CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH? – A Series on the Living Word of God
by Ben Witherington III
Since Dr. Ben and I both live in the Bluegrass and have probably rubbed shoulders at one of the Lexington movie theaters, I read his books differently than I do someone whom I only know by name. Recently, he has been working on a series of books on the Protestant sacraments. Those books are:
With this review series, I’m not going to pretend that some of this material isn’t over my head. I’m still learning on the fly the language of grad school-trained theologians, and I often feel like I’ve gotten to the party several hours late and totally missed many conversations. That’s why I’d like this to be a discussion series. Today, I’m going to give a lightning-quick overview of the book and talk about the preface. Tomorrow, I’ll dig into chapter one, and try and cover a chapter a week here.
This series first caught my eye because it was beginning to parallel the work of John Mark Hicks in our own tradition. JM wrote Come to the Table and Down in the River to Pray, striving to share our history and revision our understanding and practice of Baptism and Communion. Then JM and Bobby went one direction and Ben went this way. Anyway… Dr. Ben breaks down into 9 chapters, an afterword, and a neat-looking Bible FAQ:
I. SEEKING THE WORD OF GOD
II. INSPIRATION WITHOUT AN EXPIRATION DATE
III. THE END OF ENNS: THE DANGER OF AN ANALOGY
IV. TRUTH TELLING AS AN ART FORM
V. CAN THESE THINGS BE TRUE?
VI. DID THE CANON AND ITS TRANSLATORS MISFIRE?
VII. HOW TO PICK A TRANSLATION WITHOUT LOSING YOUR RELIGION
VIII. RIGHTLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH
IX. THE ART OF READING SCRIPTURE IN A POSTMODERN WORLD
X. AFTERWORD: THE SACRIFICE OF THE INTELLECT?
XI. APPENDIX: BIBLE Q&A
In the preface, Ben shares some options for broad understanding of the “Word of God”, and then offers some strong affirmations that stake out some territory for the upcoming discussions. He quotes Barbara Brown Taylor for the options:
1. Divine Creation (or as I like to put it, “Holy Dictation” as depicted in Rembrandt’s Matthew);
2. Divine Inspiration (Revelation from God that reflects human style, thought patterns, interests, etc.)
3. “Shakespeare at his best” (Pinnacle of Human Endeavor, but lacking revelation – the best of the “word ABOUT God” schools of thought)
4. Literary Classic
5. Human Machination, written to deceive and enslave (“opiate of the masses”)
Divine Inspiration, says Dr. Witherington, is the view most often held by the church through the ages, and “does the most justice to both the divine and human dimensions of Scripture.”
Quotes to ponder:
“Wouldn’t it be better to say that the text of the New Testament as originally given is what inspiration actually looks like? Wouldn’t it be better to assess the nature of the New Testament’s truth claims after delving in depth into a close study of the meaning of various relevant texts, asking how they work and what sorts of information they are trying to convey?” I like this, because I’ve been frustrated for a long time with the use of deductive reasoning to decipher Scripture. It just makes better sense to me to examine Scripture first and then come to some conclusions, rather than coming to a conclusion and then expecting Scripture to clearly verify or deny that conclusion.
“I take it as a fundamental axiom that I should not bring my theology to the text… Rather my theology should be drawn from the biblical text, even my theology of Scripture, after the hard work of interpretation and reflection on meanings has taken place. And hard work it is because we have to fight off many modern misconceptions of what an ancient text must say or do if it is to be seen as veracious.”
“Veracity must always be judged on the basis of what a person is intending to say and trying to convey. Modern notions about chronological or verbal precision equaling inerrancy are not helpful if the inspired author was intending to give us the gist of something in a way that was user friendly for his audience… if the author wants to convey something in a general way, he should not be faulted for imprecision.” I often hear NT Wright comment on how critics of public teachers seem to demand that the teacher say absolutely everything they believe about everything every time they open their mouths, or otherwise the critics assume that the teacher is denying some essential tenet of New Testament Christianity.
“[The student] assumes that the truth of [biblical] issues should be apparent to laypersons simply by examining the surface of these texts, even in translation. This assumption is false. Every translation is already an interpretation, so the intermediary role of scholarship cannot be escaped… The essence of the salvation message of the New Testament can, of course, be understood without such sophistication, but the Bible speaks to a plethora of subjects and often speaks at a depth and in ways that moderns would naturally find puzzling or confusing.” This quote made me feel vindicated, because I get SO FRUSTRATED when someone tells me just how simple the Bible really is if people would just sit down and read it. I want to lay Exodus 24 and John 1 before them side-by-side and ask, “How simple is THAT?”
“I assume these texts were clear to the human authors who wrote them, and probably clear to many in the audience as well. But to them to be clear for us, we must imaginatively enter into their worlds, their forms of discourse, their ways of conveying important truths. It is not enough to roughly translate their words into our common parlance and then just assume we should be able to understand what they say and mean.” This is where the churches of Christ have a deadly weakness, but ought to have a real opportunity for strength as well. Generally speaking, we’ve been taught that history is irrelevant. Like the people to whom Peter wrote in 2 Pet 3:4, our brethren imagine that people have been living and talking and doing things in exactly the same way since forever. The fact is that ancient cultures REALLY ARE ancient. They spoke differently. They wrote differently. They had different questions and problems and answers and fears. This is our deadly danger: we incredibly underestimate the difference between biblical cultures and our world. Our great potential, though: We are RESTORATION PEOPLE. We have spent so much time imagining ourselves in 1st century
settings that we really should have an advantage over those who have never considered the setting of the church. We should be good at imagining ourselves in that world. I pray that we get better at it.
“We should start [our theology of the Bible] with and stick closely to the Bible itself, assuming that as was the case with Jacob, if we wrestle with the divine long enough, we will obtain a blessing, even if we walk with a limp for a while thereafter.”
TOMORROW: SEEKING THE WORD OF GOD – WHAT DOES THE NT SAY ABOUT INSPIRATION?