Evangelicalism is changing. This is not necessarily bad. Traditions inevitably change over time. Right now, the change I see in evangelicalism relates mainly to the prevailing view of the nature and function of scripture. This could have massive consequences for the future of the movement. There are of course many different ways to define an “evangelical.” The movement includes people as diverse as Rick Warren, Jim Wallis, Beth Moore, T. D. Jakes, Mike Slaughter, Joyce Meyer, Rachel Held Evans, Joni Eareckson Tada, and John Piper. If there’s one thing that has defined evangelicalism through the years, however, it is a deep commitment to the authority of scripture.
For many years, evangelical scholars have written on the nature and function of scripture, offering insights far more sophisticated and subtle than the popular caricatures of evangelicalism normally convey. More recently, a number of popular evangelical writers have begun to question publicly the ways in which their traditions have understood the Bible. Think of Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns (a scholar as well), Rob Bell, and Brian Zahnd. Much of this conversation occurs via social media. My unscientific impression, moreover, is that much of this conversation has to do with the wrong ways to use the Bible, rather than the most helpful ways. Or, as in the case of Love Wins, a writer may ask important questions about the Bible and Christian faith without providing much guidance with regard to how we should answer those questions. I’ve written before about the concerns I have with this approach to the Bible. Critique from within can be a healthy and productive process for any tradition, but along with critique, we need to be clear about what we are proposing as an alternative to the present way of doing things.
Tinkering with the understanding of scripture in evangelicalism is tricky business. The real danger I see here is that evangelicals tend to be sola scriptura people. They are not often explicitly creedal. Belief in the basic claims of Christian faith are very closely tied to a particular understanding of scripture. The line of thinking that may follow from a significant change in one’s understanding of biblical authority could go something like this: If the Bible isn’t what I thought it was, then Christianity isn’t what I thought it was. That means that the basic paradigm for how I understand my life has been wrong. And, voila, we soon have an ex-evangelical, and quite possibly an ex-Christian.
Of course evangelicals should reflect critically and publicly on their own understandings of scripture, but this conversation requires great care and sensitivity. If the idea is to use the Bible in the ways that most faithfully reflect God’s purposes for giving us this revelation, and to get rid of ways of thinking about and using the Bible that are inconsistent with God’s purposes, then there should be as much discussion of what the Bible is as what it isn’t. In other words, the critique of a doctrine of scripture should come with viable alternative proposals. These alternative proposals should include ways of maintaining the core of Christian beliefs apart from the understanding of scripture being critiqued. People reading these critiques might ask something like, “If the Bible isn’t reliable in the way I had once thought, how can I still believe that Jesus is God? How can I still believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, or that my faith in Christ offers me eternal life?” If we can’t answer these questions, then we are setting people up to fall away from the faith, and I don’t believe that’s what any of these evangelical writers want to do.
In my own tradition, United Methodism, there are many people who self-identify as evangelicals, though this is a bit of a different animal than the types of evangelicalism strongly influenced by various forms of Calvinism. My tradition and its predecessors have been wrestling with critical biblical scholarship for over a century, and we have never settled on a clear doctrine of scripture. Those UM’s who identify as evangelical, among whom I count myself, have adopted diverse perspectives for understanding the authority of scripture, though they would generally agree at least that scripture is a unique divine revelation, utterly reliable on matters of salvation. They will likely make other strong affirmations about the nature and function of scripture as well. These folks tend to cut against the grain of their own tradition (at least over the past fifty years or so), since many of our denominational leaders have placed less emphasis on the Bible as divine revelation and a reliable doctrinal and moral guide for the church.
United Methodism, moreover, like other forms of the Wesleyan movement, has been explicit in claiming that the appropriation of Christian tradition is a crucial aspect of theological reflection. This explicit identification with the saints who have gone before us is a powerful resource. It allows us to lean upon the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine apart from any particular doctrine of scripture. It creates space for orthodoxy apart from a doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration. We in the UMC have certainly made our mistakes over the years, but this isn’t one of them. Of course, we didn’t invent this move. We simply took it over from the Anglican Church. Regardless, it has worked for us.
Perhaps a more explicit appropriation of the Great Tradition will also be a way forward for some evangelicals outside the UMC. This would require a major shift in the ways of thinking about divine revelation and the nature and function of scripture, but since major shifts are already occurring, why not this one?