What is the Bible?—Part 4


Two summers ago I offered a three-part series outlining some of our thoughts on the nature and authority of the Bible. This week Dwayne shared some interesting comments that I’d like to work into a Part 4 in answer to the series’ question: What is the Bible? First, let me clip a couple of lines from our earlier points 1 through 6, which we remain committed to, and end by trying to describe our sense of a new point No. 7.

From our earlier Parts 1-3:

(1) Israel and its history as a suitable context for Incarnation.
“Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of our 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 a unique sense of identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficient to inform and shape 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…The construction of a suitable context for this formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.”

(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.”

(3) Functional inerrancy.
First, “we suggest that Scripture ought to be a sufficiently truthful source for Christ’s first-century self-understanding as executor of God’s promises to Israel and the redemption of the world” and then also “its truth should be sufficient to inform and facilitate human transformation into Christlikeness. In a word, it must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this.”

“Scripture is ‘functionally inerrant’ where its function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness.”

“In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with. To want something more or other than that tends to idolatry.”

(4) Canonization of history.
“In choosing a particular man and his descendants to be the sufficiently truthful context into which God would incarnate, God chooses to identify himself as a covenant partner with Israel, and that means with her successes and failures, with the truth they perceive and the falsehoods they embrace, with the violence they pursue and the good they manage to achieve. It all gets chosen by God as the space in which God’s incarnational and redeeming work is embodied. This space is fallen but not so hopeless as to be void of all truth. God remains committed and engaged. In choosing Israel God is choosing the whole world. He simply chooses to work within this nation with respect to securing a context adequate for the Incarnate One who will mediate God’s purposes universally.”

“We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts alone) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history: a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions sufficient for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.”

(5) Christ-centered reading.
“For Paul, there simply is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ. This usefulness is for teaching, rebuking and correcting relevant to development of Christlike character and the doing of good works. Thus, the OT can be trusted when read Christologically to shape godly character and to empower the doing of good. That’s its purpose. Uses outside of this narrow purpose, whatever they are, are not explicitly embraced by Paul’s belief in the purpose of Scripture.”

“But traditional ‘inerrantists’ implicate the truth of any biblical claim in the truth of every other claim, so that if any link in the chain proves false, the purpose of Scripture fails utterly. We view the relationship not as links in a chain, one after the other and so on, but as bodies orbiting a center, and that center is the risen Christ. Christ exercises a gravitational pull, so to speak, over all of Israel’s traditions and texts which revolve in their orbit around Christ, sometimes approaching theological truth better than at other times. So where inerrantists typically see the truth of any one text…as implicated in the truth of every other text…we suggest viewing the truth of all texts as relative to Christ, so that Christ becomes the determiner of the relevancy of Scripture as a whole, the same way the Sun is the central force that determines the course and trajectories of those bodies that rotate around it. To what extent is the course trajectory of a planetary body ‘accurate’? To the extent that it maintains its course relative to the Sun, not relative to the orbits of other planetary bodies.”

(6) Sensus Communis.
A “communal reading” of Scripture — at least on the essentials. To be sure, there’s certainly a sense one could give to the notion of sola scriptura which is compatible with what we’ve already said in points 1-5. The Scriptures relay that sufficiently truthful historical-social-religious context necessary for the Incarnate One’s self-understanding and vocation. [The] incarnation, we argued, was the primary point of creation and election of Israel. Naturally, it is to the Scriptures (and not to the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Avesta of Zoroastrianism or the Quran) that Christians look to understand those events which ground their self-understanding, their religious inspiration and worship, their ethical core, and their missional/vocational calling.”

“What’s typically meant [by sola scriptura] is not only that the Scriptures are the authoritative source of doctrine and theology for the Church (there’s agreement there) but that the individual believer is the final arbiter in determining doctrine and belief for him/herself, a kind of creedal sola fidelis (the ‘believer alone’).”

“I…want to suggest that something is amiss with the sola fidelis reading. The Church after all is Christ’s “body,” a “community,” a “communion” of faith and identity formation. Only that community as a community can decide who they are, what they believe, and what they exist for.”

mind the gap

With that review in mind, I’d like to add a seventh principle:

(7) Scripture as communal meaning-making.
I’m not sure where I ran into the term “meaning-making” first or if it generated on its own in my head before meeting up with it elsewhere. One runs into the phrase everywhere nowadays. In psychology it describes the process by which we make sense of (either by giving meaning to or deriving meaning from) the events and relationships of our lives. Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) developed his logotherapy around the conviction that our drive to establish meaning and significance for our lives is fundamental to human being and that meaning can be established in the most horrific of circumstances. Development psychologists employ the term “meaning-making” to describe roughly the same process. Robert Kegan focuses on meaning-making in his book The Evolving Self (1982) and ends up equating ‘human being’ with this it unique meaning-making capacity. Theologians integrate this capacity into theological anthropology as well (James Loder and Marilyn McCord Adams come to mind). I love the phrase meaning-making. It’s entirely descriptive of human experience, isn’t pejorative, and doesn’t presume any specific philosophy or theology. It simply offers up empirically what we know to be fundamental and undeniable about human experience.

What’s involved in ‘meaning-making’ has been the subject of cross-disciplinary studies for decades. We’ve touched here and there in our blog upon what we think is essential to it:

  • Identity formation
  • Value assessment-integration of experiences and relationships
  • Irreducibly teleological disposition for aesthetic value
  • The Void as a necessary context for human becoming
  • The Face that cannot die (basically Loder and SK)

At issue is how our primordial meaning-making drive is understood as a dispositional aptitude or capacity for the experience of aesthetic satisfaction grounded in our God-given identity revealed in the gospel.

How this applies to our understanding what the Bible is and how its authority functions is what we’d like to explore here. It comes down to the narrative structure of meaning-making. We know enough about the brain to know that we process meaning by narrating stories to ourselves (and to others socially). So many have seized upon the narrative nature of personal and social existence, it’s time to apply what we’ve learned to our understanding of the Bible and its function within faith. We’d like to suggest that in order to better understand Scripture, we remind ourselves that social identity and vocation emerge and are maintained through shared stories that reflect and maintain a tradition of meaning-making. This may seem an innocuous thesis, but it undermines certain cherished approaches to the Bible.

So what has the narrative structure of meaning-making to do with the Bible? It makes Scripture completely understandable and appropriate as we have it (i.e., in the diversity of its perspectives, its textual history and traditions of interpreting and editing itself, etc.). Where many want immediately to go is to the truth question(s) because they’re sure the trustworthiness of any part of the Bible (e.g., John 3:16) depends upon the truth of every other textual claim. So it starts:

  • Is this text true? Did it happen this way?
  • Did Luke get the date of this census right?
  • Did Paul falsely conflate OT texts in 1Cor. 10?
  • Did the gospel writers confuse some of the events of the Passion Week?
  • Was there really an innumerable host of Hebrews who walked across the Red Sea to wander 40 years in the Sinai?
  • Are these Hebrews the source of a widespread military conquest and settlement of the Israel?
  • Will it hold up in debate against someone picking apart the textual history?
  • What will Bart Ehrman say?

Well, does the Bible behave in our hands and history like it was intended to be an inerrant book of recipes for decision making, church leadership, staffing church ministries, adjudicating moral dilemmas, political activism, raising children, and perfectly lining up historical events? Do Christians who all appeal to the Bible as final authority in fact share the same biblically derived conclusions on all these questions? No. Does anyone see a problem here? If this is how we’re to understand the Bible, then I think the Bible loses the debate as a book judged in recipe terms.

But if the Bible is a record of Israel’s (and by example, all humanity’s) struggle for meaning-making that finds its end in Christ’s power to transform individuals, then that changes the terms of the conversation. What we’re suggesting here, together with our previous points, is that the entire Bible is the very human story of an emerging community’s search for meaning. It’s meaning-making all the way. Some might immediately agree and wonder what’s new here. But others have placed their faith in a book because they believe its exceptional constitution provides them recipes for decisions, dilemmas, and doctrines. Where human social movements are all characterized by an ongoing struggle to make meaning, and this struggle can be reflected in their history (editing, correcting, reinterpreting, all in light of a certain mixture of ignorance and insight), many believe the Bible to be an exception to this. How so? Because inspiration, it is thought, exempts the biblical authors from such errors.

What we’re suggesting is that the Bible not be exempted from the messy, human business of hit-and-miss meaning-making, that rather than being an inerrant exception to humanity’s struggle to find meaning, the Bible be viewed as the example par excellence, a kind of template, of that struggle and its final redemption. Is there anything inerrant? Yes, Christ the Incarnate One. He is where Israel’s varied and messy meaning-making journey ends. Is there nothing unique about Israel’s Scripture? Certainly there is, namely, that it ends as explicitly as it does in Christ, the Incarnate One. It’s not different from other meaning-making journeys that have been documented. It is exempted by the magic of inspiration from all human error such that truths, and only truths, about God and the world can be picked up off the surface of its texts. On the contrary, it’s different from other meaning-making journeys in that God adopts this history, this people, this journey of meaning-making, as the sacred space in which he prepares an adequate context for incarnation. So there’s a covenant with this journey. It’s the history of God’s commitment to Israel’s entire journey, a commitment to engage Israel for a unique purpose that involves God and Israel in a unique way. But it doesn’t exempt Israel from narrating her own journey from all manner of error in understanding God or in interpreting her experience. Whatever Israel is—and she’s a mixed bag—so her Scriptures are.

Perhaps viewing the Bible as Israel’s history of meaning-making is entailed in other core commitments we’ve mentioned in this series. Still, it’s worth pointing out. Scripture isn’t just a Polaroid snap-shot of a mixed journey of meaning-making. In that case the ‘picture’ is something fundamentally other than what’s photographed. No, we’re saying Scripture is that journey (or at least an essential, inseparable part of Israel’s journey). We’re also saying that it couldn’t really be otherwise, not if Israel is redeemed, kept by God’s grace through faith and doubt, through getting it right and getting it wrong, and being kept by grace to welcome the Incarnation. How do we know God’s grace kept Israel if her records aren’t absolutely inerrant? We know because the Son was incarnate. He came. Apart from Christ, the Old Testament isn’t Scripture, since Christ is the end of the law for all who believe. Christ was what Israel was called to be, that to which God was always guiding Israel along. Could Christ perhaps also redeem the Bible as well? That is, could Christ be ‘the meaning’ that makes/interprets Israel’s varied history of meaning-making (as opposed to simply ratifying and confirming all that went before)? That’s what we’re suggesting; not that Christ is the ‘end’ (telos) that does away with the need for the Bible, but that he is the truth and meaning in light of which we read it.

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper shall we sink.

I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

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