Jesus or inerrancy: take your pick

Bible“Inerrancy” is a word you may not actually hear spoken all that often in evangelical churches. But make no mistake: the belief that scripture is and must be without error underpins an awful lot of evangelical theology and lies not far beneath the surface in many churches.

While there’s no universal agreement on precisely what is meant by biblical inerrancy, there is at least one documented explanation in the form of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Since my purpose here is not to examine the whole notion of inerrancy, I won’t bother to reproduce the whole thing (if you’re interested, you can read it here). But I would like to quote the statement’s final two points:

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

In case you find their wording obscure, allow me to translate these two points into simple language: the Bible contains absolutely nothing that is mistaken; and either the whole Bible is absolutely true, or none of it is at all reliable. That’s right, folks: it’s an all or nothing deal.

I used to believe in the inerrancy of scripture, but I don’t any more. For me, it’s really important not to. The reason? Well, to put it bluntly, I think you can believe either in the inerrancy of scripture or in the God fully revealed by Jesus, but not both.

Let me try to explain. Continue reading

Book review: Confessions of a Bible Thumper by Michael Camp

Bible ThumperToday I have the pleasure of reviewing Michael Camp’s book Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith, published in 2012.

Full disclosure: the author very kindly sent me a copy of his book on the understanding that I would review it once I’d read it. I’ve tried not to let that bias my review at all. (In other words, the only bias you should see here is my own, not influenced by the fact that I received this book for free.)

In short, Confessions of a Bible Thumper is a fairly detailed account of how the author journeyed from being a fairly typical 1970s fundamentalist evangelical to being what might nowadays be called a more progressive believer, by which I mean one who is more focused on love and freedom in Christ than on the letter of doctrine.

There’s only one thing I didn’t care for too much about the book, and it’s really a minor point and more a matter of personal preference than anything else, so let’s get that out of the way first. The book narrates a series of semi-fictional theological conversations the author has with friends over food and drinks one evening. I say semi-fictional because I assume these conversations are stitched together from a patchwork of actual conversations that took place over a period of time. While this provides a useful framework on which to hang the very large amount of theological material that’s covered, I perrsonally found this way of presenting the material a little artificial; my own preference would have been simply to see the author either lay out his theological arguments on their own or to narrate his personal journey of spiritual and theological growth without situating it in a semi-fictional conversation. However, I recognise that I’m speaking here from my own preferred learning style. Those who find it easier to absorb information in a more narrative style may well find Michael’s approach here works very well for them. Continue reading

On destiny and freedom

Rail tracksA few days ago I wrote about how, because God is love and love does not coerce, I believe that God’s hands-on involvement in running the world is much less than many of us would like to think. Today I’d like to take this thought a little further.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variety of message or teaching along the following lines: “God has a predestined plan for your life.” This is usually based on a few isolated texts of scripture, for example Psalm 139:16: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

I used to lap up this kind of teaching. But now I’ve come to see it as Christian determinism, pure and simple. Let me show you why.

The logic is very straightforward: if God is so deterministic that he literally plans every day of our lives down to the last detail, then we are forced to conclude one of two things:

1. Either God also plans every terrible accident, disaster, disease and cause of suffering that befalls humanity…

2. … or God must have some reason for protecting certain people from disaster while allowing others to suffer.

Either way, the outcome is not pretty: either God is a monster who intentionally and deliberately causes suffering, or he is biased and has favourites. Continue reading

Divine randomness

Random NumbersI love the city of Paris.

Paris is my favourite city in the world (which, since I haven’t visited all that much of the world, is probably a less spectacular claim than it sounds). I first went there when I was 16 years old, and immediately fell in love with it. Since then, I must have visited it somewhere approaching thirty times, and I never tire of it. But there are two particular particular things that have happened to me in Paris that will stay with me forever.

The first: I was in Paris with my wife and kids one weekend around ten years ago. We’d been facing some major life decisions, and just as we thought we’d worked out a way forward, things changed very abruptly and unexpectedly, and we were plunged back into uncertainty. As we walked around the city, taking in its familiar landmarks, our minds were full of questions.

I knew that my dad was also going to be in Paris that weekend. He was on a short coach-and-hotel tour. We’d had no contact and made no plans to meet up, since we knew we’d be busy and he had his own pre-programmed itinerary to follow.

So imagine my surprise when, as we walked round a corner onto the Pont d’Iéna under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, we heard a honking of horns and a knocking on glass and we looked up to see my dad waving to us from the window of a coach! The coach that was taking him on his package tour happened to have stopped at some traffic lights right by where we were walking.

I’m no statistician, but I know that the chances of us being in the exact same place at the same time in a city of three million people are pretty slim. It was one of those surreal moments of bizarre coincidence that happen to us all from time to time. We took it as a sign that, in all our uncertainty, God knew exactly where we were.

The second: my wife and I were in Paris for a long weekend with some friends about eighteen months ago. We’d all spent a fairly intense three days together, and on the Sunday afternoon decided to split off and have some down time. My wife and I were strolling at a leisurely pace through the Marais quarter when we happened upon an estate agent’s window. Just for fun, we decided to stop for a moment and look at property prices. As we were marvelling (and drooling) at some of the properties on offer, a voice behind us said “Bonjour!”, and we turned round to find a dear friend whom we had known very well when we were living in Normandy a few years earlier. She was on her way to a meeting nearby and had just happened to spot us as she hurried along the street. Had we not stopped for a moment at the estate agent’s window, she would doubtless have missed us.

Same city, two different occasions, two bizarrely improbable coincidences. Continue reading

Projecting onto God

Greek godIt has come to my understanding that how we perceive others is often in large part a function of our own internal state rather than a reflection of objective reality.

Let me give you an example to flesh this out.

Sometimes I’ll ask my wife “What’s the matter?” and she’ll give me a puzzled look and answer, “Nothing, why?” This has at times been a source of frustration for her in the past, because through my persistent asking “What’s the matter?”, I’ve given her the impression that there must be something wrong when, in fact, nothing was wrong at all. I’m gradually learning to be more careful about asking this kind of question; or, rather, to take a step back and think about what’s going on before I ask it.

What is usually going on here?

Often, what’s actually going on at such times is that I am, for some reason or other, in a state of inner discontent which I then unconsciously project onto my wife. Perhaps I’m feeling anxious, insecure, angry or fearful about something. I’m probably not consciously aware that this is how I’m feeling. But because it’s what’s going on deep inside, I look for some external object on which to fix my anxiety, insecurity, anger or fear. And the nearest external object usually happens to be my wife.

To put it simply, if you’re often angry, you tend to expect others to be angry too; if you’re often fearful, you tend to see others as potential sources of fear; and so on. Continue reading

Always running

RunningWhen I look back over the soon-to-be forty-four years of my life, it sometimes feels like I’ve spent most of it running.

A lot of the time I’ve been running after things. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy running after things which, on the face of it, seem good, wholesome and even laudable: things like friendship, love, respect and truth. I’ve also run hard after qualifications, recognition, popularity, career success and financial security.

Most of these things aren’t bad in and of themselves; the trouble is, each of them can easily become an end in itself. So the quest for friendship can easily morph into an unhealthy dependency on others for validation; the search for love is easily misdirected into lust; even those who seek after something as noble as truth can end up building themselves into a prison of legalism and self-righteousness. And money, status, popularity and success can quickly become idols that are always just out of reach.

I say all this with some confidence, because I’ve tried running after most of these things. And, in the end, they’ve left me exhausted and disillusioned.

And so I look back and I ask myself what all the running has been for. And I wonder whether, perhaps, I haven’t been running towards things so much as running away from something. Continue reading

Redefining language

DictionariesWhatever your views on evolution and the origins of the human species, you’ll probably agree with me that one of the main characteristics that sets humans apart from any other species is our capacity for rational thought. And this capacity is closely linked to our ability to communicate using language. (Indeed, without language we would certainly not be able to express our thoughts; whether we could even think in such a sophisticated way without language is debatable.)

As a member of the human race and a daily user of language, however, you’d probably also agree with me that language, as powerful as it is, is fraught with difficulty. It seems that, no matter how much care we take in communicating what we think, there’s always room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

In a recent blog post, my theologian friend Michael Hardin puts it like this:

What if language is not divine? What if language is a purely human phenomenon? What if language is not neutral, but is a bent, broken and distorted means of communication? Is it not the case that we are constantly being misinterpreted or that we find ourselves explaining ourselves to others in simple conversations? Language is not straightforward is it?

The very least one can say is that language is imperfect. Even with the best of intentions and the greatest of efforts at clarity, misunderstanding is rife. In fact, in line with Michael’s linked article, I think we can go further still.

We humans are prone to think in a way that judges and separates people into in groups and out groups – with ourselves, of course, usually in the in group and our enemies and those we do not care for or value in the out group. We define ourselves over against others. And we tend to excuse behaviours in ourselves and the groups with which we identify that we would condemn out of hand in those we consider other than us. This kind of thinking – most of it non-conscious – seems to have been deeply entrenched in us ever since the Garden.

Given how closely language is associated with thinking, it follows that our language is also subject to the same non-conscious tendencies. We use language to structure the world according to our innermost thoughts and perceptions. As we think, so too do we speak. Continue reading