Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice by Robert K. Johnston
Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This book was originally published by John Knox Press in 1979. Copyright held by author and permission granted. Prepared for Religion Online by Rev. Herbert F. Lowe.
Chapter Six: Constructive Evangelical Theology
The topics dealt with in the preceding chapters -- inspiration, women, social ethics, and homosexuality -- are important beyond their immediate purview. Collectively they raise the issue of theological interpretation among evangelicals. Moreover, they do so in a way that is current and accessible, focusing upon concerns of the entire church. They help to define the nature of evangelicalism's theological impasse in a way that the average Christian churchgoer who reflects on the faith can understand. It should be apparent to all who have read this far that evangelicals are suffering from a crisis in their basic theological method. Although Biblical authority is asserted as a hallmark of the movement, it is daily called into question by the independent and contradictory theological opinions which are being given dogmatic status by evangelical writers.
A Criticism of Evangelical Theology
In his critique of American evangelicalism, James Barr comments on the fact that "conservatives have been on the whole a remarkably quarrelsome segment of Christendom." He observes that marked conflicts and tensions lie at the heart of the movement, though an outsider might imagine that the "conservative evangelical faith possesses a monolithic unity."1 We have seen in the chapters above that Barr is correct in his assessment. Barr, an Englishman, far removed from American evangelicalism both geographically and theologically, illustrates his contention by discussing the perennial issues of Calvinism/Arminianism, Millennialism, and Pentecostalism have centered my thinking in this book on some of the more immediate theological controversies that are causing ferment in the evangelical world. Other issues no doubt could have been chosen. David Hubbard, for example, in his taped remarks on the future of evangelicalism to a colloquium at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver in 1977 noted the following areas of tension among evangelicals: women's ordination, the charismatic movement, ecumenical relations, social ethics, strategies of evangelism, Biblical criticism, Biblical infallibility, contextual theology in non-Western cultures, and the churchly applications of the behavioral sciences.2 If such a list is more exhaustive than those topics which this book has pursued, it nevertheless makes it clear that the foci of the preceding chapters have at least been representative.
Contemporary evangelicals are finding it difficult to achieve anything like consensus on each succeeding theological topic they address. Moreover, they seem to be stymied in any effort toward unity, unable to agree on a collective interpretive strategy for moving beyond their current impasse. But surely a commitment to Biblical authority is a commitment to take this common task of theological interpretation seriously -- more seriously than many are at present doing. It is a commitment to hold together with those who share a similar norm, to carry on mature conversations, to affirm a oneness in the gospel, while working on the issues that currently divide.3 Evangelicals need the collective wisdom of their best minds and spirits working together on the theological task of the church. Problems in theological formulation will prove ongoing, but the interpretive project "will have a much better chance of success in the clear air of fellowship than in an atmosphere fouled by competition "4
The common interpretive task entails risk, but such is a necessary ingredient of a commitment to Biblical authority. As G.C. Berkouwer has recognized,
To confess Holy Scripture and its authority is to be aware of the command to understand and to interpret it. It always places us at the beginning of a road that we can only travel in "fear and trepidation."5
Unfortunately, some evangelicals have viewed this common road of theological interpretation as being too risky to travel. For this reason they have retrenched into what Berkouwer calls "a biblicist misinterpretation of the church's dealings with Scripture and its confession 6 Interpretations have seemed to lead in questionable directions -- directions which either have moved away from traditional Biblical consensus or have disputed current cultural analysis. A concern for social ethics, for example, has seemed to some a forfeiture of the desire to preach to the lost. An interest in ministering to the hurts of homosexuals has been interpreted as becoming theologically "soft." A willingness to ordain women has been judged a flouting of Biblical truth. At the other end of the evangelical spectrum, we have noted some who are considering portions of the Bible to be erroneous, given the conflict of traditional interpretations on the one hand, and contemporary judgments concerning women on the other. This, too, is a "biblicist misinterpretation." So is the premature judgment that there is "error" in the intended message of the Biblical writers at such other points as the Israelite conquest of Canaan (Josh. 10:40) and David's taking of a census (2 Sam. 24:1-2). Evangelicals must commit themselves to the ongoing, corporate theological task. They must not opt out of the interpretive struggle, believing the project either unnecessary or hopeless.
A commitment to interpretation will always allow the "inadequate" opinions of others a freedom of expression. This is not to adopt a "low" view of Scripture or an "uninformed" approach to theology. It is to take one's commitment to Biblical authority with increased seriousness. The Faculty and Trustee Committee at Fuller Seminary, for example, which investigated Paul Jewett's book Man as Male and Femalerecognized Jewett's commitment to the full authority of Scripture, as well as his important contribution to a theology of women, even while it challenged his handling of the evidence. Censorship will never prove an adequate method for achieving theological consensus. Karl Barth, who changed the direction of twentieth century theology with his recognition of the bankruptcy of nineteenth century liberalism, nevertheless did not ignore the theological discussion of those whose understanding of the faith he judged to be inadequate. In his introduction to a study of theology in the last two hundred years, he commented:
"The theology of every age must be sufficiently strong and free to hear, calmly, attentively, and openly, not only the voices of the Church Fathers, not only the voices of its favorites, not only the voices of classical antiquity, but all the voices of the past in its entirety. We cannot prescribe who among the collaborators of the past will be welcomed to participate in our own work, and who will not be. For there is always the possibility that in one sense or another we may be in particular need of wholly unexpected voices, and that among them there may be voices which are at first entirely unwelcome."'7
What Barth recognized, evangelicals must now affirm, particularly regarding those who share a similar commitment to the Bible as sole authority. And how much easier such dialogue should be where there is a common understanding of so much of the gospel message.
New interpretive possibilities for traditional theological judgments must be encouraged. To contend for change as some evangelicals are doing on each of the topics we have explored is not necessarily to play "fast and loose" with Biblical authority. It might be the case on a particular issue, as the topic of women in the church is currently indicating, that traditionalists are the ones who have misinterpreted the Biblical posture. It might also be true, as with the discussion of homosexuality, that revisionists are straying from the Biblical norm. But both traditionalists and revisionists can share in common a commitment to the full authority of Scripture in faith and life, and the vast majority of those who call themselves evangelicals do just that. It is not the occurrence, or lack thereof, of traditional theological opinion that will guarantee Biblical authority, but the common commitment of the evangelical community to work together at the interpretive task.
The "Art" of Evangelical Theology
General consensus is the goal of that risky, communal process of theological interpretation. Obviously, unified opinion does not happen by fiat. It is much more difficult to say, however, how such an end is achieved. Theological interpretation is not only a science, but an art. It is a "science" in that its sources and their relations lend themselves to careful analysis, deduction and critique-whether these be Biblical traditional, or contemporary. Operational suggestions concerning the theological task can be offered as the preceding pages have done. But while methodological questions must be considered carefully, one must remember, at the same time, that, as Bernard Lonergan has observed, theological "method is not a set of rules to be followed meticulously by a dolt. It is a framework for collaborative creativity.",8Theology remains an "art" in that the proper valuation and interaction of its sources demand a wisdom that defies a comprehensive codification. As John Leith suggests,
Theology is wisdom, not precisely defined scientific knowledge. Just as there is a human wisdom that comes with maturity and is the result of the interaction of experience and critical reflection, so there is a theological wisdom that comes with maturity and is the result of the interaction of critical reflection, of experience in the church, of engagement with Scripture, of Christian witness today, and of the testimony of the Holy Spirit.9
Leith continues, quoting Joseph Sittler with approval:
My own disinclination to state a theological method is grounded in the strong conviction that one does not devise a method and then dig into the data; one lives with the data, lets their force, variety, and authenticity generate a sense for what Jean Danielou calls a "way of knowing" appropriate to the nature of the data.10
Living with the data and letting them suggest the theological agenda ahead has been the method I have taken in the chapters just concluded. In each case the result has been that a differing approach has surfaced. While Biblical hermeneutics provided the key to an understanding of the role of women in the church and family, dialogue between those whose traditions have heard the Word of God differently in other times and places held the key for the discussion of social ethics, and engagement with the full range of cultural activity (from psychotherapy to radical protest, from personal testimony to scientific statement) was the locus for theological evaluation concerning homosexuality. As for the topic of inspiration, the issues that are proving central find their interim "solutions" in all three of theology's resources. The evangelical should view such differences in theological method as signifying a health in the creative process, rather than a confusion over technique. Moreover, the evangelical should be open to the revision of even these approaches, realizing with Barth that the theological task must be carried out " `in full earnestness again and again, indeed beginning from the beginning.'"11
Theology's Sources as Threefold
To begin one's theological interpretations afresh, as I have attempted in this book, demands a careful, creative, communal listening to the theological sources. For theology is the translation of Christian truth into contemporary idiom with an eye toward Biblical foundations, traditional formulations, and contemporary judgments. It is the existence of these differing sources that makes the matter of interpretation, or hermeneutics, so crucial. The word "hermeneutics" (Greek, hermeneuein), as used in the New Testament, means to expound or to translate. It is particularly in the latter sense of translation, or "bridging the gap" (Berkouwer), that the theologian is indeed a hermeneutician.12 Theologians must build bridges with their interpretations between the Biblical writers, the church fathers, and contemporary Christians. Their interpretations will succeed only if they are based on the sound analysis of their constitutive theological components.13
Evangelicals have rightly valued the Bible as God's-Word-in-human-words. Because it is "God's Word," it is the ultimate norm of evangelical theology. One's order of theological discovery or order of theological presentation must never cause confusion as to the source of one's final authority. But even if Scripture is used to initiate the theological process or presentation, the chance of confusion remains. For the Bible is also human words, and thus demands a proper reading and understanding. Surely "knowing how the Bible wants to be heard is as important as defending its authority" as God-given.14 We have seen in chapter III how this is indeed the case.
Perhaps the key issue in allowing Scripture to be heard on its own terms is the recognition that the Biblical interpreter is a bridge builder. Theologians who come to Scripture must overcome the gap that separates their world from that of the Biblical writers-a gap that involves language, thought-forms, cultural practices, and historical situations. Commenting on Calvin's recognition of this fact, Barth wrote:
how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.15\
Evangelicals believe that the Biblical writers know of God what others do not know; and their writings allow others to know what they knew. But only through an openness to Biblical scholarship and a willingness to undertake fresh exegesis can that authoritative message be heard in our day. As John Robertson said centuries ago, "'God has yet more truth to break forth from His Holy Word.""16
We have seen in chapter IV that tradition is a second source for contemporary evangelical theology. To reject the task of Biblical hermeneutics would be theological suicide. But to isolate conclusions concerning Biblical interpretation from the theological judgments and experience of the Christian community through the ages is almost as unsatisfactory. As Leith comments,
The Christian community has a theological maturity and an historical discernment that should not be easily surrendered and which should impinge upon all technical studies of the Scriptures. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the English Puritans, and Kierkegaard, among others, read Scripture with a profundity of understanding that has not been surpassed by those who are the beneficiaries of modern critical studies.17
Even as evangelical theology is done "again and again" in each succeeding generation, it should not start from scratch. Rather it should attempt to translate the truth of previous ages into contemporary expression. It must examine critically and gratefully all that has come before. If, after careful analysis, it concludes that some part of the corporate convictions of the community of the faithful through the ages must be rejected, it accepts the fact that the burden of proof concerning such change lies on its own shoulders.
In addition to the need to listen both to the Bible and to tradition, we have seen in chapter V that the evangelical theologian must also listen to the world. Some evangelicals have been particularly resistive at this point, but, as even Calvin recognized, they need not be. Not only was Calvin's theology Biblical and traditional, but it sought to build bridges between it and the larger secular humanist culture. In his Institutes, Calvin argues:
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts.18
It is true, perhaps, that Calvin was guilty of deciding prior to his interaction with the wider culture what was to be considered Christian truth. The danger of such a procedure is a selective listening to non-Christian sources. Rather than hearing secular culture on its own terms, Christians are tempted to lift from it only those things that are congenial to their particular traditional viewpoint. In the process, cultural insight is short-shrifted and evangelical theology consequently impoverished.19 But Calvin was correct, at least, in recognizing the need to make use of non-Christian sources.
Evangelicals can learn in our own day, perhaps, from Robert McAfee Brown, who has argued strongly for the importance of cultural input for the theological equation. In his book The Pseudonyms of God (i. e., those ways God is speaking to us through the disguise of human culture and natural event), Brown argues that "traffic between the gospel and the world travels on a two-way street." He states:
The gospel helps to inform and define the world, but the world helps to inform and define the gospel. I need more than the resources of Bible, theological tradition, and my own commitments if I am to understand my faith and the world in which it is set; I also need the ethical insights of my secular colleagues, the political and psychological analyses of my friends and foes, and the prophetic jab of nonchurchmen whose degree of commitment so often puts my own to shame.20
Brown is not arguing for a natural theology-one that would seek to build from humanity to God, or for destroying the infinitely qualitative distinction between the two. Rather he is recognizing that within human life and culture the theologian can get evidence of the divine reality with which the resources of Scripture and tradition can creatively interact. Evangelicals have, unfortunately, failed all too often to make use of the world as a third God-given source for theological creativity.
There are occasions, as we have seen in chapter V, when an evangelical theology will begin with culture and not God. But one's starting point in the knowing-process need not, and must not, be confused with one's ultimate theological authority. A cultural starting point might well demand a "hermeneutical suspicion" (i. e., a distrust of one's previous reading of Scripture, given the possibility that such a reading conceals some of the radical implications of the Biblical message for our day), but it may also assist in the renewed hermeneutical task, allowing the Biblical witness to be freshly experienced, freshly understood, and freshly applied.21
Evangelical theology will prove itself to be adequate only as proper attention is given to each of the three theological resources, though no set of rules can be laid down which would guarantee successful interaction among them. All one can say is that the creative dialogue will seek to build bridges between Scripture and church and world in a way appropriate to the particular subject matter in view. Here again we are faced with the realization that evangelical theology is at its best an "art"; it is an entrusting to words what has been creatively perceived in the dialogue among Scripture, church, and world.
The Theologian's Posture
Although the theologian cannot be programmed for success, any more than an artist can paint by number, there are several guidelines concerning the theologian's setting and posture that can be offered by way of conclusion. Certainly chief among these is the need to recognize theology as the perennial task of the church and for the church. As I have argued throughout this book, theology must be done in community, not competition. The present pluralism-in-isolation which characterizes much of evangelical thought must give way, as an initial step in the consensus-building process, to a pluralism-in- dialogue.22 Diversity must be faced openly and in love, as evangelicals together seek theological consensus. Moreover, even an evangelical consensus should not be viewed as an end in itself, but rather as a tool for the church to use in the strengthening of its faith and life. "The theologian's task," as John Calvin recognized "is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable."23
Second, theology must be done in prayer. As should be already apparent, I have found in the writings of Karl Barth helpful suggestions concerning theological methodology which can prove useful to the evangelical theologian. Although there are other points on which evangelicals would disagree with Barth, certainly evangelicals can profit from his awareness of prayer's indispensable role in the theological task:
"The first and basic act of theological work is prayer. Prayer must, therefore, be the keynote of all that remains to be discussed.... theological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it; in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer. In view of the danger to which theology is exposed and to the hope that is enclosed within its work, it is natural that without prayer there can be no theological work.""24
Because the subject matter of. theology is the Word of God -- his address to us -- and because theology must always be understood as response-as thinking God's thoughts after him -- it must necessarily be an act of prayer itself.
Moreover, because the prayerful response is made by finite people, because theologians are overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they have received, their theological constructions must be put forward humbly. Theology must never claim too much for itself. Again, Karl Barth can offer sage advice to his evangelical colleagues, as in this reaction to the success of his own Church Dogmatics:
"The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, `Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!' And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh."25
Theologians who think too highly of their own meager efforts at capturing the truth of a transcendent God have never fully been overcome by the subject matter they are addressing. Prayer and humility are reverse sides of a correct theological posture.
To seek prayerfully and humbly within the believing community a consensus theology, one arising out of Biblical, traditional, and contemporary data, is the evangelical's task. Only in this way can the current impasse in regard to Biblical authority be overcome. Only in this way will the evangelical church prove itself to be a continuing authentic witness to the Christian faith in the days ahead.
1. James Barr, Fundamentalism (London: SCM Press, 1977), p. 187.
2. David Hubbard, "The Future of Evangelicalism," given at a colloquium at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, Denver, Colorado, 1977 (manuscript of taped remarks).
4. David Hubbard, "The Current Tensions: Is There a Way Out?" in Biblical Authority, ed. Jack Rogers (Waco: Word Books, 1977), p. 178.
5. G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 137. Cf. Letha Scanzoni and Virginia R. Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 20-21.
6. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 137.
7. Karl Barth, quoted in Rudolf Bultmann's introduction to Adolf von Harnack's What Is Christianity? (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. ix.
8. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. xi.
9. John H. Leith, "The Bible and Theology," Interpretation 30 (July 1976): 233. I am indebted in what follows to this article, although its conclusions move in a different direction from my own.
10. Joseph Sittler, Nature and Grace (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 20, quoted ibid.
11. Barth, quoted in Bultmann's introduction to von Harnack's What Is Christianity?, p. ix.
12. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, pp. 108-109.
13. Cf. Robert McAfee Brown, The Pseudonyms of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), pp. 19-22.
Perhaps a final, qualifying note is in order concerning this book. No doubt many readers have been thinking, can anyone seriously hold up "consensus" as the theological posture for the evangelical world? Isn't theological diversity central to its life, ever since its modern inception on the American scene thirty years ago? To argue for consensus would seem either foolhardy or arrogant -- perhaps both.
It is true that evangelicals must learn to live with their differences. This is what it means to do church theology. But traditional differences in theological viewpoint between evangelicals have perhaps deadened the evangelicals' resolve to seek unity in their thought. It has caused a commitment to Biblical authority to be divorced wrongly from a commitment to the common interpretive task. A pragmatic alliance of silence has evolved within evangelicalism with the result that its basic commitment to Biblical authority now stands threatened. Although differences of opinion are both unavoidable and to be encouraged, they must be viewed as an interim stage on the way toward a point of consensus, which itself must then be challenged on the way toward some future consensus. Without some such resolve, evangelicals will find their paradigms of Biblical authority ringing increasingly hollow.