Evangelicalism? (Pt. 2)

1 Sep

Welcome to part 2 of my 3-part blog on Evangelism where I’m exploring Evangelicalism’s 4 key commitments.  As way of reminder, the 4 Evangelical distinctives are





This particular post will deal with number 3, biblicism.  What exactly biblicism is, is explained in a variety of ways, but usually it entails a belief in biblical inspiration, most commonly expressed in the idea of biblical inerrancy.  Drawing on this post (by Scot McKnight on his blog, where he is reviewing Christian Smith’s book Bible Made Impossible, which deals with the topic of biblicism http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/07/22/the-problem-with-biblicism-2/#more-18669, also see http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/07/13/the-problem-with-biblicism-1/), some of the defining characteristics of biblicism are:

“1. Divine Writing: the Bible is identical to God’s own words.
2. Total representation: it is what God wants us to know, all God wants us to know (he quotes JI Packer here) in communicating the divine will to us.
3. Complete coverage: everything relevant to the Christian life is in the Bible.
4. Democratic perspicuity: reasonable humans can read the Bible in his or her language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. Commonsense hermeneutic: again, plain meaning; just read it.
6. Solo [not sola] Scripture: we can read the Bible without the aid of creeds or confessions or historical church traditions.
7. Internal harmony: all passages on a given theme mesh together.
8. Universal applicability: the Bible is universally valid for all Christians, wherever and whenever.
9. Inductive method: sit down, read it, and put it together.
10. Handbook model: the Bible is handbook or textbook for the Christian life.”

Instead of diving right into it, I think it may be helpful for me to briefly (we’ll see how well I stick to that) outline my evolution on how I view the Christian Scriptures. Growing up, with a fairly typical Evangelical view of the Bible, the Bible was viewed as both something you read on your own as a sort of personal devotion to help you to live more Christian-ly, and also somewhat like what the law is to a lawyer, that which you argue from to support, or not, certain beliefs or doctrines, that from which you begin with, and then use sound logic to build from there in order to get an answer on just about everything.  After all, if it was in the Bible, which is from God, it must be true.  Now the (hopefully) obvious problem with this is that the bible is not a law book or a devotional book, it is a collection of a huge variety of types of literature, written by many, many different authors halfway across the globe thousands of years ago, addressing (often times) very particular situations and questions in another language, with other cultures and customs.  This is not to mention the issue of how the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, relates to the New Testament, because while Christians see the OT as inspired Scripture, it is also the story which has it’s culmination in Jesus, and is not universally applicable in the same way that it was in ancient Israel, or in the way that the New Testament might be.

I began to see this problem of distance between the modern reader and the Scriptures in college (which undercuts the tenets of self-evident meaning/common sense hermaneutic, democratic perspicuity and universal applicability/complete coverage of biblicism [numbers 3,4,5, and 8]).  I also began to question the idea of the internal consistency/harmony of Scripture (number 7), at least as understood by Evangelicalism.  While as Christians, we believe that God somehow inspired (a vague idea) or had a part in the process of generating the Scriptures, the Bible was in a very real (not just superficial) sense written by humans (contra #1), who held a variety of different beliefs and wrote from a variety of different positions into a variety of different situations.  An easy example of this would be when James writes in his Epistle “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (2:24), and when we read Paul in Romans saying “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28) (for a better understanding, one really needs to understand how the phrase “works of the law” functions in Paul’s writings).  Now is this contradiction irreconcilable? No.  But what we see is an example of how the Bible is, at least on the surface, contradicting itself.  I think the real answer to this is that each of these authors are writing to very different situations, and those isolated quotes I pulled out are part of much larger works, and they have to be understood within those contexts.  But this does go to show that there is most certainly is a level of diversity within Scripture that has to be accounted for (if you doubt this, read the book of Ecclesiastes, which seems to have no conception of an after-life at all, much like most of the OT, and try to reconcile that with parts of the NT).  While I do believe that there is some sense of the unity of the Scriptures, in the sense that they tell a coherent narrative, albeit from different perspectives and points within the story, with the climax of the story being the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. (N.T. Wright’s model of a 5-act play is certainly helpful on this, see http://www.amazon.com/Scripture-Authority-God-Bible-Today/dp/0062011952), within that unity is a whole lot of diversity.

The second characteristic of Biblicism in the McKnight/Smith blog that I have been drawing on, is that of Total Representation, the idea that the Bible “is what God wants us to know, all God wants us to know… in communicating the divine will to us.”  You may encounter this, for example, when someone asks something like, “What does the bible say about the morality of body piercings or smoking?”  Now obviously, those are questions that pertain to our modern situation and weren’t around  a couple thousand years ago (maybe the piercings, but the bible really doesn’t mention it in any substantial way), but the assumption is that you can pull a bible verse or section from somewhere, and then apply it in some way to this modern question.  After all, the Bible is God’s Word, and so it must have something to say on the matter (the total representation view).  So, in that last scenario, someone likely alludes to a verse like 1 Corinthians 6:19, and says, “Well you know, the body is a temple, so I don’t think Christians should have piercings or tattoos or smoke or drink (or whatever).”  Now if you actually read that passage, it is clearly addressing prostitution (saying it’s bad), not those previously mentioned issues.  But if you start with the implicit assumption that the bible has something to say about everything, you will almost inevitably end up with this sort of proof-texting that does horrible injustices to the intentions of the writers and to what God gave us the Scriptures for.  Quite simply, the Bible does not have something to say about everything, it is not an exhaustive instruction manual (contra #10), even if we would like it to be (this also addresses #8).

A few more thoughts on the idea of Democratic Perspicuity and a Commonsense Hermeneutic, numbers 4 and 5.  Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, I was exposed to the idea that the reason for why there was “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (i.e. why so many Christians who had the Bible as their sole authority had so many different beliefs) was because other Christians (not us, of course) were reading their biases and doctrinal traditions onto the Bible, while “we” were reading it objectively, dispassionately.  Now anyone who has studied much philosophy knows that this type of epistemology is laughable at best.  But for many Christians, this is the approach that is taken.  There is the idea that I, as a 21st century, middle class American without education in and appreciation for the historical, linguistic, cultural, theological and philosophical contexts that the bible exists in and was written in, can fully comprehend everything in the bible and know exactly what it means (without any process of interpretation), is just not a tenable idea.  Hell, even experts with PhD’s and lifetimes of experience in those branches of studies still don’t agree on what the bible means most of the time.  The fact is (without getting too deep into the philosophy/epistemology behind this), we simply never interpret the Bible in a purely objective manner, without any theological biases, as we may if we were born on a desert island along with a shiny leatherbound NIV (#6, solo scriptura), nor should we.  All of our knowledge is in some sense derived from or informed by tradition, and I think that God has made us as traditioned beings.  So the idea of skipping over years of theological and interpretive tradition in order to get to the “pure”, “objective”, “unbiased” truth of the Bible is not only impossible, but a bad idea.

So, if, contra biblicism, the Bible doesn’t have something to say about every imaginable topic, if the Bible is not actually so easy to interpret, and has quite a deal of diversity within it, and if we are uncapable of reading it (completely) objectively, and if this leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, what is the solution?  Is this interpretive pluralism?  Is it important for Christians to agree on issues of doctrine, practice, ethics, and more?  I’m not sure I have a definite answer/solution to these questions, but one thing I would say is at least part of the solution, and that is often vilified by Evangelicalism, is tradition.  To be honest, all of our faith, including the Scriptures, comes to us from tradition (it’s not as if it was divinely transmitted directly to our minds with no intermediating tradition).  And so to attempt to interpret the Scriptures without giving any credence to accompanying theological, doctrinal, and creedal traditions is not a wise move.  Tradition and Scripture are not competing sources of authority or guidance, but rather, they go hand in hand.  Tradition helps us to know how to interpret the Scriptures.  We need the creeds, we need to listen to our brothers and sisters throughout history.  But even with listening to tradition, one must acknowledge that there are many differing traditions within the Christian faith.  So how does one decide which tradition to adhere to, or do you just collect a smattering of all different Christian traditions and beliefs (which is really just another version of the “pervasive interpretive pluralism”)?   I think, as hard as this is for many Christians, especially Evangelicals (and even more so for those of the non-denominational persuasion), but without some authority functioning in the Church to guide it’s teaching, this pluralism is all but inevitable.

So, please answer?  Which would you rather do, live within and under the authority (even on doctrinal matters) of the Church, or have a plurality of interpretations?  Which is more important to you, unity of doctrine and practice in the Church, or freedom (from authority) in doctrine and practice in the Church? and why? I would love to get some good discussion and responses to this question and to things I’ve raised in this post as a whole.

Needless to say, I am most certainly not on the same page with the biblicism of most of Evangelicalism.  This is not to say that the view and use of the Scriptures is all the same within all of Evangelicalism, but speaking in general, I do not have an Evangelical view of Scripture (if that wasn’t clear).  This is not to put down anyone who does, I’m just sayin’…

I am in the process of reading book by Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith (the 2nd I’ve read by him), and so far it is quite good.  He actually supports his claims way better than I just did in this blog: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1587433036/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=jescre-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399373&creativeASIN=1587433036

Please read, in addition to the previously linked blogs, please read this and all of the Jesus Creed blog posts about Christian Smith’s book on Biblicism. http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/08/08/the-problem-of-biblicism-6/


2 Responses to “Evangelicalism? (Pt. 2)”

  1. danielericcummings September 1, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    The more I read the previously mentioned book, The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith, the more highly I would recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. If this post is of interest, please read it.

    Another book I would recommend is Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation, in which he deals with the doctrinal implications of recent OT studies, specifically in the areas of similarities of the OT with Ancient Near Eastern literature, theological diversity within the OT, and then how the NT writers used the OT.

    Another book that I’ve meant to read, and looks good, is God’s Word in Human Words, by Kenton Sparks.

    And I already mentioned N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God, which is quite good.

  2. spiehsjeff September 1, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    This is not a real comment…it only looks like one.

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