Extracurricular Activities 7.26.14 — Inerrancy, Immortality of the Soul, & Vanishing Middle-Class Clergy
In ten years of teaching, writing, and researching theology, I've never once been asked whether or not I believe in inerrancy. As it happens, I do. If someone was to ask me whether, in my view, the Scriptures contain mistakes or not, I would answer in the negative. Partly this is a result of theological conviction about the divine and human components of Scripture: that when God's words are expressed by humans, neither their human aspects (authorial personality, tone, language, mode of expression) nor their divine aspects (truthfulness, authority, clarity, reliability) are compromised. Partly it's because I'd find it strange to tell people that the whole Bible represents the word of God, and the word of God is completely truthful, but that parts of the Bible aren't completely truthful. (I don't mean to say that nobody can believe all three of these things but that it would be beyond my intellectual faculties to do so.) Mostly, though, it's because of Jesus. Put simply, based on what I read in the Gospels, I cannot imagine (if we let this rather implausible thought-experiment run for a moment) Jesus being asked whether the Scriptures contained mistakes or not, and saying yes.
I realized that I thought Peter had made an historical mistake, and I realized that it didn’t make me trust the messageof Scripture less. The agenda of 2 Peter (to say that false prophets in his day were doing bad things, like Balaam did) is not remotely altered by the author’s snafu about Balaam’s surname.
In this case (though not in every case) the veracity of the theological message is in no way dependent upon the historical detail of the Old Testament illustration used to underscore the point. So I saw no reason to doubt 2 Peter’s criticism of the false teachers because of this tiny lacuna in his historical knowledge.
But for a lot of my friends, that wouldn’t be the case. In popular evangelical discourse (such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy), the historical and scientific inerrancy of Scripture is adduced as the reason one can trust Scripture’s message about God’s redemption in Christ.
If you believe in the immortality of the soul, so it would seem, you would have to believe in endless punishment of the wicked or universalism. In the history of the church, belief in the immortality of the soul has been a constant. Not all, but most have believed God made humans immortal. While N.T. Wright, especially in Surprised by Hope and more academically in The Resurrection of the Son of God, has labored to prove that this is not only a later (than the New Testament) belief but also that immortality of the soul is positively nottaught in the Bible. Immortality is a gift from God, not an innate possession of humans.
There was a time when almost no scholarly work was being done to relate Christian theology and ethics to the Bible. We therefore owe a great debt to George Lindbeck, who spent much of his career seeking to recover what he called the “classic pattern of biblical interpretation” for today’s church. The mainline churches, Lindbeck contended, exist in a state of “methodological chaos” with respect to their reading of Scripture, wherein “disagreements over interpretive modes” have led to “the present crisis of biblical authority”—a “theoretical crisis that threatens to become a practical cataclysm, as the decline of the historically mainline denominations suggests.” What we need, Lindbeck suggested, is “criteria on how to proceed with the discussion,” in such a way that the traditional, precritical reading practices that remain integral to the church’s everyday life are preserved.
In this essay, I attempt to recover the classic pattern of biblical interpretation by comparing the postliberal position of Lindbeck, the sophisticated contemporary evangelical position of Kevin Vanhoozer, and the classical Lutheran position of Robert Jenson.
For someone seeking a full-time job as a church pastor, Justin Barringer would seem to have the perfect résumé. He’s a seminary grad, an author and book editor, and a former missionary to China and Greece. But despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.
So he splits his time among three jobs, working as a freelance editor, an employee at a nonprofit for the homeless, and a part-time assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church. “I am not mad at the church,” Barringer says. “However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”
Barringer’s story is becoming increasingly typical as Protestant churches nationwide cut back on full-time, salaried positions.
Extra-Curricular Activities is a weekly roundup of stories on biblical interpretation, theology, and issues where faith and culture meet. We found each story interesting, thought-provoking, challenging, or useful in some way – but we don't necessarily agree with or endorse every point in every story.
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