Zealotry 1

This will be a heavy series. I hope to generate conversation, some consternation, and (at the end of the day) some light. Here’s my big point: Some evangelicals have been tossing sharp barbs for a long time at “liberals” or “mainliners” for disregarding the Bible. (It would not be hard to give good examples.) Most evangelicals criticize liberals on the basis of a robust commitment to the Bible — and in so criticizing they believe it is they who are being faithful to the Bible.

Evangelicals tacitly assume or overly claim that they believe the whole Bible; they practice the Bible much better; and their theology is based on the Bible and the Bible alone. The contention is simple: liberals deny the Bible; we (evangelicals) don’t; we (evangelicals) are faithful and liberals are unfaithful.
Let me suggest that evangelicals, too, do plenty of Bible-denying but they deny in a different way. They question the sufficiency of Scripture.
I call this problem Zealotry. Here’s what I mean: Zealotry is conscious zeal to be radically committed, so radically committed that one goes beyond the Bible to defend things that are not in the Bible. Which is the mirror image of the accusation made by many evangelicals against liberals. The “beyond the Bible” stuff is not in the Bible and it means evangelicals get themselves committed to things that are not in the Bible. What’s the difference, I ask?
Trotting alongsie this zeal is a friend named immunity: Zealots think their zeal makes them immune to criticism because they are so zealous for God; their zeal never to get close to breaking any commandment makes them better than others. In other words, zeal shows just how deeply committed a person is to God and therefore immune to criticism. What, they reason to themselves, is wrong with doing more than the Bible? Does not God recognize our zeal?
This is an old tactic: the rabbis called this “making a fence around the Torah.” Example: the Torah says not to work on the Sabbath. So, let’s specify every kind of “work”, they say. So they come up with 40 or so kinds of labors that are “work.” These various kinds of works are the “fence” and the Sabbath command is the Torah. If one does not do such “work” a person does not violate the Sabbath working law. The idea is “add, add, add” and “clarify, clarify, clarify” and if follow the “adds” and the “clarifies” you’ll not break the Torah’s commandment — always more general, always less specific, always open to some interpretation.
Is the practice of making a fence around the Torah a trust that the Bible is wise? I think not. Making fences around the Torah suggests God needs our help to make his will a little clearer.
I contend that evangelicals do lots of “fence making”. One example, and I’ll give others in this series: the Bible says don’t get drunk. The evangelical fence is “don’t ever drink alcohol, and you’ll never get drunk.” (True enough: if you never drink, you’ll never get drunk. That’s not the problem.) The problem is this: quickly, the “fence” becomes the “Torah” and drinking alcohol in moderation is no longer good enough. Anyone who crosses the fence has broken the Torah (which she or he hasn’t, folks). Zealotry commits to the fence and in so doing goes beyond the Bible. Commitment to keeping the fence is a sign of radical commitment. It gives immunity. It ends up being no longer biblical but lets something else be “biblical.” Is this what God wants?
Nope. Zealotry through fence-making is a failure to trust what the Bible does say, and it is a trust in what the Bible does not say, and it ends up snubbing God’s good Word which evangelicals believe is sufficient. Come now, let’s stop castigating liberals or let’s start being more biblical.
And I don’t care if a group of good and godly folk get together and make a decision and say “we’ll avoid alcohol totally.” (Frankly, they usually have a little thump to the chest to show their commitment and assert their immunity.) By so doing, they are saying this: What God says isn’t good enough. We know better. Sure, they don’t say this, but it is what they are doing — in the name of zeal. They are zealous for one thing, while the liberals being criticized happen (if they care to examine the case) are zealous for something else. Those “something elses,” my friends, are not in the Bible.
This is what I mean by Zealotry. It is zeal to do what God says so bad that one is willing to construct a new Torah that goes beyond the Bible and in so doing betray a trust in God’s sufficient revelation in Scripture. (And I’m not bringing in Tradition here; that’s another development.)
Zealotry is only slightly different than the liberalism evangelicals complain about. You might just as well call it a zealous liberalism or a liberal zealotry. It is a failure to let the Bible be God’s Word and a decision to let something else be the final word.
Tomorrow: the motivation behind Zealotry.

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  • Great analysis, Scot, and something that many evangelicals need to think about.
    My only point of clarification would be that I have no problem if a person or group wishes to build themselves a protective fence as the best way of avoiding breaking God’s laws, as long as they don’t expect others to have to respect that fence, and as long as the fence doesn’t become a lens through which they view and judge others. For example, someone decides the best way for them personally to avoid drunkenness is to be tee-total, that’s fine; but they mustn’t impose that restriction on others or assume that others who don’t impose it on themselves are somehow “less holy” or further from obedience to God’s law.
    This was probably implicit in your thinking, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

  • Bang on Scot. I think it’s the elitism that comes with the territory of zealotry that really gets me in a twist and causes me the most sleepless nights as a pastor.
    The only thing scarier is when zeal blinds them to the way they relate to and see others.
    Having said that, I could come across looking the same. Maybe it’s because when we talk about a ‘them’ that we create an out-group of extremists which we can then agitate meaningfully against…making us a little similar.
    Finally, the slippery slope argument is an often cited logic thrown at us by zealots…”when is drunk drunk?” and this applies to all sorts of things. But (thanks to real live preacher actually who gave me the freedom to say this) when I say,” actually no, I don’t have to follow your logic since I am living with these ideals and am not slipping down towards abominable depths”, when I say that, ‘they’ just don’t seem to get that.
    It all comes down to approaching Truth with humility and understanding first and foremost the crazy scale of this universe and the revelation of God contained therein.
    eeek, what a ramble…but thanks for this series, I’ll look forward to it with keen anticipation.

  • Norton

    Good point Rob. I was thinking the same thing. There should be room for someone to exercise a personal discipline (a “fence”) in a way that benefits their own spiritual formation, even if it’s not a specific biblical command. But the key is recognizing the fence’s value for their particular situation and not developing a prideful attitude or imposing the restriction on others. And this is difficult, but not impossible.
    Great article, Scot.

  • Zealous Servant
    by John Frye
    Just a cup of water
    Smashed into my face.
    Broken glass, lips bleeding,
    The zealous servant left me;
    With water, yes,
    And with greater pain.

  • David

    With fences what often happens is that the individual thinks that they have earned some degree of merit in spiritual progress and it makes them better than others. Anything that pulls us away from Grace…….puts us in the place of the Law. When Jesus came the first time, the people he was most upset about were the priests and scribes who understood the law and followed it but were completely lost. In thier own eyes they were rich but it would be easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for them to enter the kingdom of God. I think that fence building can be dangerous because it gives you a false sense of security. It places your faith in your own ability to adhere to some standards and you no longer need to trust 100% in the finished work of Christ on the cross. As soon as you are no longer walking in Grace……then you are walking in something that is dark and ugly. I think you can end up in the same destination but one is powered by God and one is powered by your ego.
    Nobody likes hanging around ego driven spirituality…. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.

  • DanD

    Good start on zealotry. It is complex because it arises in the heart–a heart that begins with the idea of serving and honoring God and so easily slips into a proud-“look at me”, judgemental-“you’re not like me” attitude and practice.
    I need the words of Jesus about taking the log out of my own eye, and the attitude of graciousness Paul mentioned about forgiving others as God has forgiven us and the practice of James when he told me to be slow to speak.
    Sufficiency is huge. The sufficiency of the Bible and the sufficiency of Christ. Sad when I add to either of them.
    Grace, always

  • Scot,
    I kept tripping up on your use of the label “Evangelical” … Is there room here for qualifying your terms so the word’s meaning is properly preserved yet your points (which are very good) are still made?

  • This zealotry comes across for me on some blogs, loud and clear. Blogs I sadly, then, want to avoid. Because I’m afraid I’ll pick up the same spirit in trying to refute them.
    Maybe the best way is to stay low and ask questions. Especially when, for some reason, you can’t escape them. Or just to hopefully build into their lives the balance of grace and truth.
    But Scot, your points are well taken. And John, great poem! So sadly true at times. (Did anyone see the 20/20 ABC special with George Stephanopoulos on Friday night? Evangelicals were prominent in it. And unfortunately for us, most of it was not good. But even more unfortunate, it was all too true.)

  • SmartChristian.com » Blog Archive »

    Scot McKnight on “Zealotry”
    I have often commented on some of the perceived differences between Christian “liberals” and “conservatives,” but I think North Park University professor Scot McKnight has hit the nail on the head with his latest series on “Zealtory” (if you read…—–
    Bible versions for zealots
    Today Scot McNight blogged on zealotry. It is, or should be, a sobering read for many of us–and it should be sobering not because he specifically writes about whether truly spiritual people should interpret the Bible to mean that they should be teetot…—–
    Evangelical Zealotry
    Jesus Creed » Zealotry 1
    As always, Scot McKnight keeps coming out with thought provoking and on-the-money blog pieces. His latest piece weighs into the evangelical vs “liberal” divide with some fairly scathing words concerning evangelical…—–
    […] Yes, evangelicals are also Bible-denying folks. […]

  • Glenn

    Excellent post. Again and again evangelicals focus on what they “believe” and not who they are and how they live. I think we could claim a consensus from George Barna, Dallas Willard, Ronald Sider, etc. that clearly shows evangelicals claiming to be more faithful to the Bible than liberals but in reality the lives of evangelicals show how shallow our commitment really is. Are we are critical of liberals to deflect attention away from the reality of how unfaithful we can be?

  • I have been guilty of this myself. My excuse would be that I was raised this way. But fortunately enough I was also raised to work out my faith. Thankfully blogs like this are around to put me through the fire.

  • T

    I look forward to your study, mainly for the description of how it happens (and hopefully how we can all avoid it!), which you got into a little bit here: “clarify, clarify, clarify”. This is the point on which I guess I can most be called ’emerging’–the level of total confidence that several within each theological camp have about so many different facets of God, humanity, etc. doesn’t encourage me. Don’t get me wrong, I dig certainty and conviction–passion even. It just starts to turn sour when it doesn’t dampen anywhere on the spectrum of things to know about God.

  • Greg

    Good thoughts. This reminds me of the passage, ‘[L]earn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man against another.’ (from 1 Cor 4:6, NIV)
    So the idea of not going beyond the scripture is (not so surprisingly) biblical.

  • Zealots infuse *their* interpretations of the Bible with the same infallabilty and authority that belongs properly only to the Bible itself. When these zealous one arrogantly proclaim that they are “defending the faith” (i.e., the Bible), what they really mean is they are defending their understanding of the faith.

  • Scot, you’re hitting on something painfully obvious among many evangelical Christians. Zeal, though often a positive thing, has driven many people to many self-proclaimed “Christian” ends for centuries. It is as if zealous people are consumed with a responsibility to make Christ the King. For zealots (like I have been and many friends still are), it seems that the faith is riding on their own shoulders. They take the admonition to live lives worthy of our high calling in Jesus and make their faith about the best ways to please the Lord. The problem, of course, is that the faith is still about self. Zealots may have said, “Jesus is Lord,” but after doing that, many zealots set out in an attempt at being the best Christian ever to proclaim the best Christ ever. Zealots don’t need Christ; they only need Torah (as you said). Christ fulfilled the Torah, so zealots often spin their tires telling Christ how well they’re doing at protecting the Law. Yes, this is going to be a great series – likely pointed to me in some spots. Thanks for the challenge I’m sure the Holy Spirit is leading you to pose.

  • Great discussion, Scot. My own take is that the zealotry cuts both (all) ways — with each of us making our own interpretation and editing of the Bible as the most central issue. Thus, for “Evangelicals” it might be personal (read individual) salvation, individual morality and/or conservative social mores. For “Liberals” it might be a political correctness and liberal social agendas. Both “sides” tend to denigrate the other. (And I look down of them all ’cause they don’t have it all together like me. Mea culpa.)
    Another pet peeve of mine: In behlf of the Bible society I often speak in many different churches — Evangelical and Mainline alike — I often note, however, that the so-called “Bible churches” often have only a single verse of Scriputre read during worship, whichever verse the sermon is based on. Yet these same churches are the ones most likely to look down on “Liberal” Mainline churches, where I usually hear 3 or 4 lengthy passages from the lectionary. Go figure.

  • Scot,
    Just a thought, but are there not zealots who are off the mark in every group, not just Evangelicals? I believe I would have found your comments more unbiased if we had been discussing the fact that people throw barbs at other people or groups of people in order to raise themselves up. I beleive it is all about relationships. If I see my brother falling into a sin that the Holy Spirit has sent me to talk wtih him about, that conversation can happen because of our relationship. Too often, we can’t have these conversations because 1. This is not our assignment ordained by God 2. We do not have the friendship and trust that is required to correct a brother or sister. I truly believe the reason we often do not have these relationships is because of the groups and definitions we confine ourself in. I really respect many of the emerging friends because of their adamant refusal to this.

  • On the alcohol issue I had a good man approach me today from our team. He said that an alcoholic was recently converted. And that in this guy’s eyes, any professing Christian who partook of an alcoholic beverage in a restaurant was a hypocrite, since in this new convert’s eyes, all who drink would abuse alcohol.
    We didn’t agree. I believe this is an issue spoken to by Paul (Rom 14,15 the prime passage). So that I do need to exercise my freedom with care for any who may stumble at my practice. Which will mean abstaining at certain times and places, and perhaps seasons of life.
    But my good friend (his own dad was an alcoholic) sees the only answer as totally abstaining, even as he himself acknowledged that Scripture does teach moderation in its use.
    And a relative recently told me that if alcohol is used, then the kids are more likely to fall into its use and abuse. But kids I know who abused it were raised in abstaining households.
    In reality, I do believe that insisting on abstaining as the more holy course, or even calling it a sin to drink, is adding to Scripture, and thus providing a “better” wisdom than what is written. And we who take the Scriptural course are considered compromisers.

  • Chris

    The 39 prohibited labors of Sabbath were based on the steps done to construct the tabernacle. It is in Exodus 31:12-17, right after the instructions to build the tabernacle. In what way is this an extension of Torah? God’s commandment is quite explicit:
    God told Moses to speak to the Israelites and say to them: You must still keep my sabbaths. It is a sign between me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy. Keep the Sabbath as something sacred to you. Anyone doing work shall be cut off spiritually from his people, and therefore, anyone violating it shall be put to death. Do your work during the six week days, but keep Saturday as a Sabbath of sabbaths, holy to God. Whoever does any work on Saturday shall be put to death. The Israelites shall thus keep the Sabbath, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant. It is a sign between me and the Israelites that during the six weekdays God made heaven and earth, but on Saturday, he ceased working and rested.

  • Chris,
    Fair enough. The 39 kinds of work in m. Shabb. 7:2 are connected to building the Temple; in addition to those are the “derivatives” (toladot; BK 22a).
    My logic is this: these are a “fence”. First, if you don’t do these, you are keeping Sabbath; second, Torah then becomes these. The latter is my real point. It has to do with equating Torah with the “fence.”

  • DanD

    The sabbath is a great illustration, is it not?
    39 prohibited labors?
    Where are they found?
    I am pretty big on Ex 31:15, the Sabbath as a gift “to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy.” But is at the application level that it is easy for my to fall into the zealotry Scot M is talking about.
    Application is where meddlin’ begins, so it used to be said. It is necessary for the practice of life. But it is here that a focus on ‘praxis’ can go astray–especially where my pet practice steps on someone else’s toes. Is it then a word from God to them? Or is it an assumption on my part? Sometimes we talk/act/impose ourselves on others as if we love them and have a wonderful plan for their lives. I think that is this kind of zealotry.

  • Yes, there is zealotry elsewhere. I’m not giving a broad-spectrum approach, but dealing with a specific problem we (evangelicals) have within our own camp. Call it “friendly fire” if you will. It is, however, clear enough to warrant a series like this.

  • I am an evangelical and think a glass of fine Merlot is a good thing. So does my Dr. My denomination has another “official” view.
    I like what John Piper says to those who prohibit alcohol: legalism is far worse than alcoholism.
    I think this is where there are fundi-gelicals and evanga-mergents.

  • Greg Mc

    I am probably one of those who throws the occasional barb at theological liberalism:) However it is a huge and unwarranted jump in logic to say: “in so criticizing they believe it is they who are being faithful to the Bible.” Now of course if all you were saying was that in the particular area where liberals deny say the divinity of Jesus, where the bible clearly affirms the divinity of Jesus; then yes, those affirming the divinity of Jesus are being faithful to the Bible and those denying it, are not. Unfortunately that is not all that you are saying. You seem to be saying that because I affirm that the bible is the very word of God and “zealously” oppose those who do not, therefore I automatically consider myself to be perfect in every other area of theology and worse, that I think my praxis is also perfect. I assure you I do not. Scot, that is just shoddy reasoning and really; I expect more rigorous thinking from you.
    Paul opposed the Judaizers with great zeal. Did that mean that he was therefore a self righteous prig?
    Of course you can always find some who are self righteous but anyone who takes the bible seriously, is soon humbled to find just how far away they are from God and that apart from the grace and mercy of God they would be eternally damned. That causes me to cling to Jesus and His righteousness imputed to me like my very life depends on it.
    In denying the bible is the word of God theological liberals undermine every other doctrine, leaving every man for himself, without hope, without a savior and damned eternally. That’s a little different than looking down on someone else for drinking alcohol, although taken to it’s extreme legalism is just as damnable. that’s why Paul so “zealously” opposed it.
    “This is what I mean by Zealotry. It is zeal to do what God says so bad that one is willing to construct a new Torah that goes beyond the Bible and in so doing betray a trust in God’s sufficient revelation in Scripture.”
    I would disagree with this in that Legalism, (which you seem to equate with Zealotry) is an attempt to make oneself acceptable to God by fulfilling the requirements of the Law which makes the sacrifice of Jesus unnecessary.

  • Greg,
    Thanks for this, and I open myself to some of what you say and that is why I crafted my words.
    First, I’m not talking about justifiable criticism of liberals, nor am I talking about you. Liberals deserve it.
    Seond, I’ve not defined “zealotry” in such a way that it includes defense of the gospel or the truths of Scripture. I’ve defined it as that which goes beyond the Bible, and only that (except to include immunity for those so inclined).
    Third, I’ve not really brought into this discussion anything about “legalism” — though I agree some could take it in that way. I’ve defined legalism in other posts. Zealotry is a specific problem: going beyond the Bible and thinking one is immune for doing so.
    I’m asking that you see just what I’m saying and what I’m not saying. One might see Zealotry as a kind of legalism; I’m not sure I do. Legalism is another problem.

  • Dennis Wood

    As a recovering zealot, I, too, will be looking forward to the rest of this series. My evangelical fence included no dancing, movie theatres, etc. Our youth group always had prom-alternative and other dance alternatives. This “beyond” in my own life helps me to clarify Zealotry from personal experience. Thanks, Scot, write on!

  • Zealotry exists in the Catholic world, too, where we also have the liberal/conservative divide. It’s also always existed, in one form or another, in the history of the Church. Part of human nature, I think.
    It’s been addressed by many different spiritual writers through the ages, sometimes quite poignantly. Here’s one from the early 18th century: “A desire for our neighbour’s perfection is undoubtedly excellent. . . . Yet all this can be mixed with much secret self-complacency, reliance upon our own wisdom, and severity towards our neighbour. Such a zeal, make no mistake about it, cannot come from God, but is one of the devil’s illusions thoroughly harmful to both yourself an others.” (Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, JP de Caussade). All the writers agree that the root of it is pride, which must be rooted out.
    It sounds like you’ll be going into that tomorrow, in your continuation, “the motivation behind Zealotry.” I’ll keep my eye out for it.

  • Greg Mc

    Thanks Scot
    I see what you are saying. Zealotry = going beyond the Bible and thinking one is immune for doing so.
    I suppose my concern arises more with the Liberalism example than the alcohol issue.
    I do see that the bible prohibits drunkenness but prescribes a limited use of alcohol in other places. It really is a complex issue with much to said on both sides. I confess I have always thought of this issue in terms of legalism misapplied vs some form of Zealotry but I see your distinction.
    OTOH I do not find any biblical warrant for unbelief (which is what theological Liberalism reduces to)whatsoever. Scripture is unanimous in it’s unambiguous renunciation of false teachers and false doctrine. Classic theological Liberalism is not a straw man erected by conservatives to make themselves feel superior (although I acknowledge that some may use it that way). It is a real and present danger to the Church today. I notice that Paul was not as concerned with the motives of others as much as he was that the truth of the Gospel would be clearly proclaimed.
    “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will;…..the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,” (Phil 1:15-18)
    All that to say while there is legitimate use perhaps of alcohol, there is none for false teaching. I’m not sure I know anyone that thinks that opposing Liberalism is the gospel or is sufficient in and of itself to make one “faithful” to God.
    I like what Luther said about being “faithful”
    “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.
    Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides
    is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

  • Scot,
    I may be getting off topic a little bit from the zealotry issue, but I did want to add something on the illustration you used concerning alcohol. I would aggree that using abstinence as a form of holiness and requiring everyone else to follow in suit is an unbiblical practice.
    But at the same time, let’s remember our brothers and sisters whom are alcoholics (myself included). It may be allright for the pastor to enjoy one beer once in a while, but that one beer could perpetuate a distructive downward spiral for the recovering person.
    I was at a gathering of “emergent” leaders back in April, and on the first night everyone went out to the bar. Now, I don’t criticize them for that, but I chose to stay back for the sake of my recovery.
    I know in a lot of “emergent” circles there is a great deal of acceptance towards alcohol, and enjoying a drink is something shared during fellowship. That’s fine, but a challenge I will pose to church leaders is to think through it a little more. That one drink that is safe for you to enjoy could destroy the life of a few members of your congregation.
    So while enjoying a drink please be prayful and considerate of the ones whom can’t enjoy that one drink. Especially if you are a pastor and they are in your flock.
    Yes we do have that freedom, but we Christians should never be flippant towards the alcohol issue. That may even mean that some leaders may have to give up alcohol for the sake of the congregation they’ve been called to lead. This abstinence would not be a “fence” so to speak to be more self-righteous, but would be done out of love for others.

  • Scot,
    Judging by the comments, this is going to be a raucous conversation. Thanks for having the “cullions” to stir the pot.
    Cheers (beer mugs clanging),

  • I once asked Wayne Grudem and some other well-known theologians whether the International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy fell prey to a unique sort of naiveté. It seemed to me (and still does!) that too many theologians involved with ICBI made a most unfortunate assumption: simply stating a sophisticated and “conservative” position on the Bible’s inerrancy leads automatically to people living under its authority. However, the statistics on divorce and many other maladies among evangelicals says otherwise. Also, I know many who don’t subscribe to inerrancy per se, yet clearly live under its authority. I have learned much from observing many in the latter group. Now hand me a beer!

  • Tis is very thought provoking. I’m in college, trying to exercise my faith, but sometimes very very confused. Zealous behavior and speech so far, have never helped me grow closer to God. But then, I’ll find myself acting zealous, just because I’m so frustrated by zealous behavior. Thanks for a great post! I look forward to reading more from you!

  • How do I know that I am better if you are not worse? Some sins are atractive even to evangelicals.

  • Kevin,
    Good point; there is always a need for Christians not to use their freedom (that is the right term) to cause others to stumble.
    And a flippant attitude toward problems and others is also unwise.

  • RJS

    To follow up a bit on Dave’s comment (#31)
    The zealousness with which a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is held could be a good example here (both I think on Zealotry and Immunity). It does often seem that Biblical inerrancy is held for two reasons: (1) The assumption that authority implies inerrancy and vice versa (as if it is a mathematical if and only if statement). (2) It is the intellectually easier route, (if this is the bedrock hypothesis we are on firm ground and know how to proceed). I will contend that it is not held because the Bible itself teaches inerrancy and thus it is “going beyond what is written”.

  • RJS,
    Good thoughts. “Inerrancy” and even the affirmation of the truthfulness of Scripture does us little good until it shapes our identity. When it is used as a litmus test apart from the litmus test called Christian life and community we also get into trouble.

  • Greg Mc

    Of course inerrancy was not just pulled out of a hat one day because people had nothing better to do but to build some fences did it? It came about as a response to the direct and sustained attack on the historicity of the bible by guess who? That’s right, theological liberals.

  • Hi Scot,
    Former Trinity student here. Zealotry has just about killed the church in Europe and is killing it in the U.S. The winsome and unique contribution that Christianity makes in the universe of spirituality is it’s message of GRACE. That message (unfettered by a hypercalvinist zealotry) is simply not being communicated, taught, or lived out among Christians like it should be. I see it as a failure among church leaders to understand what grace is, how it is developed in the Scriptures, and how it is lived out in an authentic Chrisitian community. And I’m not talking about grace=niceness. But a true God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense understanding of the saving and sanctifying (=integrity producing) grace of God. Thanks for your post.
    P.S. Like Rich Kirkpatrick above (with whom I’m privileged to work) my denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, requires total abstinence for its pastors–a flaw in an otherwise outstanding denomination.

  • fascinating post.

  • RJS

    Inerrancy wasn’t just pulled out of a hat and the general veracity of scripture must be maintained. But it is the easy way out – build a fence to ensure that purity is maintained – it saves thinking too much. It is unfotunately also a significant hurdle to many attempts at outreach in the University environment.
    I will hold absolutely to Biblical authority. It is the authority by which I order my life – or try to. But I do not believe that the Bible is “inerrant” in its detail, in the original manuscripts, or in the current best Greek manuscript we have available. There are several reasons why I will hold to this. One important reason is the simple fact that the story of Jesus, particularly the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is told in different form in four gospels. The essence is the same, but the details are not, and are not reconcilable without incredible contortions. It seems much more reasonable to simply assume that God never intended us to read the Bible as “inerrant” at least not in the sense that I was taught growing up in an evangelical church etc.

  • BeckyR

    I wonder if for some of us who are on christian lists like this, if our fence making, we think we are more zealous because we think about things. I bumped up against this in my mother in law, whose devotion was to keeping house and making meals. She was a christian, but just not the kind of person to think about christian things. She went to church, bible study/women’s group, kept house, and that was that. I had no reason to question if she was a christian or not, just not a christian that was built to think on things. Do we think we’re more devout because we think about christianly things?

  • Andy Cornett

    RE Becky in #41 – yes, I think we do. That happens to be one of my particular failings, and I seem to be reminded of / chastised for it on a regular basis. Thank you! blessings to you all …

  • Per my previous comment (#31), I still gladly wear the moniker “inerrantist” (similar to Paul Feinberg’s articulation in Inerrancy by Geisler, ed.).
    I do continue to be worried about our own evangelical penchant for being selective with Scripture. We rightly balk over Jefferson’s slicing and dicing of Scripture, but we need to be more circumspect about our own slicing and dicing. For example, the gospel includes remembering the poor. Paul says he was eager to remember the poor and he certainly did not preach a “socialized gospel!”

  • Greg Mc

    RJ, Easy being an inerrantist? That’s funny I always thought it was easier to go along with the crowd than to subject oneself to the ridicule of the world both Christian and non Christian never mind the ire of university students.
    All you have done by actively admitting irreconcilable errors in the bible is to agree with the critics of the bible that our witnesses have impeached themselves and proved to be either lying or incompetent. In either case such witnesses can be easily ignored or discounted. As far as “not thinking too much” I assure you it takes more study and effort to find answers to difficult questions and seeming inconsistencies than it does to just shrug them off an unimportant.
    BTW I would never make a point of insisting on the necessity of holding to inerrancy as part of a gospel presentation. In fact I would approach it much as you do and concentrate on the truthfulness of the Gospel story. What I would not do is just fold when someone tells me that the gospel accounts contradict one another. Instead I would say oh: where exactly do you find these contradictions? If I didn’t have an answer I would go and study the question and get back to the person. It’s not easy but I sleep better.
    All of this is really beside the point of this post and has quickly become (as emergent blogs are wot to do) yet another opportunity attempting to show how mean, spiteful, and ignorant Conservative Christians are. I would like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not.

  • Greg Mc,
    Please keep in mind that there are some (yours truly) who don’t identify with the Emergent label.
    As one who has preached “the foolishness of the cross” on free speech platforms at places like Stanford and U Cal-Berkeley, there are critics of aspects of evangelical theology from within the “inerrancy” household.

  • Scot,
    A great post. Over and over I have seen zealotry do its damage. A few of the areas, where zeal has taken its toll.
    *An elitist view of evangelism–REAL Christians do it a certain way and have a certain personality and approach.
    *An elitist view of spiritual piety–REAL Christians “get it” unlike the rest of the church.
    *An elitist view of the spiritual lifestyle– “Yeah I know what the Bible says but if you are REALLY committed to the Lord, you would…”
    Glad you are doing this series.

  • Jim,
    Thanks for this. I weighed and prayed over this one, mostly because it was friendly fire. Tomorrow’s post will show you what I think the fundamental problem is.

  • Greg Mc

    Dave I certainly am aware of the many and various weakness of evangelicalism broadly defined. Frankly we’re a mess but I’ll tell you what the emergent criticisms of evangelicals remind me of. They remind me of Noam Chomsky and his unrelenting attacks on the U.S.A with never a negative word about Communism or any positive presentation of how he would do things differently. It’s easy to be a critic. He says some things that are true but I fear his cure (if you could ever get him to articulate it) would kill the patient. For all the troubles evangelicalism has capitulating to a failed and discredited liberalism would be moving further away from not closer to God’s will.
    PS I’m Canadian and I’d take the U.S. as a neighbor over China any day.

  • Such good stuff Scot. Reminded me of an essay by Keith Drury which I have linked at my blog.
    The concept of fences is there and also a discerning thought about theology written in pencil, in ink and in blood. I recommend it.

  • never thought of it this way, but its good – look forward to the rest

  • I basically agree. I also think Rob G. (the very first comment) also has a point, that it’s okay to build fences as long as we don’t use them to judge. (I haven’t read all the comments so I hope this one isn’t redundant)
    I would also add that in some cases, fences may be a cultural way of portecting against weakness inherant to a particular people-group. Forinstance, in some cultures people use wine with a meal and drink in moderation because alchohol content enhances the flavour of the drink. In other cultures, alchohol is seen as strictly a means of getting drunk. Most churches where tee totalism is the norm, you’ll probably notice if you look closely, had their beginnings where nobody touched achohol unless they intended to get drunk. In this case, the fence is definately there for their protection. The challenge is to stay protected while not judging those who are in less need of the fence.
    Another example would be: nudity — how much is okay? Many Muslem communities today build a fence by dressing their women up to their eyesballs. Some tribes people in Papua-New Guinea and South America, apparently don’t need such a high fence. But I’m sure you’d agree that a fence of some sort is necessary in our culture, wouldn’t you?

  • we see “fences” but the people who build the “fences” don’t see them as “fences” at all. whose to say when something is a “fence”? who has the authority to make that judgment?
    thanks for this series…GREAT topic.

  • MikeS

    This is a great series! It looks like I’m not alone in sharing that, so its nice to be in good company. you have certainly hit on a nerve in the Christian community.
    It sort of reminds me of the range wars in the old west. One man’s fence was a protection for his crops and livestock, but another man would see it as an impediment for freely moving his cattle to market. It makes for a shootin’ match between the two positions. Both want their goods to survive to market but can’t find the middle ground until the railroads took over.
    In this case, it seems standing on the Bible alone is a wise middle ground, not going beyond it and not stopping short of the whole counsel of God. From my own life’s perspective, those on the liberal side emasculate the Scriptures but are quick to carry out the commands of true religion to care for the poor, feed the widow, attack systematic injustice. Those on the evangelical side seem to be emphasizing right teaching and truth before action. Thus the liberals focus on Jesus’ teachings while the evangelical fundamentalists seem to focus on the epistles. I realize these are over generalizations, but more could be said at another point in time.
    I do wonder however if the evangelical—liberal continuum is a mixing of categories. Would it be better to say Evangelical—mainline or conservative—liberal or as some in the Episcopalian debate are doing, use reasserter—reappraiser for the continuum? Clearly there are evangelicals on the liberal side of the fence as well as the conservative side. Just as there are mainliners who are evangelical and conservative as well as liberal and free-thinking.

  • Why be so simplistic with the conservative argument? Who argues against liberals in that fashion? Machen? Conservatives criticize liberals for forcing a criteria on the text that is foreign to the text. Ex: The walls of Jericho fell because of the cadence and not by God’s hand. I teach my high school students that and they laugh. Liberals deny truths taught explicitly in the Bible (the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man).
    Now am I one of the zealots who act and think as if I have it all together? I hope not and I pray that by reading those before me my theology and understanding will be sharpened. We must FENCE the Scriptures and the truths taught within. I am not sure building a strawman against conservatives is the best way to begin developing a proper fence.
    You have raised some important issues we conservatives must think through. How do you hope to develop a FENCE that is not culturally and perspectively limited, and therefore inadequate? Can one develop any fence without you calling them a zealot? If not then there is not much to say. If not we disgregard Nicea, Chalcedon?

  • Thanks Scot.
    Warning to ALL of us: let us beware of any sneaky smugness that can easily be a part of” “I am glad I have recovered from that”
    One man’s log is another man’s speck! Or, is it one man’s speck. . . ? How DID I get that degree? 🙂
    More & more I appreciate: “Be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Eph. 4). Not to mention the awesome wisdom of Romans 14 – 15’s teachings about Weaker Bro.s & freedoms used wisely & with love (not flaunted).

  • McKnight on Zealotry at Addison Road

    […] Scot has started one of his [in?]famous series on zealotry, which he defines as a radical commitment that causes one to go “beyond the Bible to defend things that are not in the Bible.” He offers his assessment that this is a problem to which evangelicals are particularly prone, usually in response or opposition to positions (or lack of positions) taken by more liberal strains of the Church. In part one he writes: Trotting alongside this zeal is a friend named immunity: Zealots think their zeal makes them immune to criticism because they are so zealous for God; their zeal never to get close to breaking any commandment makes them better than others. In other words, zeal shows just how deeply committed a person is to God and therefore immune to criticism. What, they reason to themselves, is wrong with doing more than the Bible? Does not God recognize our zeal? […]

  • The Upward Way Press » Blog Archive » Over and Above

    […] Scot McKnight (Jesus Creed) has begun an important series of posts on what he calls “zealotry”. I strongly encourage all of my readers to go over to Scot’s website and read this series. God might use it to change your life for the better. Really, go read it. […]

  • Tim

    In comment #24 Greg Mc says that liberals deny that the Bible is the word of God.
    Just a point of clarification. Not all liberals deny this.

  • adventures in mercy » Blog Archive » Zealot Evangelicalism

    […] Part One Zealotry […]

  • Excellent post.
    As a former fundamentalist zealot myself, I can relate.
    The popular analogy was driving along the cliff. As a driver, you do not ask how close you can get to the edge of the cliff without falling off. You stay away from it as far as you can. So when it comes to drunkeness, you do not ask how much you should allow yourself to drink, but rather how you can completely stay away from it.
    It all sounds good and only if avoiding sin was that simple. I like the anology because taken further, it betrays the legalistic argument. When you stay so far away from the cliff, you are likely to cross over the center divider and get yourself into a headon collision with an uncoming car, and get yourself killed AND OTHERS in the process.

  • Mary

    I don’t feel like I am a zealot! I believe every person has to work out his own belief, but I also believe that if every one that is so smart in the Bible, would read the Old King James,or the New King James (which they can’t seem to understand,so they would rather read the more modern version written by people of modern beliefs to suit their own understanding) and know that the Bible does say to not even LOOK upon the working of the vine juice, let alone drink it. If you want to drink,then that is your business, That is between you and GOD, just don’t try to defend it with your fancy words, and quit trying to draw othr people into your way of thinking. I am not impressed.

  • Backyard Missionary » Blog Archive » Zealotry

    […] You can start reading here. […]