American Evangelicals, Scripture, and Global Churches – A Response to Greg Beale

I confess to being both warmly encouraged and coldly concerned by G.K. Beale’s addendum on globalism and postmodernism in his book The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 261-65.

Beale begins by opining the ridiculous mantra that systematic theology is just a western thing, he wisely responds to the postmodern perspective that what is true in one part of the world is not necessarily true for another, and rightly contends that theological diversity does not entail theological relativism. No objection here, loud applause from the United Nations of Evangelical Theology!

Beale believes that most Western theological and biblical scholarship has had a “detrimental effect on the worldwide church” since it has  denied or under emphasized the inspiration of Scripture and the supernatural element of the Bible (263). True enough as a generalization, but I would point out that the global church has not generally suffered the same fate. Not everywhere experienced “The Battle for the Bible” as it played out in North America. I know places where the global church has struggled with theological liberalism and places where other issues have been at the forefront of controversy. He then refers to the “newer parts of the church that have risen significantly in the last fifty years or so” who may benefit from considering the conservative Western sector of scholarship because the conservative Western church has an “emphasis on the authority of the Bible, text-based interpretation, and affirmation of the supernatural in the Bible” (263). He closes with the words that ”the meaning of God’s truthful Word in Scripture is the same for all his people, though none of us can know it exhaustively, and though some of us will perceive different insights than others, all such insights are relevant for the upbuilding of the entire church of any age” (265). That is quite generous, though we are still left wondering which doctrine of Scripture is “the same for all of [God's] people,” and I’m fairly sure that Beale means the conservative American view as laid out in the CSBI.

In response:

(1) The mere fact that he puts global perspectives in theology as a tag-on to an appendix arguing against postmodern hermeneutical errors suggests that Beale sees global views on Christian faith as something to be negotiated in the quest for a sound doctrine of Scripture. The diversity of Global Christianity is, by virtue of the structure of his book, part of the postmodern problem that needs to be addressed. He feels the need to assuage his implied readers that there is a perspective on globalism “that is good and healthy, indeed, biblical” in that the church in one part of the world may focus on methods, interpretation, biblical ideas, doctrines, or applications” that are not seen or emphasized in other parts of the worldwide church” (262). He seeks to assure readers that there is nothing to worry about because “theological globalism is nothing more than the different members of the body of Christ needing one another”  (264). Fair enough, I like that, sounds pretty self-evident, but  the fact that even he needs to say such things is a little alarming.

(2) The image of the global church in Beale’s essay is that of one either seduced by western liberalism or else still in its theological infancy. A gross generalization that fails to recognize the theological depth, biblical fidelity, and ecclesiastical leadership of the global south (anybody heard of NEGST, Lausanne Covenant, Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, or GAFCON?). I’m a co-editor of the New Covenant Commentary Series, which has contributors from Europe, Latin America, North America, Africa, Asia, and Australia,volumes written by brilliant, faithful, orthodox, evangelical, and godly men and women  from across the globe. In the end, Beale leads his readers to see these non-American global Christians are something of an apologetic project. Beale thinks that his fellow American conservatives should see the global church as objects waiting to learn their doctrine of Scripture, of which global Christians are somehow deficient.

(3) Beale humbly recognizes that no one knows Scripture exhaustively and each of us have our own insights ‒  hearty amen ‒ but the impression I get from his concluding statement is that he still regards the conservative American evangelical doctrines of Scripture as something that is universally normative for all people. I can handle Chicogian inerrancy as an insight the American churches have gained through the battle with Modernity, with antecedents in the church fathers and reformers, but we need to work towards a global consensus on the language and tools to best re-state the veracity of Scripture, something more like the Lausanne Covenant for my mind.

(4) While there is a great blessing in American evangelical scholarship, one I’ve benefited from immensely (not least of all from Greg Beale’s brilliant Revelation commentary and his erudite NT Theology), but we do not need Americans to teach us that the Bible is authoritative and how to do text-based interpretation. Here’s the thing: we already knew that, in some cases we knew it a millennium before you Americans did, and why do you presume to teach us a proper doctrine of biblical authority and biblical interpretation when you come from the same country as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Open Theism, and the Left Behind Series. Yours is a country where evangelicals use Scripture to argue against environmentalism, against gun control, against universal healthcare, and to argue for giving tax breaks to rich people – beliefs that are not only parochial, but are weird and whacky to global Christians. So, when it comes to lecturing us in biblical interpretation, part of me wants to say, “Physician, heal thyself!”

(5) Let me affirm that America has much to offer the global church, in many ways it has an embarrassment of riches, but implying a deficient view of Scripture on the part of the global church, needing to be corrected with a conservative American evangelical view of Scripture, strikes many of us global Christians as a blatantly colonialistic and down right condescending. If Beale simply thinks that American evangelicalism has something to share with the world, fine, I agree wholeheartedly (I see it every year at ETS and IBR); but I’m not okay with any view that we global evangelicals are somehow operating with an erroneous or truncated doctrine of Scripture, waiting for an American Philip to jump into our Ethiopian chariot and to finally explain the doctrine of Scripture to us. To read between the lines, I think Beale is, consciously or not, reassuring his theological tribe of the theological superiority of their own doctrine of Scripture,  and he tacitly suggests that the American conservative response to global Christianity it is to colonize the barbarian masses, who just got religion, with a proper doctrine of Scripture that reflects the American inerrancy tradition. Beale acknowledges that the global and American churches can learn from each other, but I want to suggest that when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, the dialogue and teaching can also flow both ways.

Beale is offering a positive apologia to American conservatives for global Christianity for which I am, mostly, thankful. But it is unfortunately framed in a way that makes us global evangelicals look like we are the poor cousins from Idaho when it comes to a doctrine of Scripture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thedutoit Sean du Toit

    Mike, it’s a pity that you have lumped together Open Theism with Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and the Left Behind Series. I would content that Open Theism has a much more robust theological position than the others, even if you don’t agree with it.

  • Ken Wilcox

    100% with you on this. You might as well as mutilation to your list: Christians in the USA use the Bible to defend male infant circumcision, too…something that the whole Christian world for 1900 years, and most of the Christian world for the last 100, too, has rejected completely. And now America’s been spreading that to Christians abroad (South Korea, Africa, etc.). But the same mindset continues: that the USA must proclaim this truth only it possesses to poor backwards Christians elsewhere.

  • http://derekouellette.com/ Derek Ouellette

    You just had to throw Open Theism in there with Joel Osteen and Dispensationalism didn’t ya?

    I like you and I know you’re a moderate Calvinist (which is to say I know where you’re coming from), so I’ll give you a pass on that remark, ;)

  • Jeff

    The Open Theism remark was a cheap shot. Certainly if you have ever read Greg Boyd or others on the subject yu would never accuse them of not being Biblical. If you would like to have a debate about it I would be glad to show you that it is a valid alternative