The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel by Rembrandt, 1660
Not long ago, my friend David Abrams posted this on Facebook:
“Evangelicalism has four trademark identifiers, if we are to believe the writings of David Bebbington (which I do in this matter).
1) Conversionism. Conversion matters to evangelicals because God has a team (rule/reign/kingdom) and wants us to join it.
2) Crucicentrism. The cross (crucifix) is at the center of evangelical theology because the cross is the actualization of God’s victory over the powers of evil in the cosmos and in our own lives through Christ.
3) Biblicism. The Bible matters because it is the story of God and his people. (Indeed, one might write “Christian historicism” here.)
4) Activism. Evangelicals believe that God intends for work to be done now.”
David Abrams and I are both Evangelicals, and our agreement on the fundamentals of Biblical Christianity outmatch our peripheral differences on doctrinal nuances. I thought I’d start a conversation with him regarding Bebbington’s third Evangelical identifier, Biblicism.
I wrote back: “A good distinction to make: Biblicism is an evangelical distinguisher, bibliolatry is a fundamentalist aberration thereof. The two get conflated often by would-be critics of evangelicalism whose snark outruns their reading comprehension capabilities.”
He replied: “Lol. I just get frustrated with how misunderstood the Bible appears to be. People are like, “I don’t like it, but the Bible says so…” Are you quite sure the Bible says so? Maybe you have misunderstood it. You know?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, and added, “Different side of the same coin: some people treat any sort of seriousness about biblical fidelity as though it were ‘idolatry’.”
Per other conversations that we have had, David and I agree that sustained interaction with the scriptures themselves is indispensible toward the task of theology. There are Christian communities who do not have access to the Bible, or only have access to parts of it, and in such cases God has always provided other methods of coming to an accurate knowledge of Him. But for communities that do have the scriptures, they remain the authoritative rule of faith for us. N.T. Wright has written with remarkable clarity on the nature of ‘Biblical authority’ in his book, Scripture and the Authority of God, in which he posits that the ‘authority of scripture’ is not intrinsic, but rather finds its origin in God’s authority as He uses the writings of the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles to rule over His Church. Wright’s view is my view, and I do not know whether David and I (and the former Bishop of Durham) are of one mind on the matter. But we are in agreement that the Bible is both our authority and the conduit through which the Holy Spirit teaches modern day disciples of Jesus. So, submitting to the authority of Jesus means submitting to the teachings of the scriptures.
David then said, “One of my favorite sets of verses, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, seems to me to limit the [areas of] usefulness of scripture. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.’ (2 Tim. 3:16-17 ESV.) So what then is the Bible useful for? Teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. To what end? Completing the [Christian] and equipping him/her for every good work. (This is by far the most valuable end possible in my view, and so by limited, I mean limited in scope, rather than limited in value.) [emphasis mine].”
An oft-ignored component of submitting to the authority of Jesus through the scriptures is resisting the urge to drag them into territories into which they themselves never attempt to foray.
He continued, “Notice then that there are a good deal of things that the Bible is *not* useful for. For instance, I have come to seriously doubt that the Bible is a useful source of scientific information, although it may indeed have provided much of the groundwork for the age of science. (I am not sure about this myself. I would need to investigate it.) Additionally, I wonder if there are some topics that are currently considered of doctrinal importance that are themselves not based in a proper reading of the Biblical narrative. This is not a problem for me. I don’t think it ought to be a problem at all. I wonder if the global church would not find more unity if these points were more openly affirmed.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, David and I are not on the same wavelength regarding more than a few doctrinal nuances. Where he finds greater affinity with George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, I am largely at home with Thomas Oden and the Puritan devotional writers. Nevertheless, we would all do well to use our common commitment to the orthodoxy as a conduit to usher in a sturdier community – one with the capacity to include robust and variegated theologies that are both doctrinally orthodox and more-or-less irreconcilable. To an extent, we already have this within Evangelicalism, what with the constant co-mingling of Calvinists, Arminians, Molinists, and Open Theists within our midst, to use the diversity with which we have approached the issue of God’s Omniscience as an example.
But we have plenty of room to grow, as the ferocity of certain in-house debates regarding a multitude of other topics has shown. And growing into our own diversity begins with fleeing from bibliolatry so that we can more faithfully cling to our native biblicism. Where ‘discernment’ is concerned, orthodoxy is enough. David and I need not butt heads regarding, say, the mode of Biblical inspiration (plenary verbal vs. dynamic), or the proper atonement model (Christus Victor vs. Penal Substitutionary – and more) when we are in agreement on those doctrinal contours about which all Christians, in all places, at all times have been in agreement.
So I concluded the conversation with an anecdote that I knew we could both relate to: “That explains why changing my tire went so poorly when I tried to use Leviticus as a manual.” I joked. He laughed and suggested we make plans to get coffee.
David runs a blog here, and it would be worth your time to check it out.