An Evangelical Reformation: Changing How We View Scripture

An Evangelical Reformation: Changing How We View Scripture

The more I progress on this AI theology journey, the more I realize the need for a re-configuration of our relationship between faith and science. Current status quo does not allow space for a conversation and therefore, forces faith, science and technology as a by product to remain separate. This separation impoverishes all sides.

Hence I was pleasantly surprised to see a recent post from my friend Micah Redding. As Reformation turns 500, Micah and others propose new theses to continue reforming the church in our time. Add your own here. I was especially encouraged by Micah’s thesis number 1:

Christians must abandon the war against science and technology, and embrace them both as profound expressions of the image of God.

I could not agree more and decided to write this blog as a way to flesh out what that would look like in an evangelical context.

First, I have a few words about my own ecclesial location and why it is important to name it here. It is difficult to talk about reformation without having a starting point. The Church is so vast and diverse, and in need of so much change, that what seems like reformation for one group may be very well be what another group does well. That’s why I believe that true reformation will only come through a robust Ecumenical movement. If the first Reformation brought division, I pray the coming one will bring the church tribes together.

With that said, I feel comfortable speaking about what reformation means in an evangelical context. I say that because I can include myself in it and therefore speak of how “we” rather then “they” can change. Ultimately, true reformation can only come with repentance and a willingness to re-visit long-held convictions. If the church now consists of many tribes, the evangelical tribe has some work to do and this thesis reveals one of the many paths of repentance for us.

Evangelicals and the Bible

I am eternally grateful that 500 years ago, Martin Luther picked up what Wycliff and others had started centuries early in liberating Scripture for all of us. While that may not have been Luther’s original intention, inevitably the movement he started spurred an explosion of Bible translations that eventually became available directly to the individual. Till this day, the Bible is the anchor, the guide, the foundation of the Christian faith. It is a book not just to be read but to be experienced on a daily basis. It transcends common literary genres and it is unlike any other book out there. It is not just a religious book but its influence reaches to other areas like Ethics, Law, Government and even Science Fiction.

I could go on the importance of the Bible but my intent here is to identify where we as evangelicals have taken a wrong turn in our view of Scripture. First, let’s look at some history. It is important to note that the evangelical movement in the United States started as a way to find a middle ground between the fundamentalist and mainline currents in North American Protestantism. The first stream believed that discoveries of science that challenged the traditional view of Scripture should be rejected outright and that the church should retreat from engagement with the world into bunkers of ideological purity. The second was working hard to incorporate scientific discoveries even at the expense of Biblical faithfulness. Instead of retreat, mainliners believed in fully accommodating all the changes brought by scientific discovery into the Christianity.

Evangelicals wanted to chart a different course that passed through these two narratives. On the one hand, they were committed to the preserving primacy of the Bible in the Christian faith. On the other hand, they wanted to engage with the new discoveries of science through careful dialogue. In the evangelical mindset, the need to proclaim the gospel trumped self-preservation, even if that meant engaging with disciplines that seem bent on discrediting the validity of Scripture. This was especially true for institution of higher learning that were at the forefront of this ideological battle. Fuller Theological Seminary in California exemplified (and continues to do so) this perspective.

In the last 50 years or so, this evangelical project has decisively tilted towards the fundamentalist current. This is especially true in cultural evangelicalism, which aligned with anti-establishment nationalist political views, having further increased its anti-science stance. As fundamentalist voices dominated airwaves and publication, evangelicalism has taken a shift towards the beginning of the 20th century. This was further exacerbated by the sharp changes in North American cultural attitudes in favor of gay marriage and toleration towards non-Christian religions in the last ten years.

Infallible versus Inerrant

This position was well illustrated in the “infallible versus Inerrant” contrast. Statements of faith mostly pass unnoticed except for theology geeks like myself. However, a choice of words in these documents can speak volumes. In most evangelical statements of faith you will find both adjectives for Scripture. Inerrant is often a code word for a literal view of Scripture. It usually means: “What is in the text is the truth and any questioning of it is suspicious of being a heresy.” Infallible is a more nuanced word that affirms the Bible’s efficacy in matters of faith. That is, the Bible is sufficient for guiding and forming Christian beliefs and spiritual growth. It usually means “the Bible can be trusted as a guide towards salvation and spiritual formation.” The second one allows for questions because it delineates Bible’s role in matters of faith primarily. It does not deny that the Bible may have something to say in spheres beyond faith. Yet, it does not make it a pre-requisite for its validity.

So here is where I think evangelicalism has taken a wrong turn. By opting for a rigid “inerrant” view of the Bible we turned into something that was never intended to be, namely an idol. How so, you may ask? This move started by making any questions or doubts about the content of the Bible off-limits. This was a direct reaction against the rise of biblical criticism, which had certainly gone too far. Yet, we didn’t stop there. In a bid to make the Bible speak to our modern lives, we made it into the solution for every problem, the manual of instructions for life and the arbiter of all truth. In an effort to market the Bible to attract new populations, we stretched, squeezed and re-shaped the text into every conceivable way. Furthermore, we baptized our North-American literalist the only objective way to approach the Bible. What we ended up with was not the infallible text that can lead us into all truth about God and salvation, but a document to support Capitalism, American empire and Zionism. In an attempt to keep the text pure, we made the very mistake we accused Biblical critics of doing: shaping the text to our own image. The Bible became the magic book, the box of promises from which we derive comfort and affirmation for our actions rather than repentance.

Charting a New Course

What would a new course look like? Thankfully, I was able to witness some of that by emerging voices in the evangelical world. Fuller Seminary was probably my first exposure to a new course of holding a high view of Scripture while not holding on to an inerrant view of Scripture. Prior to that, I thought that to let go of inerrancy was the same as letting go of Scripture altogether. Yet, to witness faithful believers who do not take a literal view of the Bible was the beginning to seeing that it is possible to love God, revere Scripture while also honestly examine the claims of history and science. In the journey I discovered faith could live with doubt, devotion could live with inquiry and obedience could live alongside faithful questioning. It is a false choice to have to choose between faith and intellectual inquiry.

Certainly, I am not the first one to say these things. Thankfully, others have paved the way for this view of Scripture. One of the most notable thinkers in this area is Bishop, Scholar and millennial seminarian’s superstar N. T. Wright. For those interested in a robust view of Scripture that is not bound by inerrancy, I recommend his book “Scripture and the Authority of God” as a good beginning point.

In closing, I pray that a reformation within the evangelical segment of the church would look at the Bible anew. It will replace dogma with wonder, rigidity with inquiry and arguments with honesty. This is a necessary requirement if we are to survive and thrive in a world to be upended by emerging technologies. It is not time to put aside Scripture but to remove old skins of interpretation so new wine of imagination can flow.

but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heardAnd which have not entered the heart of manAll that God has prepared for those who love Him. I Cor 2:9

The word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

 

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