Sunday, February 09, 2014

Worthen: A Form of Intellectualism... (9)

Chapter 8 of Molly Worthen's, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Reviews of previous chapters include:

Chapter 1 (Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism)
Chapter 2 (Evangelicals on the Edges)
Chapter 3 (The Strivings of Christianity Today)
Chapter 4 (Mennonites and Nazarenes in the 50s)
Chapter 5 (The Drive to Accreditation)
Chapter 6 (The Church Growth Movement)
Chapter 7 (The Canterbury Trail)
Chapter 8 (Democrat Evangelicals)

And now, chapter 9, "Evangelicals' Great Matter."  I lament that this book has taken so much of my time. I would rather be reading something else. But I believe it is important for someone with my particular skill set to be engaging the whims of religious culture. I view my engagement with these sorts of issues a ministry to evangelicalism and to my own faith community.

Those who control the story, control the future. Most people aren't interested in nuance--slogans and simple narratives win the day. Scholars, who usually deal in nuance and are often boring communicators, are thus easily and often lynched by the masses. I feel like someone needs to be carefully wading in these historical waters and offering simple but accurate counter-narratives.

1. Two names basically sum up this chapter. The first is Harold Lindsell, known for his incendiary 1976 book, The Battle for the Bible. His slogan? Inerrancy.

Simple. An easy idea to rally around. How could a scholar compete, full of nuance and knowledge of ancient genres unfamiliar to the person in the pew or the wealthy donor? Even to make a counter-argument sounds like you are against the Bible. As one Southern Baptist leader at the time put it, "it is no easy matter to bridge the gap between the scholarly historical approach and the views of the Bible which some people hold" (199).

Lindsell would have his revenge on Fuller, where he left in protest in 1962. He would paint a picture in his book of them as liberals abandoning Scripture--a narrative I heard from someone even last week. Here is Fuller's evil statement on the Bible: "All the books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, are the written word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice"

Lindsell wanted more and was instrumental in getting the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy written in 1978. Such a tool would help fight off trends like women in ministry and the way the church growth movement was contextualizing the gospel in new contexts. It would stem the tide of the charismatic movement with its emphasis on the Spirit speaking through Scripture.

"To argue that [his] inerrantist position represented the original view of the early Church Fathers and Protestant Reformers, Lindsell began with a string of quotations plucked from church history and shorn of context" (201). The meaning of words is not merely in quoting them (locution). It is in knowing what they meant within the context where they were spoken (illocution). Lindsell quoted the words, but gave them subtly different meanings, because he had quite different assumptions from a different time and place.

Yes, Christians have never thought of the Bible as having errors. But what is an error? And what meaning to the Bible were they saying did not have error?" Even the Reformers were not reading the text as a science or history book but as a book about faith and practice. Even Lindsell's old roommate and friend, Carl Henry, lamented that Lindsell had "shifted the public perception of the evangelical movement from its role as a dynamic life-growing force to a cult squabbling over inerrancy" (202).

Worse, he basically set conservative Christians on a warpath to devour each other, which made no one more godly, did great harm to the church internally, and turned lost souls off to Christ.

2.  The second name in this chapter is Francis Schaeffer. Mark Noll, then the darling evangelical historian of Wheaton, had this to say about Francis Schaeffer to Newsweek: "the danger is that people will take [Schaeffer] for a scholar, which he is not. Evangelical historians are especially bothered by his simplified myth of America's Christian past" (218).

Worthen sums up his historiography in this way: "Schaeffer wowed audiences by explaining 500 years of intellectual history in a paragraph and a casual chalkboard diagram--but he did so with exaggeration, oversimplifications, and misinformation that would make a specialist cry" (216).

What was this grand narrative? It was one of decline. It was Schaeffer that made abortion the climax of a Western decline that he said started with Thomas Aquinas in the 1100s. Interestingly, it was Schaeffer who made abortion the centerpiece of conservative American Christian politics, to where even today many Christians can't even imagine a Christian voting for a Democratic candidate.

His book, How Should We Then Live?, was more than influential in ideas. It was a multi-media presentation. Evangelicals would now begin to enter the entertainment world to try to influence the popular imagination. He would revive the slogan, "Ideas have consequences" (from a 1948 book that instead looked to William of Ockham instead of Aquinas as the beginning of the end).

Schaeffer created a battle for civilization based in ideas. After all, Schaeffer had dabbled in the fundamentalist Calvinist world of Kuyper and Van Til. So it is predictable that he would see a decline of ideas at the root of civilization's decline, starting with the ridiculous notion that Aquinas stood at the fountainhead.

True decline, from a biblical standpoint, has to do with submission to God and love of our neighbor. Has love of neighbor declined in our world? I seriously doubt it. There was as much hatred and prejudice in the Middle Ages down to the civil rights era as ever. In fact, if anything, the Western world is more loving than ever toward the other.

Submission to God appears to be in decline, especially if you filter it through a question of what people believe. But are less people truly in submission to God than before? In truth, people who call themselves Christians have always used the name of God, even the Bible as a cover to do hateful things opposed to God! Were the fundamentalists pastors who rallied with the KKK more in submission to God than Bill Nye the science guy, even though he is an atheist?

I don't want to push too hard on Schaeffer's ideas here. I think he even influenced some of my early thinking on the last 500 years, at least indirectly. I believe that Schaeffer was a wonderful man and I wish I could have met him. I believe L'Abri must have been a wonderful place for people to find Christ. I think I would have enjoyed the warmth of this man, who believed in taking care of God's creation and helping those in need.

I have only pushed back because, as you know, ideas have consequences.

3. I also push back because these forces so easily capture popular imagination, so much so that my own tradition is infected. I didn't think much of it at the time, but what business did Wesleyans have going to Bill Gothard's seminars in the 70s, when his sentiments are vastly different from those of historical Wesleyanism?

In 1978, Nazarene scholar Mildred Wynkoop summed up my feelings well: young Nazarenes "are being drawn in to the many 'cultish' movements in our religious world, today... These include groups with a very strong Calvinist ground, often camouflaged by social activity or flashy philosophy... A one-man (or woman) operation... 'Un-Christianizes' all those who question or reject some theory of Scripture... Claiming to be a Shepherd over others (only Christ is Shepherd) rather than Servanthood, as Jesus and Paul indicated" (209).

Finally, this chapter covered the switch to the NIV that took place in the 70s. Interestingly, it was facilitated in reaction to The Living Bible. Next to the KJV, the NIV looked like a liberal force. But next to the Living Bible, it seemed conservative.

The bottom line of the NIV debate is that many people can't tell the difference between what is a matter of faith and what is a matter of tradition. A person's faith inevitably gets formed around whatever form of faith they grow up with. Accordingly, when a person says something about there not just being three wise men, they take that as an attack on faith rather than as a refining of faith.

So it was with the NIV. If you grew up with the ending of Mark, it seemed like an attack on faith to suggest it wasn't original. In reality, it was just a refining of the form of faith. Ironically, when the TNIV and then NIV2011 came out, those who had formed their faith around the old NIV made the same KJV complaints again and came up with the ESV.

Hear the conclusion of the matter: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!

1 comment:

Mark Kennedy said...

Excellent overview of some things I experienced but haven't fully understood. Thanks, Ken.