One thing I've been trying to do over the last year or so is to understand Evangelican Protestantism, which I've wanted to do for a range of reasons, not the least of which being that many friends of mine are Evangelicals of one sort or another. I've read a lot, and attended a lot of Evangelical Anglican services, and listened to numerous sermons, and prayed with Evangelicals, and I've made lots of Evangelical friends, and I've talked openly and honestly and sometimes constructively about where we agree and where we differ.
To be honest, though, while I know more than a did a year ago, I'm not sure I understand more. In ways I'm far more confused than I was.
That's not entirely true, I suppose; I've realised a few things that I think are probably quite important, but it'll take me time to internalise them so they'll bear fruit.
Anyway, recently I've been reading a book called Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, which consists of a number of essays by an English liberal Anglican, David Edwards, with responses by the prominent Evangelical Anglican, John Stott. It's clearly a flawed book, in that I'd like Edwards to be able to reply to Stott's responses, and in that Stott's obviously suffering from the limited space he has in which to reply to Edwards: a typical Edwards chapter is about forty pages long, whereas Stott's responses usually clock in at about half that length. The brevity of Stott's responses may reflect the fact that Stott's heart clearly wasn't in the project, something he points out more than once.
There's much that Stott says that I agree with, as it happens -- I think Edwards has a tendency to make doctrine say what he would like it to, whereas Stott insists on its subordination to Scripture, or at least its harmony with Scripture. For all that, though, I have serious issues with Stott's basic approach to Scripture, and indeed was quite surprised to realise how problematic his approach is.
The classic Reformation cry of Sola Scriptura is, of course, little more than a banner slogan. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli didn't really agree on what it meant, and yet their understandings of it differed in no small ways from those of their successors of even a generation or two later. If we're truly honest about this it's difficult to see, as Roger Olson points out, how it can be a viable concept: all else aside, we bring our preconceptions to the text when we read, and read through eyes that are trained to see some things, to gloss over others, and to interpret all in accord with our own traditions and assumption.
Predictably enough, given the nature of debate, Edwards weighs into the whole question of inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, and homes in on what is surely the proof text for advocates of Sola Scriptura, that being 2 Timothy 3:14-17, which I tend to think of in its Revised Standard Version translation:
'But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work'
Now, Edwards doesn't get into the fact that this passage doesn't list the Scriptures -- the Bible doesn't include a divinely inspired contents page -- or into how, as a half-Greek Hellenistic Jew, Timothy would have been acquainted from childhood with a rather larger canon of Scripture than either Edwards or Stott would recognise as part of what we'd call the Old Testament. Neither does he focus on the fact that the passage merely says that Scripture is useful for the purposes Paul lists, not that it is in itself sufficient for those purposes. Edwards does, however, flag up a problem that had never struck me before, pointing out that this passage can be translated in a less exalted way, so that the part the RSV renders as 'All scripture is inspired by God and profitable...' could just as easily be rendered, as in the New English Bible, as 'every inspired scripture is useful...'
It should be obvious that this translation, if accurate, raises the possibility that not all Scriptures are inspired; the language of this translation may only be subtly different from that of the Revised Standard Version and the New International Version, the Evangelical translation of choice, but its meaning is radically different.
Well, Stott responds to this particular point, saying:
'Alternatively, I could underline the elaborate internal cross-attestation of Scripture and take you to task for accepting the NEB interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16, that the word theopneustos ("God-breathed") applies only to some Scriptures. It is true, of course, that the Greek sentence has no main verb, but (according to the best reading) it includes the word kai ("and"), indicating that two assertions are being made, not one, namely that 'all Scripture is God-breathed and useful...'
I gawped when I read that, as Stott must surely realise that kai doesn't just mean 'and'. Kai can be an intensifier, like 'indeed', so that the relevant sentence could read 'all God-breathed scripture is indeed profitable for teaching...' What's more, it often simply means 'also', and could as such therefore be harking back to a previous point. Given that it can fairly be translated as 'also', then, it's as valid to render pasa graphē theopneustos kai ōphelismos as 'all God-breathed Scripture is also useful...', something which makes perfect sense when following on from the previous line, so that the passage could quite validly read:
'But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All God-breathed scripture is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work'
In other words, in either of these alternative readings, both of which make sense in the context of Paul commissioning and advising Timothy on how to be a Christian teacher, Paul is reminding Timothy of how he has known the Scriptures all his life, these being able to instruct him for salvation, and being useful for the education of others. If either of these is the right reading, then Paul isn't saying that all Scripture is inspired by God, just that insofar as Scripture is inspired, so is it useful.
I'm not sure about this, of course. Until this week this interpretation had never occured to me. Still, it's got me thinking, not least about the wisdom of basing any doctrinal claims about the authority of Scripture upon a passage that can validly be translated in two such different ways.