Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice
by Robert K. Johnston


As I complete this manuscript, the United Presbyterian Church is concluding proceedings at the 190th governing assembly in San Diego, California. At this meeting, the issue of the ordination of practicing homosexuals has been debated. Rejecting the recommendation of a task-force study that such ordination be allowed, the assembly voted instead that only repentant homosexuals who choose celibacy or seek a reorientation of their sexual desires should be considered as qualified candidates for ministry. The decision is both traditional (homosexual activity is judged sinful) and groundbreaking (homosexual orientation, though a sign of the brokenness of God's world, does not disqualify a ministerial candidate). It is one further step in the continuing theological task of the wider Christian church.

Whether evangelicals will judge the Presbyterians' solution to be adequate in this case remains to be seen. Certainly it will be of wide influence. But the action of this church's governing council does point out the ever-changing body of opinion with which present-day theologians must deal. Their task is of necessity ongoing.

In the chapters that follow, there will be detailed analysis of the current debate within evangelical circles over inspiration, women's role in the church and family, social ethics, and homosexuality. As the Presbyterian decision illustrates, my discussion is, in one sense, already "dated." Such is a necessary limitation of all who seek to interact in print with the contemporary debate. Nevertheless, readers should find this discussion of evangelical opinion representative of continuing approaches to the issues. Beyond my desire to address specific theological issues and to suggest directions in which evangelicals might profitably move, I have attempted to give voice in this book to a more basic and persistent concern. That evangelicals, all claiming a common Biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their present understanding of theological interpretation. To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commitment), is self-defeating. It is this belief which has served as an organizing principle in my writing. It is, I trust, this realization which will also make this study of more lasting value, both among evangelicals and among those seeking to learn from them in the wider Christian fellowship.

The third chapter, which addresses the topic of women, was first written in somewhat altered form as an essay in honor of one of my former teachers, Everett F. Harrison. In its original form, it was published in the Harrison Festschrift entitled Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation. The fourth chapter, on social ethics, was first prepared for the National Institute of Campus Ministries' consultation on evangelical-ecumenical dialogue, held in Memphis in March 1977. It was while working on that project that I realized the underlying interpretive issue which evangelicals must broadly face. The thesis of the book evolved in this way from the middle outward. The topic of inspiration (chapter II) was chosen because it continues to be the most debated issue in evangelicalism (cf. Kenneth Kantzer, ed., Evangelical Roots [Nashville: Nelson, 1978]). Homosexuality (chapter V) was dealt with because it is perhaps the emerging issue among evangelicals.

In the process of working through these particular topics of current interest among evangelicals, I noted that each had a differing locus of theological interest. While debate over the understanding of Biblical interpretation lies at the heart of current evangelical discussions concerning women, differences in theological tradition lie at the center of discussions over social ethics, and disagreement over one's approach toward the wider secular culture is surfacing as the focus of controversy regarding homosexuality. Certainly input from Scripture, tradition, and contemporary culture remain necessary to each topic that is addressed. But one or another of these resources can be the center of theological interest on any given topic. Here is a second organizing principle around which this book has been written.

This book has been a pleasure to work on, largely because of the kindly assistance I have received along the way. Elizabeth Nordquist, who has headed the southwest chapter of the Evangelical Women's Caucus, offered valuable suggestions, as did Mary Ellen Godfrey, who holds to a more traditional posture concerning women's roles. David Hubbard (of Fuller Theological Seminary) and Donald Tinder (of Christianity Today) both read portions of the manuscript in an attempt to help me eliminate unintended bias in my description of contemporary evangelical positions. Letha Scanzoni was generous with her time, her knowledge, and her bibliographic resources. Don Williams and Ralph Blair were similarly generous in sharing with me their writings, whether already published or in manuscript form. For the chapter on social ethics, I benefited from the personal reactions of James Daane and of Ronald Nash, gentlemen who come to very different conclusions on the matter.

Closer to home, I am indebted to Western Kentucky University for granting me a teaching-load reduction in order that the manuscript could be completed on time. Several of my undergraduate and graduate students provided valuable assistance with research and suggestions. Alan Dunn, Paul Martin, Barbara Antonetti Davis, Ron Nutter, Phyllis Alsdurf, and John DeLautre deserve particular mention. My colleagues Arvin Vos, Robert Roberts, Robert Mounce, and James Spiceland offered substantial corrections, helping me to sharpen my discussion, as did my wife, Anne. Finally, thanks are due to Gena Porto and Brenda Lane who typed the manuscript, and to my editor, Richard Ray, who could not have been more cooperative.

June 1978

Western Kentucky University