Acting on a tip from Suzanne McCarthy, I visited a blog this afternoon which was unknown to me. It definitely is an interesting site. It is polemical but not disrespectful in tone. The people who write for it are whip-smart and know how to turn a phrase.
I enjoyed reading and listening to a number of contributions available on the site. The post entitled “The Danger of Inerrancy,” for example, is very well-done.
The intellectual honesty of the following statement by the blog’s Michael Patton is particularly striking: “Protestants have a fallible interpretation of a fallible canon of infallible books.” I can do one better! Protestants have a fallible interpretation of a fallible canon of infallible books, the exact contents of which are also up for grabs. I think Michael would agree.
But you know what? The bottom line is – and the preceding paragraph and featured posts of Pen and Parchment prove it – the inerrancy debate is an unedifying spectacle. Even when prosecuted by the likes of one as sensitive and brilliant as Michael Patton.
This is how I read Michael Patton. Like many scholars I read and respect, and whose view of Scripture, in practice, is close or identical to my own, Michael signs off, as he notes, on the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy every year. Well, if I had to sign it, I would too. But the fact of the matter cannot be hid: what Michael writes and says represents a considerable improvement on that document.
The Chicago Statement is a cramped and verbose document at the same time. Read as a kind of truce statement among the combatants in the inerrancy wars that have long constituted both the glory and shame of a certain evangelicalism, it makes sense. But it is an in-house document. Looking in from the outside, the natural reaction is: if the document reflects how Scripture functions among the people and churches the evangelicals who sign it belong to, something unhealthy is going on here.
Thankfully, the Chicago Statement does not begin to reflect how Scripture actually functions among said people. For most evangelicals, Christianity is not about being a YEC-er or not, or about having a view of Scripture closer to that of Gleason Archer than to C. S. Lewis. Nor is it about sweating bullets thinking about the high numbers of those said to have left Egypt with Moses.
Scripture for evangelicals is about “hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith.” “In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will, such that through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father.” “Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” “In composing the sacred books, God chose men, and while employed by Him, they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.” “[T]he books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”
What source do I quote from to describe how evangelicals read Scripture? The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. That’s right, a Catholic document known in Latin as Dei verbum. The above quoted statements from that document (apart from the gendered language even Wayne Grudem and company would probably not want to imitate), I contend, do a better job of articulating a full-throated, unabashed, and intellectually honest devotion to Scripture than does the Chicago Statement. The Chicago Statement, it seems to me, ill-fits the very people whose views it is supposed to reflect.
The problem with Dei verbum, let it be said, is that it puts Scripture and tradition on a par with each other, to wit: “sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.” This statement is, and has to be, anathema to evangelicals (though the statement can be construed in such a way as to allow for the attribution of a higher degree of authority to Scripture than to tradition, the thrust of the statement moves in the opposite direction). The reason is simple. It has to be possible, as Paul recounts, for something like this to occur: “And when Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he was clearly wrong” (Galatians 2:11). That very Kephas to whom was entrusted what is now referred to as the Petrine ministry.
John Paul II once said that what the church needs is saints, not prophets. I suppose if the prophets he had in mind were Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, I might agree. On the other hand, compatible with the preceding statement, the church is always in need of prophets, that is, of those who, in accordance with Scripture and inspired by the Spirit, call the church from top to bottom to renewed faithfulness to its Lord and Savior.
John Paul II also spoke of “sacred scripture as the highest authority in matters of faith” in his ecumenical encyclical Ut unum sint (1995). That suggests that for Catholic teaching also, Scripture is norma normans, that is, the norm which norms all other norms, whereas Tradition is norma normata, that is, a norm normed by a higher norm, which is Scripture.
Evangelicals affirm that the norming of tradition by Scripture is not actuated in practice like it should be by the Catholic magisterium. But evangelicals also know that the loci of teaching authority which function among them do not actuate in practice the norming of faith and life by Scripture like they should either. Perhaps the most accurate summary of reality is that each tradition (Catholic and evangelical, among others) is unfaithful to Scripture in different ways.
My challenge to Michael Patton: explain why the above quoted statements of Dei verbum are not edifying to you as a believer. Pretend that you did not know who composed them, that someone told you that, say, Norm Geisler drew them up as a summa of the orthodox understanding of Scripture. How would you argue against it, if at all?