The evangelical movement has always prided itself, as has Protestantism in general in the past, on being Bible-based. The group I grew up in eschewed any creed or doctrinal statement, saying that we just believed the Bible. Other groups have doctrinal statements, but they are studded with Bible verses to show that they are Bible-based. But who says? Which person or group arbitrates what the Bible “really teaches”? After all, for many of the founders of the USA it endorsed slaveholding, and for those on the Mayflower it endorsed the genocide of the indigenous peoples. For one denomination it “proves” that one should organize a church this way, and for another that way. Evangelicals are notoriously fractious with church and denominational splits not uncommon.
This recently came home to me in a series of striking posts. Pastor Mark Driscoll critiqued Christian pacifism (or, shall we say, non-violent resistance) in one of his blogs, which would mean that most Anabaptist groups as well as most, perhaps all, Christians of the first couple of centuries are “pansies” [his term]. Of course, Driscoll has also been critiqued for his ideas about masculinity and his strong attack on Rob Bell and his willingness to legally copyright the name of his church and to go to court with those who have churches of the same name. More recently another megachurch pastor, Dr. John MacArthur who made headlines for condemning a half-billion Pentecostals and Charismatics, perhaps suggesting that they were hell-bound. These are just the more notorious judgments that seemed to flow across my computer screen, often from Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog (McKnight certainly being a well-known evangelical). How can responsible leaders use such language about those who are arguably brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they are wrong about this or that biblical interpretation. And if they are wrong, who has given this or that pastor the authority to say that his or her biblical interpretation is correct and that of the other is wrong?
It is in this context that I want to raise a book that I recently started to read Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. The Scripture is not self-interpreting. It requires an interpretive framework, a type of metanarrative, before it can have meaning for today. In the Catholic Church this is provided by tradition, reason, and, especially, the magisterium. They work together with scripture to produce an at least somewhat unified structure (doctrinally expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the “somewhat” being the caveat that there are groups within the Church that do speak against Vatican II Catholicism, although without breaking their (perhaps grudging) allegiance to the Pope and leaving the church). But who does this for evangelicalism? Billy Graham is too old. The shibboleths of “inerrancy” and the like have not proven able to bring about unity. Are we getting self-appointed “popes” in the likes of MacArthur? Or is the reality that the evangelical project, lacking an agreed-upon framework (in fact, as N. T. Wright points out in his book on the Psalms, even what one means by such a framework, in his terms, “worldview,” is not agreed upon), is breaking apart? Whether or not one likes Worthen’s answers, she raises compelling questions.
Of course, one could answer, “So what?” Does it matter if Mark Driscoll calls me (and Jesus) a “pansy” or John MacArthur suggests I am hell-bound? Perhaps on one level it does not – Paul would say, the issue is whether Jesus recognizes me, not whether John MacArthur does. James would note that there is one Judge, and his name is not John or Mark. But I am a child of the evangelical movement. I studied at Wheaton College (noted in the book mentioned above). I have read and in some cases met or studied under some of those mentioned in the book. And any collapse leaves damage in its wake, damage to people I know of as friends and colleges. So in practical and kingdom terms, it does matter. And, more importantly, it is important for each of us to bring to awareness the mental frameworks that he or she uses to interpret Scripture and to develop the humility to know that while such frameworks are necessary for us to develop coherent doctrine, they are not themselves divinely inspired except to the extent that the Spirit is speaking through the whole Church, not just our part of it.