Interpreting Doctrinal Statements in a Shifting Evangelical Landscape

by Kevin Hester

Recently, I have been working with an ad hoc committee for an evangelical organization tasked with considering admission standards. For many years, this organization has espoused a basic Evangelical statement of faith as the basis for membership. Institutions and groups have been asked to sign the statement yearly to indicate continued compliance. But recently, some groups not typically associated with mainstream evangelicalism, have approached the body expressing an interest in membership. This has served to raise the question of what is meant by mainstream evangelicalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Is there a fracture occurring? Are lines being redrawn that will exclude former evangelicals and include others not previously represented? What has been heartening about this discussion in this group is seeing both a commitment to traditional evangelical orthodoxy and to objective truth. The desire to be inclusive has not overridden a commitment to basic Biblical doctrine.

Context of the Problem

What has become apparent in our discussion is that evangelicalism is shifting. And our organization is trying to keep up. What we have noticed is that a simple doctrinal statement may simply not be enough. The issue has become an interpretive question. How a doctrinal statement is interpreted has become as important as the creedal confession. Our response to this point has been to suggest an additional document defining terms and seeking to bring clarity to what had previously been universally understood. What was formerly a question of integrity has now additionally become a question of interpretation.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. The basic historical, grammatical method of interpretation has been the mainstay of evangelicalism. I would say it still is. But in the midst of postmodern interpretive methods and societal pressures on the traditional exegesis of particular passages of Scripture, new or different, battle lines are being drawn.

Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Infallibility

Unfortunately, some Arminians seem to be contributing to this problem. I was reminded of this truth when I read a recent article by Roger Olson. In it, he argues that evangelicals should move beyond more exclusive language about Scripture and follow him in embracing the infallibility of Scripture rather than the traditional inerrancy of Scripture. “Inspiration,” a word he readily uses, is seen to apply to the human authors of Scripture rather than the very words of Scripture themselves. Thus, his denial of a traditional evangelical approach to Scripture is an “interpretive” question. Olson posits that inspiration assures the infallibility of the purpose of Scripture, but not the inerrancy of the content.

Norman Geisler, general editor for Defending Inerrancy was quick to respond. Geisler argues that statements like Olson’s miss the point that infallibility necessarily implies inerrancy. Else, how could such a document ever be a reliable source of any kind of truth? The correspondence view of truth requires Scripture to correspond to reality. The intellectual content of belief assumes that for Scripture to serve its purpose of salvation (a purpose Olson accepts) it must also be true.

The kind of hermeneutics that can embrace an infallible, but not inerrant Scripture is, in the words of Geisler, “subjective mysticism” rather than an “objective hermeneutic.” Here, I believe that Geisler has hit squarely upon the issue facing evangelicals today.

Evangelicals are specifically a people of the book. We embrace scripture as inspired and infallible. Traditionally, we have also argued for its inerrancy. The question is now one of how these important terms are interpreted. As important as ascribing to a doctrine of Scripture is also the question of the hermeneutic that will be applied. The framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) recognized this as well. This is why just a few years after the publication of their document on inerrancy, they followed it with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982).

Historical, Grammatical Hermeneutics and Inerrancy

Article 15 of this document is clear that the historical, grammatical interpretation of Scripture is foundational for any understanding of inspiration and is the basis for the inerrancy of the original manuscripts. It reads, “WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”

Article 20 goes on to state, “WE AFFIRM that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else.” Herein, lies the need for a historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic, not only in reference to Scripture, but also in reference to historical expressions of orthodox creeds and evangelical statements of faith. Words are not simply signifiers devoid of content until that content is supplied by a context of modern interpreters. Words have meaning in the instance of their formulation in creeds and statements of faith. These very words then can only mean what the original framers meant for them to mean.

If evangelicals fail to realize the interpretive questions that lie behind their historical statements of belief, the shifting theological landscape and the rains of culture will erode the meaning of these definitional statements until only a husk remains. A proper historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic is just as important as proper statements of faith in preserving theological integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Interpreting Doctrinal Statements in a Shifting Evangelical Landscape”

  1. Thanks for these thoughts. I stumbled across the Olsen article a month or so ago and was disturbed (although not surprised) by his position. My first thought was that he is giving more validity to these “alternate” definitions than is truly the case. You know the evangelical landscape better than I do–is there a great deal of scholars who hold to these nuanced views of inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy? The fact that you address the issue makes me think that more scholars do than what I thought. Would you feel comfortable giving a percentage (“I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that ___% of evangelical commentators, professors, pastors agree with Olson.”)? Thanks again.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2015/11/is-the-bible-inerrant-or-infallible/

  2. Daniel:

    I’m not sure I could give you a good percentage. It is, as always, a perception and is driven by how one interprets the term “evangelical.” If you mean say members of the Evangelical Theological Society I would presume at least 90% would hold to something resembling a Free Will Baptist perspective on this issue. Olson is not a member and his views would preclude membership (a topic about which he has also written).

    If we use a broader definition then the case becomes more muddled. Recent Barna polls have indicated that 25% of the american population self-identify as “evangelical.” If one takes this broad a definition I would presume 50-60% of them would embrace inerrancy.

    Perhaps the best indicator of the current and future state of evangelicalism broadly construed can be found in recent Barna polls of the Millennials which seem to indicate about 40% of this population embraces inerrancy.

    See: https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/687-millennials-and-the-bible-3-surprising-insights#.Vp5uFvkrLIU

    This is something we definitely need to be talking to our congregations and our youth groups about.

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