessarily bar them from coming to Christ. I’ve seen people stand three feet from me in intellectual anguish because they wanted to follow Christ but thought they had to be Young Earth 6 Day Creationists, and as scientists, they couldn’t be that intellectually dishonest with themselves. When I said, regarding the stories in Genesis 1-3, (true story) “It looks like a poem, I don’t feel the point is we need to take it literally, we need to learn what it says about us” their relief was visible. They’ve been happily and visibly serving Jesus ever since.”

At this point a close friend said: “I never espoused the idea that a belief in Creation is necessary for salvation. All I said was that disavowing a more literal interpretation of creation by God leads to some doctrinal hurdles that are difficult to overcome. If we’re talking about throwing doctrine out to save souls, I’m a bit Leary of that for a few reasons: 
1-if we toss out doctrine that makes people feel uncomfortable so that they are more easily reached, at what point do we stop throwing doctrine out? What about when they say, “I feel like I can’t accept the singularity of Jesus for salvation because that would be intellectually dishonest because I’m a comparative religions major”? Are we to accept pluralism and universalism? Are we to become Unitarians?”

This is a response I run into fairly often, the idea that if we work on any particular doctrine, everything will come crashing down. Or that working on a doctrine is the same thing as throwing it out altogether. I respond with this:

All of our theologies are in their 10th iterations, as they’ve been worked over again and again for centuries. And I think orthodoxy has been quite wide, so I’m not suggesting throwing out any doctrine necessary for someone to believe in Jesus, eventually there would be nothing left to believe of course! But I certainly don’t ascribe to the slippery slope analogy, as if nothing can change because everything might change! Fact is, “faith seeking understanding” has morphed Christian theology in radical ways over the centuries. If Augustine didn’t think Gen 1-3 needed to be taken literally, I think we can safely say someone considered orthodox can still believe in Jesus successfully without holding to a literalistic take on Adam and Eve and yet still not be accused of being logically and doctrinally inconsistent. As Steve Estep has written, the Apostles’ Creed states the Who of Creation, not the How of Creation.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest doctrine doesn’t matter. Though Jesus does indeed seem to indicate he offered “an easy yoke and a light burden”. What I think about doctrine is that we have habits of getting attached to specific iterations of them and sticking with that long after their meaningfulness in communicating the Gospel has passed for the culture. The continual re-work of the Atonement theories is the perfect example, Once one theory stopped being a viable explanation for a culture, they worked on another one that would make sense in their context. We are living in a stream of moving water, and doctrine has not been some once-for-all-passed-down-through-the-ages kind of thing. It gets re-worked, re-thought, amended and re-worded. In short, we learn. The idea that doctrine has remained untainted and unchanged for 2000 years and lately some liberals have attacked it… is untrue –  it’s been evolving all along! Since we still know Jesus is King, and Savior, and telos, I don’t see the problem. And when you let people of other cultures do theology without forcing them to pass through the Greco-Roman matrix, you’ll get theology that looks A LOT different than ours! More on that next time.

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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.

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.

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?

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?