Tag Archives: evangelicalism

What’s The Bible, Again?

I made the comment in passing on Rachel Held Evans’ blog yesterday, but it bears repeating here (and even if it didn’t, it’s my blog, right?!):

When we debate issues such as women in the church, the underlying debate is “What is the Bible?”

At the beginning of the year, I posted some thoughts on what are pressing issues for evangelicals: gospel, gender, human origins, and the Bible.

In fact, the “What is the Bible?” question is the one that most fundamentally underlies all of those. But the differences aren’t about those who take the Bible as authoritative versus those who don’t. It’s not about people who are inerrantists versus those who acknowledge errors.

Behind even those kinds of debates lies a plethora of competing ideas about what the Bible is: is it a handbook for life? is it the maker’s instruction manual? is it a theology text–the revelation of the eternal counsel of God?

My blog is called “storied theology,” provocatively sub-titled, “Telling the Story of the Story-Bound God” because all of the theological and exegetical particulars that get worked out here are built on the prior commitment to the Bible as, fundamentally, a lengthy narrative.

Why does this matter?

For one, it matters because in stories people change.

For another, it matters because as stories and their characters develop, different actions become acceptable or not, real changes take place, because the circumstances have changed.

In stories, there are false starts and dead ends–for characters, for groups–but the story can continue.

When reading stories, our imaginations are shaped. We are changed, not by legal requirement or didactic necessity quite so much as visioning a new world and being drawn up into it.

I take recent kerfuffles about women and about Adam (see today’s Kevin DeYoung post and James McGrath’s reply) to be manifestations of conflicting ideas about what the Bible is, and how it functions as sacred scripture.

There is a compelling pull from the conservatizing elements, compelling because it feels more biblical to see certain passages in a given way. Treating the whole Bible as a treasure chest full of compatible theological insights is one way to treat the Bible with respect as God’s word.

Except that this is not the Bible that God has actually given us. We do not have a systematic theology text. We are not given the easy task of taking one verse and assuming it will fit with the rest.

Instead, we have a story. We have God in dynamic relationship with people. We have a Redeemer who actually changes what it means to live as the faithful people of God on earth.

Christ’s is a narrative that transforms the others. His is a story that reinterprets not only the biblical promises and commands and stories that came before, but also the lives that follow after.

Reading stories is easy. Interpreting them well is difficult.

For evangelicals, this difficulty lies at the root of our various partings of ways. First, we need to start thinking about the Bible differently. Then we can start talking about what it’s actually trying to tell us.

The Failure of Individualism

Ok, so here’s the story.

Yesterday I saw this tweeted and flipped my lid: “If you want to stop human trafficking, make disciples.” It was attributed to Francis Chan at Passion 2012.

As a self-contained statement, I find this admonition to be incredibly damaging. What better way to distract people from the real human needs in the world than to spiritualize the needs of the people around us?

In the immediate context of the talk, Chan went on to speak of the people around us as possible perpetrators. And so, within these few sentences, the way we’re supposed to understand the world seems to be something like this: If everyone loves Jesus, we won’t have to deal with human trafficking and sex slavery anymore.

Such an assessment is naïve, to say the least. There are greater powers at work in the world than the power of individual human hearts that act out of accord with the will of God.

On Monday I was talking about the hot topics before us, and mentioned “the gospel” as a holistic entity as one of those hot topics. We continue to need to learn that the purposes of God are bigger than simply the rectification of persons.

I found that 90ish seconds of Chan’s talk to be dangerous for this reason. People who already assume an individualistic gospel hear an individualistic means toward overcoming a pervasive evil, and are sent on their way to ignore the problem by telling people God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives.

We hear what we already know, and I worry about how 40,000 college students and 1.5 million online viewers heard that snippet, or read it in Tweet form.

If you want to end human trafficking, work to end human trafficking. Give to International Justice Mission. Learn from Not For Sale, and support their work. Find out where human trafficking is likely at work in your area (find someone to show you the “massage parlors” with the bars on the windows and inward facing security cameras).

Disciple making in itself, keeping Christians from soliciting prostitutes, is never going to solve the problem of human trafficking.

Now, having said all that, the larger context of Chan’s talk leads me to believe and hope that he would agree with my concern, and with the trajectory of sending people to work, truly work, for the freeing of prisoners.

The talk itself was about believing the Bible and doing what it says. He tells a story about throwing a banquet for a bunch of poor people as a self-imposed exercise in obeying rather than explaining-away Jesus’ instruction to do so.

He exhorts the audience to believe that the power we see at work in Jesus is still at work today–to heal, and to free the captive!

The very beginning of the talk was Chan celebrating a talk that had come before his, one in which someone was talking about kids trafficked for sex, and he was passionately responding, stirring the crowd up again with the desire to respond and act to free those kids from slavery.

So what happened in that 90 second piece that got me riled up?

One more piece of context: the entire talk was shaped as a call to passionate, faithful, believing discipleship propelled by an individual’s own reading of the Bible without anyone telling us what it says other than what we can see for ourselves.

Individually faithful discipleship. Driven by individual Bible reading. We could talk all day about his hermeneutics and the like, but here’s what I think happened: the “stand against sex trafficking” piece was not part of the planned talk, but was something Chan was passionate about and worked into his talk at several points because of the previous, powerful speaker.

And, as several folks have alerted me to, Chan does tons, including giving millions of dollars, to help rid the world of this scourge.

But, the message of “be and make faithful individuals” is actually a poor container for holding the social justice message that Chan also finds to be biblical. In this brief, 2ish minute riff, the theme of his talk itself (be and make faithful disciples) was brought into conversation with an issue that didn’t fit the topic (end human trafficking), with unfortunate results.

The 90 seconds troubles me, because it captures one possible way of construing the relationship between personal discipleship and the world “out there” that I think too many Christians buy into. I fear that hearing those words from Chan has the power to perpetuate not merely wrong-headed engagement with human trafficking, but a divinely approved withdrawal from the issue. I don’t think it was the best of what Chan had to say that night about human trafficking.

Much better was his strong affirmation at the end: this Jesus we serve really does have the power to free prisoners–so let’s go do it.

Hope, Resurrection, Posture

On Sunday, I posted some thoughts about hope–Christian hope as resurrection hope, followed yesterday by some reflections on the significance of Jesus’ full humanity.

Taking hold of the far-reaching implications of Jesus’ restoration project is something I continually harp on because it can play an important role in transforming the posture with which we hold the gospel.

My experience within evangelical Christian circles has often been one in which followers of Jesus envision themselves as the small, minority truth-holders, struggling to cling to what it right, and ever cautious and even fearful about fully engaging in other “worlds” that might be tainted by godlessness, or liberalism, or the like (since those to are “alike,” right?! *ahem*).

Image: markuso / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last night I had the opportunity to participate on a panel that was responding to questions posed by a group of college students. We fielded questions such as, “What are Christians supposed to do about evolution, especially science majors?” “What should Christians think about environmentalism?” “What about people who never hear the message of Jesus?”

The questions are important ones in many respects. But the overall sense I got from the questions was that Christian faith is a small fortress to be guarded carefully. And I wondered if we didn’t need to start reimagining a capacious vision of the reign of God as our gospel.

I think the problem of a small, carefully guarded fortress starts early. In youth group we learn that the gospel means: (1) Jesus died for your sins; (2) you shouldn’t sleep with your boyfriend or girlfriend; and (3) drinking is bad.

There’s not much good news in that, except in the hope that if you can control your hormones you get to be with Jesus drinking grape juice one day.

But what if we begin, instead, with, “God was, in Christ Jesus, reconciling all things to himself”?

Then the world of nature and science does not stand as a looming threat to our faith, but as a witness to the breadth of the saving care of God.

Then the preservation of the environment becomes not merely a fleeting liberal hobby-horse, but a crucial pillar in the eternal plan of God. You think you care about the environment? Well, you’ve got nothing on the creator.

Maybe even questions about sex and sexuality can be received, gratefully, as gifts, rather than fearful lands to be trod, if at all, with extreme caution.

Paul talks about the reception of the Spirit as a transforming moment that moves us from slavish fear to the freedom of the glory of the children of God. It moves us into the realm where we know ourselves to be members of God’s family and instruments in the turning of the ages.

Posture, it seems to me, is as important as details. If we cannot posture ourselves with arms wide open to the cosmos that God has reconciled to himself, then we are not so positioned as to come to faithful answers to the questions that plague us. And we might not even be in the position to be plagued by the right questions.

Stop with Your Impossible Bible, Already (pt. 1)

A devoted Presbyterian (I think taht was me, once upon a time) moves from his confession of faith to the Bible. He had read about “the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one),” and embraced the parenthetical warning against multiple meanings. Then he looked up the OT passage from which a NT citation was drawn. One meaning? Uh oh…

Rachel Held Evans attempts a year of living biblically. As her year winds down, what does she have to say? That adjective “biblical” is really hard to pin down. Does biblical womanhood mean camping out in the back yard during your period?

We all think we know what biblical means. In our North American Christian context the word is thrown around as a way of demanding that all of life be lived in accordance with the Bible as the Word of God.

And Christian Smith is here to tell us that the two experiences summarized above are exactly what we should expect when we come to the Bible with the impossible demands of the biblicism of current evangelicalism.

His book is, The Bible Made Impossible, a book for which I shelled out my own money, so I am under no obligation by the Fed to make any disclosures to you about having my eyes blinded through having received it for free.

Smith affirms that the Bible is inspired by God. He recognizes its importance in the continuing story of the church.

But he also calls us to recognize that a “biblicist” view of scripture creates expectations that cannot be met, and that in the end it is an impossible theory to maintain in practice. And, in fact, nobody does.

So what is this impossible biblicism? Smith sees it delineated by these 10 claims / assumptions (pp. 4-5):

  1. scripture contains the very words of God (divine writing)
  2. the Bible is God’s exclusive means of communication with people
  3. everything God needs to tell us about belief and life is in the Bible
  4. anyone can read, understand and thus rightly interpret the Bible
  5. the Bible can be understood in its plain, literal sense
  6. we can build theology from scratch without creeds or confessions
  7. all the passages touching on the same topic can be brought together into a harmonious whole
  8. the Bible is universally applicable to people in all times and places
  9. inductive method leads to right hearing of the text
  10. the Bible, read this way, provides a handbook for living

Of course, no one person or group will necessarily hold to, or put on display, all ten.

These sorts of claims ring true to many of us: the big idea behind much of it is that if we sit down and read the text we can actually know what it says. God speaks in the Bible and we need simply to listen.

But there is one major problem: “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”

If the Bible is so easy to read and understand, why is it that Christians who hold to similar convictions about what scripture is nonetheless cannot agree on what scripture actually says.

This, claims Smith, is more than simply a phenomenon of people’s practice not reflecting the theory as well as it should. It is a determinative indication that the theory itself is flawed.

We do not simply read “what is there.” People interpret differently. People read preexisting theologies into and out of texts. Pluralism will not go away. And it does not simply touch on incidental matters such as whether or not we pass a holy smooch, this plurality extends even to such central ideas as what happens for our good on the cross.

And so, Smith will contend, the Bible is not what is so often claimed.

I Kissed Conserving Goodbye

As I reflect on interactions that occur around issues such as creation, design, and evolution, or around the inerrancy of the Bible, or women in ministry, I am often as aware of the theological or hermeneutical commitments that drive the conclusions as I am about the data and conclusions themselves.

In particular, I am aware of how I have changed by becoming less interested in conserving than I once was. (Roger Olson coined the term “post-conservative Evangelical,” and I find that it fits me fairly well.)

I have a number of titles in mind of books or articles that will never sell because nobody would want to read them. One of these is, “How abandoning inerrancy saved my faith.” And I imagine that the theological postures it would depict would develop this image from the film Armageddon:

“Imagine a firecracker in the palm of your hand. You set it off, what happens? You burn your hand, right? You close your fist around the same firecracker, and set it off. Your wife’s gonna be opening your ketchup bottles the rest of your life.” –Roland Qunicey, “Armageddon”

In my own trek through various ways of expressing

Image: anankkml / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Christian faith, I’ve discovered that a conservative theological posture is like that hand clenched around the firecracker. Your only option is to deny the firecracker is lit, or else submerge your hand in water so that it looses all its power.

“If the Bible has errors, the Christian faith is based on a lie!” some might say. The hand is clenched. So what happens when we discover that Quirinius wasn’t the governor of Syria, that there wasn’t a census in Judea, until Judea was annexed to Syria after the deposition of Herod Agrippa?

Your hand is about to explode.

Opening the hand always feels like the route to losing what’s in your hand. It feels less secure.

But I found that kissing conservatism goodbye, that opening my hand to what “must be true” in order for Jesus to be the reconciler of God and humanity and inaugurator of new creation, has not only “saved my faith,” but given me a faith that is more capable of dealing with both the Bible we actually have and the world in which we actually live.

Or: I know that it seems like rock is stronger than paper, but when playing rock-paper-scissors, open hand beats it.

As Long as We’re Talking About Homosexuality…

As I’m sure many of you already know, a group of LGBTQ Wheaton College students and alum have launched a page called One Wheaton.

In response, Wheaton President Phil Ryken issued this message.

For the past couple of decades, those of us in evangelical settings have been able to watch the homosexuality conversation from afar, as though “out there” in the world of the “faltering mainline churches” were the only place that Christians had to talk about these things. Recent conversations in several different settings, as well as this move by Wheaton alum, are underscoring that it is no longer possible for more evangelical types to avoid the conversation.

And hopefully we’ll realize that this inability to avoid the matter is a good thing. Most of us have waited far too long to engage and to thoughtfully process what we say, how we say it, and what it means to look like Jesus while holding to positions that others in our community find not merely offensive, but often deeply hurtful and even damaging.

Can we do it? Can we have a productive conversation that will move us more toward Christ-like love?

We’ll see…

Rising Tide of Secularism?

One of the common components to the story of American religious history as told among Evangelicals is that Christian influence is waning and that modern culture is more hostile to Christianity than ever before.

Are we so sure?

    Historical demographers and sociologists have shown that in 1776 only 17 percent of the national population belonged to a church. It appears that an official religion governed an indifferent population for much of the colonial period. Then, in the nineteenth century, under the influence of evangelical expansion, church membership began to increase sharply. By 1850, 35 percent of Americans were church members. By 1906 the number was 51 percent. Sixty-two percent of the American populace belonged to religious institutions by 2000, though not specifically Christian churches. Evangelicals led the expansion. (David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, 5-6)

The Future and Past of Evangelicalism

This month’s Christianity Today has two articles that I found to be an interesting pairing. One addresses the exodus of young Christians from the church (first chapter of book on which it’s based for free here), the other is a touching remembrance of Vernon Grounds.

The article on Grounds resonated with me as it followed his journey away from fundamentalism and into a broader evangelicalism. He was a leading figure in bringing the need for social action to the attention of evangelicals.

In light of the leadership of evangelicalism now being given by many more conservative folks, especially the separating of social action from the gospel, I found this history to be important and refreshing.

One piece of the journey that I found particularly interesting was that his early years seemed to be more focused on apologetics, and the latter years provided the venue for his prescient calls to social engagement. (That may be a mistaken impression.) And there I found a striking connection with the other essay.

Drew Dyck’s “The Leavers” strives to give a balanced assessment of both the reality of young people leaving the church and the prognosis for their return. There are several sociological factors that make a return with the advent of marriage and children less likely than it was in earlier generations.

But the point that interested me most was when he probed the reasons given for folks leaving.

    Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them.

I’ve only had one or two Tweets ever go viral. One that did was when I said, “Apologetics is bad for my soul. I’d rather have no answer to my doubts than a bad one.” Or something like that.

At any rate, the “apologetics” connection was what struck me here. Not that apologetics is bad, but it doesn’t really work for me, and for some others. In particular, it gives people answers to questions that they often haven’t asked themselves and therefore cannot feel the weight of. The answer seems to work because they’ve never had to use it to minister to their own heart or mind.

Both articles in their own way point toward one important marker of viable faith for the future. People who have been trained to think of Christianity as a set of statements believed have to redefine faithful Christianity in terms of a life well lived.

Thinking the right things is important, but living the right things provides powerful validation when all the correctly spoken answers widely miss the mark.

Calvinism as “The Big Tent”?

Over the past few weeks I have had a thing or two to say about the kind of evangelicalism that I could see myself being part of. It’s the kind of place where folks can hold onto biblical authority with one hand while holding scholarly and historical criticism in the other. It’s the kind of place where what we do is as much a measure of who we are as what we believe. It’s the kind of place where women are equal. It’s the kind of place where getting our story straight is of tremendous importance, but where asserting the absoluteness of our particular version of Christianity is not.

One reason I want to keep having the conversation about the nature of evangelicalism is that other people are doing their own work to lay hold of the label and put it over very different content.

Today’s conversation starter is a recent video on the Gospel Coalition blog, featuring Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, and Kevin DeYoung.

The video is a round-table discussion of “the New Calvinism.” Based on comments made in the video, the basic tenants of this movement include: (1) a Calvinist/Reformed understanding of predestination of some people to life and other people to eternal death–what they refer to as “sovereignty;” (2) closely tied to point one is adherence to 4 or 5 points of Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints–what they refer to as “the doctrines of grace;” (3) authority (= inerrancy) of scripture, as something that (4) requires Calvinism and complementarianism (i.e., subordination of women to men at home and at church).

First, there are a lot of very good things going on with Gospel Coalition.

They talk about the importance of being united on these essentials, even while they continue to disagree about theological points such as ecclesiology and baptism. While I might not agree on the importance of continuing to be separate on those points of difference, it is genuinely a good thing that Christians seek out as many venues as possible for expressing the oneness we have in Christ. That has far too often been at the bottom of the Protestant agenda (if there), so this unifying impulse is a good thing.

Also, I believe they have rightly assessed that a huge swath of Christians is done with vapid, theology-free Christianity. They are meeting this need with a robust theological system and tying it back to scripture. That is a good impulse.

Finally, their hope is that this vibrancy will result in the same sort of missionary fruit that other Calvinist resurgences have produced. They want to see God glorified where God is not, and the mission agencies of the Southern Baptists and the PCA are backing up that desire better than many other churches’.

There are also places where their assessment of themselves and of others is problematic.

First, based simply on this video and its emphases, this is not a group that is together for the gospel, it is a group that is together for Calvinism. Untold numbers of Christians have believed in “the priority of God’s grace” being exercised in the cross of Christ on our behalf without also insisting that we had, for example, no free will to accept that offering extended to us. Put differently, Arminians believe the gospel.

Next, they are not a group gathered around the authority of scripture. They are a group gathered around a commitment to a particular set of readings of scripture. Again, myriad Christians (one might think of Wesleyans, specifically Methodists) read Paul with submission and yet do not become Calvinists. And hundreds of thousands find that the biblical narratives of women’s equality is binding on their consciences when it comes to gender roles in home and church.

The rhetoric functions as a means to wrap up their own interpretation of various passages and positions with believing the Bible itself. This is very, very dangerous. To believe in the Bible is not to believe in what Al Mohler or Lig Duncan or Daniel Kirk or Tom Wright says about the Bible. It is to believe that God has spoken there not that I have apprehended its correct meaning.

I do find it significant that few of the most important Paul scholars in our day and age are Calvinists in the sense outlined in the video. Richard Hays and Mike Gorman are Methodists. N. T. Wright is an Anglican with Reformed roots but with quite a different modern-day expression. John Barclay, Lou Martyn, Bruce Longenecker, Douglas Campbell… there’s not much serious Calvinism coming out of careful reading of Paul–and not much complementarianism, either.

Another point where they seem to be missing the mark is Mohler’s contention that Calvinism is resurging because of the secularism of society, and people want to know about their salvation, “Why me?” and so they turn to Calvin’s answer. But when they outline the points they stand for, they are consistently positioning themselves against other Christians. People are coming to Calvinism not because they’re confronting secular society, but because it gives robust (I daresay, at times, easy) answers to complicated questions about being a Christian. It offers the security of a theological fortress at a time when other Christians are telling them that the world is more complicated.

People are not fleeing to complementarianism because the world is secular.
People are not fleeing to a 6,000 year old earth because they want to know why they are believers when their neighbors aren’t.

This is an in-house reconfiguration of loyalties that is being paralleled in the political sphere. While a bunch of people are taking their disillusionment with the status quo and reinventing a mixed-middle, a huge number of people are listing right both theologically and politically, while a mirror reaction is sending some people further to the left. The disenchantment with what we came of age with is causing a number of reactions at once: some people rediscovering the past to which they long to return, some reconstructing using materials that used to be kept secret, some trying to run even faster to a future they hope will one day come to pass.

Together for the Gospel isn’t about retrenching as Christians in the face of secularism. It’s about one kind of Christianity appealing to Christians who can’t hold onto an authoritative Bible while embracing some of the middle-to-left developments in church and theology of the past 15-50 years.

So yes, being together is good. And being together for the gospel is even better. The latter is a laudable goal, but it will never be reached until it includes being together with Arminians and others. And much of the rhetoric of this group that speaks as though it represents “Christianity,” really only represents one (relatively small) way of making sense of biblical Christianity known as “Calvinism.”

So while I celebrate their willingness to have a big Calvinist tent, it is important that we not confuse that with representing anything like a truly big tent Christianity.

(NB: I was corrected twice about including someone as Reformed who would not so identify. I hereby repent in sackcloth & ashes, and have corrected the post.)