Intended Audience: Those interested in biblical studies, Christianity and theology
As anyone who grew up in conservative evangelicalism, the Bible played a central role in my life. In some ways, I dedicated my career to studying and mastering the Bible—from three degrees in religion/theology, to teaching Old and New Testament as a professor, to the Greek “Jesus is Lord” inscription on one of my high school rings, to the seven-year journey writing a Greek grammar
It’s hard to overstate. The National Association of Evangelicals, in fact, explicitly defines “evangelicalism” as affirming “biblicism.” Introductions to World Religions also acknowledge the phenomenon of “bibliolatry” (Bible-worship). And Encyclopedia Brittanica defines “Religious Fundamentalism” as “a type of militantly conservative religious movement characterized by the advocacy of strict conformity to sacred texts.”
There are, however, a plurality of views about the Bible within the Christian faith. I did not know this as an evangelical, and today I frequently find myself having to explain to colleagues/friends/family how there isn’t simply one “right” perspective on what the Bible “is” or how it functions (much less that if we don’t all agree, society won’t exactly break down; Enns and Bayas on The Bible for Normal People podcast emphasize these points.)
What follows is a cumulative summary of such perspectives on “bibliology,” albeit very concise and synthetic. I generally move from more secular, modern, and ecumenical to the most radical and fundamentalist. I also am creating titles on-the-fly that are creative and try to capture the perspective as best I can. And finally, I will almost certainly update this summary after receiving initial feedback.
- Skeptical Secular: The Bible is an anthology of religious texts that harms people intellectually and endangers society (i.e., because of its teachings/narratives).
- Secular: The Bible is an anthology of religious texts.
- Positive Secular: The Bible is an anthology of religious texts that should be studied today for it’s (a) historical value, or (b) it’s moral value, or…
- Perennial/Theosophist/Universalist/Unitarian: The Bible is an anthology of religious texts that reveals divine truths—similar to other religious texts.
- Classical (Schleiermacherian) Liberal: The Bible is an anthology of religious texts that record human beings struggle and experience of “God,” which most notably includes the Christ-event in Jesus and the impact on the disciples, all of which reveals something about God and creation, and human beings place and responsibilities within it. (“Word of God” metaphor may or may not be used)
- Fundamentalist Modern Liberal: The Bible is an anthology of religious texts that contain divine, spiritual truths by the one true God (in that sense it is “the word of God”)
- Liberal + Liberationist: …within it; it is written primarily by the oppressed (exiled Israelites and colonized Jews) and therefore serves to guide us today to liberate all who are vulnerable and oppressed in society.
- Neo-Orthodox (Barthian): The Bible is primarily the “word of God,” or rather, becomes “the word of God” in an event and encounter between the Triune God and readers; its chief significance is that in it we encounter the resurrected Lord.
- Orthodox: The Bible is the word of God, meaning that God somehow speaks to us through the canon (whether Protestant, EO, or Catholic) about the way of salvation in Jesus and life in the Spirit.
- Progressive Reformed (Fuller Seminary, Calvin University, Hope College): (Scholastic Reformed + explicit denial of inerrancy/limitation of inerrancy to, e.g., ‘spiritual truths’ or ‘matters of salvation’, etc.)
- Early/Basic Protestant: The Bible is the written Word of God, meaning that God speaks to us through the text, which is itself inspired by God’s Spirit; the scriptures are sufficient to bring us to salvation without official institutional decrees or infallible interpretation.
- Scholastic Reformed: The text of the 66-book Protestant canon is “given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life,” and is “infallible” on matters of faith and practice, and is self-authorizing/authenticating, and is self-interpreting, and demonstrates divine beauty (Westminster Confession of Faith ch 1).
- Baptist/Evangelical: (Scholastic Reformed reworded in contemporary language; i.e., “The Bible is God’s word given by divine inspiration, the record of God’s revelation of Himself to humanity. It is trustworthy, sufficient, without error—the supreme authority and guide for all doctrine and conduct. It is the truth by which God brings persons into a saving relationship with Himself and leads them to Christian maturity.”)
- Fundamentalist (Autograph Onlyist): The autographic text of the 66-book Protestant canon is God’s written word, infallible, inerrant, self-authorizing, and the ultimate standard for all truth claims on whatever it addresses (I.e., “Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches…We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood,” Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy)
- Fundamentalist (Autograph Onlyist + Epistemological Universalist): …the ultimate standard for all truth claims whatsoever.
- Fundamentalist (KJV Onlyist + Epistemological Universalist): The autographic text of the 66-book Protestant canon of the 1611 Authorize King James Version is God’s written word, infallible, inerrant, self-authorizing, and the ultimate standard for all truth claims whatsoever (i.e., “We believe the King James Bible is God’s preserved Word for English speaking peoples and shall be the official and only translation used by this church.”)
Views around 9-10 and following have become known as “verbal plenary inspiration,” and defended most rigorously by old Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield. “Verbal” means it applies to the very words of the written Bible, “plenary” meaning “full” (all of them, not just some), and “inspiration” meaning somehow from God.
This view (which I generally reject) introduces many problems and paradoxes. First and foremost, in this view, the Bible should be treated as if it was directly written by God (i.e., “dropped out of heaven”), even we know that this is exactly what didn’t happen. It also becomes a problem when Paul and the OT prophets specifically distinguish what they say from what God or Jesus says (“Thus saith the Lord,” “Not I, but the Lord,” etc.); verbal plenary inspiration tells us that none of these distinctions matter, because “God” is the ultimate author of all of it; Jesus’ words carry no more authority than anything else between the two covers. Michael Bird, author of Evangelical Theology, offered his own contemporary critique of verbal plenary inspiration here.
I gave a lecture somewhat on this topic for the Canadian American Theological Society October 27, 2017, entitled “The Evolution of Evangelical Theology in Creeds, Confessions, and Statements of Faith: A Chronological and Discursive Appraisal.” It’s based off some lectures I gave on doctrine of scripture and evolving views of the Bible, which complements the subject of this post.