The Danger of a Book-oriented Approach to Faith

images-1The Book-oriented approach to Christian faith, an approach that became particularly central during the Enlightenment, has several major presuppositions for Christians. Robert E. Webber has underscored the three that I think are worthy of our particular concern.

  1. The Bible is the mind of God written.
  2. The mind is the highest faculty of our creation in the image of God.
  3. Truth is known as the human mind meets the mind of God and this happens in the study of the Scripture.

While I could never have articulated these three concerns this clearly twenty-five years ago I sensed for several decades before that time that something was profoundly wrong with my formative years of theological training at the graduate level in the 1970s. All the time I was debating for inerrancy, and with that debate drawing the subsequent conclusions that most inerrantists hold about the certitude one can have so long as your arguments are rooted in careful biblical exegesis, I had a growing doubt about this foundation.

The idea behind this approach is simple really – the Bible as observable data is an exact science and through this source/foundation we can know rational (doctrinal) answers that will then lead us to understand entirely objective propositional truths. Through these propositional truths I can know God’s truth. The answers this approach yields are what we believe to be objective truth, or true truth as one popular apologist put it.

I did not realize how deep and wide this foundation was, nor what was being claimed for it, until I studied the work of the pre-eminent evangelical theologian, Carl F. H. Henry. Dr. Henry, whose magnum opus, remains in print, said:

The ideal procedure [of Christian theology] would be to arrange all the truths of Christianity logically by summarizing and systematizing the texts and teaching of Scripture and supplying an exposition of the logical content and implications of the Bible on its own premises. . . . The fact that no theologian has succeeded as yet in fully arranging the truth of revelation in the form of axioms and theorems is no reason to abandon this objective. . . . The fact is that whatever violates the law of contradiction cannot be considered revelation. . . .  Were the doctrines of the Trinity, of divine election and human responsibility, of the two natures of Christ logically contradictory doctrines, no evangelical Christian could or should accept and believe them (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority. Waco, Texas: Word, 1976, 1:239-240, 233, 241.books

In Henry’s approach “logic” is exalted to the highest place, a place even above the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith. But I believe the Christian faith that defies such philosophical categories and when it is surrendered to modernity and rational argumentation it can not stand in the end. I will never forget when I first read Dr. Henry’s words. I was stunned and silent for what seemed like the longest time. I realized, perhaps as never before, what I had been taught for years. I also realized why I had been taught this way and where it had profoundly misled me in my journey to God, the only true truth!

The thing that Dr. Henry does not acknowledge here is that both conservatives and liberals approached the Bible through the very same empirical method they both took from the Enlightenment. Liberals used reason and logic to demythologize the Scriptures. In so doing they reduced the essence of Christianity to sentimental love.

On the other end of the spectrum many conservatives argued for the precise and exact correctness of everything in the Bible. (If Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest seed then no matter what we know from other sources that say otherwise this statement has to be scientifically true in some sense or the Bible is flawed!) This method can be clearly seen in the popular, best-selling books of Harold Lindsell (1913–1998), 51LwgPNIidL._SX260_books such as The Battle for the Bible (1978) and The Bible in the Balance (1979). It was the publication of these two books, as much as anything at that time, that blew the doors off for the inerrancy debate that followed in the 1980s. My life as a young pastor was lived in the maelstrom of this contentious Christian conflict. I read and listened and argued and finally ran upon the shoals of foundationalism and realized that I had missed Jesus in the process. (I loved him for sure but my mind and heart were a bit of a mess at times!)

Webber rightly says that liberals tore the Bible to pieces and conservatives tried to put the pieces back together again by using rational and philosophical arguments. Webber concludes, quite rightly I believe, that “In the meantime for many the message was lost.” This was me.

Let me illustrate his point. I was involved in the 1990s with a group of leading evangelicals who often discussed this debate and its ongoing implications. One member of our group brought to a meeting the results of a survey taken on the campuses of six or seven of our best evangelical seminaries. The results showed, in brief, that confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible had gone up over the last ten years. But there was something else in the numbers that puzzled us. Students were reading the Bible on a daily basis, and seeking spiritual nourishment from such reading, at a decreasing rate than before the battle began. I remember when a light went on inside of me forcing me to ask: “Could it be that we have won a battle while we are losing a war while we keep fighting in this way about the Bible?” I am now quite sure that this is exactly what was happening.

Now we live in what has been called a postmodern context. This elusive, and frequently misused and misunderstood term, represents a decided shift away from the empirical method of the Enlightenment, a method based on modern science and a sharp distinction between subject and object. Young people today are not looking for “proofs” or “propositions” but for a message that can be lived, one that changes their lives. This message is what the Bible is really all about.

When we grasp the essential framework of the Bible’s storyline – that God created the world; that the world fell away from God in disobedience; that God restored the world through Jesus Christ and that at the end of history God will complete the rescue mission in the new heavens and new earth – we will come to see that the true story is about Jesus Christ, both his person and his work. The BIble is designed, by the Holy Spirit as Christians confess, to take us to Jesus Christ! Says Webber, “Christianity is not an I-It relationship but an I-Thou personal relationship” (Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 46).

The second major problem that we inherited from the Enlightenment is its failure to focus adequately on the cosmic powers of evil. The New Testament presents us with a world in which the powers of evil are very real and where they have a direct influence upon political, social, institutional and family structures. The Gospels continually present Jesus as directly dealing with these evil powers. Consider the words of the Apostle John in the Fourth Gospel; cf. John 1:9; 14:30; 16:11; 12:31; 16:33. Add to this Paul’s view in Ephesians 6:12-20 and you get a deep sense that something is missing in a great deal of what passes for the Christian faith and church today. We are terrified of such language because we have been so deeply immersed in rationalism and the Enlightenment. (This is one reason why charismatic Christianity has had such a positive influence upon the church, especially in parts of the world where the Christian story is not shaped by the Enlightenment!)

The best way to address the modern world is not through scientific and philosophical means deeply rooted in the Enlightenment. The best way, writes Bob Webber, is to recover “the shout of victory expressed in the words, Jesus is Lord! [Acts 2:36] (Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 49). Amen.

Tomorrow: What Does Christ’s Victory Mean for Understanding His Death?

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