J. P. Moreland said something provocative this week. Ted Olsen, in his “Postcard from San Diego” (where the Evangelical Theological Society has been meeting) recounts how Moreland told a packed auditorium that North American evangelicals are “over-committed” to the Bible.
Ted opines that “to accuse evangelicals of over-commitment to the Bible at ETS would be like accusing environmentalists of talking too much about climate change at a Sierra Club meeting.” But there it is.
This primo evangelical apologist, J. P. Moreland from Talbot School of Theology, told the Evangelical Theology Society, “In the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ. And it has produced a mean-spiritedness among the over-committed that is a grotesque and often ignorant distortion of discipleship unto the Lord Jesus.”
I too have observed the irrationality, the mean-spiritedness, and the distortions of discipleship of which Moreland spoke. I can relate.
Moreland’s complaint, according to Olsen, is “the idea that the Bible is the sole source of knowledge of God, morality, and a host of related important items.”
Those with a little historical knowledge know that when the 16th-century reformers raised the cry, Sola scriptura, they never meant that Scripture stood alone, only that it was the norm by which all other religious authorities were to be judged.
In Olsen’s “postcard,” Moreland says Scripture has crowded out three other good things. It has suppressed (1) an eagerness to learn from investigating the phenomenal world for what it can teach us; (2) an openness to following the leading of the Spirit; and (3) a willingness to appeal to natural theology and moral law in political and cultural discussions.
The Missing Factor
All of these things are important. All of these have their appropriate use. But what is missing from this picture?
The church. A distorted evangelical use of Scripture has resulted from tearing the Bible away from the fabric of the church.
Bob Webber wrote succinctly about the place of the Scripture in the fabric of the church’s life and faith in the Appendix to Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World.
Scripture is the church’s tradition, the possession of the church, and as such, the church is responsible to guard it, preserve it, pass it down, and interpret it. ... It is not the Bible standing alone, but Scripture as the product of apostolic interpretation handed down in the church for generations.
Others have noted the importance of reading the Bible “with” the church. Jim Packer, for example, addressed this in the New Dictionary of Theology in his typically understated way: “Nor is the helpfulness of the church’s heritage of interpretation always recognized.” And Chris Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers is a successful experiment in trying to put the Bible back where it belongs—in the bosom of the church. This restoration of the tie between Bible and the church is also the point of the first article of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future, on which Bob Webber labored so diligently before he passed away.
So when we read the Bible “with” the church (with the historic church, with the global church, and with the ancient consensual church), do some of the problems Moreland mentioned solve themselves?
Surely a historically and globally informed reading of Scripture will get us listening to the Spirit and learning from his leadings. And it will also help us to recognize and discipline excess without withdrawing into an anti-Spirit rationalism. And if we read the Scripture with the church, we’ll learn how the church was able to use natural law arguments alongside Scripture, but in subordination to Scripture.
Whenever an issue arises, evangelicals’ impulse is to ask, What does the Bible say? But an informed evangelical perspective realizes that there is usually no straight line between the biblical text and the contemporary problem. Negotiating that path requires contemporary social or scientific analysis, prayer for wisdom and guidance, and drawing on the experience of Christians. For the mature Christian, Scripture is supreme, but never truly alone.
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Update: I've now been able to read Moreland's paper. Read my further comments on this subject.
The primacy of the biblical narrative is the topic of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future Conference this month. There’s still time to register.
J. P. Moreland's most recent book is Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power.