This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series: The Post-Evangelical (Tomlinson)
Chapter 8 of the The Post-Evangelical, by Dave Tomlinson, asks a ‘straightforward’ question: what is a post-evangelical view of the Bible?
First, Tomlinson feels that there is a need to ‘exorcise’ the ghost of inerrancy. He finds it incredible that anyone thinks it even plausible to believe in such a thing.
Contrary to what proponents will tell us (says Tomlinson), the notion of inerrancy is a relatively modern one, arising out of the fundamentalist/modernist conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a rationalist response to a rationalist attack, ‘and it has proved to be one of the most troublesome and divisive pieces of evangelical dogma ever invented’.
The ‘slippery slope’ argument states that if the Bible cannot be trusted on this or that fairly incidental detail of history or science, then it cannot be trusted at all. Even John Stott, who distances himself from the term ‘inerrancy’ and recognises the importance of sensitive and informed interpretation, refuses to assert that the Bible does in fact contain any errors. And when Stott qualifies his position by saying that the Bible is completely trustworthy in the ‘original autographs’ and ‘when rightly interpreted’, this is rather academic, since we do not posses the original autographs and who is to decide which is the correct interpretation?
Tomlinson says that the fact that the Bible does, in fact, contain discrepancies and inconsistencies has been demonstrated too frequently to require further demonstration. But perhaps the main reason why inerrancy is such a ‘monumental waste of time’ is that the Bible does not claim it for itself. Inerrancy is simply an (unwarranted) inference from a (warranted) belief in divine inspiration. It is a product of scientific rationalism.
So, in what sense is the Bible the word of God? Barth saw revelation is personal, rather than verbal. It is about God’s self-disclosure rather than about propositions about him. The word of God has a three-fold sense: there is, first, the living Word expressed in Christ; second, the written word of Scripture; and, third, the proclaimed word of the church. But the primary expression of God’s word is Christ, and the other two are secondary to this, and testify to it. Barth also held that the Bible is human and divine (just as Christ is human and divine). The Bible as human word is subject to the weaknesses of errors of any human product. The Bible as divine word has God speaking through it. Again, Barth spoke of the Bible becoming, and not just being, the word of God. It becomes the word of God when God speaks through it in a living and dynamic way.
But how does the Bible speak God’s word? Sandra Schneiders, a Catholic theologian, says that to talk about Scripture as the word of God is to employ a metaphor. The Bible is the word of God in that it is the symbolic location of divine revelation: by it people encounter God and understand something of his truth. Unlke a sign, a symbol is a vehicle of the presence of something or someone. It does not work in a vacuum, but in interaction with the person engaging with it. It mediates the thing or person which it symbolized. It brings to expression something which it cannot fully express; it remains ambiguous and allusive, concealing more than it reveals.
Thus, in Scripture, ‘through the complex system of its narratives, its pictures and images, its parables and legends, its metaphors and analogies and its plain statements, the presence of God is mediated powerfully and intelligently. Being symbolic, however, the truth must be understood as ambiguous and in need of constant reinterpretation.’
We speak – and God speaks – not primarily to inform, but to self-disclose. Our faith-response to the Bible is not, therefore, primarily to the words, but to the One who is being sacramentally revealed through the words.
From their shared Enlightenment perspective, both liberals and evangelicals have objectified the Biblical text. We need to move away from the subject-object relationship that this implies into a more intuitive involvement with the revelatory process.
With Polanyi, we can agree that things cannot be known from the outside. We must begin with a faith-commitment. But this must be a faith-commitment that is tested by rigorous self-criticism. Hence there is a creative tension between faith and doubt.
Imagination is essential in hearing God’s word. This is because revelation is essentially symbolic in nature, and symbols operate at a intuitive, rather than a purely rational, level. Moreover, imagination enables us to see things as they might be, rather than merely as they are. Imagination is then the seed-bed of transformation, and Scripture can become the treasure-trove out of which it can be funded. Methods include medication, contemplation, recitation and story-telling. Included to is Bible study, but this needs to move away from a didactic style towards a more communal experience which heightens the imaginative process. Those with scholarship and learning can be used as resources rather than as didactic oracles. Theological study, too, can imaginatively bring the word of God to life, and methods developed by Hans-Ruedi Weber in a largely illiterate community in Indonesia include drama, story-telling, clay modelling, role-play, drawing, and memory games.
Response: If evangelicals and liberals are guilty of imposing rationalistic thought-patterns on Scripture, then Dave Tomlinson is at least equally guilty in his imposition of post-modern categories. I say, ‘at least as guilty’ because I do not, in fact, think that the use of reason is so tied to the failed Enlightenment project as he seems to think. I see in the Gospels and in Acts historical accounts whose reliability can be demonstrated. I see in the Epistles doctrinal statements that invite my assent and ethical demands that require my obedience. Although I agree that there is more (much more) in the Bible than propositional statements, I do not think that the word of God can be reduced to ‘symbolic’ truth without serious distortion and loss.
Many evangelicals (especially on this side of the Atlantic) would agree with Tomlinson that ‘inerrancy’ is something of a distraction. But we would not agree that we can move from this to a position where the historical reliability of the Bible becomes a matter of indifference. Is he not aware of the work that has been done by evangelical scholars on the historical reliability of the Bible (Bruce, Kitchen, Blomberg, etc)? Is he not aware that not only John Stott but a whole galaxy of evangelicals repudiate wooden literalism and seek to apply sound interpretative principles to Scripture?