Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: Gospel Focus

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The third, and most important, issue is our loss of focus on the Gospel. I find it difficult to even say such a thing, but, I believe it to be true. We must recover a gospel centrality and cooperate in proclaiming that gospel locally and globally. David Dockery and Timothy George pointed the way with their helpful booklet, Building Bridges, in last year’s SBC messenger’s packet. They called for a unity around the Gospel, and the time grows increasingly urgent.

If we’re not growing, it’s ultimately because we aren’t as gospel-centered as we should be. It’s really that simple. This, of course, leaves the question of where we fall short of the gospel, and that’s a good place to start the conversation.

The Conservative Resurgence failed to produce a Great Commission Resurgence. It restored our denomination’s value of Scripture but application is often absent, at least in the area of evangelism.

The Baptists divided over inerrancy. After decades of infighting, the defenders of inerrancy prevailed — and the denomination is losing members. You see, they fought over the wrong issue. Defending the Bible and defending the gospel are two different things. We tend to see as the darkest sins the disagreements among our own people. But the darkest sins are those that separate people from God.

I have little sympathy for those who think that the Churches of Christ need to learn to reject inerrancy. Wrong issue. Worse time. Stupid strategy. I mean, does this issue have such importance to the lost that it justifies yet one more split? — or does the world need for us to focus with a singular, white-hot intensity on the gospel? We can’t have it both ways. ACU is dead wrong to be pushing its anti-inerrancy position, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. It’s foolishness squared.

Stetzer’s point is that all that fight got the Baptists was a split, nationally embarrassing news, and distraction from the gospel — and I would add: regardless of who was right.

Here’s an interesting quote from Bart Ehrman, as quoted by Scot McKnight,

The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible …

To make faith in the Bible the most important tenet of Christianity was a radical shift in thinking — away, for example, from traditional statements of faith such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which say not a word about belief in the Bible.

Does that make inerrancy true or false? No, rather, the point is that inerrancy isn’t a part of “faith” as that term is used in the Bible. The Phillippian jailer didn’t have a position on inerrancy — but he was nonetheless saved. Therefore, it’s not a salvation issue.

The scriptures nowhere make saving faith dependent on believing inerrancy, and therefore neither should we. There are, after all, numerous degrees of “errancy” — all the way from those who reject nearly all the scriptures to those who question the historicity of the Flood and nothing else. Martin Luther, hardly a modernist, questioned the inspiration of James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation.

Those who see inerrancy as part of the gospel are wrong. Those who think this is just a great time to fight over the issue are wrong.

Both sides need to restore Jesus to the center of our theology — and avoid the false dichotomy that one either accepts every word of scripture as historical or else has no faith at all. And we need to stop fighting each other and fight Satan instead.

Stetzer continues,

If we commit ourselves once again to the Gospel which guided the Apostles and the early church, then perhaps we can reply to Christ’s call made to the church of Sardis in Revelation 3.

I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.

Repentance is the first step. But repent of what sin?

We have much to complete and it is not found in the mere retention of a denomination.

Right. For us, the goal isn’t to grow the Churches of Christ. It’s to grow the church of Christ, that is, the community of believers in Jesus.

First, we must remember what we have heard; the Gospel is sufficient. That Gospel was worth fighting for and now it is worth living for.

This is, of course, true, but we need to step back and ask: just what is this “gospel”? We sometimes think the “gospel” is the 5 steps of salvation. The Baptists tend to think it’s the “sinner’s prayer.” Both positions are seriously insufficient, because both sell salvation too cheap. We promise our members that for the low, low, one-time price of a confession and a baptism, they can go to heaven. Try to find that in the Gospels. It’s not there. Jesus demanded the high, high, the-rest-of-your-life price of everything you are, you have, or ever will be.

It’s not quite as easy to market, but when you make a sale, you’ve actually taken a major step toward creating a disciple, and disciples will change the world. Getting somebody wet for the price of a “yes” doesn’t work nearly as well.

Second, we must repent of what we have been. We have built factions on differences which are but a sliver of life: young vs. old; doctrinal distinctions built on a hair’s difference; worship models. And, all the while, the pride of each faction has swelled. We must decide to lay down our arms against fellow Baptists who share the same doctrinal confession and worship, reach the lost, or do their ministry in a different manner.

Amen — but we can’t unite with a legalistic theology that says our sisters congregations are damned when they disagree over any doctrine.

Thirdly, we must wake up to what we are to do. God has chosen the church (not the denomination) to make known His manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10).

And this means cooperating with fellow Christians across denominational lines. The world is rapidly moving toward a non-denominational Christianity. I know very few people who have a strong allegiance to their denominational heritage. And this means we have a great opportunity to unite God’s people in service and evangelism — if we will.

Our denomination is only as strong as our churches and these statistics remind us our churches are in trouble. My prayer is that, unlike the church at Sardis, we are far from dead. However, it is obvious to us now that we are slumbering in the light. It is time for us to once again rise to a new day. The temptation will be that the news of the day will result in a new denominational obsession to fix the problem with a new plan. It won’t work. Instead we must refocus on the Divine Obsession (Luke 15), the obsession with lost people.

The answer isn’t a new book, a new baseball diamond, or going to the next great seminar. And it’s not being obsessed with growing our church (especially at the expense of other churches) or with growing the Churches of Christ (especially at the expense of other denominations). The obsession has to be with building the church — even if that requires the merger or dissolution of our own congregation or denomination. Our loyalty is to Jesus, not our congregation or even the Restoration Movement.

Cal Guy explained:

We apply the pragmatic test to the work of the theologian. Does his theology motivate men to go into all the world and make disciples? Does it so undergird them that they, thus motivated, succeed in this primary purpose? Theology must stand the test of being known by its fruit. (Calvin Guy, “Theological Foundations,” in Donald A. McGavran ed., Church Growth and Christian Mission, William Carey Library, 1976 reprint, page 44)

The promise of the Conservative Resurgence was to reestablish our unwavering belief in the inerrancy of scripture. Once we had our theology in order we were supposed to reach the world—but that theological change has not birthed a missional fruit. Now is the moment for us to hone our vision and take on a bigger battle—we must battle to build upon our Conservative Resurgence and make it a Great Commission Resurgence.

If we don’t, why did we bother with the Conservative Resurgence in the first place?

This lesson is for both sides of the inerrancy dispute. Neither inerracy nor anti-inerrancy is the cure for damnation. Defeating the opponents of inerrancy will not bring salvation to millions — or even hundreds. That experiment has been tried. The Baptists waged a war over it, split their denomination, and became less effective at winning souls.

We’re fighting over the wrong issue. In fact, this sort of speculation, fighting, and distraction is precisely why the world looks at us and wonders why they’d ever want to be like us.

ACU — stop challenging inerrancy.

Everybody else — stop challenging ACU.

Everybody — find a theology that will “motivate men to go into all the world and make disciples.” If your theological work doesn’t do this, find something else to do.

(And I will not be addressing the merits of the inerrancy issue here or at GraceConversation.com because it’s a distraction from the issues that matter. You see, I’ve studied the Baptist experiment and intend to learn from it.)

But aren’t the liberal denominations losing even more members — because of their doubts as to inerrancy? No, they’re bleeding members because they’ve lost their focus on the gospel.

And aren’t more conservative denominations the ones that are growing? Actually, no, most conservative denominations aren’t declining. Those that are growing are the ones focused on the gospel.

So how do we focus on the gospel? A good start would be to stop talking about other stuff — especially divisive stuff. You can that you’re focused on the gospel when that’s what you write and preach and teach and study about — and when you constantly test your actions against that standard.

Is my approach naive? Maybe. But not naive about the scriptures — about people. You see, the question that matters isn’t whether the scriptures have the date of the Exodus wrong. It’s whether we care enough about the gospel to actually get on track and serve the gospel. I think we do. But maybe I’m naive. I hope not.

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29 Responses

  1. One of my favorite questions, especially for people who were raised in a religious tradition is this: From what have you been saved?

    It’s somewhat frightening that so many people don’t really have an answer to that. But, for me, that is the central question of the gospel. Do I need to be saved? And, if so, from what? And how?

    If someone is asking that question, then the gospel message has an answer. And we don’t need the Text as much as we think we do to tell someone about it. Personal testimony is more powerful than Bible study (in my opinion).

    That’s not a ding against Bible study, it’s evidence of the greater power of a life authentically devoted to following Jesus. The Bible is better for follow up than for introduction (in my opinion).

    In general, our reliance on the Text may evidence of the weakness or superficiality of our own faith and our own convictions — or even more revealing, the limited impact our “faith” has had in our own lives.

  2. The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s

    I think it can be traced earlier than that:

    Matt 5:17-18 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

    That goes beyond verbal inspiration, to alphabetic inspiration.

    I know that your point is that fighting over that is a distraction from the gospel. I certainly don’t think we should split over that… although compromising belief in scripture can lead to things over which we would have to split. Here’s one self-described progressive who adamantly believes in inspiration of scripture.

  3. Amen, brother Guin, say it over and over again!

  4. Inspiration and inerrancy are two different (related, but different) issues, brethren.

    I can (and do) believe in the inspiration of Scripture, even though I’m highly skeptical of the exact counts of groups of people in Scripture.

    But that’s a different question. My main reason for wanting to comment is because it is Pollyanna-ish in the extreme to say this about inerrancy to a brotherhood like ours.

    Just DROP talking about it???

    To a brotherhood in which “Establish the authority of the New Testament” is the first step of preaching the gospel???

    To a brotherhood where *saying* “inerrancy isn’t a part of ‘faith’ as that term is used in the Bible” is heard as “I don’t believe in inerrancy!”

    I think I would be heavily censured and removed from teaching if I stood up in class one day and said, “Inerrancy doesn’t matter,” and so would most bible class teachers at most congregations in our brotherhood. And how many preachers will be hired in the brotherhood when they write, “Inerrancy is a matter of opinion and not something to be divided over” on the doctrinal questionnaire from the congregation they’ve applied to?

    Inerrancy is a foundational COC doctrine; silently ignoring it will not protect our converts from the many honest brethren whose faith is deeply reliant upon not merely personal belief in inerrancy, but the belief that holding to inerrancy is part of what it means to be a Christian.

  5. You know it is important to clarify inerrancy. Does it mean that all the grammar specific dates, times places, events and so on are correct? Or does it mean that the contextual ideas are true regardless of specific dates places and events verifiable through secular history? The ultimate purpose of the written word is to reveal God to even the simplest minded human. If that is not the ultimate purpose then it is just another religious book like the Koran or any other.

    To Jay’s point the debate raged in the SBC over this issue and the results were staggering. We can choose any topic and debate it and most regardless of the winner will cause much pain, grief, and division. I would suggest that this will be the death of institutional religions in America because being “right” is the most important thing to them. It is their Gospel it is there message it is their religion. It is where they spend the majority of their time and money. Most are so self deluded in the own systems of religious dogma there is no reason or logic that will grip their attention to see things for how they really are.

    And so the gospel that we read of in the bible that was transformative in its nature, transcending of all culture and human/sociological/demographical divisions literally changing the world will find it’s grave in America because we choose to make arguments such as inerrancy a part of it.

  6. Jay — I’ve been checking in for awhile and often gain from your thoughts. Thank you for a rich blog.

    I might agree with you about ACU, but you’re comments are the first I’ve seen about an anti-inerrancy position. Can you please explain how this is evident without starting a torrent?

  7. Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, and AMEN.

    I think these are the type of questions we will be asked on the day of judgement……

    And, we will answer in our usual way, to which the Lord will reply……. “and how did all of that work our for ME and MY church?”…………

    Great, great post Jay. The best I have seen.

  8. Nick,

    So I’m a Pollyanna. It’s probably true. But the alternative is to let my brothers fight and divide over inerrancy while the world is desperate for the gospel of Jesus.

    It’s a shame that we sometimes teach faith in the Bible rather than faith in Jesus — or even make faith in Jesus depend on faith in the Bible. I’ve seen it argued that faith in Jesus can only come if you believe in the Bible, and you can only believe in the Bible if you believe in Gen 1, and you can only believe in Gen 1 if you believe in Young-Earth Creationism (e.g., Bert Thompson’s Theistic Evolution). Therefore, if you deny Young Earth Creationism, you can’t believe in Jesus. And, therefore, quite predictably, when people see the strong evidence for an ancient earth, they reject Jesus — because their preacher told them to!

    “Inerrancy” is nearly a meaningless term, as everyone defines it differently, so that it just happens to match their interpretation of the Bible. If you think Job really happened, then inerrancy requires all to agree. If you think Job is a lesson in true theology taught through an extended parable, then inerrancy says nothing about the form of literature a book might be. So we all get to be inerrantists while disagreeing over what the word means — and damning those who won’t use the word and fellowshipping those who use the word but mean something different than we do. Thus, once that errantists are purged, the inerrantists will turn on each other to purge those with the wrong definition.

    Satan is surely having a good laugh.

    So, you see, I’m a weird mix of cynicism and naivete.

  9. I offer no assurances against starting a torrent.

    There are two publications that trigger this controversy: God’s Holy Fire (ACU Press 2002) about hermeneutics and written for Bible class study. It has a chapter arguing against inerrancy.

    More recently, ACU has published a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible called God’s Transforming Word, which included arguments against inerrancy and, according to its defenders, didn’t include a full response to those arguments because of the lack of space. The Christian Chronicle posted pre-publication reviews pro and con. It’s all discussed at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/inerrancy/.

    As a result, many conservatives and progressives see ACU as intentionally seeking to advocate against inerrancy, and I find the case persuasive — despite the fact I am a big fan of ACU and the work they do with and for the Churches of Christ. I just think it’s a colossal mistake to hand the conservatives the argument that we progressives are true “liberals” and our arguments are based on doubt, and it’s an even bigger mistake to unnecessarily insert an issue that we know has divided similar denominations.

  10. “The ultimate purpose of the written word is to reveal God to even the simplest minded human.” – Joe

    I’m not sure that’s true. When Romans 10 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ,” it’s not talking about the written word there. That’s the command (word) of Christ.

    Not everyone has ears to hear. Ears to hear come from the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

    Many people have demonstrated the ability to read scripture without the ability to understand it. The Ethiopian Eunuch had a bible that did him no good until the Spirit sent Philip to do some ‘splainin’.

    Scripture does not open ears, nor is it for the simple. The ultimate purpose of Scripture seems to be for the training, correction, and encouragement of those who have believed. If Jesus is the blood, then Scripture is more like a flow of oxygen: it is not needed by the dead. It’s only for those who have life.

  11. When I was first considering the idea of becoming a Christian, I wanted to make sure to the best of my abilities that Christianity was legitimate. I knew that the writings of the prophets and apostles contained the message on which the Christian faith stood, so I looked into some of the potential problems with the Bible of which I was aware. I did not want to buy into something unreliable, deceptive, or erroneous.

    Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the Bible could be trusted. Its message about Christ was true. I was able to place my faith in him with the confidence that the sources (the biblical writings) from which I had learned about him were not unreliable, deceptive, or erroneous.

    At that point, I did not take Christians who denied biblical inerrancy seriously as followers of Christ, especially if they claimed to be knowledgable of the Bible. I was not interested in joining a church that did not believe in the accuracy of what it called the revelation of God. If a church did not believe God, I reasoned, it was just playing a game.

    If I were considering becoming a Christian today and came across this post, I would not take the Churches of Christ very seriously after reading it. I would consider the Southern Baptists (and others like Fellowship Bible Churches), however, since they have settled the issue and have decided to take the Scripures as the accurate and reliabe revelation from God.

    You may argue that inerrancy does not matter, but it mattered to me as a young man looking for something or Someone to believe in. I suspect that there are others around us who are still looking for the same thing. I would tell them, “Please do not write off all Churches of Christ after reading this post.” I still believe in the solid, inerrant message of the Bible…as do some Churches of Christ.

  12. But I don’t want either cynicism or naivete — I want help!

    I want to know how to facilitate classroom discussion when one person has honest concerns about conflicts in Scripture and another person wants to aggressively defend inerrancy.

    How do we “just stop talking about it” without surrendering the floor to those who WON’T just stop talking about it, because their faith depends on it and they believe everyone else’s faith should too?

  13. In Hebrews 10, the writer points out that God’s new covenant will be written “in their hearts” and “on their minds” (NIV).

    The power of salvation is not in the Text. It is between us and God.

    The Text is a valuable asset to have. But it is not necessary to have the Text in order to have a righteous relationship with God.

  14. How many people were in Jacob’s household when they went down into Egypt? 70 (Gen 46:27) or 75 (Acts 7:14)?

  15. Thanks. I just hadn’t read enough, but I think I get your point(s) now.

    Isn’t this akin to the version issues? It can be a real faith crises when churched people allow themselves to think critically about what they read in their Bible. The struggle is gut wrenching if their faith is misplaced to begin with, i.e., a faith in a particular version (or insert inerrancy) equal to or greater than faith in Jesus.

  16. I agree that is one way this issue manifests itself.

  17. Nick,

    I’m one of the folks who places a high premium on the importance of inerrency. I’m not posting this comment in an effort to argue that point however. I’m just trying to promote understanding in the hope that it can lead to greater unity.

    Folks like me can only go so far (not very far at all) away from a position of completely infallible verbal inspiration. For me it really is a slippery slope. If there are flaws in the scriptures, then who gets to decide what is a flaw and what is not? In that case our beliefs become a mixture of man’s wisdom and God’s. I’m just not going to be comfortable embracing any position based on a premise that some teaching of scripture is not from God. And I’ll wonder whether those who do embrace that position are in danger of going over the slippery slope.

    So if you want to avoid dissension with folks like me, it is best not to bring up those matters. Maybe those are some of the things you should keep between yourself and God (per Rom 14:22).

  18. The rounding of numbers does not constitute error. A church bulletin may report an attendance of 711, while the preacher may say, “We had 700 people in attendance last week.” The preacher may be saying simply that the place was packed. He would not necessarily be in error or lying. The author of Genesis may have been rounding the number to 70, symbolically saying that Jacob’s entire househould went to Egypt, since the number 7 symbolized completeness in the ancient world.

    As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy stated in Article XIII, “We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”

  19. Terry,

    According to that highly nuanced definition of inerrancy, I completely agree with inerrancy.

    However, that definition is *SO* insanely far from the literal meaning of the word inerrant that it makes the word itself pointless. Why put that much luggage inside a word that means something completely different?

  20. Alan,

    So when someone is sincerely troubled by, for example, the difference between, say, the story in 1 Sam 17 (David killed Goliath) and the statements in 2 Sam 21:19 (Elhanan killed Goliath) and 1 Chron 20:5 (Elhanan killed the BROTHER of Goliath), I should just tell them to talk to God about it?

    What kind of pastoral counsel is that?

  21. So when someone is sincerely troubled by, for example, the difference between, say, the story in 1 Sam 17 (David killed Goliath) and the statements in 2 Sam 21:19 (Elhanan killed Goliath) and 1 Chron 20:5 (Elhanan killed the BROTHER of Goliath), I should just tell them to talk to God about it?

    I personally wouldn’t have a problem answering that question by quoting a few respected commentators. The NET Bible translation notes on 2 Sam 21:19 offers a reasonable explanation for example. In effect they say we have enough evidence to identify the truth with high confidence, and can attribute the apparent discrepancy to copyist error. What I wouldn’t do is give an answer that calls the reliability of other scriptures into question.

  22. Nick,
    Perhaps the problem has been that we have been discussing two different things. As I understand it, conservative theologians generally define the doctrine of inerrancy in the same way as I have. If we can agree to the definition, we may not have an argument between ourselves…and I would love to agree and stop the arguments:). Perhaps this defining of terms could be the beginning of making peace among Churches of Christ. Thanks for your patience.

  23. I don’t want to make peace around a definition and/or a word that has no missional value. Yes, I believe we could unify around this definition, and I think you are correct that it is the definition of the word with which most conservative evangelical theologians would agree.

    But that doesn’t do us any good in pursuing God’s mission of reconciliation with the world. If we have to use language in a way that the rest of the world has never used it, why not rather give up the unbiblical *word* that causes so many to stumble, and use a different one?

    Reliable?
    Trustworthy?
    Complete?
    All-sufficient?

    These words SOUND weaker than inerrant because we’ve made such a fuss over inerrant. But we’ve made that fuss over a claim that Scripture never makes for itself — so we’ve been fighting a battle that God never asked us to fight.

  24. Alan,

    I wouldn’t have any problem with that response either, Alan. But now we’re not talking about inerrancy, we’re talking about reliability.

    When the average Joe hears the word ‘inerrant’, they are going to think it means “without any kind of error whatsoever.” I know that isn’t what we mean — as Terry has pointed out, conservative theologians have a highly-nuanced definition of the doctrine of inerrancy.

    My concern is that we work so hard to convince people of something that Scripture doesn’t really claim for itself.

    Trustworthiness?
    Reliability?
    Sufficiency?

    Absolutely, Scripture makes these claims. But our book is different (I’d submit BETTER) because it doesn’t *have to* claim inerrancy.

    Islam claims that the Koran (in Arabic) is inerrant, because it is the direct words of Allah Himself. Allah keeps himself separate from mankind, because mankind defiles everything he touches. Therefore the word of Allah is defiled by human contact.

    Mormonism claims that the Book of Mormon is inerrant, because it is the direct words of God Himself supernaturally translated from the golden plates. Again, God uses his power to protect himself from human contamination.

    The Bible, Hebrew and Christian alike, is very different. God inspires men to write. In some places, it suggests that we have exactly what God said to those men. In other places, we know that what we have came from extensive research, compilation, and refinement. In still other places, we have collections of material so diverse that they cannot all be characterized by one means of revelation.

    I deeply trust Scripture — in its inspiration and its sufficiency. But I don’t trust it because someone told me it was inerrant. I trust it because it has proven itself reliable over and over again, not just in my life but in the lives of the saints for thousands of years.

  25. Nick,
    I don’t mind using any of those words either.

  26. I wouldn’t have any problem with that response either, Alan. But now we’re not talking about inerrancy, we’re talking about reliability.

    It doesn’t do much good to apply a label if the label means different things to different people. There are people all along the continuum from inerrant verbal inspiration to fiction. My personal belief is that the original autographs were perfect, and that God has not permitted any meaningful deviation of meaning. So when I read that Paul wrote that we need to believe and obey X, I can be sure that God wants me to fully embrace X. It wasn’t Paul’s idea to write it, and it wasn’t made up along the way by some copyist. Some people who would say the scriptures are “reliable” do not even come close to aligning with that belief.

  27. Nick,

    I’m a strong believer that the teacher gets to decide the class topic. While a good teacher certainly should answer questions, when the questions are too far removed from the intended purpose of the class, the correct response is “That’s not what today’s class is about but I’ll be glad to discuss it with you afterwards.” I’ve learned the hard way not to let students take over the direction of the class — unless I agree that it’s a good direction for the whole class. I’ve had plenty of classes hijacked, but that because (1) it was clear the new direction would benefit the class and (2) I was prepared to lead the discussion. I also don’t mind saying, “We can’t go there because I’m not prepared to discuss that subject.”

    Having said that, let me share a few thoughts.

    1. More than once I’ve told a student, Our salvation depends on faith in Jesus, not faith in the Bible. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have confidence in what the scriptures teach, just that our faith in Jesus should no more depend on inerrancy than the Phillippian jailer’s did. The jailer saw Jesus in the men in he’d jailed, and God was perfectly satisfied with his faith.

    2. I think very few conversions come from the arguments about the inerrancy of scripture. By the time you define “inerrant” you’ve lost the interest of most people. Conversions, I think, are more likely to come from people seeing Jesus — in the Gospels, in the teacher they are studying with, in the church. Now some converts will want to know that the scriptures are reliable — which is easily demonstrated. But few people demand that evidence be inerrant before believing it. (Is your road map inerrant? Is your dictionary? Do you trust them enough to rely on what they tell you? You have to have special training to demand inerrancy, I think.)

    3. There are those who argue that we should believe the Bible is inspired because it’s inerrant. Others argue that it’s inerrant because it’s inspired. I think the first position is a strategic mistake, because (1) it begs for someone to go looking for contradictions and they always bring up stuff that’s hard to answer and I’d really rather talk about lessons other than the alleged inconsistencies between the Passion Week as described by John and as described in the Synoptics and (2) I don’t think it’s smart to build a relationship on Jesus solely through scripture. If we look beyond the scriptures to the Jesus who is revealed by the word, by the creation, in our hearts, in changed lives, in the Spirit, etc. — then we see that the scriptures, as very important as they are, are one of many witnesses to Jesus. And if we build a Christian’s faith on a broader base than inerrancy, I think we build a much better, stronger faith.

    4. Believe it or not, I say none of this to question inerrancy. My position on inerrancy is I have no position on inerrancy — which means both camps get upset with me. But I’m a Campbellite in this sense: call Bible things by Bible names. Most controversies disappear when we stick to scriptural terms and categories. “Inerrant” isn’t in my Bible.

    5. Paul told Timothy,

    (2 Tim 3:16) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

    Therefore, I use the scriptures to teach (and be taught), rebuke (and be rebuked), correct (and be corrected), and train in righteousness (and be trained). And isn’t that really the point?
    And the scriptures tell us to work for unity. And so I use the scriptures to teach that we aren’t supposed to divide over inerrancy.

    6. There are those who see “inerrant” as a necessary consequence of “inspired.” They may be right. Like Campbell, I’ll just speak in terms of what the Bible says. It’s inspired — God breathed (or God-Spirited, if you will). The consequences are what Paul says they are. I’ve never found any motivation to study the question much beyond this.

    In my church we have a campus ministry, and occassionally a student comes to me with questions about contradictions in the Bible. Usually it’s a faith crisis — but it’s a crisis that came because his preacher back home told him he can only believe in Jesus if the Bible’s inerrant. And then he discovers one of the various argued contradictions — or a whole book of them. And I get angry with the preacher for telling the young person how to believe without even bothering to equip his listeners to cope with the problems that arise when, for example, comparing the various parallel Gospel accounts. Not wise. I mean, teaching “faith” in a way that undoes faith seems a rather poor way to preach.

    And once the idea “the Bible must be inerrant or all Christianity is vain” is planted in someone’s head, either you work through every single alleged contradiction he heard from a professor or found on the internet or else you urge him to rethink his faith in different terms. Right? And so it’s a long conversation whichever way you go.

    Far better to be able to ask: don’t you see Jesus in this church? Don’t you see him in the radically changed lives and fruitful living of our members? How can you doubt when you’re surrounded by such compelling evidence of God’s hand at work? And you go from there.

    I know people who’ve lost their faith because they couldn’t get past their training at the hands of their preachers.

    Sorry for rambling, but it’s been one of those days. And I’ve probably not answered your question. How about starting with whether it’s a salvation issue, deciding it’s not because the Bible doesn’t say so, and then going from there. I find when students realize it’s not about salvation the conversation that follows is much more pleasant. In fact, at that point, many have their question answered and move on.

  28. Exactly.

  29. It’s very reasonable (and biblical) to be able to give a reason for our faith in God. And it is very reasonable for the scriptures to be the foundation of that answer.

    There’s an outstanding sermon on YouTube (by Voddie Baucham, a black Baptist preacher) that makes a strong case for that. The sermon is in six parts (about five minutes each) and is easily followed from one part to the next from the list of related videos that comes up each time. He comes from 2 Peter 1, with an expository sermon from that passage about why we should believe the Bible. He rejects the answer “because it worked for me.” And he rejects the answer “because I was raised that way.” He then proceeds to give a much better answer from 2 Peter 1:15ff.

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