Dr. Becker’s Ever Shrinking Word of God (Part 3)

Associate editor’s note: In the part 1, we saw Dr. Becker pit Jesus against Scripture and his dismissal of certain biblical books (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation), saying that they cannot serve as principal sources or norms for Christian teaching. In part 2, Dr. Becker continued to denigrate the Word of God by saying the Bible is only God’s Word “in a qualified way” and employing Gospel reductionist principles. In this final essay, Dr. Becker claims that Scripture is untrustworthy because it is both filled with scientific error and culturally conditioned.iStock_000004089780_Small

Science

After all the shrinkage of the Word already observed, science becomes another basis for further shrinkage. Dr. Becker says,

Theologians today will continue to make use of the Bible as the principal source of Christian theology, at least if they desire to maintain the particular identity and integrity of Christian teaching. But the Bible cannot be the sole source of Christian theology. Other sources factor in to the theological task, even if they have only a subordinate role to play in the articulation of theological understanding. If post-liberal theologians are correct to stress that the Christian theologian must take his or her primary bearings from the particularities of the biblical revelation, especially the gospel promise, that revelation is never the sole factor in the theological enterprise.[24]

He says,

Historical investigation of the biblical texts, coupled with an understanding of contemporary cosmological knowledge, serves to clarify the nature of the Christian doctrine of creation. In this light one must conclude that the Christian doctrine of creation does not entail the acceptance of biblical expressions of cosmology as literal descriptions of fact, such as the outdated view that the earth is immovable or that it rests on pillars or that the world was created over the course of six actual days in the recent past. The “limiting power” or “clarifying power” of these additional extra-biblical sources/ resources thus shapes the formulation of church teaching.[25]

This reasoning makes the error of conflation. It combines two things that are different into one, and then treats them as being the same. Biblical statements about the earth being immovable or resting on pillars occur in types of writing that are given to figures of speech. People who built faulty cosmologies by overlooking that were wrong. For example, Psalm 75:2:

When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants,
it is I who keep steady its pillars. Selah

Given that this is poetry, rather than legislation, adjudication, narration, genealogy, etc., we could have been alert to the fact that this is a figure of speech, and science need play no part in us realizing that.

That says little, however, about what we should take away from other writings in the Bible using other types of writing not usually very given to figures of speech. Because some people gave a natural reading to figures of speech, should we give figurative readings to natural speech? Is that what science does?

He says,

If there is an apparent conflict between natural data and a straightforward, literal interpretation of Scripture, then the interpreter needs to re-examine his or her interpretation of Scripture and keep an open, humble posture towards the self-correction of scientific theories within science itself. We need not try to re-interpret the data of nature to fit with a non-critical reading of biblical cosmology.[26]

The clause, “self-correction of scientific theories within science itself” is interesting. It admits that science errs and needs correction. It claims a superiority of self-correction. It presupposes that biblical interpretation lacks self-correction. In the example above about the earth resting on pillars, no science was needed to correct the faulty interpretation. Orthodox hermeneutics themselves, consistently applied, self-corrects the faulty interpretation.

The statement, “We need not try to re-interpret the data of nature to fit with a non-critical reading of biblical cosmology” exposes arrogance. By that statement, while the Bible needs to be reinterpreted, the data of nature does not. We obstinately can stick to our interpretation of the data of nature. That needs no review.

He says,

Obviously that means that the Christian doctrine of creation must accept what the sciences tell us about the origin of the universe from the Big Bang and the evolution of life on the planet, but likewise the sciences ought to remain open to Christian theological insights about metaphysics, the reality of God, the nature of God’s ongoing involvement in creation, the origin of life, the nature of human life, and the nature of faith commitments in the sciences and theology.[27]

The word “obviously” is a placeholder in the statement where a reason should be given, but never is. Why is that obvious, and if it is obvious, why is it so hard to say the reason?

Probably the explanation is that stating the reason would open the claim to examination. The Big Bang is current orthodoxy in science, but scientific orthodoxies change, and Dr. Becker himself already has assured us that we have to reinterpret Scripture because of scientific self-correction. This superiority of self-correction likely means that something will significantly modify or even displace the Big Bang Theory. Question for Dr. Becker: Are there no reputable scientists already modifying or challenging the Big Bang? Is it obvious that self-correcting modifications of the Big Bang won’t make it end up looking a lot like:

For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:9)

He asks,

How many people in the past three hundred years have rejected the Christian faith, or have never given it a second thought, because they were told, or they thought, they had to accept a literalistic reading of Genesis (and similar biblical texts with cosmological connections) as an essential element of that faith, when all the physical evidence and rational argument goes against such a literalistic understanding?[28]

Many reject the Christian faith, and that is a grievous fact. But Dr. Becker’s explanation of the problem overlooks some core Lutheran understandings. First, as Luther explains the Third Article of the Creed,

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called my by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

The weakness of our reason, our inability to believe in Jesus by our reason, is panoramic and not localized to the doctrine of creation. People who have rejected Christ and say it is because of the doctrine of creation are giving their self-accounting of their unbelief. Are they capable of an accurate diagnosis, or so free of sin to give an honest answer? Their self-report is not necessarily the truth.

Further, it is something of a slight against the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit calls someone by the Gospel, enlightens them with his gifts, sanctifies and keeps them in the true faith, do reason’s doubts about creation have more power than the Holy Spirit? Yes, grace is resistible. But we ought to be more careful what we say about the relative powers of our reason and the Holy Spirit’s gifts.

Dr. Becker speaks of the scandal of the LCMS mind because it believes the traditional doctrine of creation, and he talks as if that scandal is the reason for unbelief. But Paul identifies the cross as the scandal and offense, and the cross as the reason for his being persecuted, and not creation as the scandal or the reason for persecution. Galatians 5:11.

Dr. Becker is an excellent exemplar of the problem with missionalism as an ism. He says,

Issues surrounding creation/evolution and biblical interpretation are missional, evangelistic issues, especially for teachers and administrators in the schools of the LCMS.  A basic understanding of and sensitivity to scientific knowledge is essential for the future of the church’s mission to people in a scientifically-informed culture.[29]

So, we should change doctrine by backing into it from market research? We should change the doctrine of creation to what sells best?

Finally coming into range with how shrinking the Word serves ordination of women, Dr. Becker says:

Given the plethora of data in nature that support the theory of the evolution of human beings, is it really possible any longer to maintain with theological integrity that a man (“Adam”) was created “first” and a woman (“Eve”) created “second?” Has not this traditional view been overturned by physical data and contemporary scientific investigation of nature and natural history.[30]

Notice, he did not ask about scientific integrity. He asked about theological integrity. In his theory, theological integrity depends on science, not Scripture.

Culture

Dr. Becker further shrinks the Word of God to conform to culture and society, to the day and age in which we live. He says,

The cultural-historical and theological assumptions of 1 Tim. 2:8-15 are anachronistic and opaque.  First, this text includes specific cultural applications which are clearly out-of-date with basic western societies.  For example, who today is opposed to women braiding their hair (v. 9) or wearing gold jewelry, pearls, or “expensive” clothes (v. 9)?  The cultural assumption of “subordination” of wives to husbands (vv. 10-11) is also far from a universal assumption in western democracies. While the principle of expressing “proper reverence for God” (v. 10) remains normative, the specific ways in which this principle is to be applied have changed.[31]

Further, he says,

Just because something is taught or even commanded in Scripture does not mean that that teaching or command is normative for contemporary evangelical practice.  Other factors come into play as well, and these other factors may override the specific scriptural mandate.  Attention must be given to the change of situation that has taken place between a first-century Mediterranean setting and that of a twenty-first-century American or European cultural setting.[32]

Here again, he uses conflation. The texts about the braiding of hair, the wearing of jewelry, and expensive clothes are not explained by Paul using the same reasons as he does concerning the roles of husbands and wives, or the same reasons as he does concerning qualification for ordination into the office of public ministry. As to the two latter matters, Paul provides two grounds that are not culture bound, grounds that have nothing to do with first century Mediterranean culture, and grounds that twenty first century Europe and North America do not change. He bases them on (1) creation, and (2) fall. This reveals why Dr. Becker had to destroy the doctrine of creation to stand any chance of selling his theory of women’s ordination.

But that leaves the doctrine of the fall into sin. He has to change that too, and he does. He says,

The character of the historical origin of sin must be reinterpreted. While the advent of sin is to be traced to the first hominids who disobeyed God’s will, it is not necessary to trace that origin to “Adam and Eve” having eaten from a tree in an actual place called “the Garden of Eden” several thousand years ago.[33]

Leaving aside for the moment his mishandling of Genesis, Dr. Becker sets himself up as an interpreter of Genesis superior to Paul, for Paul says:

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1 Timothy 2:14)

Dr. Becker is to be commended for avoiding the use of a false caricature used by others. There are others who support ordination of women who portray Paul as somehow painting Eve as a worse sinner than Adam or Eve as temptress of Adam, and that bad portrayal allows them to convince people that Paul’s whole argument is wrong. But Paul never made that argument. He did not say the Eve tempted Adam or that Eve was a worse sinner. He only distinguishes them with regard to the fall in one respect, that Eve was deceived and Adam not. If anything, that probably makes Adam worse. The thing is, though, deception relates to teaching and hence to ordination.

In the structure of argument, however, where others use the caricature and fail because it is a caricature, Dr. Becker uses … nothing. And even if Genesis is myth, even as myth, in the text Eve still says, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Doesn’t the deception in the myth have even mythological significance? That is why Dr. Becker, more astute than many, doesn’t deal with it, because just here, so many go from the frying pan to the fire. Question for Dr. Becker: What is the mythological significance of Eve’s being deceived and Adam not?

Conclusion: A Provisionalist Concept of Truth

The shrinkage of God’s Word continues. It does not stop with the Big Bang, evolution of species, twenty first century culture, or indeed, anything. Dr. Jack D. Kilcrease illuminates how Dr. Becker has posited a provisionalist concept of truth.

He is saying that secular science and culture limits what the Bible can and cannot say. Nevertheless, he is wise enough to realize that secular science cannot disprove everything in the Bible. In his mind, it has disproved 7 days of creation and literal Adam and Eve, so we can’t believe in those anymore. It hasn’t disproven the virgin birth and the Trinity, so we can keep those, for now. Beyond the difficulty of placing fallible human sciences above the Word of God, he projects a provisionalist concept of the truth. In this, the articles of the faith are like all other forms of human knowledge. That is, they are believable for now, though we might stop believing them once we get more information.[34]

Thus I have titled this overview, “Dr. Becker’s Ever Shrinking Word of God.”

Suggested Resources

For a comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of Scripture from Lutheran orthodoxy, see Johann Gerhard, On the Nature of Theology and On Scripture, 2nd ed.

For a definitive treatment of Gospel reductionism, see David P. Scaer, “The Law Gospel Debate in the Missouri Synod,” The Springfielder 40 #2 (September 1976): 107-118.

For the official LCMS statement on Scripture, A Statement of Scripture and Confessional Principles, Article IV, “Holy Scripture.”

For a competent and trustworthy review of Dr. Becker’s book, Fundamental Theology, see Jack D. Kilcrease, “Book Review: Fundamental Theology,” Logia, April 8, 2015.

________________________

[24] Fundamental Theology, Perspective (Kindle Locations 6295-6299).

[25] Fundamental Theology, Perspective (Kindle Locations 6815-6819).

[26] Fundamental Theology, Perspective (Kindle Locations 9888-9891).

[27] Fundamental Theology, (Kindle Locations 9981-9985).

[28] Matthew Becker, “The Scandal of the LCMS Mind” (revised), The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2010), 165-184, at n. 66.

[29] Matthew Becker, “The Scandal of the LCMS Mind” (revised), The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2010), 165-184, at n. 67.

[30] Matthew Becker, “An Argument for Women Pastors and Theologians,” in The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2010), 126-140.

[31] Matthew Becker, “An Argument for Women Pastors and Theologians,” in The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2010), 126-140.

[32] Matthew Becker, “An Argument for Women Pastors and Theologians,” in The Daystar Reader (Portland, Ore.: Daystar.net, 2010), 126-140.

[33] Fundamental Theology, (Kindle Locations 9920-9922).

[34] Dr. Jack D. Kilcrease, comment in thread on Confessional Lutheran Fellowship, Facebook, used from the closed group by permission of Dr. Kilcrease.

 

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