Monday, February 12, 2007

Evangelical Confusion about the Bible

More than twenty years have passed. But it doesn't seem like much has changed.

I'm talking about what historian Mark Noll described in one of his articles, "Evangelicalism and the Study of the Bible" (in Evangelicalism and Modern America, edited by George Marsden. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984).

Here's the gist of the article. Noll begins by listing four signs of a growing intellectual strength among evangelical Christians in the decades leading up to the mid-1980s:

1. Evangelical teachers have earned world-class academic credentials. Noll chronicles the meteoric rise of academic qualifications among the Bible and religion faculties in evangelical schools. He points to the Word Biblical Commentary series, launched in 1983, which combines evangelical theological commitment with first-rate scholarship.

2. Evangelical scholars regularly make presentations at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, and publish their work in serials like the Journal of Biblical Liturature, New Testament Studies, etc., the world's best scholarly journals.

3. The Evangelical Theological Society was founded in 1949. Then followed the Wesleyan Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the North American Theological Students Fellowship.

4. Evangelicals have published a tremendous amount of material. No, not all of the books and magazines are purely academic. But, there are two important characteristics of much of this work: (a) It is moreless intellectually-engaged. (b) It does not exhibit a combative or fortress mentality.

Achievements. Institutions. Proliferation. However, when it comes to specific questions of biblical scholarship, there is a lack of consensus among evangelicals as to what is permissable and what is not. Such confusion seems to maintain a tension between Jerusalem (revelation and faith) and Athens (human reason and discovery) among evangelicals.

F. F. Bruce--in his time, the dean of the world's evangelical scholars-- once spoke of the "Maginot-line mentality where the doctrine of Scripture is concerned" (p. 110). That is to say, in addition to a commitment to the general truthfulness of Scripture, there also exists on any number of questions a body of tradition regarding the correct construal and interpretation of the Bible. (What Noll refers to here includes matters of Introduction, questions like the unity and authorship of the Books of Isaiah and Daniel, etc., as well as the more general question of the historicity of the biblical narratives).

And, says Noll, this defensive sort of posture seems to be in evangelical blood, as witnessed by the strong reactions of even moderate evangelicals to the publication of the RSV in the 1940s and 50s (pp. 110-111).

Noll also lists five specific indicators of the confusion within evangelicalism on the relationship between the Bible and modern learning:

1. Robert Gundry's redaction-critical approach to the Gospel of Matthew (published in 1982). (To the extent that redcation criticism builds on form criticism, most evangelicals would reject it because of what these approaches assume about the Four Gospels).

2. James D. G. Dunn , an avowed evangelical, has said that the evangelical concept of biblical inerrancy is "exegetically improbable, heremeneutically defective, theological dangerous, and educationally disastrous."

3. Bernard Ramm positively reported and explained the the thought of Karl Barth to Ramm's evangelical audience.

4. J. Ramsey Michaels got fired from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (an evangelical institution) for suggesting in one of his books that the deeds and words ascribed to Jesus and John the Baptist in the Gospels may not have occurred.

5. Some of the volumes in Word Biblical Commentary series give room to views about the authorship and historicity of the Bible that evangelicals have historically regarded as being damnably modernistic. (For example, the volumes on the Pentateuch typically assume and operate on the Documentary Hypothesis. This kind of scholarship assumes the disunity of the Pentateuch, and would deny that Moses wrote all or even most of it).

So much for Noll and his observations. Here are some of my own questions:

1. I know that the word "evangelical" is a lot like "Baskin-Robbins." There are dozens of flavors. However, all of the B-R flavors happen to be ice cream (when they're not sherbet, of course. Doh!). Okay, assuming that the term "evangelical" refers to something identifiable --you can toss the term out, but it ain't going away-- what does "evangelical" signify when it comes to the questions that Noll is pointing to?

For example, can you believe that Isaiah 40-66 wasn't written by the Isaiah of chapters 1-39 and still be, descriptively, an evangelical? The question might seem silly, but Noll is right to imply that evangelicals really need to sort what they think (or will allow to be thought) and why. It goes to questions like academic freedom, what gets taught in classrooms and from the pulpit, job security, personal integrity, a consistent word for an effective mission, the list goes on.

2. Why don't more people who profess a trust in Christ and a high view of Scripture care about and look into these things? Even among our preacher-teacher types (intellectual leaders, if we have them) there seems to be a dearth of interest in and attention given to these kinds of questions. Do they just not matter? If they do, to what extent do they matter?

I know, I know, scholars and academically-oriented preachers ask different questions than does the typical worshiper. But can't evangelical scholarship get its story straight when it comes to what the guidelines are or should be? And why don't the questions of biblical Introduction or, say, chronology ever come up in preaching and teaching ministries? Of course, I'm going on my experience mostly. But it seems like I heard references, when I was kid, to "Paul's second Roman imprisonment." I haven't heard that expression in church in 30 years. Is that good? Bad? Indifferent? Whatever your answer, I know it's not because people today have less leisure time or less access to resources.

These are things I wonder about. What do you think?


Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

I have only claimed to be an "evangelical" when my mind was not quite right ... at least American Evangelicals. My concept of the sacraments usually has excluded me from most evangelical even though we are quite close in a number of areas.

But I am not afraid of critical questions. But sometimes the critical scholars are wrong. Richard Baucham (? spelling) in his new book "Jesus and the Eyewitness" has more than rocked a few boats.

Bobby Valentine

kendanley said...

An evangelical's centerpiece of revelation is the cross of Christ, its message and its power to save. In other words, the gospel is the lens through which the rest of scripture and all of life is viewed. I never stayed around academia long enough to know if that kind of explicit self-awareness or theological presupposition can stand up to charges of intellectual slavery.

In any case, I think Paul was an evangelical. And based on the material in the first chapter of Philippians, I'd say he would not have a problem with disagreement among academically-oriented evangelicals. If Paul can find a basis for unity and respect among Christ-oriented preachers with jaded motives, I don't think he'd expect the same group to see eye to eye on the authorship of an ancient text.

15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. 18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.

Arlene Kasselman said...

Good reflections and questions. Let's not forget the pool of "postmodernism" that we now swim in. Clearly we lag behind cultural trends in "this these parts" but I think we fool ourselves if we dismiss the impact of a new way of being that our times present us with. I get excited and energized just thinking about the potential for real discipleship that being a Jesus follower in post-modern America provides. Wow. One of my favorite reads of last year was "Younger Evangelicals" by Weber.

I am all for the integration of scholarship and ministry and do not hold some of the historical cofc "anti-intellectualism" positions. However, I seldom see Intellectualism as being a real bridge to transformation of the heart and that seems to be the only real goal worth chasing, or should I say, surrendering to....

Anonymous said...

Paul is a gnostic, not an evangelical.
Paul is Simon Magus.

Originally he was an enemy of "orthodox" christians. Marcion (arch-gnostic) claimed that Paul taught him, the "orthodox" Christians claimed that Simon Magus taught him. The places that Paul's letters were sent to happen to be hotbeds of Gnosticism. And check out the Clementine Literature, where all the descriptions of "Simon Magus" fit the character of Paul in the Epistles perfectly. Why "Simon Magus"? its to contrast with "Simon Peter"; Magus=Magi=a zoroastrian priest (the later english word "Magic" derives from "Magi").

Then some letters were forged and attributed to him, which contradict gnostic interpretations of the earlier letters (compare 2 Thessalonians to 1 Thessalonians, for example - scholars reckon 2 Thessalonians is a forgery (criteria: style/vocabulary (in the original koine greek)/theology/etc.)). This created a fictional "Paul" - the character implied by combining the forgeries with the real epistles - and this fictional "Paul" was acceptable to the orthodox, so "Paul" was rehabilitated by the Church.