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A watershed among evangelicals?

A watershed among evangelicals? September 17, 2010

Call me strange (I know some will!), but for years I’ve had an obsession with trying to figure out why equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving evangelical Christians think so differently and seem so easily to become hostile to one another.  Often, it seems to come down to differing views of the Bible.  These people agree with each other about fundamental Christian orthodoxy (Christology, the Trinity, resurrection, etc.) but seem to have different attitudes toward the Bible that drive them apart.

On the surface it seems to be a disagreement over inerrancy.  But I suspect it goes deeper.  And I know some inerrantists who “line up” with those who don’t believe in inerrancy and some who don’t believe in inerrancy who “line up” with inerrantists.  I suspect the real, underlying difference is caused by different ideas of what the Bible is.

I think I detect that some evangelicals, mostly those who call themselves “conservative evangelicals,” believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord because they believe the Bible is the supernaturally, verbally inspired Word of God and it teaches that Jesus is Savior and Lord (which more than implies also God even though Scripture nowhere says it as explicitly as that). 

Then there are evangelicals who believe the Bible is the supernaturally inspired Word of God because it is the medium by which Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior (and therefore God) encounters and teaches them.  For this group of evangelicals, then, the Bible is authoritative because it is the “book of Jesus.”  Or, as Luther put it, “the cradle that holds the Christ child.” 

I won’t go so far as to accuse the first group of bibliolatry, but it does seem sometimes that their view of the Bible elevates it to a status almost alongside God.  A student quipped to me that for many Southern Baptists (and I’m sure he would agree for many others) the Trinity is Father, Son and Holy Bible.  Of course, no Southern Baptist or evangelical would say that.  He was commenting on how the bible functions in their churches and lives.

But it does seem to me, at times, that for some evangelicals, the Bible is viewed as an oracle of God permeated by some kind of supernatural power such that it is worthy of veneration (perhaps mostly in folk religion) or interpretation as every individual statement equally “God’s Word” for today (and for all times). 

This difference has played out in two events that I have witnessed.  First, when my friend Stan Grenz wrote his massive one volume systematic theology Theology for the Community of God some fellow evangelicals criticized him very harshly for including the doctrine of Scripture within the doctrine of the Holy Spirit instead of giving it pride of place at the very beginning.  He did state clearly at the beginning that, for him, the Bible is God’s Word and the supreme authority for faith and practice including theology.  But his actually discussion of its nature was under the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  This was not enough for some conservative evangelical critics who thought, apparently, he had somehow demeaned God’s Holy Word by placing the doctrine of the Bible where he did.

In 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention removed from the Baptist Faith and Message a statement that Scripture is to be interpreted through Jesus Christ. 

It seems to me this might be a watershed issue among evangelicals (and Baptists who are conservative or moderate but don’t use that label).  But it is seldom explicitly stated or explored as such. 

I believe in the Bible as God’s Word BECAUSE I believe I encounter Jesus there and am taught by him there.  For me it is the Book of Jesus.  That means it is extremely important, necessary, valuable, indispensable, but not alongside of or even in the same category (being-wise) as Jesus himself.  It is the unique written witness to Jesus and THEREFORE the book of the church.

I suspect this upsets some evangelicals because, even perhaps unconsciously, they believe in Jesus only because and insofar as the Bible contains him.  In other words, functionally, the Bible is above Jesus. 

The implications of these two approaches for hermeneutics are immense.  My view requires Christological hermeneutics.  The other view tends to lead to having to interpret everything the Bible says as as literally true as possible without exception or qualification.  When conservatives talk about progressive revelation I suspect they are borrowing from my view even as they deny it in most of what they say about the Bible and how they perform it.


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