Tag Archives: Scripture

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.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s a Baptist to Do with Tradition?

by Kevin Hester

I can’t remember when I heard the pithy quote, “tradition is a good guide but a poor taskmaster.” Subsequent attempts to find the derivation of the quote have been fruitless. However, the quote seems to capture the general, Baptist approach to anything viewed as established practice.

When my Baptist friends use the word “tradition” in the context of a discussion about the church, many of them use the term incorrectly. Either, they view it as a mostly negative way of referencing the general approach to method and practice in the context of corporate worship or as a mostly positive signifier of Baptist, Protestant ideals. In the first sense, “tradition” really only means the complex set of characteristics of low-church Protestant worship that developed in America after the Second Great Awakening. This “tradition” is, therefore, something in need of correcting and modernizing. Tradition in this light has come to signify a particularly conservative position in the ongoing worship debates of modern Evangelicalism. In the second sense, tradition is used more correctly but dates no further back than the 16th century (and often in reality no further than the late 19th century). They give lip service to Luther, Calvin, and the Puritan Divines, but tradition in their sense is always Western, European, and Protestant.

As a historical theologian who specializes in the late patristic and early medieval period, I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history. I have come to understand that this is largely the result of ignorance of church history before the Protestant Reformation and a misunderstanding of the role of tradition. While I can do little in this short space to rectify the former, I can at least speak to the latter.

Tradition and Traditionalism

Part of the problem is a confusion of tradition with traditionalism. As Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

Traditionalism is the unthinking preservation of habit, just because. Tradition is the passing down of truth in contextually meaningful ways. Traditionalism is trapped in the amber of memory. While tradition isn’t timeless, it seeks to preserve meaningful truths in ways that renew them for each subsequent generation. Where traditionalism divides us from the culture, tradition clasps hands with the past and the future. Tradition forms and informs our faith as it flows out of the corporate body’s experience of faith in the application of Scripture to its historical context. Robust biblical exegesis must be coupled with a critical awareness of the past.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

What many of my Baptist peers have missed is that between the ascension of Christ and the Protestant Reformation, a great number of believers have worked to know Christ and to make him known. They lived out a biblical faith in the midst of an often inimical culture and sometimes in the face of corruption and misinterpretation of their church. A real emphasis on tradition should break through the oligarchy of the sixteenth century and give voice to all members of the faithful cloud of witnesses.

If tradition is to be understood this broadly, it is important for us to understand just what that tradition entails. Within the Christian church, tradition typically has reference to two primary areas: liturgy and doctrine. Liturgy, or corporate worship, is an important cultural marker of the church and has the capacity to unite the modern church with the church throughout the ages. However, liturgy is also culturally shaped and intricately connected with significant theological distinctives that have come to be expressed in corporate worship. Because of this, a holistic embracing of liturgical tradition in Baptist circles is necessarily limited to its Puritan and Protestant forbearers and what can be gathered from the practices of the earliest Christian communities. Such focus must always account for Protestant and Baptist emphases such as the regulative principle and the priesthood of all believers.

However, Baptists must understand that theological tradition is definitional in nature. The rule or deposit of the faith is the church’s expression of basic biblical truth in creedal form. Such teachings were early identified with the Gospel itself and used to combat early heresies before being reified in the ecumenical creeds. This is not to say that the creeds of early Christianity are normative or prescriptive in the same way that Scripture is normative. But it is to say that Baptists should pay careful and close attention to the Vincentian canon (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all). Such an understanding is a helpful, minimalist expression of the dogma of the Christian church and allows us to more easily differentiate between true and false tradition.

Tradition and Scripture

John Henry Cardinal Newman presented the Roman Catholic perspective of tradition in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845). In this work he argues that the Holy Spirit works within the church broadly to guide development in doctrine and practice. Such guidance when broadly recognized by the church body becomes normative as a secondary means of inspiration. This tradition clearly lies outside the Protestant principle of sola scriptura.

What Newman misses is that development can sometimes lead to discontinuity. Even well-meaning Christians sometimes fall into error and Scripture cautions us to always weigh our thinking with its teachings (I Th. 5:21, Rev. 2:2). After all, not all heretics intended to be evil schismatics. But if church history teaches us anything, it teaches us that redeemed humanity continues to struggle with the effects of depravity even, if not especially, upon the mind. This is why the Protestant church, though committed to tradition, must always be ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church always to be reformed).

Newman’s other assertion is that the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura means that each individual exercises only “private judgment” in his or her interpretation and exercised undue privilege over the text. His slippery-slope accusation is that without the magisterium of the church there is no norm to the interpretation of Scripture and “each one does what is right in his own eyes.”

However, Protestants have always taught not only the perspicuity of Scripture but also that scriptura sui ipsius interpres (scripture is its own interpreter). The norm is then the Holy Spirit working through His own words in Scripture. Tradition exercises a role in the interpretive process which is why our theology takes place in a long line of orthodox interpretation as presented in the creeds and in living faith communities that are committed to the inspiration of scripture and its sufficiency to answer the needs of the church in all ages. Scripture is the anchor of tradition. Where development occurs it takes place only in light of the biblical norm.

Baptists, therefore, must navigate between two extremes. We must seek a middle way between jettisoning all tradition on the one hand and treating it as inspired on the other. We must know our own history. We must give a voice and vote to all the Christians of the past. We must read them with a critical eye, but should bend the same criticism toward our own theology. We owe it to the Tradition to be always reforming, but to be always reformed only by Scripture.

Why Do They Take the Bible Seriously?

by W. Jackson Watts

 

Recently our church baptized and welcomed into membership a couple who had been converted earlier this year. They had attended the church for well over a year, during which they developed a clearer understanding of the Gospel. Eventually they realized that their earlier professions of faith had been rooted in something besides the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, and finally they trusted in Him.

All Christians should be overwhelmed anytime a person ever responds positively to the Gospel of Christ. Additionally, it is humbling that God chooses the foolishness of preaching to elicit faith and repentance in people’s lives. However, it is equally humbling (and surprising) to see what sometimes transpires in the earliest stages of discipleship.

In the case of the aforementioned couple, and in many more instances, we often discover that new believers seem to eagerly latch on to what are sometimes seen as contested and controversial truths. Some of these Christian teachings include the complementarian view of gender roles in the church and home, the penal substitutionary view of atonement, and the inerrancy of Scripture. Such teachings separate Christians and entire denominations from others. Yet it often seems to be the case that new converts embrace the teachings of the church family in which they have been saved, even if they are doctrines which do not enjoy uniform support across confessional Christian groups.

Social scientists would simply refer to this as “socialization” in which we find individuals that are new to a group tend to adopt the beliefs and mores of the herd. Others may reduce it to a naïve willingness to entrust one’s mind to the faith community simply to be filled with whatever is thought to be true. There may be other explanations as well, or some combination of factors which contribute to new converts’ ability to adopt contested doctrines.

Admittedly, my own view is anecdotal and not driven by empirical research. However, I’d like to focus on one key doctrine—the inspiration and authority of Scripture—and offer two reasons why I think new converts often embrace a high view of the Bible. This subject is worth thinking about as we try to develop a strategy for catechesis. How much time do you spend on each doctrine in a new believers’ course, for instance? By considering how this doctrine is received by new believers, we may receive insight into how it might be further developed and taught to Christians in their initial stages of discipleship.

  1. When Jesus is taken seriously, the Bible is taken seriously.

A new convert recognizes that they have been saved not by a generic belief in God or confidence in self, but in a total surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how basic their understanding of the Gospel is, they will have been presented with a biblical understanding of human nature, sin, Christ, and salvation. Often the evangelist, regardless of the setting, will have either held a Bible or shared verses directly from it. In instances where people attended worship services for a lengthy period of time before trusting Christ, they will have heard numerous sermons, songs, and prayers populated with biblical truths. Because of this, it’s very likely that upon being saved they would possess at least some of the mental and spiritual architecture necessary to embrace a high view of Scripture.

Intentional instruction on the Christian view of Scripture should still take place despite the pieces already in place in the new believer’s heart and mind. In no time, unsaved friends, family members, or a History Channel documentary will undermine their budding conviction of God’s Word. So for apologetic and the purpose of spiritual formation, it is wise and necessary that we help new converts learn the Bible (what it says and how it applies) and learn about the Bible (how we got it). But thankfully, people often make the connection between the Jesus who saves and the words from Jesus you can rely upon.

  1. When the Spirit works, God’s Word is at work.

As I noted in a previous post, “without the Holy Spirit, no human being will be saved.” The faithful Christian must regularly pray, teach, think, and live with this truth in mind. But it is equally significant that we apply this to the nature of conversion.

First Corinthians 2:12 reminds us that “now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” Later in verse 14, Paul asserts, “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

We find a link established in these verses between the Holy Spirit and the understanding and acceptance of truth that comes through His work in a believer. In the larger context of this passage, Paul demonstrates how the Gospel confounds all forms of earthly wisdom and power as it comes to us in the form of the suffering Christ. Therefore, we can see that the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to accept this Christ is the same Spirit who regenerates us when we profess faith in Christ. It is the same Holy Spirit who “carried along” the prophets and apostles (cf. 2 Pt. 1:21). And since the Word of God is inspired (regardless of whether a hearer knows or accepts this), it seems to explain why a truly converted person gravitates toward a high view of Scripture: The Holy Spirit intends to move them in that direction.

Conclusion

These reasons certainly don’t exhaust or completely account for this pattern that I and others have observed over the years. However, it should offer us pause as we praise God for the unity between the Triune God’s work in salvation, and His involvement in developing our convictions about His Word.