About 18 months ago, I wrote some blogs with which I now disagree.
The problem began in mid 2011. At that time, a friend of mine held a certain belief about what it means to be Christian. And I, full of hubris, was sure that she was wrong. So a discussion ensued, which became a theological dispute, which became an exegetical chess match, played out over weeks through increasingly lengthy emails. I mustered the best gambits I could find using whatever Biblical scholarship the internet provided to me … but in the end, I could not convince my friend that her viewpoint was wrong, from Scripture.
In fact, instead of finding a unified theological perspective on the issue within Scripture and within the church, I found a frightening diversity of ideas. I found contradiction. I found nonsense. I found disagreement. I had gotten lost in the jungle of it all. Not only had I been unable to sway my comrade in our exchange, but in the research process I had done inadvertent violence to my own understanding of the Bible.
I thought, then: “How is it be possible that such a major issue could have no airtight resolution laid out in Scripture? And how can there be so much contradiction and diversity of opinion within this text in general?
“Perhaps”, I began to think, “this Bible is not what I thought it was. Maybe it is not the inerrant, God-breathed, fantastically useful thing that it makes itself out to be.”
And so, there I was, shipwrecked.
Having smashed myself upon a hidden reef near a desert isle, I was marooned there for a year or more — trying to figure out how to repair my vessel and get back out on the waves. I was paralyzed by confusion regarding the nature of the Word, and so my study of it fell into the doldrums. Amidst this disillusionment, I searched for thinkers within the church who might have an answer to my distress call.
After a while, I found some. I read The Bible Made Impossible and Inspiration and Incarnation; I found writers like Peter Enns, Christian Smith, and Rachel Held Evans. These believers, like me, seemed dissatisfied with the apparent quandary of a Bible which:
A) is totally perfect and inerrant, and yet
B) upon casual observation seems to contradict and question its own self.
These believers, like me, were troubled by the immense hermeneutic diaspora throughout the church. These authors had answered my distress call; they offered me a hope of being able to set sail again.
So I ventured down their rabbit hole.
Peter Enns was the best of the lot. He said that the nature of Scripture mirrors the dual nature of Jesus — that both are fully human, and fraught with weakness; and yet both are fully God(-breathed), and imbued with divine power and truth. Jesus was God wrapped in the skin of a poor rural 1st-century Judean. Scripture, similarly, was divine revelation filtered through the unsteady pen of ancient human authors who carried their own biases. The Word of God, basically, followed the pattern of the Incarnation.
Enns’ thesis was really charming to me, because it offered the best of two worlds:
- That on the one hand, the Bible is indeed marred with some inconsistencies, due to the human authors who held the pen;
- But on the other, it is still authoritative, still ultimately the Word of God to us.
With this, I had a new way to preserve both my intellectual integrity, and my trust in a God-breathed sacred text. This idea seemed better than repairing my wrecked ship — it was a way to embark on the sea again with a lighter, more nimble craft altogether.
So I tried this theology of Scripture for a while. I wrote about it during the summer of 2012. I had conversations with friends about it. I kept reading books by other Christians who wrote from a similar viewpoint.
And in my reading, I eventually got to Sacred Word, Broken Word, by Kent Sparks. And here I met my point of reckoning. In the fall of 2012, about 1/3 of the way through Sparks’ book, I stumbled into this passage:
… [So] where we judge that scripture presents God as saying or doing something he would not say or do, we should confess that these texts tell us more about the purposes of their human authors than about the purposes of God …
I paused here, and re-read the passage several times. I stopped reading. I stared out the window. How did I get here again? Suddenly it seemed that I needed to make a decision about how big I wanted my God to be. At the present moment, I had nearly made Him small enough to fit in my pocket and bring to parties.
A Stepford God
Tim Keller mentions this problem briefly in The Reason for God. He recalls that in the story of The Stepford Wives, the husbands of Stepford town get fed up with their women, and use technology to transform them into perfectly submissive, bubbly creatures who serve every whim of the men. In so doing, they end up with wives who are not wives at all — they are simply automatons who reflect the taste and preference of their creators. They will never disagree, never challenge, never mourn, and never be capable of anything like a real relationship.
Keller says, sometimes we do this to God in our minds. We create a “Stepford God”: a deity who has been domesticated so that he no longer offends us, and is reshaped to fit our preferences. In this form, God will never surprise us with His correction or truth, with his sacrificial love, with his wisdom that is at times inscrutable, with his vastness that defies comprehension.
Such a god is no God at all. He is a fiction. He is a bumper sticker.
So it seemed I was creating my own Stepford Bible — reshaping Scripture so that it no longer seemed so ridiculous. And this turned out to be no good at all. It turns out that the Bible is literally filled with fantastic, confusing, and challenging passages. Following the approach of Sacred Word, Broken Word, I was now questioning every one of them. My faith was on the verge of collapse. I realized abruptly that I wasn’t out to sea in a more nimble vessel at all. The damn thing wasn’t even seaworthy. I had been stuck trawling around in the shallows for a year.
Why did I get shipwrecked in the first place?
It was because my head was too big. I had wagered that with my intellect I could use Scripture as a cro-bar to lever my friend into the place I wanted her to go. But the thing backfired on me. The Word of God, it turns out, is a living and irrepressible thing, sharper than a razor blade, and able to discern the thoughts and the intentions of the heart. Weird.
When I tried to use the Word as a tool of my own, it rebelled against me. In my consternation, I sought to somehow master it. The authors I found helped me with this. Following their logic, I shaped the Bible down into a flawed little sketchbook, a questionable historical redaction, which buckled like rotten wood under my feet.
So, I turned back. With humility, I revised my attitude toward this thing.
I now see that if we acquiesce to any erosion of the trustworthiness of Scripture at all, pretty soon the entire thing starts to move sideways and crumble on us. My friend Sara taught this to me. It turns out that the entire value of the Bible is in its authenticity. If it is only half-inspired, half-trustworthy, then it is no more valuable than all the millions of treatises and books written by Christians for the last two millennia.
If the Bible is only half-God-breathed, then which half? It is left up to our whim to decide.
I assure you, that kind of vessel cannot ride out a real storm. If even the most explicit revelation that we have from God isn’t fully God-breathed, then we are sunk already.
So what about that initial morasse of contradictions that I found? What about the hermeneutic diaspora of the church?
I am still working on those things. It might be right for me to work on them for the rest of my life.
But here is what I know for sure. Any time I approach Scripture, I must do so with veneration and hope, knowing that it will pierce joint and marrow and whittle into my heart. The Word of God has deep layers of mystery. The Spirit will unwind these when we approach with humility and faith. If I find it confusing, then I don’t need to smash it to the ground. I just need to ask, and wait, and submit, and find out how the Word is true and good.