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168. The Sacred Chain | The Challenge of the Bible

How can we continue to affirm the Bible as inspired and authoritative if the human authors believed incorrect things about the world?


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CS Lewis illustration

Image by Sloan Stump

How can we continue to affirm the Bible as inspired and authoritative if the human authors believed incorrect things about the world?

Description

The science of evolution has caused friction for many Christians. And science does pose some challenges to the way people have been taught to think about their faith, but those challenges don’t have to lead to a decision to reject faith—or to reject the findings of science. In fact, understanding science can lead to a deeper faith. Jim Stump, host of Language of God has a new book coming out—The Sacred Chain: How Understanding Evolution Leads to a Deeper Faith. In this series Jim walks through three of the challenges posed by science. 

The challenge of the Bible asks how we can continue to affirm the Bible as inspired and authoritative if the human authors believed incorrect things about the world. Did God correct their cultural-bound beliefs, or work through them, as God has always worked with imperfect people? 

Richard Middleton joins Jim for the second part of this episode to talk about biblical inspiration from the perspective of a bible scholar, and the episode features clips from a previous episode with Philip Yancey. 

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Vesper Tapes, courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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  • Originally aired on March 28, 2024
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim stump. I guess I’m also the guest of this episode, at least for most of the episode, this is just going to be me. Turns out I have a new book coming out next month. It’s called The Sacred Chain: How Understanding Evolution Leads to Deeper Faith. I have published seven books before this one as either the author or the editor. But all of those were with academic publishers. And this new one is with a big general trade publisher, Harper One. The academic way is just to produce good content and hope that people will buy it, or at least a few libraries might buy it. On a publisher like Harper One though, there’s a fair bit of emphasis on promoting your book, and my own Mennonite ancestry and current sensibilities chafe against self-promotion. But in talking about how we at BioLogos, and the podcast might support this book, we decided that we might devote a couple of podcast episodes here and have me talk about some of the issues that come up in the book. 

And this is going to be a little different format. It’s more like I’m teaching a class I think, than giving a lecture, at least the the text here is less polished and might be a little more spontaneous. And we’ll see how it goes. If if you’re hearing this, that must mean that somebody must have thought it was okay. And that we can put it out. So let’s, let’s give this a go.  

[transition music]

Part One

Stump:

Many of you on the podcast, I think have heard at least part of my story that I ended up coming to BioLogos full time because I was, shall we say, invited not to continue teaching philosophy at the Christian college that I had worked at for 17 years. There the issue was my acceptance and advocacy for the science of evolution, even in the context of Christian faith. And that led to some friction. And I am now a full time employee of BioLogos. When I first started here, there was a project that I started working on, on what it means to be human. And that was going to be a big research project, interdisciplinary, lots of different people were going to be involved in it. And then COVID hit and interrupted that. And we instead turned a lot of that work into the podcast series we called Uniquely Unique, that came out back in 2021. And my interest in that topic has continued, particularly the intersection between human evolution and what kind of creatures we are now. So I had this big sprawling idea for a book and had a sabbatical year and a half ago or so now, and got developing it. But by the time a literary agent, and then the Harper One editor were done with my big sprawling idea, it was considerably narrowed, and focuses in much more on my own story, how I came to reconcile evolution with my Christian faith. 

And I guess I’d say it’s more than just reconciling, as though you can begrudgingly put these two together if you’re forced to. I’m claiming this faith that I’ve come to as a result of interaction with the science of evolution is a better and deeper faith. That’s the subtitle of the book. How understanding evolution leads to deeper faith. So it’s not just a memoir, it’s not just my own story, but rather the kinds of challenges that I faced that I think are not unique to me. But the sorts of challenges that ots of people, at least those who grew up in Christian traditions that were like mine, the kinds of challenges that we all face. So the book is organized around five challenges that I think the science of evolution poses to Christian faith. And each of those, the claim is that allowing our faith to be in conversation with the science actually pushes us to a deeper faith to a better faith. 

So today I want to talk about the first one of those challenges, which is called the challenge of the Bible. And in doing that, let’s start with a snippet from a previous episode we did on this podcast with Philip Yancey. 

Yancey (clip): 

And suddenly, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding. I realized my church lied to me, they are wrong. And if they’re wrong about race, maybe they are wrong about evolution, maybe they’re wrong about the Bible, maybe they’re wrong about Jesus. And it was a huge crisis of faith. 

Stump:

So that’s how he answered when I asked whether he was frustrated with how his church had conditioned him to think about science. So Yancey has written a lot of books critiquing the sometimes easy answers that the Christian community has given to difficult questions, so he grew up in a fundament Less church in Atlanta that denied they were ever dinosaurs, for example. And they preached that black people were cursed and could never be leaders. And then when Yancey won a summer fellowship at the Center for Disease Control, he discovered his mentor would be a black man with a PhD in chemistry. That’s when he realized that his church had lied about race. ‘Lie’ there is a pretty strong charge but they were obviously wrong. So Yancey goes on with this. 

Yancey (clip):

And the only way I dealt with it was just a backoff from faith for a period of time. It took me—is taking me—a long period of time to sort out. That’s what I do as a writer, to sort out what is worth keeping and what is, what needs to be shed because the church doesn’t always get it right. And if you get it wrong on science, if you get it wrong on one of these topics, you are opening the door to people just dispensing with everything that the church thought.

Stump:

Okay, so it turns out that that is what is happening and pretty large numbers sometimes called the rise of the nones; N-O-N-E-S. Back in 2007, when the Pew Research Group asked Americans about religious identity, then 78% of us said were Christians, 16% said they had no religious affiliation. They were the nones. That was 2007. By 2021, 14 years later, only 63% said they’re Christian. That’s a drop of 15 points in 14 years. And most of that came by the percentage of nones rising. So by 2021, 29% said that they had no religious affiliation. That’s a rise of 13 points. What accounts for this? 

So in 2019, the Barna Group asked 18 to 35 year olds, what makes you doubt things of a spiritual dimension? And the number one answer that people gave was the hypocrisy of religious people. 31% said, the hypocrisy of religious people is what makes me doubt things of a spiritual dimension. But just barely behind that answer at 30% was science. 

So this is really interesting, obviously, for organizations like BioLogos. And I think what’s going on here is that too much of the American church at least has given people a kind of package deal. There’s one particular view of science that’s so tightly wedded to their Christian faith and to the Bible, that when people get outside the Christian bubble and see that that view of science doesn’t really hold up, they end up pitching the whole package faith in all. So what do we do about this? Well, we need to understand the Bible as a sacred, authoritative, even inspired text, others will want to use words like infallible and inerrant. But in order to be these things, the Bible needs to not contradict other things we know to be true. And so here’s the problem with mainstream consensus science of what it has discovered about the world, does it stand in contradiction with what the Bible says about the world? 

Well, in my own story, I had begun looking into the evidence for evolution and eventually made it to the science of genetics, which was particularly eye opening for me that interrelatedness of all species through their DNA seemed to be beautiful and elegant and really pretty obviously true. I didn’t have a lot of difficulty in affirming that evolution is the best scientific explanation for how life on Earth developed. But I wasn’t sure how to square that with what I believe the Bible to say about God as the Creator. Would I become one of those nones when I discovered this science and saw that it was true? Would I have to pitch the Bible out? Well, what do we do with the Bible here? In this case, let’s dig a little bit deeper. 

In the Book of Common Prayer, the second Sunday in Advent, this service begins with this prayer. 

Baker:

Blessed, Lord, who has caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may, in such wise, hear them read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and never hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in our Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. 

Stump: 

I’m interested here in that first line, “Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy scriptures to be written.” What does it mean for the Lord to cause holy scripture to be written?

So I grew up in a tradition that liked to talk and even brag, I suppose, about our high view of Scripture. The Bible says it, that settles it. We believed very firmly that the Bible was Inspired, authoritative, infallible, inerrant, all of those things. And having this high view of Scripture was always taken as a kind of bragging point as though it were a contest of who could have the highest view of Scripture. It came to concern me some then in learning of some other religious traditions that others might beat us in this regard and having a high view of Scripture. Take Muslims. Their holy book, The Qur’an, was supposedly dictated to Muhammad directly from God. And he recounted it exactly word for word to his secretaries who wrote it down. The Koran is not even supposed to be translated, or at least it loses its sacredness when it is, because God spoke Arabic to Mohammed and the Qur’an is exactly what God said, that’s a pretty high view of Scripture. 

Or think of the Book of Mormon. Gold plates fell from heaven, or something, and Joseph Smith finds them and gets some angelic help to translate them? Talk about a high view of Scripture. I propose that’s not the Christian view of our scriptures like that, and I don’t know how we grade such things, or how we put them on a scale of what’s higher and what isn’t. But it seems to me a very different understanding of where our scriptures came from, of how God caused holy scripture to be written. So we might take a look at that, from the Bible itself, and what it actually says, and then particularly how it gets used. 

There was a book, 12 or 13 years ago now, by Christian Smith called the Bible Made Impossible. Christian Smith is a sociologist. He’s not a Bible scholar. And that made some people in the establishment a little a little upset, particularly in the second half of the book, where he gives his views on how we ought to use the Bible. But the first half of the book was him as a sociologist, looking at how people, in fact, really do use the Bible. And it certainly doesn’t reflect our idea that ‘the Bible says it, that settles it.’ Or that there’s this clear and consistent message all the way throughout Scripture, at least, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. 

There’s another book, big fat book, you have to go to a library to find called the Oxford World Christian encyclopedia. This was pretty startling to me when I discovered what it does. So it charts—it gives pretty detailed descriptions—of all of the different Christian denominations that there are in the world. And when I go places and speak and talk about this, I always like to have people guess how many different Christian denominations do you think there are in the world? You’ve got your Methodists, of course come in different varieties, free Methodists, United Methodist. You got your Baptists, you’ve got your Presbyterians, you’ve got various Pentecostal. So how many do you think there are? And you know, people might guess 30, maybe 50, maybe 100 something? Well, it turns out that when you look all across the world, the number of identifiably different denominations within the Christian church is more than 40,000. What does this say about the unity of Christianity? I guess I’m more interested here in what it says about what we believe the Bible to say, because each of these denominations is pretty sure that they have the correct reading of Scripture. And that seems to suggest that scripture can support at least to some degree, pretty different interpretations. I mean, just think about how the people you know, within different Christian denominations might disagree about what the Bible has to say about, say, eschatology, or maybe election, or ecclesiology, or expiation, or the Eucharist. And here, I’m just listing a few of the doctrines that start with ‘E’. How do we come about to this vast difference? Even if we boil this down to what’s the central message of Scripture? What does it mean to be saved? How am I to be saved? 

Well, we might start at that most famous of all Bible verses, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” What do you have to do to be saved? Believe in Jesus. 

Okay, well, move on to Romans 10, where Paul says, “confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead and in you will be saved.” That’s slightly more required there than John 3:16. It’s not just believing in Jesus, it’s also you need to believe that God raised Him from the dead. 

Well, what if we go back to Matthew in the Gospels where Jesus himself is talking and says, “Not everyone who says ‘o me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” Hmm. So now what does it take to be saved? Is it believing in Jesus? Well, even if you say Jesus is Lord, maybe that’s some kind of code for believing in Jesus. But evidently, that’s not enough. You also have to do the will of my Father who is in Heavens says Jesus. And later in Matthew, we get the parable of the sheep and the goats. And in that, there isn’t any hint of requiring that you believe in or acknowledge Jesus. It’s simply those who give water to the thirsty and those who visit the people who are in prison. They’re the sheep. They’re the ones who are invited to enter into the kingdom of heaven, while those who don’t do those things, no matter what they believe, are not allowed in. That’s a very different view of salvation, of what it takes to be saved. 

Moved to Titus chapter three, “he saved us not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Hmm. That sounds like we’re not doing anything about it. It’s God through the Holy Spirit, pouring out this washing of rebirth and renewal. 

This mode of theology has quite a few supporters that we might then turn to Ephesians 2:8 & 9. “It’s by grace you’ve been saved through faith, this not from yourselves, it’s the gift of God not by works so that no one can boast.” 

Okay, but then go to James, that I seem to remember Martin Luther, wishing at least the book of James had not been included in the New Testament because it seemed to spoil a little bit of the coherence and consistency of his own theology, because in James 2—”What good is it my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds, can such faith save them?” And the answer that follows is no, you must have works as well. 

And then what do you do with something like First Timothy Chapter Two? “Adam was not the one deceived, it was a woman who was deceived and became a sinner, but women will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faith, love and holiness.” 

Okay. Those are quite the collection of individual verses that are, yes, pulled out of context in various ways, but saying pretty different things about what we think is like the most central view that Scripture is supposed to give us. And maybe we can make sense of all of these and come up with a coherent doctrine that incorporates them. But note, that wouldn’t be our doing. It isn’t what the Bible actually says. What the Bible actually says about these things is pretty messy. And that starts to create issues for us when we try to hold to this high view of Scripture or apply these words like inerrant and infallible and authoritative and inspired. What does it mean that God caused Holy Scripture to be written that God has inspired this text before us?

[musical interlude]

Part Two

Stump:

So each of the five challenges in my book has a guide that helped me through the challenge for this one, it’s that patron saint of American Christianity, CS Lewis. For some reason, in Britain, when you ask people about CS Lewis, they say, “Oh, that chap who wrote the Narnia books for children”, and they don’t really know much else about him. But over on this side of the pond, we love Narnia, but Christians have also found his nonfiction writing important and fascinating. Mere Christianity continues to sell really well. And lots of American Christians point to reading it as like an aha moment for understanding the reasonableness of Christian faith. I think it was some point during my undergrad years that I read Mere Christianity, and I found it interesting, but I didn’t really have the aha moment that so many others had it was I think it was answering questions that I wasn’t really struggling with then the Christian faith already seemed rational, reasonable to me. So much so that I thought anyone who didn’t accept it must be suffering from some sort of cognitive malady of some kind. 

It wasn’t until grad school that I found myself surrounded by really smart people who didn’t believe the same way I did. The Bible didn’t function as a giant answer book for them? In fact, they helped me see that when you treat the Bible that way, you get some obviously wrong answers. But I wasn’t convinced by them that the Bible was just another ancient book put together by ignorant people. It was more than that, to me. I continued to believe that the Bible was inspired by God. I just didn’t understand what that meant. And I feared that if I dug into it, I’d find that I couldn’t rationally continue to believe it. 

So I went searching. And what I finally found was Lewis’s short book called Reflection on the Psalms, I don’t think this gets read enough by even by Lewis devotees. But reading that was my aha moment, because in this book, Lewis was wondering how to understand the inspiration of Scripture, particularly what he was looking at was so many of the psalms that seemed to be advocating for things we don’t think are acceptable today. These are called the cursing Psalms or the imprecatory Psalms today. And Lewis wonders, did God really cause David to write that passage where he requests that God dash his enemy’s babies against the rocks in Psalm 137? That seems like the kind of thing you might write in a fit of anger but not what divine inspiration from a loving God would bring about. 

And then, of course, we could ask the same thing of passages and other books of the Bible, Did God really inspire the passage that instructs parents to take their rebellious sons outside the city gate and have them stoned to death in Deuteronomy chapter 21? Or what about the New Testament, First Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul says women should be silent in church? Or First Peter to which says slaves should obey their masters even when they’re dishonest? And what do you do with all these passages throughout the New Testament that instruct us to greet one another with a kiss? Did these instructions really come from God? Did God cause them to be written? I remember as a kid coming across these kinds of passages and asking why we don’t obey them in Sunday school or wherever. Why doesn’t this phrase, the Bible says it, that settles it, why does that only apply to some passages and not others? This plain reading of Scripture that my community advocated isn’t possible to apply evenly. The answer I usually got from people when I’d asked about passages like this was something about it was different times back then those passages were addressing cultural issues that we no longer have today. Then I’d ask okay, then how do you know which passages apply to us today and which ones don’t? I wasn’t always the Sunday school teachers favorite student, I’m afraid. 

But my community thought that in order to take Scripture as authoritative, and not just another ancient text, we had to believe the very words of Scripture were given by God. It’s not often said so explicitly. But I grew up with the feeling that God had whispered the exact words of the Bible into the ears of the human authors who just wrote them down. That was the Muslim view of the Qur’an. That’s not how we believe that our Scripture came to be. Maybe it wasn’t an audible dictation, we think, but somehow this inspiration certainly meant that God was impressing those very words onto the author. 

So Lewis in his book calls this a top down understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. And when you think of the Bible as a top down text like that, these problematic passages, the ones that I’ve quoted, but then particularly when we get to passages that impinge on our scientific view of the world today, these kinds of passages are really hard to deal with. But Lewis didn’t think that God simply impressed from the top down these words of scriptures to human stenographers. Instead, he said, and here I’m quoting, “the human qualities of the raw materials show through naivete, error, contradiction, even as in the cursing, Psalms wickedness are not removed. 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.” 

Okay, so what does that mean? How does it carry the Word of God? How did these texts come to be? How did God cause this to become Holy Scripture? Well, Lewis says the way that started was the same way other texts of the time were written. People put pen to paper—alright, suppose quill to parchment—and they wrote. That doesn’t mean God didn’t guide these authors in some sense. But the important point for those texts becoming sacred was not the method of their production. Rather, it was what happened to them after they were produced. They were taken up into the service of the Divine. Lewis called that a bottom up understanding of the inspiration of Scripture, and I think it makes a lot more sense. The human generated words themselves were not infallible if you take them in that sense, but they bore witness imperfectly, perhaps, but they bore witness to a transcendent and perfect reality that they were experiencing. So just as God used imperfect people to accomplish a divine plan, so too, God could use imperfect texts to accomplish the divine plan. 

That might sound difficult. It might sound heretical. But I wonder if it makes more sense of what we actually find in Scripture, compared to what we learned through other means. Today, I found this at least helpful for sorting out the Bible’s relationship with scientific claims today. And Lewis also considered this apparent problem of similarities between the biblical accounts of creation in Genesis and creation accounts from other cultures of his time. He didn’t see the need to suggest that the Bible’s creation story was produced in some different way than those other creation stories of his time. 

He explains, here I’m quoting again, “thus, something originally merely natural, the kind of myth that’s found among most nations, will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by him, and compelled by him to serve purposes which of itself, it would not have served. Generalizing this I take it that the Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature; chronicle, some of it obviously pretty accurate poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and whatnot, but all taken into the service of God’s word”. End quote. So God didn’t drop the exact words of the Bible down from heaven. People in an ancient culture wrote what they experienced and believed. And their stories were taken up by God to be used in their religious communities to communicate important truths. That helped me see biblical text as emerging out of a specific culture. And it leads to a very different understanding of the Bible. Rather than a kind of universal answer book. It’s an ancient library full of wisdom from the perspective of the ancient cultures in which it was written.

When you read the Bible this way, it’s not as straightforward as saying, The Bible says it, that settles it. It’s messier in a sense, because there is no asterisk in the text that alerts us to when we should take something literally and when we shouldn’t, or when an instruction was limited to the original audience, and when it applies to everyone. When they say something about the natural world that was limited to their understanding of the time, those sorts of things, we have to do the hard work of interpretation. But I think looking at the text this way is more honest and more accurate. It makes more sense of what we find in the Bible itself. And it drastically reduces the perceived tension between the Bible and science. We don’t have to cram the Bible into some modern scientific framework. 

Richard Middleton is a Bible scholar and a good friend of our podcast having been on several times. I thought it might be interesting to finish up this episode by getting his take on the bottom up view of biblical inspiration as advocated by CS Lewis. Here’s our conversation. 

Middleton Interview

Stump:

Well, Richard, so both you and I come from a denominational tradition in which biblical inspiration is a pretty high value, I would say. And earlier in this episode, we read the prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, which thanks the Lord who has caused all holy scripture to be written. So I’m curious, first of all, what do you understand by inspiration and how God caused scripture to be written?

Middleton:

So I’d say that there’s a couple of different ways I think about that. The first is that if you go to the prophetic literature, there the prophets claimed to speak with God’s own words, right, that says the Lord and they speak in the first person. So that’s probably a unique kind of inspiration. But I’m of the opinion that and I think, I already had the intuition of this before I read Jewish scholars who made this point, that revelation to the prophets, and they were thinking of the action of the Torah, the law, which comes from God, you know? God inspires us, someone, to communicate truth. But it’s more like you get a sense of what God wants. And then you have to articulate that in your own words, for the particular context. 

I illustrate this from the prophetic literature by contrasting with my students, the three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Isaiah is the only prophet we know who had direct access to the king. He went to Ahaz and Hezekiah spoke to him directly, the other prophets had to kind of run from the King who tried to persecute them. And it may be that Isaiah was from the royal court. This is part of the reason why I think when you read the book of Isaiah, you’ll find a lot of language about a future king who would be righteous and shoot from the stump of Jesse, and the Spirit of the Lord rests upon him. And you know, we take that as Messianic prophecies, but in the original context, they’re really about a new king to come, a righteous king, that’s central to Isaiah’s message. And I think it is so because he is a royal prophet. And so he’s steeped in royal ideas. And when the King comes, the whole world will be in harmony. So that land, while the wolf and the lamb will lay down, all that kind of stuff, and it’ll be peace and harmony. 

You read Jeremiah, and it’s very clear, and scholars are very aware of this, that Jeremiah has been using and meditating on the book of Deuteronomy, either in his written form or an oral form before the written form. And he is steeped in language and the book of Deuteronomy. He speaks about Israel breaking the covenant. In chapter 11, he speaks about a new covenant with a Torah written on the heart in chapter 31, that’s pretty unique. And then Ezekiel, who is a priest, has chapters about all the abominations of Israel, using priestly contamination language, like you can get contaminated by touching something unclean, have to go through a ritual process. Ezekiel uses that in terms of moral contamination. So the training of each prophet affects how they speak and the language they use. And I usually go to a New Testament text to explain this. It’s First Corinthians 14, verse 32, where Paul’s speaking about order, and the Church says, you may have a prophetic word from God. But you can hang on to that or not give that word, because the spirit of profits is subject to profits. And that’s a really interesting insight. 

Stump:

Explain that a little bit more. What do you mean by that?

Middleton:

The human spirit and the decisions you make about what to say in the name of God affect what comes out. God is not giving you a dictation of Revelation. So I’m old enough that I can remember going to charismatic meetings prior to the NIV. And prophecies were given in King James language. Today they’re given an NIV. [Jim laughs] And that’s a cultural shift that’s happened. So I think that this helps explain that God may inspire something, but the way it comes out, uses the categories of the author. Paul could not have written his letters without being a Pharisee, for example. So in one sense, if there is direct inspiration, it’s not verbatim, and the human author has to figure out how to say that. And that’s why you have diversity in Scripture. That’s one kind of inspiration.

Stump:

So I pointed to this book by C.S. Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms that I found pretty helpful and illuminating and the distinction he makes between top down and bottom up views of inspiration. I doubt those are standard models within the professional guild of Biblical studies. But are those general ideas recognizable to you? Or maybe better, do you find anything helpful about a distinction that Lewis makes like that?

Middleton:

So on the one hand, I’d say, I’ve never heard any discussion of inspiration in the guild ever, no matter what. People just don’t talk about that. In the guild we do biblical interpretation, we don’t talk too much about the theory of biblical interpretation. And inspiration doesn’t actually clarify the best interpretation. It’s kind of just a background statement of why we take it seriously as believers. So I think that Lewis is on to something with the idea of bottom up inspiration that people write various things. I don’t know that Paul thought he was writing scripture. 

Stump: 

I wondered that.

MIddleton:

He’s writing letters to the churches, and there’s some of his letters were never collected. And then you have, you know, Proverbs being collected on the Solomon, onto Hezekiah, onto various leaders, and their men collect the Proverbs or headings of the book of Proverbs, but they’re not inspired Proverbs, but they get used by God. Same thing with, perhaps, Psalms, which are prayers of lament or complaint, including, as Lewis would say the imprecatory Psalms and the cursing Psalms. There are so many things that get written for various purposes, God takes them up and he uses them. So in a sense, inspiration there has to do with canonicity, the fact that they are put into the canon and are usable by us. But they’re not directly inspired by God initially.

Stump:

Yeah, are there other ways, then? I think it’s really funny that you say that the guild doesn’t talk about this at all, this is sort of like, I guess, what, a metaphysics of Scripture that different traditions want to make sure that they understand the nature of Scripture itself as inspired. But are there other other ways of describing scripture that you’ve found helpful? Do any of these other terms, whether it’s authoritative or infallible, or inerrant, in addition to inspired, do any of those help to clarify any of these questions?

Middleton: 

I have not found them to be really helpful. And again, as a biblical scholar, I’m mostly doing actual interpretation. And when my students, you know, see me take them through a whole course on Scripture. What they’re seeing is me modeling a trust in the Bible, that God is speaking to us through this word. But the way God speaks to us is not always direct. So you’re reading a narrative. Like right now my book I’m working on is on First Samuel, power struggles between Samuel and Saul. And I’m reading this as a piece of literature, that’s brilliant with characterization. And God is revealing something through this, about how we can use and abuse power. But I don’t know that God directly, initially put something into the mind of the author that you need to write this for later generations as the word of God. It was being written for, you know, his own context, for his own people to discern the complexities of Israel’s transition to a monarchy. That is not simple at all. And so the actually nitty gritty interpretation of a text shows how you take an inspiration, more than a theory about it, though at a certain point, you can step back and reflect on what you’ve been doing and why that’s important.

Stump:

Yeah, what about Revelation then? So you use that term a little bit, and God, reveal God makes a revelation to some of these authors. Do you see something different in God’s revelation to Isaiah, or to Ezekiel, or to Paul, than to the nice ladies in the Pentecostal charismatic church that you were there that were quoting the King James Bible? Is there something different in those?

Middleton: 

So I’m recently reading John Waltons book, Wisdom for Faithful Reading on how to read Scripture well. And he makes a distinction between texts, between things in the biblical texts that have reference and that are affirmations. And for him, a text may make a reference to, for example, the combat myth of a deity fighting against the sea. And that’s part of the cultural background of Israel. That’s not what is necessarily teaching the affirmations the text makes, that God does not treat the created order violently, but brings the creation into being you know, through generosity and love. That would be the affirmation that is the revelation. So the revelation has to use cultural context and ideas that are known in the time, but it’s using it to make a distinctive point to Israel. And the point primarily is about how God works in the world. It’s the narrative of salvation. It’s the missio Dei. This is the story that we are grounded in. So when I speak about Revelation and authority and inspiration, I’m usually saying that we need to be better grounded in Scripture and read Scripture communally in the church and practice it liturgically and in our lives ethically, in ways that we improvise out of the biblical story into new situations that we’ve never met, and learn that this story shapes us to be the kind of people who are disciples of Christ, who live through the fellowship of His sufferings that we may attend to the resurrection from the dead, to use Pauline language. And I don’t always use the term authority or inspiration, but that’s what I’m getting at there.

Stump:

Good, that’s very helpful. And, well, anything else? You think we should know about inspiration as we’re thinking about these questions?

Middleton:

Not sure off hand. I can quote to you, you know, Hebrews, one one. And the past, God spoke to our ancestors at various times and in various ways, and the variousness, the diversity is actually what’s really interesting, that God could speak through, not necessarily cause them to write that but God could speak through proverbs and, you know, love poetry in the Song of Songs, imprecatory Psalms, Torah, detail the scriptures in the Book of Leviticus of what how to put blood on the heir of the priest to ordain them. That’s just weird stuff. But God is speaking through that and using that, and in the last days, God has spoken to us in his son. That’s the ultimate revelation. 

Stump:

Well, very good. I appreciate it.

Middleton:

Okay, thanks.

Stump: 

Well, thanks to Richard Middleton, that was interesting, particularly the point that the professional guild of Biblical Studies doesn’t particularly care about this challenge of what it means for the Bible to be inspired. I think it probably is important for many of the rest of us, though, and it seems like from this conversation, there are good options for how to think about that. I guess the most important point there is to see that it isn’t a deal breaker to accept the science of evolution and to still be able to understand Scripture as inspired, even authoritative and that God speaks to us through Scripture. And this might even lead us to a better way of understanding what Scripture is and how God has communicated to us through Scripture. This isn’t the only challenge though, that science poses to Christian faith. And I’ll be back next time to talk about the next one the challenge of time. See you then.

Credits

Hoogerwerf:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners alike you contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Brakemaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Or visit our website biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guests

J. Richard Middleton

J. Richard Middleton

Richard Middleton (PhD Free University of Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY) and adjunct professor of Old Testament at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (Kingston, Jamaica). He is past president of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (2019–2021) and past president of the Canadian-American Theological Association (2011–2014). He holds a BTh from Jamaica Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Guelph (Canada). Middleton is the author of Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021); A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014); and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). He coauthored (with Brian Walsh) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984) and Truth is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995), and has co-edited (with Garnett Roper) A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology: Ecumenical Voices in Dialogue (Pickwick, 2013). He has published articles on creation theology in the Old Testament, the problem of suffering, and the dynamics of human and divine power in biblical narratives. His books have been published in Korean, French, Indonesian, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey, author of books like Disappointment with God, The Jesus I Never Knew, and What’s So Amazing About Grace, is one of the best selling Christian authors alive today. His interactions with Christians from around the world and his early church experiences inform his writing on faith, the problem of pain, and unexpected grace. He holds graduate degrees in Communications and English from Wheaton College and the University of Chicago. Yancey lives in Colorado as a freelance writer and avid hiker.