19 March 2014
Evangelicals and the Bible
We believe in: 3. The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct. (Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith)
An evangelical understanding of the Bible
The Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith asserts that the Bible is the written word of God, and divinely inspired. God intended these books to be heard by human beings as His own word, and God's spirit was active in the lives and minds and hearts of their authors, editors, and compilers in order to ensure that the books produced were God's own word.
Of course, the Bible uses the term "word of God" in other ways also. The word of God comes to the prophets; Christian evangelists preach the word of God; Jesus is the word of God (this, I assume, is why the Basis of Faith says "written Word of God"). We don't need to be surprised by this; God speaks to us in all these ways. There are different ways of understanding how to hold these things together. How does the "word of God" which came to the prophets relate to the words recorded in the prophetic books of the Bible, for instance? But evangelicals will insist that we do not set them against each other, suggesting that we do not use our vision of Jesus to justify selective rejection of Pauline texts for example. In all these different modes of revelation, all properly called the word of God, God speaks with one coherent voice.
The Basis of Faith does not in fact address the question of 'canon': which books are biblical and which are not. Evangelicals have always accepted the standard canon of 66 books: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. These books are accepted not because some ecclesial authority ruled that this was the list (the history is in fact rather complex and messy), but because of a very broad consensus across generations and nations that believers hear the voice of God in these books in a way we do not in any other texts.
Part of this recognition, however, has to do with history: God's particular revelatory acts in the world are bound up with the people of Israel and, particularly, with the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Old Testament scripture comes from the story of Israel; New Testament scripture from the earliest generations of the Church who gathered around those who witnessed the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Of course, not every book written in ancient Israel, and not every letter written by an early Christian, is scripture. But nothing can count as scripture that does not come from these contexts. This is a result of taking seriously the unity of the various forms of God's word noted above.
An evangelical understanding of biblical authority
Because of this belief that the Bible is the word of God, evangelical Christians have a high view of the Bible. That said, other Christians might also have a high view of the Bible; what distinguishes evangelicals is not a particular view of the Bible but a claim about its relative importance. For an evangelical Christian, the Bible can correct any other authority.
Roman Catholic Christians certainly have a very high view of the Bible, and so evangelicals and Catholics will agree on many matters of belief (that Jesus is truly divine and truly human, for example) and practice (that human life is precious, for example) but they will differ on whether the Bible can contradict and correct certain parts of the tradition of the Church. This was the heart of the Reformation debate over scripture.
Many who call themselves (or are called) liberal Christians might also have a high view of the Bible, but what distinguished classical liberal theology as it developed in the 19th century was a conviction that our experience or understanding, or something nebulous called 'progress' could correct the Bible; evangelicals stood against this - and will continue to do so when it occasionally re-appears.
Today, criticisms of the Bible often come on grounds of 'justice'; people claim that the Bible, or a part of it, contains an unjust or primitive idea concerning certain groups of people, and in the name of promoting justice we must go beyond the Bible, perhaps taking hints of a more progressive understanding that are found in scripture and developing them far beyond what the text actually teaches. Evangelicals are certainly committed to the promotion of true justice, but see the Bible as an ally, not an enemy in this fight: it teaches us clearly what true justice looks like; we do not need to develop obscure hints from some texts to overturn the teachings found in other texts; we simply need to read the witness of the text.
So the mark of an evangelical is not whether someone claims to have a high view of the Bible, but whether they are prepared to let the Bible challenge and correct their church tradition, their own understanding of what is good or just, their cultural norms, and any other basis they might have for belief or action.
In the Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith, we speak of the "supreme authority" of the Bible. This phrase, it seems to me, perfectly captures this idea that the Bible can correct any other authority.
One important result of the Bible's authority is that it is "fully trustworthy": what the Bible teaches, we should believe, confident that we are not being misled; what the Bible commands as good, we should do, confident that it is the best way for human beings to live their lives.
Evangelical understandings of biblical interpretation
Of course, this last point raises a serious question: how do we decide what the Bible in fact teaches and commands? When Jesus says "There was a man who had two sons…" and goes on to tell the parable of the prodigal son, we know that he is not trying to tell us that there once was a man with two sons who behaved like this, but instead trying to help us to understand how God responds to our repentance, and our lack of welcome of others who repent. If we read the story as historically accurate, while ignoring what Jesus is saying about God, we misunderstand it badly.
Evangelicals have generally affirmed a 'plain sense' way of reading the Bible - the text means what it looks like it means; this is not to say that evangelicals are naively literalist: as with the example of the parable above, where the form of the text requires a non-literal reading, a 'plain sense' reading is necessarily non-literal.
Evangelicals will also tend to agree with the classical Reformation position that "scripture is its own interpreter": where a passage is obscure, or can be read in more than one way, it should be read so as to agree with a clearer or less ambiguous passage found elsewhere in the Bible. Underlying this is the conviction that, in all its variety, the Bible speaks with a united, if complex and polyphonous, voice, and so we should not find contradictions.
In all of this, of course, there is much room for discussion and debate: evangelicals disagree on such central topics as who should be baptised, and on both sides are convinced that their position is biblical. The task of biblical interpretation is greatly helped by good scholarship, which works to establish the best text, to offer the most accurate translations, to sketch the historical background and the literary forms of the text so as to illuminate the concerns and the meaning. Evangelicals in the UK have almost always welcomed and encouraged good biblical scholarship; indeed, many of the leading biblical scholars in UK universities have been evangelicals themselves (in New Testament studies we might think of a succession running from F.F. Bruce through George Beasley-Murray to Richard Bauckham and N.T. Wright, for example). Tyndale House is an evangelical foundation devoted to nurturing biblical scholarship of the highest calibre.
Steve Holmes is senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St Andrews and chair of the Evangelical Alliance's Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission (TAPPAC)
[Note: This piece has its origin in a concern expressed in summer 2013 that there was a need for some more reflection on what approaches to scripture were appropriately evangelical; the Alliance commissioned two academic pieces for internal use, and this is a brief summary of some of that material. Although written in dialogue with the clause from the Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith, it is not intended to be any sort of official interpretation of that clause.]