I learned this from my life in evangelicalism. One key characteristic of evangelical Christianity is its commitment to the Bible as God’s Word. The evangelical (and “soft” fundamentalist) churches I was in were “Bible” churches, plain and simple. That’s what we were about. We taught the Scriptures. Sermons were expository analyses of biblical texts, sometimes going verse by verse and book by book. Sunday School classes were usually on books of the Bible. We had small group Bible studies too. We memorized verses and passages. We had daily Bible devotions. People carried their Bibles to church, underlined passages, took notes. We did “sword drills” in VBS and Sunday School and the children had programs in which they received rewards for memorizing scripture. We tried our best to live our lives and run our churches “according to the Bible” (as we “literally” understood it). We often had to work through issues in our churches and the bottom line was always “chapter and verse,” and “it is written.” One person’s conviction about a particular verse could trump a whole lot of arguments.
This is what Daniel Bebbington called evangelicalism’s commitment to Biblicism — “a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.” From the beginning of my adult Christian life, I bought into this, hook, line, and sinker.
The youth group in which I had a spiritual awakening was led by a youth pastor who was gifted at teaching the Bible, and there was a large group of us that ate it up. We memorized chapters from Proverbs and the first words I committed to memory were:
My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee;
So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding;
Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding;
If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures;
Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.
• Proverbs 2:1-5, KJV
This text taught me to study diligently and to take the words of scripture deep into my mind and heart so that their wisdom would transform my life. Above all, it taught me to remain hungry and eager for truth and understanding, to view my life as a continual search for the treasures of knowledge.
And so I made my way to Bible college, a school that offered no majors at that time other than a B.S. in Bible, so that I could learn what the scriptures taught. Then, after a time in the mountains of Vermont trying to teach the Bible to the good folks there, I knew I needed to learn much more. So off I went to seminary, one of the richest times of learning and growing in my life. Unlike Bible college, which taught according to a definite and very specific system of doctrine, in seminary I began to taste the breadth of Christian teaching. I know some from other traditions would consider my seminary to be hopelessly narrow, and in some ways I see now that it was, but at least it exposed me to a few more voices outside the room and took what they said seriously. Plus, where Bible college favored rote learning, seminary encouraged me to strike out on my own, do research, develop my own positions and defend them. I spent as much time in the library as I could, tracking down every article mentioned by a prof that caught my attention.
Nor did I stop studying or hungering after my formal education either. I saw myself as a teacher, and I built my schedule around study and heavily invested in the best commentaries and books while I tried to maintain a high level of instruction in the local church. I see now that I was far too academic for most people, and perhaps I should have gone into teaching. But I felt that if God had given the Bible to all Christians and his gathering of choice was the local congregation, what better place to teach?
However, it was often a struggle, and eventually I became dissatisfied with much that evangelicalism teaches about and from the Bible. You’ve read that here at Internet Monk, and here are a few examples you might review:
- How Pervasive is “Biblicism”?
- Scripture Redeems Itself
- My View of Scripture (at this point)
- How the Bible “Works” Today
I’m not going to summon up all the points made in those posts by myself or the authors I reviewed, but I encourage you to go back and read them and you will see some of the specific differences I have with my former evangelical perspectives on scripture.
What I want to point out in this post is an irony: the irony that my evangelical background set down a root in my life that eventually led me to grow away from evangelicalism.
The wisdom of Proverbs 2, the first text I memorized, encouraged me to keep hungering, to keep seeking, to keep studying and internalizing God’s Word, to never stray from following after knowledge and understanding. But one major problem with the evangelical view of scripture is that it only encourages that kind of seeking within a closed system. The carefully designed system of beliefs and practices, the doctrinal statement, the list of correct interpretations (which varies, depending upon which evangelical group you belong to), has in reality become the authority, and we are only allowed to read and interpret the Bible within that system. Any interpretation that threatens the system is discouraged or verboten. The whole enterprise can become like a giant game of Jenga. Change one block, and the tower comes crashing down.
So there are clearly defined limits beyond which one must not stray. I am not arguing that there are no boundaries at all; I am a creedal Christian, for example. However, the strict boundaries drawn within evangelical and fundamentalist circles can make for awfully tight quarters and narrow passages.
I was once visiting with a friend with whom I’d gone to Bible college, who was now a classmate at seminary. He recalled a trip to homecoming at our college and a conversation he’d had with one of our professors, a dyed-in-the-wool dispensationalist, as literal as they make ’em. The prof was complaining about how people went away to seminary and strayed from the faith he had taught them. Here’s the example he gave, I kid you not. He told my friend of a student who left and began to believe that the chain that bound Satan during the millennium in Revelation 20 was metaphorical and not an actual, physical chain. And he was appalled! The slippery slope started right there. Give up literal interpretation on any detail, and you’ll soon become an amillennialist. Which to him meant “the enemy.”
I did not apply for churches early in my ministerial career because I struggled with the issue of the timing of the Rapture, and I knew those churches would never hire anyone who didn’t toe the line on a pre-trib, “left behind” event and a specific “end times” template.
Other churches in which I served would never even have a discussion about women in leadership. The Bible taught otherwise.
One man in our church who was convinced that the Bible only allowed unleavened bread at communion held the entire congregation captive to his conviction.
My seminary turned down the services of one of the finest Old Testament professors in the world because he was not a premillennialist.
I have a million stories, but they all boil down to this: My discipling process in an evangelical setting taught me to seek knowledge and understanding like there was no tomorrow. But then, early and often, they slammed a door in my face and said, “Sorry, that’s a room into which we do not look.” Excuse me if I feel disoriented.
This is why I get so hyped up about issues like Young Earth Creationism. It is not just because I disagree with the interpretation, but because the whole approach of many who insist upon it is so . . . well, unbiblical. Sticking your fingers in your ears while shouting, “Literal! Literal! Literal!” simply does not fit with “incline thine ear unto wisdom.”
I am so grateful for the love that evangelicalism gave me for the Bible. I’m sad that this very gift meant we’d eventually part ways.