A prayer for our world

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

We know too well that your name is not considered holy in many places and in many hearts. Spirit of Christ, work quickly to glorify our Father’s name!

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Soften the hardest hearts, break down the highest walls, conquer what must be conquered–beginning with us. Then rebuild our world so that it is what it was meant to be.

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Bonhoeffer on how we will be judged

“What will God ask about on that day of judgment that we are approaching? At the Judgment, God will ask us solely about the everlasting gospel: Did you believe and obey the gospel? God won’t ask whether we were Germans or Jews, whether we were Nazis or not, not even whether we belonged to the Confessing Church or not; nor whether we were great and influential or successful, nor whether we have a life’s work to show for ourselves, nor whether we were honored by the world or unimportant and insignificant, unsuccessful and unappreciated. All persons shall be asked by God one day whether they could risk submitting to the test of the gospel. The gospel alone shall be our judge.”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from ‘Learning to Die,’ a sermon preached on 24 Nov 1935

Introducing the Westminster Confession of Faith

Notes from a class introducing the Westminster Confession of Faith at All Saints (spring 2011):

 

 
I. Where did the Westminster Confession of Faith come from?

 

The Westminster Assembly: 1643-49

 

Produced the Directory for Publick Worship, Form of Presbyterian Church Government, Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Westminster Larger Catechism, and Westminster Shorter Catechism

 

Revoked as an official creed of the Church of England after the Restoration of 1660…

 

…but adopted in Scotland and thus central to the Presbyterian tradition

II. How does the WCF relate to what we do at All Saints?

 

It is the “Constitution” of the Presbyterian Church in America

 

– It is second only to Scripture in authority

– The official documents of the PCA state:

 

“The First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, meeting at the Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama, December 4-7, 1973, adopted the Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism as the doctrinal standards of the Church.”

– All candidates for office (pastor, elder, deacon) in the PCA must affirm the following:

 

“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of the Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scripture and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your Session the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”

III. How does the WCF relate to what I do as a Christian?

 

a. Why do we need creeds anyway?  Is it wise to have extra-biblical “standards” for our faith?

 

The duty of churches to have creeds:

 

The mission of churches: to proclaim the truth of the gospel as taught in the Word of God.  This can’t be done haphazardly!

 

– What is the gospel??

– Being on the same page, speaking with one voice

b. Is the idea of ascribing to a creed biblical?  Should we be “adding” to Scripture?

 

The first creeds of the church are recorded and commended in Scripture:

 

Deut 6.4, Matt 16.16, Matt 28.19, 1 Cor 8.6, 1 Cor 15. 3-7, Phil 2.6-11, 1 Tim 3.16

c. Why the WCF over other creeds?

 

Robert Shaw, 1845: “The first thing which must strike any thoughtful reader, after having carefully and studiously perused the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith, is the remarkable comprehensiveness and accuracy of its character, viewed as a systematic exhibition of divine truth, or what is termed a system of theology.”

d. I’m not a church officer, so I never took the oath above.  How does the WCF apply to me as a member of All Saints?

Michael Bird on biblical inerrancy, part 2/2

previously summarized the first half (or so) of Michael F. Bird’s essay, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA,” the third in Five Views on Biblical InerrancyI will continue where I left off on page 158:

Michael F. Bird


Bird’s next move is to answer his question, “What Does the Bible Say About Itself?” He begins by pointing out that “even inerrantists cannot agree as to whether the Bible explicitly teaches its own inerrancy” (158). He cites Carl F.H. Henry and Millard Erickson as arguing that inerrancy is an explicit biblical teaching, and Jim Hamilton and Greg Beale as maintaining the opposite.


Instead of inerrancy, Bird suggests “veracity” or “divine truthfulness” as “a better characterization of Scripture’s claims for itself,” and suggests that the doctrine of scripture be stated in such positive terms rather than how “the Bible is not untrue.” He lists biblical passages in support of a doctrine of “divine truthfulness” (Psalm 12.6, 19.7, Revelation 3.7,14, 15.3, etc) and acknowledges that this positive approach to scripture’s claims “corresponds nicely” with the claim in CSBI article 9 that Scripture is “true and trustworthy.”


Bird’s thesis statement in this section is, “The testimony of God’s Word about itself is that God’s Word is an authentic and authoritative account of God’s actions in creation, redemption, and consummation. God speaks in revelation, and it is true because God identifies with and even invests his own character in his Word.” This position is not dependent on “our ability to demonstrate that the Bible is without error,” which is a much better position “because there are, honestly speaking, bits of Scripture, inconsequential for the most part, that do not agree in their precise details.” Bird cites James Orr, contributor to The Fundamentals, as a supporter on this point for saying that trying to demonstrate “the inerrancy of the biblical record down even to its minutest details… is the most suicidal position for any defender of religion to take up.”


This section concludes with the claim that inerrantists “allowed modernity to fight on the philosophical ground… and with the epistemological weapons of their choosing” and thus rig the fight in their favor.” That is, in my estimation, a frequent problem in Christian apologetics when the church agrees to position a debate on post-Enlightenment, modernist grounds. As Bird puts it, “we shouldn’t anchor the truth of Scripture in our apologetic capabilities to beat the skeptics at their own game; I think there are better ways.”


The next part of the essay is “An International View of Scripture” (160), in which Bird accounts the Christians worldwide who do not hold an explicit doctrine of inerrancy and yet have doctrines of the authority, sufficiency, truthfulness, and infallibility of Scripture: Anglicans, Presbyterians, the Church of Southern India, the Baptist World Alliance, etc. One wonders how many of these Christians know they are not inerrantists, but that is perhaps Bird’s point: this doctrine is not a central theological category to many Christians around the world.


Further, “the nomenclature of ‘inerrancy’ is a relative newcomer to the theological scene,” not being a part of theological discourse until the 19th Century. While the obvious response to Bird’s objections at this point would be to point out that all non-biblical theological terminology was coined in some historical context, Bird is surely aware of that. Rather than trying to criticize the terminology because it originated in a particular debate, his point here seems to be simply that this doctrine has not been a central theological category to most of the Christians in history — at least not as it is typically stated by inerrantists.


Bird concludes this section by describing “the doctrines of revelation, inspiration, and veracity embedded in biblical infallibility.” Revelation is “God’s work in imparting cognition of his person, plan, purposes,” and reality, not “not mere propositions about God waiting to be decoded from the morass of biblical genres.” Inspiration “describes how God publicizes and preserves the special revelation of himself through the medium of human authors,” an intriguing definition. And the “veracity and verification” of Scripture rests on the Holy Spirit. As Bird puts it, “I would not place the doctrine of Scripture at the head of a system of theology” (as many systematic theologians have done, but biblical theologians seem less likely to do), “I would place it between the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of the church,” another intriguing thought. Bird envisions this doctrine resting on “the inner witness of the Holy Spirit” and “the testimony of the church.” All of this should lead the Christian to a posture of submission to the authoritative Word.


In the final section of his essay Bird presents “Three Test Cases” to demonstrate how his doctrine of Scripture works out in his interpretation of three often-problematic texts.


Example 1: Historical Accuracy and the Fall of Jericho in Joshua 6 (166): Bird mentions various archaeological theories about the dating of the fall of Jericho and the conquest of Canaan. After arguing that “a close reading of the biblical text indicates that the scale of this event was probably much smaller than usually imagined,” Bird concludes that “we have to accept that we just do not know when [Jericho] was destroyed nor by whom, based on archaeological evidence,” because of “our lack of material evidence and because the evidence we have will always be subject to redating and revision.”

While “nothing here falsifies the biblical account” and “today’s archaeology too often becomes tomorrow’s footnote about earlier mistaken efforts,” Bird’s overarching argument is that “it is impossible to tie faith or even nonfaith to archaeological records, since such records are continually subject to scholarly revision.” Readers of Scripture should instead focus on the “key function of the Jericho story,” which is “to mark the transition from wandering in the wilderness to reaching their promised inheritance in the land.” It is “on this point,” and not the archaeological evidence, “that our faith is said to rest.”

Example 2: Intracanonical Accuracy and the Discrepant Points in Accounts of Paul’s Conversion in Acts 9:7 & 22:9 (168): Bird asserts that “there are details in Luke’s own portrayal of Paul that do not always line up.” While the particular discrepancy Bird cites here “appears innocuous,” he seems to be offering it as an example of a broader accounts-that-don’t-line-up category, such as the story of the blind man near Jericho (Matthew 20.29-34, Mark 10.46-52, Luke 18.35-43) that he cites earlier in the essay (148).

Bird defends Luke (and other Scripture writers) by explaining that “ancient historians were storytellers, not modern journalists, so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives and filled in gaps on details when necessary.” The fact that “Luke’s narration is flexible on the details” is a function of his cultural approach to history and does not reduce the text’s truthfulness or trustworthiness. Instead of being a “discredit to his reputation for reliability,” Luke’s consistency with his culture’s approach to historical writing “indicates that the truthfulness of revelation is not tied to incidental details.”

Example 3: Theological Plurality in the Canaanite Genocide and the Sermon on the Mount in Deuteronomy 20.16-17 & Matthew 5.43-48 (169): The Canaanite Genocide is a tough doctrine. As Bird puts it, “How could the God of Jesus allow, let alone command, violence like this…? Part me thinks that maybe the ancient heretic Marcion was right [about the harsh God of the Old Testament]!” Although Bird later calls Marcion “a fruitcake” and admits it “would be wise not to take him too seriously,” he nonetheless struggles “to resolve the dissonance” that exists between the Canaanite Genocide and the Sermon on the Mount.

To (partially?) resolve this tension, Bird appeals to a progressive revelation (reminiscent of Palmer Robertson at this point) in which God reveals more of himself through each stage of biblical history. “If we apply this model of progressive revelation that supercedes much of the interim legislation,” Bird writes, “then we can say that the command to commit genocide was a less-than-ideal option but a necessary pathway” for God’s broader intention, which was “to prevent Israel from worshiping pagan deities” and “for his shalom — his peace — to reign over the earth.” Or expressed alternatively, “while all biblical commands are ‘true,’ some commandments are ‘truer’ than others in terms of revealing God’s character and eschatological purpose for humanity.”

Bird contends that a “hermeneutic of trust” in God’s faithfulness “to his world and to his Word” is ultimately the only answer to such “difficult passages” as the Canaanite Genocide. Bird asserts, “I trust God, in his infinite sense of right, to do what is just and proper, even when I do not understand it myself,” because God keeps his covenantal promises.

In his conclusion (171), Bird recaps: 1) “The global evangelical churches affirm that the Bible is infallible and authoritative, but we have not normally used the language of ‘inerrancy.'” 2) “The Bible does not strictly teach its own inerrancy but declares God’s revelation is always true and trustworthy, and this is anchored in the faithfulness of God.” 3) Insisting “on inerrancy as the singular doctrinal device for global evangelicalism’s affirmation of scriptural authority” makes no sense.

In what appears to be at least a slight turnaround, Bird here quotes approvingly Donald Bloesch as saying that inerrancy is “not the preferable word” but perhaps “it should not be abandoned, for it preserves the nuance of truthfulness and is necessary for a high view of Holy Scripture.” He finishes by saying that “despite the barrage of assaults from many quarters… God’s Word remains sure and secure…. Thanks be to God for his Holy Word, and may it dwell richly in our hearts until the day when God is all in all.” Amen!


This volume also includes responses to Bird’s essay by the authors of the other chapters in the book. I hope to summarize those responses, and perhaps the other chapters in the book, at some point in the future.

Michael Bird on biblical inerrancy, part 1/2

I recently ordered Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy with a desire to sharpen my understanding of that topic. I appreciate the way these “Counterpoints” books encourage dialogue about theology: they feature several essays stating different views on a topic, then the author of each essay has an opportunity to respond to the others. It’s a good way to generate fresh thinking and clarity about a given topic.



In this book, five writers present their views: R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: The Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy.” Peter Enns, who teaches at Eastern University and blogs at Rethinking Biblical Christianity, contends that “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.” Michael Bird, who teaches at Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College and blogs at Euangelion, contributed “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA.” Kevin J. Vanhoozer, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, argues for “Augustinian Inerrancy: Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse.” And John R. Franke, Executive Director at Yellowstone Theological Institute, adds “Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality.”

Bird’s essay (pp. 145-73) is the one I was most interested in reading because it offered a fresh perspective from outside my own theological and especially cultural background, so when the book arrived, I started with his chapter. I will try to summarize his arguments here as best I am able.

Michael F. Bird


Bird uses the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) as something of a foil. His essay is dependent on CSBI not only as a generally contrasting view, but especially as a statement of the distinctly American Evangelical doctrine of inerrancy that he is trying to rebut. Bird calls CSBI a “robust and forthright statement of biblical authority for which I am genuinely appreciative” and with which he agrees “for the most part.” He is “quite fond of its preface,” but has some “concerns and qualifications about what is said in the section titled ‘A Short Statement’ and in the articles.” He gives four main objections:

First, CSBI has “a defective view of the genre of the biblical creation account and its relationship to scientific models” because it is “frieghted with huge and unacknowledged hermeneutical assumptions” (147). Most importantly, Bird’s reading of CSBI, particularly the Short Statement and Article 12, commit to “a strict literal hermeneutic that demands a literal seven-day creation and a young earth.” Bird objects that this goes beyond a claim that the Bible is true to a claim of how it is true. Thus, Bird asserts, CSBI goes beyond its charter and draws the boundaries of inerrancy unfairly and unnecessarily: those who do not affirm that “one particular interpretation of the biblical text” are consequently “denying the inerrancy and authority of the text.”

Second, CSBI mistakenly assumes “that biblical veracity rests on the harmonization of discrepancies” (148). While Bird “affirm[s] the unity and consistency of Scripture,” he describes the CSBI’s “focus on reconciling the minutia of detail” in Scripture “peculiar and problematic.” Resting the unity of Scripture on “our abilities to resolve all apparent discrepancies” is a “dead end,” Bird warns. Instead, “the unity of both Testaments rests on their singular testimony to Jesus Christ.” The list of apparent biblical discrepancies is long, and no matter how “some bright spark might find a way to resolve the differences,” there will always be some that are in dispute. Why should we rest our doctrine of inerrancy there?

“The point of the story is surely that Jesus is the Son of David,” Bird responds. “Beyond that, the details are incidental and are open to rearrangement by the storyteller.” He quotes Calvin approvingly: “We know that the Evangelists were not very exact as to the order of dates, or even in detailing minutely everything that Christ did or said.” In what sounds like an echo of Barth, Bird asserts, “Christology, not chronology, is the unity and coherence of Scripture!”and therefore we should “not get distracted in wrangling over incidental details and trying to develop unconvincing explanations to account for minor variations in detail.”

Third, CSBI is based on “a revisionist view of the history of biblical interpretation and a lack of reflection on the contingent conditions behind inerrancy” (149). In particular, Bird targets the statement in Article 16 that inerrancy “has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.” Bird calls the idea that the CSBI understanding of inerrancy has been normative to Christian believers over the course of history “a bit of a stretch.” While Augustine’s doctrine of Scripture might generally correspond to CSBI, Chrysostom and Origen held radically different views.

Bird then calls “the focus on the autographs of Scripture… somewhat of a red herring” (150). Even if we had the autographs, it is naive to assume that we could distinguish between “real discrepancies” and “apparent discrepancies.” Appeals to Augustine’s and John Owen’s views on discrepancy are invalidated by the particular concerns of their historical context. Instead Bird believes that our doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy should be that “the authoritative Bible is not just that which replicates the autographs; it is also the Bible as it is received and believed in the church.” He believes that the solution “is not to think that God reinspires every copy of Scripture… nor to say that one particular modern version is inspires… but to see inspiration as extending to the human literary processes which preserved the meaning and power to God’s Word to achieve the ends for which it was given.” Or, as I once heard someone else put it, “the divine power that inspired the Scriptures can and does preserve the Scriptures.”

Still under the heading of “revisionist view of history,” Bird next criticizes what he sees as a CSBI denial “that there were any contingent circumstances that shaped the development of the American inerrancy tradition in the modern period” (153). Hodge and Warfield “did not write in philosophical isolation or in a historical vacuum,” and consequently their particular “theologies of Scripture were shaped by the philosophical currents of their time.” Not that that is bad, according to Bird; it is just unaccounted for in CSBI. “Of course, that does not mean that what they wrote was merely reactionary or that development is always a bad thing, but it is hard to imagine either man writing what he did without René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, or F.C. Baur lurking in the background.”

As his final historical critique, Bird claims that “inerrantists sometimes engage in some anachronistic history in order to defend their view” (153). He gives an example of the kind of argument he is describing:

  1. Good and godly people believe what the CSBI says.
  2. John Calvin was a good and godly person.
  3. Therefore John Calvin believed what the CSBI says.
While Calvin’s view of inerrancy was “very much in the same ballpark” as the CSBI definition of inerrancy, Bird’s objection is that “the context for studying John Calvin is not late 1970s Chicago… We must resist the temptation to turn our heroes of the faith into advocates of our own positions in light of our contemporary debates.”
 
Fourth, Bird’s sharpest critique of CSBI is what he sees as “an unfortunate trend toward theological colonialism” (154). He describes as “most distressing of all” the way in which “the framers of the CSBI arrogate to the point that they demand that if we do not accept [inerrancy as defined by CSBI], then we are guilty of disregarding Scripture and bringing grave consequences to the church,” and that “…infallibility is not enough by itself and must be cojoined with inerrancy in order to be theologically healthy.”
 
Here is the problem with that notion, according to Bird: “there are thousands of churches around the world that are both evangelical and orthodox and get on with their ministry without ever having heard of the CSBI and without ever using the word inerrancy in their statement of faith.” These churches “have been informed by a broad creedal and confessional tradition” and did not need to “marry its apologetics to the philosophical terms of modernity.” Bird describes the idea that these churches are in the wrong as a colonial usurpation of an authority that is reminiscent of the ancient councils. However, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which framed CSBI, is “mainly a conservative in-house American thing” that was international “to the same extent that winners of the World Series” are “world” champions.
 
Bird strongly resents what he sees as an unjust, unilateral assertion of authority. Who are the Americans to have a “paternalistic attitude” and be so theologically colonial? As Bird points out, “in many cases, conservative American evangelical biblical interpretation is not only parochial but also weird and whacky. Only American evangelicals use Scripture to argue against gun control, against environmental care, and against universal healthcare,” and America is the country of “Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and the Left Behind series!” Further, Bird writes that “we do not need Americans to teach us that the Bible is authoritative and how to do text-based interpretation,” because “we already knew that; in some cases we knew it amillennium before the Americans…” It’s not that Bird dislikes American evangelical scholarship; he affirms that he has “benefited immensely” from it. But this is his punchline: “I want to suggest that when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, the dialogue and teaching should flow both ways.”
 
Bird’s “final thoughts on the CSBI” are as follows: 1) It lacks an engagement with “the literary phenomena of Scripture.” 2) When it assumes a certain epistemology or hermeneutics, then becomes an “attempt to smuggle in certain presuppositions and to covertly legitimize them by linking them to belief in inerrancy.” 3) Its primary purpose is not to gauge the mind of the global church on inerrancy, but rather “to define American evangelicalism as a bounded set, to use inerrancy as a way of forcing conformity to certain biblical interpretations, and to weed out dissenters in denominational politics… That is why some inerrantists preach the inerrancy of the text but practice the inerrancy of their interpretation.”
 
That’s my digest of the first half of Bird’s essay (pp. 145-57). Later I will summarize the second half (pp. 158-173) and the four responses included in this book.