Rigid Biblians and Red Letter Christians

By Ryan Rodrick Beiler 11-16-2007

A recent post on CT's Liveblog reminded me of a thread I've been wanting to sound off on since Tony Campolo defended the concept of Red Letter Christians. Ted Olson describes how theologian J.P. Moreland challenged the Evangelical Theological Society with a session called: "How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It." (Am I the only one that's surprised he wasn't burnt at the evangelical stake for the title alone?)

As Olson notes: "ETS membership has only two doctrinal requirements: you must affirm the Trinity and the inerrancy of Scripture." (Though when I visited their site, I have to admit I dig their logo, which includes a cross breaking a sword!) Here's Olson's summary of Moreland's critique:

"In the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an overcommitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ," he said. "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." The problem, he said, is "the idea that the Bible is the sole source of knowledge of God, morality, and a host of related important items. Accordingly, the Bible is taken to be the sole authority for faith and practice." ...

Rather than developing a robust epistemology in response to secularism, he said, evangelicals reacted and retreated. Now evangelical theologians aren't allowed to come to any new conclusions about the truths in Scripture, and they're not allowed to find truths outside of Scripture. As a result, he said, they're engaged in "private language games and increasingly detailed minutia" and "we're not seeing work on broad cultural themes."

It's refreshing to hear such criticism coming from within the evangelical academy. I've been frustrated over the years with Christians who are unwilling to see any truth outside of scripture or who prefer to explain away rather than grapple with the Bible's internal diversity. Even pillars of the church like Martin "Sola Scriptura" Luther felt the freedom to call the book of James "a right strawy epistle" because of its teachings on works.

I may disagree with Luther about James-love James-but I also love Luther's freedom in his approach to the canon. I also love N.T. Wright's assertion regarding scriptural diversity, for example, that accounts of Christ's death and resurrection that differ in details but affirm essentials are evidence of the veracity of those essentials because in real life, multiple witnesses tend to have diversity in their testimonies-while Da Vinci Code-type conspiracies get their stories straight with rigid uniformity. Expand that concept to the whole of scripture, and you've got a diversity of authors with some very real differences that, taken as a whole, form a narrative that has integrity in essentials. We may struggle to understand the diversity at times, but we need not feel threatened by it or explain it away.

I am first and foremost a Christian. I worship, follow, and seek to imitate Christ. I am not a Biblian. I do not worship the Bible, even though it is a reliable and authoritative witness to the person of Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. It is not a question of choosing one over and against the other, but a question of priority, emphasis, and ultimate allegiance.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the web editor for Sojourners.

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