Can “evangelicalism” include me?

Will twenty-first century evangelicals be able to make their peace with a culture of Christianity characterized as “without inerrancy, with women, without young earth, with social justice”? Daniel Kirk hopes so.

I hope so, too! This would be a great development. But I have some misgivings about the prospect when I consider certain defining characteristics of mainstream evangelicals.

  • Most who self-identify as “conservative” evangelicals, in the U.S. anyway, view the most essential aspect of our faith to be belief in God through Jesus — and not just any belief: right belief. Right belief is then defined as holding fast to the truths revealed in the Bible.
  • Evangelicals are self-consciously “people of the Book”. Every passage of Scripture is affirmed a priori to be accurate and, if possible (and sometimes even when not), taken at face value. Every question, small or large, should be answered by reference to the Bible if at all possible. Faithful Christians are those who believe and do not allow themselves to doubt the truths of the Bible. The leading lights of the movement are those who are most successful and credible at carefully guarding the Bible from critical inquiry that potentially undermines its accuracy.
  • Probably chief among the Church’s responsibilities is to be good stewards of true theology, where “how to interpret the Bible” and “what the Bible says” are defined more or less precisely by how their own tradition interprets it. It is possible to move from one tradition to another and be considered “still a Christian”, but only as long as both traditions affirm all these fundamental assumptions I’m describing, principal of which is “the gospel” defined in their particular way.
  • Specifically, “the gospel” is defined as penal substitution, which is based upon the specific formulation that’s triumphed among Protestant systematic theologians since Calvin. “Being saved” means accepting this understanding of the gospel without question.

My point? These assumptions are all — all based in inerrancy. And that’s the first plank we want to take out!

Every inerrantist knows the stakes: take away inerrancy, and the whole beautiful structure comes crashing down. Structures like exaggerated patriarchal subordinationism, an historiographic reading of Genesis, and a view of justice that emphasizes wrathful punishment rather than extravagant mercy typically cannot stand serious scrutiny once one begins to question that the Bible is a pure chunk of divine revelation. Why, without inerrancy, we might end up with…all kinds of horrible things. Things like women in leadership, a rejection of creationism, and a de-emphasis on doctrine in favor of “social justice”. Bible believers would then have no protection from the compromise of all their carefully constructed beliefs. Rejecting inerrancy changes everything!

And you know what? There’s no sense trying to redefine key terms like “inerrancy”, “infallibility”, or “evangelicalism” just to avoid that assessment. Because inerrantists are right: in every practical sense, rejecting inerrancy changes everything.

Those who embrace inerrancy find non-inerrantist modifications of doctrine to be the primary problem. On the other hand, those who approach the Bible as sacred and thoroughly human literature (rather than as a perfectly accurate and harmonizable set of divine revelations) consider the inevitability of reevaluated doctrines to be a marked but essentially superficial difference between themselves and inerrantists: for them, the fundamental contrast lies in these groups’ views about acquiring and parsing truth. For mainstream evangelicals, most of whom at the very least take a “soft” view of inerrancy that affirms the passages of Scripture teaching doctrine as inerrant, the Bible is The Standard, and challenging the assertions made by any author of Scripture is tantamount to standing in for the serpent in the garden, hissing, “Yea, hath God said…?” For those who, like Dr. Kirk, accept even the more modest deviations from this form of inerrancy, acknowledging theological tensions, contradictions, limited authorial understanding, and outright erroneous assertions, no given passage of Scripture can ever be the absolute standard by which “good” or “bad” teachings are easily accepted or rejected. In certain areas, we must view the Church’s understanding of God’s ways to be a trajectory shaped by but not ending within Scripture.

See, for all practical purposes, rejecting inerrancy seems to yield an entirely different religion qua religion from that practiced by inerrantists. I know, that sounds outrageous on the face of it, but consider that they are separate systems with often dramatically divergent doctrinal focuses, widely variant understandings of their own mission, and, as the linchpin, highly contrastive epistemologies:

  • At bottom, inerrantists believe because the Bible says so; some have an appreciation for church tradition, but usually only as long as it bolsters their own beliefs about what the Bible says. If the Bible’s shown to be wrong, they’d sooner evacuate the premises than pick through the rubble. As goes the Bible, so goes Christianity. Truth is defined as that which is Christian.
  • Non-inerrantists believe because our understanding of God, as shaped (but not bound) by the historical community of faith whose testimonies of God comprise the Scriptures and have affirmed those testimonies in the centuries since, is consistent with and complementary to our broader understanding of history and the world we experience today. Christianity is defined as that which is true.

An analogy that comes to mind is that of older and newer versions of software. There’s a level of “backwards compatibility” for non-inerrantists such that we typically understand and can embrace conservative evangelicals as (misguided) brothers and sisters, but continuing the software analogy, I have to ask, will older versions of the software be able to process us? Sadly, I expect a negative response. Windows XP systems will simply not recognize programs written for Windows 7 as valid software!

I don’t like this schism at all. I want so badly to find a way to bring mainstream evangelicals along and find unity, but given differences this fundamental it’s so very difficult. I can’t wait for a more significant portion of the Church to adopt the culture of Christianity as conceived in Dr. Kirk’s “Evangelical Manifesto”. And I’m sure it will. But when it does, I daresay modern inerrantists won’t want to be considered a part.

I realize that his intent is speak up and say, “Hey wait, this is our religion, too — you can’t just paint us out of the picture!” But by trying to reclaim “evangelical”, we’d end up with two fundamentally different groups trying to lay claim to the same label. The hallmark of “evangelical” is a focus on the euangelion, the “gospel” — but an integral reason for the clash is that most of us can’t agree on the definition of that primary distinctive (nay, shibboleth), much less what living it out would look like. It would take a bloody, contentious coup for non-inerrantists to be able to co-opt the term “evangelical”, and I’m just not at all sure it’s worth the strife.

Unfortunately, knowing human nature, no viewpoint is able to gain any traction among the masses unless it has a catchy umbrella term or label. “We are ‘not-evangelicals’, who don’t believe this…do believe that…” will simply not fly. But our non-inerrantist culture does need a “handle” of some sort , other than the non-descriptive and baggaged “liberal” and the negative “post-evangelical” label that I am fond of using. I’m just not convinced that any attempts like Dr. Kirk’s laudable Manifesto will be enough to wrest this particular term from those currently defined by it!

Am I wrong? If not, what can be done?

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  • the best description I’ve come accross on bilbical authority sans inerracy was (sorry to those who dislike the guy) from Tom Wright. He writes (in an essay) of the bible being authoritative in that is the place the christian turns FIRST. This is an interetsing view. Many xtians I know, who hold to inerracy turn to the bible ONLY, or LAST as the “final word”. I suppose Tom is suggesting the bible is authoritative because it is the part of the tradition that offers the first frame for a discussion. Start with the text, wrestle with it, see where the conversation goes, being free to import new data.

    This seems consistent with the old metaphor of the “word of god” as a light or lamp. An inerrant reading is more likely to result in the text becoming the path, rather than illuminating it.

    • Excellent points, Phil_style. I really, really like your point by Wright;
      what a great way of putting it!

  • >> This seems consistent with the old metaphor of the “word of god” as a light or lamp. An inerrant reading is more likely to result in the text becoming the path, rather than illuminating it.

    I think that may be one of the wisest things I’ve read in quite a while.

    • I like that analogy, too, ElShaddai. (p.s. Welcome back to my blog!)

  • Your analysis is very insightful. Yet, I couldn’t quite determine your outlook. You started skeptical, and I think your assertion that it all rests on inerrancy to be spot on. Then in the middle you seemed more optimistic that those who have been educated, rejected inerrancy, but have maintained their faith, will eventually prevail. Then you move back toward a skepticism of those people finding a place or a label.

    I think the question that Kirk is asking is a very important one: is the term evangelical worth fighting for? For those “evangelicals” who, like you (I surmise from my reading of your blog), me, and Dr. Kirk, have rejected the concept of inerrancy, and in doing so have actually deepened their faith, where is our place in the life of the church? I find it difficult to describe myself. I do not claim the term “evangelical” without carefully defining the term to disassociate myself from mainstream evangelicals. Yet I also reject the term liberal. Neo-Orthodox might work, but that term never caught on last century and I see no signs that it will this century. I believe with Kirk that trying to reclaim the term “evangelical” might be the best, but it will also be an uphill battle and one that I am not sure is worth the trouble.

    So, what shall believing Christians who have rejected inerrancy call themselves?

    Keith Reich
    keithreich.blogspot.com

    • Your confusion over my outlook mirrors my own. This post was more about
      opening up discussion than offering a conclusion. It’s basically a matter of
      stating the question, how do we get there from here?

      As far as my optimism about “our lot” eventually being the norm, let me put
      it this way: it has to be that way</emor Christianity is doomed. What
      I'm unsure of is exactly how
      this will pan out.

      It sounds like we’re on the same page as far as the terminology goes. Groups
      often don’t get to name themselves, but it’s important not to get stuck with
      a bum label. Unfortunately, I’m fresh out of candidates!

  • At the risk of sounding glib, the discussion on inerrant vs. non-inerrant Christianity sounds somewhat similar to the discussions I’ve been reading on introverted vs. extroverted Christians and what is “correct” evangelical behavior/personality, e.g. if you’re not participating in high-extroversion outreach/community activities, then your faith is obviously deficient. Urk. So if I’m an introverted non-inerrantist, then I guess I’m doubly marginalized…

    • No, you’re just half-wrong. 😉

    • T Jakes

      Being a non-inerrantist is a choice…or it can be a choice if the person is ever give it.

  • “Bible is sacred and thoroughly human literature ”

    Nice. I might steal that line.

    • And stolen it I have done.

      • Oh? And where did you stash it?

      • Ah, nevermind. I found it. 🙂

  • Nice to meet you over on my blog, Steve. Thanks for stopping by.

    For me, I don’t think the label is worth fighting for anymore. As I see Evangelicalism being represented by people who I seemingly completely disagree with like Al Mohler and the baggage this causes (see friend Scot McKnight’s recent post, http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2010/10/08/shifting-evangelicalism/), it’s not worth it for me. I’m much more of a scientist than a theologian, but are there any neo-Evangelicals out there? Or do we just move over to the Protestant domain?