“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
“Since its inception in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention has always had one mission—the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Southern Baptist Convention Web site
“That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
John 17:21 (NIV)
Southern Baptists are “a people of the Book.” The heartbeat of Southern Baptists is the Great Commission. That which enables Southern Baptists to carry out their missions mandate together is the Cooperative Program. Let's think together about how these three characteristic markers of Southern Baptist identity can be renewed.
Southern Baptists have historically viewed Scripture as a special form of revelation, a unique mode of divine disclosure. For some it might seem redundant in a volume like this one to define a Baptist doctrine of Scripture, for the Bible has been at the heart of, the very formative principle of Southern Baptist life for more than 160 years. Yet, the doctrine of Scripture is in many ways the hallmark of faithful Southern Baptist identity. Without question, this commitment to Scripture has shaped the Southern Baptist tradition; thus the popular description of Baptists as “a people of the Book.”
Yet, some Convention leaders have questioned whether a new generation of Southern Baptists can maintain such traditional commitments. The question might be raised: Why a presentation on this subject in a book like this? The obvious answer has to do with the fact that the doctrine of Scripture has been so central in the history of Baptist life and so crucial to the denominational conflict over the past 30 years. But a better answer would be: so that truth may be proclaimed and passed on to the next generation. No new consensus can be forged other than one built on the foundation of a commitment to a totally truthful Bible. And why do we need to do this? Hasn't this issue already been decided? Isn't the “Battle for the Bible” settled? Well, yes…and no.
We now find ourselves at a defining moment in Southern Baptist life. Contemporary culture in the twenty-first century is being overtaken and submerged by a new spirit, often described as postmodernism. Postmodernism began as a self-conscious reaction against the modernism of the Enlightenment, and especially against its unbounded confidence in reason, science, and progress. The postmodern mind rightly rejects this na?ve optimism. But it then goes further and questions the very validity of objective truth; suggesting that all so-called “truth” is purely subjective, being culturally conditioned; and therefore we all have our own truth, which has as much right to be respected as anybody else's.
Scriptural authority has been challenged throughout the history of the church, and particularly since the rise of the Enlightenment. Fresh challenges, shaped by postmodern thinkers, in their postliberal and postconservative forms, now abound. Current struggles in Baptist circles are not dissimilar to parallel debates taking place in Christianity at large. Such ongoing controversies demonstrate the crisis of biblical authority. In various branches of Christianity, questions dealing with wide-ranging issues such as abortion, homosexuality, “goddess” theology, inclusive language for God, and the debates surrounding “open theism” point ultimately to issues of biblical authority and interpretation.
Today the mainline denominations are characterized by liberal experientialists who make human moral experience the primary basis for the church's message and theological understanding. On the other hand, fundamentalists have tended to equate cultural norms and forms of philosophical rationalism with the truth of Scripture. I believe that a renewed Southern Baptist life must avoid both extremes in offering an understanding of the inspiration, interpretation, and authority of Scripture. Such a position unapologetically affirms the complete truthfulness and absolute authority of God's Word. General agreement now exists in Southern Baptist circles regarding this affirmation, at least at the national level of leadership and involvement. Yet, the current questions have raised anew the relationship of the divine and human aspects of Scripture, the understanding of truth, the place of the reader or community in interpretation, and the meaning of authority. What must be reaffirmed in our Convention is an understanding of Scripture that equally affirms the unity of Word and Spirit in line with the great heritage of the church. Likewise we need to stress the divine and human aspects of Holy Scripture, while affirming that the Bible is the Word of God written, in which we find God's Word to His people for all times.
The criticism of traditional Southern Baptist views of the Bible by progressives includes underlying rationalistic presuppositions, an overemphasis on propositionalism, and forced harmonizations. They contend that the traditionalist Baptist view of Scripture over the years has become more rationalistic in its attempt to respond to modern and Enlightenment concerns. Progressives often convey the impression that this analysis comes from a philosophically neutral basis. It seems to me, however, that the criticism, though valid to some extent, is influenced more by the existentialist and postmodern philosophical presuppositions than the progressives are often willing to admit, presuppositions going beyond Karl Barth and Neoorthodoxy.
As Millard Erickson argues:
There is another dimension to this matter of philosophical presuppositions. The effect of the argument [from the evangelical left] is a two-edged sword, however, for, if applied to their view, it would have similar effects. They must be prepared to argue that either their view does not suffer from this type of historical conditioning or that the historical setting that has contributed the presuppositions with which they are working is somehow preferable to that from which the competing theology issued.
D. A. Carson has observed that many progressives reject the importance given to “propositionalism” in a traditional approach to Scripture. Yet, Carson claims that the progressives do not fairly assess the traditional affirmation of the Bible's truthfulness, which has been characteristic of believers throughout church history until the modern and postmodern periods. Nor do they seem to recognize that traditionalists want to uphold the propositional truthfulness of Scripture where propositions are offered us, while still recognizing other dimensions of truth. The Bible's appeal to truth, says Carson, “is rich and complex. It cannot be reduced to, but certainly includes propositional truth.” Erickson similarly observes that the approach to harmonizing some apparent discrepancies in Scripture used by Harold Lindsell, which was seemingly framed entirely in terms of rational presuppositions and modern views of historiography, is a “faulty evangelical methodology.”
Obviously the positions put forward by some traditionalists on one side and by the various voices of progressives on the other help us see the need to beware of our own blinders. We are often victims of our own approaches, presuppositions, and traditions. While we can pinpoint strengths and insights found in both the traditional and the newer progressive approaches, we need to be aware of blinders narrowing our own vision from things that those outside our tradition can see.
While taking seriously these observations, nuances, and warnings, it would be a grievous thing indeed if twenty-first century Southern Baptists were to go the way of most mainline denominations in their view of the Bible. The efforts of the postconservatives (and the postliberals moving from the other direction) to bridge the gap between the liberals and conservatives may involve trying to combine two fundamentally opposed systems and methodologies. While inerrancy itself is never a single issue, it does represent something far larger in scope as well as significance. The foundational issue is, and ever will be, the nature of truth, the understanding of divine revelation.
Rather than choosing to focus entirely on either the theological center as proposed by postconservatives or on the circumference, I believe Southern Baptists must balance both the material principle of the Gospel and the formal principle of inspired Scripture. As R. Albert Mohler Jr., has recognized, “The material and formal principles constitute not only a center, but rightly understood they also establish boundaries.” Though I have elsewhere argued against an ad hoc “domino theory” in defending a traditional doctrine of Scripture, we must recognize that views of Scripture held by progressives have also influenced their doctrines of God and salvation. This shift indicates that we cannot focus on the center alone and ignore the circumference, for one influences the other. Some progressives have gone so far as to suggest that a whole generation is ready to declare obsolete the doctrines of biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, forensic justification, imputed righteousness, the exclusivity of the Gospel, the doctrine of hell, and the classic doctrine of God. Such conclusions underscore Millard Erickson's contention that there surely comes some point where the line has been crossed and at least a hybrid orthodoxy has developed. D. A. Carson likewise suggests that there comes a time to “draw lines” even when “drawing lines is rude.” He offers four reasons why this must be done:
Granted that the center takes priority over the circumference, that the material principle rather than the formal principle is at the heart of Southern Baptist theology, it is nevertheless, impossible to define or even describe orthodoxy apart from a fullorbed doctrine of Scripture. That is because the formal principle, often summarized in the phrase sola scriptura affirms that only those beliefs and practices that rest firmly on scriptural foundations can be regarded as binding on Christians. Southern Baptist theology and spirituality rest on Scripture as the central legitimating source of Christian faith and theology, the clearest window through which the face of Christ may be seen. We must recognize that to allow one's ideas and values to become controlled by anything or anyone other than the self-revelation of God in Holy Scripture is to adopt an ideology rather than a theology. Defining the circumference is necessary, but we should not expect or demand uniformity.
The challenge for Southern Baptists in the twenty-first century is to develop a doctrine of Scripture that is not enslaved to rationalism and not denatured by an alien postmodernism. There is a need to emphasize the center and articulate a theology with a recognizable circumference that does not expect or demand doctrinal uniformity on secondary or tertiary matters. With these guidelines in mind, let us now seek to articulate a theological foundation, which helps us chart a path toward consensus and renewal.
Scripture's purpose is to place men and women in a right relationship with God and to enable believers to seek God's glory in all of life's activities. Scripture, however, is not just concerned with a person's spiritual needs, but also with humanity's nature, history, origin, and destination, their past and future. Thus the Bible teaches us to understand all of life sub specie Dei. The Bible is not only a book of conversion but also a book of creation and redemptive history, and it is this perspective that best represents and defines the divine character of Scripture.
Central to Scripture is the unifying history of God's redeeming words and acts, of which the life and work of Jesus Christ serve as the ultimate focus. Yet, there are three linked levels at which God acts. The first is the public stage of history, which included a series of redemptive events including prophetic predictions and explanations at various stages along the way. These acts and words emerged at a second level in written public records. These records included narrative, celebration, apocalyptic, letters, wisdom sayings, and historical explanation, all of which communicated God's ongoing work of grace. The third level is the human response and understanding of God's work as the Holy Spirit illuminates human hearts and minds to interpret the sacred writings.
Jesus Christ binds and unites together everything in Scripture: beginning and end, creation and redemption, humanity, the fall, history, and the future as well. If this overriding unity is neglected, Scripture can become denatured, losing its theological-Christological definition and becoming abstracted from the peculiar nature and content of Scripture.
We must acknowledge that the approach of self-attestation is sometimes rejected on the grounds of circular reasoning. The dilemma involved in such an approach is obvious, however. Either the Bible has its starting point upon itself or upon some other foundation, which would be most inconsistent. Certainly there exists a place for additional testimony, but we maintain that Scripture's own claim must be given prior consideration. The argument for the indissoluble relation between ultimate Christ and penultimate Scripture is, of course, circular, but it is a salvific circle, a very viable circle, and certainly not a vicious circle. As with all points of theology, a consistent method would call for a theological statement in Scripture about itself to be considered prior to an examination of the phenomena in Scripture. Yet, as the apostles and the prophets before them continually affirmed, events took place “according to the Scriptures.” The fulfillment of prophecy is the witness and verification that distinguishes the Bible from all other “holy books” and religious traditions.
The Bible affirms its own inspiration. The term “inspiration” (theopneustos) has a long heritage in the theological literature, but it is always used with further disclaimers and explanations. The biblical idea of inspiration, as used in 2 Timothy 3:16, should not be associated with illumination or human genius. Neither does it mean “a breathing into.” The New Testament emphasis is that “God breathed out” what the biblical writers convey in their writings. The apostolic emphasis focuses on the divine initiative and divine source of Scripture, emphasizing that God gave messages with cognitive meaning, not just emotional experience. Recognizing that all canonical Scripture is inspired, meaning all Scripture finds its source and initiative in God, we must address one of the key questions of our day: “How can an inspired Bible be written by human authors?”
To confess “all scripture is inspired” primarily points to the product of inspiration rather than the process. What is asserted is the activity of God throughout the entire process, so that the completed, final product ultimately comes from the Spirit of God. The biblical concept of inspiration must be understood in broader terms than merely the time when the Spirit of God moved the human author to write.
Inspiration allows for the Spirit's activity without demanding that we understand all of the Spirit's working in the same way at all times and places. Our understanding of inspiration includes viewing God's Spirit revealing specific messages to the prophets (Jer 1:1-9), guiding authors in research (Luke 1:1-4), prompting the poets' creativity (Psalms/Proverbs), and adopting or adapting tradition or extracanonical material (2 Pet 2). We can summarize the variety and inclusiveness of inspiration by saying that it encompasses the collection of information from witnesses, the use of written sources, the writing up and editing of such information, the composition of spontaneous letters, the committing to writing of prophetic messages, the collecting of the various documents together, and so on. At the same time, however, on the divine level we can assert that the Spirit, who moved on the face of the waters of creation (Gen 1:2), was active in the whole process, so that the Bible can be regarded as both the words of men and the Word of God.
There is a parallel in Scripture with the incarnation of Christ, who in His one person was both God and man, so Scripture is both divine and human. Just as Christ's divinity does not abrogate Christ's human nature, so the divine authorship of Scripture does not abolish its human authorship. It is simply not the case that traditional Southern Baptists deny the presence of a human element in Scripture, as some critics persist in maintaining. We rejoice in the presence of a human element in Scripture as we gladly affirm the human nature of Christ, and we heartily confess that God has revealed Himself in and through humanity in both these manners. Inspiration is certainly not to be understood as dictation, for that would fall into the error of docetism. Scripture then cannot be understood correctly unless we take into consideration that it has a dual-sided authorship. It is not enough to affirm that the Bible is a human witness to divine revelation, for that would fall into the ebionite trap. We must affirm that the Bible is also God's witness to Himself. An affirmation that the Bible is partly the Word of God and partly the words of humans is also inadequate. What must be maintained is a confession that the Bible is entirely and completely the Word of God as well as the words of human authors (see Acts 4:25).
People who take seriously not only the divine aspect of Scripture but also the human factors have used the term concursive inspirationto describe the activity of the Spirit with those of the human authors. This approach readily affirms a plenary view of inspiration and yet takes seriously the circumstances of the human authors.
The tension produced by simultaneously asserting both aspects (divine/human) of Scripture can be best explained, or at least informed, by the spiritual characteristics of the biblical writers. These men of God had known God, learned from Him, and walked with Him for many years in their spiritual formation and pilgrimage. Through their unique backgrounds and experiences, God had prepared the biblical authors (and editors) for the sacred task of inscripturating the Word of God. Through their familial, educational, cultural, and social backgrounds God was preparing the writers, and even shaping their unique vocabularies, to pen Holy Scripture. Beyond these observations, further explanations regarding the “how” of inspiration result in speculation.
Progressives often object that traditionalists have a “flat view” of inspiration. Yet, I believe it is best to think that the manner of inspiration differs from genre to genre and from author to author as we see by observing Luke's Gospel, the Proverbs, the Pauline Epistles, the Apocalypse, and the Ten Commandments, among others. The nature of inspiration is, however, the same throughout, even though some portions of Scripture may be more easily recognized as inspired Scripture. Yet, this distinction is due in part to the subject matter. The theological emphases of Romans or Ephesians differ from the historical accounts in Kings or Chronicles. The inspiration in such historical passages assumes the general characteristic of reliability that is brought to these records. Even though the manner of inspiration differs and may be less recognizable to the reader in some places, all canonical Scripture nevertheless can be wholeheartedly characterized as inspired (pasa graphe theopneustos).
History must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectation in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in the biblical writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it.
We must never forget that the biblical writers adopted the linguistic resources available to them as they wrote to specific people with particular needs at particular times. An affirmation of the Bible's plenary inspiration does not neglect the human, the historical, nor the cultural elements in the writings. The human authors were not lifted out of their culture or removed from their contexts. The writers were functioning members, and most likely significant leaders, in the early communities of faith. Thus neither the writers nor the writings should be seen as autonomous, abstract, or atemporal.
The biblical authors were people aware of God's presence and seeking God's leadership for the issues of their times. Obviously, the writers were not unbiased historical observers but were people of faith. Whether or not they were fully aware that they were writing inspired Scripture, they did evidence an active God consciousness. Thus the concursive action of Spirit and human authorship is shaped and informed by the writers' spirituality. The resulting canonical shape of the writings helps us understand that they are much more than mere ancient documents. Therefore, they have an ongoing meaning and authority for contemporary believing communities far surpassing anything imagined by the initial penmen.
We recognize the variety and diversity within the canonical witness. The Holy Spirit is the one who, in a mystery for which the incarnation provides the only analogy, causes the verbal human witness to coincide with God's witness to Himself. The Bible as a divine-human book is indeed a special book, but that means it must be treated both equal to and yet more than an ordinary book, not less than an ordinary book. To deny that the Bible should be studied through the use of literary and critical methodologies seems to treat the Bible as less than human, less than historical, and less than literature.
Viewing the Bible from the standpoint of concursive inspiration affirms the Bible as a literary work that is both human and historical and yet simultaneously the very Word of God. Having concluded that the Bible is a divine-human book, we affirm that inspiration applies to all of canonical Scripture (including the process, purpose, and ultimately the product) and assert that by the concursive action of God, the Scriptures are, in their entirety, both the work of the Spirit and the work of human authors. Such a view of plenary inspiration is not only plausible, but necessarily important for a consistent affirmation of truth. This approach alone does justice to the theological teachings and the human aspects of the biblical text.