Why Christ, not Scripture, is Our Ultimate Foundation
In a previous blog I argued that all our theological reflection must not only be Christ-centered, it must, most specifically, be cross-centered. I now want to begin to unpack some of the most important implications of adopting a cross-centered theological perspective. My ultimate goal is to show how a cross-centered theology is able to resolve the conflict between the revelation of God on the cross, on the one hand, and the OT’s portraits of God as a violent warrior deity, on the other. The place to begin our reflections is with the inspiration of Scripture. But before I adopt a cross-centered perspective of inspiration, in this blog I’d like to first offer an important preliminary reflection on what I consider to be a mistaken use of biblical inspiration.
Scripture: A Shaky Foundation for Why We Believe
Evangelicals typically ground the credibility of their faith on the inspiration of the Bible. If they were to become convinced that the Bible was not inspired, their faith would crumble. I think this posture is as unwise as it is unnecessary. I want it to be clear at the start that I fully embrace Scripture as the “God-breathed” (theopneustos) Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16), and I believe that, if properly defined, it is “infallible.” I also believe that Scripture should be the foundation of what we believe. But I think it’s very mistaken to make Scripture the foundation of why we believe.
If the reason you believe is anchored in your confidence that Scripture is “God-breathed,” then your faith can’t help but be threatened every time you encounter a discrepancy, an archeological problem, or a persuasive historical-critical argument that a portion of the biblical narrative may not be historically accurate. Your faith may also be threatened every time you encounter material that is hard to accept as “God-breathed” — the genocidal portrait of Yahweh I discussed in my previous blog, for example. When biblical inspiration is made this important, people are forced to go to extreme and sometimes even silly lengths to explain each and every one of the “encyclopedia” of “difficulties” one finds in Scripture (I’m alluding Gleason Archer’s apologetic book, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties).
As has happened to so many others, throughout my seminary training this foundation became increasingly shaky and eventually collapsed. I know a number of former-evangelicals who completely lost their faith when they experienced this. One is Bart Ehrman, who I’m sure many of you recognize as one of Christianity’s most well-known contemporary critics. He and I were in the doctoral program at Princeton Seminary at the same time, and we fell through our crumbling Scriptural foundation at roughly the same time and for many of the same reasons. But while Bart gradually fell into agnosticism, I fell onto a different and much more firm foundation. I fell into Christ.
Christ: A Firm Foundation
For a number of reasons (none of which have to do with the inspiration of Scripture) I believe the crucified and risen Christ is the definitive revelation of God’s character, and the definitive revelation of what God is up to in this world. Many of the reasons I have for believing in Christ are historical in nature. I find there are compelling historical-critical reasons for concluding that the Gospels are generally reliable, for example. (I and Paul Eddy address some of these in The Jesus Legend). Some of my reasons are philosophical in nature. The story of the God revealed in Christ that is centered on the cross makes better sense of the world to me than any other competing story, for example. And some of my reasons are rooted in personal experience. The story of the God of unsurpassable love who gave up everything to save a race of hopeless rebels “rings true” in the deepest part of my being. Moreover, I sometimes experience Christ in ways that make it hard to deny his reality.
I have a lot of reasons for believing in Christ, but the inspiration of Scripture is not one of them. I don’t deny that there are a handful of fulfilled prophecies about the coming Messiah that are rather compelling (e.g. the suffering servant of Isa. 53 and the pierced Lord of Zech. 12:10). But I also think evangelical apologists are misguided when they try to use this as the rational foundation for the Christian faith. When Gospel authors say Jesus “fulfilled” an OT verse, they don’t mean that the OT verse predicted something that Jesus did or that happened to Jesus. If you check out the OT verses Jesus is said to have “fulfilled,” you’ll find there is absolutely nothing predictive about them. The Gospel authors are rather using a version of an ancient Jewish interpretive strategy called “midrash” to simply communicate that something in the life of Jesus parallels and illustrates a point made in an OT verse.
In any event, if the intellectual credibility of your faith is leveraged on the prophecies that Jesus is said to have “fulfilled,” I’m afraid your faith will be literally incredible. I would instead advise you to anchor the plausibility of your faith, as well as your identity, your core sense of well-being, and your ultimate security and hope in Jesus and in Jesus alone.
Why Believe in the Inspiration of Scripture?
So where does the inspiration of Scripture come into the picture? While I do not believe in Jesus because I believe in the inspiration of Scripture, I do believe in the inspiration of Scripture because I believe in Jesus. Jesus is the center and culminating point of the entire biblical narrative, and it’s impossible to understand who Jesus is, and what he was up to apart from this story. Not only this, but historical-critical considerations have led me to conclude that the Gospels are generally trustworthy, as I said above, and these Gospels consistently present Jesus equating the Hebrew Scriptures with God’s Word. They also give some indication that Jesus expected the Holy Spirit to inspire some of his followers to bear witness to him in a way that would allow the world to believe on him through their word (e.g. Jn 14:26; 15:26-27; 17:20).
Along similar lines, Jesus promised that that he would be present in his corporate body by the power of the Spirit to continue to guide it (Mt 28:20; Jn. 14:18, 26). Under his guidance, this community has always acknowledged that both the Old and New Testaments were “God-breathed.” As part of this community, I feel compelled to do the same. And even apart from these considerations, I have trouble believing that the God who consistently inspired a written witness of his interactions with people leading up to Christ would not continue this pattern following Christ. Why would the One who always taught his community to rely on a written witness now suddenly lead his community with no written witness?
Because I believe in Jesus, therefore, I am led to confess that all Scripture is “God-breathed.” Yet, because it is Jesus and not Scripture that serves as the ultimate foundation for my faith, my faith is no longer threatened by the “encyclopedia” of “difficulties” one finds in Scripture. In fact (as I’ll attempt to show in my next blog) if we ground our faith in Christ alone, and begin all our theological reflections with Christ alone, things such as the discrepancies in Scripture and persuasive historical-critical arguments suggesting that sections of Scripture may not be historical cease to be difficulties at all.
 For those who care about such matters, I consider myself a “soft-foundationalist,” and a “soft-rationalist,” which means I stand in-between “post-foundationalism” and “naïve evidentialism,”as well as between “rationalism” and “fideism,” on the other.
Note: This article was originally published on the temporary blog Greg used prior to the launch of ReKnew.org.
In the previous post, I argued that we ought to allow the incarnate and crucified Christ to redefine God for us rather than assume we know God ahead of time and then attempt to superimpose this understanding of God onto Christ. When we do this, I’ve argued, we arrive at the understanding that the essence…
Greg was interviewed by Drew Marshall on Saturday, November 2, on the topic of his new book Benefit of the Doubt, and we thought you might like to listen to what he had to say. You can find the interview here. Enjoy!
Ever wonder why God isn’t more clear and obvious? Here’s Greg’s take on that question.
Most western Christians today understand the atonement as a sort of legal-transaction that took place between the Father and the Son that got humanity “off the hook.” The legal-transaction scenario goes something like this: God’s holiness demands that all sin be punished, which in turn requires that sinners go to eternal hell. The trouble is,…
Michelle Brea via Compfight Mark McIntyre wrote a piece on his blog called Selective Grace that highlights the ways in which the church tends to more easily demonstrate grace with some than with others. It’s a call to a more generous grace that does not distinguish between particular sins or particular differences in belief. How…
A true and living faith is never a destination; it’s a journey. And to move forward on this journey we need doubt. Faith is not based on certainty. Think of it this way. We often cling to certainty-seeking faith like one might a map as if the map itself is actually the territory. But our…