Three Kinds of Bibliology

You really can’t study Karl Barth in evangelical circles without hearing some (often quite strong) objections to his bibliology. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, as inerrancy makes for an important discussion. Nonetheless, I often think Barth is overly criticized on this point, and in large part my reason for this involves my understanding that, whatever Barth’s views on the nature of inspiration and revelation, he took Scripture extremely seriously and worked hard to conform his thinking to it. In contrast to more liberal or skeptical theologians, Barth declared, “Once and for all, theology has…its position beneath that of the biblical scriptures…[T]he biblical witnesses are better informed than are the theologians. For this reason theology must agree to let them look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks.”1

Reflecting on this led me to think that we would do best to understand bibliology as having three distinct aspects, which have different levels of importance and practical impact. I think it may be helpful, when assessing and debating views on Scripture, to have these distinctions in mind. My proposed bibliological distinctions are as follows:

Confessional Bibliology
By confessional bibliology, I mean the descriptions which people are willing to employ regarding Scripture, i.e. what people confess about the Bible. Confessional bibliology is the sphere in which we simply use individual words to say what we believe about Scripture, something primarily visible in confessional documents. A “high” confessional bibliology may use terms like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “verbally inspired.” A “low” confessional bibliology may shy away from such terms, except perhaps “infallibility,” in favor of less specific language such as “authoritative” or “inspired.”
Technical Bibliology
By technical bibliology, I mean the precise way in which people explain their views on what Scripture is and how it was inspired. Most “views of inspiration” would be included under this heading, such as verbal plenary, dynamic, existential, etc. On this level we describe what “God-breathed” means, how God used men in writing Scripture, what the role is of the Holy Spirit, and even broader questions such as divine providence and the nature of God’s revelation.
Practical Bibliology
By practical bibliology, I mean the way we actually use Scripture. How do we handle it? Do we treat it with submission and reverence, or do we twist it for our own ends? This includes certain questions of hermeneutics, the relation to tradition, and how we can be self-conscious and self-critical about the presuppositions and worldview we bring to the Bible. A high practical bibliology robustly allows Scripture and its inner logic to change our thinking and doctrine. A low practical bibliology makes the Bible into a servant of our preexisting convictions and outside norms.

So, a few thoughts on these categories. First, having a “high” bibliology in one of these areas does not guarantee a correspondingly high bibliology in all of them. One might have a high confessional bibliology, for example, willing to call Scripture “entirely without error,” while essentially taking this away by fine print details with a low technical bibliology. On the other hand, it is easy enough for someone to have a low practical bibliology, treating Scripture like a prop for their own ideas and agendas, even though they have the highest of confessional and technical bibliologies (e.g. independent fundamentalists who act like the whole point of the Bible is anti-communism, anti-feminism, and anti-rock music). Sometimes we might even see conflict between the priorities of these types of bibliology. For instance, often conservative apologists will twist a text in an impossible way (exercising a low practical bibliology) in order to defend it from a charge of error (to defend a high confessional bibliology). It would be better in these cases to proclaim a lack of knowledge and let the text speak for itself.

And then there are people like Barth. Barth had a mixed confessional bibliology, calling Scripture the “Word of God” while nonetheless insisting that this identification is indirect. In a sense, you might say Barth had a medium-high confessional bibliology and a very difficult to rank technical bibliology. But where he shines is in his practical bibliology. Despite all of the qualifications Barth made about the humanity of Scripture, its role as witness to revelation rather than actual revelation, and his indirect identification of it with God’s Word, he submitted to it. He sought to understand the prophets and the apostles as best as he could, to see Christ in the pages of their writings, and to submit his thinking and living to Christ at every point. One may disagree with much of his exegesis, but one cannot deny that he read Scripture with reverence and an eye to knowing and obeying the Word of God who is Jesus.

This framework, I suggest, offers a way to be more precise and more charitable when enaging with people who view Scripture differently than we do. Likewise, it lets us see how people may be understood as faithful to the Bible even when they don’t necessarily believe in the same kind of inspiration, or confess quite the same adject ives, that we do. And if anyone has any comments or suggestions about these categories, I’m interested to hear them.

The Bible Told Who So? Andy, Apologetics, and Authority

I just don’t think the Bible is important to Christianity and we don’t need to rely on it as Christians.

Okay, that’s not me. Actually, that’s what people have been getting for some reason from Andy Stanley’s recent controversial sermon, “The Bible Told Me So.” I would have thought this controversy would have settled down a bit since I first ran across it a couple weeks ago, but it really hasn’t. So I’m just going to offer my thoughts.

First, if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, you should probably just go hear the whole sermon for yourself before forming an opinion. It would be inappropriate to make a judgment on this matter before hearing everything he says in its proper context. But here’s a summary. Basically, Stanley argued that we should stop hanging the core of our faith on the total perfection of the Bible and instead put it on the Resurrection. It is not the Bible that gives us Christianity, but rather Christianity was created by the Resurrection and the Bible came to be because of that. Sometimes people will find all kinds of objections to believing everything in the Bible (stuff like “What about evolution?” “I heard the Exodus never happened,” or “Archaeology says walls of Jericho didn’t come tumbling down”), but ultimately if their faith is grounded in the historical fact of the Resurrection rather than in the totality of a perfect Bible, they will find themselves reasonably led to stick to the faith and simply wrestle through the other issues. If the ultimate focus is, “The Bible told me so,” then as soon as they find a problem in the Bible that they can’t find a decent answer for, their faith will be in jeopardy. If the ultimate focus is, “Jesus rose from the dead,” then no random archaeological discovery about the Ancient Near East will endanger this sure bit of history on which everything else hangs.

To be honest, it still doesn’t make sense to me how people could truly object to this line of reasoning except by (usually willful) misunderstanding. It is simply true that the Resurrection is the one historical point on which everything hangs, and that even if we had a fallible Bible or no Bible at all this would still be real history deserving of faith in Christ. But of course there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, so I will quickly address two common misconceptions about this argument.

  • This is not saying the Bible has errors. Part of the point of this argument is to make it irrelevant to Christian faith whether the Bible has errors or not, but even so the argument does not ask us to say there are errors in the Bible, and Stanley has explicitly stated that he believes in inerrancy: “I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true.”
  • This is not saying that we know about the Resurrection without the Gospels. Some people have imagined that if Stanley is moving the focus from the “Bible” to the Resurrection, then without the Bible he has no way of knowing about the Resurrection. But Stanley isn’t removing the Gospels from our method of knowing about Jesus. He is changing the focus from the “Bible” as a single, bound, book of 66 books complete with a theology of inspiration—a sacred text—to the fact that it contains Gospels and epistles written in the first century by eyewitnesses whose lives were changed by the event of the Resurrection. The Gospels are being presented as simple historical evidence first. If we can show that the New Testament demonstrates the historical reality of the Resurrection as simply testimony for an event from eyewitnesses, then we can build from the fact of the risen Christ to give someone a full Bibliology.

So, given all of this, I think that what Stanley has said is good apologetics and accurately expresses the historical rationale for why we can believe. Our faith in ultimately grounded in the fact that Jesus did really rise from the dead in space and time 2000 years ago and we have historical witness to that in the New Testament. Everything else in the Bible is true, but even if it were not or if we had reason to doubt, the Resurrection would be enough to hold everything together.

But, I am not willing to let Stanley off easily just because I agree with his basic apologetic point. There is still a problem here, and that is with his overall approach. The problem with “The Bible Told Me So” isn’t so much what Stanley says so much as to whom he addressed it. My problem is with Stanley’s approach to preaching and church. What Stanley said would belong in an apologetics conference or in a conversation with unbelieving friends or doubting Christians, but not in church. His recent interview with Russell Moore highlights what I’m saying. Moore asked him what he would do if we had the power of an evangelical pope. The first part of his response was that he would have all the small, dying churches sell their buildings and stuff and give them to church planters. Then he added a part related to this sermon saying that he would ask pastors to get the spotlight off the Bible and back on Christ’s resurrection, which of course sent people into reactionary spasms of “Heresy! Apostate man!” But the two together, along with everything else about Stanley’s ministry, make my point. He is treating church and its services as the place and time for evangelism, outreach, and apologetics. It’s a seeker-driven model all about getting people in. Thus he uses a primarily apologetic mode for Scripture, one which can’t take Scripture as a presupposition but instead must use it as a tool of historical reasoning. This is a fine way to evangelize, but it’s a terrible way to do church. As I argued before, church is for the Church. Church is a time for edifying believers, uniting us in the Gospel in worship of God in Christ, discipleship, and proclaiming God’s word in Scripture. In church, we can and must treat Scripture as a presupposition. When preaching and teaching to believers we are to take its final, infallible authority for granted. There are other contexts and times, especially one-on-one conversations, for handling Scripture in the merely historical, apologetically strategic way that Stanley is doing, but it is not the way to feed the sheep, which is the true purpose of church gatherings. I criticize Stanley here not for what he says, but to whom he says it. He should be saying these things to unbelievers outside of church, or to struggling believers in personal or training environment, not to a gathered church body. His ecclesiology is the real problem. His Bibliology is actually fine. But this ecclesiological problem is a problem, and it’s why I’m not thrilled with him and his ministry. Get church right, and use the power which comes from healthy church to evangelize in the world. That’s the issue.