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Towards a “Weak” Doctrine of Scripture: A Thought Experiment

 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.

17 Comments

  1. Mike Kuhn says:

    I really appreciate your thoughts here, Kees. The idea of power in weakness may also help us in interpretive issues. When we run into stories that sound more like a modern news report than Spirit-inspired scripture, rather than finding some spiritual hidden treasure in these distasteful stories, we can realize that it was God working in and through his weak people. It should help us read the Bible both attentively and looking for it’s Christ-centered message.

    • Thank you for your encouraging comment Mike. How the pattern of ‘power in weakness’ exactly plays out in our hermeneutics and interpretation of Scripture is a nice follow-up question. Like you, I see a liberating potential, but that requires more thinking and trying, and will likely lead to a lot of conversations and/or discussions…

    • Kyle Williams says:

      This is an idea that I’ve been mulling over for some time. I see very little humility when we begin to bolster our ideas of what the Bible is telling us to tell others. We often lack humility when we begin our process of application of the Bible. Adopting the view of “Inspired Imperfection” (Boyd’s term not mine) asks us to be humble in our determination of doctrines, dogmas, and darn near everything else. Thanks for the blog.

  2. Stephen Elmes says:

    Thank you so much for this thought provoking and inspiring article. I found a resounding YES arise in my being – the idea of experiencing the power of God as we engage with the Bible in its weakness (as you beautifully articulate this), and escaping the whole inerrancy fetish (yes, a fear-based defensiveness). A real tonic that causes me to glory again in the way God reveals himself to us and makes his power known in weakness.

    • Thank you for your response, Stephen. It is good to hear that my post resonates with others. Let’s keep searching for ways to speak about Scripture as thankful recipients instead of angry debaters!

  3. Timothy Halls says:

    Not sure. Giving Bible readers the idea that “it may be weak, but it can be a source of power” may feed the leanings toward prosperity gospel: if you follow these words you have power; you can do all things. Maybe even play in the NBA.

    I love, though, the turn toward “what does the scripture accomplish?” Away then “how can we find a way to defend it?” Thank you.

    “ this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.”

    • Thank you for your engagement with my post, Timothy. I appreciate the pushback, although I do not see how my blogpost feeds into the prosperity gospel. What I wanted to make clear is that the surprising ‘power’ that we experience in Scripture is God’s power, not the book’s inherent power. Combined with my focus on weakness and the character of the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ, I hope it does not lean towards prosperity ideas.

  4. Dr Brian Talbot says:

    There are interesting thoughts here, but I am not convinced by the main thesis of this article. ‘I do not know many readers whose level of expectation rises from the idea of reading an inerrant book.’ Are you implying the opposite view, that you ‘know many readers whose level of expectation rises from the idea of reading an errant book’? I think this is surprising if we have in mind committed Christians. Although, I do accept that there is a valid debate to be had about the language we use to express our understanding of the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture.

    • Dear Brian, thank you for your response and the clarification you are asking for. And no, I am clearly not implying the opposite if you mean that I am saying: “Let’s go and read a completely errant book.” What I am trying to say, though I am not completely sure that I succeeded, is: Let’s stop focusing on this question of errancy and on the supposed ‘strong-ness’ of the Bible. Instead, let us try to find concepts that help us focus on the kind of authority and power that we experience in reading the Bible, and behind that, on the kind of God that chooses a book like this to reveal himself.

      • Brent Hardaway says:

        Hi, Kees. I also think you may have implied things you didn’t intend to. A Progressive Christian friend of mine approvingly linked to your article on FB. He has denied that the Gospel involves Christ dying for our sins, affirmed LGBT ideology under the guise that telling people that God wants us to be our authentic selves is a better story, and just dismisses anything about Christ or God in the Bible that doesn’t match with his beliefs about what they are like. When this is pointed out to him in the past, he just dismisses it with the usual deconstructionist ruminations about how it’s cultural bias that is the cause of these interpretations. Since that wouldn’t be compatible with ABTS’ statement of faith, I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply this approach to scripture.

        • Dear Brent, the fact that someone is taking my piece and using it for their own purposes is not surprising. I think that could be done with any position on the authority of Scripture, and has been done with inerrantist approaches as well. More generally, I feel that many of the interpretive issues you mention in the end have more to do with our hermeneutics than with our doctrine of Scripture, although I am aware that the two belong closely together.

  5. Bill Kell says:

    Thank you for the post. I pretty much don’t engage in conversations about errancy and inerrancy. Probably because it just doesn’t come up. In my prison ministry and Friday breakfast Bible study group we ask for story telling and personal reflection on the text. With inmates, I am always inspired by reflection through the eyes and experience of the incarcerated. We just ask “what is this story telling us?” This makes it personal and can be very compelling and life changing. For me the “weakness” is that we just read and reflect without making assumptions about inerrancy. We let the words speak for themselves.

    • Thank you Bill. The way you describe it reminds me of the old Spurgeon example: As Christians, we have a tendency to put the lion (the Bible) in a cage and start defending it, while most likely if would be more effective to just set the lion free…

  6. Brent Hamoud says:

    Thanks, Kees, for putting together this very thoughtful piece. These recent blogposts show how ABTS is carrying on an important conversation about faith and the doctrine of Scripture, and I believe facilitating a wider discussion would do a lot of good. (The healthy comments here testify to a level of interest and concern many of us share.)

    I found myself thinking through your reflection on notions of a “strong Bible” as I read the account of The Golden Calf in Genesis 32. It’s a ho-hum part of Scripture that only includes such ordinary things as Aaron the priest leading a mob into idol-worship stupidity, Moses talking God out of mass destroying the people, Israelites drinking golden idol powder, and Levites slaughtering 3,000 among their “brother and friend and neighbor.” (And a plague is unleashed at the very end as well.) Quite a passage to digest, no? I find myself bouncing around the questions about the nature of Scripture: How does God want this to be true? How does the Bible want it to be true? How do I want it to be true? There’s considerable tension here, and the idea of “power in weakness” is quite comforting. It helps steer me away from some tempting reactions (things as extreme as affirming religious violence to completely dismissing the morality of the Bible) and encourages me to wrestle well with this amazing Scripture graciously gifted to us.

    Perhaps another wrinkle to your power in weakness mini-thesis could be “prestige in weakness.” More and more I’m noticing how unsettling senses of prestige permeate Christian life and thinking. We are highly concerned with appearing prestigious through polished programs, impeccable facilities, first-class services, high-level resources, fantastic rhetoric and scholarship, impactful results, and glorifying reputations! It’s typical of humans, and I think Christians can often project it on Scripture too where we insist that the text must fit rigid guidelines of prestige. This could mean refining it to designated conceptions of inherency and unquestionable infallibility. Perhaps the call of Christ is one to a renewed prestige that revels in some type of messiness (or in your words, “disadvantages”). Maybe weakness can help us put the fallacy of prestige aside to further experience the power of God’s Work that, as you said, calls us to faith. So much more to think about here! Thanks for carrying the conversation another step, Kees.

  7. I have a great appreciation for this piece. It resonates with me both in the American context I work in, both in terms of evangelicalism’s continued apologetic emphasis in relation to inerrancy, and in a more general theological sense where we emphasize strength over weakness. I like this idea with its similarities to an overall cruciform theology.

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I am very hesitant to follow the comments here that fear opening the door to some kind of misuse or arbitrariness and non-commitment of the Bible. Honestly, the misuse, abuse and instrumentalization of the Scriptures for ungodly purposes is inevitable and has taken place and continues to take place in both fundamentalist and biblical criticism circles. Just as every weakness includes defenselessness in a certain way. Interestingly, both the attack of the Bible criticism and all the attempts to defend and harmonize it have come to nothing. An extremely important fundamental question remains. How can we still speak of authority in a concept of “power in weakness”? After all, the biblical texts ultimately constitute the authority of Christian teaching. Perhaps we can also speak here of “power in spite of defenselessness”? Perhaps the Bible does not need defenders, but understanders. It is certain that when Jesus hung on the cross, he no longer found a defender. Should it really be the case that whoever speaks of the foolishness of the cross also finds this foolishness in the documents that testify to it? Then God would indeed impose on us, in the whole of Scripture, his own theology, which culminates in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Then we have a scripture and consequently theology that find their proof of truth alone in doing what Jesus says, in order to discover exclusively in this way that their teaching is from God. God cannot be controlled by us. It is therefore logical that we cannot control his word either. But this requires, first, a hermeneutic that does justice to this and, second, a mature faith community that has the courage to arrive at binding instructions for action on this basis in an equally courageous process of theologizing.

    • Hi Joachim, thank you for your thoughtful engagement with my post. You are right that the key question is whether authority and ‘power in weakness’ can go hand in hand. As my post made clear, I believe they do, because when speaking about the authority of the Bible we are ultimately speaking about the authority of God, not about the authority of the words and sentences in themselves (as a standalone object).

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