Bible Without Fundamentalism

Is it possible to be continually seeking scripture as the rule for faith and practice without becoming a “fundamentalist”? (And by fundamentalist, here, I mean what we all usually mean: someone to the right of us theologically whom we don’t particularly like.)

I wrestle with this question a great deal. I believe in the normativity of scripture for governing Christian faith and life, but I also recognize that the church has to continue listening afresh, and not allow itself to think that repeating the words of an earlier generation will maintain its vitality or faithfulness to God.

Here is where Karl Barth’s pervasive insistence on the active grace of God can come into play, driving us back to the text, yes, but doing so to listen afresh for the word of God to become living and active in our sphere.

Barth allows the old music to speak through fresh means

Church Dogmatics §21.1 is devoted to “The Freedom of the Word.” Here, as so often, Barth has his gaze cast in two seemingly opposite directions at once: the Roman Catholic Church and Modern Protestantism.

To those who have a strong sense of both tradition and ecclesial authority as such, Barth has a strong word of caution that we must not think that ossified statements of theology or church law will be for us the voice of God. The word is free within the church to command the church. The word of God cannot be controlled.

And, if the church decides to listen to itself rather than the word, then it has failed to be the true church–the place where God speaks and reveals.

This, then, becomes a word of warning for liberal Protestantism that looks too much to human effort in historical criticism or human activity in the world in general and fails to recognize both that the Word of God comes in the freedom of God, and that God has chosen the sphere of the church as the sphere of revelation.

These words of warning reach out to the would-be evangelical church as well.

We, no less than the Roman Catholic church, think that our tradition of biblical interpretation is, itself, what the Bible says. But we must not allow that to keep us from returning to the Bible as the sphere within which God is free to speak in such a way as to shatter what we thought we knew. We, no less than neo-Protestantism, must not think that our own mastery of the grammar and history and archaeology of scripture will dictate for us what God would say to the church.

So while the complaint of folks to the right has often been that Barth’s doctrine of scripture undermines its objective reality as the word of God, the response of Barth that scripture maintains its role as subject that speaks the word of God is more than compelling. It leaves scripture in the hand of God–never to be mastered by us, but always in a position to master us, and speak to us, and command obedience from us, afresh.

12 thoughts on “Bible Without Fundamentalism”

  1. I’m the same way. Whenever I say that I believe the Bible should be the source of doctrine and practice, my fundamentalist peers usually respond with, “Me, too. That’s why women shouldn’t preach, gays shouldn’t marry, and evolution shouldn’t be taught in school.”

  2. How about Scripture tells us nothing about ontological about God, but is the record of different communities experience of God, a more existential approach to the interpretation and authority of Scripture? For example, in Psalm 102.27, “…but you are the same, and your years have no end.” This is often used as proof that when you read any statement about God in the rest of Scripture, that this is a characteristic of God that will never change. Therefore, all statements about God in Scripture are all ontological truths that remain forever. Instead, we could read this as if it were from a community who lacked security and justice from its leadership, and felt that they could depend on their experience of God for these things, not that every characteristic of God is ontologically true for all time.

    1. This is primarily in response to you, Adam, but certainly it’s also directed at others who may have “ears to hear.”

      How about we save the mental gymnastics of philosophical horseplay for the sterile lecture halls. After all, we’re not talking about some flavor-of-the-day god, are we? Rather (and correct me if I’m wrong), you’re talking about the ontology of the God of the BIBLE – the same Bible from which you were so compelled to quote.

      Perhaps it would help if we remind ourselves that Psalm 102.27 (and the rest of Scripture) is the very WORD OF GOD. And maybe, we do well to agree with Jesus when he himself says that “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass” (Mat 5:18 NAU)” so that His messenger promises (by the authority of the one who sends him, JESUS) that anyone who messes with the holy Scriptures is due “plagues” and the “tak[ing] away of his part in the tree of life and the holy city (Rev 22:18-19 NIV). Psalm 102.27 is not a sentiment formed in a theological vacuum. It is a ontological reality that mirrors theological self-revelation by no other than God himself and the orthodox Judeo-Christian theological corpus (Mal 3.6; Heb 13:8; et al).

      Besides, I hope that this (your socio-political take on the circumstantial ontology of God in Ps. 102.27) is not the finest illustration to your point as it certainly begs asking this: what community of faith EVER didn’t lack security and justice from their leadership so that they did not need the unchanging promises of a God who himself does not change? So then, by your own example, isn’t God’s immutability always a circumstantial necessity? Therefore because of his people’s chronic and acute socio-political insecurity God must remain forever the same (at least in our minds/theology)? I’ve digressed.

      Back to the point. Why even bother using the Bible as your road map to the nature of the Judeo-Christian God when it appears that you fail to appreciate how your own handling of the Bible (and ONLY a single verse in this case) serves to do no less than undermine it as an authoritative source. Now, if I was going to cite the Scriptures as my principle source for understanding God, myself, life, the world, truth, etc., I’m not going to start by suggesting that no one seems to really know what the Source is actually talking about, or that the Source is only sometimes accurate or relevant, or that the Source is unreliable, or that the Source sometimes contradicts itself. All of the aforementioned, you have essentially done whether you realize it or not. Why not just site one of the favorite oft-quoted, “brilliant” and “respectful” theologians who have figured out God, then feign humility while making a living out of turning Christian theology into a three-ringed circus filled with so many self-serving versions of their neo-household gods – much to the delight of any wide-eyed patron who wanders into their big top forgetting that IT’S JUST A SHOW. Theological reality is out “there” in the streets where the God of the Bible condescends and hits the pavement as Theo-anthropos.

      Now, I don’t consider myself a “fundamentalist,” but if my comments corner me as one, show me the corner.

  3. This is brilliant. “It leaves scripture in the hand of God–never to be mastered by us, but always in a position to master us, and speak to us, and command obedience from us, afresh.” I want a God who is way smarter than me and who is mysterious and complex and will constantly keep me on my toes.

  4. Oh how I wish all Christians would “leave scripture in the hand of God–never to be mastered by us, but always in a position to master us, and speak to us, and command obedience from us, afresh.” Love that line and that way of viewing the scriptures.

  5. “Barth allows the old music to speak through fresh means.” Yes, Karl loves his Mozart, but he is flexible enough to listen for it by any means necessary. Love the photo!:-)

  6. A couple of thoughts:
    -There are folks out there (I don’t know if they number among your readers) who don’t view “fundamentalist” as an epithet and are happy to hold the label.
    -One of my first periods of change coming from what I consider a fundamentalist upbringing were the realizations that the tradition I grew up in simply ignored some parts of the scripture and badly mangled others. Thus I was able, for quite some time, to maintain a lot of my fundamentalist assumptions about the nature of scripture while still feeling that I was growing in understanding.

    -I think we all should always keep in mind that various people are all at different stages in their understanding (and maybe ones we haven’t gone through ourselves). I mean that more as self-criticism but feel free to apply as needed.

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