Browsing a free book table recently, I picked up a book entitled The Foundation of Biblical Authority, edited by James Montgomery Boice, dedicated to advancing biblical inerrancy. The foundation for the theological system evident in the book was believed to arise from a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. Evangelical leaders in the 1970’s were proclaiming this message against perceived threats that they saw arising from corrosively weak views of Scripture.
According to Francis Schaeffer, who wrote the first chapter, defending a strong doctrine of inerrancy (meaning that bible is without error in all matters to which it speaks – religious or otherwise – cf. p. 16) will safeguard not only faithfulness but also unity among evangelical Christians. Ironically, Schaeffer notes on the very next page that common commitment to inerrancy did not prevent Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran, and other “Bible-believing” Christian from dividing from one another. Evidently, commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture does not guarantee agreement about its teaching.
This seems to me to be the rub. For Christians, especially since the Enlightenment, the expectation that humans could universally understand the real world and reflect Christianly upon it was the basis for Christian theology. In contemporary theological conversations, individuals who dissent from theological norms are often accused of rejecting the authority of Scripture. If they accepted biblical authority, they would certainly read it in line with the presumed truth, because Scripture is believed to be not only authoritative, but also clear in asserting propositional truths. However, despite the optimism that agreement about biblical authority will inevitably lead to agreement about what is assumed to be the clear teaching of Scripture, history shows us that this has seldom happened in the history of the Christian church.
But what if we are asking the wrong question? What if we are missing the point about Scripture? The doctrine of inerrancy assumes that Scripture never deviates from truth, and that we know this because we know what truth is. But where do we learn the truth apart from Scripture? I think this line of thought leads us to ask the wrong kinds of questions. In contrast, I suggest that we think about the Bible differently. Rather than confirm answers to questions that we know beforehand to ask based on our innate grasp of reality, Scripture provides a more basic service as a starting point. We need Scripture to help us understand what truth is. We need Scripture to help us understand how to appreciate truth, wherever God reveals it.
Scripture doesn’t reveal insights in line with reality. Scripture teaches us what reality actually is; otherwise, we would never know. Rather than answer our prepackaged questions, Scripture teaches us what the important questions are that we should be asking in life. Did you ever notice that when talking to people, Jesus often answered questions with questions of his own? He was reorienting the conversation in order to guide those who would follow toward the truth. We don’t read Scripture to confirm our grasp of the truth. We read it to see what truth looked like in biblical perspective, and we work to recontextualize those incarnations of truth into our settings. That’s a whole other topic, but we’ll leave it for now.
The grand story of Scripture operates as a composite, made up of a multitude of smaller stories that collectively contribute to our understanding. They come together to create a larger image in much the same way as smaller pictures form a larger one in a photographic mosaic. As we take in the smaller stories, we see more and more of the big picture. We will also notice that the big picture may not be as we expect it to be, just as Jesus, who is the focal point of biblical revelation, was not who God’s people expected him to be. The Bible was never intended to conform to expectations, or impart doctrinal content about God. It was inspired and written to demonstrate the work of God in the world. From it, we can discern lessons about who God is and who we are called to be, to be sure. But the primary purpose is for us to know God, not just to know about God.
Often, Christians read Scripture in light of their expectations about life, and so read it selectively, or through an interpretive lens that validates their assumptions. We cannot escape bringing our assumptions to the text, but rather than seeking to validate them, we need to test them to see if we have expectations and questions that are faithful and wise. The fact that so many North American Christians have stunted and obtuse theologies of suffering, for example, indicates to me that their theologies are informed more by cultural expectations than by what Scripture teaches readers to ask and expect about suffering in this life. Scripture comforts us with answers to faithful questions, and gently rebukes us when we ask self-centred, foolish ones. A lot of us need to let Scripture do this to us.
Scripture was never intended to furnish us with timeless propositional dogmatic content for us to sort and wield at our discretion. Scripture reveals to us that reality is not ours to grasp, much less control. But God, who is loving, powerful, and wise, has reconciled us to himself in Christ and will provide us with resources to meet the challenges of life – insofar as we yield control to him, and focus on modeling our entire lives after Jesus. Along the way, we may infer some content that we express as theological convictions. These are more like working notes than once-for-all truth, and they ought always to be subject to review, much like the MB Confession of Faith.
This does not mean that our convictions are in a constant state of flux and subject to change at any time. Our guide in reviewing our convictions is first of all a return to Scripture; second, the witness of the Christian tradition; third, the discernment of the larger Christian community; and fourth, the experiential fruit of our expressed convictions. Individuals and small groups can be unstable, but there is both faithfulness and safety in attentiveness to the whole.
What can we know when we read Scripture? Perhaps less than we would prefer. Should we be alarmed? No. We walk by faith, not by sight. Studying Scripture together, let us focus on asking good questions, believing that by the Spirit, God will allow us to find good answers.