01 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 1: Scripture

Welcome to the first instalment of a series dedicated to the recently released Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. As we make our way through this, I will first post the affirmations and denials and then proceed to my own analysis below. Here is the first, titled "Scripture":

We affirm that the Bible is God’s Word, breathed out by him. It is inerrant, infallible, and the final authority for determining what is true (what we must believe) and what is right (how we must live). All truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God’s final Word, which is Scripture alone.

We deny that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.

All confessional protestants can resonate with the affirmation of the Bible as God's Word. Moreover one needn't be a protestant, as Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians also recognize the Bible to be verbum Dei, the Word of God. Although some might question on epistemological grounds the use of inerrant to describe Scripture, the mainstream of the Christian tradition confesses that it is inspired by God and does not err in what it teaches. Scripture is trustworthy and can be believed because it is God-breathed.

What is missing from the affirmations is the recognition that the Bible is more than a set of true propositions but a grand story in which all of humanity is caught up. It begins with God's creation, of which man stands at the pinnacle, followed by man's fall into sin, followed by God's ages-long plan to redeem humanity by calling out a peculiar people to embody his righteousness and mercy, culminating in the person of Jesus Christ, whose second coming will bring all things to fruition. This redemptive narrative is not an insignificant omission from the affirmations, although something of this can be seen in section 6 on the Gospel, which we will examine later.

Of course, it may be in the very nature of such a statement to set out propositions. But the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds admirably articulate doctrine while telling the story of our redemption. The first half of the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed is more evidently propositional than the other two creeds, but even the second half manages to encapsulate the biblical story. Many churches recite or sing the one of these creeds on a weekly basis, and for good reason.

As for the denials, this is where the statement is less helpful. God's Word may indeed be our ultimate authority for faith and life, but this by no means makes it the only authority to which we are bound. In fact, human life is filled with multiple authorities relating to each other in complex ways, as I have described and analyzed in my book, We Answer to Another. Children are under their parents' imperative authority while immature, and even once they are grown they continue to love and honour their parents, whose authority is now exemplary rather than imperative. (Read Richard T. De George's The Nature and Limits of Authority for an excellent discussion of the different manifestations of authority.)  Any organized community of people must have an internal authority structure in which the offices are often arranged hierarchically. Teachers and students both possess authoritative offices, although the nature of each is different and is relative to the school community.

As for the academy, the findings of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics and so forth carry some form of epistemic authority because of their empirical basis. This in turn is rooted in trust that God has given us the ability to observe and thereby know the world around us. Inevitably these findings will affect the way we live our lives and thus carry some form of authority. If scientists discover that air or water pollution increases the chances of people contracting respiratory or water-borne illnesses, then we have an obligation to combat such pollution to the best of our abilities. The fact that the Bible does not mention pollution in no way weakens our obligation to care for the earth.

But when we move on to the next sentence, we see that the statement is really about ideologies, which are subjective appropriations of the insights of the academy: "we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching." Yes and no. In my book, Political Visions and Illusions, due out in a second edition next year, I undertake to analyze the major political ideologies, recognizing that, if they go wrong, they do so by idolizing something in God's creation, for example, individual freedom, national solidarity or democratic participation. However, making too much of something does not make that something bad in itself. Here is where an understanding of what Abraham Kuyper described as common grace might soften some of the sharper edges here.

If postmodern ideologies deny the possibility of knowing truth, then, yes, we must be wary of them. However, in so far as they recognize human subjectivity and the influence one's sex, race or economic class has on one's truth claims, then they clearly have got something right and we had best recognize it. No, we don't take critical race theory or radical feminism on authority. We need to assess them in light of a biblical understanding of reality. Yet we cannot credibly judge where they err if we cannot first see where they are right.

Next: the Imago Dei and Justice.

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