My faith, my spirituality, my understanding of God and the Bible and the church and sin and salvation and myself and other people and everything, has been a thing subject to change — from its beginnings in my Sunday School experiences (or in my baptism, depending on how you think the Spirit works), through experiences in a mainline Presbyterian church, a Plymouth Brethren church, a non-denominational Pentecostal New Testament church, several conservative Presbyterian churches (my longest lasting spiritual home was the PCA; over ten years), a different non-denominational church, a Church of Christ (Restoration movement), and an Evangelical Free church, and now in an Episcopal church. I have been at one time hardly consciously anything but “Christian,” was later a fundamentalist without quite realizing it (thought that was just “real Christian”), was then both evangelical and Reformed, and, never able to fully integrate all aspects of Reformed theology, have been moving in more progressive directions.
Spiritual change is uncomfortable, to put it mildly.
One thing that has undergone change is my understanding of the Bible, through wrestling with the same issues that are familiar to many who have read or studied it much. Why would God order genocide — and does the workaround really work without fatally distorting our sense of love and justice and our ability to trust in God’s good character? Why do the first eleven chapters of Genesis read so like “just so” stories, as mythic explanations for why certain things are the way they are, like pain in childbirth or snakes having no legs or the existence of many languages? Why would God tell Moses to lie about going into the wilderness just temporarily to worship and return? Why, if God regretted making people, would he save a family of them instead of starting with some new creature — and why punish (but preserve) the animals, too? Why does the God described in Numbers, parts of Isaiah, and other places seem more like the most immature petulant authoritarian parent or petty dictator than like a coherent and serious creator-redeemer-sustainer who triumphs over evil through good? I don’t quite see the neat division between wrathful OT God and gentle NT God — there are many OT passages that describe a God of grace and mercy and unending compassion, and there are some things in the NT that seem awfully harsh.
So I have gradually slipped out of inerrancy without quite noticing. Or at least without a conscious decision to simply abandon all sound doctrine and reject the authority of the Bible in my life. I am, as far as I am able to be, willing to be corrected, to be persuaded, to be taught and led, to embrace all the truth of God. It just has become more and more impossible to understand the Bible I read in terms of the inerrancy framework.
Peter Enns has been featuring guest posts on his blog from folks who have experienced significant ‘”aha” moments’ about the Bible — mostly from biblical scholars, but also some pastors and students. So far all have been moving from fundamentalist or evangelical to progressive or liberal. I would like to also read the stories of those whose studies led them into inerrancy… Anyway, I have read eleven of these stories so far, over several days. Today I read two or three. And while there is much that rings true, much that resonates, much that breathes living air, there is also much that is distressing and perplexing, not least the comment sections, where I read one response and agree, and read the counter-response and agree with that too, and they are mutually exclusive, and I don’t even want the responsibility of making such decisions.
I read a bunch of these articles and then think, I ought to take a break and actually speak with God, and spend some time listening, and do the daily office and read the actual Bible… and yet it is so hard to escape, or to understand the propriety of escaping, that all we know about God we get from the Bible. That some kind of deity exists and sustains things in some way seems somewhat suggested by observation of nature… but beyond that it seems we need Scripture for the specifics and the nuances. We can talk about church tradition, but what does that come from, if not Scripture? Is there anything in church tradition that trumps Scripture? In terms of an arbiter, I mean — isn’t it by Scripture that we judge which of the early Christians were heretics and which were not, and so on?
Of course, one answers; of course we need the Bible — we just need to take it as it is and not as we wish it were or think it must be based on our extra-biblical convictions or extrapolations from a handful of verses. But I don’t quite yet know how to take it as it is. When one has been reading this Bible for a couple decades, how does one ever hope to come to it in a fresh way again, without all the baggage of all the ways one has previously been taught to understand it all?
And I have longed for many years to have a more integrated, holistic grasp of this anthology of books from many authors in many genres for many purposes, and I was startled a few weeks ago to come to the thought that perhaps this very uncomfortable state of dissonance is an integral part of fulfilling this longing. It encourages me to remember that very few of these issues were unknown to church history; there was not a simple division between all the complete heretics and all the others who held monolithically to the same systematic doctrine — there has always been diversity in important matters, even as the church has worked to find consensus on the crucial matters.
One guiding principle is to take jesus as the center of our hermeneutics, and understand everything else in light of what he has revealed. On the other hand I am increasingly unnerved by those who also talk about the limitations of the Gospels… and there are some, such as significant differences in accounts of the crucifixion. If Jesus is the center of our hermeneutic, and we can’t even be sure of what all he said and did, the foundation seems awfully crumbly.
There is the Spirit. Who seems to lead people in all sorts of directions, some of which seem awfully contradictory. How can I trust what I think the Spirit is saying to me, in my spiritual mentors, in the Bible, in my prayers, if other people, trusting the Spirit to be speaking to them, are moving another way?
I can’t return to inerrancy. It’s too strident, too much founded on fears and necessities and assertions made ahead of time. It doesn’t seem to do justice to the actual Bible we have.
The alternative to inerrancy isn’t any clearer than inerrancy itself is. Just as inerrancy consists of multiple overlapping views, ranging from the extremely literalistic to the nuanced and sensitive to human contexts, so does the alternative admit a range of views, from something very much like the broadest view of inerrancy, to something that preserves nothing historical at all, nothing of God at all.
And so I shall go to my prayer closet with very little certainty about anything, and attempt to speak and listen to one I am not sure I know at all. Aslan certainly is not a tame lion! — but it does not make sense that God would not be good. I will rest in that certainty and wait for him alone in silence. And in conversation with authors and bloggers and my spiritual director and friends and pastors.