Brian McLaren is well known as a leader in the North American ‘Progressive’ movement, which many are finding a refreshing change from the ‘culture wars’ amongst evangelicals about Scripture and authority and its implications for theology and discipleship. He came to prominence with his 2004 book A Generous Orthodoxy, which sought to cut through the polarisations often present in evangelical debate.
His most recent book is We Make the Road by Walking, and he has been on a UK tour promoting it, with Paula Gooder and others as dialogue partners. As part of their Bible debate series, Brian had an online discussion with Andrew Wilson from King’s Church in Eastbourne, and their two perspectives feature in a pair of articles in this month’s Christianity magazine. Both articles are available free online; McLaren’s is here, and Wilson’s response is here.
To me, McLaren’s position has three major problems to it. The first is that he starts with an unhelpful confusion in titling his article ‘Jesus didn’t treat Scripture as infallible; nor should we.’ This is unfortunate, and throughout his piece McLaren uses ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ interchangeably. That might be fine in ordinary conversation, and there is some debate about what these terms mean, and how they are related to one another. But in most discussion about the authority of the Bible they are distinguished and the two terms have quite different meanings and each has its own history.
The idea of ‘inerrancy’ comes from B B Warfield and the so-called Princeton movement. It has the sense that Scripture is ‘without error in all that it affirms’ which is most commonly taken to mean that any factual statement should be taken as literally true. The best known modern statement of the position is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy from 1978, which includes in Article XII:
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
To my mind, this fails to take seriously the social and historical context of the Bible’s human authors, and in effect it imposes a modernist and literalist mindset on the text of Scripture. It is the sort of idea which has led to headlines that 46% of Americans believing in a literal, six-day creation, and many have an anti-scientific outlook. At the 2013 meeting of the Evangelical Theology Society, the conservative evangelical NT scholar Ben Witherington argued that the term ‘inerrancy’ is simple the wrong word to use to describe the Bible’s authority.
By contrast, the notion of ‘infallibility’ includes the idea of effectively accomplishing what the text is intended to do. If the witness of Scripture is intended to testify to the truth about God, and bring people to faith, then to say Scripture is ‘infallible’ it to say that it is able to achieve that, and can be trusted to do so. The term goes back at least as far as John Wesley, and it is arguably the idea behind Reformation understanding, such as Article V in the 39 Articles of Religion—and in fact is found in Scripture itself. A classic text in the OT comes in Is 55.10–11:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to itwithout watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
And Jesus deploys similar ideas when he talks of his word ‘not passing away’ (Matt 24.35 and parallels).
McLaren’s criticisms of people wanting ‘absolute and incorrigible confidence’ applies to the notion of inerrancy, and in the main I would agree with him. But his goal of seeking ‘a proper confidence, born out of being teachable, and a hunger and thirst for justice and truth’ is happily met by seeing Scripture as infallible—able to do what God intends it to—without having to claim that Scripture is ‘corrigible’, in need of our correction.
The second issue I struggle with is the way McLaren advocates a kind of supersessionism—Jesus’ teaching has corrected and replaced what has gone before. I completely agree with McLaren on his characterisation of diversity within the canon and Jesus’ place in this:
Their statements and counterstatements are not contradictions; they are conversations. Wisdom emerges from their unfolding conversations over many generations…In this, Jesus emerges as the ultimate word of God to whom all the scriptures point. As we read in John and Colossians, the invisible God is made visible not in words on a page but in a man on a cross: word made flesh.
I also agree with his comments about interpretation; Jesus is inviting his contemporaries (and therefore us) to read in a new way:
When he says, ‘You have heard it said…but I say to you’ in Matthew 5:21-22, and when he challenges traditional Sabbath restrictions in Luke 14, he is challenging traditional understandings of the Bible and introduces what we might call ‘a new hermeneutical principle’: namely compassion.
Interpretations that lack basic human compassion, he suggests, are faulty interpretations. He is not merely tweaking conventional understandings, he is correcting them.
But correcting ‘them’, the interpretations, is a very different thing from correcting Scripture, and Andrew Wilson is right to highlight the difference. There is no evidence whatever that either Jesus or Paul ever thinks that they are correcting Scripture. Why does Jesus insist we read Scripture with compassion? Because that was the intention behind its writing!
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love (Ps 103.8; compare Ps 145.8, or Ex 33.19, or Ex 34.6, or Ps 86.15, or Joel 2.13, or Is 49.15, or 2 Kings 13.23, or Neh 9.17, or 2 Chron 30.9, or…get the idea?)
In his response, Wilson offers a good summary of Jesus’ attitude to Scripture—during a similar job to John Wenham in the first chapter of his classic Christ and the Bible (which I read as a teenager).
[Jesus] regards the scriptures as sufficient to prompt repentance (Luke 16:31), as fulfilled in his life and ministry (Matthew 5:17-20), and as truthful, even when they are describing scary acts of divine judgement (Luke 17:22-37). In one fascinating story, he describes the scriptures as ‘the word of God’, which ‘cannot be broken’ (John 10:35).
The red letters, in other words, repeatedly affirm the black ones: as inspired; as truthful; as God’s unbreakable word.
McLaren ends up collapsing the difference between the text and its interpretation, and this leads him into misreading the way the NT relates to the old. When Paul says in Galatians 5:6 that ‘circumcision counts for nothing; the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love’, he is not ‘correcting’ Levitical laws, as McLaren claims. In Paul’s own terms, his wide discussion of ‘circumcision’ is in fact a reinterpretation, even if it does not meet our criteria of what interpretation should look like. Understanding this is crucial; as Wilson comments:
Post-evangelicals often present the options as (1) an infallible Bible and an infallible Church, or (2) a correctable Bible and a correctable Church. But if we were to present these options to Jesus or Paul or Moses – or Gregory, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon and the rest – I suspect they would splutter in astonishment and tell us about option (3): an infallible Bible, and a correctable Church. That, surely, is the way to preserve divine authority and human humility; a word from God that never fails, and people that frequently do.
The most basic problem with supersessionism is that it is, at bottom, anti-Semitic. In McLaren’s words:
Jesus and Paul model a new way – a Christian way – of approaching the scriptures.
That is, they dispense with the old way, the Jewish way. Jesus and Paul, not Jewish? Enough said.
My third and last problem with McLaren’s approach is his attitude to history—or lack of it. We are steeped in a culture where the old is primitive, and the new is the only thing worth considering. In fact, we are so steeped in it that we do not even realise. Just as fish are the last to notice the water, we are unaware of this deeply ingrained attitude. I wonder if even the title of McLaren’s book is a symptom of it: the only road that really matters is the brand new one that we make by our own walking, as if no-one had ever trodden this path before us.
By contrast, every NT writer appears to live by the dictum of Jer 6.16: ‘Look for the ancient paths’. They were interested to the point of obsession in how they could prove that this surprising, dramatic, unexpected new thing that God was doing in this strange and inexplicable Jesus was in fact the same old (brand new) thing that God had always done.
So Paul includes from the beginning the ‘first thing’ that had been passed to him and which he passed on is that it all ‘according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15.3–4). His great struggle in Romans 9–11 is an attempt to establish continuity between the ‘gospel’ and God’s dealings with his people Israel. At the start of the first gospel, Matthew goes to enormous lengths to locate the birth of Jesus in this OT story—and to modern eyes he tries far too hard, forcing text which we think don’t fit! At the end of Luke, Jesus ‘interprets’ (rather than ‘explains’) all the Scriptures about him (Luke 24.27).
This sense of history is driven by two concerns. The first was credibility in the ancient world, where anything ‘new’ was suspect, and the ancient traditions were venerated. Hence Josephus writes his apology for his people as ‘The Antiquities of the Jews.’ But a second concern was theological: how could we continue to proclaim that ‘God is one’ (Deut 6.4) if he acts in two different ways? It is no coincidence that Marcion splits God into two: the loving God of the NT revealed in Jesus contrasted with the hateful demiurge of the OT. Anyone who proposes that the NT corrects and replaces the OT is walking down the same path.
There are things in Andrew Wilson’s response that I would want to question. There are difficult things in the Bible that are hard to understand, and sometimes the first word needs to be ‘wait’, followed by ‘think’, before we move too quickly to ‘obey.’ And I am not sure that Wilson’s word ‘unbreakable’ is the first metaphor I would go to to describe the Bible. It makes it sound too much like toughened glass. (Wilson takes the term from John 10.35, but the word luo doesn’t normally have the meaning of ‘break’; it is used of freeing from a binding contract, or untying a ship at anchor. The sense, then, is that we cannot simply loose ourselves and roam free from our Scriptural moorings.) But I will happily give Wilson the last word:
The best way of protecting ourselves from twisting the Bible to fit our agendas, which is always a danger, is not to continually try to correct it, but to continually seek to be corrected by it. Jesus, as always, is at the centre of Christianity. So if we are confused about something – like how we should view the Bible in a generation that dislikes authority, for instance – we can turn to him.
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