Faith > Bible?

Something Adam Hamilton wrote recently about the Bible reminded me of William J. Abraham’s counsel at the end of his little book The Bible: Beyond the Impasse.

At the outset let me say this categorically. If losing your current understanding of scripture will lead you to abandon your faith, then I would insist that you should absolutely hold on to the vision of scripture you currently embrace. From a Christian point of view, nothing is more disastrous than the loss of faith. So if your theory of the Bible is integral to your having faith in the first place, then stick to your theory.

And he goes the other way as well.

I would say equally categorically that if holding to the inerrancy of scripture leads you to lose your faith, then you should not hesitate to stick with your faith and look for a much better way to think of its nature and use.  … What matters is coming to know and love God; theories of scripture are secondary and should be treated accordingly. So if your theory of the Bible gets in the way of knowing and loving God, go find a better one.

Billy Abraham on engaging the culture

Here’s a video I had not seen before about ways the church could and should engage the world. His talk has three section: the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ, the changing culture of North America, and engaging that changing culture with the unchanging gospel.

About 18-19 minutes in he has this interesting claim: We should no longer accept the claim that we United Methodists are an American mainline church.

*Note: He gets  Kenda Creasy Dean’s school affiliation wrong. She is at Princeton.

Abraham, McLaren, and the place of scripture

Brian McLaren has inspired some further reflection about the things that William J. Abraham has been arguing about the nature of scripture.

After posting the Asbury definition of holiness, I spent a few minutes digging around for another voice addressing the same question. In just a few minutes, I did not find exactly what I was looking for, but I did find this interesting McLaren blog post in which he defends Rob Bell and Love Wins from a criticism by Albert Mohler.

In the post, McLaren explains that all we have as Christians are different interpretations of the gospel. We do not have the gospel itself, but our own versions of it.

Our versions (mine included) are all, then, human interpretations of the gospel of Christ and the apostles, and human interpretations of the original message are not exactly the same thing as the original message. Some are more true to the original and some less, but no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed. That doesn’t mean we can’t proclaim anything with confidence, but it demands a proper and humble confidence rather than a naive and excessive confidence.

Which brings me back to Abraham’s thesis, laid out in the opening sentence of the first chapter of his book Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology:

The fundamental problems which arise in treatments of authority in the Christian faith stem from a long-standing misinterpretation of ecclesial canons and epistemic criteria.

To an extent, McLaren illustrates the argument Abraham has been making.

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When the Bible does not tell us so

I was reading John Stott‘s classic little book Basic Christianity the other day. Stott begins with a move similar to the one CS Lewis makes in Mere Christianity. He examines the things Jesus says about himself and concludes that Jesus either is who he said he is or he is not to be trusted at all.

Stott sets out the case well and his passion is clear.

With some of the recent reading and thinking I’ve been doing in the work of William J. Abraham, though, I wonder if Stott’s approach is compatible with Abraham’s warning that we not turn the Bible into a foundation for truth claims. Stott, it seems to me, is doing exactly that.

Abraham wants us to begin with the claim of the church — Jesus Christ was divine. He does not try to prove this by appeal to scripture. Indeed, he argues that making our confidence in Christ’s divinity depend on scripture opens up all kinds of problems for Christianity.

I am, frankly, not well versed enough in philosophy or epistemology to appraise Abraham’s argument to any extent. Its similar to when the air conditioner repair man says I need a new coil. How do I know?

But I am trying to figure out what Abraham’s argument means for what have been effective apologetic and evangelistic arguments in the past. What does it mean if Stott and Lewis and Wesley have defended their claims about Christ on what amounts to a “for the Bible tells me so” argument?

And what does Abraham offer us in place of such resources? I suspect not a lot of my readers are Abraham experts, but if you have some thoughts on the subject, I’d love to read them.

Scripture as wisdom

As I prepare to enter my second year of seminary, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the first year. William J. Abraham’s interesting little book The Bible: Beyond the Impasse touches on something that a year of Old Testament classes has impressed upon me. In the opening chapter, he writes about the creation of the discipline of biblical studies and its subsequent growth.

The outcome is now clear: biblical studies no longer acts as a feeder discipline for theology. It has become a region of expertise on its own that is carefully guarded by the scholarly guilds. … More importantly, there are simply no secure results that the theologian can now rely on in the foundations of his or her work. We simply have a Babel of voices in the guild; and theologians are in no position to adjudicate the alternatives.

In my first year of Old Testament classes, what struck me the most while writing exegesis papers was the Babel of which Abraham writes. Reading scholarly commentaries and articles on a particular book or section of a text is to be drawn quickly into a cacophony of conflicting voices and interpretations. If you read more than the most recent scholarship and delve back through the decades, you also discover that yesterday’s dead certainty passes quickly into obscurity today.

An encounter with biblical studies is quite often the cause of the well-traveled stories about seminary students having a crisis of faith when they go to seminary. They discover that what they thought was solid has melted into the air. I did not have that experience in my Old Testament classes, but I did struggle to find pastorally useful insights in my exegesis homework.

Abraham does not seek to recreate biblical studies, but rather to get us in the church — if not the seminary — to stop betting the theological farm on the notion that we can find in scripture a foundation for all our truth claims. He argues that evangelicals in particular have tried to put too much weight on a doctrine of scripture that cannot support the load.

Evangelicals have constantly lost their own precious children because they overcommitted themselves in their doctrine of scripture. They then paved the way for conversions to Roman Catholicism, for shifts into various Liberal or Radical forms of Protestantism, or for the outright embrace of agnosticism or atheism. They did so in the nineteenth century; and they are doing so today. It would be interesting  to develop a list of scholars or church leaders who began as evangelicals or “fundamentalists” and abandoned it because of problems with the doctrine of scripture.

To meet this challenge, Abraham argues for a shift in our vision of scripture. He calls this a shift from an epistemological view of scripture to a soteriological one. He argues for treating the Bible as a resource given to us by the Holy Spirit as means of grace that helps lead us to salvation. He writes that we should understand scripture as wisdom. The Bible, he writes, was written and passed down to us to repair the effects of sin and rebellion in our hearts and lives and equip us for service in the kingdom. This is its primary purpose and meaning in the church. It is only derivatively a source of truth to resolve theological arguments and apologetic needs.

It is a sure sign that I do not fully understand Abraham’s argument that I cannot easily explain it to you. You’ll have to read the book to decide for yourself if it is helpful.

Here, though, is a quote that I liked and will continue to wrestle with in my pastoral work — even if the exegesis papers call for something else:

Whatever we do, the most important thing is to immerse ourselves in scripture in any and every way possible. It is scripture itself not theories about scripture that really make a difference in our lives and the life of the church.

Amen.