In a post yesterday, Daniel Silliman quoted historian Molly Worthen arguing that biblical “inerrancy” became an entrenched position among evangelical Christians only when it seemed necessary to shore up beliefs that were under attack by theological modernists. Prior to that, evangelicals held a variety of views on the inspiration of the Bible.
He specifically mentions the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s emphasis on the “sufficiency” of Scripture:
[S]ome theologians of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, including important figures in the early history of the Church of the Nazarene, rejected inerrancy. The ultimate revelation of God, they wrote, was not the Bible. The ultimate revelation was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible was to be thought of not as an authority but as a guide to the revelation of Christ.
It’s “sufficiency,” rather than inerrancy, was emphasized.
This remains the official position of the United Methodist Church, which of course also traces its roots back to Wesley. The Methodist Articles of Religion, which were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England’s 39 Articles and are shared by a number of churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, include this statement on the “Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”:
The 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.
While this says that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, it does not say that everything contained in the Bible is necessary for salvation. This at least opens the door for a non-inerrantist understanding of biblical authority.
It’s probably not wise to try to hang too much on this statement, since the origin of the 39 Articles was in Reformation-era disputes, not contemporary questions about biblical inspiration. The question for them was more about where ultimate doctrinal authority was to be found.
Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that inerrancy is not the only–or even historically the most common–way of understanding the Bible’s authority.
According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.
Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.
Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.
Methodist and other churches remember today as the anniversary of John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience.” Richard Hall at Connexions provides some of the background here. Essentially, Wesley reported having a vivid experience of assurance in his own salvation when hearing a reading from Luther’s Preface to Romans. While this has sometimes been described as Wesley’s “conversion experience,” it seems that later Methodist lore may have invested it with more significance than it warrants. Wesley was undoubtedly a very sincere Christian virtually his entire life, and had been preaching justification by faith for some time prior to this experience.
As Stephen Tomkins relates it in his very accessible biography, Wesley experienced several turning points in his faith and ministry: when he started the “Holy Club” at Oxford (which became the nucleus of the Methodist movement), when he encountered the pietistic German Moravians during his mission trip to America, at the meeting at Aldersgate Street, and when he began his field preaching, among others. Tomkins traces a life-long dialectic between Wesley’s emphasis on God’s free grace and on the need for personal holiness. As Tomkins puts it, “He had an evangelical horror of trying to satisfy God by good works, but an even greater horror of trying to satisfy God without good works” (p. 196). When he felt that one pole of the dialectic was in danger of being over-emphasized, he often swung back toward the other. For example, the classic evangelical experience represented by Aldersgate and Wesley’s preaching on justification by faith has to be viewed side-by-side with the teaching on “Christian perfection,” arguably his signature doctrine.
I started reading the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?”, and right off the bat what struck me is how similar the public controversy over Von Balthasar’s views was to the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”
Obviously there are vast differences here. Von Balthasar was a brilliant (and at times obscure) theologian; Bell is an evangelical preacher whose talents lie more in communicating his message than theological originality. But the controversy, at least based on Von Balthasar’s account here, was drawn along remarkably similar lines.
Here’s Von Balthasar on the criticisms leveled at him by some of his contemporaries (this all took place in the mid-80s). The question at hand is “whether one who is under judgment, as a Christian, can have hope for all men”:
I have ventured to answer this affirmatively and was, as a result, called to order rather brusquely by the editor of Fels (G. Hermes); in Theologisches, Heribert Schauf and Johannes Bokmann added their voices to this reprimand. . . . At a press conference in Rome, besieged about the question of hell, I had made known my views, which had led to gross distortions in newspapers (“L’inferno e vuoto“), whereupon I published, in Il Sabato, that Kleine Katechese über die Hölle (Short Discourse on Hell), which was reprinted in L’Osservatore Romano without my knowledge and aroused the ire of the right-wing papers.
Bokmann is perfectly correct: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.” However, I never spoke of certainty but rather of hope. The three critics, by contrast, possess a certainty, and G. Hermes expresses it with matchless force: “Such a hope does not exist, because we cannot hope in opposition to certain knowledge and the avowed will of God.” It is impossible that “we can hope for something about which we know that it will certainly not come about.” Therefore, the closing sentence of the essay declares tersely: “There is no hope for the salvation of all.” If I speak “no less than five times” of the fully real possibility, which confronts every person, of forfeiting salvation, the retort I get is that the matter is “not” treated “seriously by putting on a stern face but by stating the entire and full truth. And the full truth about hell is not stated if one only speaks of its possibility . . . and not its reality.” At this point, a first paradoxical statement occurs: “If we once admit that it is really and seriously possible, even considering all the opposing arguments, that men are damned, then there is also no convincing argument against men’s really being damned.” This is not comprehensible to me: if God sets the “two ways” before Israel, does it necessarily follow that Israel will choose the way of ruin? There was certainly no lack of seriousness behind the presentation of the two ways. But G. Hermes, of course, knows that the possibility is reality; he is not the only one, as we will see, who knows this. Just how will become evident from what follows here.
But first one other regrettable thing: as a consequence of not sharing in this secure knowledge–and R. Schnackenberg, for instance, does not share it when he says of Judas Iscariot that it “is not certain that he is damned for all eternity”–one is then numbered among those “average Catholics” who veil the hereafter in a “rose-red fog” and “wishful fancies”, participate “irresponsibly and cruelly” in “operation mollification” through their “salvation-optimism”, adopt the “dull and colorless garrulousness of present-day Church discourse”, practice “modernistic theology” and call for “presumptuous trust in God’s mercifulness.” So be it; if I have been cast aside as a hopeless conservative by the tribe of the left, then I now know what sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the Right. (pp. 16-20, footnotes omitted).
Change a few names, and lower the general level of erudition all around, and you’ve essentially got the debate between Bell and many of his evangelical critics.
I think the book suffered a bit from not being as tightly focused as “Love Wins.” The earlier book could assume a fair bit of common ground, as it was tackling what is mainly an intra-Christian debate, but here Bell’s target audience seems to more explicitly be the skeptic, the seeker, and the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as the disaffected evangelical.
The results are mixed. We get an overstuffed yet not-fully-persuasive chapter on science and faith. At the same time, the chapter on religious language does little more than make the point that language about God is symbolic. (This is a bit ironic given the book’s title.)
On the other hand, the three central chapters on God “with,” “for,” and “ahead” of us were golden. Chapter 5 (“For”) in particular is pure gospel. Bell doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve (or in his (largely nonexistent) footnotes), but it’s not hard to detect a little Tillich here, a dash of Moltmann there, and a dollop of process theology. But he’s really at his best in expounding the story of Jesus and his love–once again giving the lie to critics who’d like to brand him as some kind of heretic or post-Christian.
Throughout, Bell amply justifies his reputation as a first-class communicator. Reading this book brought home to me how much even the most “accessible” religious books tend to be steeped in theological jargon. It wasn’t a life-changing book for me by any means, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the first book I’d recommend on the topic. Many mainliners in particular, I imagine, would regard a lot of what Bell writes as old hat to some extent.
But Bell is doing something that hardly anyone else is doing: delivering (more-or-less) solid, progressive-leaning Christian theology in a way that (apparently) communicates far beyond the frontiers of the church. That seems like something mainline Protestants in particular could learn from these days.
With my unerring penchant for striking while the iron is stone cold, I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins over the weekend. I liked it–Bell has a knack for getting theological concepts across in friendly conversational prose without dumbing them down. He homes in on the heart of the Christian gospel–God’s abundant, overflowing love–and conveys it in a way that, I suspect, non-Christians might find quite appealing. It is, in short, “good news.”
But what struck me most was the orthodoxy of Bell’s views. Given all the hubbub surrounding the book, I was expecting something a little more envelope-pushing. But Bell, notably, does not deny the existence of hell, doesn’t say that everyone will be saved, and doesn’t deny the unique, salvific importance of Jesus.
I’d call Bell’s view “hopeful universalism.” He thinks that God leaves us free to reject God’s love but hopes that ultimately the persistence of that love will reconcile everyone. His understanding of heaven and hell and the cosmic scope of redemption is drawn from such radical theological sources as C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. His understanding of the work of Christ seems fully orthodox, even though he (rightly, in my view) sees different theories of Atonement as mutually complementary metaphors for that work.
As I suspected, in fact, the controversy over Bell’s book says a lot more about the self-appointed heresy-hunters and boundary-enforcers in contemporary evangelicalism than it does about him. There is a vocal minority that wants to define a simplistic version of Reformed evangelicalism as constitutive of the gospel–complete with insisting on “conscious eternal torment” for unbelievers and the monstrous doctrine of double predestination. And they have, unfortunately, had some success. But the Christian tradition is far wider than that. And while I don’t agree with everything he says, Bell’s book fits comfortably within the mainstream of that tradition.
Kenton Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture cuts to the heart of how Christians understand revelation and the truth of the Bible. This is a more popularly pitched version of an argument that Sparks, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, made in his book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. The issue is: How can the Bible be a revelation from God and normative for Christian faith and practice when it contains passages that depict God in morally horrifying ways and ethical commands that seem downright evil, not only by modern standards, but by standards embedded in the Christian tradition itself?
Sparks argues, correctly I think, that this presents a more difficult issue than biblical “errancy” regarding history or science. It’s relatively easy to make peace with the idea that the Bible did not adhere to modern standards of historical accuracy and that it was not meant to teach scientific cosmology or biology. However, the “texts of terror” threaten to undermine what Christians claim is the central message of the Bible: a revelation of God’s gracious character, will, and purposes for humanity and the world.
The touchstone example Sparks uses is the story of the Canaanite genocide recorded in the book of Joshua. How can the God who commands Joshua to slaughter men, women, and children be the God of limitless compassion that Christians claim to believe in? Some of the church fathers dealt with these passages by adverting to allegorical interpretations: they should be interpreted as referring to our internal spiritual warfare against our sins, for example. Sparks argues (again, correctly, I think) that such readings will seem strained to modern readers. Instead, he says we should frankly admit that such passages are not part of God’s word, at least not directly.
To articulate his position, Sparks draws an analogy between the “problem” of the Bible and the problem of evil as it’s usually discussed in the Christian tradition. Briefly, theologians–however much their specific approaches may differ–have generally maintained that creation is good but fallen and that the source of sin and disorder is in humanity not God. The Bible, Sparks says, is part of the fallen creation–it is not perfect or inerrant but reflects human sinfulness. “Scripture is a casualty of the fallen cosmos” (p. 66). But just as God uses fallen human beings to advance God’s purposes, God uses the Bible–taken as a canonical whole–as a medium for revelation. The Bible is both human and divine discourse.
The inevitable question, though, is how we are supposed to distinguish the divine message from those parts of Scripture that reflect human error or sin. Sparks offers several responses to this: first, Scripture sometimes corrects itself, as in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he relativized certain parts of the Mosaic law; second, we should read individual passages in the context of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative and message; and third, we need to read the Bible in light of the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit, the revelation of God in the natural world, the Christian tradition, and our own experience. Sparks emphasizes that most passages of the Bible admit of a surplus of meaning and we should be cautious in thinking we’ve arrived at the one true interpretation. He also points out that a key test of Christians’ Bible-reading is whether it leads to Christ-shaped lives.
Sparks identifies, at least to some extent, as an evangelical, and much of what he says may not seem particularly controversial to mainline Christians, who generally admit that the Bible is a humanly conditioned document. But mainliners have not always been clear on what their positive doctrine of Scripture is; Sparks’ book clearly articulates a position that is honest about the text while also maintaining a “high” view of the Bible’s authority. Such a position should in principle be acceptable to a fairly broad swath of Christians, from fairly conservative to fairly liberal. My one complaint is that Sparks is vague (as he himself admits) on how he understands the Bible’s inspiration, as well as the closely related concept of revelation. For example, is the medium of revelation the text itself, an overall message or regula fidei derived from the text, or the events that the texts witness to? But on the whole, I’d recommend this book as a sane and balanced approach to a difficult topic.
Those who follow such things know that there’s an ongoing debate in the evangelical world between “egalitarians” and “complementarians.” As you might guess, the former believe that men and women are equal–at least in the sense relevant to things like church leadership, while the latter maintain that men and women have “complementary” roles–with women playing the subordinate one. Recently, blogger Rachel Held Evans got into it with some guys associated with something called “The Gospel Coalition” over a rather provocative (to put it mildly) excerpt they posted from a book by Reformed pastor and noted crank Douglas Wilson. This led to quite the donnybrook in the evangelical blog-world.
As a non-evangelical I don’t have a dog in this fight per se. But witnessing it makes me grateful to belong to a church tradition where women’s leadership is taken for granted. This isn’t to say that mainline Protestant churches aren’t still infected by subtle and not-so-subtle forms of sexism, but they are by and large institutionally committed to the full equality of women at all levels of leadership. I consider this issue to lie very close to the heart of the Gospel. If men and women stand before God on no other ground than his creative and redeeming grace, and if, as the Reformation taught, all baptized Christians are ministers of Christ, then what is the justification for gender hierarchy? The prevalent ones seem to boil down to a holdover from pre-modern social norms, a literalistic reading of a handful of biblical passages, or a dubious metaphysics of the human person.