Four Helpful Books on Scripture

In the past year, I have read four excellent books on the doctrine of Scripture. I thought I’d pass some recommendations on to you.

D.A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture, compiled by Andy Naselli (Crossway, 2010). This book brings together a variety of essays, articles, and even book reviews that Carson has written over the years. Carson deftly addresses such issues as inerrancy, hermeneutics, and the relationship between biblical and systematic theology. I had a chance to review this book for Southeastern Theological Review, and in my review, I wrote “Carson’s book deserves widespread adoption in college and seminary classes and universal inclusion in pastoral and even local church libraries. It is that good. Whether read in its totality or spot-read along and along, Collected Writings on Scripture is that rare volume that is essential to any minister’s bookshelf. I give it my highest recommendation.”

Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture, New Studies in Biblical Theology (IVP Academic, 2006). I recently read this helpful book as I was considering the best way to teach on the clarity of Scripture in my systematic theology class at First Baptist Church of Durham. Thompson discusses this perennially controversial topic from a biblical, theological, and historical perspective. He engages modern challenges raised by philosophical hermeneutics, as well as classic arguments against perspicuity raised by Roman Catholic thinkers such as Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine. He also critiques unhelpful approaches to biblical clarity that some Protestants advance, particularly versions grounded more in modern views of private autonomy than biblical theology. Thompson concludes that God has given us human language as a gift. When we read the Bible in faith and in conversation with the community of faith, we can understand the Scriptures.

Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (IVP Academic, 2009). Ward’s book, which I led a group of students through in my weekly Theology Reading Group, is a constructive appropriation of speech-act theory by an evangelical and inerrantist pastor-theologian. His view of Scripture is robustly Trinitarian and is in dialog with the best of the Protestant theological tradition, with emphasis on the Reformed Orthodox thinkers of the seventeenth century, the Princeton theologians of the late-nineteenth century, and the Dutch Reformed theologians of the early-twentieth century. If, like me, you like Kevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine, then I suspect you will appreciate Ward’s creative restatement of the historic Protestant doctrine of Scripture.

John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Webster’s short monograph was also served up to the Theology Reading Group. Webster’s view of Scripture is also thoroughly Trinitarian and emphasizes the role the Bible plays in the believing community. His emphasis on the holiness of Scripture is also a welcome contribution. His chapter on how the Bible should be used in theological schools is perhaps worth the price of the book. Unlike the other authors, however, Webster is far more Barthian in his understanding of inspiration, making him hesitant to identify the very words of Scripture as God’s word. Nevertheless, for the discerning (and patient) reader, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch offers many helpful insights about Scripture, tradition, and the church.

Looking at Insider Movements (3): Key Characteristics (Part 2)

By: Doug Coleman

Kevin Higgins, whom I mentioned in the previous installment, has made the most significant attempt by any IM proponent to offer a biblical and theological rationale for various aspects of the methodology. For example, in a brief discussion of six biblical characters or passages, Kevin suggests the Bible contains evidence, or hints, that God is at work within the religions of the world, and that some individuals in other religions are “in relationship with God Himself.”[1] These examples include Melchizedek, Balaam, Amos 9:7, the pagan sailors in Jonah, the Wise Men (Matthew 2), and Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17).

According to Higgins, while all non-Christian religions evidence both human and demonic rebellion, they also reflect the activity of God. Therefore, because “God is at least potentially at work in other religions, then the contention of insider movement advocates that disciples can remain within their religious context is potentially true in any situation.”[2] Furthermore, just as Paul found altars and poets in Athens, intentionally placed there as “fingerprints of God within the religions of the world,” we will find in the Qur’an, hadith, mosque worship, and even the pilgrimage to Mecca,”altars to an unknown god” and “poets” that we can quote.[3]

For Higgins, the religions are not only vehicles of God’s activity and potential structures within which followers of Jesus can live as faithful disciples, but they are also part of the Kingdom of God, which Higgins defines as “the whole range of God’s exercise of His reign and rule in the universe.”[4] This does not mean Higgins holds an inclusivist position, but it does mean that, for him, conversion to Christ does not require an institutional transfer of religion. In other words, a Muslim is not required to become a “Christian” and join a “Christian” community.

When addressing the question of Islam specifically, Higgins distinguishes between “Islam as it is” and “Islam as it was.”[5] According to Higgins, Muhammad’s original intent (“Islam as it was”) was to unite the people of his region in the faith of Abraham. The Qu’ran affirms the previous books from Allah. Furthermore, the style of the Qur’an suggests Muhammad assumed his audience was familiar with the content of these books. Therefore, says Higgins, the Qur’an should be categorized as a kind of “midrash” on the Bible, and should be interpreted through the lens of the Bible rather than through the lens of the hadith. Further still, while Higgins does not believe the Qur’an is the “word of God,” and it does contain errors, he also suggests Muhammad received some of it directly from God via “direct inspiration.”[6] All of this (and more which I don’t have room to relate here) leads Higgins to posit a “Jesus Key” hermeneutic of the Qur’an. Muslims may reject interpretations reached via this approach, but early unbelieving Jews also rejected Christian interpretations of the Old Testament as well.[7]

Higgins’ interpretation of “Islam as it was” leads him to the conclusion that remaining within Islam, albeit a reinterpreted Islam, is a biblically viable option for disciples of Jesus. The unbelieving Muslim community may discover these aberrant beliefs and dispel the “Muslim followers of Jesus,” but Higgins believes these followers should remain inside the Muslim religious community as long as possible. Here again, Higgins cites the early Jewish background Christians who did not leave the Temple and synagogue until driven out by the Jews.

Finally, one other possible example of an IM in the Bible suggested by Higgins is 1 Cor 8:10.[8] Paul writes, “For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?” According to Higgins, the dining in a pagan temple is actually occurring, not hypothetical, and Paul does not condemn the action for the thing in itself, but because it negatively affects a weaker brother. Therefore, Higgins concludes this is a “possible example of a Gentile believer who is still ‘inside’ part of their religious heritage.”[9]

In the next two posts I’ll offer some brief analysis of these claims.

[1] Kevin Higgins, “Inside What? Church, Culture, Religion and Insider Movements in Biblical Perspective,” SFM 5 (August 2009): 85.

[2] Higgins, “Inside What?” 88.

[3] Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” IJFM 21 (Winter 2004): 162.

[4] Higgins, “Inside What? 87.

[5] Higgins’ thoughts on this are explained in an unpublished document he graciously supplied to me and allowed me to include as an appendix to my dissertation. See pages 256-308 of Doug Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology (Pasadena: WCIU Press, 2011).

[6] See Coleman, “A Theological Analysis,” 121 fn. 182.

[7] Kevin Higgins, “Acts 15 and Insider Movements among Muslims: Questions, Process, and Conclusions,” IJFM 24 (Spring 2007): 38.

[8] Higgins, “Inside What”? 79 fn. 16.

[9] Higgins, “Acts 15,” 37.

[Editor’s Note: Doug Coleman is a SEBTS alum who lives and works in Central Asia. His SEBTS dissertation was recently published as A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology (Pasadena, CA: WICU Press, 2011). We asked Dr. Coleman to publish a critique of the Insider Movement here at BtT, in the form of a six-part blog series.]

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss (On Bart Ehrman, Ignorance, Conspiracy Theories, and the Bible)

Guest Blog by Ed Gravely

I was privileged last week to speak to an auditorium full of Chapel Hill students on the issue of Christianity and textual criticism (the study of the ancient manuscripts that make up our Bible). My talk was a follow-up to the debate held there the night before by Daniel Wallace and Bart Ehrman. I wasn’t trying to bombard the students with more facts-the debate gave them many facts. My goal was to help them frame debates such as these in a faithful way and give them a helpful way to think about these issues.

My three points:
1. Uncertainty is not the same as doubt.
2. Ignorance is not the same as a conspiracy.
3. Secular is not the same as unbiased.

Surprisingly, point number two was the point about which I received the most questions and comments and had the most follow-up contact with students.

Ehrman and many New Testament scholars like him are fond of framing the issues of textual criticism and New Testament apologetics (historical reliability, manuscript evidence, etc.) as a conspiracy. Ehrman doesn’t usually speak in terms of a global conspiracy; it is not a conspiracy to fool the world. Rather it is a conspiracy to fool you that he’s interested in. As they make their case for all the “problems” with the New Testament, scholars like Ehrman continually ask the questions, “And why didn’t you know about all this? Why did your pastor and church hide all this from you? Why did you have to come all the way to UNC to find out the truth about the Bible?” The subtitle of one of Ehrman’s recent books is “Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them)”. See? Everyone knew the Bible was full of contradictions and problems, but there was a conspiracy to hide that from you. Right?

There is a sense in which Ehrman is exactly right.

Here’s what I mean. Most Christian college students who grew up in traditional churches never heard any of this stuff. They never heard about how our New Testament was put together, never heard about ancient manuscripts, and never heard faithful scholars puzzling over the seeming contradictions in the Scripture and reconciling them in convincing and credible ways. And when these students found what looked to them like problems or contradictions in the Bible, they were told to “just have faith” by pastors and student pastors. Also, many college students who first began looking into Christianity in college asked their Christian friends about these issues and often found that they didn’t know anything helpful. It is a shameful reality, but most Christians, old and young, are woefully ignorant on most of these vitally important issues, and we propagate our ignorance to the next generation of believers. Those who are not ignorant, however, are the college professors who teach our students and introduce them to this aspect of biblical studies for the very first time. Radical skeptics like Ehrman get to frame the discussion, disclose the “facts”, and then ask, “Why do you think your pastor was hiding this from you?”

It’s a good question.

Many pastors and student ministers, it would seem, have adopted a two-fold stance on these critical issues. First, they shy away from dealing with critical and textual issues because they either don’t believe them important or because they themselves are ignorant of them, and second, when they do become aware of some of these textual problems, they are afraid that dealing with these issues in public, from the pulpit, will wreck the faith of their audience. Just recently I had a student pastor friend in another state tell me, “I can’t tell my students about the textual issues in John 8; it will wreck their faith in the Bible. They just need to trust God and believe his word.” So, rather than dealing with this issue candidly and allowing the students to watch their trained student pastor handle this difficulty in a credible and faithful way, they are better off just not knowing. In other words, ignorance is bliss. Last week I spoke to a room full of college students who were spiritually raised in just that way-ignorant of all the issues that are now shaking their faith.

This approach is a terrible one, and it doesn’t even work. The ignorance ship has sailed. The people in our congregations are watching the specials about Jesus on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. They are reading blogs, listening to podcasts, reading New York Times best selling books like Forged, and going off to school at UNC. Skeptics like Ehrman are pop culture figures now, making the rounds on Good Morning America, the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report. And when the pastor stands in the pulpit to preach on John 8 and never mentions any of the text-critical issues with that passage, the congregation, all of whom are aware of the problem because they all have study Bibles with notes at that point, walk away not any better equipped to study their Bibles for themselves and handle these issues. They walk away thinking that it is their pastor who is ignorant.

The remedy to this state of affairs is easy to say and harder to do. The pastor, the student pastor, and anyone who teaches the Bible must also take on the role, however limited, of the apologist. Defending the Bible and dealing with critical issues should never eclipse the teaching of the Bible, but explaining to people how the Scripture was put together and modeling for them how to faithfully handle textual and critical difficulties is vitally important to the spiritual development of any Christian in the 21st century. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Ignorance is disheartening, and it is destructive. But it can be remedied with a little hard work on behalf of God’s church.