Previous installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 1
Thom’s second chapter is titled “Inerrantists Do Not Exist: Dispelling a Myth of Biblical Proportions.”
In this chapter, Thom, a liberal Christian, takes to task his conservative Christian brethren. As I said in the introductory installment of this book review, I have no interest in their intermural arguments. There are liberal Christian seminaries and conservative Christian seminaries, and within some seminaries you’ll find a contingent of each category. The main point of dispute Thom chooses, as we’ve seen, is the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” While I don’t want to dwell on this internecine warfare between the left and right wings of Christianity, I should give a warning to you about Thom’s writing.
You have to read Thom carefully to avoid being misled. For example, in his excursus on Daniel he begins by saying “Although the book of Daniel is set in the sixth century BCE, critical scholars are virtually unanimous that it was not completed in its final form until the mid-second century BCE.” You might get the idea from this there are hardly any scholars who accept Daniel at face value. However, that word “critical” in his sentence might not have caught your eye. It should have, because “critical” in this case is a synonym for “liberal.” This is a point which Thom inadvertently confirms himself when, near the end of the excursus, he writes, “Inerrantists frequently make the claim that ‘liberal’ scholars argue for a ‘late date’ for Daniel…” – that late date being the one he specified: mid-second century BCE. For some reason Thom doesn’t seem to like the label “liberal.” But note that he’s describing a conflict of views between liberal and conservative scholars. Only the way he presents it, especially if you’re not reading with the greatest of care, it comes across like virtually all reputable scholars are unanimous about something that only some knuckle-dragging, Neanderthal “inerrantists” dispute.
By the way, I am using the terms “liberal” and “conservative” Christian is a descriptive, not a pejorative, way. While Thom sees those Christians to his right in a negative way, I see both liberal and conservative Christians believing what they think is right. I can learn from both of groups, even though I do not consider myself a member of either.
Another warning I’ll give you is that Thom says one thing but then does another. For example, he begins this chapter with “It is not my intention to demonize inerrantists.” If that’s his intention then I’d say he can demonize better unintentionally than most people can intentionally.
Enough, however, of how Thom treats some of his Christian brethren. I’m more interested in how he treats Christ.
Thom defines an inerrantist as “someone who believes that everything the Bible affirms is true, and good, and that it comes from the mind of a kind, loving, merciful, and just God.” He goes on to say such a person does not exist. I have a candidate: Jesus Christ. Does Thom – does anyone – think that Jesus did not regard the Bible as true, and good, and as coming from kind, loving, merciful, and just God?
Jesus quoted scripture to fight the devil. He referred to scripture as the authority for all He taught and did. Unlike most leaders, Jesus did not write a book…because He already had one in the Bible. Jesus uttered scripture even as He hung on the cross in humiliation and suffering. Jesus trusted the Bible with His life – and was rewarded with resurrection.
If Jesus believed what Thom believed about the Bible, Jesus would have taught about it what Thom teaches. Instead, He prayed to God saying, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Jesus believed that the Scriptures spoke what was “true, and good, and that it all came from the mind of a kind, loving, merciful, and just God.” That’s good enough for me.
By the way, Thom spends much time in this gospel comparing and contrasting various methods of interpretation. In doing so, he displays his scholarship. He is not only a good writer, he is well-educated. He handles history, linguistics, and other disciplines with ease. His prose is so fluid that the various disciplines coalesce into a narrative that is easy for the less-educated to follow. In fact, he reminds me of Bart Ehrman – another, albeit older, scholar who is able to translate academic knowledge for mass consumption. Thom and Bart are taking what has long been known in the academic world and presenting it in popularly written terms for lay people. Unfortunately, both have the same effect on their readers: to encourage the unbelievers and discourage the believers. This is because both are simply repackaging the long-held liberal view of Scripture which is, generally speaking, less committed to the idea that the Bible is the word of God than the conservative view. Bart is an agnostic (though he grew up as an evangelical, or “inerrantist” to use the less euphonious term). Thom is a Christian. Nonetheless, the tone each takes when criticizing “inerrantists” is quite similar. This is more surprising where Thom is concerned since it is his Christian brothers he is disputing so fiercely.
A lot of what Thom says about various interpretive methods is helpful, as long as you don’t get caught up in the polemic he’s advancing. As I’ve said, I find value in some of the views of liberal scholars just as I find value in some of the views of conservative scholars. I think conservative scholars run generally on a firmer track given their high view of Scripture, but I think Thom makes some valid points when, for example, he shows their occasional inconsistencies in interpretive issues.
Conservative Christians themselves sometimes argue about the meaning of inerrancy, interpretive methods, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as evidenced by this post from Marc Cortez, who is reacting to a controversy between Norman Geisler and Michael Licona, two prominent evangelicals (i.e. conservative Christians). Some bloggers have spoken in favor of Geisler, and some in favor of Licona. Some have even jumped into the fight themselves. All of these folks, however, would be considered inerrantists by someone like Thom. They are no more monolithic in outlook than the liberal Christians of which Thom is a part.
These intra-family squabbles between liberal and conservative Christians are, however, all minor points in the scheme of things. The major point to me is that Jesus regarded Scripture as the word of God, and we do well to imitate Him.
Therefore, we have Jesus meeting Thom’s definition of an inerrantist. This leaves Jesus in stark contrast (no pun intended) to Thom, the errantist. Thom doesn’t call himself, or those others who think like him, an errantist, but given that Thom’s book is a polemic against inerrantists there could be no more appropriate label.
Even though Jesus meets Thom’s definition of an inerrantist, the term doesn’t really speak adequately to the issue. That is, someone who believes that the Bible is “true, good, and comes from the mind of a kind, loving, merciful, and just God” is saying much more than simply “I don’t think the Bible has errors.” Such a person goes to the Bible expecting to find the voice of God through a variety of human voices. A person like Thom, on the other hand, expects to hear arguments and contradictions about God, with any voice of God therefore much harder to find.
Practically speaking, all agnostics and atheists are errantists. That is, they don’t believe the Bible is wholly true as Jesus did. As we have seen, liberal Christians, like Thom, are also errantists but do believe in some parts of the Bible – though they vary on how much and which parts. The odd thing to me is that Thom seems to feel much more comfortable with other errantists – regardless of their stripe – than he does his own self-confessed fellow Christians. Likewise, atheists and agnostics have professed affinity for Thom’s book (notably John Loftus and Ed Babinski, both self-professed former Christians). Thus I am puzzled that while Thom professes an allegiance to the cause of Christ, he writes a book that is extolled by those who are against Christ.
Presumably, Thom believes that Christians can be either inerrantists or errantists, and further that being an errantist Christian is the better way to be. I might disagree with Thom on this point, but it would not be an unreasonable one for him to make. However, that Christ meets his definition of an inerrantist introduces a dilemma for his claim.
If you love Christ, then you proclaim with Paul “Whether in pretense or in truth, that Christ is proclaimed, in this I will rejoice.” Or, if you will, “Whether in errancy or inerrancy, Christ is proclaimed, in this I will rejoice.” Thom, however, seems more intent on proclaiming errancy than in proclaiming Christ. And that’s troubling.
Next installment: A Review of “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 3