what to believe (1)

A while back I came across this website, for reasons I cannot rightly recall, and wanted to do a series that responded to the last major bit: ‘What Should a Church Believe?’ For reasons equally beyond recollection I lost track of my notes that were meant to serve as an outline for my response. This inevitably (and obviously) delayed things for a while. However, I recently found the notes, which then rekindled my desire for this series. So, here we are and here we go.

One more caveat. Since these 20 different questions appear to be the sine qua non for locating a true Bible-believing church, and since my response to each question might require a little more than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’;[1] I will select a group of questions (varying in number) and answer that group in each post throughout this series. Clear as mud? Fine, let’s get on with  it.

First things first
Mr Melton offers an interesting suggestion: ‘Before joining any church, ask for a Statement of Faith and check it carefully.’ Of course, because we all know that Paul and the other apostles carried those things around with them or left them in the churches they established. Joking aside, I can see some value in this suggestion because statements of faith can help someone know if a particular church’s beliefs are consistent with biblical teaching. If a church professes that ‘Jesus drove around Palestine in a Bentley,’ or, more substantially: ‘Jesus did not die for the sins of the world,’ then we might be safe in asking that church, ‘Where in Sheol did you get that idea?’

One further detail related to the ‘Statement of faith’ bit  needs to be addressed. Based on the questions that Mr Melton supplies, it appears as though his criteria for what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘true’ statement of faith is one that is able to answer affirmatively the 20 questions he supplies. So I am compelled to ask: is a church’s statement of faith true because it corresponds with affirmative answers to the 20 questions, or is it true because it corresponds with teachings drawn from the biblical text? Moreover, are these 20 questions really the only relevant questions to ask? Also, are there not other questions that could be added to the list that are worth considering? And do these question have to be asked in this specific way or is there some flexibility?

1. ‘Do you believe God has preserved an infallible copy of His word for us today?’
Well, it depends on what you mean by the ideas of preservation (and to what end), ‘infallible copy’ and ‘for us today’. To come at this backwards: I’m not comfortable with the first-glance reading ‘for us today’ because the relevance of God’s truth is not something limited to the modern world. I think (and believe) that God’s truth has been and will continue to be relevant throughout history. If this is what Mr Melton really means, then I would suggest dropping the ‘for us today’ part–that is unless something else at work that requires the phrase.

The phrase ‘infallible copy’ is problematic for me on a number of levels. First, which copy? There are thousands of ancient, biblical manuscript-copies to choose from, and there are a significant number of ancient, biblical codices that are (wait for it) copies.[2] And don’t get me started on the number of English translations, which are also copies of the ancient copies. Second, the very term ‘infallible’ means, ‘incapable of making mistakes or being wrong.’ If we are talking about the written biblical documents from history, then I cannot fully accept this phrase for the simple fact that there are ‘mistakes’ in the ancient manuscripts. Some words are misspelled, some are omitted, some are changed all together, and sometimes entire stories are either inserted or left out.[3] I think it better to say that God’s truth is infallible and that the fallible biblical writers (and copyists) did all they could to articulate that truth in the clearest and most accurate way possible, making occasional mistakes along the way.

Finally, the phrase ‘God has preserved’ is slightly less problematic but still a bit difficult for me. To dispel any fears, I will admit up front my belief that God has played a crucial, providential role in the endurance of his truth throughout history. However, I equally believe that God not only used human agents to take record of and copy his truth but also allowed and equipped them to preserve that truth–a responsibility that they most certainly did not take lightly. If, on the other hand, I disallow this responsibility and task of preservation via human copying, and place the full responsibility of disclosure and transmission on God; then an entirely different set of questions emerge. How do we account for the ‘mistakes’ in the ancient manuscripts and codices? And what might that say about God? Why is there not one English translation, presumably based on absolutely perfect manuscripts, instead of so many different English translations? More to the point: why are there translations at all?

2. ‘Do you believe the King James Bible is God’s infallible word for the English speaking people?’
First of all, and quite bluntly: no, I do not (and cannot) believe this. Second, if this question stands behind the first one (which I am quite sure it does), then I must respond with an emphatic ‘no’ to that one also. I do not (and cannot) believe that God has preserved an infallible copy of his word–i.e. the King James Bible–and that this infallible copy is the sole property of English speaking people–i.e. ‘for us today.’ God’s truth is much larger and far more encompassing than those specific (and let’s not forget, ‘insulting’) restraints.

UPDATE (16-Jan-11):
While writing part 2 of this series, I found another version of Mr Melton’s statement-of-faith-via-20-questions, which can be found here. One key differences between the two statements is that the second one includes biblical texts, presumably offered to substantiate the implied beliefs in the questions. Another key difference is the qualification added to question #2, which says: ‘If the answer is “NO,” then ask “What is God’s infallible word? Can I see a copy?” ‘. This qualifier is nothing but a loaded question, one employed primarily for the sake of advancing a particular belief about a particular translation of the Hebrew OT and the Greek NT. In case there are any questions about whether or not Mr Melton is advancing a particular belief, go here, here, here and especially here.

[1] Which means we can pretty much guess the conclusion Mr Melton would have about me.
[2] I am making a distinction here between manuscripts of 1) particular biblical books and/or letters and 2) complete codices which contain many biblical books and/or letters.
[3] I remain committed to the argument that while mistakes do exist in the ancient manuscripts (and codices), none of these mistakes affect essential teachings or doctrines of Christian belief.

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