Evangelicals, the Bible, and Change: Pitfalls Ahead?

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?

6 thoughts on “Evangelicals, the Bible, and Change: Pitfalls Ahead?

  1. One way to think of it as evangelicals adhering to the method of theologizing from an inerrant Bible while some of us UMs theologize from an ideal method, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Evangelical Methodists might have a hybrid, “Yes, we have a Quadrilateral, but Scripture is primary!” In any case, it is the method that triumphs. Or doesn’t, as change comes.

    Experience, that favorite of the Schleiermacherian liberal tradition, keeps oozing its way in. It’s not just our experience (usually as individuals, sometimes as oppressed peoples, etc.), but also our experience of scripture, of tradition, of reason. Experience trumps all. Even if we manage the turn to tradition, I’m afraid it will be tradition as subjected to the authority of our experience. But maybe I’m too cynical.

  2. David, you are suggesting that our ambivalent attitude and handling of Scripture is working for us? Please explain how this jibes with our current doctrinal and disciplinary disarray.

  3. Gary, thanks for the clarifying question. I’m not suggesting that the way in which we currently use scripture is working for us, on the whole. I think if we took the statements in the Articles of Religion and Confession of faith more seriously that would be very helpful. My point wasn’t so much that we have some especially fantastic way of using scripture, but that the appropriation of tradition has been quite helpful.

  4. I grew up in the Methodist, then United Methodist, tradition. The Quadrilateral I learned gave no sway to a primary of any scripture, tradition, experience or reason. In ninth grade confirmation, I learned Article Five as: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” This did not make scripture “utterly dependable” on the topic of salvation, rather simply sufficient. Allso, in my reading, Article Five casts out a few evangelical/fundamentalist tests of faith that are swung around on various media outlets by highly popular and financially successful evangelists. Out of college, I entered UTS with a mission to protect my young evangelical leanings and graduated feeling supported in them by my classmates and faculty mentors. Life and ministry in the church and world parishes led me to affirm that nothing sacred commands primary status within the whole of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral — it is four in one presenting the Three in One. My sense of being evangelical modified over the years I experienced discrimination from church people with that moniker. While I still feel and evangelical sway in my Christian heart, and trust Jesus of the Quadrilateral for my salvation, I think the damage done by so-called evangelicals to real people in both church and world parishes is more the reason for “having an ex-evangelical, and quite possibly an ex-Christian.” Furthermore, since there were five “Solas” (solae) why did scripture become the one and only for some self-categorized true evangelical Christians? A book that was most helpful to me in sorting through these meanings that matter was: Stealing Jesus, How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity by Bruce Bawer. I continue to recommend it to people with open hearts and minds.

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