r m p




The Bible's Name is Legion

Perhaps the greatest point of theological debate in the present century is that of biblical authority. The issue has been hotly debated in several successive rounds of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, that great contest once championed from the Modernist side by our own illustrious former pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick. (Incidentally, recently I saw Dr. Fosdick's shade drifting through the darkened sanctuary, and he told me not to give up the fight.) 

The most recent skirmishes were fought, and still are being fought in the Southern Baptist Convention in a series of theological putsches that make me slightly less eager to admit I am ordained in that denomination than I would be to admit it if I were a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1976, the Bicentennial of our national freedom, Harold Lindsell unleashed the great charter of theological slavery, The Battle for the Bible. He was a Southern Baptist but the shock waves from his book, which urged defense of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy at any price, especially including institutional purges, were first felt in the wider evangelical movement. (For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, an "evangelical" is a fundamentalist who'll let you go to the movies.) 

But strife was brewing in the Southern Baptist Convention as well, and a few years later the alliterative team of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, the theological hanging judge, engineered a fundamentalist take-over of the SBC. We are still witnessing the fall-out. 

The Episcopal Church, once the home of balance and sweet reason, now seems to be getting pulled apart at the seams, in a tug of war between conservative charismatics (who quote Bible verses out of context, trained to do so by their ill-educated Pentecostal mentors) and Politically Correct radicals who wouldn't give an old-fashioned Anglican tea-biscuit for theology. One of the issues in this struggle is homosexuality, and the Bible is cited as an authority by one side, written off as outmoded by the other. So they, too, are battling over the Bible. 

The coordinates of my own theological pilgrimage have in many ways been charted by my own changing views of "biblical authority." When I accepted fundamentalism, I strove to believe the doctrines I thought most in accord with "biblical authority."

This meant I was constantly changing my mind, as cases of variously greater or lesser cogency might be made now for predestination, now against it, now for the pre-tribulation Rapture, now against it. It never dawned on me at the time that a doctrine of biblical authority which could not clearly settle even such issues as these was not much of an authority at all. "If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will prepare for battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8) Even for the battle for the Bible?

Fundamentalists prize the doctrine of a Bible inerrant in its facts and univocal in its meaning (though there is no such Bible, as any unprejudiced reading of the actual Bible we have will show anyone), because in it they think they have a guarantee of infallible beliefs. If one has such a Bible, all uncertainty is supposed to vanish. Such a scripture is one's permission to believe that Athanasius, Luther or Calvin or Arminius got it right. It is an epistemological short-circuit. An Aladdin's Lamp which one merely rubs to conjure up true dogma. 

Yet how can we ignore the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses believe in precisely the same view of the Bible as does Lindsell, who would slam his door in their faces because of their espousal of Arian Christology (the belief that Jesus Christ was a semi-divine being, not God incarnate)? 

I think the issue really came into the open a few years ago (though certain eyes, blinded by faith, have not yet noticed the Emperor's nakedness) when a debate erupted within the ranks of fundamentalists themselves. This time it wasn't over inerrancy, predestination, speaking in tongues, or women's ordination. It was a little thing called the gospel. John MacArthur wrote a book called The Gospel According to Jesus, in which he condemned the "easy-believism" of fundamentalism, asserting instead that you must accept Jesus as Lord, not just savior. 

For decades fundamentalist evangelistic lingo had it that you must "receive Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior." But there was a tension implied that seemingly no one noticed until recently. Might one accept him as savior only? The two aren't precisely the same. MacArthur argued that it is cheap grace totry to get away with seeing Jesus simply as a ticket to heaven, which one does if one accepts him only as savior. What about his demands for discipleship? 

A battery of fundamentalist theologians stepped into the fray. Zane Hodges, Robert Lightner, and Charles Ryrie all wrote their own tomes arguing that belief in Jesus as savior is sufficient, and to demand any more is to revert to salvation by works. 

Can it be then that belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, which all these authors share, cannot even guarantee a common gospel of salvation? Many have shouldered the burden of believing the impossibilities of inerrancy as long as they thought they had to in order to guarantee a true theology. But we can see it guarantees nothing (except academic retardation).

If one rejects biblicism, what is left? James Barr, David Tracy, and others have suggested various alternatives to the Bible-as-oracle approach. In Tracy's terms, the Bible is the "classic" work of the Christian tradition. It has "authority" in that it defines the symbolic character of Christian discourse. We talk about heaven and resurrection, however we may wish to define or reinterpret them, not about Nirvana and reincarnation. We talk about God the Father, not Nirguna Brahman. 

Another kind of authority the Bible has is the authority of wisdom because its writers were wise, at least some of them. As Tillich says, the Bible is so wise a book, not because it was written by angels, but because it is the most human of books -- which also accounts for all those things inerrantists pretend aren't there. (I can think of a few things I wish weren't there, too, but unlike the editors of certain modern editions of the Bible, I do not feel it my prerogative to remove them!) 

So the Bible remains authoritative in various important senses. But the Bible is not and can never be a legal authority, handing down decrees, as Judge Pressler would like to do, about what may be believed and done, and what may not be. And furthermore it has never been such an authority. True, it has been ­made­ so to function by countless Grand (and not-so-grand) Inquisitors who have wrapped themselves in its pages as a political demagogue wraps himself in the flag. But they were only making the Bible into an idol with a false semblance of life, just as the Babylonian charlatan-priests did in Bel and the Dragon. 

Let me close these turbulent meditations with an analogy. I believe traditional biblicists set up the Bible as a single sun about which they want all planets (all beliefs and practices) to revolve neatly and inflexibly. But the reality of the matter as I see it places the Bible, so to speak, in the heavens as a whole galaxy of stars which shine with different colors and magnitudes. One does not slavishly orbit the Bible; rather one is illumined by its many, very different lights. 

There is no one authoritative voice in the Bible which speaks in unambiguous accents we must heed. Rather there are many different voices there, some complementary, some contradictory. All instruct us, none infallibly. Though you may be disappointed, it does not save you the trouble of thinking for yourself. It does not supply the answers to interesting metaphysical questions which you do not need to know anyway. 

Does this disturb you? It certainly disturbs Paige Patterson and Harold Lindsell, hence their fanatical rampage. But that's only because they want everyone following lock-step behind them. As far as I am concerned, you may go where you see fit. Godspeed.

Robert M. Price


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