Olson on Narrative Theology and Inerrancy

For those interested in the nature of narrative theology and how it is distinguished from propositional theology, this online post Roger E. Olson outlines that nature of narrative theology in a very clear and helpful way.[1]

I appreciate his ninth point that “Narrative theology has no need of ‘biblical inerrancy;’ perfection with respect to purpose is sufficient to express biblical accuracy and authority.’ I have had similar thoughts along these lines. I personally feel no need to believe or assert biblical inerrancy. Not because I find arguments for it unpersuasive, but primarily because I’m not concerned whether the Scriptures are inerrant or not. I do not see why we would need such a thing as an innerrant set of Scriptures. Reliable yes, but in every minute detail?? And I think it comes at the issue from the wrong angle and direction. As Olson writes:

We do not believe in and trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior because of our belief in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because it is the unique instrument and witness of our meeting with him.

It is within the canonical narrative that we know who God is. This being the case, our confession of faith in God is concurrent with trusting the Scriptural testimony. They are in a sense inseparable, because it is the God of Scriptural testimony to whom we are entrusting ourselves, even if this is not immediately clear to us analytically.

It seems to me that the concern inerrancy seeks to address is hermeneutical. If there are features of Scriptural teaching which are false, then are people not going to pick and choose which teachings they want to affirm/follow and appeal to errors to justify this? Yes, some will. But innerancy is no defense against such picking and choosing. Many a hermeneutical road can be traveled to get to the same destination.

I have previously shared some of my own thoughts regarding the relationship between narrative and propositional theology here.

[2] While I found it slightly humorous that he outlines narrative theology in a series of numbered propositions, there is no irony here. Narrative theology is not opposed to propositions of course, that would be absurd.

New Essay

I have added a slightly edited version of an essay I wrote for a leadership paper taken in 2014. The essay draws on Colossians and the Pastoral letters to put forward some principal concerns I wish to cultivate in my own teaching. If it is of help to any of you, I am happy.

On Teaching

Interest in Theological Interpretation

In late 2010 I published a short essay on the nature of Theological Interpretation in the pages section of the blog. The number of views this page has received since its publication has increased year on year.

2011 – 135 views

2012 – 362 views

2013 – 430 views

2014 – 573 views

2015 – 618 views

The increase between 2014 and 2015 is only 45 at this stage but the year is not over yet, and October received a record 121 views.

These stats are not great given internet standards, but I think they suggest there is an increasing interest in the theological interpretation of Scripture not only within the Academy but within the Church. Has this been your experience?

The Priority of Theological Interpretation in NT Studies

In part three of his 1994 book Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship,[a] Ben F. Meyer addresses the issue of the theological interpretation of the NT.

Considering the variety of approaches and focuses in NT studies in general, and the legitimate reasons individual scholars have for pursuing these, Meyer writes:

Still, it is somewhat incumbent on the community of New Testament scholars to make sure that interpretation, as the primary and main task of New Testament studies, is successfully cultivated. The scholarly community, while fully open to literary, historical, social-scientific, and other modes of analysis, should not be taken in by the proposal that such analyses replace interpretation, that they be accepted as functional surrogates of interpretation; or that ideological analyses (Marxist, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc.) be accorded the dogmatic status that ideologues (Marxist, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc.) regularly claim for them.” (148)

Interpretation and analysis should not be treated as “on par.” (149) This is so for at least two reasons:

“texts have a prima facie claim on the reader, namely, to be interpreted in accord with their intended sense. This is not an exclusivist claim, but it is a claim to priority. In principle, interpretation is prior to analysis, which serves or supposes it. Religious literature calls for interpretation alert to religious meanings and values.” (149)

Firstly, if we are to apply models of analysis or ask questions beyond the horizons of the NT texts, we first gain a good grasp of the sense of those texts.[b] Secondly, interpretation worth its salt, which intends to be objective on the score of interpreting the NT writings, must attend to and not neglect their theology, for they are inherently theological in nature and purpose. NT Interpretation, then, is always in this sense theological interpretation, and such interpretation must be prioritized over analysis in the field of NT studies.

While Meyer writes in relation to NT studies, the same could be said for the entire field of biblical studies. When scholarship becomes captivated by concerns beyond the horizons of the Scriptures themselves, it is hard to image Christian leaders looking to the academy to resource their churches engagement with Scripture. Some would argue that Biblical Scholarship should not exist to serve the Church or God for that matter. But I disagree, and thankfully receive whatever resources are produced to this end or otherwise.

[a] Ben F. Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist HermeneuticsCollegeville; Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1994.

[b] This is not to say that such approaches do not themselves in turn inform or add to interpretation in Meyer’s sense. But that, not being methods of getting at a texts intended sense themselves, rely upon the prior work of exegesis to clarify their object of inquiry.

Recommended Read – Subjectivity and Objectivity

What does it mean to look at something “objectively”? Is such a thing possible or are all our beliefs inescapably “subjective”? I recommend reading this brief post by Jonothan Bernier on Subjectivity and Objectivity where he outlines the relationship between these two concepts within Bernard Lonergan’s critical realism.

The final two paragraphs are beautifully articulated. Here’s a taste…

Opting against one’s preferences vis-à-vis the matter of truth is the hallmark of objectivity, and since people demonstrably do this there is demonstrably objectivity in this world. That is not to say of course that when someone judges that the truth is congruent with her or his preference that she or he is not operating objectively; it is simply to state where objectivity is more clearly evident. The objective subject is one who knows how to discover truth and sets out to do so.

Anthropomorphism and Authorial Intent

A while ago I read (and very much enjoyed) Does God Have a Future by Hall and Sanders. [1] At the time (Feb 2011) I wrote down some thoughts which I will now share. The book is essentially an edited version of a series of emails between Sanders and Hall discussing and debating the nature of God’s providence and the issues which surround this. Below my interest is in the discussion of anthropomorphism, metaphor, and accommodation which run throughout the emails, but is especially the focus in chapters 12-15.

The thought occurred to me that both Sanders’ and Hall’s (but Hall’s more so) overriding concern to interpret and synthesize the Scriptures for a theology of God is leading them to neglect the significance of authorial intention and audience competence. What we need to be asking is what was the author intending to communicate when ascribing thoughts and emotions to God,[2] and what we may imagine his initial audience would have found intelligible. What would the author would have thoughtfully expected to have been able to communicate to his audience in such a straightforward and simple way (such as short statements in narratives and prophetic oracles), without providing any philosophical or theological clarification.

Hall seeks to interpret texts which ascribe human characteristics to God (such as changes of mind) through the framework of a specific doctrine of God (“Classical Theism”), and does so by philosophically, hermeneutically, and theologically sophisticated and rigorous means. But apart from such means and such a prior doctrine, are we to imagine that such a reading against the “face value” of such passages would be probable or even possible for the envisaged audience? And what of the author? We would have to posit that he too held to such a doctrine of God and believed that the audience shared this understanding and hence were positioned to interpret the text accordingly.

If the response comes that we need to interpret passages alongside others within the Canon (and possibly tradition), then what of authorial intent? Is it only important for some passages and not others? How do we determine which become hermeutical keys for interpreting the rest? Surely we would need to start somewhere to gain a fixed point of reference, and this somewhere would have to be the authorial intention of a passage or set of passages. For me authorial intention (as much as we can establish this) is the aim of exegesis, and exegesis is the foundation of theological and practical appropriation of Scripture.

If we do consistently seek authorial intent, maybe we will end up with a more fragmented and varied set of Scriptures than the tightly coherent book which we would like. But,  if that is what we’ve got then so be it. Thoughts…?

[1] Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders, Does God Have a Future? A Debate on Divine Providence. Baker Academic, 2003.

[2] The IVP Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms defines “anthropomorphism” as ‘A figure of speech used by writers of Scripture in which human physical characteristics are attributed to God for the sake of illustrating an important point.’ Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 11. While this definition refers to “physical characteristics” and mentions “face” and “arm” as examples, within contemporary theology the concept of Anthropomorphism has sometimes been extended (mistakenly I think) to include human emotions and cognitive acts  being applied to God (such as changing one’s mind). It is such things which are often the focus of debates about God’s foreknowledge and providence.

The Noetic Effects of Sin

Sin is not only a moral, social, and relational problem; it is an epistemological problem as well. While we often refer to actions which are contrary to God’s will as sins, Sin is greater than the some of these parts. Sin is the condition of the distortion of our entire being which manifests itself in our thinking, feeling, and acting. It is an individual and a corporate condition, manifesting itself not only in the actions of individuals, but of groups, societies, cultures. It is clear then that Sin affects our reasoning and hence our knowing. This is often referred to as the noetic effects of sin.

In his article ‘How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model,’[1] Stephen K. Moroney presents and offers a critique of two models of the noetic effects of sin represented in the teachings of Abraham Kuyper and Emil Brunner, followed by a constructive proposal of his own.

While Kuyper and Brunner present two different models, they share a crucial similarity. Both Kuyper and Brunner posited (in somewhat different ways) that the noetic effects of sin are felt most when it comes to matters of theology and ethics, and least (if at all) when it comes to matters of observation and logic (e.g. natural sciences, mathematics). The dependence of Christians on Revelation/Scripture for the former sets us radically apart from all others, whose efforts to establish truth in such matters will necessarily rely on self-sufficient reason and come to err. They both tie sin to reason employed apart from revelation/scripture. As Moroney observes regarding Brunner, ‘Nowhere does he speak of the noetic effects of sin in believer’s thinking. Brunner’s argument is always from the noetic effects of sin to the distinctives of Christian thinking.’ (441) Both Brunner and Kuyper focus on the object of study and ignore the subject doing the studying, apart from what they consider to be the determinative factor; whether the subject is a Christian or not (440). Unfortunately this is a serious shortcoming, reminding me of the way in which “reason” is sometimes set in opposition to “faith” or “revelation.”[2]

In my own words, in these models Sin does not affect the process of reasoning at all, rather, the state of the world as fallen means that we cannot know the truth in matters of theology and ethics apart from God’s revelation. Therefore those outside of Christ will always be “blind” in such matters. It matters then a good deal what we mean by the term “Sin” in this discussion.

Constructive Proposal

Moroney's Model for noetic effects of sin (442)

For his constructive proposal Moroney uses sin to refer both to acts (whether mental, emotional, or physical) that are contrary to Gods will, and the disposition to carry these out. (442, fn.49)

While Moroney agrees with Kuyper and Bruner that sin ‘tends to disturb human thinking about some matters more than other,’ (442; this is represented in “the object of knowledge” column from less (bottom) to more (top)) the noetic effects of sin include the distortion of the process of our thinking, not simply in terms of the sources we employ, but in terms of the influences on our judgments.

Because the noetic effects of sin involves ‘the complex interplay of multiple factors’ as indicated in the diagram, the noetic effects of sin vary from person to person, and it is not possible to ‘forecast exactly’ how sin will distort someone’s thinking. (447) I think this point is very important. When it comes to biblical interpretation, we do not always come to the wrong conclusions because we wish to believe that the text says something, even where the more controversial issues are involved. And we should not assume to or judge that others are doing so lightly. According to Moroney knowledge (however comprehensive) of the factors that shape and influence any particular ‘knowing subject’ is not necessarily enough to determine how sin is affecting someone’s reasoning. Sometimes it is, and we may claim that is very clearly so. But we need to recognize the complexity before rushing to conclusions.

What this should lead us to first and foremost is to a heightened self-awareness and a chastened view of our own success in the pursuit of truth:

‘The reality that sin distorts our thinking reminds us not only of our need to be self-critical and open to others’ corrections but also of our need to humility. If we take the noetic effects of sin seriously, then we are faced with the humbling prospect that this side of heaven some of our beliefs, in particular our beliefs about God… will be erroneous.’ (449)

So it should be clear that the flaws or errors in our thinking (its processes and results) are not always the effect of sin. We all have a capacity to know, to understand, but most of the time this requires effort and work. Understanding and misunderstanding are simply part and parcel of the way in which our thinking/inquiring is designed to function, and I do not think that this is the result of a “fall.” I think it is simply how God has chosen to create us. It is Sin that we introduced into the world which complicates the whole Endeavour.

[1] S.K. Moroney ‘How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model,’ Christian Scholar’s Review XXVIII:3 (Spring 1999): 432-451.

[2] “Reason” is not itself a source of knowledge to be set against or alongside of revelation. Rather reason is employed in the persuit of knowledge, whether the source of this knowledge has made it clear (revelation) or whether it needs to be generated through inquiry into that of which knowledge is sought. I realise that the distinction is often made between knowledge gained through revelation and knowledge gained through reason, but here I think the latter term is not entirely appropriate and confuses matters.