Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What Evangelicals Believe: Part III

Article 3 of my seminary's Statement of Faith reads, "Scripture is an essential part and trustworthy record of this divine self-disclosure. All the books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, are the written word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. They are to be interpreted according to their context and purpose and in reverent obedience to the Lord who speaks through them in living power."

Adherence to the Bible is absolutely essential for the evangelical Christian. In What We Evangelicals Believe, the author, a former president of this seminary, affirms that this article declares that "the Scriptures are precisely what God wanted them to be." (p. 47) Yet, oddly enough, Article 3 is arguably the part of the Statement of Faith that has created the most controversy. This is due to a revision from the original version of the seminary's Statement of Faith, in which the analogous paragraph said, "The books which form the canon of the Old and New Testaments as originally given are plenarily inspired and free from all error in the whole and in the part. These books constitute the written Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice."

The Statement was revised in quite a number of ways, intended to keep the guiding doctrine of the seminary up to date with the times while true to foundational intentions for evagelical study in an academically rigorous framework. However, in the revision to this part of the Statement of Faith, the seminary chose to drop the phrase "free from all error in the whole and in the part." Phrases like these are still something of a litmus test among conservative churches and institutions. To many, if "inerrancy" is challenged, the authority of the whole Bible is lost. This is, needless to say, not my seminary's position.

The controversy that arose from this omission was the centerpiece for a book entitled The Battle for the Bible, which argued that "inerrancy" was a doctrine without which one could not be considered "evangelical." Shortly before this book was published (in 1976), the author of What We Evangelicals Believe, having been the seminary president for over 12 years at the time, gave a chapel address to the seminary staff and students, in an effort to prepare them for the controversy which would follow. This speech is collected in a work collecting many speeches important to this seminary's history, edited by our former provost, and for which I had the honor of transcribing many of the speeches contained therein from the original audio recordings. In the speech, the president did not seek to defend the seminary's stance in dropping the term "inerrant." Rather, he spoke to defend the seminary's right to continue to call themselves "evangelical," despite the statements in The Battle for the Bible to the contrary.

Here are some excerpts:
Evangelical unity has been threatened by what I must consider narrow definitions of the term "evangelical." This large and cherished word must never be given a sectarian meaning. (Voices, p. 71)

The purpose of our scholarship is not to destroy, but to build up. It is not to lay bare the humanity of the Bible, but to expose the way in which the Spirit of God used the humanity of the Scripture in order to bring us the truth. (Voices, p. 73)

Once we are committed to engage in intellectual dialogue with various academic disciplines, particularly the historical and behavioral sciences, there is no way to back out of the responsibilities of using all the tools and methods of investigation open to us as scholars. Of course, faith and scholarship will go hand-in-hand; but one can never substitute for the other. It is particularly important that we not use the tools of scholarship to buttress our confidence in the teaching of the Scripture, when at the same time we reject them if they call for the correction of some of our traditional interpretations. (Voices, p. 74)

We cannot spare the time to defend our right to call ourselves evangelicals. The Lord knows who are his. We have heard him call us by name. We stand humbly and gratefully in the company of his people....We need only to be reminded that it's not enough to brand ourselves "evangelicals," we must be about our evangelical tasks.

...My basic thesis [is] that we must never use the term evangelical without our hearing the ring of the gospel in it. A seminary, a church, or a person can be evangelical only when bearing these marks:
  • Loyalty to the content of the gospel, including the reality of the incarnation; the centrality of the cross; the triumph of the resurrection; the hope of Christ's return, confidence in the power of the gospel to cut to the heart of our basic human problems and to call men and women to be reconciled to God;
  • Motivation by the spirit of the gospel, expressed especially in our love--despite our differences of race or color, occupation or education, interests or traits, habits or standards;
  • Control by the demands of the gospel, including the demand to go into the world making disciples and the demand to teach these disciples the things that Christ commanded, including God's concern for human need in every form. (Voices, p. 76)
Although What We Evangelicals Believe, written years later, does not explicitly mention the controversy created by Article 3, surely some of it was still in the author's mind when he wrote the book:
Scriptures are to be used in light of their context. Every part of God's word was given in a human situation and written by human hands. Whether the need was a psalm for prayer in sickness, proverbs to help with the raising of children, parables to understand the kingdom of God... every part of Scripture was given to meet a specific human need.

Understanding that context and purpose brings us closer to understanding God's word. The human setting of the divine word is not a limitation but a strength. God has deliberately bent over to speak our language and to meet our needs. (pp. 49-50)
If statements like these do not display an "evangelical" (from a Greek term often translated as "good news") mindset, I'm not sure what would....

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