What is the Bible?

posted in: Blog, My Blog | 7
Theme: Doctrine
‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’  2 Tim 3:16
I have recently completed a critique of Brian McLarens latest book ‘A new kind of Christianity’ (See Articles section of this Blog) and my conclusion is that he is actually describing a new kind of Liberalism. His understanding of what he calls the Big Picture of scripture is very different to my understanding. Why is this? We clearly have different theological backgrounds and opinions, but a main reason for difference lies in our understanding of the nature and purpose of the Bible.
For Brian, the Bible is a cultural library, and by this he means a collection of books, letters, poetry, and so on, written within a particular historical and cultural setting by and for a particular group of people. He contends that from its pages we learn mainly how ancient people perceived God. He seems to believe that we should not be attempting to find unchanging truth statements in the Bible. Rather, we should be seeking to understand God and His ways, with reference to the Bible, but in the context of our current cultures and stages of development.
I accept that the Bible reflects much of how ancient people perceived God and truth. However, I also believe that God oversaw the process of producing the Bible, and that it carries His authority. I believe that we need to understand what it contains within the context of ancient times, but that it also contains authoritative truth statements. My approach to the Bible is essentially orthodox Evangelical, while Brian’s appears to be more postmodern Liberal.
The point is that his view of the Bible has yielded a radically different understanding of God’s plans and purposes to that of orthodox Evangelicalism. For him, the fall of humankind recorded in Genesis chapter three is a coming of age story rather than the account of the source of spiritual death. The theology that flows from these two understandings is very different. The cross of Calvary, the Second Coming of Jesus, Heaven and Hell, all have different meanings and implications.
So, the question is, ‘what is your understanding of the Bible?’ From this will flow your theology and your application of biblical truth to church and life.

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7 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    I’m not sure where I stand on the evangelical vs liberal scale, but I struggle to take something like the fall at face value. Yet somehow it doesn’t diffuse the truth of it. Jesus used parables to reveal God’s kingdom. They were pictures. Eve’s apple is a picture for me of how sin was allowed into God’s perfection. I am not convinced it’s exactly what happened. Does this mean I’m doubting the authority of Scripture?

  2. @ Anonymous. Thank you for your comment. Of course you are correct when you say that the Bible often uses figures of speech, symbols and pictures. The book of Revelation is an example with its red dragon, beast from the sea, and Jesus with a sword coming out of His moth. However, we are given a key to understanding Revelation in 1:20 where it states that candlesticks represent churches, and so on. The Genesis 3 account gives no indication that symbol or picture language is being used. Trees and fruit would serve as authentic and logical tests of obedience in a simple agrarian society. The talking serpent presents particular problems but can be understood as Satan speaking through the creature. If we choose to understand the story of the fall simply as a myth illustrating a change in the status of humanity then Genesis 3 would not support doctrines such as original sin. This in turn would impact on the doctrine of atonement and the need for a new spiritual birth (Jn 3:7). The current consensus view of secular scientists is that all of humanity comes from a single parent. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recent_African_origin_of_modern_humans) Science is therefore authenticating the biblical claim that an ‘Adam and Eve’ were the parents of all humanity. So, a straight-forward reading of the Genesis account is logically justified. Having said this, the real issue for me is acceptance of the inspiration and authority of scripture. To accept that the Bible is as God wants it to be, was compiled under His oversight, and carries His approval, is not to deny that it uses many different literary devices and styles. Good interpretation method allows for this and seeks to determine when a parable, a poem, a picture, a symbol, a proverb, or plain narrative is being used, and to interpret accordingly.

  3. I find it especially worrying that liberalism has penetrated the Evangelical fold. In so doing, it is trying to turn Evangelicalism in on itself.
    We now have a problem in that there is confusion over what constitutes ‘Evangelical’. The McLaren set are little more than glorified liberals posing as conservatives.
    On a practical level, where do we go from here? Do we:
    1. fight to retain the name ‘Evangelical’ and oust the pretenders; or
    2. to avoid confusion and maintain a pure theological conservatism, drop the term ‘Evangelical’ and adopt another term.
    The first option certainly seems the more apposite.
    I recall the problem when liberals started taking over theological faculties at universities, a battle conservatives appeared to lose, and who responded by setting up private seminaries.
    I would worry that if we lose this battle (over what constitutes ‘Evangelical’) we may retreat into something even less conspicuous.
    Paul Johnson in his History of the Church, concluded that the church appeared to be in ‘headlong retreat’ for the better part of the twentieth century.
    I pray that this is a situation we would seek to swiftly remedy.

  4. Thanks for your comment Gregory. In my view the label ‘Evangelical’ has in recent years been used to describe fairly disparate theological persuasions. As a result, some theologians have attempted to place their beliefs under labels such as neo-fundamentalism,and so on. I don’t think this helps the evangelical cause much. Perhaps a better way is to take whatever opportunities before us to clearly define what the label ‘evangelical’ means in its traditional sense. I have always been an advocate of presenting the positive rather than defending against the negative. What are your further views?

  5. Hi Chris,

    I am not an expert on different recent applications of ‘Evangelical’, but I would agree that we need to re-affirm the traditional meaning of the term.

    What I would propose is as follows:

    In the early 20th century conservatives got together to organise a response to the encroaching liberalism, and as a result drew up a set of core doctrines that distinguished them from liberals and espoused what traditional Christianity stood for. In the 1930’s, when fundamentalism became too legalistic, conservatives again got together and established themselves as “Evangelicals”, to distinguish themselves from extremists in their midst. It seems that we have a unique case at this point in church history: there are those with liberal inclinations who appear happy to call themselves Evangelicals.

    What makes matters worse is the watering down of dogma and dogmatism, through the influence of postmodernism and globalisation,
    whereby boundaries/barriers separating world and church (and church and heretical groups) have been lowered or weakened, usually in the name of tolerance or a misapplied sense of unity and harmony. This has meant that doctrine is receiving less emphasis in our churches, and also that more and more Christians are going along with common media impressions that traditional Christian beliefs are being changed or adapted in favour of more PC ones.

    This is not the first time heresy has succeeded in penetrating Christian ranks, and it will not be the last. I think it is important to see the current situation against the backdrop of great arisings of heresies in past eras. This time the enemy is within, not without, and is seeking a usurpation from within the ranks. Perhaps, then, it is time for another major conference/thinktank to address the issue.

    I feel more and more strongly that it is time for an uncompromising defense of traditional biblical doctrine, for drawing a line in the sand. We need to establish in no uncertain manner what the church is and what it believes – what it has always believed, and what, in fact, makes it the church; we need to draw that line in the sand and defend solidly what we believe and why we believe it.

    This is where a conference/thinktank is so important. In my opinion the challenges facing us today are more severe than the liberalism at the turn of the last century. What is making it worse is that the danger is growing from within, and often slipping in under the radar. Might SATS consider such an initiative?

    Regards,
    Greg

  6. On a similar note to my previous comment: Below please find a book review of a work that touches on the subject under discussion, and seems to be a welcome contribution to it. As follows:

    BOOK REVIEW: THE HERESY OF ORTHODOXY, BY ANDREAS J. KOSTENBERGER AND MICHAEL J KRUGER

    “Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy. How Contemporary Cultures Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity”. Leicester: Apollos, 2010. Pbk. ISBN-13: 978-1-84474-446-6. pp.250.

    This is a timely work for those wishing to answer the stream of recent books and articles arguing that we cannot know what the first followers of Jesus actually believed. What we can be sure of – writers such as Bart Ehrman assure us – is that the Church in the third and fourth centuries imposed is own interpretation of Jesus and suppressed the earlier “original” Christianity – which is now lost forever. As fictional as this interpretation of history might be it does require a considerable amount of time and effort to refute. I for one and very grateful for Köstenberger & Kruger for doing so in this volume.

    The book is divided into three sections, answering in turn the three assertions of the Bauer-Ehrman hypothesis. Section 1 asks what is the evidence for a plurality of “Christianities” vying for supremacy in the early church. Drawing on some superb recent research by Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses), Larry Hurtado (Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity – now sadly out of print) and others, the authors make a convincing case that there was substantial and very early unity in the church about central issues of faith. Section 2 answers the issues of whether the later church decided which books were canonical in order to exclude “true Christianity” from the church. It demonstrates that the concept of “canon” is found within the New Testament itself and that even before the NT was complete parts of it were being recognised by apostolic witnesses as being of equal or greater authority than the Old Testament scriptures. Although a small number of books were still disputed until fairly late on, the core of the NT was very quickly accepted as Scripture. The third and fourth century church did not therefore invent the canon, they simply listed those books that had already been recognised as being authoritative.

    The third and final section turns to the subject of textual criticism and focuses quite narrowly on how texts were copied in the ancient world and whether it was possible for a theological change made by a scribe could have become universally accepted without modern textual critics being able to identify it. Because of the vast number of NT manuscripts available and the speed in which they were disseminated throught the Empire we now know that this sort of theological change would have been impossible.

    This book would prove a valuable addition to the library of anyone involved in apologetics today and anyone starting a theology course this Autumn. Some knowledge of early church history would be helpful, but not essential, as the authors do their best to explain who the characters they discuss are. It is a masterpiece of summarisation and deserves a wide readership.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts Gregory – I will get back to you on the idea of a conference once I have had time to think (and pray) about it. Thanks also for the info. on the book by Kostemberger and Kruger – I will order a copy right away.

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