Previous installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 2
In the previous installment, I employed the term errantist to describe Thom’s point of view in contradistinction to the inerrantists against whom he argues throughout the book. For clarity, I’ll continue to utilize this in order to make clearer Thom’s intent. I also pointed out that Jesus Christ meets the definition Thom laid down for an inerrantist: “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.” I also emphasized that I am not interested in defending or condemning inerrantists as a group, but rather I am solely interested in defending Jesus the inerrantist, as well as the Bible itself, from Thom’s attacks. (Make no mistake, Thom’s book is an attack on the credibility of Jesus and the Bible.) I also pointed out the limitations of errancy-inerrancy terminology because it merely speaks to whether or not the Bible has errors, when the real point that Jesus the inerrantist would want to make is that the Bible is the word of God.
The third chapter of Thom’s book is Inerrancy Stunts Your Growth and Other Fundamentalist Health Hazards.
The first argument Thom makes in this chapter is that the Bible is not a self-aware or sentient being. Jesus didn’t teach that it was, nor does anyone else I know, so Thom is arguing with a straw man of his own making. Though Thom doesn’t admit it, the canon of the Hebrew Bible was never an issue in the New Testament. Everyone – whether for Jesus or against Him – referred to “the Scriptures” or “the Law and the Prophets” without arousing the sorts of arguments Thom thinks are so relevant. People knew what the Scriptures were. That canon of books has not changed in 2,000 years. There are some branches of Christianity (notably Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox) which add some books to the core Old Testament canon, but there is no dispute about what books constitute the core canon. Thus Jesus was presented a Bible, and its contents were settled enough that He never felt the need to address the subject. We don’t have to either. The canon of the New Testament does deserve some discussion, and we will come to that in due time.
Next, Thom argues that just because the Bible is inspired by God does not mean it is without error. All I can say to that is if God is inspiring error then there’s no hope for any of us. How can you rely on what He says if He’s prone to error?
Thom goes on to argue that just because the Bible is authoritative does not mean it is error free. That is a distinction without a difference. For the Bible to be authoritative as the word of God, it must be presumed to be without error insofar as God spoke what we’re reading. To say that we’re reading the word of God but He might be wrong about some of the things He says, sort of undermines the authority, eh?
Now, we have to quickly acknowledge that we are reading texts in languages other than the ones they were originally written in, that we’re thousands of years removed from the people who wrote them, and that we’re reading copies of what they wrote. So, could there be errors on the page in front of us even though they weren’t there when the prophet wrote them? Yes. And you could add to that the errors in our minds that cause us to misunderstand what we do read. However, what makes us continue to read is the belief that beneath all the intermediate steps, there are words that God wanted us to hear. And, more practically, though we may misunderstand a sentence here or a section there, we will be able to find themes in what is written that will come through clearly, especially when repeated by various writers in various ways. “Out of the mouths of two or three witnesses, let every fact be established.”
The accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not identical. If they were, you could throw away three of them. As it is, they complement each other. They each see Christ from a different perspective. All are inspired by God, but limited by human perception. I have four children. If you were to ask each of them to write a short narrative of my life as they have known it, you could get four similar, yet somewhat differing, accounts. And that’s just what we get in the four gospels. Their diversity does not mean there are errors; rather, the diversity gives us a fuller picture. I suppose someone could nitpick the biographies by my four children and find seeming points of discrepancy. But that’s all they’d be – seeming points of discrepancy, not actual ones.
Thom’s style is to pick every seeming point of discrepancy and make as much out of it as possible. Instead, our intent ought to be to find Jesus – to take every piece of data we find in order to receive the mosaic picture the Bible has given us of Him. And as we look to the gospels to do this, so also we should look to the rest of the New Testament, for it, too, is about Him. And do not forget that we should do exactly the same with the Old Testament, for though it was initially written to guide the nation of ancient Israel, its ultimate purpose was to reveal Christ to the world (John 5:39).
Thom has some sub-section titles which, in the interest of time, I’m going to use for the rest of this post as reference points to which I will respond.
“A Legal Controversy” – Thom tackles Matthew 5:17-18, which is a difficult passage for errantists. His first tack is to sow doubt that Jesus ever said it (A most convenient debating tactic, and one that is easy for an errantist to employ). Then he tries to show that inerrantists aren’t consistent in their interpretation of it (So what? That has nothing to do with Jesus’ faith in the Bible). Lastly, he tries to suggest that Jesus was intentionally leaving out reference to “the Writings” (Puhleeze!) Thom’s goal in each case is to sow doubt in the reader’s mind. He never really establishes his case. He just keeps adding new charges. It’s like convicting someone in the court of public opinion by putting forth a never-ending barrage of accusations. After a while, people just assume the person’s guilty. That’s what Thom wants you to do: assume the Bible has errors. So there’s your choice: join Thom in assuming the Bible is characterized by errors or join Jesus in assuming the Bible is the word of God.
“It’s All About Me” – Here Thom acknowledges that Jesus says the Scriptures are about Himself, but then suggests what he’s going to declare boldly in chapter eight: that Jesus Himself was wrong. This is just a repetition of Thom’s fundamental thesis: the Bible is characterized by errors and Jesus Himself made errors. Take your pick of whom to believe about this: Thom or Jesus? At the end of this section, Thom repeats his unproven charge from an earlier chapter that Job and Ecclesiastes both deny the possibility of life after death and thus contradict Jesus. Just because these two books did not speak explicitly about resurrection in the same terms that Jesus did is hardly warrant for saying that a disagreement exists. Moreover, both imply resurrection even though the books don’t teach the concept explicitly, they do imply it.
“For the Purposes of Discussion” – Here Thom deals with Jesus’ statement that “Scripture cannot be broken.” He insists that Jesus wasn’t saying that Scripture couldn’t be broken – only that those who argued with Him believed that. In other words, Thom believes Jesus was using the assumptions of His antagonists against them and not revealing His own view of Scripture. But Thom’s characterization just doesn’t hold up when you read the text. It’s clear that the “subordinate clause,” as Thom puts it, is inserted by Jesus to make the very point that Scripture cannot be broken (even when it appears hard to believe). It would be redundant otherwise. This was a point therefore on which He and His antagonists agreed – and to use such points of agreement also a valid debating technique, and a more effective one at that.
“A Spirit-Filled Proof Text” – Here Thom overlooks the fact that the belief of Jesus and His contemporaries was that the Holy Spirit was the inspiration of all the prophets who wrote the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, any mention of that name could evoke thoughts of future writing. It’s certainly not out of the question as Thom suggests. Thom then makes the unsupported and misleading claim that “much of the New Testament was not written by the apostles.” On the contrary, apostolic origin is the essential requirement for including a book in the New Testament. We have 27 such books, and the reason we don’t have more is that no one could be sure that any others were genuinely apostolic.
“Literary Allusions” – In this section Thom says that just because Jesus referred to incidents from the Old Testament does not mean He was saying that they were without error. But, as I’ve been saying, Jesus believed the Old Testament was the word of God – to additionally say it’s without error would be superfluous.
“The Heresy of Inerrancy” – In this section Thom argues with inerrantists about whether Jesus was omniscient during His earthly life. Although I don’t buy all that Thom says, I do believe that Jesus indeed grew in wisdom and knowledge and therefore was not omniscient when He was twelve years old. Nor do I believe He was ever omniscient in His earthly life. He was divine, but not omniscient. He gave up omniscience to become human. But He regained it in the glories after His resurrection.
The remaining sections of this chapter are primarily arguments between Thom and Chicago Statement inerrantists. He’s taking issue with them over not just inerrancy, but over interpretive methods and interpretive conclusions. He even brings Reformed theologians (Calvinists) into the ring for a round. As I’ve said, I don’t care about Thom’s quarrels with these folks. What’s clear is that Thom doesn’t want his readers to grow up to be inerrantists, fundamentalists, conservative Christians, or anything of the kind. He wants you to believe the Bible has errors. That’s very important to him. It’s a point at which he hammers and hammers and hammers.
By contrast, I want you to grow up to be like Jesus. And that begins with regarding the Bible as the word of God, just as Jesus did. If it’s the word of God, of course, it is without error. But that’s perhaps the least of its qualities. As the word of God, it’s truth, it’s guidance, it’s direction for life.
Relevant to this point, Thom closes this chapter with an argument that if you think of the Bible the way Jesus does you’ll stunt your spiritual growth. Of course, such a view is ridiculous on its face. He’s saying you’ll stunt your spiritual growth if you imitate Jesus. But leaving that illogical thought aside, let’s focus on this sentence of Thom’s: “An infallible set of scriptures is ultimately just a shortcut through our moral and spiritual development.” (By the way, Thom writes these kinds of sentences a lot. They only make sense to those who read them superficially. They don’t stand up to any reasonable scrutiny. Watch, and you’ll see what I mean.) Jesus accepted the Scriptures as the word of God and it did not stunt His growth. Nor was it a shortcut for Him. If it was, He would never have had to pray. But Jesus did have to pray. And He had to suffer. And “He learned obedience from the things He suffered.” He didn’t learn merely from the things He read. The Bible in no way answers every question you have to face in life. The Bible teaches you precepts and teaches you about God. It teaches you how to go to Him and wrestle over your moral choices. Jesus Himself was wrestling strenuously in prayer at the end of His life in the garden of Gethsemane. His acceptance of the Bible as the word of God was not a shortcut to the moral life. Rather it was an indispensable guidepost to that moral life. Since God is true He cannot contradict Himself. And since He cannot contradict Himself you can use the Scriptures as a point of comparison for the word of God you receive from any other source. If you do not believe that God speaks, you will be handicapped in all attempts at spiritual growth – for how else would you ever have a means of calibrating your own conscience?
You don’t need to critique the Bible. You need to let the Bible critique you. And if you allow this, your prayers will have more power and your life will have more substance in the sight of God. Thom doubts much of what he reads in the Bible, and he wants you to doubt it, too. Jesus wants you to believe the word of God…and do it.
Next installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 4