Reading Outside Your Tribe
The Bible is inerrant. Because it is the inspired Word of God, it is incapable of communicating falsity. While being kept from error, the human authors of the Bible were moved by the Holy Spirit so that all they wrote (in their own words) fully encompassed all he desired for them to write. What happens, then, when we read about their misgivings and failures? Does God’s inerrancy suffer at the hands of his people’s errors? My issue is how easily some unintentionally apply this supernatural activity of the Spirit with respect to the doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration beyond the text, and extend it to the authors themselves.
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:11–14, ESV)
When these certain men came from James, the brother of Christ and leader of the Jerusalem church, Paul was forced to confront Peter (Cephas). Paul opposed Peter, the rock on whom Christ promised to build his church (Mt 16:18), for acting in a manner that was out of step with the gospel. It’s baffling that two of the “super-apostles” (cf. 2 Cor 11:5) are indicted in these four verses: the former for propagating (enforcing?) ethnic division in the church, the latter for sheepishly cowering to the forces of sinful peer-pressure. The moral of the story: everyone (even the Apostles!) is susceptible to theological blind spots.
The crusades don't rebuff the wisdom of Aquinas. The burning of Servetus doesn't nullify Calvin's contributions. Whitefield's pension for slavery doesn't overturn his homiletical genius. Again, we are all susceptible to theological blind spots. One way we can remedy this is by reading outside of our tribes. While it would be incredibly convenient, Christendom does not neatly divide along the lines of theological good guys and theological bad guys. We must be Bereans. We are big boys and girls. If there are bones in the fish, pick them out and feast on the meat.
Barth, Swiss Reformed, was an ostensible universalist; yet he taught me a great deal about Christian ethics and the highest good. Lewis, an Anglican, was an errantist; yet he tutored me in the school of Christian imagination and what it means to have an awakened mind. Mary Prokes, a Roman Catholic, was a Franciscan nun; yet her prose on human embodiment—specifically on the true purpose and meaning of sexuality—was outstandingly illuminating and edifying. R.C. Sproul Jr., a Presbyterian, believes that God created sin; yet he taught me much on trusting in God’s sovereignty and faithfulness in the midst of the storm.
Isaac Newton, arguably the most influential scientific figure of all time, once penned to a friend, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This was Newton’s way of acknowledging that his accomplishments were due in large part to those who went before him. This maxim has been adopted to comment on the invaluable contributions of the Christian tradition. We are recipients of a rich and diverse tradition of theological formulation. This gift is to be received with thanksgiving, as an extension of God's promise to be with us always and to build his church. My only problem with the co-option of this quote is the imagery. If we are standing on the shoulders of giants, then when they fall we all fall. As Protestants, we stand on the Bible. Because the Bible is inerrant, I don’t need Luther to be. And neither do you.