Union Theological Seminary has recently released a series of statements, via twitter, about the doctrine of Scripture. In what follows, I have their statement in italics, with my comments between. I wish to credit Tyler Robbins, for collecting the statements, and also to credit James White, who commented on the statements on his program.
A little background first: Union Theological Seminary is an old institution that, like many seminaries, was orthodox back in the 19th century, but tragically embraced liberalism and has rejected orthodoxy. They still call themselves a Christian institution, but they explicitly deny that salvation comes only by faith in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, while they enjoy a reputation for scholarship, their influence is dwindling and the student body is around 250, about half MDiv students. Embracing theological liberalism has not led to flourishing; but that’s a lesson many liberal seminaries have learned. The world is a poor friend to theological institutions.
Interestingly, their motto is Unitas, Veritas, Caritas (Unity, Truth, Love). See how much of that you find in the statements below.
- A word about biblical infallibility: This weekend, we received much damnation from fundamentalists over our denial of scriptural inerrancy. It’s understandable, because once you relinquish conviction that the Bible is *literally* God’s word, faith becomes a messier affair.
We begin with the rhetoric of radicalization; anyone who believes that the Bible is fully truthful is a “fundamentalist.” And, while they may indeed have received damnation over their views (i.e., been literally told to go to hell), the context suggests that they group all criticism of their views together as “damnation,” just as they label all those who hold inerrancy “fundamentalists.” Union says that these “fundamentalists” hold their belief in biblical inerrancy because they are afraid of the messiness of faith in the real world.
Feelin’ the unity and love yet?
- It’s easier to simply believe that the Bible is a plain record of the divine, that it clearly and concisely states what Christians should believe. In a world that feels so chaotic, biblical infallibility can provide distinct comfort. But comfort and truth aren’t synonymous.
Now comes the attack on motivations and character. Evangelicals hold to the truthfulness of Scripture because they’re afraid of the big scary world. They aren’t brave enough to reject God’s word.
Well, yes and no. The world is chaotic and scary, and God’s word is a rock of security. But that doesn’t mean that Christians believe God just based on wishful thinking. On the contrary, it takes faith to believe that God has spoken, that the Scriptures are His word. It takes much more courage, in our society, to hold steadfastly to the truth of the Bible than to make the kind of compromises with the world that Union makes.
On the other hand, the kind of ‘courage’ involved in rejecting God’s word is a different animal altogether. Christians want nothing to do with ‘bravely’ defying God. “Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10:22, NIV).
- The truth is that the biblical books were written by humans. They represent the fruits of people grappling with God, and what it means to be human, for centuries—in all the complexity those questions necessarily entail.
They were written by humans. That’s what conservative Christians believe. But it’s more nuanced than that. “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The Bible was written by humans, but the humans who wrote the Bible were inspired by God.
That means it’s not just “the fruits of people grappling with God…” It’s revelation from God to people, divine revelation given through human authors. Union grasps the human origin of the Bible, but not the divine origin. The human authorship of the Bible does not negate the fact that it is God’s word.
- Moreover, even the decision about which books would be included in the Bible was a human choice—one that didn’t solidify until centuries after Jesus died: They by no means represent all the early Christian texts. (Dr. Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament collects many others.)
Yes, the formation of the canon happened during the early church. This is not news, and it has no bearing on the truthfulness of Scripture. God enabled the early church to recognize those books that were inspired and those that were not.
Nor does the presence of other early texts—some helpful, some heretical—have any impact on the inspiration of the Scriptures. Lumping other early writings together with the canonical Scriptures does not make a “New New Testament.”
- Furthermore, the languages in which most Americans read the Bible reveal yet another layer of human interpretation, decisions made by translators who labor diligently over the original Hebrew and Greek texts.
Yes. A cursory examination of the more academic evangelical Bible commentaries (e.g. the New International Commentary, Baker Exegetical Commentary, Pillar New Testament Commentary) will show that evangelical scholars are well aware of interpretive issues and engage carefully with the Hebrew and Greek texts.
This has no bearing on the inspiration or truthfulness of Scripture.
- There is so much humanity in the Bible, and humans are—by nature—fallible and often blinded by our own cultural prejudices and blindspots. That was every bit as true for the early Church as it is for the modern Church.
Unless “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
- But by no means should an admission of fallibility be read as an admission that the Bible is worthless, or a denial that God speaks through Scripture. Instead, it simply opens the door to a far deeper, nuanced and complex faith.
Indeed, God speaks through Scripture. But that statement means different things to an evangelical and a liberal. To an evangelical (me), it means that the Bible is God’s word. When I read the Bible, I am reading what God has spoken through human authors. To a liberal (Union), it means that sometimes God uses the Scriptures to speak to people, but the Bible is not itself God’s word. This is a useful doctrine, because it lets them pick and choose among the Scriptures. Useful, that is, if you don’t actually want to submit to God’s authority.
Union says Bible-believing Christians have a shallow faith, and those who don’t believe God’s word have a “nuanced and complex faith.” Come again? This is much like saying that if my son does what I tell him, he has shallow obedience, but if he decides when to do what I tell him and when to disregard what I say, he has nuanced and complex obedience.
- It means being a critical reader of the Bible—interpreting more difficult passages in light of clearer ones, reading biblical scholarship to better understand the cultural context in which texts were written (and how that informs them).
Yes, we interpret the Bible and read biblical scholarship. Not news, not relevant to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
- But, on a deeper level, it means opening up faith to doubt. It means acknowledging that, when it comes to God, there are no “easy answers.” There’s no cheat sheet that you can simply refer to, to read God’s voice—clear as day. Letting go of that can be painful.
Ah, the deeper level! Now we’re getting somewhere. The deeper level is, indeed, where the things get interesting.
Having a “nuanced and complex faith” means “Opening up faith to doubt.” That’s what I thought it meant. Postmodern people sometimes seem to make doubt one of the cardinal virtues, but the Scriptures don’t regard doubt as a good thing. On the contrary, “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).
Union says that “when it comes to God, there are no easy answers.” Actually, the fundamental proclamation of the gospel is that there are easy answers to some of our questions pertaining to God. For example, there is an easy answer to our sinful alienation from God: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Union says there’s no reading “God’s voice—clear as day”, no clear revelation. We are in the darkness. But the Christian is not in the darkness, because God has given us His word. We can say joyfully, with the psalm, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).
“Letting go of that can be painful.” I’m sure it can. It’s a tragedy to turn from the light and wander in the darkness. It hurts to reject God.
- But, once you embark on this new religious adventure, you’d be shocked at how it can deepen your faith. A lot of people seem worried about relinquishing biblical inerrancy because it would render Christianity meaningless—this could not be further from the truth.
A “new religious adventure”? Walking in the darkness? It’s a little like calling being shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean a “new aquatic adventure.” Only worse.
When you embark on the adventure of turning away from God, “you’d be shocked at how it can deepen your faith.” Beg pardon? I thought we were talking about adding doubt to faith; that deepens it? Like adding milk to coffee makes it stronger?
Does rejecting inerrancy “render Christianity meaningless”? Not necessarily. It cuts out the foundations of faith, but your house of faith might stand nonetheless, by God’s grace. We are saved by faith in Christ, not by our doctrine of Scripture. There are Christians who do not believe in the total truthfulness of Scripture. But Union Theological Seminary, who reject Jesus as the only way of salvation, can hardly be said to be among them.
- The Bible still speaks divine truth; those who study it still benefit from the centuries of spiritual contemplation and reflection it contains. The psalms are no less beautiful, proverbs no less profound. Job remains an unparalleled distillation of grappling with theodicy.
This is what we saw before, more indirectly, under #7. For Union, “speaks divine truth” is not the same as “is divine truth.” When they make this distinction and opt for “speaks divine truth”, what’s happening is that they’re placing themselves above God’s word (thus, above God), and they’re going to decide when the Bible speaks divine truth and when it does not. At this point, a wrong doctrine of Scripture has actually become a sort of indirect idolatry, and the idol is themselves.
- Jesus’ life and ministry still embody God’s expansive, radical love made flesh. His resistance to Empire—and willingness to die for opposing how it oppressed the vulnerable—no less challenge our complicity and complacency.
Is that why Jesus died? I was under the impression that “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25), that “he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). No, Union says, Christ died as a martyr in the fight against human oppression.
You see, it is possible to lose the truthfulness of Scripture and still, somehow, by the grace of God, keep the gospel. But it is at least as likely that when you lose the doctrine of Scripture you will lose the gospel, and replace it with popular social concerns.
- Moreover, relinquishing infallibility is the only means by which you can fully square Scripture with a loving, just God. A god that would condemn LGBTQ people for their love, or consign women to subservience, is not a god worth worshipping.
Ah. Now it all becomes clear. This is what the battle over the divine inspiration of the Bible is really about. Union rejects the truthfulness of Scripture, ultimately, because they don’t like what Scripture says. To “condemn LGBTQ people for their love” is their way of describing the fact that God says homosexuality, etc., is sin. To “consign women to subservience” is, I assume, their way of describing the biblical prohibition on women preaching in the church’s worship and the command that wives submit to their husbands. But why do they describe God’s commands in this inaccurate and derogatory way? Out of a commitment to unity, truth, and love? Unlikely.
In their own divisive, deceptive, and antagonistic way, they declare that the God who has spoken in the Scriptures is unworthy of worship. This is both tragedy and blasphemy. They are walking down a dangerous road. The Scriptures they despise are for our good, and offer the reassurance and the warning that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially truth of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority” (2 Pet. 2:9-10). That warning fits as though tailor-made to respond to Union’s statement.
God is worthy. Worthy of our entire worship, our wholehearted obedience, and our undiluted faith.
- Fortunately, that god was never God—simply an idol worshipped by people who valued print and ink over divine justice. Letting go of that idolatry is the first step towards truly knowing God, to developing faith that honors both humanity and the divine.
For Union, the God of the Bible is an idol. Truly, someone is engaging in idolatry in this situation, but it’s not the Christians who submit joyfully to the total truthfulness of God’s word. It’s the people who call themselves Christians but put their own wisdom above the word of God.
Union speaks of valuing “print and ink over divine justice.” This is similar to an old charge, that Christians who believe in the inspiration of Scripture have replaced God with a book. In the first place, it is slander, for evangelicals value God’s word, not just print and ink. To esteem God’s word is to esteem the God who gave His word. Once again, Union freely mischaracterizes those who disagree with them. I’m really not seeing the unity, truth, and love.
In the second place, Union makes a false dichotomy, for the Scriptures teach us about divine justice. It is quite obvious in the church today that when you reject the truthfulness of Scripture you end up not with a high regard for divine justice, but with a truncated view of divine justice. Union’s low view of Scripture has brought them to support some issues that are in agreement with divine justice (e.g. caring for the poor), while also advocating some areas of unrighteousness (e.g. LGBTQ advocacy).
For Union, rejecting God’s word is “the first step towards truly knowing God.” That seems just the littlest bit counterintuitive. I suspect, instead, that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:5-7).
In fact, I’m quite sure of it—without any doubt.