I love Scripture. Dearly love it. I love to read it, love to study it, love to reflect on it, love to teach it, love to hear God speak in and through it. I was drawn to this book just over 15 years ago, on that radical day of transformation when I entered into new creation in Christ. And from the beginning I have been a part of God’s people who also hold Scripture with the highest regard. In one sense, I would be somewhat baffled if one says they love Jesus and did not love Scripture.
As a side caveat, and as I have mentioned before, I am no philosopher (nor historian or scientist). I function mainly in a shepherding-teaching role within the local church context. I touch somewhat deeply into theology. But my goal is to, in some way or fashion, help God’s people build a biblical framework to help them engage in their world today. Not the word of the first century or the 16th century or the 20th century. The world of today.
Having said that, I think the best way to engage our world today with biblical teaching is to read it with a first century understanding (as best we can!) and then appropriate such teaching within a 21st century framework. No, this is not about letting culture dictate to us. Rather, it’s simply about letting God’s dynamic and organic revelation become real today.
Moving forward in my just over 15 years of Christian life, while my love for Scripture has remained very strong, my general theological and philosophical perspective of how to engage with Scripture has gone through a paradigm shift. I’ve become less and less committed to the more modernistic, Cartesian, empirical approach to knowing truth and have begun to slowly embrace a more postmodern, practical realist approach to knowing truth.
A modern approach centres everything in objectivity. Subjective truth is not a firm foundation. Objective, verifiable, evidence-based truth is firm.
Sounds good, right?
I mean, God is absolute truth and Scripture is his word. Thus, Scripture must be absolute, or objective, truth.
Well, I’m not so sure it works out that way.
I’m going to throw out a statement that might sound a shocker to many a evangelicals, but one I believe is true (though not objectively nor inerrantly true).
Scripture is not objective. It is subjective.
Maybe I should run and duck for cover now!
When reading my italicised statement above, many problems are created for my evangelical brothers and sisters.
I can hear the voices now: How can we know anything if Scripture is not objective?! God is absolute and objective as the truth, and so must his word be! Subjective truth leads to relativism!
And there are, I’m sure, more questions and voices.
The interesting thing is that I would have offered these same challenges not too long ago. And maybe this is a sign that I have strayed from God’s truth.
But I’m not so sure that is what has happened. As I have engaged with a few writers out there – ones that are mainly evangelical, such as Kenton Sparks, Jamie Smith, Peter Rollins, Peter Enns, Scot McKnight, etc – I have begun to notice a difference in approach, a different paradigm as to approaching Scripture and truth as a whole.
Again, there is the modernistic approach with the thirst for empirical, verifiable, objective truth, this being centred mainly in Scripture. Scripture is unchanging because it is God’s word and God is unchanging. And we could even quote varying passages of Scripture that seem to support this notion about Scripture.
But an epistemology – how we know the things we know – that requires objective truth as the only foundation for which we can ultimately know God, at least for me, fails to take in the reality of how God has chosen to communicate to us.
God has decided not to write Scripture for us. He chose a team project in which he would utilise finite, and fallen, human beings to communicate his revelation. And he chose his own finite creation and other such finite measures to compliment this revelation of himself. But it is Scripture that comes to us as God-breathed, not God-dictated (2 Tim 3:14-17). And we are told that the prophets were carried along as they prophesied, rather than given objective downloads (2 Pet 1:21).
You see, a postmodern perspective allows for us to reasonably know God, especially in his word in Scripture. But we are not really ever at a place of ‘objectivity’. God is God, but Scripture is not God. God is God, but Scripture is God-breathed given in the great team project of God working through finite, and fallen, human beings.
I hear the challenge now – To err is not intrinsic to being human.
I’m fine with that. But let me remind you that finitude is intrinsic to being human. Even Adam, though sinless at creation, was finite (meaning he didn’t have all the objective truth).
Listen, I very much believe Scripture remains a highly sufficient and reasonable revelation of who God is. But Scripture, whether in narrative or not in narrative, comes to us from finite (and subjective) human beings. This is not detrimental to Scripture and God’s revelation given in Scripture. It simply identifies the reality of what God has actually given us. God has always utilised humans to communicate his revelation – whether in written or verbal prophecy, written or verbal poetry, written or verbal narrative, whether then or even now (yes, God still speaks today). But, while God remains absolute truth, Scripture does not remain absolute. Well, I suppose it does if we desire to hold to a modernist view. But I believe this can ultimately lead to a path of seeing Scripture as God-dictated rather than God-breathed.
Again, to recognise any sense of a finite (or subjective) perspective in Scripture is not, nor does it ever have to be seen, as destructive to God and his revelation in Scripture. This is the way God has chosen to reveal himself. The infinite and objective utilising the finite and subjective. Scripture has God’s thumbprint all over it. We cannot get away from such. But I don’t turn to it as a post-Enlightenment text given to prove every single point here and there about this and that topic. It’s not a systematic text in the form of a Grudem or Berkhof. It simply isn’t. But it is God’s very good and sufficient revelation of himself, ultimately in Jesus Christ and the evangel.
‘But how do you know that?’ one might ask.
Like I said, we can reasonably engage with its revelation in forming reasonable and practical conclusions about it. But I can tell you this – I didn’t believe the gospel because someone proved anything objective to me (though they might have wished they could do so). Instead, I had a very subjective, yet very true and real, experience in which I met Jesus Christ and believed the evangel. That is reality. That is true.
Of course, an extreme postmodernist, embracing a more anti-realist perspective, might simply emphasise that I am a product of my own culture-community, one which is predominantly white, Anglo-saxon and conservative evangelical. Therefore, I had a relative experience only defined by my community, quite different from the oriental, Buddhist woman based in Thailand. We both had very subjective experiences, real and true for us, but only for us. We can never reasonably know truth.
I would argue this is an extreme perspective, not a reasonable and practical engagement with reality and truth. (As a side note, I wonder how long anti-realism will hold up as our world becomes more and more of a global community where there is mix and match all over the planet.)
But again, one asks: ‘How do you know that? How do you know anti-realist postmodernism is extreme?’
Well, I don’t know. Not from the Cartesian, modernist mindset that can only have one’s thirst quenched by objective and absolute truth.
But, again, I can practically and reasonably know God’s truth, his revelation, in Christ, the gospel, Scripture, the body of Christ, creation, the full communion of saints spanning time, etc.
Are all the questions answered?
Nope. And I am now quite at peace with that.
True, a modernist approach will also recognise that all questions will not be answered for the finite. But they still offer that, at some point in some way, all questions can be answered. Maybe. Or maybe not. I’m still leaning towards the view that we won’t know everything in the age to come, since God is that vast and incomprehensible. But maybe we will get the super-download when we meet Christ face to face or at some point into the ‘future’. I’m not sure.
And so, coming back to the Bible, we can so easily, and I think wrongly, approach it as a systematic text of absolute, objective truth. Of course, most will recognise it has not been given to teach us about every topic. But still we must also remember that, what it does touch upon, at least at times, it does not fully address those issues. Much of the reasonable conclusions we come to theologically come not from Scripture alone, but from our theological and philosophical reflections after reading the text.
Case in point, we read in Scripture what seems to be a clear presentation that Christ is both eternal-divine and human. How is that? Yeah, we’ve been discussing that for almost 2000 years. But it’s there. Yet, Scripture does not delve into how all that works out. It leaves two realities of tension next to one another, but does not always resolve it. To argue it does resolve all tension is, I believe, to overstep Scripture’s own teaching about itself and what we find in it.
The hypostatic union and the doctrine of the incarnation were built upon Scripture’s teaching, but were not fully founded within Scripture’s teaching. I don’t see this as wrong. I simply don’t see Scripture being given to tell us about the hypostatic union. In a sense, that’s not really what a first century Jewish context would call for. Again, please don’t read me wrong. I think the systematic construct of the hypostatic union, put forth in 431 AD at the council of Ephesus, is a helpful engagement in understanding how Christ’s divinity and humanity have come together. But I very much believe that the Scripture, written almost 400 years earlier, was not dealing with such questions. And I think to tell ourselves that Scripture lays out, clarifies and communicates how this all works out is, well, to kid ourselves. It might give us A and B, but it might not always tell us how A + B = C. It might simply leave A and B together within the canon.
And so, in the truth (yes, the truth) of Scripture, you will find various examples of two different statements or accounts that could create a little tension. You have the kingdom which is here, you have the kingdom which is not here. You have women being told to not speak, you have women being told to speak. You have God who does not lie, you have God sending a deceiving spirit into enemy camp. You have a God that is completely sovereign, you have humanity that is completely responsible for their actions. Oh, and you have this guy, Jesus, who was divine and human at the same time. You have God not able to die and you have the divine Son dying. You have God not able to thirst and you have the divine Son thirsting. You have God not able to be tempted and you have the divine Son being tempted. You have God not submitted to anyone and you have the divine Son submitting even himself to the Father.
And I embrace each of these realities, these truths, this revelation in Scripture.
But what I don’t embrace is to tell myself that Scripture actually explains all the details of how it works together, fits nice and neatly into a systematic formulation. Oh, I think it very healthy to in some form or fashion systematically engage with these tensions. We are indebted to the councils of the early centuries that did such on some of the major tenets of our faith, helping us even now so long down the road. But, while we start in Scripture, at times we do not end there. We are left to reasonably and practically engage with statements of tension that exist within the God-breathed text God has given us. Yet Scripture might not follow up in the text itself with how it all works itself out.
Again, let me reiterate my love for Scripture, my love for God’s revelation and truth in Scripture. But over the past few years, I have found myself slowly stepping back from a modernist approach to truth and Scripture, and embracing a more practical realist approach within a postmodern paradigm. For some, they cannot go there. And I wouldn’t say I’m fully there, still recognising that other modernist leanings might need to fall as the unshakable kingdom shakes my own understanding of God and his truth. But I find so much more freedom, much more ‘green pastures’ to move around in, as I let go of an overt thirst to make everything fit within a verifiable and objective framework, especially in Scripture. And, in doing so, I know I stand in good company with others who are helping to pull the pendulum a bit back towards the middle.