Theology: March 2007 Archives

In a post about how white evangelicals often do but should not assume what he calls a "white presumptive" perspective (something I wholeheartedly agree with and have discussed in the past under the term 'normative whiteness'), Mark Dever says something in passing that I'm not sure I agree with.
African-American Christian history is more fundamentally Christian than it is African-American. I realize that may be a controversial statement, but inside the body of Christ, we must realize that our racial identities (while seeming in Revelation to last into eternity) are not as fundamental as our Christian identity.

Again, his main statement there is something I wholeheartedly agree with. Black evangelicals, in my experience, are more likely to resist this biblical truth than white evangelicals, at least in their explicit beliefs. But white evangelicals can often give it lip service to it without realizing how much they are in fact tied to their white identity, as instanced by the very occasion of Mark's post. Whiteness is invisible to most white people, and the fact that white people affirm this statement doesn't mean they really understand what it amounts to and how their lives would have to change were they really to incorporate its truth into their lives.

But the disagreement I have with this statement is not in what it says overall but in what he says in passing in parentheses. He says racial identities seem in Revelation to last into eternity. Is that true? Now it may be that the things that inform our identities racially do last into eternity. Does that mean we will still have races in eternity? I don't think that follows, but I think the question of whether we will have racial identities in eternity is separate from the question of whether the book of Revelation includes anything that should seem to indicate that racial identities will continue in eternity. There are strong indications that the believers gathered around God's throne is a united body of people from every tongue and nation.

But two things make me think it is not teaching that racial identities continue into eternity. First, these descriptions are not just about eternity. They are about the gathered people of God, who are spiritually speaking around the throne of God in heaven. This isn't a resurrection scene. It's a teaching about the nature of the church now. Second, it doesn't say that these are people defined in terms of racial identities. It says that there are people there from every tongue, tribe, and nation. These are people called out of the world and into the people of God. It doesn't mean racial identities are wiped out, but it doesn't say they're not. It simply says that people who were of all the tongues, tribes, and nations are gathered together as one.

It's become fairly commonplace that someone will claim that the concept of inerrancy is a relatively recent development in the history of Christianity. Some trace it back to the 19th century and then claim that anyone beforehand held some weaker view of the authority of scripture. I'm not sure how this got started, but it's been popularized by people who are otherwise good scholars, such as George Marsden. I've had it on the backburner for at least several months now to put together a post on this issue, but I haven't managed to get the impetus to do it until a commenter on this post threw this canard at me. So here is what I consider to be absolutely clear statements from some historical figures long before the 19th century holding to views that seem to me to be pretty much the same view as the inerrancy of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, which has become a standard account of contemporary evangelicals mean by the term.

Now I've always thought the biblical authors would be shocked at any suggestion that there were errors in any genuinely divinely-inspired scripture. I think there are reasons for thinking this in the various parts of the canon. But Jesus and the authors of the epistles very clearly saw the psalms as authoritative in a way that they would base arguments on particular words. Clearly they took the psalms seriously.

I find it extremely hard to take Psalm 119 seriously without concluding that its author held (at least what at the time was considered) God’s word to be absolutely infallible. It doesn’t take reading very far into the psalm to see that. Verse 13 says that all the laws come from God (which the Torah itself repeatedly stresses). Throughout the psalm there are statements about how trustworthy God’s word and law are, e.g. v.86 “all your commands are trustworthy”, and v.139 says they are fully trustworthy. V.89 says it’s eternal and in the heavens as if some might have thought that it was a merely humanly authored set of documents that are temporary or not fully what God would want expressed, and v.91 explains the continuance of the laws in terms of everything serving God, including the laws, which were authored under his sovereign decree. In v.118, straying in any way from God’s decrees deserves God’s rejection, which amounts to saying that God rejects any deviation from them, i.e. seeing any of them as in error. According to v.151, all of them are true, and v.172 says all of them are righteous, with v.142 tying them together: “your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true”, which in Hebrew parallelism connects the truth of the laws to the righteousness of God. The contrast of v.163 between hating falsehood but loving God’s law amounts to saying that none of the laws are false. I don't know how to accept all of that while denying inerrancy.

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