Sunday, November 16, 2014

Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 1 - INTRODUCTION)

Those who read my articles / comments will probably recognize that I am slightly divided in my approach to any controversial topic- I try and uphold both modernistic cognitive knowledge AND post-modern soul-oriented subjectivity. I can get agitated whenever I see either component emphasized in isolation :)

In a similar way, I have slowly become more and more concerned with the way we Christians tend to approach Scripture. I feel like we forget to approach it in a way which is faithful to an honest view of God, and His intentions for Scripture. Sometimes we forget that God's primary aims (relationship, holiness, joy) are not particularly related to Scripture as an end to itself (i.e. Modernism). And other times we forget that Scripture and theological debate are nevertheless essential tools to do those more fundamentally important extra-scriptural (Postmodern) things.

I'm going to write a series of posts on what (I think) it means to faithfully approach Scripture. I'm know I'm likely to upset some tightly-held beliefs about Scripture - but my aim is not to question things for the sake of it. I just want us all to approach Scripture honestly, and with a willingness to change our beliefs about it, if that's what 'being faithful' to it requires.


To me, any faithful and honest approach to Scripture will do three things - be true to what Scripture says about itself, be applied consistently to make sense of every aspect of the text (as a whole, and as individual texts), and gel with the picture of God presented itself (when approached this way). It is not a simple task to stay true to all three principles, although I think it must be possible (even if we never know whether we are doing it 'right') if the Scriptures are inspired by God, or are simply intended by God slightly useful in any way.

However, we make this task impossible by adding subconscious extra-biblical requirements to this list. Humans do this to every interpretive action we undertake - from appreciating the beauty of the sunset or a massage, to studying physics and mathematics and music, to reading letters or the American Constitution. So there's no surprise we do this to the Bible.

Our worldview is the sum total of not only our perceptions (both cognitive and non-cognitive e.g. emotions, about the world and ourselves i.e. our identity and purpose), but also meta-data about those perceptions (such as how they relate to each other, how important or useful or integral each perception is, and how we decide these things). Obviously a lot of this is not consciously performed, but it definitely happens, and becomes more obvious when we deliberately explore it, IF we allow ourselves to admit it. Our worldview does the same with Scripture - it tells us how to give it value, emphasis, and purpose, etc. And by doing this it adds requirements to our approach to Scripture.

For example, modernism is a common component of many people's worldview in the Western world. Modernism has many aspects (including e.g. a focus on the human ability to forge its own destiny, via Free Will / Science / Humanism / etc), but a the big factor I'll talk about today is how it assigns purpose, value, identity, and relationships on the basis of detailed cognitive information. The more detailed cognitive information is available, the better modernism can supply purpose, value, identity, and relationships. Modernism thus provides a subconscious drive to seek clear and detailed cognitive knowledge. If a pure modernist wants to value and relate to God, their worldview adds the requirement that He readily provides clear and detailed cognitive information (for which Scripture is seen as the ideal conduit), and will be unable to grasp any purpose/value/identity/relationships that God and/or Scripture INTENDS to provide in the absence of such information.

Mixing Worldview and Scripture

When we struggle to bring all these requirements together with our worldview, we tend to fudge something to make it work. Unfortunately, my observation has been that we tend to accidentally stay faithful to our worldview, and to the obvious statements Scripture makes about itself - thus leaving the second principle (and the third, as a consequence of it) to be fudged. We end up 'simplifying' Scripture in our minds to a form which we CAN apply all the remaining principles to (including our worldview). We minimize the uncomfortable complexities and maximize the comfortable aspects with are coherent with our preconceptions.

The reason we are so faithful to our worldview, is that it has been instrumental in integrating everything we have ever experienced or known - our identity, our understanding, values, purpose, etc. To question our worldview literally raises the possibility (unlikely as it may be) that all these things have no basis. Our world would fall down around us. In addition to this, for religious people our worldview is integrated into our very concept of God and 'faithfulness' - to question it (even indirectly by questioning our consequent understanding of Scripture) is not only potentiating the collapse of our world, but the collapse of (what we consider to be) 'faithfulness' to God. 

There are several examples of scriptural characteristics that conflict frequently with our worldviews, and are thus 'simplified' to a form which allows us to continue with our worldview. The difficult 'doctrinal' passages are often split into those which align with our view, and those which need explaining away - and this is then done, often successfully, but not without minimizing the contribution these passages bring to the Scripture, while maximizing the contribution others bring. Some will say that this 'difficulty' results from addressing issues God doesn't want addressed, but this itself is minimizing the contribution these verses bring to Scripture. Others label it an attribute of our fallible interpretation, rather than Scripture per-se. Fair enough, but I don't think you can separate it from the fabric of Scripture itself so easily - there are other characteristics that suggest God was TRYING to avoid perfectly clear communication. Many of these 'opposing' views of God seem to be very clearly expressed and deliberately NOT fully integrated into a systematic theology, and the emphasis certainly isn't on reconciliation.

And even when we manage to simplify our view of God to be conveniently consistent in terms of doctrine (through our bias in emphasizing a subset of Scriptures), its hard to escape the changing morals He expects from His people - not just between Testaments, but within the same Old Testament Law! And then there are the blaring contradictions in terms of historical 'facts' and conversation, something the authors and readers didn't seem concerned about. And some very strange ways that Paul and Jesus mis-quote and re-interpret Scripture, suggesting they didn't view it quite like we do today. Then there is the fact that both Judeism AND Christianity existed and flourished before the 'Scriptures' per-se existed, and the Scriptures are never presented as the basis for a relationship with God.


If we believe God truly inspired Scripture, it means every characteristic is deliberate and aids His purposes, even if some of those characteristics make it difficult for us to know how to approach it, and challenge our fundamental understanding and approach to the world, ourselves, knowledge, life, etc. These difficult characteristics need to be considered just as 'Scriptural' as the more comfortable aspects, and made sense of and embraced just like the others we find convenient.

In this series I want to explore where the second principle of Scriptural faithfulness (being true to the text's characteristics, including its uncomfortable complexities) actually leads us, and which of our extra-biblical worldview 'requirements' can and can't stand alongside it. My aim is not that we will be free from personal bias or worldviews (I don't think this is possible), but that we will be free to consider Scripture as it really is BECAUSE we are not afraid to see and challenge (and attempt to change) our worldview IF God exposes some weaknesses.

Lets get the comments rolling :) How does this discussion make people feel?  What goes through your head when you consider 'challenging' your view of Scripture? Are there other ways we wrongly 'simplify' Scripture?

Next Time...

  • When the dust settles (LOL), my next post will explore one simple observations about Scripture, that many  feel the need to minimise (rather than accept at face value). It'll be a kind of extended introduction, just to help contextualise some of what I've been saying, and to get us more familiar with the kind of questions we'll be considering. 
  • After that I'll start on a more logical progression from the basics (God's fundamental aim in everything), to His specific purposes for Scripture, to the Jewish and Christian misuse of Scripture, and finally some implications for Christian unity and missions.

The series so far:

  1. Introduction (this post)
  2. Progressive Revelation
  3. Relationships and Cognition
  4. Morality and Evil
  5. Coping with Evil I
  6. Coping with Evil II
  7. How to Read

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Christianity vs Maturity?

Before I release the initial post of the series I've been working on for a while (regarding our approach to Scripture), here's a nice little article to contemplate :)

To summarise it:

  1. 'Evidence' (e.g. logic, 'science', textual criticism) plays a relatively minor role in 'conversion to unbelief / atheism'
  2. Instead, the deciding factor seems to be that the narrative 'unbelief' offers is one of honesty, problem-solving, maturity in the face of our complex reality - more so than the person's previous / alternative 'belief' system. 
  3. 'Evidence' is then offered as a supporting factor which integrates well with the preferred narrative.
  4. This implies that the church's mission attempts should not be primarily focused on 'evidence', even if we think we have lots which integrates well with our preferred narrative. This will only alienate people who are preconditioned (by their preferred narrative) to reject these 'evidences' in favour of their own.
  5. Instead, the church should seek to provide an alternative attractive narrative - one which is MORE honest, mature, and pro-active in the face of our complex reality, than the person's previous experience of 'belief'.
  6. The best initial step in evangelism, then, is to spend life with people, come alongside them, invite them to church. The goal is to help them grasp a narrative that can handle their complex reality in a way which is mature. 

Some thoughts of my own - If we fail to provide a narrative which is attractive, there are several possibilities:

  • Christianity is not real, and hence can't handle reality. If Christianity is real, an alternative MORE mature narrative must be possible.
  • WE probably need to adjust our understanding of the Christian narrative, so that it becomes mature enough to handle the other person's complex realities. This requires humility, a Christian value strangely lacking in many evangelical strategies.
  • Of course there are other things (besides 'maturity')  which make narratives attractive. Some may be able to be superseded by Christ's narrative, but others may be fundamentally opposed to it. We can't provide a narrative which is exclusively attractive on all fronts, or exclusively supported by all the evidence. Whatever the case, our aim is the same - to provide a narrative which is SUPERIORLY attractive, and which is supported by evidence.

What do you guys think? Especially keen to hear from the atheists out there :)