Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Evangelical Conversation about the Bible

This week I'm reflecting on the role of scripture in the life of the church, especially as that conversation is playing out among evangelicals. Two recent books have come my way, Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008), and James D. G. Dunn's The Living Word (2nd ed.; Fortress, 2009). I'm interested in these conversations because (1) I'm still an evangelical in my piety and was an actual evangelical for much of my life and (2) I believe we mainline Christians might learn something from this conversation. Oh, and (3): I have a word for my evangelical brothers and sisters: come on in, the water's fine!

What on earth am I talking about? A little background. The 1970s saw the emergence of a new wave of Bible wars among evangelicals, particularly involving the notion of biblical inerrancy, the idea that whatever the Bible teaches on any topic is necessarily true. Evangelicals who did not confess inerrancy often found themselves marginalized or even fired from their positions.

Nevertheless, many evangelicals never found themselves satisfied with the inerrancy position. They knew several things. In particular, they knew Christians don't apply all of the Bible's teaching. None of us do. We borrow at interest (prohibited in scripture) and oppose slave labor (legitimized in scripture). And sometimes they knew it was time for the churches to move beyond the literal words of the Bible and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, as in the case of women's equality and leadership. No surprises for us progressive mainline people yet.

But being evangelicals, people like McKnight and Dunn have turned to the Bible to articulate their position. Here they have some things to teach us. The Bible, both scholars demonstrate is not -- and never was -- static. Biblical figures, including "minor" characters like Jesus and Paul, regarded scripture as a living tradition to be appropriated in new and fresh ways in emergent contexts. This explains one major event related in the New Testament, the full inclusion of Gentiles without their conversion to Judaism. Scripture never authorized such a thing, but the Holy Spirit sure did (see Acts 10-11 and Galatians 3:1-5 for this line of thought).

Dunn and McKnight use different language for this phenomenon, but they're both on the same trail. Dunn regards scripture as a "living word," never finally fixed by an ancient context in its potential relevance for us today. McKnight regards the Bible as a huge story about God's ways in the world. Rather than cook the Bible down to doctrine nuggets, faithful readers are to recognize that God spoke to in one way to Moses in Moses' day, in another to Paul in Paul's day, and in still another to us in our day. For both Dunn and McKnight, the Bible's word for today emerges in conversation with its word "back then" -- but it is not limited to its "back then" meaning. Scripture, then, is a living word.

We mainliners will do well to attend to these arguments. Both Dunn and McKnight provide richly detailed examples of how the biblical authors themselves regarded scripture as living and dynamic, how they adapted earlier texts to their own days. It's a wonderful model for interpreting the Bible, and I recommend it highly.

But I also want to extend an invitation to my evangelical colleagues. Come on in, the water's fine! Both Dunn and McKnight shy away from what they really know. (It's clear they really know what I'm about to say, but they just don't go there.) Sometimes the Bible itself is the problem. Some aspects of scripture simply don't represent God's word for any time. I don't believe God ever told Saul to slaughter all the Amalekites -- and their cattle! I don't believe God ever provided a trial by ordeal for women accused of premarital sex. I don't believe God ever wanted a slave code. And I don't believe God ever inspired Hosea to compare God's love for Israel to a husband who beats and exposes his unfaithful wife. I don't believe those things. And I suppose Dunn and McKnight don't, either.

It's time, in churches liberal and evangelical. Time for brutal honesty. We do hear the word of God in scripture. It challenges us, it inspires us, it teaches and corrects us. It is truly a living word. But it does not always convey God's word -- not for then, not for now. And that's okay. The water's fine.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post, Greg. Having graduated from Fuller Seminary's M.Div. program en route to my academic career in biblical studies, I have felt the need for this discussion up close.

By the way, I recently received one of your own books (Ultimate Things) and hope to review it on my blog in the not too distant future. Looks great so far! :)

Sean said...

Thanks for the notes Greg. As someone who finds himself within the evangelical camp (but keep that quiet or I'll be expelled from my friendship circle), I'm just curious as to how we then decide what faithfully represents God, and what doesn't? I mean, I want to agree with you, but its the question of method that has me cautious. It can't just be a subjective choice.

Does that make sense?

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