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.