The Audience of I&I

Without wishing to appear to discount criticisms of I&I, a recurring theme that runs through some of these criticisms is a failure to allow the genre and intended audience to calibrate those criticisms. This failure has lead to criticisms that are largely either off topic or exaggerated.

I&I is not an introduction to Scripture book; it is not a book that one would turn to first, necessarily, to be grounded in the nature of Scripture. It is, rather, a book of apologetic impetus, written mainly for lay readers for whom standard critical issues are obstacles for their faith, and for whom conventional explanations are not helpful.

I am one of those people and have been for nearly a ¼ century. A lot of my own life experiences are behind the book, not only my own intellectual and spiritual journey but that of many, many people I have spoken to, have heard from, or have heard about during my student and teaching years. That is my audience, and I make this clear at the outset and at many points throughout the book.

When those who may be very well versed in other disciplines read my book from only their point of view, failing to come to grips, or perhaps even understand, the difficulties that modern biblical studies routinely present to lay readers, they will no doubt expect very different things from a book with such a title, and so will critique it in a way that does not reflect the book’s intention.

So, to repeat, I&I is aimed at lay readers for whom a commitment to Scripture as God’s Word is deep and non-negotiable, but for whom things like the historical context of Scripture have been posed to them as a threat to inspiration, and therefore to the Bible as being God’s word. This is a very real, and we feel often neglected, population of evangelicalism.

It is certainly true that some evangelicals have never been exposed to the types of issues discussed in I&I, and so reading the book could have a jarring affect (although I can attest that this is not a necessary scenario), but this does not mean that books like I&I should not be written. There is pastoral wisdom in not rocking a settled faith, but there is also a true pastoral obligation to settle a faith that has already been rocked. I&I is not an attempt to turn evangelicals into liberals, but to help ensure that does not happen—which has been all too common an occurrence and to which many of my readers can perhaps attest from personal experience. The path from conservatism to liberalism is well worn, but far less frequently has the journey been taken in reverse. I believe, therefore, that evangelical authors need to be much more intentional in assessing why this is the case and what can be done about it. In my opinion, the Reformed faith, with its rich intellectual tradition, has the theological depth and subtlety to address this issue in ways that would generally helpful to an evangelical audience.

The audience is a popular one and so the theological paradigm that undergirds the presentation is a likewise popular (and therefore bare-bones) sketch of an incarnational approach, an approach that has been articulated in various ways throughout much of the history of the Christianity, and very intentionally in the Reformed tradition. [See “Bible in Context: The Continuing Vitality of Reformed Biblical Scholarship,” and “Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture: Its Viability and Usefulness,” both posted on this website.] I believe this approach is particularly timely in an age of ongoing, considerable, and significant historical discoveries. Such discoveries are often made the basis of attacks on Scripture as far too “human” a book to be something divine. [For example, such an attitude is found at a crucial juncture in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code (p. 231, middle) and is the engine that drives the thinking of such immensely popular biblical scholars as Bart Ehrman.]

The aim of I&I is to speak into such a context and to undercut what is in my opinion a widespread (often implicit) notion among evangelicals (popular and also at times academic) and, ironically, of much higher critical thinking, that “too much” history is a problem for a book that claims to be of divine origin. The response offered by I&I is “No, history is not a problem. When God spoke, he ‘incarnated’ himself, and the Bible he gave us looks exactly the way he wants it to.” The incarnation of Christ is, therefore, a metaphor, of an ancient and honored pedigree, of Scripture’s full divinity and humanity. Because of the audience, the divine aspect is stated at the outset, assumed throughout, and the focus is kept on the problem area, Scripture’s “human element” (to use a phrase by B. B. Warfield).

In view of this, I would like to take a few moments to outline the book’s intention and purpose by flagging the relevant portions of the book, especially in chapter 1. I number the references sequentially for ease of reference.

The book begins:

[1] The aim of this book is not novelty but synthesis. My focus is twofold: (1) to bring together a variety of data that biblical scholars work with every day for readers who do not have firsthand familiarity with these data and (2) to look at these data with a clear view toward discussing their implications for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture (p. 9).

This first sentence of I&I states that the audience is lay oriented and the discussion will involve the implications of certain data for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture. It is particularly this latter point that seems to have caused difficulty for some critics, as it could suggest that an overhaul of everything evangelical is in view. It is admitted that a bit more clarification here and in one or two other places early on in the book could have obviated some difficulty. Still, I am convinced that greater attention to the clearer statements that follow in the early portions of the book should have balanced such criticism.

The flow of thought continues throughout chapter 1, where the purposes of the book are outlined explicitly.

Evangelical biblical scholars have certainly made many important contributions to the historical study of Scripture, but,

[2] what is needed is not simply for evangelicals to work in these areas, but to engage the doctrinal implications that work in these areas raises. Without wanting to overstate the matter, I have known or heard of a fair number of Christians who conclude that the contemporary state of biblical scholarship has made an evangelical faith unviable. These are the primary readers I envision for this book, those who desire to maintain a vibrant a reverent doctrine of Scripture, but who have found it difficult to do so because they have found familiar and conventional approaches to newer problems to be unhelpful (13).

For evangelical biblical scholars to address the doctrinal implications of their work would be immensely helpful to evangelical readers, for it is precisely these types of historical issues that have proved so challenging for traditional doctrinal formulations, many of which arose in isolation from modern developments in our knowledge of the world of the ancient Near East and 1st century Palestine. We must remember, too, that critical scholarship has not at all been reticent about drawing doctrinal conclusions on the basis of their historical work, and a defensive evangelical response is often wholly unpersuasive to those who been exposed to these alternatives.

Addressing doctrinal implications, however, does not entail a flat rejection of past formulations—as if it is now time to leave the past behind. Rather, the point being made is that we allow the study of Scripture to affect how we articulate our doctrine of Scripture. Hence,

[3] I am very eager to affirm that many evangelical instincts are correct and should be maintained, for example, the conviction that the Bible is ultimately from God and that it is God’s gift to the church. Any theories concerning Scripture that do not arise from these fundamental instincts are unacceptable (13-14).

These are not minimalist or vague claims, but important, foundational, and non-negotiable declarations that form the proper starting point for further discussion.

The historical evidence brought to light in recent generations, however, has raised significant challenges for evangelicalism, going back at least to the late 19th century, and lay readers have not been isolated from them. A defensive posture toward much of these discoveries has tended to dominate the discussions:

[4] For recent generations of evangelicals, this [defensive] tendency has its roots in certain developments in biblical scholarship during the nineteenth century, and made headlines in the so-called modernist/fundamentalist controversies around the turn of the twentieth century (e.g., Scopes Monkey trials). The affects of these developments can still be felt today (14).

And popular labels, however helpful and accurate they may be in the abstract, have exacerbated this tendency to avoid engagement with historical study of Scripture:

[5] Much of the evangelical theological landscape of the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries has been dominated by a “battle for the Bible.” The terms are familiar: liberal vs. conservative; modernist vs. fundamentalist; mainline vs. evangelical; progressive vs. traditionalist. Such labels may serve some purpose, but they more often than not serve to entrench rather than enlighten (14).

I&I intentionally wishes to move lay readers beyond such an impasse, not by absolutely denying the distinction between liberal and conservative, but by approaching the problems raised by an historical study of Scripture in a way that avoids the pitfalls of popular and customary evangelical approaches where an incarnational model is not functionally active:

[6] By focusing on three problems raised by the modern study of the Old Testament, my hope is to suggest ways in which our conversation can be shifted somewhat, so that what are often perceived as problems with the OT are put into a different perspective. To put it another way, my aim is to allow the collective evidence to affect not just how we understand a biblical passage or story here and there within the parameters of earlier doctrinal formulations. Rather, I want to move beyond that by allowing the evidence to affect how we think about what Scripture as a whole is (15).

[NOTE: I do not want to interrupt the flow of thought here, but it is worth pausing to give a word of explanation. This quote is one of a couple of examples in chapter 1 where I recognize an infelicitous expression that actually does not express what I am after. Although I affirm that doctrinal formulations are topics for restatement, improvement, etc., the impression given here is that “earlier doctrinal formulations” simply have to go and that I will help readers construct a new one from the ground up. That is not at all what I am intending to say, yet I recognize how this statement could cause difficulties for some readers with their ears close to the ground. If the phrase “earlier doctrinal formulations” were replaced by “customary, more defensive, explanations,” that would better have expressed my intention, as, I trust, the general tenor of this chapter indicates.]

A better, and I think necessary, starting point is to acknowledge that what might be considered “problems” with the OT may be more a function of reading it with faulty expectations:

[7] The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions (15).

This missional, lay reorientation is further explicated on pp. 16-17:

[8] Regardless of how we organize the data, the issue before us is not how we handle this verse, or this issue, one at a time. Rather, what needs to happen is that we take a step back from the details and allow these issues to challenge us on a more fundamental level. What is needed is a way of thinking about Scripture where these kinds of issues are addressed from a very different perspective—where these kinds of “problems” cease being problems but become windows that open up to new ways of understanding. It is not enough simply to say the Bible is the word of God, or that it is inspired, or some other label. The issue is how these descriptions of the Bible bear fruit when we touch down in one part of the Bible or another. How does the study of Scripture in the contemporary world evidence affect how we flesh out descriptions such as “word of God” or “inspired?”

Again, what is being advocated here is not new way of thinking of Scripture in general as distinct from anything else that has been done in the past, but the more intentional application of a recognized and orthodox theological model for lay readers to help them look at historical issues differently. That model is an incarnational one, where the divinity and humanity of Scripture are non-negotiable as a starting point to help lay readers get over the hump. Admittedly, the analogy between Christ’s incarnation and Scripture’s incarnation by no means amounts to a complete identification, nor can all ambiguities be addressed, a point I stress clearly:

[9] I do not want to suggest that difficult problems have simple solutions. What I want to offer, instead, is a proper starting point for discussing these problems, one that, if allowed to run its course, will reorient us to see these problems in a better light (17).

This way of thinking about the Bible is referred to in a number of different ways by different theologians. The term I prefer is the Incarnational Analogy: Christ’s incarnation is analogous to Scripture’s “incarnation.” As with any analogy, one could highlight places where the analogy does not quite fit. Moreover, we must reckon with the fact that the incarnation of Christ it itself mysterious; one could rightly question the merit of using an ultimately unexplainable entity to “explain” something else! That being said, my starting point is the orthodox Christian confession, however mysterious it is, that Jesus of Nazareth is the God-man (17).

Of course, [employing the incarnational analogy] does not make the issues float away, but it is the proper way to begin addressing those issues (21).

The purpose for employing this analogy is to put before lay readers a vital question:

[10] The long standing identification between Christ the word and Scripture the word is central to how I think through the issues raised in this book: how does the fact that Scripture is fully human and fully divine affect what we should expect from Scripture?(18)

This encourages a mindset where the human element of Scripture, with all it challenges, is an orthodox expectation rather than a problem that impinges upon its divinity.

[11] ….the human marks of the Bible are everywhere, thoroughly integrated into the nature of Scripture itself. Ignoring these marks or explaining them away takes at least as much energy as listening to them and learning from them. The human dimension of Scripture is, therefore, part of what makes Scripture Scripture (18).

What is so helpful about the Incarnational Analogy is that it reorients us to see that the Bible’s “situatedness” is not a lamentable or embarrassing situation, but a positive: That the Bible, at every turn, shows how “connected” it is to its own world, is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself (20).

When God reveals himself he always does so to people, which means that he must speak and act in ways that they will understand. People are time bound, and so God adopts that characteristic if he wishes to reveal himself. We can put this even a bit more strongly: It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture. This, I would argue, is the proper stating point for looking at the relationship between the Bible and the issues we will be discussing in this book (20).

Lay readers are further encouraged at the outset that, contrary to some extremes in critical thinking (but fully consistent with Reformed doctrine), the human stamp in no way affects whether the Bible is of divine origin.

[12] That the Bible bears an unmistakable human stamp does not lead to the necessary conclusion that it is merely the words of humans rather than the word of God (21).

….when God speaks, he speaks in ways we would understand. With this in mind, we can now look at some of the evidence that has been part of the scholarly conversation for several generations, not to determine whether the Bible is God’s word, but to see more clearly how (21).

This continued purpose of reorienting (and hopefully encouraging) lay readers is seen in the very structure of the book:

  • The historical and biblical data (chapters 2-4) are sketched very broadly without addressing the unending scholarly nuances and debates,
  • The complete absence of footnotes,
  • The presence of an annotated bibliography,
  • A glossary of terms.

All of these clearly signal the book’s intended target audience and, therefore, the vantage point from which any criticism should commence.

The orientation of the book is revisited and summarized in the conclusion, chapter 5:

[13] ….this book has not focused on giving the final word on any topic; I have tried to help begin new conversations about Scripture, not end them, by advocating a more open and curious posture toward the challenges contemporary readers of the Bible face. No doubt, this means wrestling with the difficult question, “How do we incorporate certain data with full integrity without sacrificing the truth that the Bible is God’s book for his people?” I believe the process of answering that question may be significantly aided for some by asking how the incarnation of Christ helps us build a better model for the inspiration of Scripture. Such an approach cannot help but have a provisional quality to it. As I mentioned at the very beginning, neither the issues addressed in this book (ANE evidence, theological diversity, and the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament) nor the perspective from which I have viewed them are novel. Interested readers can find similar ideas expressed much more fully in a number of other books, a very few of which are mentioned in the “Further Reading” sections. My aim throughout has been synthesis, not novelty, for people who have very good and difficult questions about the Bible, but who may not have a theological paradigm from which to work through some of these questions (167-68).

Lay readers are further encouraged to remember that the articulation of what Scripture is will always have a provisional quality to it, which is not to present a weak or relativistic doctrine of Scripture to them, nor to threaten their own faith. It is, rather, a reminder that God is bigger than what we think and that exploration and investigation of Scripture are not a threat to faith:

[14] That God willingly and enthusiastically participates in our humanity should give us pause. If even God himself expresses himself in the Bible through particular human circumstances, we must be very ready to see the necessarily culturally limited nature of our own theological expressions today. I am not speaking of cultural relativism, where all truth is up for grabs and the Bible ceases being our standard for faith. I simply mean that all of our theologizing, because we are human beings living in particular historical and cultural moments, will have a temporary and provisional—even fallen—dimension to it (168-69).

….the Bible has a dynamic quality to it, for God himself is dynamic, active, and alive in our lives and in the life of his church. Although the Bible is clear on central matters of the faith, it is flexible in many matters that pertain to the day to day (which is seen most clearly in our discussion of Proverbs in chapter three) (170).

Some critics have acknowledged the missional purpose of the book, but disagree with us on how that purpose ought to be accomplished. What is really needed, they say, precisely because it is a missional book, is a reiteration of Scripture’s divine origin (in traditional terms) and how that fact has implications for how the specific issues in the book are handled. Although we seriously question whether this more “top down” approach is better suited to accomplish the book’s stated purpose, I certainly recognize that this is a fair question with potential value.

It would be an important avenue to explore, e.g., how precisely prioritizing the divine origin of Scripture affects how we handle, say, the Mesopotamian background to Genesis or the Second Temple background to the NT, and why such an approach would be more apologetically compelling. Such important matters, however, would need to be addressed by engaging the specifics of the biblical texts in question, not simply on the level of theological prolegomena (e.g., an appeal to Chalcedonian Christology, as some have done), or an appeal to earlier stages in the Reformed tradition.

In this respect, the thoughts of the seasoned evangelical scholar Richard Longenecker are worth citing here in full.

[15] It has become all too common today to hear assertions of a theological nature as to what God must have done or claims of a historical nature as to what must have been the case during the apostolic period of the Church—and to find that such statements are based principally on deductions from what has previously been accepted and/or supported by current analogies alone. The temptation is always with us to mistake hypothesis for evidence or to judge theological and historical formulations by their coherence and widespread acceptance, rather than first of all by their correspondence and exegetical data. History is replete with examples of this sorry condition and its sorry results, and hindsight permits us to recognize it in the past for what it was: a perversion of the truth. But we are ‘sons and daughters of our parents,’ composed of the same stuff and subject to the same pressures and temptations. And nowhere do we need to guard against our own inclinations and various pressures more carefully than in our understanding of the New Testament writers’ use of Scripture. Neither piety nor speculation—both of which are excellent in their own ways when properly controlled—can substitute for careful historical and exegetical investigation. Nor can traditional views of either the right or left be allowed to stand unscrutinized in the light of recent discoveries. The Jewish roots of Christianity make it a priori likely that the exegetical procedures of the New Testament would resemble, at least to some extent, those of Judaism of the time [Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 185-86.]

Although Longenecker’s focus here is on the specific topic of the NT’s use of the OT (chapter 5 in I&I), the general attitude he expresses reflects well the commitment I have as a biblical scholar—however imperfect my efforts may be—to allow Scripture to drive how we talk about it. This is an endeavor that I approach with a sense of expectation, enthusiasm, and, I trust, humility.

I believe that the form in which Scripture exists, as God-breathed into human contexts, must together be in view wherever specifics are addressed and whenever a doctrine of Scripture is articulated. The fear of some seems to be that of muting the divine origin of Scripture, and therefore its authority, which I in no way intend to do. To the contrary, I&I is founded on the very opposite contention, that Scripture looks the way it does because God wanted it to look this way. One concern I have is that we cease wrestling with Scripture as a historical phenomenon, a product of God’s wisdom and mercy, and so fail to address adequately the very real challenges before us to the detriment of people working in the trenches.