Beyond Born Again
Section III– Can Evangelical Theology be Born Again?
Chapter 10: Toward Evangelical Maturity
Never has Evangelical biblical scholarship been so mercilessly run through the wringers as it was in James Barr’s Fundamentalism (1977). Many of his reviewers criticized Barr for not offering any alternative to what he tore down. This was not entirely a fair criticism since Barr’s earlier work The Bible in the Modern World in large measure fills such a gap. Though this criticism of Barr may have been largely an attempt to sidestep the force of his criticisms, there is a valid point here. Unless an alternative is offered, how else may readers be expected to response to a radical critique of their opinions and beliefs? So what have I to offer, after all my criticisms? I haven’t kept readers completely in the dark up to now; in various chapters I have already sketched alternatives being espoused or explored by what I have dubbed “soft-line” or “left-wing” Evangelicals. I have also suggested some new correctives of my own (for instance in Chapter 4). Here I want to tie it all together with some hints at a framework for a really new Evangelicalism.
And, let’s not kid ourselves; that’s what it’s going to take– a really new Evangelicalism. As much as I sincerely appreciate the advances of the “Neo-Evangelicalism” christened by pioneer Harold J. Ockenga, and the “Young Evangelicalism” promoted by commentator Richard Quebedeaux, I am afraid that each is still only a kind of “piecemeal fundamentalism.” I could not agree more with James Barr’s assessment:
Has evangelicalism succeeded in developing a conceptual framework recognizable, distinct from a strict fundamentalist one? If evangelicals, in departing from a strict fundamentalist position, continue to take that position as the base line for their thinking, and fail to construct a theology governed on quite other principles, fundamentalism will continue to be the governing force in their minds.
What we need is a new theological methodology. This is the only way for Evangelicals to make good their promise of a postmodern position. However, perhaps to the disappointment of some readers, I will not attempt to provide such a new theology here. There are two good reasons for this reticence.
First of all, any such suggestions would involve the construction of a whole new system correcting all the abuses I have outlined so far in this book. But I recognize that some readers will agree with only parts and not the whole of my preceding analysis. (And they are quite free to pick and choose since few of the points made were logically interdependent.) Thus if I outlined a new methodology or theology it would not match the problems as some readers see them.
Second, before any genuinely new Evangelical methodology can be constructed, there has to be a theoretical path-clearing. I must show what room there is in Evangelicalism for such a new way of doing things. Put another way, I must give some idea of how Evangelicalism could survive such major changes in more than name only. Once I have cleared the ground in this way (if it can be done!), and shown how a new theological method may be “plugged in,” the
reader will be free to adopt any particular one that seems to him most adequate to meet the problems he sees. My suggested framework thus may be used no matter how conservative or liberal one wishes to be in his theological adjustments. What I hope to provide is a framework for a truly postmodern Evangelicalism.
I have thought long and repeatedly over an essay by Richard Mouw of Calvin College. Entitled “New Alignments,” this piece was written in reflection upon the ecumenical “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation” issued in 1974. Mouw considers the relationship of different varieties of Evangelicalism between themselves and with other segments of American Protestantism. Eventually he raises this provocative question:
What, finally, does the evangelical label come to? For many of us, it comes down to the fact that there are basic elements in the evangelical understanding of the Christian message and life style that we cherish and do not find adequately treated in nonevangelical Christian groups: the sense that Christianity is a message… that must be verbally articulated to those who do not profess Jesus Christ as Lord; an emphasis on the need for a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of one’s life; a set of basic attitudes towards the Holy Scriptures, which are typified by certain devotional patterns and regularly references in Christian discussion to what “the Bible says.”
I want to draw a distinction that Mouw most likely does not intend to make. It seems to me that these three factors have more to do with style than with content. In short, the distinctive thing about Evangelicalism is the shape and style of religion it promotes. Several different kinds of theological content could be “plugged in” with integrity. The work of this final chapter will be to illustrate this point with reference to Mouw’s aptly-drawn list of Evangelical distinctives. It is this style which will form the continuity between postmodern Evangelicalism and its heritage.
We may paraphrase Mouw’s first distinctive in this way: “Christianity as a message to be proclaimed.” This is the issue of evangelism, and especially the use of “personal evangelism,” the sharing of faith person-to-person, or “soul-winning.” In evangelism, as traditionally understood, the stakes are indeed high. There is an urgency to ‘fulfill the Great Commission in our generation.” Why? Because every day “millions are passing into a Christless eternity.” In other words, nonbelievers are going to wind up damned to hellfire. You may not be able to prevent it, but at least you can do your best to “snatch them as brands from the burning.” If you had a cure for cancer, would you keep it to yourself? If you saw a house on fire, would you calmly proceed on your way without trying to warn and save those within?
How does anything I have said in this book bear on this issue? In Chapter 2, I discussed the severe “us vs. them” perception of reality which lies at the heart of such a view of evangelism, salvation, and damnation. I hinted that increased personal contact with outsiders tends to modify or question the plausibility of such an airtight separation of sheep and goats. This is particularly true in the context of theological dialogue. Recently, some Evangelicals
have begun dialogues not only with other kinds of Christians, but even with members of other religions. I mentioned Marvin Wilson of Gordon College and the book Evangelicals and Jews in Conversation. In an NBC “First Estate” telecast, Wilson and Rabbi James Rudin (two editors of this volume) agreed that Jews and Evangelicals should “witness” to each other by demonstrating the vitality of their faith in producing good social and family life. Similarly “Young Evangelical” Richard Quebedeaux, during an Evangelical dialogue with Moonies at the Unification Theological Seminar, spoke glowingly of the “agape love” in evidence there. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to look into the face of a non-Christian whose love and piety is patently as real as one’s own, and to tell him he’s going to hell. It was this kind of face-to-face encounter that moved Paul Tillich and Wilfred Cantwell Smith to modify their theological exclusivism: “An existential contact with outstanding representatives of non-Christian religions forces one into the acknowledgment that God is not far from them, that there is a universal revelation.” (Tillich)
… except at the cost of insensitivity or delinquence, it is morally not possible actually to go out into the world and say to devout, intelligent, fellow human beings: “We are saved and you are damned….” … so far as actual observation goes, the evidence would seem overwhelming that in fact individual Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others have known, and do know God. I personally have friends from these communities whom it seems to me preposterous to think about in any other way. (Smith)
Insofar as real listening dialogue increases (not just “listening” so as to be better able to refute), sensitive Evangelicals are going to reject their habit of writing off the religious (or other authentic human) experience of non-Christians as “counterfeit.” They will begin to feel the embarrassment of the scribes who absurdly charged that Jesus cast out demons only by the power of Beelzebub. The fruits of the Spirit are manifest as such wherever they appear. Take the example of Bill Lane Doulos, a contributor to Sojourners. He describes how his exposure to the Catholic Worker Movement helped him tear down
the wall erected by doctrine. Those who believe are in; all others are out. Some are going to heaven, some to hell. A lot of us evangelicals have never quite learned to accept this wall that has been built around the orthodox camp. Some of us have had the good fortune to see Jesus bulldozing his way through the cherished creed of his religious culture, and of our own.
A great deal is made, especially in so-called “presuppositionalist” apologetics, of what is sometimes called the “empirical fit” argument. It is an essentially common-sense pragmatic argument that questions the adequacy of a worldview based on how it translates into everyday experience. “In the clear light of day,” does philosophy X really account for our existential reality? It is on this basis that Os Guiness, in The Dust of Death, is able to write off all of Eastern thought in relatively few sentences. He feels (whether rightly or not) that the Eastern idea of the illusory character of the world
does not sufficiently take into account the existential depth of grief, love, etc. Similarly, Francis Schaeffer takes secular humanism to task because its presuppositions simply cannot justify the meaning found in life as lived by secular humanists and everyone else. While recognizing some weaknesses in Schaeffer’s use of it, I do not think this is basically a bad argument.
The only trouble is that the same line of reasoning leads one to doubt seriously a belief certainly held by Guiness, Schaeffer, and company. My years of experience in Evangelicalism have shown me that practical results of a belief in the damnation of “the unregenerate.” There arises a kind of invisible wall between “us” and “them” that cripples, even destroys, gut-level human solidarity, a reality I found I could no longer deny. Recall what I said in Chapter 2 about strictly defining and limiting one’s contact with “the unsaved.” Such an elitism is inevitable with such a belief, and “in the clear light of day” I find that it just doesn’t ring true. To get the feel of this, take a look at the in-group consciousness of any “cult” such as the Children of God or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Aren’t Evangelicals really doing the same thing? In their book Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman note that
the Evangelical movement shares many characteristics with religious cults and mass therapies…. There were [Evangelical] individuals who, at the end of what we thought was an open and genuine discussion, declared flatly that we would be condemned to Hell for the opinions we expressed and the beliefs we held.
I do not think that the “saved-damned” schema is adequate to human experience. It does not survive the test of “empirical fit,” as far as I am concerned.
What would become of “Christianity as a message to be proclaimed” in our hypothetical postmodern Evangelicalism? I do not think evangelism would be undermined in the least, though some of the guilt-motivated pressure would be relaxed. The key is to see that “fire insurance” was never supposed to be the only motivation for evangelism and the missionary enterprise. Of course all evangelists and missiologists realize this; they just have a tendency to ignore the fact in arguments about Universalism. “But, if everyone is going to heaven anyway, what is the point of the Great Commission?” They hope to defend belief in damnation by the commonly agreed-upon propriety of evangelism. But there is a logically quite separate reason for evangelism. The evangelist or missionary is concerned to spread faith in, and glorification of, Jesus Christ as Lord. Even if one held with some Barthians that the objective work of Christ avails for the salvation of all people regardless of their subjective response, this motive for evangelism would remain. For the sake of “the glory of his name” (as the Lausanne Covenant puts it), shouldn’t all people be invited to confess his Lordship, even if they will not be damned otherwise? To say that apart from the threat of hellfire, no purpose remains for evangelism is surely a sign of man-centered rather than “God-centered evangelism,” in the phrase of one Reformed tract.
I would be willing to go farther still. Suppose one wanted to recognize the legitimacy and truth of all the great world religions
(and there are theologically coherent ways of doing this– see for instance Tillich’s Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, or Raymond Panikkar’s The Unknown Christ of Hinduism). Would there still be a place for evangelism? Would Christianity still be “a message to be proclaimed”? Of course it would. One must only realize that evangelistic zeal does not depend on the logical syllogism “If my religion is true, his must be false.” Rather, I should think the genuine desire to evangelize arises from the felt benefits derived from one’s commitment to Christ, i.e., “Christ has done so much for me that I want to share him with others.” This is what the term “witnessing” implies. This motivation should remain untouched even if the witness allows that others to whom he speaks also might have something to which they could bear witness. Again, the two facts are logically independent. If the Jew or humanist is already happily experiencing what you would call the fruits of the Spirit through his own faith, so be it. Picture it like a testimony meeting where two Christians testify to different blessings they have received from God in the past week. To rejoice in your own blessing, do you need to deny the other person’s blessing? Conversely, to receive encouragement or admonition from your testimony, must your friend renounce the different blessing God has given him? That doesn’t lessen the fact that Jesus Christ has given you, and can give others, abundant life.
And the pressure would be off. No more worrying, “how can I work Christ into this conversation?” Things would now have the freedom to happen naturally and authentically. I realize that many Evangelicals with a conventional belief in hell and damnation do not subject themselves to this kind of guilty agitation anyway. Yet I cannot help but wonder if, with their belief, they should. Alan Watts contends that,
… it is quite obvious to the canny observer that most Christians… do not believe in Christianity. If they did, they would be screaming in the streets, taking daily full-page advertisements in the newspapers, and subscribing for the most hair-raising television programs every night of the week. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are polite and genteel in their door-to-door propaganda. Nobody, save perhaps a few obscure fanatics, is really bothered by the idea that… [most] people are sinners and unbelievers, and will probably go to hell. So what? Let God worry about that one!
What kind of belief is it that if taken seriously would make one into a fanatic? The reconstruction I am proposing (note, in various possible versions) would still leave Evangelicals with “Christianity as a message to be proclaimed.” All I am suggesting is (in the words of Bill Bright) “sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and [maybe for the first time] leaving the results to God.”
I have already discussed at some length Mouw’s second Evangelical distinctive, a piety centered on “a personal relationship with Christ.” I will not rehearse that discussion here except to point out an important implication. Remember that the real truth of “personal relationship” language was to stress the personal or existential nature of one’s commitment to Christ, not that one necessarily knows Jesus Christ as an individual person analogous to ourselves. If this
Is so, there is more room to recognize the genuine commitment to Christ of people who do not happen to use the “personal relationship” language of the Evangelical tradition.
Turning to the related issue of Born Again experience and coping mechanism, I have already sketched the contours of a “soft religious line.” It meant basically the putting away of a childish dependence on a God conceived animistically in terms of a primitive worldview. The mature Born Again Christian does not demand the life of faith be problem-free, or that all problems have pat religious answers. The “soft-line” Evangelical will swallow hard and admit the ambiguity of life and its decisions. He will try to do God’s will, but will have done with complicated schemes of divination which look for God under every bush. He will stop cruelly kidding himself by “praising the Lord” for tragedy, repressing grief, and giddily refusing to take responsibility for his own life. Christian faith will inform all decisions and priorities, but life will be lived for the sake of its own beauty and meaning, to which Christ has opened the Christian’s eyes. But we mustn’t overlook the problem which seemed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the soft religious line as an Evangelical option. It seemed at various points not to comport with the strictly fundamentalist view of the Bible allegedly maintained by Evangelicals, i.e., that all biblical texts are authoritative in a literal, propositional sense for the Christian’s “practice” including his understanding of life and man. It is to this question we turn in conclusion.
Mouw lists as the third element implied in the Evangelical label, “a set of basic attitudes toward the Holy Scriptures, which are typified by certain devotional patterns and regular references in Christian discussion to what ‘the Bible says.'” Mouw’s description here is splendidly clear and helpful in its delineation of what is at stake, namely attitudes. More light is shed on this situation by Gerald T. Sheppard in an essay entitled “Biblical Hermeneutics: The Academic Language of Evangelical Identity.” Sheppard points out how words such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility” serve chiefly as shibboleths or passwords to “the social contract at the heart of the evangelical identity.” The real theological “battle for the Bible” is being fought over questions or theories of intentionality, e.g., whether the inerrant truth of texts is intended (by God) to include the historical or cosmological trappings of the text, or only the religious point of it. I will soon return to this important question. For now let me point out that what is common to all factions involved is a set of “connotation words’ (Francis Schaeffer’s term) which set the Evangelical style and attitude toward the Bible. What is being debated is the most appropriate theological content of connotation words like “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” Here is the style/content dichotomy I am advocating.
I argue in this final section that one can maintain those attitudes and connotation-words concerning scripture, and thus maintain (postmodern) Evangelical identity, even if one changes considerably the theological content. Again, keep in mind that the content could be changed in any of several ways as seems most appropriate to the reader. I want to take a few stock pieces of Evangelical scripture-jargon and examine first their traditional meaning, and then make some suggestions for new theological content, in some cases already
being put forth by Evangelicals themselves.
First let us consider the matter of “reverence for scripture.” What often infuriates conservatives about historical-critical study of the Bible is the critical axiom that the Bible must be studied like any other book. Actually, with their espousal of the anti-allegorical grammatico-historical method, Evangelicals are not so far from this axiom themselves. The real red flag is the careless language often used by critical scholars which seems to infer a casual, or even disdainful, attitude toward the Bible. This it seems to me is an objection postmodern Evangelicals would have to maintain if they are to keep the Evangelical style. The Bible must remain a cherished object at the center of any Evangelical style of faith.
But what is the content attached to this objection by traditional conservatives? They say that we must never criticize the Word of God (i.e., question the historical accuracy of its statements); rather we must allow it to criticize us. This stance is increasingly meeting rejection by younger Evangelical scholars who see that there is a pious confusion between two meanings of “criticism” here. Even historical criticism, they feel, may be carried on in a spirit of reverence. It is no different in kind from textual criticism or even exegesis. All such “criticism” is only a matter of trying to come to grips with the religious message of the text. This kind of “criticism” is quite a different thing from moral criticism which “biblical critics” too may humbly accept from the Word of God, better understood through their labors. Thus the “reverence” required by an “Evangelical style” would not affect the method of biblical study as it has done traditionally. By way of example, David M. Scholer points out how in dealing with the chronological difficulty in Acts 7:16, Liberal Ernst Haenchen says Stephen has “confused” two Old Testament texts, while conservative F. F. Bruce says Stephen has “telescoped” the two passages. Notice that the only difference here is the negative or positive connotation of the descriptive word used. The critical solution is the same.
“Verbal inspiration” is another term indispensable to Evangelical Bible-talk. I think it would be fair to say that this phrase was originally intended to anchor theological thought in the text of the Bible by pointing to the origin of the particular statements of the text in the providence of God. During the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, the term became a banner of resistance to the idea that the Bible being merely a human book serves as but a repository of greater and lesser religious ideas. The doctrinal content of “verbal inspiration” was that these words and the statements formed by them correspond almost pictorially to divine realities. Their propositional sense was literally true. Verbal inspiration as traditionally understood seems to make the Bible a revelation of information. It is the guarantee of the textual vehicle of propositional revelation.
In my opinion, this view is no longer viable. Contradictions in the Bible make meaningless the idea that biblical texts render inspired statements in this literal, propositional sense. Remember, the admission of precisely “apparent” contradictions nullifies this theory since according to it, the verbally inspired propositions are located in the “apparent” or “plain” sense of the text, i.e., exactly that sense which in one passage contradicts that of the other. But in rejecting this, one is not rejecting all meaning of the term “verbal
inspiration.” In discussions of “verbal” vs. “content” inspiration models, Henry, Packer, and others pointed out that if a statement is in any sense inspired, the words themselves must participate in the inspiration, since one has no other access to the statement’s meaning except via its wording. This seems true enough, as even James Barr admits. It is important to note that “verbal inspiration” thus understood does not mean that the inspired point could not have been put into other, equivalent words, but that the point as we find it expressed in these words is inspired. But please note that such a recognition of the words, i.e., the text as is, also does not logically imply that inspiration guarantees the presence of pictorially accurate informational propositions. Alternatively, what could a really postmodern Evangelical theology make of verbal inspiration?
The point of departure is the centrality of the text, rather than of some pre-textual or post-textual reality. First, it means removing the “fence around the Torah,” the obscuring of the Bible with doctrines of the Bible. Paul Holmer says,
For one thing, there is far too much said about the Bible, almost as if the Bible cannot speak for itself and show one the Savior without sundry helps…. strangely enough, theories about dispensations, inspiration, authorship, and a lot else, begin to intervene. It almost looks as if a chief piece of theology, a kind of knowledge of God, has to be made up by evangelicals to get the business moving. And soon the fireworks are not in the gospels and epistles but in the evangelical spokesmen’s scheme about the book.
Closely related to this evasion of the text is that which makes the biblical text primarily “Exhibit A” for a theological system which itself is the real source of instruction and comfort. No, a really new Evangelical understanding would make the biblical text itself the place of the divine-human encounter. For an example of such nondoctrinal encounter with the Bible, see Walter Wink’s The Bible in Human Transformation.
Verbal inspiration meaning the centrality of the text would also mean the end of the apologetical “quest for the Evangelical Jesus” which concentrates on proving that “the picture [of Jesus] that faith gives is identical with the true perception of the historical reality of Jesus.” (Bloesch) The texts containing statements attributed to Jesus are supposed to be worthless if Jesus didn’t actually say them: “… how can you believe in Christ as the Bread of Life without believing in a historical basis to John’s Gospel?” (Charles Caldwell Ryrie) Yet why couldn’t one be Evangelical if he believed such texts, thought not spoken by the historical Jesus, were inspired by the Holy Spirit? And since on my theory, what is distinctly Evangelical is primarily a matter of style, I suggest that one could hold to an extremely Liberal skepticism about the historical Jesus, yet still treasure the gospel texts about Jesus as the place where one encounters “the Numinous,” or one’s “Ultimate Concern,” or whatever. My point is not that one could consistently hold no other view within the authentic Evangelical style.
In the preceding paragraphs, I have maintained that Evangelicals themselves continually, and almost on principle, relativize the text
of the Bible. Of course this is just what they damn form-critics for doing. But the most flagrant, yet least obvious, way in which conservatives relativize the text is harmonizing. Trying to harmonize two divergent texts takes one of both with less than full seriousness. For instance, two variant accounts of the same event are harmonized by the postulation of a composite sequence of events which, if it really happened, would account for the details of both texts, though actually suggested by neither. Harold Lindsell’s incredible suggestion of six denials of Jesus by Peter is only an extreme example of all such harmonizations. Reading either text by itself would not yield the harmonization’s sequence of events, yet the harmonization henceforth governs the reading of each text! No, a postmodern Evangelical insistence on verbal inspiration will seek to learn from both texts (remembering that revelatory propositions are not the only thing one might learn), instead of silencing one or both of them. Basically, then, “verbal inspiration” understood in a postmodern way means the centrality of the text, not of some particular theological system, hermeneutic, theory of religious authority, or reconstruction of underlying events. Any of several options could be entertained on these logically separate matters.
What may be said about inerrancy? The traditional content “plugged into” this connotation word is that all biblical statements are factually correct, whether they touch on matters of theology, science, history or geography. This seems plain enough, though even the most conservative inerrantists have a way of obscuring the terms of the discussion, as in the recent “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” in which the definition propounded in one paragraph seems to contradict that assumed in the next.
But what if one finds (as many do) this definition unacceptable? Should the word be dropped, or is it considered definitive enough of the Evangelical style of regarding scripture to be salvaged with a new theological content? Clark Pinnock, in his more recent writings, is representative of much newer Evangelical thinking here:
Inerrancy when applied to Scripture is relative to the scope, purpose, and genre of each passage…. [This is a] qualification, according to which one could fairly say that the Bible contains errors but teaches none, or that inerrancy refers to the subjects rather than all the terms of Scripture or to the teaching rather than to all the components utilized in its formulation.
In slightly different terms, Daniel Fuller (who may be said to have sparked this whole debate) speaks of the inerrancy of revelational as opposed to nonrevelational material in scripture. The latter would include matters of history, geography, cosmology, etc.
How do these limited-inerrantists know to draw the line where they do, at religious material? Would-be biblicists still, they maintain that scripture itself mandates such a plumbline. “The Biblical writers make it clear that their purpose was to report the happenings and meaning of the redemptive acts of God in history so that men might be made wise unto salvation.” (Fuller) Reference is usually made to passages like II Timothy 3:15-16, where the biblical writer describes the usefulness of scripture for (religious) instruction. Yet such passages do not say that the other (e.g., geographical,
cosmological, chronological) assertions of scripture need not be believed. Why do limited inerrantists feel compelled to take seriously the literal propositional sense of II Timothy 3:15-16 (as far as it goes), but not of passages making historical and other factual statements? I suggest that they do so on grounds quite different from the biblicism they think to espouse.
In his famous essay “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” Rudolf Bultmann pointed out the inevitability (and propriety) of the “hermeneutical circle” in which the exegete stands. What he learns from the Bible (or any other text) depends on the “pre-understanding,” or type of concern, with which he approaches the text. In other words, what does the exegete want to know when he comes to the Bible? Everyone agrees that his concern is one of human existence and its possibilities, or in other words “What must I do to be saved?” Even the strictest inerrantist will admit this, since his defense of all biblical statements is admittedly intended as a safeguard for the possibility of getting a reliable biblical answer to this question. What Bultmann (and the advocates of the New Hermeneutic) conclude from this is that details tangential to this saving purpose (e.g., historical and cosmological information) may be safely disregarded. This is what limited inerrantists have done implicitly in their particular limitation. What concerns them is revelational material, so the rest can be dropped as at least potentially “errant.”
Strict inerrantist R. C. Sproul is clear in his perception of this point:
The… “norm” of Scripture is reduced de facto to that content relating to faith and practice. This immediately raises the hermeneutical question concerning what parts of Scripture deal with faith…. [The] principle of the reduction of canon to matters of “faith” is precisely the chief operative in Bultmann’s hermeneutic. Bultmann thinks we must clear away the prescientific and faulty historical “husk” of Scripture to get to the viable kernal of “faith.”
To approach this from a slightly different angle, let us focus on Pinnock’s talk about the writers’ intention. When the emphasis is shifted in this manner a change occurs which is probably more significant than the limited inerrantists realize. As James Barr points out, belief directed to the intent of the writer is thus directed to an internal, mental referent rather than an external, factual referent. To be consistent, one must now ask not, “Did Jesus really walk on water?” but rather, “What is the theological point Mark intended us to get by including (or inventing!) this story?” Why could not any historical account, even the resurrection itself, be included at least potentially, among the errors “contained but not taught” in scripture? Why not demythologize? Sproul is exactly right. Is is on the basis of this distinction that Bultmann is able to dispense with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is a legend, but so what? Its normative “intent” is the message that in the kerygma we are offered a new possibility of existence.
No limited-inerrantist Evangelical wishes to go quite this far:
To be sure, God revealed himself in the events of redemptive history– e.g., the Fall, the Flood, the call of Abraham, the
Exodus… and many others; if some aspect of these events which is an essential of revelation, did not happen, then it would destroy the truth of Scripture just as much as if historical reasoning should show that Jesus did not rise from the dead. (Fuller)
Now the viability of an Evangelical theology is dependent upon the basic historicality of the Bible story…. (Goldingay)
(But of course even Bultmann admitted that the factual das of the existence of Jesus was necessary for theology, even if we had no was, or specific content data about Jesus.) Why do these limited inerrantists draw a line even here?
It will no doubt be used as a reduction ad absurdum argument against such a view that nothing in their doctrine of inerrancy would stop them in principle from admitting that the resurrection, or even the existence, of Jesus is a dispensable historical “term” rather than an indispensable inerrant “subject” in Pinnock’s terms. This objective misses a crucial point, but makes one as well. First, one’s doctrine of inerrancy is not the only theological reason one might have to affirm the historical reality of some biblical events. A line might be drawn on such matters on other bases than a doctrine of scripture. One might decide that the logic of the Christian system as a whole (rather than a doctrine of scripture) demands the historicity of a few key events such as the incarnation and resurrection, leaving most other matters up for grabs. (Belief in the doctrine of inerrancy is itself an example of making assertions about matters of historical fact on the basis of the perceived demands of faith. I suggest that faith might demand a more modest list of assertions.) But the corollary of all this is that if for various reasons one did not feel that faith demanded even, say, the historicity of the resurrection, a postmodern doctrine of inerrancy could accommodate even this view! “Inerrancy of intention” does logically allow for demythologizing.
Limited-inerrantists have bought themselves considerable critical freedom, though most are too squeamish to make much use of it. This is why so many of their “critical scholars” turn out to be “maximal conservatives” (as James Barr calls them), using criticism to defend traditional positions on dating, authorship, and historicity held out of nostalgia more than anything else. John Goldingay has seen the implication of limited inerrancy (though I do not believe he uses this exact term for it), and suggests that Evangelicals should at least consider using “radical criticism.”
What does all this have to say about a postmodern Evangelical understanding of the connotation-word “inerrancy”? As formulated by Fuller, Pinnock, and others, “inerrancy” need denote only some kind of assent to the “intended teaching” of the biblical writers. Inerrancy itself thus dictates absolutely nothing about the factual or historical elements of the text! Again, please note, postmodern Evangelical reworking of the term does not logically necessitate the most radical theological position; rather it can accommodate even such a position, though one might have good theological reasons for “plugging in” a rather conservative content as most limited-inerrantist Evangelicals do. But in either case, one would be genuinely
Lastly, we come to consider the question of canonical unity in the Bible. Traditionally, “canon” has implied for Evangelical theology a content to this effect: the sixty-six books of the Bible provide us with a uniform though multifaceted set of teachings with which to govern faith and life. This understanding at least theoretically allowed one to say “the Bible says” on any question, i.e., there was always a single, authoritative biblical doctrine or ethical principle to be obeyed/applied. Remember, Mouw included the phrase “the Bible says” as a key feature characterizing the Evangelical attitude toward scripture.
The starting point for making room for new theological contents for terms like “the Bible says” is well presented in a position statement by New Testament scholar David M. Scholer:
My confession that the scripture is the Word of God involves a commitment to the unity of scripture. Such unity, however, must be expressed in terms and relationships which are fully honest to contextual exegesis and which do not impose a false concept of unity on the scripture…. the scripture texts themselves [must] define the unity of the canon in the midst of the historical and theological diversity expressed there.
In other words, this unity must come at the end, not the beginning of the exegetical process.
What if exegesis discloses real ethical and theological differences between biblical writers? If the reader is not persuaded that this is the case, then he need not make much of a change in what it means for him to say “the Bible says.” But, if like myself and several recent Evangelical biblical scholars you do see real disunity in the Bible, there is a new kind of content that may be applied to the Evangelical connotation-phrase “the Bible says.” The Bible could be said to canonize a plurality of opinions, any of which would therefore be legitimate for Christians to hold today. It is in this sense that one could assent to the “inerrancy” (i.e., in this context, the “theological legitimacy”) of all passages whether they agree or not.
Now instead of being a rule of faith, the canon is a rule of faiths. Because of the authorizing role of the biblical canon, various positions arising from any of its diverse strands may be considered legitimate. Thus the Bible forms one roof under which various types of Christian faith may live as one happy family. Here we meet with another issue very important to the re-thinking of Evangelical hermeneutics. Must a hermeneutical model, to be authoritative, ensure uniformity of conclusions? Evangelicals seem to assume that it must (though in fact none ever has). But again, this bears consideration.
As might be expected, this basic approach admits of some variation. John Goldingay maintains that there is a basic religious message in the Bible which finds different expression in different situations. He gives the Paul vs. James problem as an example here. Each expression is legitimate as a theological norm for modern Christians, who should align themselves with the idiom most appropriate to their situation. Thus far Goldingay seems to be admitting no real disunity, but the logic of his position indicates that even a
formulation of how one is justified (i.e., by faith alone, or not) is an only relatively valid theological datum.
Goldingay points out that
… if the varying messages did reflect “irreconcilable theological contradictions” [Käsemann] then it is difficult to see how the whole could be inspired and infallible. [Still,] This does not… imply that every message is equally near to the heart of divine truth…. sometimes we will be able to establish some hierarchy amongst the various expressions of the will of God.
He illustrates this with Matthew’s secondary “except for porneia” qualification of Jesus’ divorce prohibition, and with the emergence of “early catholicism” as an ossification of earlier Christian dynamism. It would be interesting to see just how far Goldingay would be willing to go relativizing theological expressions, e.g., of Christology, in the New Testament. Are some of them only relatively adequate, and thus not literally true? At any rate, Goldingay sees all these “situational responses” as inspired and authorized as legitimate by virtue of their presence in the New Testament.
Moving a bit more toward the left, we come to James D. G. Dunn. He frankly admits that there is no one orthodoxy present in the early Christianity represented in the New Testament, with the clear result that there can be none today either. Instead we find in the New Testament a rather narrow “unifying center,” i.e., “Jesus-the-man-now-exalted” which amounts to “the conviction that in Jesus we still have a paradigm for man’s relationship to God and man’s relationship to man… (whether in these or alternative words)…” Dunn seems to skirt the issue of the nature of religious language, but he appears by such an admission to have moved in an obviously Liberal direction. This is even more obvious when he says that all New Testament theological models, earlier ones as well as later developments, are valid. Since they do not agree (as he himself points out), they cannot all be true in any literal fashion. So Dunn does not seem to mean that one should hold such positions as literal “didactic thought models” or “propositions.”
But Dunn is not canonizing the bare principle of diversity. Dunn says that the fact of a unifying center in the New Testament also serves to circumscribe the circumference of legitimate diversity. No theology could claim the New Testament’s blessing that did not hold to the unifying center. But theology is not simply restricted to parroting those options actually spelled out in the canon. Diversity there provides a precedent for creativity in theology today. Dunn claims that
The more we believe that the Spirit of God inspired the writers of the New Testament to speak the Word of God to people of the… first century A.D., reinterpreting faith and lifestyle diversely to diverse circumstances the more acceptance of the New Testament canon requires us to be open to the Spirit to reinterpret in similar or equivalent ways in the twentieth century.
Thus, Dunn seems willing to allow that we may come up with new models for our day:
If the New Testament canon does not support the sole legitimacy of only one of the subsequent developments (Catholic orthodoxy), neither does it restrict legitimacy only to the developments which are actually enshrined within its pages.
Yet the New Testament models are the “original traditions,” on which all other developments must be “variations,” and with which they must be in “primary dialogue.”
Admittedly this is quite a different picture from that of traditional Evangelicalism, where the phrase “the Bible says” was expected to end with only one option. But I am not as certain that the suggestion of Dunn and Goldingay differs all that much from what has actually been happening in Evangelical hermeneutics all along. Indeed it is a well-known embarrassment that a doctrine of scripture thought to be the one sure guardian against doctrinal error has been unable to ensure exegetical agreement on any single issue! Holding to the same doctrine of scripture, conservative exegetes opt for Calvinism or Arminianism, Convenant or Dispensational theology, pre- or post-tribulationism, pre- or amillennialism, infant or adult baptism, etc. So much for the “perspicuity of scripture”! Yet Evangelicals already tolerate many of these differences, even admitting that the ambiguity of scripture allows for a variety of conclusions on “nonessentials.” This is in effect to make virtue of necessity; the fact that scripture is ambiguous at a certain point means that such a point must be nonessential, since scripture would certainly clarify an essential matter. By definition, then, nothing left unclear in the Bible could be essential.
I submit that “the existence of ambiguity in the canon giving rise to a legitimate espousal of diverse opinions among Christians” is not qualitatively different from “the existence of diverse opinions in the canon which are legitimately reflected by diverse opinions among Christians.” And if it turned out that this diversity of opinions concerned vital issues like Christology, would this issue not automatically become a “nonessential” as to the precise formulation one held? I believe this will have to be admitted as long as we are talking about what a doctrine of scripture would demand. Again, I will agree that logically separate theological reasons might (but might not) move one to press for one particular Christology as normative. But this would be a different question, not decided by one’s doctrine of scripture. Once again I am pointing out the diversity of possible contents of Evangelical connotation words.
Now one might qualify this model along the lines suggested by John Goldingay or Charles Kraft, i.e., that some of these canonized options are more or less close to the heart of divine truth. But it seems to me, what one could not do and remain an Evangelical would be to deem some of the various New Testament opinions as being so radically contradictory that some must be rejected. This would be the point of division between the kind of view represented by Dunn and Goldingay, and the famous “canon within the canon” approach of Käsemann. (Incidentally, Dunn also uses the term “canon within the canon,” but no in the same sense.)
I mentioned in my discussion of both Dunn and Goldingay that their model of the canon raises the issue of religious language. For instance, if Mark’s Christology apparent without pre-existence is
as sufficient a doctrinal view as John’s Christology of the Incarnate Word, can both of them be true in any literal, propositional sense? I believe that Dunn’s and Goldingay’s views tend logically toward the idea that the New Testament doctrinal data represent symbols, not pictures. Though they are informative in the sense of helpfully articulating something about God, they are not propositionally descriptive of him. This is obviously very analogous to Paul Tillich’s view that the Bible renders symbols which participate in the Holy but are not identical to it, which reveal the divine Mystery but do not make it less mysterious.
Here again Evangelicals already have a conceptual base from which to approach this understanding. Francis Schaeffer indicates that our concepts of God are “truly true” though admittedly not “exhaustively true.” What I am suggesting is along the same general lines, though my proposal would involve more relativization of deliteralization than Schaeffer has in mind. Keep in mind also that the less severe one judged the differences between biblical writers to be, the less their various formulations would have to be relativized.
In the final analysis, then, in the context of a really new, postmodern Evangelicalism, one could definitely go on saying “the Bible says,” but there might be a few ways to end the sentence. There would also be a bit of room left for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which is not after all particularly un-Evangelical.
Throughout this book I have criticized several important elements of the Born Again Christianity in which I have spent many years. In place of these inadequacies I have sought to suggest new ways of being Evangelical. Mainly this involved the development of a framework according to which Evangelical identity hinges more on a style than a particular theological content. Though this style certainly fits well with traditional Evangelical theology and spirituality, it is not inseparable from these. It could accommodate a spectrum of other theologies and spiritualities. Thus this study may be seen as a first prepatory step to a really new, postmodern Evangelicalism, or even to several postmodern Evangelicalisms.
It is the irony of religious union movements (e.g., the Plymouth Brethren, the Unification Church, the Baha’i Faith) that their platform for reconciliation becomes merely the ideology of one more new sect. But I am not so naive, at least on this point. It is quite obvious to me that most Evangelicals will not accept my agenda for a “really new Evangelicalism.” But the viability of the proposal does not depend on its universal acceptance. Remember, I have stressed pluralism throughout. Thus my purpose will be accomplished if I have demonstrated to those few(?) disillusioned individuals ready to leave Evangelical faith, that there is still hope. Their Evangelical identity can be redeemed, “born again,” if they want it.
In many ways, what all this amounts to is a return to earth, a renunciation of the Promethean superiority to which Evangelical rhetoric often lays claim. It means an admission that “Born Again Christians” are not supposed to be problem-free, always “victorious.” They don’t have all the answers, or even the means to get all of them. They’re not the enlightened elect, outside of whose magic circle everyone is damned and in darkness. Their beliefs are not so unambiguously compelling as to make everyone else an intellectually
dishonest bigot. They are in fact only people, people who have faith in Jesus Christ, and they are not unique even in this. A really new Evangelicalism will realize these things and take them into theological consideration.
In the words of my title, what all of this means is going “beyond born again.” The equivocal character of the phrase has probably not been lost on the reader. Do I intend that “born again” is one of the “childish things” to be “put away”? One might face the problems I have set forth and decide to seek an entirely different form of faith. Then perhaps one goes beyond born again in the sense of repudiation. I don’t think this would be so terrible. I am not trying to prescribe an Evangelicalism which still considers itself “the only true faith.” I am only trying to outline an option for those who see the need for sweeping changes yet wish to maintain their identity as Evangelicals. In this latter case, going beyond born again means that the born again experience must be put behind one’s self as any starting point must be. The “childish things,” in this case, are the psychologically immature “hard religious line,” the elitist exclusivism, the self-contradictory version of biblical authority, and the manipulative apologetics. Isn’t it time for something better?
“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebrews 5:1, NIV).
“Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity” is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.