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KJV only


learning the words: wisdom


Today’s guest post is from Physics & Whiskey, who blogs about his journey away from absolute certainty and toward endless curiosity at Science and Other Drugs. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

As far as fundamentalist homeschooling families go, mine was fairly average. We saw a lot of families that were definitely more extreme. Growing up, I felt like my parents had balanced everything out fairly well. They swallowed the Pearls’ teachings on discipline hook, line, and sinker, but they shied away from the patriarchal teachings. All of us envied the sense of community in the local ATI group, but we knew there was something a little off about the whole business. My dad preferred the KJV, but we recognized that the KJV-only dogma of most Independent Fundamental Baptists were ridiculous.

We sampled a little here and a little there, never entirely diving into any one system or group or ideology. Perhaps that’s why the word I’m most thoughtful about is wisdom.

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” (Proverbs 4:7)

Growing up, this passage always seemed tautological. “In order to get wisdom, get wisdom.” Boy, that sure tells us a lot. Of course, the presupposition of Biblical Literalism obscured the poetic depth of many such passages, but still, it was puzzling.

In our family, wisdom had a very specific meaning. Wisdom was a special piece of knowledge or insight provided by the Holy Spirit apart from any epistemic process.

Epistemology is the study of how we acquire knowledge our information. For example, empirical (observational) epistemology says that we use our senses to arrive at most or all knowledge. An epistemic process is a pathway to making a claim; it follows the basic principles of logic and reason and includes both premises and arguments. Because it has all these elements, a statement based on an epistemic process can be questioned, debated, and ultimately understood.

But wisdom was something different. A piece of wisdom couldn’t be questioned or argued or analyzed. It came from God, so it just had to be accepted. You weren’t allowed to understand wisdom; you just had to follow it.

In practice, this meant that whatever insight my parents gleaned (either from the Bible or from a fundamentalist parenting book or from a pastor or from special revelation during prayer) could not be questioned. According to fundamentalist belief, parents had a special connection to the Holy Spirit which allowed them to make the right decision 100% of the time, as long as they were “trusting God’s Word.” They didn’t have to understand it, they just had to apply it and believe that it would yield positive results. “No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Labeling intuition or church dogma as wisdom essentially made it God’s Word; since God is the source of all wisdom, questioning anything labeled as wisdom was tantamount to questioning God. Worst of all, not even my parents were permitted to question it. If my mom said something was wisdom, my dad was duty-bound to defend it; if my dad said something was wisdom, my mom had to do the same. Wisdom could be invoked at any time to end any discussion. If you continued to protest after wisdom had been invoked, the full weight of Proverbs was brought to bear.

“Fools despise wisdom and discipline.”
“He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds rebuke gets understanding.”
“A fool despises his father’s instruction, but he who receives correction is prudent.”
“A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother.”

Oh, and here’s my personal favorite. Any time we tried to defend ourselves: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” In other words, shut up and face the consequences; the more you try to explain, the more foolish you are.

I say “favorite” with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, because nothing could be further from the truth. Even now, I’m having trouble glancing through the book of Proverbs. These passages bring back a lot of difficult memories. My heart is racing and I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Wisdom is hard for me to talk about. I can feel the nervous panic of sitting in my parents’ room waiting and waiting because I had made the painful mistake of “despising wisdom.”

The irony was that fundamentalists prize the doctrine of “solo scriptura to an extreme degree. Scripture is supposed to be 100% sufficient– except when it’s not, and you need to add wisdom to properly round it out. This practice is hard to spot, especially since most “wisdom” consists of Bible verses pulled out of their context and applied liberally to the current situation.

Wisdom was a way of cementing parental authority. “Do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor detest His correction.” To question a parent’s wisdom was to rebel against God. It was our responsibility to simply pray until God gave us the same wisdom he had already given our parents.

So it’s easy to see how I might be a little hesitant about using the word “wisdom” now.

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:19)

Growing up, wisdom couldn’t be questioned. Wisdom was a guarantee of results. You simply applied it, and it always worked. No matter what.

But in Matthew 11, Jesus says: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Even Jesus, who metaphorically embodied wisdom, didn’t act as though he was above question. He didn’t say, “I have divine wisdom on my side, so I’m right no matter what.” No, he said that wisdom was identified by what it actually did, not where it came from. If actions bear good fruit, they were wise; if actions bear bad fruit, they were unwise.

Wisdom isn’t magical. It’s the result of experience and reflection. If something works, it’s wise; if not, it isn’t.

If I want to be a wise father to my son, I can’t depend on “wisdom” as a fall-back that will guarantee the proper results if I don’t know what I’m doing. Finally, I understand what Proverbs 4:7 means: In order to be wise, I have to get wisdom. I have to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t; I have to be willing to change if my intuitions are leading me the wrong way.

“Test everything; hold fast to what is good.”

That’s wisdom.


definitions and a history lesson, part four


I left off my breakdown of Christian fundamentalism with a brief explanation of the Protestant orthodox views regarding inspiration and inerrancy. Hopefully I was clear, because what we’re about to get into is complicated territory. If anything I say seems unclear, unfair, or misleading, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

After the introduction of anti-supernaturalism into critiques of the Bible in the form of German higher criticism (as well as other issues), fundamentalists reacted by proclaiming the teaching of inerrancy to be a basic, fundamental doctrine of Christianity. On its face, I don’t disagree. A proper, balanced, and nuanced view of inerrancy is one of the essentials of faith that I hold to. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary in order for someone to believe in Jesus, but I think it does become more important in a Christian faith journey. Important, but not necessary. That, I think, is a crucial distinction.

However, that is where fundamentalism and I part ways– and depending on the particular brand of fundamentalism, some might not even consider me to be a true believer after a statement like that one. If they’re being nice, they might refer to me as a “liberal” (a label I would bear with pride). For me, inerrancy is intellectually consistent. I can generally hold with most of the statements regarding inerrancy made in the Chicago Statement of 1979, especially this one:

“We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, reporting of falsehoods, or the use of hyperbole and round numbers . . . “

What the Chicago Statement does in this section is recognize the human component of Scripture. They talk about “observational descriptions” and they also recognize that keeping in mind the context of usage and purpose is extremely important to a proper understanding of inerrancy (and, more practically, hermeneutics). However, if this is not what you think inerrancy means, that’s not a bar to orthodox Protestant beliefs. There’s a range inside of Protestant orthodoxy, and it’s healthy and productive to be willing to engage with different points of view, even on this issue. I don’t personally identify with the Progressive movement theologically, but I can appreciate what they bring to the table, and how listening to their point of view enriches my own.

However, fundamentalists . . . don’t agree. There’s no “acceptable range.” There’s no productive discussion, there’s no other permissible view. There’s the fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy, which they consider as absolutely foundational to every other element of Christianity. They believe that without inerrancy, Christianity falls. Fundamentalists like Charles Ryrie complained that the Chicago Statement was not rigorous enough. He called for an understanding of inerrancy that included “unlimited inspiration,” and he goes one step forward:

“Some are willing to acknowledge that the concepts of the Bible are inspired but not the words. Supposedly this allows for an authoritative conceptual message to have been given, but using words that can in some instances be erroneous. The obvious fallacy in this view is this: how are concepts expressed? Through words. Change the words and you have changed the concepts. You cannot separate the two. In order for concepts to be inspired, it is imperative that the words that express them be also.”

To be fair, Ryrie goes on to describe mechanical dictation (the view of inerrancy where God gave the actual words to the writers) as a “caricature” of inerrancy, but he somehow fails to see that he just made an argument for mechanical dictation. He doesn’t seem to believe that the writers of the Bible were little more than stenographers, but he also believes that the words themselves cannot be changed, or inerrancy falls.

I have a Master’s degree in English, and I’m an editor– the study of words, communication, understanding, clarity, etc., are my business. And if there’s one thing I can tell you after grading hundreds of English 101 papers, is that our language is quite capable of expressing the same exact idea through different words. This actually has a name– it’s called “redundancy,” at least when a writer says the same exact thing a dozen different ways.

However, Ryrie’s idea is a visceral reaction against post-modernism. Jacques Derrida used the word différance to describe the “space between words.” As Derrida explained it, this “space” removes the ability of language to communicate any idea accurately– there is always a breakdown between the idea as it exists in the writer and how the reader ultimately understands the words the writer used to express that idea.

So, just like the first fundamentalists reacted against German higher criticism, fundamentalists like Charles Ryrie are reacting against post-modernism. Just like fundamentalists had to defend the Bible from anti-supernaturalism, now they have to defend the Bible from a post-modern understanding of différance. This reaction, as far as I can tell, always leads to a philosophical defense of mechanical dictation, whether or not the defender is aware of such a defense. Mechanical dictation, as an approach to inerrancy, is not a view typically accepted inside Protestant orthodoxy. But, it results from a fear that a post-modernist understanding of language will interfere in the ability of a reader to understand the “truths of the Bible.”

This is a problem for fundamentalists, because, by definition, fundamentalists believe that understanding and applying a universal understanding of Scripture is not just possible, but necessary. They adhere to what they believe are universal, essential, foundational truths regarding the Bible.

This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is a problem. I don’t think it always was– historically speaking, I agree with many of the elements found in The Fundamentals or concepts that were discussed in early 20th century conferences. However, because fundamentalism has continued reacting against new philosophies that they perceive as a “threat” to Christianity, they have become progressively more unyielding. Inerrancy can’t just mean “that Scripture is true in all that it teaches.”

Unfortunately, fundamentalism didn’t really stop at “unlimited inspiration”– today, they also adhere to biblical literalism. Because God didn’t just inspire the concepts, he also inspired the very words themselves, exactly how they appear, the only way to read and understand the Bible is by reading it literally. This is also coupled with the fundamentalist teaching regarding preservation.

Preservation, simply put, is the idea that God, in his sovereignty, kept the Bible intact and unaltered (with the exceptions of things like scribal error, misspellings, inaccurate renderings of numbers, etc). I tend to agree with this view, mostly because of things like the Dead Sea Scrolls– which weren’t discovered until 1946-56, and with Isaiah being dated at sometime at around 135-200 B.C. The Dead Sea Scrolls present compelling evidence for the integrity of the transmission, since the modern copy of the Old Testament (based on the Masoretic texts) barely differed at all.

However, fundamentalists take an extreme stance regarding preservation that affects their teachings in two major ways: first, they believe that everything that existed in the text as of 1611 also existed in the autographa, and that because God preserved His Word for us today, it is a living document that can be applied, literally, to modern practice.

The first teaching results in either a complete dismissal of the science of textual criticism or a fear and distrust of it. This is why many fundamentalists (but not all) are KJV-only, or Textus Receptus-only supporters. Many fundamentalists point to statements like “some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20” concerning the finish to the Gospel of Mark, and decry that statement as heresy. The honest study of textual critics and historians have, for the majority, concluded that Mark 16:9-20 were added later. There are some scholars who disagree, but, I’ve read most of that research back in my KJV-only days, and I would describe it as “shabby research.” However, the teaching of preservation according to fundamentalists means that additions and deletions are not possible. Because, according to this teaching, if you can begin to suspect that anything in the Bible was not completely preserved, then the entire Bible falls into shadow. This is a result of the kind of false dichotomies and binaries that fundamentalists set up in their faith system. Many of these binaries are a result of over-simplification; having a faith system that integrates doubt, nuance, and complexity, is foreign to most of them.

The second result of preservation is a heresy known as biblical docetism. In a nut shell, they believe that God Preserved His Word for Us Today, and this results in frequently ignoring the intent of the human author, the historical context in which it was written, or how the original audience would have perceived it. These elements of hermeneutics don’t seem to matter, because the Bible is a divine book, divinely inspired, and divinely preserved. Along with biblical docetism, this frequently results, in more extreme fringes of fundamentalism, in a harsh patriocentric understanding of complementarian and hetero-normative gendered behavior, Dominionism (that God’s promises to the Israelites applies to modern America), and has been used to defend chattel slavery, sexism, classism, and racism.

This is why I moved away from fundamentalism and accepted Protestant orthodoxy and non-denominationalism. Fundamentalism started as something I could agree with, but it has morphed into a collection of beliefs that are rigid and unbending, and that demand total adherence and complete intellectual “certainty.”