Bloesch on The Primacy of Scripture

The questions surrounding Adam and Eve and the Fall in Genesis 2-3 and concerning the role of inspiration in the formation of the Bible are issues that won’t go away any time soon. They are not the only issues at play in discussions of science, Christian faith, and the intellectual coherence, but they are major ones. The post today is a slightly revised version of one of my older posts, but it brings up issues that remain and will remain important for quite awhile yet to come.

As a college student I took a course on theology – one of the requirements of the school I attended. Our primary textbook was volume one of Essentials of Evangelical Theology, by Donald Bloesch. Particularly relevant to the question here are a chapter entitled The Primacy of Scripture and a section in his chapter on Total Depravity dealing with The Story of the Fall. Bloesch takes a rather conservative reformed evangelical stance over all, although probably not conservative enough for some. It is worth considering what he has to say.

In his discussion of the primacy of scripture Bloesch emphasizes the human and divine aspects of scripture and notes that many people have a docetic view of scripture – and that this view is mistaken.

Scripture cannot be rightly understood unless we take into consideration that it has dual authorship. … The Bible is not partly the Word of God and partly the word of man: it is in its entirety the very Word of God and the very word of man. … if we affirm … that the Bible is predominantly a divine book and that the human element is only a mask or outward aspect of the divine, then we have a docetic view of Scripture. Some would even say that the Bible is an exact reproduction of the thoughts of God, but this denies its real humanity as well as its historicity. (p. 52 – page numbers are from the 1978 original I’ve had since taking a theology course in college)

What does this mean to Bloesch?

First – The authority of scripture flows from the authority of God in Jesus Christ.

… we must bear in mind that the ultimate, final authority is not Scripture but the living God himself as we find him in Jesus Christ. … The Bible is authoritative because it points beyond itself to the absolute authority, the living and transcendent Word of God. (p. 62-63)

Bloesch sounds quite a lot like NT Wright here as he describes his view of the authority of scripture in The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God and in the enlarged revision Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. The central claim of Wright’s book is that all authority belongs to God – and thus scripture is authoritative only in the sense that the authority of the triune God is exercised through scripture. In fact, Wright goes so far as to say that scripture itself points — authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority! — away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God, now delegated to Jesus Christ.(p. 24 The Last Word)

And a great line from Wright’s book: When John declares that “in the beginning was the word,” he does not reach a climax with “and the word was written down” but “and the word became flesh.” (p. 23 The Last Word).

Second – inerrancy and infallibility nuanced.

The enlightened biblical Christian will not shrink from asserting that there are culturally conditioned ideas as well as historically conditioned language in the Bible. (p. 64)

We can heartily assent to this statement [the Lausanne Covenant] but with the proviso that the infallible truth of Scripture is not something self-evident. The doctrine or message of Scripture, which alone is infallible and inerrant, is hidden in the historical and cultural witness of the biblical writers. They did not err in what they proclaimed, but this does not mean that they were faultless in their recording of historical data, or in their world view, which is now outdated. … This is why our ultimate criterion is not the Scripture in and of itself but the Word and the Spirit, the Scripture illumined by the Spirit. (p. 65).

The message of God and his interaction with the world is, according to Bloesch, where we find the infallible and inerrant message of scripture. In my opinion, first and foremost we need to know, and be immersed in, the sweep of Scripture and the message of the story. If we are not immersed in the sweep of the story including the hard bits, not just the highlights, we will miss the message.

But the nuancing of the idea of scriptural inerrancy is not a new phenomenon. Luther held that the scriptures do not err – but also said:

When one often reads [in the Bible] that great numbers were slain – for example, eighty thousand – I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed. What is meant is the whole people. (p. 65 quoting from Luther’s Works vol. 54)

Luther also though that an ingenious, pious and learned man added to Job and that there was failure as well as success in prophetic prediction. Inerrancy did not mean for Luther what it means for many today.

Calvin thought that Jeremiah’s name crept into Mt. 27:9 by mistake and doubted that 2 Peter was actually written by Peter despite its self attestation.

Third – The Fall – mythic and historical.

Genesis contains mythic and legendary elements in common with the ancient near eastern milieu of the original audience. The Fall is not a myth – but the text of Genesis is distinctly mythohistorical. It uses myth to convey truth. To read the text as strictly historical is to misinterpret the Word of God, to force our definition of what God would or would not inspire onto the text.

At this point it is important to establish the correct hermeneutical procedure for understanding the “myth” of the fall. In order to discover what the author really intended we must take into consideration the literary genre of the narrative. In this way the literal sense is not less but more respected. … To affirm that there are mythical and legendary elements in the Scripture is not to detract from its divine inspiration nor from its historical basis but to attest that the Holy Spirit has made use of various kinds of language and imagery to convey divine truth. (p. 104-105).

Bloesch affirms a historical fall but not the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis as exact literal history. Adam and Eve may or may not have existed as a unique initial pair.

It seems, however, that the story of the fall does assume that mankind has a common ancestor or ancestors who forfeited earthly happiness by falling into sin. The story has a dual focus: it points not only to generic man but to primal man. Its message holds true in both cases: man is not created a sinner but becomes a sinner through a tragic misuse of his freedom. (p. 107)

He points to the views of CS Lewis and others as he discusses this (see Lewis in The Problem of Pain for example).

The emergence of man is attributed to divine action – but this does not deny the evidence for evolution, the antiquity of the species, or the connection with prior hominoid species. It simply states that mankind is not the result of blind cosmic evolution. In an endnote he says:

We are open to the view of Karl Rahner that the first authentic hominisation (coming into being of man) happened only once – in a single couple. Yet it would not contradict the Christian faith “to assume several hominisations [pre-Adamites] which quickly perished in the struggle for existence and made no contribution to the one real saving history of mankind…” (p. 117-118)

For Bloesch it is the Fall that is the key truth, not a unique lone pair, Adam and Eve.

Many orthodox Christian scholars including evangelical and reformed scholars and thinkers have long realized that it doesn’t need to be either a unique Adam or throw the Christian story under the bus. Many have wrestled with the issues. What trickles down to the local church and the individual Christian is unfortunately often much more rigid and much less nuanced.

I find no reason for an orthodox evangelical Christian to question the general observations of evolutionary biology, paleontology, paleoethnology, and neuroscience among others. This isn’t “capitulation to evolution” as some Christians suggest. Rather, it is an attempt to grow in faith and knowledge of God. This is certainly true for the many scientists who are Christians and who understand the depth of evidence for an old earth, common descent, and the basic principles of evolution. We deny blind cosmic chance and ontological purposelessness – we need not deny the evidence of our senses and the nature of God’s creation revealed in the creation itself.

What do you think of Bloesch’s view of scripture or of the Fall?

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