Perfection And Incarnation (Or, Some Thoughts on Zack Hunt’s Imperfect Bible)

Insert stock Bible image here.

Insert stock Bible image here.

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple – (Psalm 19:7)

If you read this blog often, you know I don’t typically pick fights with specific bloggers, or even positions–I generally just like putting forward positive content. I certainly don’t like challenging smart guys like Zack Hunt. I mean dude’s got some theological chops, a big blog, he’s going to Yale, and is a good enough writer to score a book deal; I have a kind of ugly-but-functional blog my mom reads and a poorly-followed Twitter account. Still he wrote a piece over at Red Letter Christians on the inerrancy or rather, non-inerrancy, of the Bible that I found interesting and worth examining. Also, I was kind of bored.

His basic argument, as far as I followed it, was that the reason he believed the Bible isn’t perfect is because the Bible itself told him so. Also, nobody believed in its ‘inerrancy’ until like, 150 years ago. Or something like that.

If I had to boil down the argument into one quote, it’d probably be this chunk right here:

Do you remember the other big moment when we read about something being “God-breathed” in scripture? Sure you do. We find it in the very beginning, in Genesis chapter 2 verse 7 when God took the dust of the ground and breathed life into it to create humanity.

In that moment God breathed something into existence…..which wasn’t perfect. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t God.

Because scripture is also “God-breathed” it means it too isn’t God. Nor does it even come directly from God, but instead it passes through an intermediary. In the beginning, the intermediary between us and God was dirt. God breathed into it and the result was that we were created.

In the case of the Bible, God breathed His truth into the hearts and minds of people and the result was that the Bible was created. But like that ancient dirt that gave birth to us, the people who wrote the Bible, God’s intermediaries, weren’t perfect. Which is why Paul says “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

Hunt then goes on to affirm that we can basically trust the Bible because, even though Noah probably didn’t get all those animals on the boat, we can still believe what the story is trying to teach: God will take care of us in the storms. We don’t need something to be inerrant or “perfect” for it to convey truth, it just needs to be honest enough. A basically truthful message doesn’t need to keep all the details straight for it to be correct and trustworthy. That’s what faith is about–kinda like with your parents, you trust it even when you have some doubts about it. Holding out for some theoretical inerrancy that doesn’t fit the text itself isn’t faith, but a fearful struggle to control the divine.

Now, on the issue of faith and I’d simply note that Karl Barth had some different ideas than Paul Tillich which are worth considering. The historical point, I will leave to others to debate without comment as well. I think there is definitely something to the idea that testimony can be essentially reliable while a couple of minor details are crossed. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening in the Bible, but I think it’s important to affirm valid points when you see them.

On his argument about perfection I do have a few thoughts, though.

To be clear at the outset, I’m not going to argue in detail for some particular view of inerrancy or infallibility simply because, to be honest, it’s a short blog so there isn’t time. I do think it’s helpful to point out that there are varying views as to what constitutes inerrancy such as the Chicago Statement (which has multiple interpretations), Old Princetonian articulations, and other more rigid views. It’d probably be helpful to define it, but since Hunt doesn’t and it won’t affect my argument, I’ll leave it be. For the curious, whatever Kevin Vanhoozer says, I’m right around there.

What I do want is to briefly, and incompletely, examine a few of the basic components or assumptions in the argument forwarded by Hunt, in no particular order.

It’s Not God, But it is His Work

As Hunt astutely points out, the Bible is not God, but is “God-breathed” (theopneustos). So, it’s wrong to attribute to the Bible all of God’s perfections. Only God is immortal, immutable, eternal, all-powerful, and so forth. The Bible is not these things and to say that it is, is a sort of idolatry that ignores the fact that it is clearly a human book that “was written by people”; humans who left their individual marks on the texts they produced.

Now, to begin, I’d just like to note that the proponents of inerrancy that I know of would easily confess this. For instance, Old Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield, truly old-school on inerrancy, makes a big deal about the way Paul’s letters bear his distinctive stamp–they have the unique marks of his very human personality, thought, and history. And yet, Warfield still affirms that they are God’s works and are to be identified with him. In other words, he ascribes to a view of dual authorship whereby, without violating creaturely freedom and contingency, God somehow brings it about that Paul writes what he wanted him to write; even though they’re human words, it doesn’t prevent them from somehow being divine ones as well. That’s why Jesus can say “it is written”, and Paul can quote the OT and say “Scripture says”, as if it were equivalent to “God says.”

Warfield writes:

When the Christian asserts his faith in the divine origin of his Bible, he does not mean to  deny that it was composed and written by men or that it was given by men to the world. He believes that the marks of its human origin are ineradicably stamped on every page of the whole volume. He means to state only that it is not merely human in its origin…

The Scriptures, in other words, are conceived by the writers of the New Testament as through and through God’s book, in every part expressive of His mind, given through men after a fashion which does no violence to their nature as men, and constitutes the book also men’s book as well as God’s, in every part expressive of the mind of its human authors.

In which case, it’s not quite as simple as distinguishing Creator from creation then, because the two are related. The integrity and characteristics of the one speaks to the ability of the other.

“God-Breathed Humans” and Types of Perfection

Hunt also points out that the other thing we read in Scripture was God-breathed were humans–and they clearly weren’t perfect, just good. Cutting off a quick objection, he says we can’t simply point to the Fall either and say, “Well, we were and then we became sinful.” The Bible only says that we were very good, and yet clearly we were capable of temptation. I mean, we’re not God, so how could we be perfect? So neither is the Bible.

Now once again, yes, humans are not perfect–certainly not as God is perfect. And yet that isn’t the end of it. You see, we are meant to be perfected in redemption, just as we were meant to be perfected in the Garden. Just as there is an eschatological dimension to our salvation now, there was one then; God had the goal of bringing his “good” creation to a point of perfection. One thing we always forget about the glory of salvation is that one day we will be made like Christ, the perfectly glorified human one, without becoming the Creator. We will be a perfectly redeemed creation. What I’m trying to say is that simply pointing out that the Bible isn’t God, doesn’t mean it can’t be perfect. It means it can’t be perfect in the way God is, but it doesn’t rule out a derivative, analogical sort of perfection–perfect for the sort of thing that it is. Eventually we will be perfect for the sorts of non-divine things we are. It seems at least possible then, for something created, like the Bible, to be perfect in it’s own particular way.

Intermediaries and Incarnation

I’ll be briefer here because this point follows after the others, but Hunt makes something of the Bible coming by way of intermediaries. Just as God used dirt to make humans and so we came out a bit dirty (not in that sense), God used dirty humans to get his message across and they wrote a “dirty”  Bible. It’s good enough, but since it is the work of a human intermediary we shouldn’t expect perfection.

Now, to my mind, it seems relevant that we believe in a Gospel that has the Incarnation right at its center. The Divine Son, takes up humanity in order to perfectly say and do what God says and does in a human way. To put it another way, the man Jesus Christ’s saying and doing is simply God saying and doing as a human. Humanity made in the Image of God, set free from sin, is apparently a fit vehicle for the perfect-but-veiled revelation of God himself in Jesus. I’ll be the first to throw up a big caution before collapsing the Creator/creature distinction, but working from the Incarnation, as unique and unrepeatable as it is, we seem to be presented with the truth that a thing’s non-divinity does not disqualify it as medium of perfect, if limited, revelation.

Now, to be sure, “perfect” does not mean “complete” or “full without remainder.” In that sense, yes, we see “through a glass darkly.” This side of the eschaton we do not know all things, nor do we know them as God does; we should not expect to. We can trust that God has perfectly told us those things we need to know now in order to know God fully then. Incidentally, to use that verse as an argument for the errancy of Scripture is as persuasive exegetically as cessationists’ appeal to it as evidence that the gifts ended when we got the Bible–which is to say, not very much at all because those verses aren’t talking about the Bible.

Again, this isn’t a full response, nor was it intended to be. I’m sure I haven’t convinced anybody as to the inerrancy, non-inerrancy, or infalliblity of the Bible. There are probably 20 different issues I could have brought up that play a role in our understanding of Scripture. I simply wanted to make a few clarifying points with respect to Divine authorship, redemption, and Incarnation that might shed some light on the possibility of the Bible’s “perfection.”

Soli Deo Gloria

31 thoughts on “Perfection And Incarnation (Or, Some Thoughts on Zack Hunt’s Imperfect Bible)

  1. Derek,

    I know this might sound odd, but I genuinely appreciate your response. Not least of all because it was fair, level headed, and addressed the issue at hand rather just branding me a heretic. Even though we don’t agree, it’s refreshing to have rational dialogue for once with strangers on the internet. Seriously, it’s a breath of fresh air that I am very grateful for.

    Grace and peace.

    • Zack,

      Oh, well, that’s lovely to read. Yeah, I’ve been called a heretic straight-up a few times and I’ve never had that have a significant effect in my thinking, or made me love Jesus any better. In any case, I’m glad you found this rational. Sadly, not all my interlocutors do. But hey, that’s the internet. :)

      In Christ,

      Derek

    • Zack -
      i know what you mean about rational dialogue, especially between those who disagree with each other, on the internet = rare find!
      One thing i find difficult, however is the way you wield the heretic label you say has been put on you by others. I don’t know if this is your intent, but it can come across like someone who would sleep with another man’s wife and then distain the title “adulterer”, and say things to others like, “thanks for not calling me an adulterer like those other mean people do.” See the problem?
      Whether you are a heretic or not, i don’t know: i don’t know you personally, nor do i know your beliefs. Yet, reading your article, you make a clear attack against biblical inerrancy and it beggars belief to imagine doing that and not expecting that response/label. No, maybe the term “inerrancy” wasn;t used before old Princeton, but you have to seriously interact with the concept that it was simply understood as a given before that; probably not by everyone, no but by the large majority at least. Ask yourself, would Calvin have shared your view of Scripture, or Luther? How about Anselm? Augustine? the apostles? Jesus? the prophets? etc. etc. etc. If not, then you must logically concede that you are holding a position that is contrary not only to what many hold as Scripture’s testimony about itself, but also historic, orthodox tradition as well.
      Again, i’m not saying you are or aren’t a heretic and, assuredly, that term is chucked around far too much and w/o a clear understanding of its meaning even. But you must examine your position in light of Christian tradition and honestly assess where you land in regard to it.
      God’s peace -
      – the Ox.

  2. I will have to go over and read the article for myself but what i find initially most troubling from the paragraph you quoted is the way it seems hunt just lumps Gen. 2:7′s account of God breathing life into Adam (many would say animating the body with the creation of a soul) with God breathing out the Scriptures in 2 Tim.3.
    First off, it might be helpful to note that just b/c both passages use the words “God” and “breathed” does not mean they are automatically talking about the same thing.
    Secondly, and more to the point i think, i would want to push Hunt on the point that, just as God breaths into Adam an indestructible soul that can never die into his mortal flesh, so God breaths His indestructible words into mortal men (the apostles). The sum of it is what Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:7, viz. absolutely the vessel that God places His treasure in is imperfect, but the treasure He places there is by no means imperfect in any way. In fact, Paul tells us that the weakness of the vessel is purposeful in that is shows forth the surpassing power of God in placing it there.

  3. *sigh* i KNEW i should not go to the link you posted to the article. I made a deal with myself a long time ago that blogs like redletterchritsians.com is a BAD place for me to go as it stirs up extremely negative/critical responses in my heart and i knew it would be better for all if i just didn;t go there anymore.
    I am honestly AMAZED at your restraint in responding to that bollocks. I could learn much from you my friend in how to step away, take a few deep breaths, and then intelligently interact with someone who, by poor reasoning, logic, and exegesis is feebly trying to explain away the inerrancy of the bible. Not there yet. Not by a long shot.

    • My reply got deleted. Basically, I think I just prayed and tried to respond the way I hope people will respond to me. Honestly, God doesn’t need me to defend his word. I just felt like it was a good piece to write. And, again, I’m so happy with Zack’s response. Charitable disagreement is almost as good as just agreement.

      • Good words. I continue to seek this kind of tempered, charitable response; even when deeply provoked. Spirit has His own ways to work in me like all of us.
        Where i struggle with the idea of defending God’s word is some of Paul’s directives to Timothy and Titus about false teachers as well as Jude’s word to contend for the faith. Truly, God does not need us to defend Him or His word, and i don;t think we need to go looking for fights either; but i also think there is still a place today for intelligent, winsome polemic that has the glory of God and His truth as our goal both for the instruction of those in clear error and also for the benefit of those who are hearing them. Maybe i’m wrong about that.

  4. Derek,
    I think you should delete my comment and block all further comments after yours and Zack’s: a way to enshrine reasonable, serious, and caring disagreement, in a comment section no less. Beautiful.

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  6. I was 30 when I became a Christian, mentored by a fundamentalist. For a long time, I believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, without quite understanding what it meant. As best as I understood it, there were no errors in Scripture; it was literal, historic, scientific truth. With a demanding career, then two children, career, homeschooling, a farm, all those things many fundamentalist Christians do, deep examination of my belief was not the priority it could/should have been. Now that my children have followed their own paths, I’ve had more time to read and reflect.

    I am a scientist. There was a cognitive dissonance in my belief. When the human genome project came about, I couldn’t reject evolution any longer. It was difficult for me, but I let go of inerrancy and let myself believe what I knew to be true. The Bible is not perfectly correct in matters of science. There are difficult contradictions in it. I allowed myself to think it was not a science or strict history book. I still believe, however, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”.

    I wondered if this would be a slippery slope (I hate that phrase – it connotes not wisdom but fear), but it hasn’t been. In the end, I do not see it as a point to draw a firm line at. We are all children of God. We are the body of Christ. We work together to bring about His will for the earth. I like Philip Yancey’s position: we need all groups in the church to make it work.

    • Hi Susan. I’m not being cheeky, but I am always interested in interacting with folks who hold your type of viewpoint. I wonder if you would justify your knowledge claims in science? Let me state it this way:

      You state the genome project convinced you of evolution, and persuaded you to reject inerrancy – how do you know that the scientific method is a valid means of obtaining true knowledge of a genome, or of anything else? I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, so I’ll spell it out, and you can point me to where I’m off base.

      If you say that your senses, memory, and reasoning reveal to you consistent, testable results from the scientific method, I would ask you to justify your senses, memory, and reasoning without first appealing to a consistent, logical revelation from the inerrant, infallible God.

      If you appeal to a revelation from God, where is it? How do you know He has revealed something to you that is trustworthy?

      If you appeal to something else besides the revelation of God, I would challenge you to recognize the infinite regress and therefore fallacious reasoning of appealing to reason as a final arbiter of truth.

      I sympathize with the experience you had with fundamentalism and its vapid assertions of truth and reality. I challenge you to allow the possibility that the fundamentalist may have the truth on biblical inerrancy while arriving at it through a “fortunate accident” of God’s grace.

      Thanks for thinking with me,

      -Justin

      • Justin, I am a physician who was a (peer-review journal) published molecular biologist before that. I’ve got the creds to evaluate the scientific method as well as the science. The scientific method allows one to independently confirm (or disprove) the work of another. If it is confirmed without exception, it is accepted as confirmed, and likely true, subject to future discoveries that may refine our understanding of the matter.

        “If you appeal to something else besides the revelation of God, I would challenge you to recognize the infinite regress and therefore fallacious reasoning of appealing to reason as a final arbiter of truth.”

        Do you believe that your reason has nothing to do with the way you interpret Scripture? Why is some of it interpreted so differently by so many scholars? Who is the final arbiter of truth then?

        Reason is the way we experience both the world and the word of God. Obedience is different than reason.

    • Susan,

      I just want to quickly respond and say thank you for sharing. I deeply sympathize and appreciate your arguments here. I would also say that you should know that there are a number of theologians and pastors who hold to both inerrancy AND evolution. A number of them because of studies of genre, context, and theological conviction, think that the first chapter or two of Genesis are not actually to be read in the way that they are typically presented in “fundamentalist” readings. I would commend to you and an article over at biologos.com by Tim Keller than might help you on that subject. I’ve personally found John Walton’s the Lost World of Genesis 1 to be a helpful little book as well.

      Best,

      Derek

      • Derek,
        Thanks for the kind words. I do follow Biologos. I like Francis Collins and Tim Keller, and am reading Peter Enn’s books, have Denis Lamareaux on my list, and have two books dealing with the theories of Rene Girard. So you can see, I have a lot of reading to do.

        There are discrepancies in books other than Genesis, though. My position at the moment is that the Bible, while the inspired word of God, is not perfectly without error, be they minor, as in transcription, deletion, or addition, or somewhat greater.

      • Thanks for replying, Susan. I would want to just focus in on a part of our exchange, if you don’t mind. You said:

        The scientific method allows one to independently confirm (or disprove) the work of another. If it is confirmed without exception, it is accepted as confirmed, and likely true, subject to future discoveries that may refine our understanding of the matter.

        I also have a science background, albeit nowhere close to yours – you are by far my superior in the field (although genetics was my favorite study in college).

        Yet it is not the workings of the scientific method or professional consensus that I was critiquing. Let me show you the relevant question from my first reply:

        If you say that your senses, memory, and reasoning reveal to you consistent, testable results from the scientific method, I would ask you to justify your senses, memory, and reasoning without first appealing to a consistent, logical revelation from the inerrant, infallible God.

        That is the issue at hand when people make knowledge claims. You appeal to the veracity of consensus within the scientific community as a means of discovering truth, right? “accepted as confirmed, and likely true…” as you said.

        I am asking if you can justify the use of senses, memory, and reasoning in the scientific method? How do you know that these are reliable functions? In other words, I assert that science cannot validate the truthfulness of the results of science. Reasoning cannot prove the veracity of reasoning.

        Not to be too longwinded, you said “Reason is the way we experience both the world and the word of God.” I am asking you to justify that claim without appealing to the veracity of reason – how do you claim knowledge of the Bible and of science without getting locked into vicious circular knowledge?

      • Justin,

        I’m not sure exactly what your asking, so please forgive me if I’m not answering your question. My best answer is that reasoning is part of what makes us in the image and likeness of God. One individual’s senses, memory and reasoning can all be called into question, either or all can be flawed in any individual. But the likelihood of multiple persons doing the same experiment and getting the same results eliminates false or erroneous results. For example, a Pediatrician in the UK did studies that raised serious questions of the safety of vaccines, particularly the MMR, linking it with autism (popular news story so perhaps you’re familiar with it.) Big brouhaha. After many years, no one was able to confirm his results; in fact everyone else doing the same studies found no correlation whatsoever. Looking for the why of it, they dug into the doc’s personal life and found that he had, in essence, been paid to publish false results, and going back step by step, they followed every aspect of his study and found where he had lied/falsified results from his own records. That was an easy one. Many are much harder. But if the pooled resources of mostly intelligent, mostly sane and mostly honest individuals find one answer repeatedly, most likely it is true. Science is easy. Faith is hard. Faith requires belief in things unseen. Blessed is he who has not seen yet still believes.

        It’s kind of like asking me to prove that when I see a color I identify as yellow, and you identify as yellow, how do we know we are both perceiving the exact same color? I can’t prove that. But we have both learned to identify the color we do see as yellow, and we can continue on from there. Hope that helps.

      • Very well. I’m sorry for my loquacious ways, but I was attempting to root out a potential inconsistency so to challenge (as a brother) your conclusions about the errors in the Bible.

        Let me put it this way: the Christian worldview presupposes God, and the Bible is His speech to humankind. Romans 1 tells us that everyone knows God – there are no excuses for unbelief. From that position of certain knowledge that comes from an infallible, inerrant God, the Christian worldview takes shape.

        And the crown jewel of our worldview is consistency. If God is by nature logical, and He is (God cannot make a rock too big to lift because that is illogical, just as He cannot make a square triangle, not because of a lack of power or wisdom, but because such would be against His perfect nature), and if He is all-powerful, and He is – then is not an all-powerful, perfectly logical, all-wise God able to reveal knowledge to His creatures in such a way that the information is accurate, consistent, and without error?

        Of course He is.

        Therefore the choices are A) the Bible is God’s Word, and so by nature perfect, or B) the Bible is not God’s Word, and has error, or C) God allowed the Bible to be composed as partially correct, as if it is His Word, yet it is not completely so because of its inconsistencies, errors, and false claims.

        In A), we are being consistent with what we already know about God by virtue of His general revelation in nature and in us – and then further what is revealed about Him in Scripture.

        In B), one must step directly into irrationality and autonomous reasoning to conclude such.

        In C), we are taking a different view of Scripture than what comports with who God says He is, and a different view of Scripture than what Jesus took. This is inconsistent, and incorrect. At worst, it surely does lead to all kinds of darkness (Bart Ehrman et al).

        My point in asking you to justify knowledge claims was to demonstrate that you and I use reasoning which is given by God, and subject to His laws of nature, such as truth=consistency. Our use of reasoning, senses, and memory to discover truth is also a discovery of God’s consistency as Creator and Sovereign. To conclude that the heart of His self-revelation (Scripture) is fundamentally flawed in its recounting of historical narrative or otherwise is to attempt a square triangle.

        I’ll shut-up now. I hate to come off as lecturing you or Derek here – I know you are smart folks. I just hope that if this is a blind-spot in your worldview, that my attempt to speak a word of exhortation is in some way helpful.

        -Justin

    • Yeah, I have to read more to understand Barth’s view, but insofar as I do–Scripture becomes the Word of God when he uses it, etc.–I think he problematically conflates inspiration with illumination. By placing too high an emphasis on God’s freedom, he doesn’t allow for God to sovereignly say “This is my text that I have spoken. This is my covenant that I bind myself to in my freedom.”

      I mean, that’s a nuthshell, inadequate response to a nutshell inadequate portrait of Barth’s view.

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