Kees van der Knijff
God’s work in the world has a distinct character. It often moves against all expectations. God chooses the younger brother. He gets into a covenant with a marginal tribe that is more often disobedient than not. He comes to earth as the son of a carpenter in a disadvantaged area. As the climax of it all, he dies a shameful death on a cross. All of it is utter foolishness in the eyes of the world, as Paul makes clear (1 Cor 1:18-25). Theologians have come up with different concepts to describe the distinct pattern of God’s activity. Terms like cruciformity or Christoformity are quite common today. The key idea is the same: God’s acting in the world takes place in the form of “power in weakness”.
As evangelical Christians, we are willing to embrace this pattern on multiple levels. The cross is of central importance in our faith and spirituality. We do not believe in a prosperity gospel and are uncomfortable when Christianity is related too closely to earthly powers. Our church services are still mostly centered around the (humanly speaking) foolish act of preaching. Multiple other examples could be given. Yet, there is one area where we make a big exception: in our doctrine of Scripture.
What do I mean by that claim? Basically this: there is a strong tendency in evangelical theology to hold to a “high”’ doctrine of Scripture. We want to be able to state full-heartedly that the Bible is the word of God. As a result, evangelical defenses of Scripture abound. We do whatever we can to bolster Scripture and defend it against its “liberal” attackers. In some circles, specific keywords (like inerrancy) even function as some kind of litmus test for real evangelicals.
In my observation, this desire for a “strong Bible” can be even bigger among some Arab evangelicals. And that is not without reason. Compared to the claims that Muslims make about the Qur’an’s origins, the Bible seems to have numerous “disadvantages”: multiple human authors, some of whom we do not even know; a long history of writing and editing; a contested history of canonization; multiple textual variants; etc. In a context like the Arab world, it makes sense to defend the strong nature of the Bible, right?
Recently, the discussion about the inerrancy of Scripture was revisited in the circles around ABTS. During the conversations that followed, I wondered: would it be possible, instead of refining and re-defining the main terms involved, to transpose the entire discussion to a different key? Would there be a way to talk about the authority of Scripture that helps us to focus on the Bible in the overarching context of God’s mission, instead of objectifying the Bible and describing its inherent properties? If so, this could be very helpful, especially in light of the fact that discussions about inerrancy have no long history in the churches in the Middle East, whereas thinking about the mission of God has been central to ABTS’s approach to theology.
One idea that crossed my mind is the idea of “power in weakness”. What if we started from the usual pattern of God’s involvement in the world? God often uses unexpected, humble instruments to accomplish his divine intentions. From that perspective, we have no reason to be ashamed of our “weak” Bible. Yes, it is deeply human. Yes, it took several ages before it was complete. Yes, when we study the history of canonization there are so many points where, from a human point of view, things could have gone in a different direction. And yet, when we open this book, we experience it: we step into a dynamic force field where the Spirit of God is active. Where God takes those human words and speaks into our lives with power and authority.
So how could this different approach to Scripture help us further? How does it help us move beyond the kind of discussions that are often imported, but not always important? The longer I think about it the more advantages I see. In this blog, I will mention three that I consider crucial.
First, applying the dynamic of “power in weakness” to Scripture helps us to focus on Scripture in the bigger context of God’s work in the world. This approach emphasizes from the outset that as Christians we are not primarily people of a book, but that Scripture is a primary instrument in the way the Trinitarian God engages with his creation. We do not put our hope in this book, but in the God who has chosen to reveal himself in and through it. Hence, this way of speaking about Scripture focuses our attention on God’s character from the start. This is the God we believe in: the God who always surprises us in the way he goes about his work. The God who mostly chooses the lowly and humble as his preferred instruments. The God who revealed himself in the deepest way on a shameful cross.
In the second place, speaking about Scripture in terms of “power in weakness” helps us overcome our defensiveness. Many evangelical accounts of the doctrine of Scripture are defensive in nature and, in my opinion, all too often driven by fear. A fear that, if this stronghold crumbles, our entire faith is based on loose grounds. If we accept the “weak” nature of the Bible, the need to defend it disappears immediately. God has given us a book that no one else would have thought of: written through a process of ages, edited on multiple layers, full of stories that we would have preferred to leave out. Somehow, in his unfathomable wisdom, that “weak” way was the way he deemed best. Therefore, we can receive the Bible as God’s word with gladness, as a precious gift. In all its humanness, God’s signature is all over it.
That is also why, in the third place, the paradigm of “power in weakness” helps us to read the Bible with expectation. I do not know many readers whose level of expectation rises from the idea of reading an inerrant book. But when I come to the Bible with the idea that God uses it to reveal his power, I definitely read with different eyes. My heart and mind are in a different mode: how will God take those ancient stories, poems, and letters to reveal himself to us, to me, today? How will he surprise us by revealing his power through the weakness of those words? For that is what happens again and again when we read the Bible: we experience that they contain a power that is of an entirely different order than the power of perfect or faultless words. It is the power of the Spirit of God. A power that surprises, comforts, calls to faith. But also a power that disrupts, confronts, corrects. It is astonishing what God’s “power in weakness” is able to accomplish!
Could this approach be a way to overcome unhelpful approaches to the Bible and its authority? A way beyond stalled discussions that opens up deeper conversations about our Scriptures? That is for readers to decide. Personally, I think it might be a fresh way of thinking about Scripture that could help us get out of our trenches and rejoice again in this incredibly rich gift that we have received in the Bible. Take and read, and expect to be surprised by power in weakness.