Part 2, The Problem With Liberal Theology

As an atheist I am no longer in the habit of telling Christians what they should believe. I tell them to hammer it out between themselves and come back to inform me of the consensus, since I’ll be waiting in the wings to debunk what’s left over. I agree with the criticisms the social trinitarians offer against the non-social trinitarians, and vice versa. I agree with the Calvinist criticisms of Arminian interpretations of the Bible as well as with the Arminian criticisms of Calvinistic interpretations of the Bible. I agree with the Protestant criticisms of the Catholics as well as the Catholic criticisms of the Protestants. And I also agree with the fundamentalist criticisms of the liberals as well as the liberal criticisms of the fundamentalists. When they criticize each others views I think they’re all right! What’s left is the demise of Christianity as a whole. After they fight out to a draw in each disputed case there is nothing left for me to debunk except their shared common belief in God (a non-trinitarian one) along with their religious experiences as a pointer to God.

When it comes to the liberal/fundamentalist debate, I thought about starting a Blog to let the liberals and fundamentalists fight it out! But then it dawned on me that the liberals would win that debate, at least in my mind (the only mind that counts is what each one of us thinks, correct?). In fact, in my book I use the writings of the liberals to debunk evangelical Christianity much of the time. They simply are on the side of truth. They have better scholars.

Without wanting to do a great amount of research at this time on liberal theology, let me begin by quoting from Wikipedia on it:

Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an individualistic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings. Liberal Christianity is not a belief structure, and as such is not subject to any Church Dogma or creedal statements. Unlike conservative Christianity, it has no unified set of propositional beliefs. The word liberal in liberal Christianity denotes a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture without any preconceived notion of inerrancy of scripture or the correctness of Church Dogma. A liberal Christian, however, may hold certain beliefs in common with traditional, orthodox, or even conservative Christianity.

Liberal Christianity was most influential with mainline Protestant churches in the early 20th century, when proponents believed the changes it would bring would be the future of the Christian church. Despite that optimism, its influence in mainline churches waned in the wake of World War II, as the more moderate alternative of neo-orthodoxy (and later postliberalism) began to supplant the earlier modernism. Other theological movements included political liberation theology, philosophical forms of postmodern Christianity such as Christian existentialism, and conservative movements such as neo-evangelicalism and paleo-orthodoxy.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw a resurgence of non-doctrinal, scholarly work on biblical exegesis and theology, exemplified by figures such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and Douglas Ottati. Their appeal is also primarily to the mainline denominations.

The father of modern liberalism is widely considered to be Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), and Norman Geisler’s description of his theology is good enough for now:

As the father of modern liberalism, he influenced most major liberals after him, among them Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation; Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), What is Christianity?, and Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), who wrote Introduction to the History of Israel in which he defended the J-E-P-D hypothesis of authorship/ redaction of the Pentateuch.

For Schleiermacher, the basis of religion is human experience, rather than divine existence. We must have it before we can utter it. The locus of religion is in the self. The inner is key to the outer. The object of religion is the “All,” which many call “God.” And the nature of religion is found in a feeling (sense) of absolute dependence, which is described as a sense of creaturehood, an awareness that one is dependent on the All, or a sense of existential contingency.

The relation of religion to doctrine is that of a sound to its echo or experience to an expression of that experience. Religion is found in feeling, and doctrine is only a form of the feeling. Religion is the “stuff” and doctrine the structure. Doctrine is not essential to religious experience and is scarcely necessary to expressing it, since it can be expressed in symbol as well.

As to the universality of religion, Schleiermacher believed that all have a religious feeling of dependence on the All. In this sense there are no atheists. In this he foreshadowed Paul Tillich.

Being primarily a feeling, religion is best communicated by personal example. It is better caught than taught. Religion can also be communicated through symbols and doctrines. But doctrines are accounts of religious feeling. They are statements about our feeling, not about God, his attributes, or his nature. So there is an endless variety of religious expression, due largely to personality differences. The pantheistic expression results from those who delight in the obscure. Theists by propensity are those who delight in the definite.

The aim of religion is the love of the All, the World-Spirit. This is achieved through loving other human beings. The result of religion is unity of life. And its influence is manifest in morals. Religion produces a wholeness of life, but it has no specific influence on individual acts. We act with religion, not from it.

Likewise, the influence of religion on science is not direct. One cannot be scientific without piety. For the feeling of dependence on the All removes presumption to knowledge, which is ignorance. The true goal of science cannot be realized without a vision arising from religion.

No wonder fundamentalists attack the liberals for what they are left with...not much. Their attack centers on why liberals even bother with the Bible itself. Why not the Koran, especially since Hector Avalos, a Harvard trained Biblical scholar, has shown that the liberal deconstruction of the Bible has made the Bible irrelevant to modern people. He claims they have made an end to Biblical studies and they did it to themselves. I agree.

Okay so far?

For the next installment on Dr. James McGrath's reasons for being a Christian read this.


Karl Betts said...

This is Geisler's erroneous take on Schleiermacher, not Schleiermacher's:

For Schleiermacher, the basis of religion is human experience, rather than divine existence. We must have it before we can utter it. The locus of religion is in the self. The inner is key to the outer. The object of religion is the “All,” which many call “God.” And the nature of religion is found in a feeling (sense) of absolute dependence, which is described as a sense of creaturehood, an awareness that one is dependent on the All, or a sense of existential contingency.

I studied Schleiermacher and found that the German words for his sense of Gefuhl a "mysterium tremendum" has no meaning unless there is a subject-object relationship that is much more like Rudolf Otto, Martin Buber or Mircea Eliade. As a post-Kantian, Schleiermacher did not feel compelled to prove the existence of the object, but was compelled to focus on the experience of the subject, while maintaining the ontic - noetic distinction between the two.

It is a mistake to quote Geisler's take. Do your homework and use primary source material on Schleiermacher himself, please!

Remember that the case could be made that Kant believed that God existed, but did not muster up the proper sensibilities to describe the meaning of it.
Phenomenologists like Rudolf Otto did much later.

This ontic - noetic distinction is very important and much of what you are saying turns on this!

Beautiful Feet said...

John said, "I tell them to hammer it out between themselves and come back to inform me of the consensus, since I’ll be waiting in the wings to debunk what’s left over."

The thing about faith is that there is grace for diversity and yes, even variation in understanding or misunderstanding. When one sins, they become a candidate for salvation, not condemnation.

I know this frustrates the notion of complete and absolute compliance but it is what it is - it is self-evident. By faith, perfection and power is defined by grace.

If this is cause for frustration and erasure of God, then so be it.

James F. McGrath said...

I wonder to what extent you are specifically interested in Liberal theology in the classic sense. This approach tended to jettison anything that historical criticism or modern science found objectionable, but hang on to other things that seemed unproblematic or were hoped to be beyond scrutiny.

Rudolf Bultmann's approach is rather different, for instance, even though fundamentalists regularly lump him into the liberal category. His approach, called 'demythologization', recognized that the message of Christianity was powerful and life-changing, and yet it was completely and inextricably connected to a pre-scientific worldview that no one could ever hold today. His solution was to find ways of translating the message into the language of existentialism.

I wonder whether your target includes not only theists but also panentheists, not only "Liberals" in the classic sense but anyone who thinks that there is any meaningful sense in which one can be a Christian today.

Anonymous said...

Karl Betts said...Do your homework and use primary source material on Schleiermacher himself, please!

You may correct me on minor points all you want to. In fact, I could learn from you, so keep it coming. But in your corrections please don't fail to miss any important points I might have. Keep in mind I'm not going to spend a great deal of time on this, as I said.

But can you answer me why liberals focus on the Bible? Why the Bible? What reasons are there for finding religious messages in the Bible? What evidence is there that your God speaks through the Bible at all?

Of course, since I don't know what any particular liberal believes, this will be extremely difficult for me. Since a liberal isn't to be identified with any set particular beliefs, he or she could always deny that what I say applies to him. I will not spend the time chasing such people down into foxholes.


Anonymous said...

James McGrathg...His solution was to find ways of translating the message into the language of existentialism.

I know. But what reasons and what evidence can you offer me that says the message is something that should be translated into modern terms in the first place?

Let's say I make up a story about how God did a miracle in the ancient lands of Africa, and it changes lives. But there is no truth to the story. What kind of story is it then? And what kind of people are changed by it?

Concerning Bultmann, John A.T. Robinson said he was wrong on three issues in Honest to God (p. 35): 1) Bultmann is too inclined to make blanket statements (“no modern man can accept...”); 2) He discredits too much of the gospels as historically expendable; and 3) His reliance on Heidegger’s existentialism as a replacement is historically conditioned.

James F. McGrath said...

Presumably the root motivation would be a personal experience of the sacred - a 'born again' experience, a mystical sense of the unity of all things, or something else. Having the sense that the early Christian authors were also talking about that same sort of experience when one surrenders to a higher power, the question then becomes how one can do justice to both that sort of experience and the current state of our knowledge about science, history and other subjects.

As someone who has had that sort of experience, I am not troubled by the fact that my experience is psychological. If it weren't, it wouldn't be an experience, would it? But what I want to maintain is some way of using symbols and metaphors as pointers to what such experiences suggest about the nature of reality itself.

Anonymous said...

James F. McGrath said...As someone who has had that sort of experience, I am not troubled by the fact that my experience is psychological.

I am. What reasons and what evidence do you offer to show me that your psychological experience is veridical? All you probably have is a sense that there is a higher power that pervades the universe and that it's the same one that Muslims, Jews, and pantheists have.

But there are naturalistic explanations for this vestigial experience based in "wish fulfillment." Given the nature of people who claim to have had experiences in general, like UFO's, dreamlike states, alcohol induced hallucinations, and mirages, how do you really know you are having experiences of some reality beyond the "known"? And even if you are, if it is truly an experience beyond the "known," it is also ineffable. So what do you hope to accomplish by trying to communicate it?

Again, why the Bible? Why not the Constitution of America instead? Why not my writngs, for that matter? And what difference does it actually make in your life to believe in a distant God? Such a God like yours is no different than none at all.

When it comes to false superstitious and religious beliefs, Tarico claims “it doesn’t take very many false assumptions to send us on a long goose chase.” To illustrate this she tells us about the mental world of a paranoid schizophrenic. To such a person the perceived persecution by others sounds real. “You can sit, as a psychiatrist, with a diagnostic manual next to you, and think: as bizarre as it sounds, the CIA really is bugging this guy. The arguments are tight, the logic persuasive, the evidence organized into neat files. All that is needed to build such an impressive house of illusion is a clear, well-organized mind and a few false assumptions. Paranoid individuals can be very credible.” (p. 221-22).

This is what Christians do, both liberals and conservatives, and this is why it’s hard to shake their religious faith, in her informed opinion.

James F. McGrath said...

I certainly think that there is some evidence to indicate that there are forms of spirituality that are compatible with healthy brain function. Clearly there are also forms that are connected with mental illness.

What is more fundamental for me is whether it is in any sense meaningful to talk about beauty, love and meaning in the world. I want to find a way to affirm those things. For conservative religionists, religion is about certainty and claiming knowledge about the supernatural. For the Liberals, the existentialists and the panentheists, there is an emphasis on what we don't know and humility, but also a willingness to not assume that there is nothing greater than ourselves.

There is enough mystery about why anything exists at all that I feel it isn't inappropriate to use language, in a symbolic and metaphorical way, to point towards transcendence. That a universe could produce beings that have conversations such as the one we are now having is mysterious and awe-inspiring. When atheists like Steven Weinberg suggest that the universe's intelligibility also makes it seem pointless, I find myself unable to go there, not only intellectually but experientially. Life is so rich and full of meaning and beauty, that I consider it to important to not merely reduce those things to an illusion.

This doesn't mean that there isn't an evolutionary explanation to the perception of the colors we see, the way it is processed in the brain, and so on. But art and music and qualia do not seem to me to be things that can be reduced to physics without doing an injustice to their emergent properties. My key interest is to leave room for such things, and beyond that, to suggest that they do tell us something important about the nature of existence - not intellectually, perhaps, but emotionally and intuitively.

zilch said...

james says:

When atheists like Steven Weinberg suggest that the universe's intelligibility also makes it seem pointless, I find myself unable to go there, not only intellectually but experientially. Life is so rich and full of meaning and beauty, that I consider it to important to not merely reduce those things to an illusion.

But this is not a necessary concommitant of atheism. I too find life rich and full of meaning and beauty. Reducing these things to an illusion, to my mind, means subscribing to some kind of dualism: either atheistic nihilism, which holds that our perceptions are meaningless because they're not made of rocks or grounded in first principles; or religious (for instance Protestant Fundamentalist) supernaturalism, which holds that nothing in this earthly plane is truly meaningful or beautiful except as it reflects the transcendental beauty and meaning of God.

But I find it quite congenial to see how beauty and meaning evolved as extensions of life. Philosophy and theology have made many pretty wordplays, but little progress in understanding, by regarding beauty and meaning as eternal properties of the universe, rather than as parochial evolved entities.

James F. McGrath said...

I'm committed to navigating a middle course between reductionism and supernaturalism. I find the notion of emergent properties very helpful. Not surprisingly, I get criticism from both sides! :)

Karl Betts said...
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Karl Betts said...

John: Given that Schleiermacher's view of God in (what we now understand as) phenomenological language is pivotal for a historical understanding of Liberalism, I hardly count a misinterpretation by Norman Giesler as a "minor" point.

However the upshot of what you are saying is acceptable.

Why the Bible is such a focus? Two reasons come to mind. In the context of Historical Theology, from Harnack to Bultmann to Barth and Brunner (and many others) the question for Christianity is more than just Theism. Even Bishop Spong's popularized take on liberalism includes a discussion from the Bible, even though Spong's theology could almost survive without the Bible.

Secondly, (and probably correlative to the first point) Liberal Christian Theology usually has a Christology in some form or another. Even if Tillich gets around the issue of Christ and deity, he still espouses the Logos from John and from the Alexandrian philosophers. The Logos has very rich possibilities for all humanity, especially atheists. Christology may be the only portal to a healthy modern view of God for many Liberals and allows us to be distinctly Christian, since the writer of the John document makes this identification.

So the Bible is at the very least a corpus of documents that signify an understanding (and certainly not the only one -- maybe ancient Documents from Tibet will reveal better theologies someday!!!) of the story of how we can interact with the Divine.

The Bible introduces us to the Christ (whether he is the Historical Jesus or not) who concretizes the significance of the divine in relation to humanity.

Some, and certainly not all, liberals are attracted to the biblical story, and, historically we credit Barth and Tillich (albeit in their very different ways) for providing a modern, sensible articulation of how the Bible is relevant vis-a-vis a post enlightenment worldview.

If you are asking about revelation -- well -- you don't have time to get into the foxholes, right?

Anonymous said...

"When they criticize each others views I think they’re all right!"

Me too, but from the perspective that God is not any creed, race or religion. Maybe you're right about "Christianity" meeting it's demise, and maybe that's a good thing. I don't think that makes the Bible irrelevant or untrue.

When a word becomes so packed with mixed messages, it may be time to trade it in for a new one....which happens all the time in language.

I've never looked into the definition of "liberal" theology because I don't need a label, but it sounds like it's along the lines of generous orthodoxy, as put forth by Brian McLaren. I fall into that vein, but even then, a word can only go so far to define the underlying reality.

I'm reading your book, John, and so far it's interesting and heartfelt.

Anonymous said...

Karl, I have read Schleiermacher, Strauss, Ritschl, Harnack, Kierkegaard, Coleridge, Maurice, Newman, Bradley, Emerson, Royce, Bultmann, Niebuhr(s), Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Tracy, and many others. I have the original sources. Schleiermacher's book is on my desk, having previously read it. I did a Master's Thesis on Barth's doctrine of the Word of God. As I said, I just don't care to re-read or re-visit what they say in any great detail at all. Quoting Geisler was a copy and paste job for me without having to type anything. I never said he's correct, either.

I will be speaking about revelation later.

Still all you've got is that you stand with a paricular community within a certain tradition, a broadly Christian one. But it's plainly obvious that whole traditions can be wrong, since there are so many of them and they all cannot be right.

I stand within a tradition too, those who have been skeptical of religion. Although, I was not born into this tradition. I accepted it after rejecting religious traditions. And I did so with reasons.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer said...I'm reading your book, John, and so far it's interesting and heartfelt.

I'm glad you're finally reading it, since you have commented here so often. As you can see, it's a personal account of why I left the Christian faith which also includes what I consider to be a powerful set of arguments against it. Let me know what you think as you progress through it. If it persuades you, then you might want to turn to James McGrath's form of Christianity. He could help you as could others, if my book affects what you believe (and I'm not saying it will).

Sandalstraps said...


Thank you for inviting me into this conversation. You and I both know that I can't speask for "liberal Christianity" as a whole both because there is no such thing (it is an artificial category designed to lump together many disparate approaches to the Christian faith) and because I am not a good representative of any theological school that can be considered liberal. That said, as a "liberal" Christian, I can speak for myself, and perhaps what I have to say for myself is also representative of the thinking of others.

I do not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, if by such a phrase one means that God determined the content of the Bible, or that the Bible is uniquely or exclusively revelatory. It is I believe this kind of position that makes you ask why liberal Christians such as myself should bother with the Bible at all.

The assumption behind such a question, I gather, is that for the Bible to be of any value - especially within a faithful community seeking communion with the divine - it must provide one with accurate (and, perhaps, perfectly accurate, inerrant) information concerning God.

You know my position on the nature of religion and religious language, but others here don't, so I'll briefly describe it, trusting that there is enough interpretive charity left in the blogosphere for commenters here to assume that the paragraph or two I devote to the subject here by no means exhausts my position:

I believe that our (by which I mean religious people's) language concerning God and our ideas about God are principally metaphorical, and that the knowledge that we can have concerning God is personal rather than propositional. I believe, much like Schliermacher, that religion begins with an experience, and that the systems of thought and language that emerge from that experience are attempts to come to terms with the meaning of that experience. As such, I do not believe that any book can provide the kind of accurate information concerning the divine mystery that we expect the Bible to provide.

This sort of position, of course, comes faught with problems not worth discussing at the moment. I recognize that most religious people do not immediately grant that their language for and ideas about God are principally metaphorical, and that poses a problem for anyone who claims that the essence of religious language and thought is metaphorical. That said, I believe that whenever any religious person makes an appeal to "mystery" they explicitly acknowledge the limitations of our language concerning God, and thus implicitly acknowledge the metaphorcal nature of their own language concerning God.

I say that to say this: what we seem to expect from the Bible, or any other sacred text, is a kind of category error. We read a text that emerged from metaphorical language concerning a mystical experience, and expect from it accurate propositional information. But the nature of the experience from which the text emerged is not propositional. That is, when people have mystical experiences they do not emerge from such experiences saying that they encountered perfectly formed ideas about a subject that can be communicated in language. Rather, they emerge from such an experience claiming to have been invited into the presence of the sacred, however they describe the sacred.

This doesn't, of course, answer why I bother with the Bible. But it does call into question the project of those who might think that I have no business bothering with the Bible.

As you well know, John, I take the Bible quite seriously. I do this for many reasons. The Bible represents my heritage, my faith tradition. The Bible is also an important part of my experience of God. But I also do this because I believe that as the Bible emerged from a great many encounters with God in a wide variety of settings, it reveals something of the nature and concerns of God.

I can't fully unpack what I mean by that last sentence, as I've already used a great deal of space here, and to unpack that sentence would require considerably more space than I've already used. Suffice it to say that I have autobiographic reasons for bothering with the Bible (it is and has been a vital part of my life, just as it is and has been a vital part of my faith tradition, the tradition in which I have experienced God) as well as more methodological reasons (the Bible is the record of several enduring faith tradition's experiences of God - I use several rather than two (meaning Judaism and Christianity) because there are many diverse expressions of both CHristianity and Judaism, and because there are scholarly reasons to make distinctions between the religion of ancient Israel and Judaism as it is understood today). I suspect the same is true for many other Christians who don't see the Bible as the inspired and inerrant Word of God but who still see it as an important part of their experience of God.

Karl Betts said...
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C. Andiron said...

SS, quick question for you: let's say I regard the Bible as interesting from a sociological or psychological point of view.
Let's say I regard it and the associated worship as therapeutic in effect, and inspiring as a source of poetic thoughts. Am I a Christian? Am I free to disregard authorial intent and the claims that the authors of the Bible make about the Bible and still call myself a Christian?

Karl Betts said...

By the way, John - I was simply responding to your question as to why the Bible is important to Liberals, not giving a complete justification for why I buy into the tradition. By saying "all I have" damn -- I didn't realize you were asking me to put up my entire hand.

To respond to your point -- I fully agree -- Yes -- whole traditions can be wrong. As one who listen's to the tradition and is informed by the tradition, I could very well be wrong. That is the risk of faith.

As you once said, John, it is never a matter of proving that the tradition is right or wrong, but which one is probably right or which one has the plausibility integrity within it to be right or wrong after the discussion is taken into consideration.

In the end, after using an identical methodology of reasoning, we end up actually choosing the right or wrong position. Unless you believe that reason has the capacity to exhaust all of the possibilities in the universe, we realize that there are other ways of knowing beyond (a does not equal non a) tautologies.

However, it is interesting that when I asked Valerie Tarico to give some truth criteriion on how she justifies her view to aesthetics. She gave a consensus claim to the values after she seperated the actual existence of aesthetic value from scientific ways of measuring our physical responses to pleasure. Zilch gave another flavor of truth criterion by consensus. I had no problem with that truth criterion until you just declared it risky at best and precarious at worse.

It is a consensus, then, that a consensus does not a truth criterion make. Please report this to the Tarico / Zilch party!

Sandalstraps said...

c. andiron,

What claims do you think the authors of the Bible make about the Bible itself? The canon of scripture was not fixed until many centuries after most of it was written, and so whatever is meant when the word "scripture" is used in the Bible, it is certainly not what we mean by the Bible.

As for whether or not you are a Christian, that depends on a great deal more than your position on the nature, role, and authority of scripture.

C. Andiron said...

"What claims do you think the authors of the Bible make about the Bible itself?"
Well for starters:
Luke 1:1-4:
1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,
2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,
4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

2 Thes 3:16-17:
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

IOW, it claims to contain concrete, precise doctrine communicated by God to human beings (Francis Schaeffer speaks at length in defense of this in 'He is there and he is not silent') - I don't see how it can be reconciled with your statement "We read a text that emerged from metaphorical language concerning a mystical experience, and expect from it accurate propositional information."

Even John 3:5,6 (which is the type of Biblical passage I suspect you are thinking of when you write such things)
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

is followed by:
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

I guess the liberal would say all these passages were redacted, but the redaction argument seems arbitrarily invoked, it seems to be based on nothing more than speculation. And if liberal Christians believe it, why don't they follow through and worship with the Jesus Seminar bible, instead of the ones based on the standard manuscripts (whether Majority or Alexandrian).

Forming a new religion containing selected writings from other religions, that seems to be where liberalism tends. Why do they insist still on calling themselves Christians? Why are so many upset or offended (such as Episcopalians) when one questions whether they are in fact outside the pale of that definition?

C. Andiron said...

About the canon not being fixed - I think we need to distinguish between fixed, and officially announced (which was necessary to combat the gnosticism and other heresies) but that is really irrelevant to my point.

Even if 'scripture' only refers to the one book it's in, it still claims to be a propositional document.

Karl Betts said...


It is simple enough to acknowledge that we do not have the original manuscripts, thereby removing scientific certainty about the historicity of any of these statements or conversations. All forms of criticism, higher and lower serve us to work with the limits of the received text and devrive the best meaning possible.

Admittedly there is a decontructionist bent, but ultimately toward the goal of reconstucting. You are right, though, redaction criticsm is merely an arguable case, much like an apologetic would be, where we give the best answer we can to the question of meaning in context -- sitz im leben, etc.

Nevertheless, as a Liberal, while I don't subscribe to the "plenary" inspiration paradigm (ICBI 1979-80) of scripture, I would respect your belief that God is speaking through a collective voice from those 66 books. So that if these verses are self-authenticating to you, there is at least room for you to develop a working theology of the authority of Scripture. I'd add that there are good reasons to do so, when you connect your convictions, the work of the Holy Spirit and the reasonableness of the selections you cited. If that sounds Neo-orthodox, it is.

It gets sticky when that becomes binding on the whole of Christendom. When I say to a Greek Orthodox Christian, hey -- don't do icons -- that's idolatry -- I'm imposing my tradition on them. Scripture is not authoritative in that way.

For me, given a variety of a posteriori issues in the here and now world, tradition, scripture, theology, science, philosophy, psychology, sociology . . . I might develop a theological position that helps me -- and anyone who cares to listen -- do theology in this concrete world under the influence of God speaking in those 66 books.

I can neither prove that God is speaking scientifically or psychologically, however, nor can I make it binding on other Christians in the sense that an evangelical or fundamentalist would want to.

We have much in common when we admit the circularity and limits of our theology of scriptural authority.

Sandalstraps said...

c. andiron,

Of the proof-texts you cited, only one uses the word scripture or appears to contain any reference to the concept of scripture. In that text it is clear that Paul is not referring to his own writing as scripture, nor to any of the Gospels (which had not yet been composed). Also, his words amplifying "God breathed" do not rise to anything like "inerrant."

You are reading passages from scripture in light of later teachings about scripture - not an uncommon thing, and nothing that you should be singled out for. But, you are unable (like so many of us, myself often included) to identify your own theological commitments concerning the texts you are reading and how those commitments shape your reading of the text.

As for Francis Schaeffer, in many ways I have a great deal of respect for the man. But in all fairness it should be noted that he was never formally trained in theology nor history nor textual criticism. He was a self-educated apologist not well versed in any academic discipline, and can hardly be invoked as an authority on anything except perhaps the psychology of faith.

Lest you accuse me of having it out for him, I should disclose that as an evangelical teenager I read many of his books, and still have them in my library. I have a softer spot for populist theology than most who study academic theology. But, with that said, you could drive a dump truck through the gaps in his knowledge. He was in many ways an incredible creative genius, but no scholar.

Sandalstraps said...

One final note:

Sorry to nitpick, as I am sure this is just a typo, but the reference from Paul's letters - the only one that explicitly refers to scripture - comes from 2 Timothy, not 2 Thesselonians.

Incidentally, there is some question as to whether or not Paul actually wrote that letter, though my comment concerning it assumes Pauline authorship. In any event, whoever wrote it would not have been aware that they were writing "scripture." If it comes from Paul, it predates the Gospels or any concept of distinctly Christian scripture. If not, it may come after the Gospels, but before the formation of a Christian canon, and most likely with no premonition that this fragmentary document would one day be held as authoritative as the Torah.

Karl Betts said...

I'm a Schaeffer L'Abri alum myself. He gave me permission to think about stuff deeper than most evangelical writers and did us a great favor in giving us permission to look at art and culture with a new view.

His insistence that there is no such thing as paradox in an existential sense is what did him in -- in terms of modern thinking.

He turned it into a Hegelian synthesis or an irrational leap of faith, when the paradoxical struggle for existence is about as real as it gets.

Re-ow-wah-dee isn't always realism and perfect major scales in straight 4/4 time. This is a fawwen worrowd, ineed!

I like the questions he raised and am a better thinker for his contributions.

Thanks for acknowleging Dr. Francis A. Shaeffer, founder of L'Abri Fellowship! RIP

Karl Betts said...

John -- thank you for pointing out the problem of -- can we call it a kind of solipsism when we compare faith to the "mental world of a paranoid schizophrenic."

You make a very strong point here. It is not unlike Freud's future of an illusion, and in my position as a pastor, I can see plainly that (even though you were using it as an analogy) there are many instances -- too vast to number -- where faith is a kind of religious addiction to a delusional degree.

I really resonate with that, and would confess that I've made decisions that were quite delusional, even if temporarily confused.

So on two levels, this a very strong critique from a skeptic's point of view and I join you as a fellow skeptic in identifying, both with the analogy and, better yet, proven cases of religion or faith animating the phychosis.

So, I want to applaud you on this -- it is right up there with Joseph's discussion with the problem of communication.

Of course, with every "beautiful mind of faith" (to coin a phrase) there are people of faith who are soberly in-touch with reality and not deluded as you might suggest (even by Tarico's fine analogy).

You make a stong argument that it is possible but not an exaustive case.

A personal friend of mine, Dr. Daniel Howard-Snyder, says that as people of faith, we can be skeptics, also. We can remain skeptical about the assertions that God does not exist because of evil (or fill in the blank with your favorite cognitive dissonance element).

So, indeed, Atheists do not have the corner-market on skepticism as is often believed.

Karl Betts said...


I wanted to thank you for this piece of the discussion:

"I believe that our (by which I mean religious people's) language concerning God and our ideas about God are principally metaphorical, and that the knowledge that we can have concerning God is personal rather than propositional."

Very well said. One of the reasons the discussion breaks down is that the dialouge (between a theist and an atheist) can take a philosophical bent and I can see that John avoids this to keep it real (so that's another kudos to you, John).

At some point, discussions that entail God language sort of force us to be propositional at risk of losing the metaphorical import of our communication. This is a paradox, because as John rightly points out -- the object of those metaphors is "ineffable." I cherish the ineffable and yet the phenomenological, noetic description that keeps the object from becoming a ding an sich -- a "thing in-itself."

So as the conversations progress, I don't know about you, but I find myself stuggling to find a referent of some kind that allows our atheist friends to enter-into the apprehension of the divine that closes the gap between the personal and the propositional.

The problem of Liberalism in dialogue, in a nutshell is that there is a kind of incommesurabilty to go beyond my noetic description of an encounter with the divine when a more scientific (in the hard sense) hint of evidence is impossible to produce.

So much of the philospher's discussion about God is in a tightly, objectified symbol system of logic and analysis that defies the very "principally metaphorical" description that I, and clearly you would espouse. Thoughts?

Sandalstraps said...


I find the radical empiricism of William James - especially as outlined in his essay "The Will to Believe" (found in the book by the same title) helpful, in that it - like his later and more famous The Varieties of Religious Experience - calls on all who claim to value empiricism to take seriously the phenomena of religious experience.

Of course the philosphic move from religious experience to the actual existence of a God of a particular description is problematic, but I think the persistence of mystical religious traditions is something that we should all take seriously, even if we arrive at different conclusions of what, exactly, those experiences point to. That, for me, is where interesting possibilities for dialogue emerge - especially if those with whom I'm dialoguing resist falling back on reductionistic functionalism.