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…