October 14, 2019

Another Look: Just in case you were wondering, I love the Bible

Just in case you were wondering, I love the Bible.

I learned this from my life in evangelicalism. One key characteristic of evangelical Christianity is its commitment to the Bible as God’s Word. The evangelical (and “soft” fundamentalist) churches I was in were “Bible” churches, plain and simple. That’s what we were about. We taught the Scriptures. Sermons were expository analyses of biblical texts, sometimes going verse by verse and book by book. Sunday School classes were usually on books of the Bible. We had small group Bible studies too. We memorized verses and passages. We had daily Bible devotions. People carried their Bibles to church, underlined passages, took notes. We did “sword drills” in VBS and Sunday School and the children had programs in which they received rewards for memorizing scripture. We tried our best to live our lives and run our churches “according to the Bible” (as we “literally” understood it). We often had to work through issues in our churches and the bottom line was always “chapter and verse,” and “it is written.” One person’s conviction about a particular verse could trump a whole lot of arguments.

This is what Daniel Bebbington called evangelicalism’s commitment to Biblicism — “a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.” From the beginning of my adult Christian life, I bought into this, hook, line, and sinker.

The youth group in which I had a spiritual awakening was led by a youth pastor who was gifted at teaching the Bible, and there was a large group of us that ate it up. We memorized chapters from Proverbs and the first words I committed to memory were:

My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee;
So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding;
Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding;
If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures;
Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.

• Proverbs 2:1-5, KJV

This text taught me to study diligently and to take the words of scripture deep into my mind and heart so that their wisdom would transform my life. Above all, it taught me to remain hungry and eager for truth and understanding, to view my life as a continual search for the treasures of knowledge.

And so I made my way to Bible college, a school that offered no majors at that time other than a B.S. in Bible, so that I could learn what the scriptures taught. Then, after a time in the mountains of Vermont trying to teach the Bible to the good folks there, I knew I needed to learn much more. So off I went to seminary, one of the richest times of learning and growing in my life. Unlike Bible college, which taught according to a definite and very specific system of doctrine, in seminary I began to taste the breadth of Christian teaching. I know some from other traditions would consider my seminary to be hopelessly narrow, and in some ways I see now that it was, but at least it exposed me to a few more voices outside the room and took what they said seriously. Plus, where Bible college favored rote learning, seminary encouraged me to strike out on my own, do research, develop my own positions and defend them. I spent as much time in the library as I could, tracking down every article mentioned by a prof that caught my attention.

Nor did I stop studying or hungering after my formal education either. I saw myself as a teacher, and I built my schedule around study and heavily invested in the best commentaries and books while I tried to maintain a high level of instruction in the local church. I see now that I was far too academic for most people, and perhaps I should have gone into teaching. But I felt that if God had given the Bible to all Christians and his gathering of choice was the local congregation, what better place to teach?

However, it was often a struggle, and eventually I became dissatisfied with much that evangelicalism teaches about and from the Bible. You’ve read that here at Internet Monk, and here are a few examples you might review:

I’m not going to summon up all the points made in those posts by myself or the authors I reviewed, but I encourage you to go back and read them and you will see some of the specific differences I have with my former evangelical perspectives on scripture.

What I want to point out in this post is an irony: the irony that my evangelical background set down a root in my life that eventually led me to grow away from evangelicalism.

The wisdom of Proverbs 2, the first text I memorized, encouraged me to keep hungering, to keep seeking, to keep studying and internalizing God’s Word, to never stray from following after knowledge and understanding. But one major problem with the evangelical view of scripture is that it only encourages that kind of seeking within a closed system. The carefully designed system of beliefs and practices, the doctrinal statement, the list of correct interpretations (which varies, depending upon which evangelical group you belong to), has in reality become the authority, and we are only allowed to read and interpret the Bible within that system. Any interpretation that threatens the system is discouraged or verboten. The whole enterprise can become like a giant game of Jenga. Change one block, and the tower comes crashing down.

So there are clearly defined limits beyond which one must not stray. I am not arguing that there are no boundaries at all; I am a creedal Christian, for example. However, the strict boundaries drawn within evangelical and fundamentalist circles can make for awfully tight quarters and narrow passages.

I was once visiting with a friend with whom I’d gone to Bible college, who was now a classmate at seminary. He recalled a trip to homecoming at our college and a conversation he’d had with one of our professors, a dyed-in-the-wool dispensationalist, as literal as they make ’em. The prof was complaining about how people went away to seminary and strayed from the faith he had taught them. Here’s the example he gave, I kid you not. He told my friend of a student who left and began to believe that the chain that bound Satan during the millennium in Revelation 20 was metaphorical and not an actual, physical chain. And he was appalled! The slippery slope started right there. Give up literal interpretation on any detail, and you’ll soon become an amillennialist. Which to him meant “the enemy.”

I did not apply for churches early in my ministerial career because I struggled with the issue of the timing of the Rapture, and I knew those churches would never hire anyone who didn’t toe the line on a pre-trib, “left behind” event and a specific “end times” template.

Other churches in which I served would never even have a discussion about women in leadership. The Bible taught otherwise.

One man in our church who was convinced that the Bible only allowed unleavened bread at communion held the entire congregation captive to his conviction.

My seminary turned down the services of one of the finest Old Testament professors in the world because he was not a premillennialist.

I have a million stories, but they all boil down to this: My discipling process in an evangelical setting taught me to seek knowledge and understanding like there was no tomorrow. But then, early and often, they slammed a door in my face and said, “Sorry, that’s a room into which we do not look.” Excuse me if I feel disoriented.

This is why I get so hyped up about issues like Young Earth Creationism. It is not just because I disagree with the interpretation, but because the whole approach of many who insist upon it is so . . . well, unbiblical. Sticking your fingers in your ears while shouting, “Literal! Literal! Literal!” simply does not fit with “incline thine ear unto wisdom.”

I am so grateful for the love that evangelicalism gave me for the Bible. I’m sad that this very gift meant we’d eventually part ways.

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    My childhood and adolescent religious formation was in the Catholic Church. I did not acquire a great love of the Bible from that formation, however it might have been intended. In my teenage years and young adulthood I had little interest in the Bible or Christianity, though I tried to keep my mind open to both. I developed a great interest in Eastern religions, and strangely enough, it was the reading and instruction I received there that turned me back to an interest in the Bible, since many of the writers and teachers I was engaged with had a high regard for elements of both. Ultimately, I embraced Christian faith and practice, which is why I’m here commenting on this blog today, but my feeling about much of the Bible remains ambivalent. There are things I like and dislike in the Bible; there are good and bad things in the Bible — I struggle to understand how all these likes and dislikes, goods and bads relate to each other. This I am certain of: Jesus does not need the Bible to have access to me, but I need the Bible to have access to Jesus, and I am in desperate need of having access to Jesus. Since the Jesus of the New Testament points me to the Old Testament for his own bodily and spiritual lineage, I have no choice but to struggle to understand the place of it all in my relationship to him. I image I will struggle with it my whole life, remaining unsettled and ambivalent in my feelings and attitude toward it, but I trust that Jesus will lead me through whatever I must get through.

    • Robert, I imagine you would enjoy reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Holy Envy” She explores what we can learn from other faiths and how their way of seeing the world and God can enhance our view of God. She’s remained Christian because that is the language she knows, but does not assume others do, or must, speak that language in order to connect with God.
      It’s very good.

  2. “they all boil down to this: My discipling process in an evangelical setting taught me to seek knowledge and understanding like there was no tomorrow. But then, early and often, they slammed a door in my face and said, “Sorry, that’s a room into which we do not look.” Excuse me if I feel disoriented.”

    Or even worse, in some circles, the seeking of knowledge and understanding becomes the highest good apart from any other.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      But then, early and often, they slammed a door in my face and said, “Sorry, that’s a room into which we do not look.”

      Like the design flaws in an RBMK reactor:
      “Ees State Secret, Comrade. Don’t ask Political Questions.”

  3. “I am not arguing that there are no boundaries at all; I am a creedal Christian, for example. However, the strict boundaries drawn within evangelical and fundamentalist circles can make for awfully tight quarters and narrow passages”

    At this stage in my life, I will stand doctrinally on the Nicene Creed – anything beyond that is open for negotiation.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Agree.

      The required “I am not arguing that there are no boundaries at all” declaration becomes exhausting.
      So, unless it was **SAID** “there are no boundaries at all” then that was no said.
      If someone assumes that was said, then that’s on them.

      The my-boundaries-or-no-boundaries trope, in all its permutations, [ the Mere Orthodoxy BLOG is like a zoo for the forms of this trope ] needs to be set on fire.

  4. john barry says

    Robert F. . I appreciate your heart felt honest comments as well as the article CM shared. Your comments resonate with me. God did gave us the Bible, it is the word of God, the word is Jesus. I am with you, without the Bible how would we know about the Gospel message? I am a mustard seed believer, we do not need a “lot” of faith , we can question, we can ponder etc. but our mustard seed size faith we sustain. We are blessed because we are poor in spirit but we preserve knowing we do not truly know, we have faith, a little, we question but we preserve.
    So in the beginning was the word. The OT to me is as simple as me, it shows that man cannot praise , worship, sacrifice , kill enough and follow the law enough to be close (with ) God. That is where Jesus comes in and we find Jesus in the Bible. That simple , you accept Jesus as your savior or you do not. Up to you, not me and Calvin.
    To those who do not have access to the Bible, I can only say I do not know but God does but I know the Bible.
    So like many times CM has shared his views and they are certainly worthy and deserving of serious thought.
    I am a believer in a personal relationship with God and we all walk different paths. I thank people that share their paths and thought process in their journey of life and faith.
    I have been and always will be amazed at the crazy story of humanity and how we got where we are. I do not understand everything (actually very little I understand ) in the Bible but I do know Jesus made my life better and he was there from the beginning , not the beginning of John Barry, but the world. I am much into the personal relationship that is not just for John Barry but for everyone. If people do not believe the same that is fine with me as it is a personal decision.
    If anyone questions me about my faith I keep it simple and ask them why do they ask? An old 70 s book I’m OK, You’re OK rattles in my memory bank, all I remember is the title but I like it. KISS is my motto by necessity .

    • senecagriggs says

      What a wonderful testimony jb

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      KISS is my motto by necessity.

      }
      “Knights in Satan’s Service”? 🙂

      • john barry says

        Headless U Guy, Never one to nit pick and I do love to pic the nits, I must inform you that you spelled night wrong, there is no k in night unless you were alive when King Arthur Godfrey was alive and the Knights sat at the Round Table as there were all equal. It is what is called Ole Inglish sort of like the Grand Ole Opry. Of course, you know that once a king always a King but once a Knight is enough.

        Is there ever been a better marketer or self promoter than Gene Simmons? I must admit that I did watch Knight Rider back in the day but the plots were so profound and deep I had trouble following them.

        Thanks for trying to give me a lifeline, How about Keep it Seriously Sublime

        Christiane , I apologize for imploring you to stay on topic and doing this but as you know I am the pot calling the kettle black so to you, all NATO members, UAW, Moose, Elks and other people who I might offend I apologize . . Reminder to all , my advice and opinions are truly worth what you paid for it.

        • Christiane says

          no worries, J.B., I don’t mind getting nudged to ‘stay on topic’, it’s just that sometimes I can’t anymore as ‘the topic’ for me sometimes morphs into ‘the teachable moment’ or a ‘happening’ that demands not to be ignored but responded

          It’s now Wednesday the 26th and Trump’s Senate shot down help for the children who are in need. And it hurts, J.B.

          The trumpists are holding the children hostage in order to get their way. It’s not right. It is so not right.

    • “So in the beginning was the word. The OT to me is as simple as me, it shows that man cannot praise , worship, sacrifice , kill enough and follow the law enough to be close (with ) God.”

      john, with all due respect, the Old Testament doesn’t show this at all. That is a statement derived from systematic theology – Protestant systematic theology. The Old Testament is full of passages like Dt. 5:33 – “You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.”

      God fully expected his people to walk in covenant with him, keeping his Law. He did not give the Law so people would fail, to show their sin, or condemn his people. The term ‘torah’ is translated by Christians as ‘Law’ but usually understood by Jews as ‘instruction’. And no ancient Jewish writings ever come close to claiming God demanded or expected perfect law-keeping (well, 4 Ezra comes close, but even there God says he will have mercy when Ezra protests that nobody can keep the Law perfectly), not even Paul (Phil 3:6, ‘under the Law, blameless’ – not ‘perfect’).

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > with all due respect, the Old Testament doesn’t show this at all

        +1,000

        Message not there.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    We often had to work through issues in our churches and the bottom line was always “chapter and verse,” and “it is written.” One person’s conviction about a particular verse could trump a whole lot of arguments.

    This is what Daniel Bebbington called evangelicalism’s commitment to Biblicism — “a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.” From the beginning of my adult Christian life, I bought into this, hook, line, and sinker.

    “It Is Written.”
    It’s almost Wahabi Islamic.
    And I would expect the same results and side effects as from Wahabi “commitment to Koranicism”.

  6. senecagriggs says

    C.M. – EFCA changes

    The EFCA Board of Directors has introduced a motion to amend Paragraph 9, Article III of the Articles of Incorporation of the EFCA, the Statement of Faith, as follows:

    We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious [ replacing pre-millenial ]

    return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.

    I think the change has been taking place slowly over the last decade.

    [ Could not be voted on until this year. It either has passed or will. ]

  7. senecagriggs says

    C.M. – EFCA changes

    The EFCA Board of Directors has introduced a motion to amend Paragraph 9, Article III of the Articles of Incorporation of the EFCA, the Statement of Faith, as follows:

    We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious [ replacing pre-millenial ]

    return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “…motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”
      And when we fail in that…?

      • You repent and try to do better, just like when you fail at anything, such as caring for the poor, loving your neighbor, etc.

  8. “The carefully designed system of beliefs and practices, the doctrinal statement, the list of correct interpretations (which varies, depending upon which evangelical group you belong to), has in reality become the authority, and we are only allowed to read and interpret the Bible within that system.”

    Honestly, while this problem may be more obvious in evangelical churches, due to a greater emphasis on studying scripture, I don’t think it is at all unique to evangelicalism. Does the Roman Catholic system allow us to interpret the Bible so that there shouldn’t be a pope? You mentioned churches that wouldn’t discuss allowing women in leadership. Are you willing in your church to honestly consider not allowing women in leadership? If not, has your system become closed. Perhaps it is not a closed system so much as you just don’t agree with their interpretations anymore, and of course if you ask questions, they are going to try to convince you they are right. I’m not disagreeing that it is a problem in evangelical churches, but it isn’t only there.

  9. Christiane says
    • Robert F says

      Rest in peace, Oscar Alberto Martinez and Angie Valeria. May the love of God heal you and raise you to eternal life. “Blessed are the poor.”

  10. john barry says

    Christiane, what part of the UK is this picture taken at? What type of parents would allow their minor children to be placed in this type of danger?

    • Robert F says

      Desperate parents.

    • It’s on the US-Mexico border. As Robert said, desperate parents. When you demonize people you dehumanize them. This shows they are really people, whom, presumably God cares about.

    • Christiane says

      Hello J.B.
      we have to deal with the picture, with the reality and the desperation that drives these refugees, and with the cost of our not helping them as we might in some better world than this

      the picture tells a story . . . . . we need to hear it now and not look away

  11. We taught the Scriptures. Sermons were expository analyses of biblical texts, sometimes going verse by verse and book by book.

    Mike, tell me if you were using irony about expository analyses. I find that exposition usually turns into “what the verses mean to me.”

    You said later that “the list of correct interpretations (which varies, depending upon which evangelical group you belong to), has in reality become the authority, and we are only allowed to read and interpret the Bible within that system.”

    Do you think there really are any expository sermons, other than raw word studies? There is a lot of stink made about expository preaching being the only correct way, but I find that, after the scripture reading, the sermon immediately wanders into the topical, with the preacher picking and choosing, steering his anecdotes and illustrations to prove a point he already had, and from within his own system. Maybe the scripture supports his topic, but I don’t often find that it’s the driving force in the sermon.

    Walt Kaiser of Gordon-Conwell seminary once quipped that he used to teach his students to preach topically every five years or so—and then to repent immediately. That’s cute, but I wonder how tightly he defined exposition.

    Were you kidding us there, or merely reporting that you guys believed in that method back then?

    • Ted, we were true believers in the method, though understandings of “the method” varied somewhat, and could allow for individual style. Walt Kaiser was one of my profs too. He came to the last congregation I served at the beginning of my ministry there and taught. Grant Osborne was my Greek professor at seminary and every major assignment and test ended with us having to write a sermon based on our exegesis of the text. John R. Stott used to preach every year at our school, and he was a hero at our institution for his way of sticking with the text while making it pastorally relevant. Don Carson was a hero of mine for his thoughtful and careful exegesis and teaching style of preaching. I have heard plenty of preachers take the path you’ve described, but that was not ever lauded by us. If anything, our problem was that sermons could turn too academic, dry, and scholastic for our congregations. I was taught to be SERIOUS about the text.

      • John Stott was one of my heroes too, but I only heard him speak on tapes.

        I’m glad that exegesis and expository preaching is still the goal. What you’ve described is what I’ve seen and heard in seminaries, exegeting from the Greek, etc, very academic; but I don’t think it happens much in the pulpit once the seminarian graduates and pastors a church.

        The 9Marks network insists upon expositional preaching (it’s the first in the list of nine, strangely) but its followers don’t hold very closely to it, as they’re busy with other agenda. Nor can anybody agree on whether it’s “expositional” or “expository,” but as that’s non-essential to the doctrine I can forgive it.

        Sorry. Sarcasm kicking in. First Baptist voting a week from Sunday on whether to install new pastor. Graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, adheres to 9Marks, CBMW, Danvers Statement, Nashville Statement. You know, all of the essentials.

        Whatever…

        • Christiane says

          all the ‘essentials’ . . . . . dear God have mercy

          • I know – as far as I can remember love was not on that list of essentials. What could be more essential?Right now my essentials go as far as the ancient creeds & love.