This post has stirred some controversy, with one person feeling it says that the post’s author and your blog host look on evangelicals as vermin. This is a complete mis-reading of the post, and I urge you to read the comments both here and on it’s first outing to see that for yourself. You might also read Can I have my word back please?, The myth of fundamentalism and Methodist Evangelical? for further clarification
Fundamentalists, ultra-conservative evangelicals, Bible-believing/Born-again Christians - I know that they’re not all the same, but then neither are
fleas, lice and mites mice, gerbils and hamsters*. There is certainly (as Wittgenstein would put it) a “family resemblance” among them - not to say an unhealthy inbreeding. One of the things that most gets on my nerves about this extended family is its astonishing ignorance about church history and Christian tradition.
To take one example recently rehearsed in these columns: the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Not only is it not biblical, it is not even venerable, dating only to the nineteenth century. It is a defensive doctrine, reactive to modernism and theological liberalism (which is also, as Karl Barth graphically put it, a “flat-tyre” theology - but that’s another post). It is probably most usefully understood psychologically rather than theologically, as the product of a paranoid mindset that appeals to authoritarian and obsessive personalities. Its assumption that scripture has an independent authority, oracular in function - hence the wildly misleading phrase “The Bible says . . .” - it is, in fact, Koranic (hence the fatwas of the Religious Right). Whenever mainstream Christian tradition has spoken of the “authority of the Bible”, it has taken the phrase not in a direct but in an indirect sense, i.e. as shorthand for the authority of God mediated through the Bible. And it has seen the Bible as an ongoing, unfinished story of creation and redemption that we are invited to indwell and enact, not as a compendium of information sent by an occult deity to a world from which he is otherwise absent. Moreover, instead of using scripture as a bed of Procrustes on which to rack the contemporary movement of the Spirit, it looked to what the Spirit was actually doing, and then returned to scripture to explore new reading strategies for engaging church and world.
And this notion that an individual can read off the will of God in scripture in the straightforward way we would look up an address in a telephone book - the Fathers and Reformers would howl with laughter at such an idiotic idea! The early church insisted that scripture can only be properly interpreted within the framework of what it called the “canon of truth” or “rule of faith”, which, in essence, was outlined in the church’s creeds. Only megalomaniacal apostates read the Bible “neat”. Indeed Athanasius said that to assume that the Bible is accessible in and of itself is an act not only of outrageous self-deception but of desperate self-protection. For the Fathers, the Spirit-inspired community is the only appropriate hermeneutic of the gospel.
The Reformers’ sola scriptura is also completeley misrepresented if it is taken to mean that the Bible can be read faithfully (and intelligently) apart from tradition, particularly post-apostolic tradition. Certainly the Reformers insisted that the authority of tradition is a derived authority and therefore subordinate to scripture; nevertheless, they understood the relationship between scripture and tradition to be dialectical, not least because they knew that scripture itself grew out of the traditions of the primitive church, and that the Bible became “canon” by a decision of the early church (which entails, by the way, that, in principle, the canon remains open). Moreover, the Reformers insisted that individual readings of scripture must be subjected to the corporate judgement of the church through the ages. They considered ignoring the ancient writings an act of gross ingratitude.
Another example of historical ignorance (again recently rehearsed in these columns) is the daft notion that Jews and Christians worship different Gods. The early church rejected that theological no-brainer as early as the second century heretic Marcion, who held that the god of wrath depicted in the OT has nothing to do with the god of love revealed in the NT. Again, the Fathers for all their anti-Semitism, continued to believe in the one biblical God whose “gifts and calling are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29), and, with their Christological hermeneutic, found allusions to the Trinity itself in the OT. The Reformers too, even Luther, notwithstanding his sharp dichotomy of law and grace. And , of course, Calvin gave classic form to the doctrine of the one covenant of grace (an insight lost on some of his successors) - Noachic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, the new covenant, but the one overarching covenant promise : “I will be your God and you will be my people”. Ironically (as I recently pointed out) it is Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology, and then the Nazi apologists, who tried to resurrect Marcion’s corpse.
But enough. I’ve got to go to a meeting. Tradition: Chesterton called it “the democracy of the dead”, and praised its refusal “to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Catch my drift?
*Edited by admin: some have objected to Kim’s use of ‘minibeasts’ as inappropriate. I hope this cuddlier version, which in my view preserves the point Kim was making, serves to cheer them up.