Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Biblical Inerrancy & The Acting God

A reply I wrote to a blog post on Red Letter Christians about biblical inerrancy:
The question for me is: how much of God *himself* is actually bound up in what Zack is calling imperfect—such that denying the bible's inerrancy on the matter constitutes a denial of something about the identity of God himself?
Another way of putting my concern is: if as Christians we believe God's very identity to be bound up with his act, with what he has done in the history of his creation, then how can we allow for the denial of the bible's accuracy at least on certain points of history without actually denying something about God himself? It's all very well, perhaps, to say with reference to the story of Noah that the narrative reveals the "truth" that God "watches over and cares for his creation even in the midst of a storm"—but this is basically an allegorization; it treats the Noah story as a fable with a kernel of abstract and general theological truth, and not as an actual account of God's acts of judgment and merciful redemption (which is precisely what that narrative describes the flood to be, however unpalatable it might seem as history to the modern reader).
We might feel like we can get away with that to an extent when we're dealing with Noah—call it a theologically astute re-reading of ancient near eastern flood myths or something of that sort. But what about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about Moses and David? For the Israelite, the very identity of God was bound up with the fact that he, YHWH, had in historical fact delivered them from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This historical action on God's part, coupled with his historic covenantal promises at Sinai, formed the basis of Israelite faith—that God would be true to his covenant and that he would rescue his people from further disobedience. He was and is, forever, "YHWH who brought us out of Egypt." Nothing less than this is at stake for Christians too, since the central confession of our faith is precisely that within our own history, our own time and space, God himself took up our broken humanity, in order to renew and restore it through the historical events of his life and ministry, his death, his resurrection, ascension, and future coming.
In other words, biblical faith is rooted in time and in space, in the concrete action of God in time and in space to carry forward his saving purposes in the world. We confess faith by confessing what God has done. The denial that chips away gradually at his concrete and historical action amounts to nothing less than a diminution of the very identity of the living and acting God himself—for inasmuch as God's identity is bound up with his act, with his judgments and mercies in time and in space, his identity is subject to the historical veracity of those events. The God who did not really and actually bring Israel out of Egypt; the God who did not really and actually bring forth from the dead his Son, Jesus our Lord—is not the true and living God of the bible, and if we cannot trust in the actuality of these events, we cannot claim to be placing our faith in this God. We may be putting our faith in *a* god, but it could hardly be him. God has put his very identity at stake in the question of whether certain historical events have or have not happened.
The point I am making, I think, is simply that our faith does indeed have its grounding in the bible itself—in its basic historical accuracy, granted the difference between ancient and modern conventions of historiography—and that it is not for this reason anything less than faith in God himself. For God has pledged his very identity, has staked his very identity, on what he has done—on the becoming flesh of his own identity in time and in space. Perhaps what I am pleading for, at any rate, is that our discussion of inerrancy not fail to recognize that something *is* at stake when we talk about the bible's accuracy, even if that something is not what the evangelicalism of the past century or so has made it out to be. We would do well to consider the question: how much "error" can the bible admit while still giving us the same God, as anything more than a fantasy? I cannot back down from affirming the bible's truthfulness about certain things, at least, because the God I worship is none other than the God whose identity comes to expression and fulfillment in historical flesh and blood.