What is the Bible?—Part 1

With the publication of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (2013), Evangelicals continue their on-again off-again conversation about the nature of Scripture (its inspiration, authority & truthfulness). Peter’s Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation (2005) brought what was a back-burner issue and moved it front and center. And it looks now as if another WTS Old Testament prof is in trouble. Similar to Enns is Kenton Sparks’ (2012) Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (centered more on the question of divine violence).

A slightly different perspective on the debate can be found in Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (2007) which we’ve introduced already. Allert approaches the subject of what the Bible is and what it’s for within the context of the development and determination of the canon. Very worth the read. I liked it just for the different approach it offers.

In response to challenges to traditional evangelical views, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (2012; eds. Bock, Hoffmeier, Magary) offers a conservative evangelical view. And with the increasing adoption by evangelical scholars of an evolutionary understanding of human origins (and others that view Genesis 1-3 as indifferent to the question of origins), the question of ‘inerrancy’ is fully front and center once again, as is evidenced by the Evangelical Theological Society’s 2013 Annual meeting in Baltimore dedicated to discussing the question—yet again.

Dwayne and I thought we’d like to share some of our thoughts on this important matter. These are not final conclusions by any means. We have questions on aspects of this issue like others do and would like to offer a few suggestions as a way to process how we’re coming to understand Scripture as uniquely inspired.

(1) ISRAEL AND ITS HISTORY AS A SUITABLE CONTEXT FOR INCARNATION. Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of one’s understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop his sense of a unique identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficiently truthful to inform that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation. Creation is the context for incarnation to begin with, yes, but beyond that the construction of a suitable context for identity formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.

Thus the history of Israel — her identity as a nation, her calling, her religious traditions and her Scriptures — is the context that will inform the development of the Word’s identity and mission. This context must be sufficiently truthful for that purpose. And the place this history is primarily embodied is, of course, Israel’s Scriptures. The worldview housed in that tradition will become the context in which Christ develops his own sense of identity and mission in the world, communicates that identity and mission to his disciples, and is finally empowered to fulfill that mission in his death. Hence that context needs to be sufficiently truthful for this purpose.

This is demonstrated when we see Jesus in fact identifying himself and his mission in terms of being the fulfillment of Israel’s religious traditions, hopes and her unique calling. And the truth of that identification is not incidental to the fulfillment of his mission through death by violent means. It empowers Jesus to endure his Cross and is further validated by the resurrection. We should conclude therefore that Jesus’ first-century, contextually defined self-understanding is sufficiently truthful to govern his sense of unique calling and to empower him in the pursuit and fulfillment of it. This is what the NT means when it speaks of God validating Christ’s identity and mission by raising him from the dead.

(2) SCRIPTURE AS INSPIRED. We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.

What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way.

Where it concerns “texts,” inspiration is not God conscripting merely the faculties of human subjects and supervening upon their exercise to compose statements which might have been foreign to their human authors prior to the composition of the text. Rather, inspiration has as its object primarily the enlightenment of the human author, perhaps over the course of years through many experiences, and only secondarily the complexities involved in seeing that texts are composed a certain way.

For example, a text like Galatians simply is Paul — in all the complex relations and beliefs that defined him at that point in time, including God’s presence at work in him, perhaps over decades, sufficiently shaping his worldview. Once that is done, simply put a pen in Paul’s hand and leave him to say what he believes. Hence, the letter is no more or less than who Paul the believer had become at that point. God is no more present in the letter than he is in the man who writes. So inspiration doesn’t, it seems to us, write texts per se, as much as it shapes persons who are freed to speak and write what God has done in them.

Might some errors belonging to these persons find their way into the text? Yes. No human author possesses an inerrant set of beliefs. No one person’s transformation and world-construction is complete or error-free. But overtime, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said in enough ways that a worldview is formed adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body. This means we view inspiration as relative in the first sense to preparing a context adequate for incarnation and not primarily about providing us a philosophical or scientific textbook with inerrant answers to whatever questions we might put to it.



5 comments on “What is the Bible?—Part 1

  1. kurtkjohnson says:

    yay, I’ve been waiting for this one!


  2. Excellent thiughts Tom, as usual. Also a very thoughtful rendering of the relationship of Christ to Israel. Some of those thoughts are new to me. Thank you. I have kept up with almost all of your recent posts and also many from the past. Something has happened to me in the last 6 weeks and I have begun starving again for God…for Christ…and consequently for theology. Your blogs have both
    helped create that and sustain that. I
    am currently reading Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God and it
    is completely excellent. You said that one of the criticisms of OT is that it is not grounded enough Christologically. I think you might find Moltmann’s book very helpful concerning that.


    • tgbelt says:

      HI Larry! Moltmann is certainly popular! And he has some stimulating thoughts.

      Would love to hang out again. We’ll have to work on that!

      Holler if you ever get up to the Twin Cities. You always have a place to stay!


  3. rwwilson147 says:

    Extraordinarily simple, clear, and helpful framing of the nature of scripture. Thanks be to God for who you are. 8>)

    Liked by 1 person

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