The following is Part 7 of an open letter to Colonel Vaughn Doner and a critique of his 2012 book, Christian Jihad: Neo-Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America. Throughout the series, I address Colonel Doner in the second person, “you.” This book review is part of a series examining Christian Postmodernism.
Karl Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy
Karl Barth was a Reformed theologian who in the mid-20th century tried to reverse the disastrous consequences that 19th century liberal theology had wrecked in the church. Liberal theology denied the miraculous in the Bible as propositional historical truth. While Barth did not deny the supernatural nature of the Bible, he did deny that its propositions are to be accepted as historical objective truth. To Barth, what was important was not the inerrant truth of scripture, but the way that the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to bring the believer into an encounter with the living God. Barth did not see Scripture as the Word of God, but rather as a text that conveys the Word of God to us through our experience with the Holy Spirit.
The idea that the Bible is not the Word of God, as Barth put it, but merely “contains the word of God” is undistilled nonsense. Cornelius Van Til and other presuppositionalists have pointed out that this dichotomy between spiritual encounter and historical reality is meaningless. In fact, both are needed in order for the Gospel to make any sense. Jesus Christ had to actually live and die in order to atone for our sins. Simply reading a text and assenting to the truth of redemption, however powerful that “encounter” may be, cannot result in salvation. While it is true that saving grace has to come from the living God himself, the Word of God itself doesn’t merely convey that truth, but it is truth.
Although Van Til is usually considered cumbersome and inaccessible even by accomplished students of theology, one of his former students recounted his critique of Karl Barth once given in a lecture.
Total depravity. That means the whole glass is poisoned. It’s not as poisoned as it could be, but it’s all poisoned. The faculties of soul are all turned against God by nature. All are poisoned by sin. Wherever there is evidence of God, which is everywhere, man will deny it. You see, God must reach down and save dead men in their trespasses and sins. You do not heal a dead man. You resurrect him. Man is not sick, not drowning, but dead. Dead is dead. You can’t throw him a rope. A dead man can’t grab anything. Your mother is dead without Christ. Your culture is dead without Christ. This is the problem with Karl Barth, there’s no space-and-time redemption by Christ. There’s no change of the unbeliever to believer. There’s no challenge to the natural man. That’s why Barth is poison. Water and sulfuric acid look the same, right? If you drink sulfuric acid, it will kill you. Barth has placed sulfuric acid in our water bottles and told us it is water. Barth has created the systematically most satanic philosophy ever devised by the mind of man. Salvation is like cleaning a bad tooth. It’s no good if your dentist tells you your tooth is okay when it’s rotten. The dentist has to go down, drill out the decay and replace it with gold. This is what salvation is.
Barth’s understanding of grace was not through Jesus Christ as the Word of God expressed in the form of a real person, but grace through the subjectivity of our own experience in reading a text. On the contrary, grace is found only in the Person of Christ. Grace is not in our thinking about God or in our encounter with Him. Grace cannot come through any human activity. “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). In fact, grace is in Christ just as Christ is grace.
C.S. Lewis: “Fern-seed and Elephants”
You also bring C.S. Lewis into the fray using his apologetic concerning the “true myth” of the Bible. While I don’t agree with everything C.S. Lewis taught, he was no modernist. He soundly refuted liberal higher criticism of the Bible. While it is true that Lewis (and Tolkien before him) believed that pagan myths contained truth, he did not doubt the historical reliability of the Bible, the authenticity of the Bible’s authorship, nor did he employ the method of the liberal higher critics to interpret the Bible.
Tolkien and Lewis simply taught that all pagan myths contained an echo of the original story. There is only one story. It is His story, and every other story, every other history, will contain echoes of the truth because God is the author of all history. Every piece of literature will in some way reflect the truth and beauty of God, because the written word was His idea to in the first place.
Lewis was a literary critic of the first order. Not only was he a professor of medieval literature, but he is also considered one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. Tolkien, his partner in apologetic discussions in the group of Christian scholars called the Inklings, also was one of the first scholars who realized the great literary importance of the obscure Anglo-Saxon manuscript of the epic saga of Beowulf. Both Tolkien and Lewis were scholars who not only interpreted literature, but they were “inside the language and culture” of the era of their expertise. This is what Lewis had to say about liberal critics who engaged in higher criticism of the Bible without such knowledge.
These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight (Lewis, Fern-seed and Elephants).
Lewis also pointed out the 800-pound rationalist gorilla in the liberal Higher Critic’s room.
I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur. Thus any statement put into our Lord’s mouth by the old texts, which, if he had really made it, would constitute a prediction of the future, is taken to have been put in after the occurrence which it seemed to predict. This is very sensible if we start by knowing that inspired prediction can never occur. Similarly in general, the rejection as unhistorical of all passages which narrate miracles is sensible if we start by knowing that the miraculous in general never occurs. Now I do not here want to discuss whether the miraculous is possible. I only want to point out that this is a purely philosophical question. Scholars, as scholars, speak on it with no more authority than anyone else. The canon ‘If miraculous, then unhistorical’ is one they bring to their study of the texts, not one they have learned from it. If one is speaking of authority, the united authority of all the biblical critics in the world counts here for nothing. On this they speak simply as men; men obviously influenced by, and perhaps insufficiently critical of, the spirit of the age they grew up in.
Here is where you are right about Lewis’ stance on inerrancy. He did admit that not every passage of Scripture needed to be taken as historical fact. The parables of Jesus, for instance, are parables not history. He then reasoned, although he did not draw any conclusions, that it might be possible that the prophetic book of Jonah and the poetic book of Job might also be meant as parables.
I have been suspected of being what is called a Fundamentalist. That is because I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous. Some people find the miraculous so hard to believe that they cannot imagine any reason for my acceptance of it other than a prior belief that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical or scientific truth. But this I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation after the manner of a popular poet (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction.
The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message.
The upshot of all of this concerning a book like Jonah, in which we are told that a man was swallowed by a great fish, is not whether it is historically “the truth.” It is certainly Truth. It is God’s Word. Now by way of disclaimer, I have always understood the story of Jonah as both history and as a “type” or prophetic parable of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The redemptive-historical interpretation of scripture makes room for both to be valid.
However, the question that C.S. Lewis poses is the correct one. Did the author of the book of Jonah mean us to take the story as history or a parable? Now the problem with this approach from a rationalist’s point of view is that he will immediately discount miracles as impossible and therefore consider Jonah a myth, legend or saga rather than a true history. According to Lewis, this conclusion should not be based on the possibility of miracles, but rather what is the intent of the author or the “air” in which he presents the story.
A modern interpreter might be tempted to treat the story of Jonah as a parable, since it is supposedly impossible for a man to be swallowed by a great fish and emerge a few days later alive. Reading the Gospel of Luke, however, we are faced with an author who really believes he got the story of the crucifixion and resurrection from eyewitnesses – or in the case of the Gospel of John, one who claims himself to have been an eyewitness to Jesus who beyond all hope came back from the dead. If we take the rationalist’s approach, then Jesus could not have been raised from the dead after spending three days and nights in the grave, just as Jonah could not have been in the belly of a fish for three days and nights, because miracles are impossible.
The only reasonable conclusion one can draw from this dilemma is to consider what Jesus himself believed about Jonah. Was the “sign of Jonah,” which He communicated to skeptics who demanded a sign, meant to be a parable or a real sign? If Jesus and His hearers really believed that Jonah rose from the dead, then it follows that the Gospel writers really meant to communicate that Jesus really rose from the dead. However, if Jesus’ mention of Jonah is meant to be a parable, then what hope do Christians have in the resurrection?
This is the problem with both modernism and postmodernism. In questioning the reliability and validity of everything, you are not left with a hope you can believe in. If you cannot believe in the promise of eternal life through Christ as a real life after death, then faith in the resurrection is pointless. If Christ did not rise, as Paul tells us, then we have no hope of rising from the dead either and our faith in Him is meaningless.
For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Corinthians 15:16,17).
What we have to decide here is whether Paul means to be taken at his word when he claims to have seen the risen Christ or if he was merely spinning fables (1 Corinthians 15:8-11). Then we simply need to extrapolate backwards and ask whether this same God who raised Christ from the dead had the ability to raise Jonah from grave. Jonah 2:2 says that he called to the Lord from the depths of the grave (Sheol). Once we accept that God was able to do that, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that He actually did. Whether there are legendary or poetic elements in the story is immaterial. We are constrained to accept the historical truth of Jesus physical resurrection in the story of Jonah’s three days and nights in the depths of Sheol.
The True History of Redemption
The whole point of Scripture is that God did reveal Himself in real historical events, things that took place in the space-time continuum. At the same time, the words chronicling these events must be made alive in us by a faith that could be described as “a personal encounter of God.” We may never divorce one from the other. In my conversations with atheists and skeptics, for instance, I have to remind them that simply proving the historicity and reliability of the Bible cannot result in true faith. Mental assent to these ideas means nothing without the gift of faith. But the converse is also true. Our “personal encounter with Christ” means nothing unless the events of redemptive history actually happened.
That being said, it does not follow that the Word of God cannot be thought of as inerrant simply because we might have a problem in a few places dividing the allegorical from the literal; the parables from historical fact. It does not follow that since our rationalist prejudice tells us to reject the miraculous, that this solves the riddle for us.
Part of the purpose of interpreting Scripture is that we must wrestle with these questions. It is within this struggle that the Truth of the Word is revealed in a greater way to us. We come to understand that the supernatural quality of Scripture has little to do with the miracles of the Old Testament – although we can’t dismiss the reality of miracles – rather it comes from the fact that every history, song, poem and prophecy pointed the children of Israel to Christ many centuries before He appeared.
Skeptics spend too much time worrying about Jonah in the belly of a fish. They don’t take the time to examine passages such as Psalm 22 that contains no less than a dozen specific predictions about the manner of the messiah’s death that were fulfilled to the letter by Jesus according to the Gospel writers. Regarding a passage such as Zechariah 2:2, the skeptic might assert that this was “set-up” by Jesus himself, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” However, the fulfillment of Psalm 22 consisted of details that Jesus had no control over.
The statement of Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield is correct. The scriptures are the Word of God because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means both verbal inspiration and plenary inspiration. Verbal means the very words themselves were inspired of God. The word plenary means full and complete. In other words, the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation was inspired of God.
It follows that if we are reading the Bible, then the words themselves are dynamic and can speak to us as the Word of God today because they were inspired of God. The words do not merely become the Word of God to us, nor do they merely contain the Word of God. The words are the Word of God for these two reasons. First, the actual words were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Second, the meaning of the words conveyed to us continues to be dynamically inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The Question of Variant Readings
At the same time the doctrine of inerrancy does not mean that God set up the writers as mechanical writers of dictation. It does not mean that he obliterated their personality, style, outlook, and cultural conditioning. It does mean that not a single word was written in error. However, the idea and theme of a particular writing is more important than the exact words chosen to express those concepts. The Word of God is not ink blots on a piece of papyrus, but rather the Truth conveyed by those symbols. That is why it is possible to have the same words of John the Baptist rendered five different ways in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts.
“… but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals” (Matthew 3:11).
“After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals” (Mark 1:7).
“… but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals” (Luke 3:16).
“He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27).
“But behold, one is coming after me the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie” (Acts 13:25).
Note that although the wording of the idiom here is different in each case, the practical meaning is exactly the same. I once did a study on these passages in the Greek New Testament and I determined that Acts most closely follows the words of John, not Luke as one might expect since Luke and Acts were by the same author. I have concluded that is more likely that these quotations of John the Baptist are independent of each other, although most synoptic theories would argue for dependence.
Thus the truth of the Word of God is related to the idea being expressed, not the exact letters or words out of context of that meaning. What is important here is that John the Baptist’s prophetic words are the Word of God – the meaning here is that John, though a great prophet, is a mere mortal and Christ is the mighty One yet to come. We must read the Word or God, which is Truth by virtue of the verbal inspiration of the words themselves, but we must also understand and interpret the words.
Even when we see the words of Jesus himself, we see variant readings depending on the meaning the Gospel writer wanted to obey. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus preaching “the kingdom of heaven,” while Mark, Luke and John have Jesus preaching “the kingdom of God.” Supposing that Jesus was preaching in Aramaic, we might conclude Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience used a word that would reverence the name of God in keeping with law and tradition, while the other Gospel writers were addressing Gentiles and Hellenized Jews for whom it must be made obvious that Jesus’ “kingdom” originated from the authority of the One true God, not merely a kingdom in a heavenly place.
This demonstrates that the writers of the Gospels were not as concerned about word for word literal accuracy of what Jesus actually said as they were in rendering His meaning. One could make the case that Jesus (at least sometimes) spoke in Aramaic and not Greek. For the purpose of transmitting the Gospel to a Greek-speaking world, the words of Jesus had to be rendered in a different language.
Inerrancy does not mean a word for word fidelity to what was originally written or spoken. The same principle holds for variants in the early manuscripts. Inerrancy doesn’t mean that a manuscript that has “Jesus Christ” is inspired because it is deemed to be the original wording while another manuscript that standardizes Paul’s syntax to “Christ Jesus” is not inspired because a scribe changed the word order. Even with the thousands of significant variants between manuscripts this does not affect the issue of inerrancy one iota because the meaning of the renderings is the same in all the reliable manuscripts. One could write a library of books on this topic, but in summary, no known variant between early manuscripts of the Bible affects a major Christian doctrine.
The same principle holds true for translations. Your assertion that the inerrancy doctrine falls apart because the Bible was translated “through many languages” is nonsensical and uninformed. First, you say that the English Bible passed through the filter of the German language Bible. (Are you thinking of Luther’s Bible? Or are you confusing Tyndale’s Bible in which he used the French translation as a comparison?) It is a common fallacy that I often have heard, “The Bible was translated so many times passing through many languages that we cannot be sure of the meaning.” On the contrary, the English Bibles we have today were translated from the original Hebrew, Chaldean and Greek languages, while some translations have also consulted the Latin Vulgate manuscripts in places due to its ancient pedigree.
It is also a fallacy to say that Scripture ceases to be the Word of God once translated or altered in any way. This is demonstrated by the Word of God itself. We know that Jesus, for instance, quoted the Old Testament passages from the Septuagint – and this probably would have been the Bible of the Jews in Galilee in northern Palestine at the time when Jesus was preaching. Some scholars say that less than ten percent of the New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are from the Hebrew Masoretic text translated directly into Greek. The other ninety percent are more or less direct quotations from the Greek Septuagint.
It does not really matter if Jesus was quoting Scripture in Hebrew or Aramaic; or if the Holy Spirit chose to have the New Testament authors follow the words of the Septuagint when translating Jesus’ words into Greek. The principle here shows that it is possible to translate the Word of God from one language to another without violating the overall meaning of the text. Otherwise the New Testament authors could not claim the authority they did in communicating the Word of God.
What the heck art thou talking about anyway?
There are a number of other careless errors in this section of the book. For instance, in a lengthy footnote you assert the following.
The Bible was meant to be read by believers collectively, which is what the constant reference to “thee” in older translations like the King James infers. “Thee” addresses whole communities of believers, not lone readers.
Not exactly. You are probably confusing thou and ye, which were at one time used to denote the second person plural. However, by 1611 when the King James translation was made, thou and thee referred to the second person informal in both singular and plural, while ye was still in use in some places as the second person plural, “O clap your hands all ye people” (Psalm 47:1).
The modern English word you came from the Anglo-Saxon, eow, which was the accusative form for the second person. Thou and thee (nominative and accusative forms) did not come through Anglo-Saxon, but from the Latin, tu and ti, as in “Et tu, Brute?” Today, we have dropped the informal thou and thee; thy and thine and use only you and you; your and yours.
In the Hebrew language, God addresses individuals as well as the whole people as “you.” In the Ten Commandments, for instance, we find both singular and plural forms. God begins by addressing the people collectively as a nation: “I am Adonai your (plural) God Who brought you (plural) out of Egypt” (20:2). But all the other commandments are addressed to each person individually: You (singular) shall not make graven images, worship other gods, murder, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness. You (singular) shall keep the Sabbath. Honor your (singular) father and mother. Thus each individual is accountable for his own behavior. These are not collective commandments.
So sometimes in the King James version, ye and you are used to denote the Hebrew or Greek second person plural, but thou and thee always are singular and denote familiarity.
This may seem pedantic to anyone who is not a trained linguist. However, this was one of the many things that made reading the book frustrating. While your history of the Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist movements are also interesting, there are a lot of over-generalizations and factual errors that a more careful researcher would have not overlooked. I don’t have the time to fish every red herring out of the pot.