Tag Archives: biblical literalism

Book Review: Taking God at his Word by Kevin DeYoung

After asking for reading suggestions at the start of the year, this was one of the suggestions that came up as a book to particularly challenge my thinking. Such challenges are always welcome. For my own view, I would recommend you read this and this.

It has to be said, it doesn’t get off to a good start. The way the book is structured is that DeYoung starts with his conclusion (that’s not just my view, he states it explicitly himself) and then spends the next 7 chapters attempting to justify that conclusion. So what is his conclusion? The subtitle of the book spells it out: Why the Bible is knowable, necessary, and enough, and what it means for you and me.

He begins by making a category error. He wishes to start with Psalm 119 but states that is an “intricate, finely crafted, single-minded love poem…about the Bible itself.” Really? The author of the psalm was writing long before the idea the bible ever existed. DeYoung is correct in stating that the bible is “a very long collection of books” but all too often he seems to treat it as though it were a single body of work with a single author.

Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, though. As this is meant to be a kind of executive summary, then all the supporting evidence and reasoning must come later. I just kept my ears pricked to see if anything in the first chapter was used as justification for later points. Such a possibility is hinted at as DeYoung states that he sees no problem with circular reasoning.

He begins each chapter with a passage from one book or another of the bible and uses this as his starting point. In particular he chooses 2 Peter 1:16-21, Hebrews 1:1-4, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Acts 17:1-15, 1 Corinthians 2:6-13, John 10:35-36 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

The chapter headings give a flavour of what to expect:

  • Believing, Feeling Doing
  • Something More Sure
  • God’s Word Is Enough
  • God’s Word Is Clear
  • God’s Word Is Final
  • God’s Word Is Necessary
  • Christ’s Unbreakable Bible
  • Stick With the Scriptures

Very early on, we see the most revealing statement that summarises what is wrong with this book. He gives a summary of an exchange with an unnamed “liberal pastor” about the historicity of the virgin birth. In it, he states this pastor wrote “I don’t claim that you need to accept my understanding.” Now that’s a very gracious and affirming statement. Nothing to be condemned there. I don’t force others to conform to my view. If I believe them to be wrong, I may point out why, just as others are welcome to correct me (and of course, both parties are entitled to a defence of their views). But DeYoung will not have that. His response to the pastor was “I do claim that you need to accept my understanding.” (emphasis original). In other words, DeYoung sets himself up as arbiter of the interpretation of the bible and claims himself to be infallible. Though his argument is trying to show that he thinks the bible is infallible, his de facto position is that he is a person of perfect understanding. If he were not, then his view may be open to questioning, to challenge and even to change. It is one thing to be firm in one’s convictions and robust in their defence, but this level of arrogance is sufficient reason to view DeYoung as an unsound, unhumble teacher whose work is not to be trusted.

As with many conservatives, DeYoung has an unhealthy preoccupation with the idea of authority. He wants to be able to view the bible as a stand-alone document that contains all the right answers. Obviously, if one could do this, then that would be wonderful. Clearly DeYoung thinks he has found his paradise and wishes to show people how to get to his enlightened position. Yet it’s not that easy. In arriving at his conclusion, he has abdicated his responsibility to “love the Lord your God….with all your mind”. For while he is correct in pointing out that christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise, the mind must form one part of our love. As someone so educated (the book cites he has an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) one would have hoped that he’d be a bit more serious when it comes to utilising the gift of logic and the skill of fact-checking.

One of the failings of the book is to be suitably specific. For example, in his view the bible is wholly clear and can be readily understood. But if you read the chapter, there is no evidence of his appreciating the times, the cultures or the languages the bible was written in, nor to the various audiences to whom the books were written. In the chapter where he argues that the bible is readily understandable, he doesn’t tackle any of the difficult problems that must be addressed by one wishing to assert such a view. The first example that sprang to my mind was of statement about being meeting Jesus in the sky in Thessalonians. Is this readily understandable? If one takes an English translation prima facie then it would be an obvious backup for “rapture theology”. Yet as soon as one gains an understanding of the cultural norms prevalent at the time Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica, where it was customary for a people to leave the city and welcome the returning king in as they approached (c.f. Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem about a week before he died) then it casts a wholly different light on the passage.

One of the telling signs in the book is the sources DeYoung quotes. Obviously, there are some scriptural references, though all too often they are piecemeal, stripped of context and have a strong odour of proof texting about them rather than the aroma of exegesis. DeYoung makes a few very loose and broadsided comments about “liberals” but doesn’t quote any or give the reader any insight as to where such claims about these liberal views may be checked. The closest we get is a single reference to Karl Barth, one of the most robustly orthodox of evangelical theologians of the last 200 years! Instead, we have what appears to be some straw man arguments. I cite as my example (see, it’s not that hard!), the question of historicity. DeYoung argues for a binary all or nothing: either the bible is a completely reliable record of the history it purports to document or one may take the “liberal” point of view where history doesn’t really matter. There is no room for nuance. Yes, some things are really important historically. I would fully affirm the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; those twin events are not only the lynchpin of christianity, but are well attested and can be relied upon as historical events as strongly, if not more so, than many an event in the ancient world. But what about the parting of the Red Sea? Is that even the correct understanding; perhaps it was the Sea of Reeds as some have suggested. Are we to understand the creation story as being in the same genre as we do the book of Acts? I would say, no. They were written for different purposes, in different styles, by different authors, in different cultures and at different times. This is where I find the approach of N.T. Wright much more reasonable, in his appeal to critical realism (see The New Testament and the People of God for more on this topic) as the way the historically-minded person ought to set about their understanding of christianity. But this seems like too much hard work for DeYoung, who wants to take the shortcut that gets him to a quick and easy answer.

One notes that his non-scriptural sources, aside from excluding any actual liberal sources, are very strongly leaning in one direction. J.I. Packer gets numerous mentions (see here for my review of his work, Knowing God), John Calvin gets a fair few, as does a work entitled Reformed Dogmatics. All of these seem to be chosen because they back up DeYoung’s view, not because they are necessarily the most appropriate sources to use. If they are indicative of DeYoung’s own library, then it is indicative that his focus is very narrow indeed, which has resulted in a certain level of cherry picking. A more balanced work would cite the views that DeYoung sees himself as opposing as engage with them.

Let me use an illustration now:

I have a colleague at work who regularly asks the question: “Can you send me the headcounts, please?” In their mind, they are very clear about what they are asking for. Yet to me, it is not. Are they asking for the number of employees or the number of full time equivalents. Are they asking for the latest figures, a snapshot as at the year end or an average over a period? As soon as one starts to ask these questions, there is evident confusion on the part of the other person, as they don’t understand all the distinctions. Sometimes, they merely repeat the simplistic, initial request hoping that the complications they hadn’t foreseen would simply dissipate.

So it with Kevin DeYoung. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but it seems that in the few instances he pays lip service to serious matters like form criticism, he seems to lack an understanding of the questions posed by that school of thought. Instead, he offers us the off-handed dismissal that what Jesus thought

Ultimately, this is the work of a confused person who desperately wants to believe that they have a perfect textbook in front them, as to do so bypasses a lot of thinking that would otherwise be needed. Yet there is little appreciation of what the books of the bible are or what the intentions are that underly their purpose. Instead of having a holy trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, who are revealed to us in scripture, and whom we know through the revelation of the Spirit, through the communal life of the Church, through the determined study of the bible, scripture is, for DeYoung, treated as a member of the trinity: perfect, complete and unquestionable. Not only that, but his approach is wholly cataphatic.

In conclusion, it is not a worthwhile effort in reading if you want to gain a reasonable understanding of how to read the bible. Its main value is an example in how American conservativism works and how that can lead to a kind of fundamentalism. To finish, I am reminded of what Paul said to the church in Corinth: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned as a child…” On the basis of the evidence of this book, Kevin DeYoung still does.

Biblical literalism and liberalism

Having started to read Marcus Borg’s ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’ I began to write a review as I normally do. The trouble was, I got quite frustrated because it was getting rather long when I was only a quarter of the way through the book. Yet it was more that I wanted to respond to Borg than to merely review the book. So here, and hopefully in another post, I hope to explore some of the thoughts that have been triggered by his provocative writing. 

In this post, I want to look at Borg’s dichotomy of ways of reading the bible, the gospels in particular. Borg presents us with 2 ways of reading, the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, though he instantly notes that the ‘earlier paradigm’ is not at all earlier. It is essentially a fundamentalist viewpoint, or at least as Borg portrays it. In such a view, the bible is not a library of books, it is a single book, inerrant and which trumps any and all facts and truth, even if the evidence for these goes against a prima facie reading; biblical literalism, if you will.

Set against this is Borg’s own view, which he considers more enlightened. This view focuses solely on the metaphorical meaning of the gospels. In this view, you can take or leave whatever aspects of the gospels you please. If the wedding at Cana doesn’t suit you, just dismiss its historicity, call it a metaphor and then look at the consequences and meaning of an event that never happened.

What annoys me is the gross caricature of each and that I know many who could not be described as either. It is fair to say that I have come across a few who I would say are metaphor-phobic. Taking 2 Tim 3:16 to apply to the 66 books of the bible, they do subscribe to both sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy, a combination which leads to such viewpoints as young earth creationism, affirmation of the virgin birth as a core tenet of faith, belief in the rapture and a worrying interpretation of the book of Revelation. Though I would not go so far to say that belief in any one of these necessarily entails belief in any of the others.

As well as such metaphor-phobes I have also met some metaphor-philes, albeit fewer in number. Having looked at the more conservative end of the scale with some alarm, they are quick to run away as far away as possible. In this mindset, everything in the bible is a metaphor. Not only is the poetry of Genesis 1 recognised for what it is, but Abraham becomes a figure of legend, Moses becomes mythical and David is turned into an amalgamation of a variety of rulers. But again, my approach is that scepticism about one does not logically cast additional doubt on any of the others.

I don’t think it would do an injustice to Borg to characterise his view as that of a metaphor-phile. In his approach to Jesus he wishes to distinguish between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Jesus of faith’. The latter is referred to in reference to the metaphor-phobic worldview, where the Jesus of faith was born of a virgin, performed miracles of various kinds, spoke with Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration, was crucified and resurrected. To the metaphpor-phile, this view must be countered, so in order to assert their ‘Jesus of history’, such aspects of the gospels must, a priori, be rejected.

While the concept of ‘fully God, fully man’ seems to be superficially acknowledged by Borg, he claims that to accept the possibility that Jesus performed miracles is to be docetic. After all, he argues, how can one claim Jesus is ‘fully man’ if he can turn water into wine? With large sections of the gospels thus expunged, the ‘Jesus of history’ that we are left with is a teacher of aphorisms who gained a following which became a church which then invented a narrative around which the teachings of this mystic itinerant preacher were weaved.

Crucial to Borg’s methodology, which seems to be almost identical to that of the Jesus Seminar, the group to which Borg belonged and contributed during much of the time that the Seminar met. This methodology maintains an assumption that the early church misunderstood Jesus. Then, if any features of the gospels are found to coincide with early church history they are dismissed as later additions to the gospels. Of what remains, there must be multiple attestation. There’s a catch, however. Any material in Matthew or Luke which is also attested by Mark is assumed to have been copied from Mark and so cannot count as having been multiply attested. The material which is common to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark, is assumed to have come from a single source, known as Q. The Q hypothesis is quite a good one, but it is one which I admit I am agnostic about. With such a set of assumptions, one wonders if anything could pass the multiple attestation test. Thankfully, Borg doesn’t actually stick to his own criteria, so his book (the review of which I hope to finish and post shortly) is not without merit.

Anyway, that’s enough of an outline for now. This is a place for the crystallisation of thoughts and I shall attempt to get them down on pen & paper (as I usually write my posts thus, before typing up, editing and proofreading).

Borg’s characterisation of the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, which I refer to as ‘metaphor-phobic’ and metaphor-philic’ is not one that I can agree with. To my way of thinking, to adopt a critical attitude does not mean a wholesale rejection of anything that may be hard to believe. In some ways, the rejection of gospel as history is itself an uncritical point of view, as it is as easy and lazy a way of thinking as the fundamentalism which such a view seeks to oppose.

Every claim must be assessed on its merits, the evidence supporting or countering it and the reasonableness of the consequences that follow. When considering the bible as history, we don’t have all the evidence we might like. To some, this means none of it can be accepted. To my way of thinking, we have to deal with the evidence we have. This means that our beliefs are provisional and uncertain but not unreasonable. Assurance is not the same as certainty. Doubt is not the same as disbelief. Holding assurance in one hand and doubt in the other is how I maintain balance.

An example – the virgin birth

By way of illustration, I will expand a little on claim in the gospels mentioned above and which I have touched on before without being too explicit. I do not affirm that the virgin birth as a core tenet of my faith. Neither, though, do I deny it outright. It is a topic about which I am agnostic, but which I do not think is of vital importance. Let me explain why.

To start with, there is the well known incident of the Septuagint mistranslating ‘young woman’ as ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 – with a possible supposition that this was an addition Matthew and Luke made to their accounts. To me, though, the question has to be ‘who was the eyewitness?’

It seems most likely to me that the Christmas narrative was not a fanciful work of fiction added to the oral history of Jesus’ life, but was rather a product of the same oral history. But it must have originated from someone who was there and remembered it, but who was also part of the early christian community. The person who best fits this description is Mary herself. Have a read of Luke 1 and ask yourself through whose eyes we are predominantly looking.

Jesus’ later ministry had many witnesses, most notably the disciples. They could correct each other’s recollections, a point well made by Kenneth Bailey in his seminal paper, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels. The fact that there were fewer witnesses to the events of the nativity means that we must regard them as more questionable as the later gospels. When I did some reading on this a little while ago, it was interesting that FF Bruce, Craig Blomberg and Richard Bauckham all overlooked the nativity. Bruce and Blomberg are both more conservative in their approach than I am, and even they are wary of attesting the virgin birth. For me, there are just too many unanswered questions to be able to affirm it. Moreover, I don’t believe the evidence exists that could settle the question one way or another.

The next question then seems to be, ‘what might we miss out on if we no longer affirm the virgin birth?’ i.e. is there any hole in our theology which would warp the gospel? I’ve thought this through and cannot find any. To me, why the nativity is important because of the theology of incarnation, Jesus being wholly God and wholly man at the same time, hard though that is to comprehend. The scientist in me cannot help but wonder what a DNA test on Jesus would have revealed. Just as I affirm that God created the universe but am not a creationist, so I find no significant issue with regarding Jesus’ divinity without boldly stating that he was born of a virgin. The ‘how’ is less important. In this respect, I do side somewhat with Borg. To me, the core aspects of the gospel are unaffected: the proclamation of God as king, the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the atonement for sins through the sacrifice of the crucifixion and the victory over death as the vindication of all the above through the resurrection. It is these things and their ramifications that I would rather spend time thinking about and discussing.

Conclusion

The Jesus of the faith that I hold to with a light grip is the Jesus of my best, though flawed, understanding of history. To be a christian is not to be the holder of all knowledge and understanding, but to be a disciple, grasping at the coattails of those of who have gone before us whilst treading out our own path. But to portray this as a solo activity is misleading. To be a christian is entails being part of a community in the form of church, though I shall spare you from my further thoughts on ecclesiology. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let me know if you agree or disagree.