Tuesday, May 29, 2012

4 The Authority of Scripture

It is fascinating to read Grudem's footnotes, because in them you can probably see the critiques of the years since this book first came out.  It is also important to realize that these critiques surely have not come from the faithless.  After all, this is not the sort of book a person without Christian faith would even read.  The critiques have almost certainly come from other Christians, people like me who see in Grudem's theology a well-intentioned disaster.

For example, there is a revealing section in this chapter where Grudem responds to the objection that his version of the authority of Scripture is a circular argument.  A circular argument is an argument that assumes its conclusion as it tries to make its conclusion.  For example, what if I were to say something like, "You can trust everything I say because I never lie."

Grudem's response: Of course it's circular, just like all appeals to an ultimate authority (78-79).  This at least seems very clever on the surface.  What he is saying, very badly, is that ultimate starting points are generally assumptions rather than premises that can be proven. And that is true. We use basic reason without really being able to prove it. We expect ideas to cohere with each other without being able to prove that coherence is an indicator of truth. Postmodernism has emphasized our uncertainty about such things and basically said that life "works" when we operate on these sorts of assumptions.

But then we make some observations. First, the Bible isn't really the same sort of "ultimate authority" as the ultimate assumptions he compares it to--things like reason, logical consistency, or empirical data (79).  He's not comparing "like" things. In fact, Grudem's very assumptions about what it means for the Bible to be true are based on the sort of ultimate assumptions he is contrasting the Bible with! The basic reasoning and coherency he implies are not the ultimate authorities for him--he uses them in every sentence.  In fact, they stand at the heart of his definition of the truthfulness of Scripture.

So what does he really mean when he says the Bible s an ultimate authority? Surely he means the set of specific truth claims he thinks he is getting from Scripture are assumptions without need for proof.  But this is something different from ultimate criteria for truth, which turn out to be the same as those he is trying to defend himself against. He still assumes that if the Bible is true, the world will correspond to it. And he still claims that for the Bible to be true, its parts will cohere with one another. And he claims that the truths he finds in Scripture will work in the real world.  He still operates with the same criteria of truth we learn about in philosophy: correspondence, coherence, pragmatism.

The Bible is thus not the same kind of "ultimate authority" as the tests for truth we have just mentioned. The Bible for Grudem rather provides the content of truth. But these truth claims are not "necessary truths."  They are assertions that could in theory be true or false.  Not so with basic reasoning. If we do not assume basic reasoning, we cannot talk meaningfully at all about anything. Communication of any kind disintegrates.

So Grudem is right to say (badly) that the ultimate foundations of truth will involve unprovable assumptions. However, the content of the Bible largely does not involve that kind of assumption. The claims Grudem thinks he gets from the Bible do not have the nature of unprovable assumptions.  You know the child's game.  I say something.  You say "Why?"  I give a more basic answer.  You say, "Why?"  We keep this game going until I say something like, "Just because" or "Because I said so."

When you get to a "Just because" answer, you've hit assumption (which, again, Grudem clumsily calls an ultimate "authority"). Certainly some of the assumptions of the Bible may fit into this category.  The philosopher Alvin Plantinga thinks that the existence of God is such a "warranted Christian belief."  But "Jesus healed a blind man on his way to Jericho" is hardly a claim of that sort. So what sounded very clever at first, a snappy come back, actually doesn't make sense in the way he has posed it.

Even more clever than Grudem's resort to "all ultimate authorities are circular" is his fail safe device.  Since everyone with the Holy Spirit recognizes his understanding of the Bible, anyone who disagrees with him obviously doesn't have the Holy Spirit.  It's incredibly convenient and fitting for a 5 point Calvinist to say something of this sort.  No doubt if I were predestined, I would immediately recognize that he's right.  So much pressure!

Of course I could use this same argument to claim that the world is run by little green men that only the enlightened see.  That's how cars run, you know.  There's one green man on the top of each piston and another one on the bottom. What looks like gas exploding is really these little green men farting back and forth. Don't believe me?  It's because you're evil and God hasn't revealed it to you.

I'm not discounting the need for faith--not at all. There are much more intelligent versions of "truth is revealed" than the one Grudem seems to assume here.  For example, Kierkegaard believed that the most important truths in life were subjective, a matter of blind faith. Karl Barth's Dogmatics and the movement for radical Christian orthodoxy see basic Christian faith as matters we should be "unapologetic" about, where "apologetics" is the attempt to prove Christian claims using "evidence that demands a verdict." Rather, they would say, they are things we believe by faith.

But, again, the Bible isn't really the same kind of literature as Barth's Dogmatics or the kinds of truths that Kierkegaard takes a leap of faith over. Barth writes in a somewhat poetic way as if to say, "The truth of God is beyond what can be captured in simple propositions.  We try to point to it in human language in analogical terms."  Kierkegaard's leaps of faith are not so much leaps about truth-claims but about deep existential truths.

In the end, Grudem's way of reading the Bible doesn't fit with the Bible itself. He reads certain words in the Bible in a certain way and concludes that the Bible teaches certain things about itself.  But when it turns out that the way he is reading it is untrue to its own nature, the entire foundation for his theological enterprise crumbles. That is not to say that there is not truth in his thinking. Truth is bigger than the method by which we arrive at it.

But Grudem's method and his way of using the Bible disintegrate. First, as we already showed above, he uses the very tools of correspondence and coherence he wants to trump with the Bible, Second, he uses all sorts of non-biblical tools like textual criticism and of course his chapter on canon must thoroughly rely on factors outside the Bible.  Third, he does not understand how genre impacts meaning--the Bible does not present itself as a set of truth claims. Fourth, he has a naive understanding of language, as if words have something like fixed meanings, which means, fifth, that he doesn't understand how context determines meaning, as I have said previously.  We see this in his "proof-texting," ripping words from the Bible and reading them in a way that makes sense in his context, rather than listening to their full meaning in their original context.

2 Timothy 3:16 is an excellent illustration of 1) the fact that his ultimate assumptions come from outside the Bible and 2) that he is not self-aware in his use of them. All Scripture is God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, correction, discipline, and moral training. Because of Grudem's assumptions, he assumes such functions will come from the literal meaning of the OT text. He would not have to, by the way, he could see the Spirit-illumined meaning of the text as something different from what it seems to mean literally to him.

But ultimately, the inspired meaning that NT authors often saw was a different meaning than the original one. Paul for example finds it hard to believe that God would be concerned with oxen (1 Cor. 9:9). No, wasn't Deuteronomy 25:4 "entirely" referring to the Christian mission, and how those who work for the sake of the gospel should be materially supported by those to whom they minister. In other words, the God-breathed meaning is an allegorical one, not a literal one.

You run the risk of losing your faith if you try to maintain Grudem's hermeneutic and are exposed to any true expert on the meaning of the Bible. For most people blind faith does not work well when reality pummels you, and if faith is not at least minimally reasonable, what would that say about God's desire for us to put our faith in him? It works fine, of course, if you think God has predestined certain people to see it. Indeed, irrationality becomes a badge of honor.

So what is the authority of Scripture? It is, first of all, the authority of God.  Any authority the Bible has, it has because God stands behind it as the speaker/transformer.  When I read Grudem, I begin to fear that he has made the Bible into an idol, as if the Bible were now detached from God and could be worshiped as an end-in-itself.  But the Bible is a means to an end, to bring us to God and Christ. The Bible does not exhaust God and God can speak to us/change us in other ways too.

The Bible is thus the mediated authority of God, and it was mediated through people who lived in other times and places in "many and various ways," but chiefly through his Son (Heb. 1:1-2). One of the greatest ironies of Grudem's approach, a fundamentalist approach to Scripture, is that it has a hidden agenda for how Scripture can speak. It does not come to the Bible with a blank sheet of paper but with its own questions for the Bible to answer, not letting the Bible say what questions it wants to answer.  How you pose a question has everything to do with the answer you get.

So while Grudem quotes many verses, he has already decided what it means for the Bible to be truthful or what a "writing" is without realizing how deeply these sorts of categories lie in our cultural assumptions. For example, it is true that the word "scripture" means "writing," but Grudem just assumes that this means a writing in the ancient world had the basic functions and characteristics of writing for him today, a literate, post-printing press, educated individual.

But those who actually try to come to the ancient world would say that the ancient world was an oral culture such that even writings were read aloud and with an oral mindset.  This is probably why the early copyists of both the OT and NT documents seemed free to paraphrase the wording.  This is probably why the NT authors felt free to adjust the wording of OT texts. As a typical unreflective pre-modern, Grudem reads his own assumptions into the biblical text thinking and calls it the timeless meaning.

God can indeed speak directly to us through the words of Scripture, but the original revelations were written to people who have been dead for 2000 years and more.  That's what the texts actually say.  You and I are not the initial audience of the "thus saith LORD" of the prophets.  Not only are we not the audience but the genres are not uniform. Grudem acts like the primary purpose of a psalm or a narrative is to give us truth--thus a narrative's primary purpose would be to tell us what happened. This is an impoverished approach to such genres.

So apart from when the Spirit speaks to us directly through the words of the Bible, the books themselves want to be read as indirect revelation--words we can learn about God from by the way he spoke to and through others in various ways. God can certainly transform us through Scripture directly as well, but this is less of a matter of understanding as a matter of changing who we are. The more direct the change in understanding, the less we are reading the words for what they originally meant.

Third, the authority of Scripture is an incarnated authority.  This follows directly from the fact that it is a mediated authority. Once you have a deep understanding of how meaning works, you will recognize how wide the gulf is at times between us and the original audiences.  Our default sense of meaning (and Grudem's) is that words point to this timeless bank of meanings that all humans share in common. Not so.

Meaning is always local. The bank from which the meaning of words is drawn on any occasion is the local bank, and universal meaning only takes place when all locations have the same meaning in their banks. The deep sense of "sacrifice" in the ancient socio-cultural environment, for example, is not in the North American dictionary. We can read about what they did when they offered sacrifices but truly understanding how sacrifices worked in the psyche of an ancient, that's going to take a lot of doing for you and me.

In good pre-modern fashion, Grudem doesn't seem to realize how variable the meaning of words can be or, rather, he is overconfident that people with the Spirit will see the same meaning.  This is why I have described his understanding of the Bible as two-dimensional. It is superficial because he has no idea how differently he sees the world than the biblical writers did.

Because the authority of Scripture is mediated and incarnated, the authority of Scripture is the all-time of Scripture, and the "all time" of Scripture is the import of the whole of Scripture.  A "one-time" command of Scripture can teach me something, but it is not directly demanding something of me ("go and sell everything to the poor," spoken to one person). A "that time" command of Scripture ("cover your head because of the angels") is not directly demanding something of me. The ultimately authority of Scripture over me is the authority of the timeless take-away of the Bible, which is a function of the Bible taken as a whole, its varied pieces directed to different audiences integrated into a singular theology and ethic. This takes place more on the level of principle than of individual precept.

All of that is looking under the hood.  In practice, when it happens right, I love when Grudem says that, "the Holy Spirit speaks in and through the words of the Bible to our hearts and gives us an inner assurance that these are the words of our Creator speaking to us" (77).  When the Bible is functioning as Scripture, we don't need to know all the "below the surface" talk above.  God speaks to us.  God transforms us.

So why do I find fault with Grudem?  Because I do not believe he rightly hears the Spirit at many points.  So if his spiritual engine isn't working right, then it makes sense to get under the hood and get clarity on where his machine isn't working right. Ultimately, the fundamentalist approach to Scripture inadvertently makes the Bible into a barrier between us and God.  It results in a Bible that, rather than pointing beyond itself to the real God, creates a skewed picture of God, flattened by its false rules for what the Bible can and cannot say. It makes the Bible an end-in-itself rather than a sacrament of God's speaking and transformation.


  1. Thanks for your review, I am plugging thru it.

    I can figure out from your little green men example that you do not think highly of Grudem's thinking in some areas, neither do I, but I am not sure I would have used that example as the very people that most need to read it will be put off by it.

  2. I am reading this with great interest. Thank you for setting this out with such easy-to-understand clarity!