A global conversation on the Bible?

I was told some while back that Steve Chalke was writing a piece on the Bible, and invited by someone to give a response; I refused on grounds of friendship – I did a formal response for someone else last time Steve published a position paper, and I don’t want to make it a habit…

…when I read Steve’s piece, however, I confess to being puzzled; I’ve now read it more than once, and I remain puzzled. So this is just me, responding as Steve asked us to, not with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, but with a ‘why?’ Because I’m puzzled.

On the Oasis site where Steve’s paper is posted it is introduced with the line ‘Steve Chalke calls on the world-wide church to have an open and honest dialogue about how we should understand the bible…’; in the paper, Steve says this directly: ‘I want to encourage a global discussion (for this is a global issue) around the following suggested principles…’ (p.5 of pdf). My puzzlement is simple: I thought we’d been having a global conversation, which looks to me pretty open and honest most of the time, for two millennia or so (I’m not a specialist on patristics, and there may be earlier texts, but the first systematic engagement with the question of hermeneutics I can think of is Irenaeus, ad. haer., written around 180AD; serious text criticism begins with Origen’s Hexapla which was put together about 50 years later – certainly before 240). Steve makes no reference either to the history of this conversation, or to its current contours; does he think that all of us who are engaged in it have together contributed nothing of worth? Or is he actually unaware of it?

Take one issue, more or less at random: Steve’s fourth bullet point begins: ‘We do not believe that the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible” in any popular understanding of these terms.’ (Footnote 15 defines the two words, as it happens wrongly, or at least in a very eccentric way.) Last year’s ETS conference was devoted to the topic of inerrancy and last year’s Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference (which I helped to organise and spoke at) was on the Doctrine of Scripture; recent books directly on the subject include – this is just from memory - Five views on Inerrancy, Greg Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (a robust defence of Chicago inerrancy), Andy McGowan’s Divine Spiration of Scripture (suggesting a European tradition of Biblical authority which is not inerrancy, and which is to be preferred to it), Pete Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (arguing for an incarnational model of Biblical authority – something I also tried in my contribution to Lincoln & Paddison, Christology and Scripture), &c., &c., &c. In my 2008 Laing Lecture (later published) I specifically addressed the issue of inerrancy in global perspective, pointing out it is a natively North American concept with little purchase elsewhere; a point Mike Bird made from his Australian perspective in his contribution to the Five Views book. I’ve since written about it from a specifically Baptist perspective in five or six other places. The conversation is happening.

The books mentioned offer perspectives from four or five continents; this is a global conversation (I’ve only listed books in English; I could name off the top of my head good books on the subject in  at least six other languages, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to discover many more). They do not agree (sometimes the clue is in the title: Five Views…), but there are a number of broad agreements on either negative points (‘you might be able to say A, B, C, but it is not possible to say X, Y, Z’) or conditional points (‘if you believe F, you have to also believe G;’ ‘if you believe H, you cannot believe J’). I could offer a similar list for every other point Steve proposes for conversation. Steve appears at several moments in his paper to be unaware of this conversation, or of the broad agreements it has reached – at times he proposes something that has been exhaustively explored in the global conversation decades ago, and found to be inadequate (of course such ideas can be revisited, but the usual manners of the conversation are that you discover why they were judged inadequate and show that there is a reason to regard that judgement as wrong or premature when you revisit them…)

The response might come that this is an academic conversation, and it is not happening at the level of ordinary church life. This does not ring true to me: to stay with the same examples, the Edinburgh conference we organised has always been intended to bridge the gap between scholarship and pastoral ministry, whether it has achieved that or not; the Five Views book is similarly intended to make scholarship accessible, and works well (for example Kevin Vanhoozer there gives a very lucid summary of proposals he has developed over several serious books). Further, when I go to talk to pastors’ meetings about preaching (which I have done quite a lot in the last few years), the question of how to handle difficult biblical texts, or translation or text critical issues, is always raised – this stuff is live on the ground amongst jobbing ministers (I’ve done those talks on three continents, so I suppose it is general); at Steve’s own request I’ve spoken on the genocide texts and other Bible difficulties at Spring Harvest events, and no-one greeted those talks with ‘I’ve never heard anyone mention that problem before!’. Moving beyond anecdote, Andrew Rogers’s work on congregational hermeneutics gives us a very good insight into the extent to which these questions are live amongst the laity in a couple of representative London churches; Bible Society have more data, and programmes pushing Biblical literacy forward on the basis of knowledge of where the conversation is really at, not breezy generalisations. To return to anecdote, but bring the point right home, I wasn’t at our church on Sunday evening (Heather and I alternate, one of us going out to the service and one staying in to put our five year old to bed), but Heather described the talk (on Hebrews) in glowing terms, specifically a point she found fascinating about the use of the Septuagint in OT quotation and how it differed from the Hebrew, and how that was put to use in the passage – I’ve made similar points from our pulpit in the past, and we are not special, just a mid-sized mainstream evangelical Baptist church in rural Scotland. This stuff is just normal.

Steve says ‘we’ a lot in his essay; I just don’t know who that ‘we’ is – it’s not anyone I’ve met. We have been having this conversation, at various levels (yes, of course speaking of ‘the Septuagint’ is a simplification of the actual state of the textual remains – you do that sometimes in sermons…), across the world, for a couple of thousand years. Pretty much every Bible difficulty was known by the time of Augustine (an African theologian, incidentally; c. 400AD). Of course, we need to keep talking about these things: there are always new generations and new converts who need to know where we’ve got to; but the conversation that I see does not need to start or to change particularly. There are, very occasionally, new questions thrown into the conversation (A few days ago, in Alabama, I was talking to a French Baptist scholar and church-planter; she pointed out that some of our standard accounts of Biblical inspiration depend on a relatively stable ur-text, but text-critical work connected to the Biblica Hebraica Quinta on early non-Hebrew versions suggests that there may be no good ur-text for certain parts of the Deuteronomic history – it’s a really good point (I knew of the data, but hadn’t made the theological connection), and we are already planning to get a few people together to talk about it before we next meet up in Singapore; global conversations are what we do…) but it’s rare; the conversation is robust, serious, honest, and global, and is happening at every level of academic knowledge.

So when Steve says he wants to start a global conversation, an ‘open and honest dialogue,’ I want to know why. Is he saying that those of us who have been having the global conversation have all, or at least have generally, been less than ‘open and honest’? If so, I think he needs to justify the charge or withdraw it. Has he just missed the conversation that has been going on? (In which case come on in, Steve, it’s fun, and you might learn something!) Or is he, like a climate change denier, trying to pretend the conversation hasn’t happened because he doesn’t like where the evidence has led? None of these options seem very plausible, but I struggle to think of another. I admit it – I’m puzzled…

17 Comments

  1. Joe Davis
    Feb 19, 2014

    Hi Steve. I’m not wanting to defend Chalkey’s article (which I like but he’s more than capable of defending himself!). Steve has a swagger (some say arrogance) when he writes, that always manages to stir up a storm.

    I don’t doubt this global conversation has been taking place for centuries, but I think the context has changed far more rapidly than we can keep up with. My pastoral experience in evangelical churches is that people have really lost confidence in the Bible and in many cases have simply stopped reading it! Yeah, even the evangelicals! (Maybe that’s in part my fault, I’m not as good a minister as many are.) I think when Chalkey says ‘we’ he’s speaking of the vast majority (in my opinion) of ordinary church members who haven’t been to a good Bible College, but do have access to the internet (and all the the ‘crazies’!). Many of these very intelligent and well educated followers of Jesus are troubled by the Bible, they have questions, and often times ministers are so busy running the organisation that they don’t make a safe space in church to explore these questions. I’ve learnt a great deal from you and others, thanks to my job, but in my opinion this conversation has yet to really connect with the masses. I hope it does and I hope you and Chalkey will be helping people find a way through and into the abundant life of the kingdom of God.

    • steve
      Feb 19, 2014

      Hi Joe,
      Thanks for stopping by. You might well be right (I’ve seen current stats on personal Bible reading, but not any trend stats over several decades) – but even if the problem is just as you say it is, it seems really odd to say ‘let’s start from scratch,’ rather than ‘let’s at least have a look to see if we’ve got anything useful lying around’.

  2. Steve Walton
    Feb 19, 2014

    Thanks Steve; I felt exactly the same puzzlement, and I’m grateful to you for articulating it so clearly. I fear it appears Steve C discovers something for himself and then thinks no-one else has ever thought about it before—what did those who trained him for Baptist ministry get up to, one wonders? Or was it that Steve C wasn’t paying attention?

    • Graham
      Feb 20, 2014

      I can answer that. Steve C came and spoke to us at LST, the college formerly known as LBC. He said that the Honours’ students used the Greek New Testament, the other degree students used the NIV whilst those like him who were doing the diploma used the Good News bible and coloured in the pictures. I assumed at the time he was joking but now I’m not so sure!

  3. Simon Hall
    Feb 19, 2014

    Hmmm!

    I think Joe makes a good point, in that Steve sees himself as a commoner and not an academic. And I think that many of the people Steve is, shall we say, irritated by, are also non-academics, although they often assume the authority of experts. So I suspect that the conversation Steve wants to have is among ordinary lay people, who have been raised to see the Bible as a Haynes Manual for life written by God in a manner similar to that claimed for the Qur’an.

    Just getting many evangelicals to admit to bias in their hermeneutic is a painfully pointless effort. I have wasted hours of my life on the internet trying to get inerrantists to acknowledge the way they selectively choose to raise certain proof texts above others and then bash the rest of scripture into submission with them.

    For example, the Bible could easily be used to ‘prove’ TULIP Calvinism, Arminianism or Open Theism, but only by doing violence to the texts. The truth is that the scriptures will never fit into our categories.

    So I think the problem is that some parts of the church lack any kind of humility. There’s no sense of ‘as an affluent white western man I read the Bible in these ways.’ There’s no sense of Tom Wright’s ’30% of what I believe is probably wrong, I just don’t know which 30%.’

    William Webb’s ‘Slaves, Women and Homosexuals’ starts with a WONDERFUL quiz which shows every reader that they relativise the Bible. It’s really quite shocking to realise you have no idea why you still passionately uphold one OT verse but ignore the next. Yet thousands of preachers select the parts of the Bible that prop up their own prejudices and priorities and it’s about time we made them admit it.

    • steve
      Feb 20, 2014

      Hi Simon, thanks for stopping by.
      I agree with much of what you say, but not that it is what Steve’s piece says. There are all sorts of problems with our use of the Bible, but that no-one is talking about how we use the Bible is not one of them, as far as I can see.
      I’m all for calls for epistemic humility (you’ll find one or two lying around the archives of this blog…) but Steve wasn’t calling us to epistemic humility as far as I can see – I’d have been more sympathetic if he was.

  4. Andy Gubbins
    Feb 20, 2014

    It strikes me that Steve is not unusually questioning ‘home’ from having been out and about in the world, and this time Christian doctrines of scripture, perhaps especially ‘evangelical’ touchstones of orthodoxy. So far I have read rebuttal and reading lists from those in the know, and a deal of frustration. From an ‘open’ evangelical stable, I would welcome direction to internet summaries of findings or interesting lines of thought regarding a doctrine of scripture that handles hermeneutics, etc with finesse, rather than what strikes me as the closed circle of inerrancy.

    So what is most exciting about the ‘five views…’ publication?

    And is it as difficult as I seem to find it to be party to academic review and peer debate on current issues without an institution to pay subscriptions, or letters after the name. In turbulent times, even well founded pastoral practitioners find our confidence in the proportions of our faith severely under stress. So please a plea to take every opportunity to open the channels, again, and again.

    • steve
      Feb 20, 2014

      Thanks for coming by, Andy.
      The internet is not the best place for this stuff – although check out the archives of The Bible in TransMission on the Bible Society website.
      Grove booklets are often a good place for non-technical but informed summaries of recent academic debate.
      On hermeneutics, William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals is still a really good read, not too technical, on hermeneutics and applying it to some of the hot-button topics. One step up from there is either Tony Thistleton and/or Kevin Vanhoozer (for theorising about Biblical interpretation) or Walter Brueggemann and Tom Wright (for examples of Biblical interpretation very well done). If you’re out and about in the UK, do try to hear Paula Gooder, who is really excellent on these issues.

  5. Ken
    Feb 20, 2014

    What’s missing in this discussion seems to be the supernatural leading of the Holy Spirit in allowing any individual believer to understand what the scriptures say to him/her. I don’t think the HS distinguishes between academics and the colouring-in Good News reader, if anything He turns the whole hierarchy on its head a la 1 Cor 1:20. In my limited experience some of the most profound, life-changing insights into Scripture come from the humblest of sources.

  6. David Reimer
    Feb 21, 2014

    Would this be an opportune moment to mention the up-coming conference of the Scottish Evangelical Theology Society on “Word-Centred Faith“, which will explore “the place of Scripture in the life of the believer, incorporating the whole body of communicating the gospel”? (One of the few conferences you’re not speaking at, Steve!) Or to note that previous SETS-hosted day-conferences have been held on “Words of Life” (with Tim Ward) and “Understanding Scripture“? Not exactly off the radar, is it?

    • Trev
      Feb 22, 2014

      You’re kidding me, right? Do you really think there’s anyone who’s not a member of a Scottish evangelical church who’s ever heard of the Scottish Evangelical Theology Society? Those events are totally “off the radar”!

      It seems that most of the people commenting here live in some lovely evangelical bubble, totally separate from the real world. I’ve worked in the Christian ‘sector’ for a decade and I’ve never heard of “Five Views on Inerrancy” or any of the other books Steve Holmes mentions.

      Obviously Steve Chalke is talking about general churchgoers, not professional theologians. And he’s right; those people are not having these conversations. Steve Holmes talks about his church, but by account of having a theology lecturer (and the unofficial theologian of the EA) in their congregation, they are not your ‘usual’ church: your average church is not having a conversation about ‘the use of the Septuagint in Old Testament quotation and how it differed from the Hebrew’.

  7. Daniel Clark
    Feb 21, 2014

    My main concern is this idea of a “global” conversation on the Bible, based on what some might describe as 19th century European principles.

    If we were to have a truly global conversation one thing we might discover is that the rest of the world no longer accepts the debate being framed according to principles suggested by British pastors.

  8. Robert
    Feb 21, 2014

    The topics he brings up certainly have not hit the ground amongst the masses here in the United States. Ordinary church members don’t know this stuff. So in a sense, in the U.S.m it is like starting from scratch.

    • steve
      Feb 21, 2014

      Hi, thanks for commenting. You may be right – but I reflect that the USA is quite a big place with quite a variety of church life – maybe there is a little more variety there than you suggest?

  9. Pete
    Feb 21, 2014

    Hi Steve, my understanding of SC’s paper is that he’s responding to the lack of discussion at a popular level, ie in local churches where the members are unlikely to have heard of the books/conferences you refer to, never mind engage with them. I can understand why it might be a bit galling if you have been engaged in this debate for years as you say, but surely you have to appreciate that the vast majority of church members havent. The reason for the release of the paper now seems clear enough, SC wants to break through the generally accepted ‘truth’ that the Bible is against same sex marriage

    • steve
      Feb 21, 2014

      Pete, but the discussion is happening at popular level – as I say, in my local church last Sunday, someone discussed the NT’s use of variant texts of the OT. And, seriously, I have talked to hundreds of preachers across the globe about preaching, and they are generally asking these questions, and asking how to introduce these questions to their people. No, they won’t be reading Vanhoozer or Wright, but the ideas will be in what they hear.

      I’ve known and liked Steve for years; the motive you attribute to him would be base and unworthy; I would rather not believe that was the reasoning behind his paper.

  10. Pete
    Feb 27, 2014

    Steve, you’re fortunate to move in such circles, but I’ve been involved with many churches over the last thirty years and I’ve not come across any that are remotely interested in the questions SC raises. He evidently has had a similar experience.
    As regards the same sex marriage bill, please dont get me wrong I’m sure SC is trying to challenge faulty views of the Bible for totally genuine reasons, and if the bill wasnt topical he would still be doing so. However, the bill last year and the ongoing debate over same sex marriages is undoubtedly a driver behind this call, at this time. As SC tweeted recently, his hermeneutic has enabled him to celebrate same sex marriage. Far from being a base or unworthy motive, I think it is hugely brave and commendable that he is attempting to encourage people to travel down the same path as he has gone, and hopefully come to similar conclusions.

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