Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
August 9th, 2016 by Joel Watts

Bishop Carter, “Evangelical,” Packer, and Inerrancy

John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism

“Hey Joel… that ‘man of one book’ thing… means nothing to you, does it?”

Last week, Bishop Carter (Florida) wrote a brief post for Huffington Post. Here, he laments the misconstruing of the word evangelical as a synonym for conservative. He is not ready to leave that term behind because, he writes,

I have been nurtured and fed by the stream of Christianity that flows from the deep reservoir of evangelicalism. I praise God for this gift. And so I cannot allow such a beautiful, life-giving word – “evangelical” – to be marginalized, scorned, scapegoated or neglected.

The term first emerged in Reformation Europe by my favorite English Reformer of the time, William Tyndale. It meant those who preached the Gospel of faith alone. Luther picked it up from Tyndale and even the Catholics used it… against the Protestants. While differences emerged among the Reformers, they were all evangelicals because of a few simple things — faith in Christ alone, saved by faith alone, and a view of Scripture as primary.

But something changed.

Evangelical now seems to mean conservative (in theology and politics) and has direct connotations to such theological concepts as inerrancy (as defined by the Chicago Statement). Others send to use it, but I would challenge their use, either in historical or current usage.

And that brings me to a quote recently shared by a friend as a way to spur discussion.

“Evangelicals maintain that as God has enthroned his Son, the living Word, as Lord of the universe, so he has enthroned the Bible, his written word, as the means of Christ’s rule over the consciences of his disciples. The 66-book Protestant canon is held to be divinely inspired, life-imparting and strength-supplying to the human heart, and to be given to the church to be preached, taught, expounded, applied, absorbed, digested and appealed to as arbiter whenever questions of faith and life, belief and behavior, spiritual wisdom and spiritual warfare, break surface among the saints. Of the unifying bonds of evangelicalism, this view and use of Scripture is the strongest of all.”1

I would agree to all of this, except, “so he has enthroned the Bible, his written word, as the means of Christ’s rule over the consciences of his disciples.” One of the big things is that the Holy Spirit is absent (in this statement and view). In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Holy Spirit speaks through Scriptures (a rather direct form of inspiration) — and we do not have any such statement about Scripture being the body of Christ (which is the Eucharist).

I would like to see a Trinitarian view of Scripture espoused — and to see it connected to our idea of sacraments. A benefit of looking at Scripture as the “domain” of the Holy Spirit, is that the Scriptures testify of Christ (which provides a second witness) because it is the Holy Spirit that speaks through them (and think of all the times St Paul speaks in this way). How many times is the Spirit connected to Scriptures in Scripture? Even in 2 Timothy 3.16, the Spirit is at play in that particular word.

Just a brief thought here… but Christ is represented by the sacraments of the baptism and the eucharist… Scripture is speaking through Scripture (nothing new, by the way). What does the Father do in this (egalitarian) Trinitarian view?

The issue with Packer’s quote is that he takes the term Evangelical and rather than applying it to the justification by faith, connects it to a particular view of Scripture. In my opinion, to save the term, we have to stop doing that and rather return it evangelical to the days of the Reformation. Then, we can we look at what it means to be a Wesleyan evangelical.

For instance, I think a Wesleyan has to be a functional inerrantist — something I’m comfortable with. After all, the Articles and Confession both have a high view of Scripture and promote inerrancy when it comes to what Scripture teaches about salvation. The Confession correctly notes that we receive Scripture through the Holy Spirit. We have a high view of Scripture not because we are evangelical, but because we are Wesleyan.

Does that make sense? What are you thoughts?

  1. J.I. Packer, “The Bible in Use: Evangelicals Seeking Truth from Holy Scripture,” in Your Word is Truth (Eerdmans, 2002).
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

10 Responses to “Bishop Carter, “Evangelical,” Packer, and Inerrancy”
  1. Tom McCann says

    I have also had a hard time letting go of the word ‘Evangelical’ and allotting it strictly to conservatives. As a Socialist, whenever someone self-identifies as an evangelical, I reply “me too”. In the sense of the word that an evangelical is one who preaches the Gospel. Some conservatives accept and support my claim on the word, but others just shake their head in dismay and mumble something about heresy.
    I agree with your view about ‘enthroning the Bible’. For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there was nothing that resembled what we call the Bible today. Yes, there were scriptures, but they existed as individual manuscripts, not as a ‘Bible’. And for the first couple hundred years of Christianity, it thrived based solely on individual letters of varying authenticity, along with what we now call the Old Testament. A view that God has “enthroned” the Bible to “rule over consciences” says that there could not have been true Christianity for the first several hundred years after Christ.
    I often wish it were possible to go back to those early days. The air must have been thick with the spirit of Christ and His Apostles. The fervor was created not by a preacher hammering out Bible verses, but by people who knew Christ personally, and breathed the Holy Spirit into those who chose to follow. What a magnificent time that must have been!

  2. “I agree with your view about ‘enthroning the Bible’. For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there was nothing that resembled what we call the Bible today….
    I often wish it were possible to go back to those early days. The air must have been thick with the spirit of Christ and His Apostles….”

    Perhaps that was the definition of “evangelical”, from +33 AD to about 1500 AD. Since all the text was in Greek or Latin, and the vast majority of people were uneducated, the only way they got the “Word” was from someone in an elevated position. Educated, elite, preaching. The majority couldn’t interprete for themselves, because they couldn’t even read the text themselves. They had to take the “word” of the preacher (evangelical), as the “Word” of scripture.

    So, using that logic, I have no problem with the word “evangelical”. Only when the “evangelical” person starts acting like it is the really old days, when his “word” is the only way to interprete the “Word”, do I have a problem.

    The good old days, might work against the socialistic model – too much knowledge to the masses is dangerous. Or maybe that’s Communism. I don’t know. Although I think it was certainly a simpler time, when a person would have to take the word of the local priest for everything scriptural.

    So, the moral of the story – we should all learn Latin. Yeah, I agree. I don’t know what I’m taking about. Just miscellaneous ramblings.

    • Actually, after thinking about it some more, “evangelical”, meaning bringing the gospel (good news) to people, is an excellent thing. It is only when the “evangelical” ceases to bring the good news, but starts bringing the bad news, that we have a problem. Something about being judgmental, regardless of the issue.

  3. The recent history (the past hundred years) in American Protestant Christianity has strongly influenced the popular understanding of the word “evangelical.” Billy Graham’s using the word, along with scholars like Carl F. H. Henry, to signal a new direction and put distance between the “neo-evangelicals” and the old time fundamentalists like Bob Jones has had the ironic effect of attaching “evangelical” to political movements like the Moral Majority that morphed into the Christian Right. So, we Wesleyans should probably be somewhat careful in insisting on attaching “evangelical” to “fundamentalist” in our criticism of theories about inerrancy, etc. In this regard it would help also to consider the Lausanne Covenant’s (1975) statement on an evangelical view of scripture. I’m going on bad memory here, but I think that statement uses the word “infallible” to mean truthful, trustworthy and authoritative, without entering into debates about “without error.” Maybe someone with better memory can correct me.

    • OK, so I’ll have to reply to my own comment. The Lausanne Covenant does say “without error” and then gives this qualification, “in all it affirms.” How one understands “affirms” is key.

      • Having never read the Laussanne Covenant, I can’t help but smile in some of the language…

        “6. THE CHURCH AND EVANGELISM

        We affirm that Christ sends his redeemed people into the world as the Father sent him, and that this calls for a similar deep and costly penetration of the world. We need to break out of our ecclesiastical ghettos and permeate non-Christian society.”

        Meeting in the ecclesiastical ghetto of Laussanne, Switzerland, must have been a “costly” penetration of the world. Wonder what their per diem was?

        Having gone to college in the 60’s, these statements in the early 70’s would sound very patronizing.

  4. Mike Childs says

    I asked my friend what he thought about this article. He wrote the following:

    “But the question is, (the only question with me; I regard nothing else,) What saith the Scripture?”
    Sincerely,
    John Wesley

    • Great, Mike, but that really adds nothing to the idea we are discussing. We know Wesley wasn’t an inerrantist — and we know how dangerous it is to proof-text Wesley. So, again, it gets back to the name of evangelical and how we view Scripture.

  5. Agreed on separating evangelical from political and economic theories. One can be an evangelical and capitalist, socialist, Republican, or Democrat . I think we’d all agree that Wesley is evangelical and he favored colonialism, mercantilism, and to some degree the Divine Right of Kings (at least a strong allegiance to the Crown).
    Evangelical must include taking the Gospel to the world for the salvation of souls and transformation of lives. Either from the motive of passion or obligation. I have a problem with some who want to use the term and then seem to insist that some areas of a person’s life are off limits to God.
    Since we are far removed from the first century our primary resource to inform that message is Scripture. Some view of scripture must be included with definition of evangelucal. (Believe the proper Reformation quote is Sola gratia, Sola Fides, Sola Scriptura. The Sola Christo or Christus is a 20th century interpolation.)
    Matters not whether one uses the terms infallible or inerrant, nor how one parses them, nor if one chooses another word–as long as that word is not a synonym for malleable.
    Side note: The problem with Sola Scriptura is the Bible says don’t do that. Scripture is not for private interpretation but must be received in a actual community of believers. That community spans millenia.

  6. Scott Fritzsche says

    Pretty much any movement of evangelicals has had a very high view of scripture when you look at them historically. Because of that, evangelicals have traditionally been able to deal with each other and get along. Even the Niagara conference Fundamentalists who were isolationists were not completely discounted from the club if you will. Again, if you look at it historically, evangelicals have generally had one of two scriptural understandings: Inerrant or infallible. This makes a certain amount of sense really as one can not preach the gospel unless the gospel has some sort of authority and contains the truth.
    There seems to be some sort of artificial argument these days over the Word of God and the word of God. Christ is the Word made flesh. No one is really arguing that (I hope. If you are, you are not evangelical and probably not Christian). The Bible is also the word of God, that is to say God’s revelation about Himself to humanity. Both are true and accurate statements. To say the Bible is enthroned is a bit rough, but let’s not discount it completely. The particular statement does not include the Holy Spirit and that is problematic (a big problem really), but evangelicals have traditionally understood that the Bible is inspired bu God and only rightly understood by those of the faith, that is to say those who have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is only properly understood through the Spirit of course, but with that understanding, I have no issue with the Bible being “enthroned” over the consciences of men. If not the Bible, then what after all?
    One of the many problems with evangelical as a descriptor is also that it has come to be synonymous with I think the Bible says as the ultimate authoritative statement. While there are indeed some gifted with discernment, it is not all of us. Discernment, at least until the plague of western hyper individualism, was rightly understood to be primarily a process of the community of believers, IE the church. While I believe that should include all of us, it is not only you or I. Of course we will have differing opinions and interpretations and even reasons for those interpretations. I give you Joel and I who have some differing beliefs, and some similar beliefs. Some of those similar beliefs are for differing reasons. What holds us together? The shared faith and commitment to evangelism. Included in that is a shared understanding of the place of scripture, even if the interpretive methodology is different. What helps also is that he and I are fairly consistent in that scriptural methodology. In short, we can recognize the difference between “I believe” and “we believe”. I can (and do) believe that the UMC is wrong in how it handles divorce, but we (the UMC) believe what we do about it. Those things are not mutually exclusive, they are complimentary. My individual belief is not threatened by what the church teaches or says. We don’t have a personal faith or a corporate faith, we have a personal faith and a corporate faith. Evangelism should be teaching that, but all to often has over emphasized the personal. A return to true evangelical belief should right that wrong I think.

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