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The Emergent Church and Biblical Authority

The EmergentChurch and Biblical Authority


A discussion between Sean McDowell and Tony Jones


 


The following discussion first appeared in The Journal of Student Ministries, vol. III no. 3 (May/June 2008), published by Student Ministries Partners. www.thejournalofstudentministries.com


 


Sean Says:


 


Since we've started our discussions, Tony, I've wondered how our views on the Bible compare. We've both expressed concerns about the lack of biblical knowledge today among youth, but I can't help but wonder-is it for the same reason?


 


I am concerned about the lack of biblical knowledge among youth because I believe an accurate understanding of the character and nature of God is critical for spiritual formation. This is why I often wonder, Can true health in the church take place apart from accurately handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15)? This is why much of my concern about new movements in the church is the de-emphasis on the authority of Scripture.


 


Tony, why do you believe Scripture is authoritative? I believe it's because it stems from God himself. Since God and Jesus are our ultimate authority, and the Bible contains the very words of God, therefore its message is the very message of God and thus authoritative (2 Peter ). Thus, the Bible has final authority to define our beliefs and behavior.


 


Jesus clearly viewed the OT as authoritative. He regularly quoted from the OT as if it was completely accurate and regularly chastised the Sadducees and Pharisees for not correctly understanding the Scriptures (Matthew ).


 


Of course, this doesn't mean we always get our interpretations correct or live consistently with these beliefs (I'd be the first to admit this!), but it does mean our primary task as individuals and youth leaders is to properly understand God's revelation and to live under its authority.


 


Tony, WHY, WHY do you think the Bible is an authoritative book? Is it something about us (how we interpret it, what place we give it in our community, etc.) or is it something about the book itself (the very words of God and thus, inerrant)?


 


Tony says:


 


Sean, I agree with so much of what you've said here, but let me start with a difference.  You make equivalent two concepts that I do not: God's words and "inerrancy."  Inerrancy is the doctrinal position that the Bible is without any factual error in any category, including scientific, historical, and geographical statements.  I think that the number of intellectual gymnastics that one has to do to hold this position makes it ultimately untenable.  The Bible does contain contradictory statements and it is sometimes inaccurate in its descriptions of geography and historical events.


 


But, that's not the point of the Bible.  The doctrine of infallibility, on the other hand, claims that the Bible, when read faithfully and in context, is the norming norm of Christian faith and practice.


 


Since you bring up Jesus' use of the OT, that's a good case-in-point.  When you compare Jesus' use of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures to those same passages in your Old Testament, you'll notice that often, the wording isn't quite the same.  Was Jesus paraphrasing?  Was he using a different version of the OT than you have?


 


Regardless of your answers to these questions, I'm sure that you and I can agree that Jesus' use of the OT is inspired and authoritative, even if a few of the words got changed along the way.


 


Sean, the Bible is authoritative because it is God's revelation to us.  It is something about the document itself.  But it's not because that document is error-free.


 


Sean says:


 


Tony, I'm glad to see we have common ground that the Bible is God's revelation to us and serves as the "norming norm" of Christian faith and practice. I disagree, though, that the Bible is contradictory and makes historical and geographical mistakes. Some statements may appear contradictory and there are some issues that have not yet been resolved, but the Bible has continually proven reliable when all the evidence comes to light.


 


As far as the issue of Jesus misquoting the OT, no major evangelical NT scholars I know would argue that the gospels record the "very words" of Jesus (ipsissima verba), but rather the "very voice" of our Lord (ipsissima vox). Such a distinction is consistent with a balanced view of inerrancy. When we recognize these sorts of things, many such "inaccuracy" charges disappear.


 


Ultimately, the reason I have a high view of Scripture is not because the Bible itself claims to be inspired (e.g., 2 Tim. ), as such a claim is circular, or that I can explain away every seeming contradiction. My reason is simple: Jesus did. And we can know the testimony of the biblical writers is accurate through historical examination. Jesus often spoke about Scripture with a deeper reverence than the Pharisees and Sadducees-criticizing those who raised tradition above it or failed to handle it accurately.


 


Regardless, Tony, I think we can both agree that inerrancy is not an essential belief for salvation. But if Jesus is the resurrected Messiah, and he had a high view of Scripture, can we have any less?


 


Tony says:


 


Sean, I don't understand why you stand by the word inerrancy, when you are willing to admit that scripture does not necessarily contain the exact words of Jesus and that there are apparent discrepancies between the text and facts. By admitting these things, aren't you basically gutting the inerrancy concept? Why not just claim infallibility?


 


By the way-and with all due respect-it seems like a real cop-out to say that the Bible is without error, except for the places there are errors, and those are only errors because we don't have all the facts yet.


 


You purport a "high view of scripture." But I wonder, how high a view of Scripture can a person have if they repeatedly try to use science (an extra-biblical framework) to "prove" that a person can live in the belly of a fish for three days?


 


I'm arguing that a higher view of scripture is one that allows the authority of the Bible to rest on its own merits.


 


Sean says:


 


Tony, you are criticizing an outdated fundamentalist notion of inerrancy that neither I, nor the majority of conservative evangelical NT scholars today, hold. Properly understood, inerrancy is not a property of specific words, but the ideas behind them. In other words, all the claims that the Bible actually makes-whether on science, history, ethics, etc.-are true. You have confused individual "words" of the Bible with the truth therein.


 


Thus, it is not an error for Jesus to quote a passage from the OT that may have different words than a contemporary translation, anymore than it is to say there is an error between the sentences "I love Stephanie" and "I love my wife." Different words, but identical meaning.


 


Finally, I don't hold "the Bible is without errors, except in places there are errors." My point is simply that there have been numerous alleged biblical errors which have been overturned when more information comes to light. The list of ALLEGED biblical errors continues to shrink. God is trustworthy, and so is His Word.


 


Tony says:


 


Well, Sean, any philosopher or linguist would tell you that "I love Julie" and "I love my wife" do not have "identical meaning."  In fact, the meaning of each sentence is contingent upon a host of other factors.


 


Words do matter, and, regardless of your assertion, the vast majority of inerrantists think that inerrancy means that every word of the Bible, in every jot and tittle, is without error.  But Jesus most likely used the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures-at least that's what Matthew has him quoting.  So, was the Septuagint an inerrant translation of the Hebrew?


 


God is indeed trustworthy, and so is God's Word. So why be tempted into bolstering scripture with extra-biblical "proofs" like science and history?  In other words: if inspiration was good enough for theologians and everyday Christians for 1850 years, it's good enough for me. Personally, I don't think that the historical-critical method is any challenge at all to the trustworthiness of the Bible.


 


Good discussion, Sean.  Next time we'll tackle the issue of women in ministry.