Another Proposed Bellingham Statement (Last One?)

Posted By on March 12, 2009

Here goes another crack at a statement on inspiration and inerrancy (both!). I think what follows constitutes something that I hope readers will circulate. I’m not sure about the order things are addressed, so please pay attention to that.† I have some modest goals for this statement:

1. To get academically-minded Christians, especially fellow biblio-bloggers, to offer suggestions and rewrites toward a final statement.

2. To post that final statement on its own dedicated website and allow readers to sign it in some electronic form. I don’t plan to do anything with the signatures except post them on that site. Hopefully the Bellingham Statement can become a reference point for academically-minded believers who view inspiration and inerrancy as important doctrines.

The latest Statement is somewhat lengthy (2 pages single-spaced in WORD).† Readers will recognize the contributions of John Hobbins therein, though I deleted some of his wordings and added material.† Unless I get substantive feedback on it, this will be my last statement. I don’t think I can take it much further without input, and I’d like to start blogging about other things. One thing I did not put into it that may be advisable is something about textual criticism / transmission.† I think we all know that TC is a safety net to evangelical discussions of inerrancy, and so I didn’t feel I needed to add it.† Maybe I should.

Here it is:

I affirm that the Bible is God-given revelation produced through the agency of human authors. The usual process of producing the Scriptures was one where human authors wrote on the basis of their own abilities, education, styles, worldview, backgrounds, and idiosyncrasies apart from a point-in-time divine encounter where the words of Scripture were chosen for the authors. Although there are instances in the biblical record where God is said to have dictated what would become part of the biblical text (e.g., Rev 2-3, the messages to the seven churches), such instances are rare.

The process of inspiration does not require us to contend that God verbally dictated the words of the Bible to the authors, though God did so on rare occasions, at times directly or through a divine agent. The process also does not require us to embrace the idea that God impressed each word on the mind of the author through some silent, mental process, as though the author’s mind was overtaken by God. Having providentially prepared each writer, I believe God presented the biblical writers with truth through a range of means, including (but not limited to) dramatic displays of divine power, time spent listening to the incarnate Christ, formal education, the reading of Scripture already extant, insight given by the Spirit, religious training, and sensitivity to the working of God in their own lives through spiritual devotion. All of these forces and more molded the lives and minds of the authors of the Bible under an over-arching divine providence, preparing them to write that which God would move the believing community to embrace as canonical.

While God providentially prepared the writers of the Bible to produce His truth and providentially oversaw the results of their work, this process of inspiration of necessity involved divine accommodation.† God was perfectly capable and content to use human language to convey truth to humanity. Divine accommodation in the context of the process of inspiration should not be understood as though the biblical writers chose to communicate with their audience in such a way as to accommodate less learned people. I reject the notion that one human (the author) received words from God and then had to dumb down those words for other people (their audience). This is not divine accommodation, but human accommodation, and is a caricature of what divine accommodation really is: the decision of God to be willing to allow his weak, limited human creatures to write about who He is and what He has done.

In view of the above, I affirm that God used human language to the degree he deemed sufficient, so as to accomplish the creation of the canonical books. †Humans do not express anything about God perfectly or completely, nor could God reveal anything about Himself in an exhaustive and comprehensive way, as human minds would be unable to comprehend this fullness. Since humans cannot receive all God is, all God thinks, and all God does, what they produce in writing, even under the providence of God, will be articulated in ways that show their limited capacities and finite understanding of God, His ways, and His world. These shortfalls should not be construed as errors, since to do so would be to charge the human author with possessing the limitations of humanity, as though the writer could have circumvented those limitations. That the human writers of antiquity chosen by God were writing under the constraints of an imperfect understanding of science is to affirm the obvious. To contend that this means the point of the inspiration process was meant to factualize ancient scientific notions as points of dogma is to extrapolate from that obvious point to an unnecessary conclusion.† I affirm that the standard for God’s acceptance of the process of inspiration was not the production of material that neither the ancient writer nor his initial audience could have comprehended. Rather, God used humans as they were, with all their limitations, much in the same way He left the task of evangelism and administration of His Body, the Church, to weak human beings. Nevertheless, in grace God chose to use human agents to produce revelation about Himself for human posterity. God was willing and able to use human writers, who utilized a range of normal communicative literary techniques, and who wrote according to deliberate theological agendas, to adequately and accurately (but imperfectly) describe Himself, His plan, His purposes, His acts in history, and His creative acts. God was likewise willing and able to preserve the writers from making erroneous statements about Himself, His plan, His purposes, and His acts in history and His creative acts.

I affirm, therefore, that while the providentially-prepared human authors were the immediate source of most of the words of Scripture, God is still the ultimate source of the words of each canonical book. His work of providence was sufficient at every point of the way to ensure that the words that he intended to be in Scripture, and no others, are in fact therein. The Bible derives its authority from this providentially-guided process.† The Bible’s authority in turn is higher than that of any church, local or corporate, and any tradition about the Bible and its contents, since that tradition did not derive from the same inspiration process as the Bible itself.

I affirm that the process of inspiration included not only the initial composition of a biblical book but also any subsequent editorial work done on the text of that book prior to the recognition of a completed sacred canon. Evidence in hand leads to the conclusion that the process of producing the Scripture text was subject to editorial activity in terms of additions, deletions, rearrangement, and repurposing. I believe that God oversaw any such process by means of providential influence in the decisions made by authors and editors so that the words of each canonical book met with God’s approval. Any writer or editorial hand whose work of composition or editing preceded the final form of a given canonical book and whose work finds expression in the final canonical text was a participant in the process of inspiration.

With respect to learning from the incarnate Christ, and with respect to the process of inspiration, the gospel writers were not required to reproduce the exact “real time” words that Jesus spoke, nor did they, as we know from the synoptic gospels. Rather, they learned truth and transmitted it in writing as their life context dictated under providence, at times capturing the ideas they heard very closely, perhaps even verbatim, on other occasions applying it in different vocabulary as the need arose. I believe the written result (in its final form) was entirely faithful and accurate with respect to the content of Jesus’ teaching.

As with hearing the words of Jesus, the writers of Scripture were likewise not required to memorize all the Scripture they heard and learned when writing their own works that would be recognized as canonical. Rather, they were free to apply preceding Scripture and quote it as needed to teach sound doctrine or make a theological point. The gap between many quotations of Scripture and the source manuscripts from which those quotations came shows us that the writers did not need to reproduce every word they found in the texts they quote, or in the exact order they found them in. At times their own context for writing or quoting a text required that the earlier Scripture text of the Old Testament be repurposed in a different literary form or adapted to reinforce a specific exegetical or theological point found elsewhere in the canonical text.

Could you sign this or not?† Where can it be improved?

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17 Responses to “Another Proposed Bellingham Statement (Last One?)”

  1. Mike A. says:

    I could sign it. Its just really long.

  2. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Gotta admit, I was elevated as I read this and it made be in much awe of The Word of God. Incredible how intricate and intimate this dance of the Father’s thoughts and ours was and how it allowed, by His Grace, for HIs message to reach us today. The statement isn’t perfect, sure, but I’d sign it!

  3. [...] Bellingham Statement Mike Heiser has developed the Bellingham Statement concerning inspiration and [...]

  4. MSH says:

    @Mike A.: I love it.

  5. vanmaaren says:

    Dear Mike,
    I didn’t take the time to read through the whole discussion, so forgive me if you’ve addressed this in earlier posts. The first thought that came to mind when I read through the statement was that it the statement could be used to describe the act of preaching and also the preparation. As you know, in the Reformed tradition, the sermon in the worship order has traditionally been marked with the header, “The Word of God.” While that incorporates both the reading of scripture and the sermon, I’ve always thought of the preacher as one who has spent the time listening to God as he speaks through the scripture and brings the scripture to bear into the lives of the people. So, in a way, God speaks through the scripture and the preacher to his people using much of the same means that are brought out in paragraph 2. Sometimes the preacher is better at doing the work of listening and sometimes not. (I write from experience.)
    Now, I don’t want to say that preaching or the preacher has more authority than scripture, nor do I want to say that the preaching or preacher is inerrant or infallible. However, there are some times when someone will say, “I heard God speaking to me.” or “You must have been riding in our car on the way to worship. We were talking about that same thing.” How does that happen? We could say coincidence or if we do believe that the sermon is part of “The Word of God” then it God really is speaking through the preacher. Does this make any sense?
    On another note, I think the statement seriously addresses the questions raised by skeptics of the Bible’s authority, questions based on human authorship, editorial process, etc.
    Thanks Mike
    Paul

  6. MSH says:

    @vanmaaren: I think it makes sense in the sense (how’s that for redundancy!) that the word is said to be alive and never goes forth without accomplishing what God wants it to. No matter how imperfectly communicated, it is still the word of God to man, and God’s means of (now, post-inspiration process) speaking “directly” to humankind.

  7. tcblack says:

    It is limited in it’s scope – but that is of necessity I suppose or else we’d have another book wouldn’t we?
    As it stands now, I would sign it.

    Now if we want to talk about transmission/replication of that text and the extant manuscripts today…

  8. MSH says:

    @tcblack: thanks!

  9. dwmtractor says:

    Hello Michael et al.,

    I’m a newcomer who only heard of you via the posts on McKnight’s JesusCreed blog and comments thereon. As someone who doesn’t actually accept the notion of inerrancy at all, and so has no need to reconcile it, I want to say that the statement you have come up with addresses a lot (though not all) of my objections. I appreciate it, I affirm the spirit in which you all struggled through it and wrote it, and while I could not sign it myself, it’s a whole lot closer to my sense of scripture than the normal Evangelical/Fundamentalist notions to which I’m accustomed to being assailed.

    I hope this doesn’t come off as a backhanded compliment, because I really mean it as a deliberate, to-your-face compliment! ;{)

    What bothers me about it (at least as the words I read above speak to me), is twofold:

    1) It seems to me like you have developed a coherent, logical theoretical framework that makes some scriptural sense, if you start with the presupposition that some sort of doctrine of scriptural inerrancy is necessary. I do not, however, see in your statement, the foundation upon which the need for such a doctrine is laid.

    2) While your statement allows for the understanding that human variation is there in the text, the statement:

    God is still the ultimate source of the words of each canonical book. His work of providence was sufficient at every point of the way to ensure that the words that he intended to be in Scripture, and no others, are in fact therein.

    . . .this statement presupposes the inspiration of the entire canonical content, and still leads (or at least has the strong potential to lead) to elevation of entirely peripheral issues (such as x-millenialism, for one example) to dogmatic status equivalent–or at least nearly so–to root issues like Christology and the Kingdom of God.

    I presume your statement is written for an audience that desires a more reasoned and nuanced view of inerrancy than that currently extant. For that, again, I commend you. It goes a long way in the right direction. There remain, however, people like me who still hold a very high view of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus (and in the written texts), but who will not be able to sign.

    Peace!

    Dan

    • Chavoux says:

      Hi Dan

      I think the two-fold reason for assuming/presupposing some sort of doctrine of inerrancy are found in the words of Jesus. First He declared of the Old Testament (The Scriptures as it was then) that it can not be broken, that it will remain as long as the sun and moon remain. Secondly, He made a promise that His words will never disappear, even if heaven and earth should disappear (combined with his promise that the Holy Spirit will remind His disciples/apostles of all his words). Between these two statements a strong case can be made that Jesus of Nazareth, who we as Christians claim to follow, did teach at least a partial doctrine of inerrancy. Unless we start doubting that Jesus really said those words and then the question becomes who the Jesus is that we claim to follow if not the Jesus as presented in the gospels?

  10. MSH says:

    @dwmtractor: Dan — thanks for this. I’d really like to hear specifics on what the statement doesn’t cover that remain objections you have.

    Regarding your question, I could just as easily ask you on what basis you consider inerrancy unimportant — which leads to the question I will ask — could you clarify what you’re angling toward (or from) that prompts the question in the first place? When I read it I thought “necessary for what?” but that actually seems to be a question for you.

  11. dwmtractor says:

    Hey Mike,

    I’ve been gone and didn’t get back to this right away–is there a way on your blog to subscribe to the thread by email? I didn’t see it or I would’ve responded sooner.

    For your first question on where I still object to the statement, it’s this:

    God is still the ultimate source of the words of each canonical book. His work of providence was sufficient at every point of the way to ensure that the words that he intended to be in Scripture, and no others, are in fact therein.

    Maybe I’m misinterpreting what you say, but to me this section actually works against the accommodation, and the acknowledgment of human vocabulary, so well described in the preceding paragraphs. I come down more on the side that the vital truths God intended to convey are sufficiently conveyed in the written documents, and that no significant teaching is presented that God did not intend to be there. But I’m not comfortable saying that about specific words or phrases, rather about concepts or truths. And even there, I have to qualify this, as I get a strong sense in the Pentateuch, Judges, and the books of Samuel, for example, that there’s a certain amount of jingoistic nationalism and nationalist apologetics on the part of the writer(s) that is probably not God-sourced.

    Second, this quote:

    Evidence in hand leads to the conclusion that the process of producing the Scripture text was subject to editorial activity in terms of additions, deletions, rearrangement, and repurposing. I believe that God oversaw any such process by means of providential influence in the decisions made by authors and editors so that the words of each canonical book met with Godís approval.

    I absolutely affirm the evidence of editorializing. However the claim that God protected that process is (I submit) based upon the presupposition that God intended us to receive the texts we now have. That may (or may not) be a reasonable presupposition, but we have to face the fact that it is a postulate based upon what we decide faith OUGHT to be, not a conclusion supported by any sort of evidence (including scriptural evidence).

    Which probably gets to the heart of my answer to your second question. Inerrancy in some form appears to be “necessary” to Evangelicals (and others) as they draw the boundaries of who is “in” or “out” of orthodoxy, and sometimes even of fellowship. Some (though probably not most?) would go so far as to place a doctrine of inerrancy as necessary for salvation itself. Even those who do not, make the claim that without a doctrine of inerrancy there is no way to reasonably trust the Biblical texts at all (a claim I find somewhat odd, but so be it).

    My contention is that for points of doctrine/dogma, we have no business drawing bright lines concerning the texts, that are not in fact drawn in the texts themselves. I suggest, therefore, that inerrancy is unnecessary for the simple reason that neither God nor the human authors of the scriptural texts found it necessary to delineate such a doctrine. . .and further that what is not so delineated in the text, ought not become a point of faith and/or argument to us now.

    So, perhaps in response I should propose what I’d replace your statement with. I guess it comes down to those parts of scripture that self-identify as God speaking. I would say that God saw fit to preserve the essence and the sense of the message in those places where He also saw fit to label the text as “Thus saith the LORD” or “the word of the LORD came to so and so. . .” and likewise (as you pointed out) to the sayings of Jesus himself. The other parts show the writing and thinking of godly men, but do not self-represent as God’s words and ought not so to be represented.

    Without making a long post even longer, the following three links go into a bit more detail:
    http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com/2008/07/biblical-inspiration-part-4-rightly.html
    http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com/2008/07/why-it-matters.html
    http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com/2008/08/one-of-things-that-originally-got-me-on.html

    Perhaps these will make more sense of the “angle” about which you asked.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Mike,

    Here are my two cents on this issue.

    First, the phrase “The Bible derives its authority from this providentially guided process . . . .” is successful in its immediate contex; but it would be nice to qualify it in such a way as to make it more clear that the authority of the bible is not exclusively derived from the providentially guided process. That is, providential process is at work in various ways in the world but qua providential process we cannot make claims for authority. I guess what I am saying is that the Bible’s authority, for me, arises directly from its nature as the divine (God breathed) witness of revelation–the revelation of Jesus Christ. Because the Scriptures speak of Christ, THE revelation of God, they possess divine authority (and the church is the body of Christ). For me this also determines the fundamental purpose of the Sacred text: to bear witness (in various ways) to Christ. This also means that the truth value of Scripture is to be measured against realizing this purpose and not by the secular “cannonical” paradigms of Western “isms” (Scientism, Hiistoricism, Rationalism, etc.).

    This last point seems to preclude the whole Inerrancy debate. What I mean is that Inerrantists usually have already swallowed an (non-biblical) axiom of Historicism (which stipulates that real differences in the accounts of real events constitute contradictions which must be mediated or purged) and it is this naive acceptance of such an axiom that leads them into all sorts of problems of which the biblical text knows nothing (and cares nothing). Thus, the “Synoptic Problem” is a mere bogie in my opinion. If one is engaging in the science of History, then the altered order of the discreet temptations of Christ in Mat vs. Luke (i.e., the order of the three distinct points of temptation) is problematic. But, again, this is a modern (or Postmodern) problem for the Science of History and not for the ancient text; the ancient authors, I contend, were not laboring under the constraints of this modern genre (History). Rather, I think Luke and Mat freely arrange their material to make theological (and not Historical or Scientific) truth to stand out in sharp relief. Of course this is not to deny the Historical dimensions of the text (nor a general chronological framework for Christ’s life/death); indeed they are there and they are of utmost importance (the historical aspect of Christian revelation is of utmost importance and all docetism to be avoided). But, it seems to me that the Almighty has designed the text so as to preclude Time from constituting the ground or an element of the ground of revelation (since an implicit understanding of, and committment to, Time is the ground of the Science of History). I hold that exactly the reverse is the case: Revelation is the ground of Time.

    Also, History works with the principle of Analogy but the fundamental revelatory event of Christianity, the Resurrection (as opposed to mere resuscitation), is a once for all and unrepeatable event, without precedent or postcedent (and, thus, without any analogy–until we, the Sons of God, enjoy our bodily redemption at the end of the age).

    Back to the article–sorry, got on my soapbox there for a moment. It would also be nice to see some statement about the absolute necessity of possessing faith and the Spirit as the preconditions of possibility for recognizing the divine nature and divine authority of the Scriptures. Unless the reader possesses these preconditions, the text cannot be seen for what it is–no matter how many new archeological digs discover new evidence to underwrite the Text, or how many sophisticated and rigorous philosophical arguments are advanced by Christian Apologists, or how many exacting presentations of Intelligent Design are bandied about, etc., etc. The point is that no matter what amount of solid rational “proof” once might bring forward, it simply cannot be cashed out in terms of the currency of BELIEF that Jesus is the Son of God and that He really rose from the dead into a new immortal glorious existence which He now enjoys at the right hand of God (almost wrote “Father” but the text never says that) and which he communicates to us who receive Him through the Spirit. Such truth is not rationally grounded; indeed, it constitutes an absurdity for (unenlightened) human reason since nothing in the age grounds such a claim(s).

    I guess what I am saying is that the text, like Christ is fully human and fully divine and that I wish the statement presented the divine/transcendent side a bit more vividly.

    Blessings,

    James

  13. Doug Vardell says:

    Wow. Wow to the Statement, and wow to many of the responses. I’m encouraged to see conservative Christians wrestling with these issues, and articulating them so much more clearly than I could hope to.

  14. Kirk says:

    I could wholeheartedly sign this, and hope to be able to do so if a dedicated website is ever made for it. It has the gumption to spell out specific allowances in ways that are helpful, unlike the Chicago statement. It is precise and adequate to spell out what we must cling to, and just as precise in calling out what should be discarded. Taking this somewhat polemic approach means it may become outdated in a few centuries, but I’m happy with it for now.

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