Iron Age Evangelicalism: How Veneration of the Bible has Hurt the Church

Well, it’s been one of those weeks. I sprained my back badly a month ago, so I’ve been dealing with nagging pain, making it hard to concentrate on a number of things and get any work done. In addition, my attempts to address the church’s responsibility towards social justice online have been met with contempt, anger and accusations of heresy from evangelicals that have read my comments. It can be downright discouraging.

I’ve addressed some of what I believe are the underlying reasons for evangelical hostility to social justice in a couple of previous posts. I’d like to discuss an issue that has broader implications for evangelical theology and social interaction: that of their views on the ontology of scripture itself. The underlying principal for the Protestant critique and eventual separation from Catholicism was a renewed emphasis on the canonical scripture: the Bible.

As a result “sola scriptura” became the Protestant battle cry. Unfortunately, that has led to some stagnation in the Protestant church. It would seem ironic, that a renewed enthusiasm for scripture would actually impede the church from growing spiritually, but I believe it has. Over and over last week I heard the complaint that “social justice” wasn’t in the Bible, or that it wasn’t biblical. That it was the “spirit of this age,” that the government has no right to force us to subsidize the poor, etc.. Of course, this was similar to Christian complaints against abolition preceding the American Civil War.

I think the reason for this vehement denial lies in the way evangelicals, especially those that are closet fundamentalists, venerate scripture. Scripture is the final word, literally. There is no need to improve, how could one possibly improve upon God’s very own words? In a word, evangelicals tend to get stuck in the Iron Age, or even the Bronze Age. The sociological mores, ethical and moral situations and solutions of 2-3 thousand years ago, become, de facto, God’s solutions. This has caused all sorts of problems when it comes to social justice, from slavery, to women’s equality, Gay rights and the death penalty.

The veneration of scripture has, in some reformed traditions, especially among Calvinists, effectively replaced the work of the Holy Spirit. Cessationists like John MacArthur, believe much of the prophetic work of the Holy Spirit ended after the Apostolic Age. The prophetic function of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers and the subsequent corrections for the church are viewed with suspicion and criticized as too subjective. Additionally, the Bible has, in evangelical parlance, replaced, or is given much greater attention as the “Word of God,” than Jesus himself as the Word of God.

When the church views scripture in this fashion, ethics get “frozen in time.” Women are forever subordinate to men, Gays are always an “abomination,” war becomes “just,” the death penalty becomes justifiable, killing one’s enemies becomes a part of the Kingdom narrative and God’s “final solution” involves violence. As a result, the church becomes unable to respond in a relevant way to changing social events. This is what the “culture wars” are about: the church’s inadequacy to deal with change.

Following the Bible is vastly different than following Jesus. The Bible is not a repository of “facts” about God, nor is it a definitive guide to “Christian living and ethics.” It points to something much greater than itself. In our churches we should have more “Jesus study” than “Bible study.” This would involve grappling with an ever changing social and political environment and asking how would the Holy Spirit have us respond in a way that does justice and shows love and mercy. It would be WWJD on steroids. Jesus becomes the touchstone for us rather than the Bible itself.

Unfortunately, the inability of much of the church to think further than the Iron Age, or the 16th century reformers reinterpretation of the Bible has made the gospel message largely irrelevant. Reformed theologians can’t seem to move past the shadow of John Calvin, regurgitating the same thoughts over and over again. This is not how the church should move forward in the 21st century. This is not how the church should meet new challenges. We need to be looking forward, not backward. If not, evangelicalism a century from now will be viewed as a short-lived stumbling block to the Kingdom of God and not a major contributor to its furtherance. 

2 thoughts on “Iron Age Evangelicalism: How Veneration of the Bible has Hurt the Church

  1. There must be something in the water, because this topic has come up a lot for me in the past few weeks. Maybe God is trying to tell me something, or maybe the contingencies of our present day are making this topic more widespread as people evaluate it. Literally, the thing I did right before coming to read your article was send an email to a friend and, in it, talking about the Church’s growth in understanding and virtue, I said, “Sometimes the Bible has been an obstacle in this process just as much as a help.” And then I came straight here and read this.

    Let me first encourage you. I’m sure the same people who gave you a hard time about social justice aren’t going to be super thrilled with this article, either. But it’s in the Spirit’s hands. Not everyone who is persecuted by their religious peers for challenging the status quo is a prophet speaking for God, but it’s notable that every prophet speaking for God challenging the status quo was persecuted by their religious peers.

    You are being faithful by speaking to the Church what is in your heart to help bring her back around to her Lord Jesus. That doesn’t make either of us right, but it does mean that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. The danger is, of course, when we become so sure of our rightness that we cannot also be spoken to and critiqued, and I have never seen that from you.

    Anyhow, with regard to this topic, the Word of God is Jesus and the primary means of experiencing Jesus is his presence in the Holy Spirit, which we each have as individuals and share communally. The Bible, useful as it is, is a by-product of this process. Disciples followed Jesus before there was a Bible. The good news of the Kingdom, the living Word of God – these things were all present among believers before Paul wrote a single letter.

    One of the things that goes along with evangelical worship of the Bible is also a radical individualization of faith. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons is that the communal gift of the Spirit is one of the safeguards against people going nuts. As we look at the history of Protestant splintering, it’s almost never because someone had a private revelation of the Spirit – it’s almost always because someone had a differing interpretation of the Bible, and since the Bible is our final authority in faith and life, well… on this I stand, I can do no other, everyone is a Martin Luther in their own mind.

    Man, I feel an essay coming on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • —Amen! I have of late, been a lot less concerned with “orthodoxy,” especially when I can see how little doctrinal purity has positively affected the world. It seems like doctrine is designed to separate and create hierarchies within the church. It’s not that doctrine is unimportant, it’s just that it is subservient to orthopraxy and Kingdom living. Because the reformers put such a heavy emphasis on scriptural authority, spirituality took a major hit. I have seen over and over again how the Holy Spirit has been left out in favor of a wooden, flat interpretation of Scripture. Without the Spirit scripture easily becomes a weapon.
      —I was asked recently by a friend on Patheos, how to become more spiritual. My past answer would have been “read your Bible and pray more often.” Good things, but not the answer. I told him, “be a good neighbor, help others, come alongside the needy, be a source of encouragement.” It is when we truly enter into the human predicament and share Christ’s love that we draw near to God. As Brad Jersak puts it, “cruciform love.” “Whoever seeks his life, will lose it, but he who looses his life shall gain it.”

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