Evangelicals and the Bible

Posted by on Mar 18, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

Rosemary and I set off for Auckland tonight, where I will be teaching a graduate course in Evangelical Theology at Laidlaw College. It will be good to be back on our old home territory. I have often said to people that we feel enormously privileged to consider 3 countries as home, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and whenever we have not been able to get to one for a while, it feels as though something is wrong. It has been a couple of years since we were last in New Zealand, so a visit is overdue.

While we will do our best to catch up with friends whilst there, the chief purpose of being there is for me to teach a course in Evangelical Theology, and to especially focus on the theological method of Stanley J Grenz whilst doing so. Preparing for the course has seen me read up again on Evangelicalism as a movement, and one of the topics we will look at is the attitude of evangelicals to the Bible.

For those in the know, this is often a highly emotive topic, and insiders often debate about the validity of someone’s evangelical credentials on the basis of their attitude to the inspiration, authority and infallibility of the Bible. In the North American context that often centres around a theologian’s stance on the inerrancy of the Bible, and what they mean by the term inerrancy. It is a fascinating debate, which became widespread (and often ugly) after the publication Harold Lindsell’s 1976 publication The Battle for the Bible, which lamented that a view of ‘limited inerrancy’ was creeping into evangelical theology, and was eroding the long held confidence that evangelicals had of the complete accuracy, trustworthiness and truthfulness of scripture.

While the debate has moved along, it is never far from the surface. People continue to ask questions like ‘Can you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and evolution?’; ‘If the Bible is inerrant, what is the role of the human authors of scripture? Was the Bible simply dictated to them to ensure it was inerrant?’; ‘It is all very well to talk about the inerrancy of scripture, but scripture at times contradicts itself, so can you only believe in inerrancy if you don’t read the Bible carefully?’; ‘Is inerrancy limited to certain spheres (such as matters of faith and doctrine) but not necessarily to others (history and science)?’ – and so the questions go on. If you would like a helpful survey of the debate, Merrick and Garrett’s 2013 publication Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy is a helpful starting point.

Does it matter? That is a fair question. It probably does, as it points to the question of authority and the assurance or confidence we can have that what the Bible teaches about God can be trusted. If we have to pick and chose what we can believe in the text, we become the source of authority – and our subjective response to any particular biblical text could become the main driver behind our decision making.

Important though this discussion is, I would like to focus on a slightly different aspect. When we talk about evangelicals and the Bible, we do so with the assumption that the Bible is really important to evangelicals. At a certain level this seems to be a self evident statement. David Bebbington has devised his famous quadrilateral of priorities for evangelicals claiming them to be Biblicism (the Bible is central), crucicentrism (the Cross is the key focal point), conversionism (coming to saving faith in Jesus matters more than anything else) and activism (a genuine follower of Jesus will express commitment to Christ in a life of active service). So commitment to the Bible is listed as one of the key distinguishing features of evangelical theology.

It is however one thing to claim that the Bible is central to any understanding of God, another to live in the light of that. There is little doubt that evangelicals in the past demonstrated their commitment to the Bible by taking significant amounts of time to ensure they were aware of its content. I am not convinced that this remains the case today. In my book The Big Picture I tell this story:

I remember the sermon well. The preacher of the day was lamenting that many Christians claim a far greater allegiance to the Bible than their lives demonstrate. He told of a famous Bible teacher who at a large inspirational conference asked the crowd to wave their Bibles in the air if they believed God speaks through the Bible. The crowd readily complied. He then urged them to wave it in the air if they believed that what the Bible teaches is true. The vast majority waved their Bibles enthusiastically. ‘Ah,’ he then said, ‘but some only believe parts of the Bible. I want to see who in this crowd believes the Bible from cover to cover.’ Almost everyone waved their Bible vigorously. ‘And now,’ said the preacher, ‘wave your Bible in the air if you not only believe it from cover to cover but have also read it from cover to cover.’ Almost every hand was lowered.

The exercise demonstrated two things – first, that this was an honest audience willing to admit to inconsistencies, and second, that their emotional attachment to the Bible was far greater than their actual engagement with it. It is not unlike having a greatly loved elderly aunt, but rarely visiting her. (Page 25)

Do you think that this is a problem? I think it is very real – our emotional attachment to the Bible is far greater than our actual engagement with it.

What evidence is there that this is the case? Well consider the demise of Bible study groups in most churches, and the loss of interest in expository preaching (most is now topical, with at best, a few proof texts being attached to substantiate a pre existing idea that often has little to do with the Bible passage cited).

It could be that we have become aware that the area of hermeneutics is genuinely complex. In other words, we have lost confidence that our interpretation of the biblical text is valid. That doesn’t mean there is not a valid meaning in the text – just that we are less certain than we were in the past that we have actually found it.

I previously quoted from my book The Big Picture. Let me do so again. In tackling the hermeneutical question I suggest that we need orienting passages which flow from the bigger picture of scripture, and help to ensure that we are interpreting specific passages in the light of the whole. Here is what I say about them…

So what are orienting, or line in the sand passages? They are passages that give us a clear portrait of where the larger picture is heading… the vision that can sometimes be buried in the messiness of the unfolding story. John 3:16 is an obvious one ‘For God so loved the world’ (and that world includes Philistines) ‘that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.’

To suggest that orienting passages have a special function is not to imply that other passages are not inspired, or that they should not be in scripture. It is simply to suggest that when faced with multiple different possible interpretations of a text, orienting passages help us to select which kinds of answers might be valid, and which are likely to miss the mark. So, for example, John 3:16 prevents us reading the book of Joshua and concluding that God hates Canaanites, and is indifferent to their deaths. Rather, John 3:16 helps us to note passages such as Genesis 12:3 where God informs Abram that his election is not primarily for his own benefit, but so that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’. In spite of the punishment metered out to the Canaanites, our orienting passages alert us to a greater truth. God is working towards a plan that has been shaped in love and is for the good of all who are willing to open their hearts to it. (p30)

I then ask the inevitable question – how do we select line in the sand passages?

You might of course wonder if there can be any valid rationale for choosing which should be ‘line in the sand’ passages. Given that they do not come written in bold capitals, why should we attach such special importance to them?

First let me acknowledge that there is no magical formula I have used to arrive at my first fifteen (the image is from rugby, for those not accustomed to this sport). Some might suggest there should be a dozen, twenty, or far more. And we could debate at length why these fifteen and not some others. Rather than quibble about this particular selection, let’s explore a little more why we need orienting passages.

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s concept of ‘control beliefs’ is useful at this point. Wolterstorff notes that certain beliefs, be they religious, philosophical, biblical or other, exercise ‘control’ over what can and will be believed. He writes, ‘Everyone who weighs a theory has certain beliefs as to what constitutes an acceptable sort of theory on the matter under consideration. We all have these control beliefs.’ Control beliefs lead us to reject certain sorts of theories, while they are also instrumental in the theories we devise. He notes, ‘We want theories that are consistent with our control beliefs. Or, to put it more stringently, we want theories that comport as well as possible with those beliefs.’ Rather than attempt to eliminate control beliefs, Wolterstorff argues that they should be acknowledged and embraced. Thus he suggests that in theology ‘the belief-content of the theologian’s authentic commitment ought all the while to be functioning also as control over his theory-devising and theory-weighing.’

What does this all mean? Do you believe that God is love? It is a statement made very firmly in 1 John 4:8. For most Christians, God is love acts as a control belief. Whatever happens in life, they view it through a lens that affirms that God is love, regardless of what the evidence might suggest. So even in the midst of great personal tragedy, most Christians affirm this control belief ‘God is love’. It means that in spite of their personal circumstances, they will not entertain the possibility that what has happened points to a cruel, vindictive or impotent God. If someone were to suggest that this is where the evidence points, they would probably counter, ‘That’s because we can’t yet see the bigger picture of what God will do through this. Ultimately (and that might mean when we are on the other side of death) we will see how this all makes sense and helps to affirm that God is love.’ In short, the control belief trumps all other possibilities, and we do not seriously consider them.

While some may suggest that this is whistling in the dark, and a form of escapism, all people operate from certain control beliefs. To abandon our control beliefs is to say that we have discovered that something is so different from what we have always imagined that we have to completely re-think and re-evaluate everything.

Our control beliefs then provide the lens through which we understand our life and its experiences. Thus even if we become seriously ill, or lose someone we love, or are retrenched from a job we value, we continue to believe that God is love, and that at some point in the future (even if only the future represented by eternity), God’s love will be vindicated by some good achieved, even though it may not currently be clear to us.

Put differently then, these orienting passages serve as control beliefs because if they are not valid, our understanding of the Christian faith is so far from the mark that we would have to reconsider everything – including whether we wish to continue to identify with  the label ‘Christian’. It is a very serious thing to reject a control belief, and those who do usually adopt a radically different attitude to life. Indeed, they adopt an alternate world view.

Let’s get to my fifteen orienting passages. They each suggest key components of control beliefs that operate for Christians, or some of the contours that shape a Christian world view. (p31-32)

So what are the fifteen passages I select. Here they are. For the first 3 I have left in the commentary I provide on them in The Big Picture, the others I just list, but if you think about them, you will probably realise why I think they are key…

Genesis 1:1 An opening: We are not alone

The opening words of the Bible profoundly shape our understanding of reality. It takes just five words to change everything: ‘In the beginning God created…’ The Christian story starts with the conviction that God exists. This same God predates and initiates our story, this being done in an intentional act of creating out of nothing. Rather than finding ourselves alive in an accidental but terribly alone Universe, these five words affirm a purposeful creation…. Likewise, we should not forget that this passage helps to orientate our understanding both of the Christian story and of reality. In an increasingly secular age, the tendency is to assume the absence or irrelevance of God. This passage warns us that any such opening gambit will lead us wildly astray. God’s existence is the only reason for our own existence, and a failure to grasp this results in a radically different world view.

That God is able to create the world, and to do so from nothing, is a clear indicator of the power and intellect of the God we worship. It is no small thing to relate to such a God.

Genesis 1:26-28 An identity: We are made in the image of God

Genesis 1:26-28 informs us that humans are made in the Image of God – Imago Dei as they say in the Latin. No matter how imperfectly they do it, each person in some small measure reflects what God is like. In spite of the impact of the Fall – that terrible time when humanity shook the fist at God and rebelled against Eden’s lone restriction – the human race continues to bear the image of the God who made them. Thus Genesis 9:6 (clearly a post fall passage), continues to ban murder, providing the reason that we have been made in the image of God. No one with such a lofty status can have their life terminated without there being serious consequences for the terminator. This is an important point, as some suggest that the fall downgrades the significance of humanity being imago Dei. Genesis 9:6 quietly disagrees.

Also significant is that both women and men are made imago Dei. In a world that often speculates about gender differences, this line in the sand passage firmly proclaims that in that which matters most, namely that we bear the image of the God who made us, men and women are identical. What separates the genders is trivial in comparison to what unites us. We are human because we have been made in God’s image, and the opening chapter of the Bible affirms that this has nothing to do with gender.

Not only does our imago Dei status force us to be a little tongue in cheek when we talk about gender differences, it also requires us to rethink all class and cultural distinctions, indeed, all distinctions made on the basis of education, wealth, intellect, physical stature… the list could go on and on. All fade into insignificance in the light of the momentous truth affirmed in Genesis 1:26-28 that all humans have been made in the image of God. It renders ridiculous any notion that some people are inherently superior to others or that slavery and the oppression of certain people is acceptable because they are somehow lesser humans. It is impossible to overstate the dignity and value conferred on each human by their being created in the image of God. Our great challenge is to live in the light of our God conferred identity, and to encourage others to do the same.

Genesis 2:19-20 A task: To build a world with a better name

In the opening chapter of the Bible humans are introduced as image bearers of the God who made them. Genesis 2 elaborates by giving a quick snapshot of one of Adam’s earliest tasks. It is the sort of task that only an image bearer can do, for it involves great creativity and insight. In a world where the animals and birds have not yet been named, God assigns the responsibility of name allocation to Adam, watching on as he makes his decisions. It is a stunning portrait… Names help to shape the one named. In allocating the responsibility to name animals and birds to Adam, God is essentially saying, I made them, now you shape what they will become. The fact that God is content to act as an onlooker whilst Adam performs this key task shows how seriously God views the human contribution to world shaping. If we are to summarize what control belief we can glean from this line in the sand passage, it is that humans are called to build a world with a better name – but to do so with the awareness that God is watching as we do. God may not quickly override our decisions, but we are ultimately responsible to our Creator for the names we confer and the world we build.

And here are the remaining dozen…

Genesis 12:3 A responsibility: Blessed to bless

Genesis 50:20  A conviction: God can bring good even from evil

Exodus 1 An Understanding: When the choice is between bad and worse

1 Chronicles 22:6-10 and 28:1-3 A Value: The Temple David Didn’t Build (or, Not Such a Bloodthirsty Book)

Matt 5:21-48 An Investigation: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Mark12:28-33 A Summary: The Jesus Creed   

Romans 3:23 A Dilemma: Actually, Sin does Matter

Romans 5:8 The Gospel: Christ Died for Us

1 Corinthians 13:13 A Permanence: Three Things that Remain

Galatians 3:28 An Irrelevance: Goodbye to the Old Divides

Col 1:15-20 A Reconciler: Christ, through whom all things are reconciled and hold together

Revelation 21:1-4 A Vision: A New Heaven and New Earth

This then is my suggestion for the First Fifteen. They are fifteen passages that help us to navigate the many stories in the Bible. They help to capture the bigger picture. They remind us of the direction and movement of the story. They highlight the heartbeat of God. They help us to remember what really matters. If you had to make your selection, which passages would you choose and why?

Beyond these questions let me ask another. I started by noting that for evangelicals the question of the Bible and its role and status in our understanding of Christianity is seen as crucial. For many evangelicals the matter becomes highly emotional…

Are you an evangelical for whom this is primarily an emotive issue, or are you one who is keen to actually immerse yourself in the stories and teachings of scripture, confident that in its pages you will find light and life and guidance? For my part, I know which kind of evangelical I aim to be…

As always, nice chatting…

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