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A Developing Doctrine of Scripture: Inerrancy vs. Infallibility vs. ??? (Pt 2)

The views on Scripture I expressed in my last post leave me firmly out of the inerrantist camp, according to most, at least. I would not feel comfortable signing a statement of faith claiming the Bible’s inerrancy, in general, though I honestly might approach the question differently if it were to attend a school rather than to teach at a school or lead a ministry. I distinguish between these because I think the word inerrancy is completely vague and means different things to different people. It shouldn’t actually mean anything different than “infallibility” but these words have come to distinguish different positions to many. Some people use inerrancy just as a code word for “I’m an evangelical” and might actually accept that some can legitimately believe in the position often associated with “infallibility,” which doesn’t require the Bible report accurately on every scientific or historical detail.

In my mind, if a school I was thinking about attending (for ex, Wheaton) didn’t make it clear precisely what they meant and whether or not my view was acceptable to them, that’s their omission and not really my responsibility. (If I went to a school that used the word “inerrancy” it would probably be for something other than biblical studies or theology anyway, which to me reinforces my sense of freedom to do what I want—I don’t find the inerrancy/infallibility issue to be particularly relevant to any other field, even at a school that wishes students to be evangelical Christians.) On the other hand, obviously, many people still use inerrancy to draw strict boundaries between those with a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture and those without, so I feel that if I was being hired for something, I would need to further discuss my views with them, explain exactly in what sense I could agree with the word inerrancy, and I’m guessing most of the time, I would be immediately rejected as a heretic, which is fine with me.

I would easily sign something that says “infallibility,” because that is often code for a position like mine, but, again, in my mind, inerrancy and infallibility are equally vague words that intuitively should mean the same thing. I would prefer to define my position as believing in the inspiration of the Bible and its authority in matters of faith and practice. This seems to me to be a much clearer way of expressing “infallibility,” plus it emphasizes what the Bible is good for, rather than what it’s not (science/nitpicky details of history).

I find it discouraging that only a minority of evangelical institutions and organizations have decided it’s safe to omit the fundamentalist language of inerrancy. It’s sad to me that this is a debate that we’ve been having for nearly one hundred years, and it’s surprising that “inerrancy” would still be the word of choice at somewhat more moderate schools such as Wheaton (which is no Bob Jones University, for sure) or large evangelical organizations like Campus Crusade. I find no reason why strict inerrantists should feel compelled to excluded infallibility folks from the evangelical fold, even if they take a certain position themselves.

I understand that this issue has been historically important in the fundamentalist/liberal debates, but I would have hoped by now that people could observe the many moderate evangelicals that have taken non-inerrantists positions and not fallen down some slippery slope into extreme liberalism. (Of course, why should I be surprised when folks like Wayne Grudem also consider the most conservative egalitarians to be nearing hellfire?) Given these unfortunate circumstances, I feel somewhat more comfortable hanging out in mainline evangelical or post-liberal circles because the post-conservative side of the mainstream evangelical world seems so small—though I ultimately never wish to dissociate from evangelicalism.

At the same time, I ironically experience little life tension related to my position, as most of my friends seem to fall somewhere near here. Of course all of my Fuller professors are in a similar boat, and at my American Baptist church, our small group of 20- and 30- somethings approaches Scripture with reverence, as well as the occasionally joke about the complicated nature of the Bible. Almost all of us come from more conservative backgrounds—some truly fundamentalist—but have since adopted a more moderate position. Despite feeling like a minority within evangelicalism, within my little world, mine is actually virtually the only position around. It’s a strange existence, for sure.

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Apologies & Summer Classes

I have a final tomorrow, so I shouldn’t be blogging right now, but I have done such a poor job keeping up with my goal of several posts a week that I really am starting to feel bad about it.

So, a brief catch-up post, if nothing else. I have been busy with a 5-wk intensive class (Systematic Theology 1: Theology & Anthropology) and a 2-wk intensive class (Christian Ethics in a Pluralistic Society). My 2-wk intensive ends Friday, though I will still have one assignment and a research paper for that class, and a research paper for the other, due Sept. 3. It’s good to be almost done, but I’m a little jealous that Jeremiah will be done tomorrow for the whole summer!

My classes have been fairly interesting, so in lieu of a post in more complete form, here’s a few of the things I’ve been thinking about:

– I read the IVP book Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views hoping it would help me explore my own views of open theism, Calvinism, and the like. It was interesting, but I don’t think I’m much closer to settling anywhere.

– We read a lot of articles for ethics that were written from a Catholic perspective. I feel very certain that their sex-must-be-open-to-life stance is incorrect, but it has been very interesting to read about issues relating to sexuality from this perspective and still somewhat challenging, as I don’t think evangelicals have a very developed theology of sex.

– I was quite frustrated to think about the typical evangelical stances on inerrancy and evolution as we discussed the topics of Scripture & revelation and the doctrine of creation in systematic theology. I’d say we were encouraged to more middle-of-the road positions, so this is no complaint against Fuller, just against the churches and schools I was raised in and the damage done to many people’s faith because of people who (in my view) misunderstand a truly Christian view of these topics. Jeremiah and I had some interesting discussions about how local churches need to better equip their congregants to deal with questions, understand the Bible well, etc. We have a vision for a short (100-150 pg) book that will give an overview of various critical approaches to the Bible for lay people so that they are less frightened and better able to deal with Bart Ehrman, etc. When we actually know what we’re talking about, perhaps we’ll write it…

– This doesn’t have to do with class, but babies are literally everywhere. Every single week this summer I think someone has either had a baby or announced they were pregnant. Also lots of people getting married this summer. I guess this means I’m in my 20s?

– In my ethics class I’ve been really fascinated by this one Catholic’s argument in favor of civil unions–not just for gay people but for everyone, basically. He just thinks the church and state have really different ideas about marriage, something that has made me come to similar conclusions on my own. I’m thinking of making something related to this my research paper topic, though I’m not really certain what the paper will actually focus on. I have a feeling it will be more about church/state/marriage than gay marriage, but we’ll see.

– We just got some new bookshelves from IKEA and have plans to get some more. Our library is now “complete” after we install a fan, but our living room still needs a little help. We’re excited to soon have a “finished product” apartment!

That’s all for now. More to come.

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Liberty vs. Baylor

If you aren’t in the loop on issues in the Christian academic world, you may be interested to learn that earlier this week Ken Starr–yes, the Ken Starr of the Clinton era–was selected as the 14th president of Baylor University. This is interesting on a couple of notes:

1) I’m applying to Baylor–going there for PhD interviews, actually.
2) Many Baylor alums that I’ve seen online and/or know personally have been frustrated with this decision simply because he’s a polarizing figure. Especially because Baylor shows the potential to be a more academic, moderate Baptist university and because Starr isn’t event Baptist.
3) Part of why he was probably chosen is that he’s been great for fundraising during his stint as director of Pepperdine’s law school. Baylor’s trying to grow their endowment from 1-something billion to 2 billion by 2012, and Starr may help… but he also increase the % of more conservative cash coming in, which could threaten Baylor’s integrity as a more moderate evangelical school.

The direction Baylor seems to have taken have scared some alums (on one forum I was reading) to the point of wondering if Baylor could become a new Liberty! Which struck me as going rather too far. Even if Starr makes Baylor a bit more conservative, I find this notion entirely unrealistic, and therefore, even slightly amusing.

So in honor of Liberty University (Lord bless them…), I thought I’d share with you one deliciously appalling piece of their list of their distinctive qualities, for your amusement:

An uncompromising doctrinal statement, based upon an inerrant Bible, a Christian worldview beginning with belief in biblical Creationism, an eschatological belief in the pre-millennial, pre-tribulational coming of Christ for all of His Church, dedication to world evangelization, an absolute repudiation of “political correctness,” a strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.

I hope to goodness there will never be another Liberty–and I definitely don’t think Baylor could ever go that far. ;o)

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Theological Imprecision = Sociological Imprecision

I’m reading a fabulous book by Christian Smith on the religion of emerging adults called Souls in Transition, and I’m really enjoying learning not only how younger emerging adults (18-23) believe today but also how their beliefs have changed since they were teenagers.  (He wrote a book on surveys from the same group a few years ago called Soul Searching.)  As I’m reading, however, I’ve had a few significant questions come up with regards to the way their questions are being asked and interpreted.

First, many of those who identified as nonreligious as teenagers now say they see religion as more important to their life and that they’re attending religious services more.  I’m curious how many of them are thinking of “religion” as actual religion in such questions vs. their non-religious views.  For example, some might have gotten involved in a group for atheists and agnostics at college and might see their identity as someone who isn’t religious as more important than it used to be.  (I know there was such a group at UNC, and I know people who were involved in it.)  Should we then have some way to filter the non-religious doing truly religious things from the non-religious whose non-religion has become more important in their lives?

Secondly, the questions about both Jesus and heaven seem very imprecise in their wording.  I realize most young adults aren’t theologians and that overly theological language could be confusion; however, I’m not sure if the questions, how they are asked, paint an accurate picture of emerging adults’ beliefs.

For example, they are asked if Jesus was “the son of God who was raised from the dead,” “an imporant human teacher but not the son of God,” or nonexistent to begin with.  Those who said Jesus was the son of God are then assumed to believe Jesus was divine.  This is a non sequitur, as many who would called Jesus God’s son would not necessarily say he himself was divine—the Arians of the 4th century, for example.

Similarly, when asked if they believe in heaven and who gets there, it feels assumed that Christians either are more conservative and believe in heaven or are more liberal and they don’t.  There are no questions, however, about the resurrection of the dead or the recreation of all things.  I think it’s probably a small number of emerging adults that would try to distinguish these sorts of beliefs from a belief in heaven, but I do feel the numbers are growing.  I definitely knew many in college who, thanks to InterVarsity staff, began to see a somewhat different picture of life after death.  To assume the options are “all people go to heaven,” “only good people go to heaven,” “only people whose sins are forgiven though faith in Jesus Christ go to heaven” or “there is no heaven,” are the only options is like asking Christians about the end times and only giving the option of a pre-tribulation, mid-trib, or post-trib rapture—when in reality many are postmillenialists, many are amillenialists, etc.  I would probably answer such a question “there is no heaven,” because that’s not the way I explain my beliefs, but if I were interviewed, Christian Smith would have realized that he was probably making some assumptions about me he shouldn’t have.

All this to say, it seems to me that while these questions tell us a lot, if sociological questions are not asked with any theological sensitivity to the actual beliefs out there, we can make some wrong conclusions.  Of course, I’m not a sociologist yet, and I don’t know if it might be important to not offer over-nuanced options as to not confuse respondents or encourage some sort of social desirability effect (if certain theological beliefs are thought be better in some way than others).  So perhaps there is a reason why questions we asked like this.  At the same time, I stand by my original perception that these questions are not precise enough to give us excellent data rather than good-ish data.

Maybe Christian Smith or some other clever person can come set us straight?

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IV at Seminary

For the love of all that is good and holy, I wish I could fall asleep.  This would be really beneficial to me, seeing as I need to leave for class in four hours and will be taking a midterm this afternoon.  I can’t sleep, though, and I sure as hell don’t want to study any more until morning, so I sit here, typing away on my blog and drinking a Mike’s in hopes of making myself drowsy.

Besides my nervousness about my exam (and there is much nervousness, let me tell you), I am kept up by a ridiculous pondering: what would it be like if there were InterVarsity at Fuller?  I’m equally interested in the possibility of a grad chapter at Baylor, but since I don’t even know that I’m in yet, we’ll keep these musings to my current situation.

First, some disclaimers as to why an IV chapter (under the Graduate and Faculty Ministries division, as one of their “Religious and Theological Studies Fellowships [RTSF]”) might not be that great an idea:

* I am likely trying to replicate my amazing undergrad experience—and this is a different time and place with different people.
* The age range at Fuller and the type of student really varies, making it difficult for one fellowship to meet the many needs on campus.
* Fuller’s an evangelical institution, so there’s the question of what such a group would look like to begin with.  IV specifically states that RTSF chapters might be in secular departments of religion, mainline seminaries, or evangelical schools… but it’s an experiment that seems to have never been done.  (Seeing as the only RTSF chapter listed is at Harvard.)  Some would question the need.
* Students are “real” grown-ups now and need to take more responsibility for their own spiritual lives by joining a local church.
* The administration might not look to favorably on the idea, given that chapel, chaplains, etc. are supposed to already be meeting spiritual needs on campus.
* The cohorts of SIS and SOP might make a campus fellowship less important to some of these students vs. SOT students.

But I also can think of a number of reasons why such a fellowship could be a really, really good thing on campus:

* Most students don’t attend chapel.  Denominational chapels may bring in additional students, but when many students aren’t formally affiliated with a denomination either, many are still being left out.
* Chapel isn’t primarily student-led, nor does it create space to form relationships.
* There are few opportunities to get to know students outside of class, especially students of other schools (SOP/SIS/SOT) and levels (MA/MDiv vs. PhD) or ethnic and denominational backgrounds.
* There are many students that wrestle with difficult theological issues at Fuller that might want to wrestle with them in community.  There are also plenty of students dealing with difficult personal issues, I’m sure, but there’s no specific place to go to look for deeper fellowship.
* Ministry leaders often have trouble engaging with others on a more human level and might benefit from a context in which to fellowship with other ministry leaders.
* Having a structure encourages a culture.  That culture could be one of invitation to friendship, encouragement in mission, authenticity about brokenness, and challenge to remain both orthodox and spiritually engaged—things which I believe are harder to cultivate in each individual friend circle on campus.
* The fact is many Fuller students don’t go to church or only are involved in their churches as part of a ministry internship.

Anyway, I’m about to leave Fuller, so I’m not saying I’m about to start a new project.  But I’m interested to know how others (both at and outside of Fuller) see these things.  Is there a place for a campus fellowship at an evangelical seminary, and if so, what is it?  What about at a moderate Christian university like Baylor?

Now that I’ve gotten all of this out of my head, I’m hoping I can get some sleep.  ;o)

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Answering reader questions about orthodoxy

Does orthodoxy exist in stagnation?
Perhaps not, but it also doesn’t exist apart from history.  While we can’t declare without a doubt what someone will call orthodox tomorrow, we can make a pretty good judgment about what’s considered orthodox today, as well as what was “orthodox” in various contexts and at various times throughout the past two thousand years.  If someone has been unorthodox in the Christian mind since unorthodoxy “began,” then it can probably be considered unorthodox from a historic Christian perspective.

Are Protestants orthodox?
Schism can corrupt, preserve, or have nothing to do with orthodoxy, so from breaking off, alone, we know nothing about a group’s commitment to orthodoxy, even as historically understood by the Church.  Even one that thinks Protestants have some wrong theology or that Catholics have some wrong theology can consider one or both groups “orthodox” when it comes to a lot of basic tenets of Christianity.  Clearly, determining orthodoxy is largely subjective–but considering the perspectives of those unlike us (in theology, time, or culture) can help us keep a more balanced approach.  If Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians would all (at most points in history) have considered an individual or group unorthodox, I think it’s pretty hard to make a case that they represent Christianity as understood by Christians throughout the ages.

Who defines orthodoxy?
Individuals.  Groups of people.  Whoever wants to.  What counts?  Nothing really counts as far as defining what’s truly right belief—we don’t create truth by believing it.  As far as how people should label themselves, however, I think that when you go against the historic self-understanding of a group, especially a group as diverse as the Church, you should consider ceasing use of the Christian label.

A complicated way of trying to simplify things (I’m good at that):

Catholics believe A, B, and C.
Protestants believe A, D, and E.
Orthodox believe A, F, and G.

They all claim Christianity.  And we don’t need to know which one of them is “right” right now.

If an individual believes J, K, and maybe even B and G and D but not A, should they use the label “Christian”?  To me, it is just not accurate.  All words have been subjectively assigned to concepts, but if the term you wish to use is already associated with a possibly related but ultimately different concept, why not just choose a new word?  It seems irrelevant who is truly the “most orthodox” when it’s already clear that according to any historic Christian standard, a new group isn’t.  It also becomes irrelevant precisely what Christians before all of the councils and creeds believed—for regardless of how diverse the movement began, there are certain ways in which it defined its borders, borders which have existed now for a long, long time.  Whether or not they are correct borders, they are there.

What about orthopraxy?  And what we can learn from the “unorthodox”?
Caring about orthodoxy need not mean we neglect good deeds, and challenging conversations can still happen as interfaith dialogue.  Sometimes when our beliefs are better defined, I think those conversations can be even more productive.

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One Response to “When Unitarians ‘Come Out'”

A friend of mine asked the following when my post re-posted as a note on Facebook.  Others can chime in with their comments (about these criticisms/issues raised or their own critique of my thoughts), and I will try to address some of them over the next few days.  ;o)

Ashleigh, an excellent reflection. A few questions and thoughts. First, does orthodoxy exist in stagnation? I raise this question because it seems to me that orthodoxy has developed and continues to develop in the tension of multiple conversations. It was a radical concept in the book of Acts that a Christian did not have to be circumcised. It was suppose to become established “orthodoxy” that Christians would obtain from blood in food, but it could be inferred that Paul somewhat differed with this. The development of Christology is dependent on various people and views that were modified, rejected, condemned and accepted. The continual councils of RCC show in my opinion that orthodoxy is constantly being revealed by the Spirit.

My second question becomes, can Protestants be probably called orthodox Christians? I raise this b/c the logic outlined here is the same arguments that Catholics and even some of the Orthodox church used and use to argue the illegitimated of Protestants as Christians. The Reformation was a radical departure from the historic faith of its time. It is not to easy to dismiss this claim when you consider that the Protestant movement has produced probably over 50,000 denominations in our current day, and Providence knows how many throughout history.

Thirdly, for me this raises the question who defines orthodoxy? If one considers the politics of the historic councils, one could easily doubt their doctrines because the principle of Christian love is often wanton from their historical records. If one says the Book, well like any book it is still subject to human interpretation. Finally, I am personal glad we have departed in some areas from the “historic faith”. Otherwise, we are left with the argument that all women ordination are to be condemned. One could argue that we have restored the historic faith by doing this, but that is difficult argument that will lead to stalemate with those who argue the opposite….

By having people who are on the fringe and maybe on unorthodox, often challenges the faith to live up to the faith and reflect on issues that have been ignored. The faith to me can never be defined by doctrine alone but also by orthopraxy and orthopathos.

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