Beyond Born Again
Section III-- Can Evangelical Theology be Born Again?
Chapter 8: Biblical Ventriloquism
Carl F. H. Henry and others have called for creativity on the part of Evangelical theologians. Up to now, it seems, these theologians have occupied themselves chiefly with criticisms of other theological views. (Interestingly, this is not least true of Henry himself.) But now, we are told, Evangelicals must begin to offer creative alternatives. The outsider must wonder just what kind of theological creativity these Evangelicals can have in mind. Most of their criticisms of other positions are aimed at Liberal theolgians' creativity or innovativeness. Instead of creativity, faithfulness in handing on "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints" is prized by Evangelicals. If "faithfulness" in the sense of repetition is valued so by Evangelicals, what creativity could one expect from their theologians but creative new criticisms of other positions? And this is exactly what we do find in, e.g., David F. Well's The Search for Salvation or Gundry and Johnson's collection Tensions in Contemporary Theology.
Often Evangelicals can be heard to lament indignantly the fact that while they are open-minded enough to study Liberal texts, Liberals do not read Evangelical works. I believe that this is a pretty accurate perception. It is an unfortunate one, yet an understandable one. It seems to me that by and large Evangelical critiques of Liberal theology are not only repetitive and predictable, but also ineffective for various reasons. A Liberal will not be too far off if he concludes, "once you've read one, you've read 'em all," and then decides to read no further. Yet it need not be so. Reading the perceptive and constructive criticisms of outsiders would have to be beneficial to any position. I hope to point out a few dead ends in Evangelical polemics which often prevent Evangelicals from leveling really significant and helpful criticisms. In what follows, I do not mean to suggest that all Evangelical writers are prey to these errors, or that there is no important and cogent criticism being offered in their literature. I only wish to indicate a few false leads which presently prevent Evangelical theological critiques from being as helpful and to the point as they might be.
What is the function of Evangelical critiques? Though they may have resulted from an Evangelical scholar's serious interaction with Liberal theology, I believe that they come to function as excuses for most readers not to take Liberal theology seriously. One gets this feeling from the stereotyped and derivative way these arguments are often rehearsed in Evangelical literature. I get the impression that, e.g., conservative seminarians read these stock arguments and take them as a license henceforth either to ignore Liberal theologians, or to read them only to refute them. No one can know whetehr those Evangelical thinkers who originated these criticisms intended them to function this way. And if they do so function, this fact alone does not reflect on their cogency. They might be very fine arguments. But they often serve as reflexive defense mechanisms to protect the Evangelical position, in much the same way as the social avoidance tactics of Chapter 2 and the apologetical devices of Chapters 5- Chapters 7.
Consequently, much of the argument of the next two chapters aims at persuading the Evangelical reader to take a second look at Liberal theology. It may deserve more of a sympathetic hearing than he has been led to think. The present chapter will inevitably have implications for Evangelical theological methodology. (In it I scrutinize the Evangelical doctrine of scripture, since once articulated this doctrine is itself supposed to disqualify Liberal theology.) But in general my purpose here is not so much to criticize Evangelical theology as it is to clear away the obstacles which prevent serious attention to other views.
Evangelical theologians point to the Bible, the inspired Word of God, as the guarantor of their theological opinions. Whereas Liberal theological views have nothing to build on but the "sinking sands" of human opinion, the Evangelical can appeal to the Bible. His, we are to believe, is no mere human opinion. Thus Liberal theologians are ruled out of court on principle since they do not operate "in a scriptural manner."
What seems to go unnoticed in this argument is that the decision to believe in this propositional authority of the Bible is little more "objective" or self-evident than a preference for any other view of theological authority. When someone raises this point, apologists reply with a host of arguments for their view. Of course, this very response is a tacit admission that their choice of "biblical authority" is but one more debatable human opinion! Trying desperately to escape the circle of human subjectivity, Evangelicals claim that they unlike Liberals are only taking seriously "the Bible's own witness to itself" as verbally-inspired and infallible. These remarks are representative:
This argument is circular at three strategic points. First, let us grant for the sake of argument that biblical texts do "teach" such an estimate of themselves. How does one know to take this self-claim with the particular kind of seriousness advocated by Evangelicals? There are other ways of taking biblical texts seriously besides parroting their literal, propositional sense. David H. Kelsey demonstrates this in his ground-breaking work The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology. One has not really said anything when he claims that "the Bible is authoritative for my theology." Even demythologizing liberals sincerely make this claim. The question is a hermeneutical one: granted that the Bible is normative, precisely how is that norm to be applied? Normative symbols? Normative propositions? Normative linguistic "deep structures"? The choice of how one takes the Bible a normative is a theological decision made prior to one's opening of the Bible. Kelsey shows this to be true no less of Warfield than of Bultmann. One only need "take
seriously the biblical witness in the particular way Evangelicals do if one already reads biblical texts such as II Timonthy 3:16 from an Evangelical viewpoint! By contrast, a Neo-Orthodox or Lbieral theologian may have a doctrine of scriptural authority which logically leads him to bracket the literal, propositional reference of a text (supposedly) teaching verbal inspiration. Only if one already holds an Evangelical view of scripture does the literal claim of the texts seem to decide the issue! Once one opts for such a view of the authority of texts, one is free to decide issues like the "pre- versus post-tribulation Rapture" on this basis. But if the issue to be decided is the view of scripture itself, then quoting texts to decide the issue is clearly begging the question.
The second concentric circle of the Evangelical argument is closely related to the first. I call this the fallacy of the false monolith. Evangelical apologists beg the questions of the unity and boundaries of the canon when they argue in terms of the claims of "the Bible," i.e., one book in which claims made in one section automatically apply to all others. There is no such self-conscious unity. Such unity-uniformity is imposed from without by the Evangelical reader's doctrine of scripture. (Please note the difference between the notion of structural unity here, i.e., the Bible as one book with sixty-six chapters, and that of doctrinal unity, i.e., the absence of contradictions between the thought of various biblical writers. The latter question will concern us soon enough.) If the prophet Jeremiah claims "this is the Word of the Lord," is he referring also, e.g., to II Chronicles, or only to his own words? To assume the former one must also assume the canonical unity of the Bible as we know it. And, again, this is what is supposedly being proven.
The third ring in our theological circus concerns the exegesis of several texts in which the Bible is held to claim its own inspiration and infallibility. Once the "false monolith" is removed from consideration, it becomes apparent that several biblical writings are left on their own with no claim for inspiration at all, e.g., Proverbs, Samuel, Kings, Acts. Where we do find "claims for inspiration" in biblical texts, they are usually misapplied. Usually, they have nothing whatever to say about the production of inspired texts, which of course is the whole point at issue. For instance, there is an enormous number of passages in the Old Testament where a prophet announces that he is about to speak "the Word of the Lord." But do such statements say anything at all about the anonymous persons who at unknown dates recorded and compiled the prophet's oracles? Obviously not. There is no claim in these texts for an preservation of the prophetic books from error or falsification. These claims for prophetic inspiration simply do not refer to the later recording and editorial processes from which our biblical texts resulted. And remember, the Evangelical apologist is arguing precisely for the inspiration of the texts.
A similar fallacy occurs in the oft-heard argument that Jesus "authorized" the writing of inspired New Testament books in advanced.  The passage usually in mind here is John 16:13a: "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you [the disciples] into all truth." Notice, however, that this passage says nothing specifically about Jesus' hearers going on to write a set of inspired texts. Even if it did, there would still be trouble, since
most of the New Testament documents are not written by the original twelve disciples. Tradition ascribes Matthew, I and II Peter, I, II and III John, the fourth gospel, and the Revelation to three of the original twelve. But anyone at all conversant with current New Testament scholarship (as the apologists certainly must be) knows that these ascriptions are matters of serious debate. I am not assuming the traditional ascriptions to be in error; I only point out that these apologists could at the most say that John 16:13a probably, or possibly, "authorizes" the inspiration of some New Testament literature. This would be a rather feeble argument. Furthermore, the protest that Mark, Luke, and the writer to the Hebrews are "authorized associates" of the twelve is obviously no argument at all. Even the apologists can produce no saying of Jesus authorizing apprentices to write canonical books.
In all the above, it was not my intention to cast doubt on the inspiration of biblical books. I do not even deny that there are occasional claims by an individual writer that his own writing is inspired (e.g., I Corinthians 14:37). I am merely calling the apologists' bluff that all they are doing is to affirm the view of scripture "claimed by scripture for itself."
There is a slightly different form of this argument that deserves mention. Here it is contended that we can at least reconstruct and abide by the attitude toward (Old Testament) scripture held by Jesus and the apostles (or the early church). By saying "We hold Jesus' view of scripture," the Evangelical apologists really mean, "Jesus held our view of scripture." Did he? The theological apologists produce texts like "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35), or "It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law" (Luke 16:17). Even Liberals, who do not themselves hold such a view of scripture, are supposed to agree that Jesus believed scripture to be inerrant and inspired. The favorite Liberal to quote on this point is Bultmann, in Jesus and the Word:
So far, Bultmann sounds amazingly like John R. W. Stott or J. I. Packer! Isn't it odd that Evangelicals stop quoting Bultmann where they do? For instance why are we not told that Bultmann's historical judgement is that Jesus'
Ulrich Wilkens and Ernst Käsemann are only two of many other New Testament historians and exegetes who deny that Jesus' attitude toward scripture was purely one of obedient submission. Instead, they argue, Jesus felt free to set aside the demands of scripture on his own authority. Evangelicals themselves are not entirely unaware
of this attitude of Jesus. In fact in debates on the "deity of Christ" they constantly appeal to Jesus' sovereignity over the Law to prove that he claimed divine authority for himself! So depending on which point they are arguing at the moment, Evangelicals seem to attribute to Jesus two different attitudes toward scripture. But Evangelicals are hardly faithful to either one.
First, insofar as Jesus did abide by the authority of the Old Testament scriptures, he seemed to include adherence to Old Testament laws as well. This is certainly the plain sense of a passage often quoted by Evangelicals in this connection:
Yet those who, in obedience to such a text observe Old Testament laws (e.g., Seventh Day Adventists), are stigmatized by Evangelicals as heretics! Will the real adherent of Jesus' view of scripture please stand up?
When some Evangelicals emulate Jesus' freedom to set aside one biblical text in favor of the "weightier matters of the Law," they fare no better. In his treatment of the divorce question (Mark 10:2-9), Jesus sets aside one Pentateuchal passage (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) with another (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:24). Virginia Mollencott and Paul Jewett use the same hermeneutical device on the issue of equality for women, setting aside I Timothy 2:12 with Galations 3:28. Are their fellow Evangelicals happy about this? Far from it! Surely Jesus himself would have merited a chapter in some first-century Battle for the Torah!
There is yet another area in which Evangelicals conspicuously decline to affirm Jesus' and the apostles' view of scripture. Studies like Richard Longnecker's Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period make it clear that Jesus and early Christians made abundant use of rabbincal techniques such as midrash, raz pesher, and allegorizing in their exegesis. Very often these devices had little to do with the plain intent of the biblical writer, as even a casual glance at the Qumran commentaries or the first chapters of Matthew will show. Yet Evangelicals claim to espouse the grammatico-historical method, formulated in the Reformation to avoid such uncontrollable allegorizing and spiritualizing of texts. Surely these two would be unequally yoked together! This irony becomes painfully apparent in the frequent Evangelical citing of two New Testament passages:
These texts are cited as proof that Jesus and Paul believed in strictly verbal inspiration. They must have, so the argument runs, since they based the weight of entire theological arguments on the mere tense of a verb or the number of a noun. Perhaps so, but do Evangelicals really wish to swallow this kind of fanciful exegesis? In both cases the "exegetical" argument has left the plain sense of the Old Testament passage far behind! Can one consistently accept Jesus' and Paul's view of inspiration, and then reject the manner of using scripture that followed from it? It is not clear that only one of these things and not both would constitute a "view of scripture."
Apparent Contradictions are the Worst Kind
For most Evangelicals the Bible is a harmonious source book for doctrine. It yields "propositions" representative of "didactic thought models" (Pinnock) which when put together coherently form a normative system of doctrine.
The focus on scripture's authority here seems to be on the statements appearing in an inspired text. This is evidenced by the very term "propositional revelation," as well as by the distinction sometimes drawn to the effect that a biblical writer is infallible only when he writes, not otherwise. This is a parallel to the infallibility of the Pope speaking ex cathedra, and for obviously similiar apologetical reasons. Instead of gifted or inspired personalities, the important thing for the Evangelical is the inspired text. Otherwise, the endless haranguing about the alleged fact and nature of "plenary, verbal" inspiration as opposed to "conceptual" or some other kind of inspiration would make no sense.
The locus of authority in the text is also to be distinguished from a focus on the subject matter of the text. For example, Gerhard Maier deplores the distinction first made by Semler between the text of scripture and the Word of God. Instead, the Word of God should be identified with the text of scripture. Evangelicals ceaselessly protested the Neo-Orthodox claim that the Bible "contained" or "became" the Word of God. No, they said, the text is the revealed "Word of God written." "What scripture says, God says."
With this estimation of the scriptural text, hermeneutics would seem to consist of little more than exegesis. To be believed a statement need only appear in the text, at least theoretically. The recognition of theological disunity in the Bible would be absolutely fatal to such an understanding. Two "inspired" but contradictory statements
would neutralize each other and would take the criterion of authority (i.e., the presence of a statement in the text) with them. "If all inspiration guarantees us is that we get viewpoints that are contradictory, which ones are we to believe and how are we to know who is right, and who is wrong?" (Lindsell).  This is why all "apparent contradictions" are harmonized. "As for the principle of harmony, this... is dictated by the doctrine of inspiration, which tells us that the Scriptures are the products of a single divine mind." "Scripture should not be set against Scripture.... The expectation for this principle is the expectation that the teaching of the God of truth will prove to be consistent with itself" (Packer).  "Scripture is in agreement with itself. God who is eternal truth does not contradict Himself." (Pinnock). "Inasmuch as all Scripture is the product of a single divine mind, interpretation must stay within the bounds of the analogy of Scripture and eschew hypotheses that would correct on Biblical passage by another...." (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). "[Our] utter trust in Scripture-- in all that it teaches-- must govern the interpreter's practice, thus eliminating in principle any interpretation which sees the biblical texts as... self-contradictory" (Montgomery).  "We would assert... that there is no disagreement [e.g.] between Paul and James, and that such a principle of theological diversity destroys the doctrine of inspiration completely" (Ranald MacAulay and Jerram Barrs). 
Evangelical theologians profess to use the grammatico-historical method in discovering the straightforward meaning of texts since it is this "plain sense" of all texts that is to be believed. Yet it is obvious from the above statements that they are not free to do so. "Less clear" (i.e., theologically troublesome) texts may require "broader interpretation" (Montgomery) in the light of "more clear" texts. Evangelicals point out that if one recognized a "real contradiction" between two texts, both could not be believed, and an extra-biblical criterion of some sort would have to be employed in order to decide which one to believe. They think they avoid this trap by hiding behind "apparent" contradictions. Yet ironically it is just this kind of contradiction which must destroy a notion of biblical authority based on the "apparent" or "plain" sense of the text! The moment one admits that the "apparent" meaning of Text A cannot be accepted since it would conflict with Text B, one has surrendered the criterion of biblical authority, i.e., that the plain sense of any and all texts is normative. Thus "apparent contradictions" are actually fatal to the Evangelical schema, whereas "real contradictions" (whatever that would mean) are irrelevant!
A couple of brief examples are in order. In one turns to the New Testament for guidance on the question of divorce, he finds Mark allowing no excuse for divorce (Mark 10:11). But Matthew is a bit more lenient, allowing one legitimate pretext, i.e., adultery (Matthew 19:9). Well, it looks like these two texts are in conflict. But surely the real meaning of one of them lies deeper than the surface meaning! Perhaps a less obvious meaning would make one passage echo the teaching of the other! All right, but wasn't it supposed to be the "apparent sense" of both that was normative? And how are you going to decide which text's "apparently contradictory" meaning is to harmonize into the other's "plain sense"? If you choose Matthew's version, you negate Mark's, since it cannot be correct to say there
is no legitimate excuse for divorce if it turns out there is one good excuse after all. (And note that Matthew realized this and changed the wording of the scribal question accordingly!)
Another example would be the question of "mountain-moving faith." Pentecostals such as Kenneth Hagin take as normative the plain meaning of Mark 11:24. Any request will be granted. Calmer Evangelicals remind their brethren that I John 5:14 adds a qualification: God will only answer requests that are "according to his will" anyway. The two texts do not agree. The blanket promise of Mark 11:24 would change in meaning completely if this "catch 22" were intended. Non-Pentecostals assume in effect that Mark (and Jesus) really did have this "God's will" qualification in mind-- it just isn't apparent. Uh-oh! Then the normative "real meaning" of the Marcan passage is not the "apparent sense"! How do we know? Because we prefer the apparent sense of brethren that I John 5:14 with its level-headed common sense.
The Evangelicals end up doing exactly what they criticize Käsemann and others for doing; they harmonize one text into another instead of believing both. They do so on the basis of doctrinal preference:
One could ask for no better example of a "canon within the canon"!
As they often do, Evangelicals here adopt an all-or-nothing stance. If the Bible is not in complete agreement, it might as well be in complete disagreement. The mirror image of their position is that of Walter Kaufmann:
Kaufmann and Evangelicals agree that without a uniform message "from cover to cover," any theological use made of the Bible would be completely arbitrary. However, the attempted solution of Evangelicals turns out to be no more adequate than the "dead ends" they decry.
But as the same writer admits, "This may be easier said than demonstrated...." (John H. Gerstner)
The Evangelical claim is that their doctrine of scripture gives them virtual immunity from subjectivism and qualitative superiority over Liberal theologies. Yet the doctrine only serves to lengthen the line of defense. Not only is their doctrine of scripture not self-evidently the only proper option; in addition it falls prey to
fatal self-contradiction. One must sacrifice some texts to defend the authority of all texts! Thus it is the peculiar bane of this doctrine of scripture that, in order to defend it, one must betray it!
About now some readers may be protesting, "But surely not all Evangelicals employ this model of biblical authority! What about Theologian A, or Exegete B?" I hope that by this, such a reader does not intend to throw Pinnock, Packer, Montgomery, et al., to the wolves, claiming that they do not represent "true Evangelicalism." No, it must be admitted that the writers dealt with in this chapter are influential spokesmen representing many if not most Evangelicals. Bickering about who are the "real Evangelicals" only confuses the issue. My objective is to critique one particular model of scriptural authority. As a matter of fact, it happesn to be the most common one among Evangelicals, and it is quite often used by its adherents as a yardstick with which to disqualify Liberal theologies.
But there is a new trend among some Evangelical theologians. Of late there has been a shift toward Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy, at least on the scripture question, among some Evangelicals, such as G. C. Berkouwer and Donald G. Bloesch. Karl Barth had maintained that the Bible itself is not the Word of God but rather contains or becomes the Word insofar as it witnesses to Jesus Christ, the true and unequivocal Word of God. Berkouwer's important work Holy Scripture is moving in the same direction. Much of his book is taken up with demonstrating how the traditional predicates of scripture ("infallibility," "perspicuity," etc.) really refer to the salvific message of scripture, not all the incidentals. Similarly Bloesch in his Essentials of Evangelical Theology, announces that "Jesus Christ and the message about him constitute the material norm of our faith.... The Bible is authoritative because it points beyond itself to the... living and transcendent Word of God."
Critics sympathetic to Barth, Colin Brown for one, warned their fellow Evangelicals not to be overly upset at Barth's doctrine of scripture. Even though it was theoretically inadequate (i.e., non-Evangelical), in practice Barth used scripture texts in much the same way he would if he had believed in verbal inspiration. "O happy fault!" Bloesch pointed out this very inconsistency in an earlier book: "In practice Barth seems to take for granted the essential reliability and trustworthiness of Scripture, but in principle he allows for errors even in the matters of theological judgement" (The Evangelical Renaissance). The point is that Brown, Bloesch, and others saw an inconsistency here: though Barth used scripture as an Evangelical would, his doctrine of scripture could not justify such a use, since Barth held scripture to be infallible only regarding the rudimentary gospel message. Interestingly, now some of these same writers have moved in a Barthian direction, and, ironically, they are becoming guilty of the very same contradiction!
Bloesch himself now writes that "not all Scripture attests equally to the incarnation and atoning work of Jesus Christ, to the Gospel of reconciliation and redemption, which is the formal norm of Scripture."  He even calls this "formal norm" a "canon within the canon." The implications for the secondary elements are clear:
What is the result of this fact for the theological use of the Bible? "It is inadmissible to treat the Bible as though it were a sourcebook of revealed truths that can be drawn out of Scripture by deductive or inductive logic."  Yet, shades of Barth, this is precisely how Bloesch goes on to use the Bible! Citing texts from this and that corner of scripture, Bloesch maps out, e.g., the relations between heaven, hell, sheol, paradise, and the millenium. He could never press the Bible for such detailed information if he didn't consider it some kind of metaphysical encyclopedia, the very notion which (if language means anything) he has disavowed! The fact that Bloesch fails to accept the implications of his new approach to scripture is doubly odd since he had pointed out this very inconsistency in Barth!
Those Evangelicals who look to theologians like Berkouwer and Bloesch to deliver them from the headaches of the Packer-Montgomery model msut not imagine that their accustomed use of scripture (to settle secondary points of doctrine) can remain unchanged. In the final chapter I will note the views of some Evangelicals who have begun to face the implications of a new model of biblical authority.
"Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity" is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
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