Why I am (still) an Evangelical

First, let’s clear some brush. Evangelical is not a political movement, it’s not a formula for church growth, and it’s not a hairstyle. It’s not a publishing slogan, a conference circuit, a musical genre, or a brand of SUV.

I am (still) an Evangelical, even though I have to parry and dodge assumptions whenever I use that term. I am (still) an Evangelical, because of the great hope to which the movement aspired at it’s founding. I am (still) an Evangelical, because, at it’s root, Evangelicalism is an ecumenical movement: an attempt to erect a large tent in the ground between the cultural withdrawal of fundamentalism, and the withering incredulity of theological liberalism.

Evangelicalism is a way of reading and understanding the bible, and I (still) believe that it is as close as we can come to a neutral hermeneutic, one that allows the text to breathe out its stories without being unduly constrained by our expectations of it. The evangelical hermeneutic rests on this assumption – that if God is omnipotent, present, and interested in revealing things about himself, we can expect His revelation to have certain basic characteristics. Things like:

1) Inspiration – God was involved in the production of the texts.

2) Infallibility – the texts do not err in their purposes.

3) Historicity – the texts were written at a place and time in history, by people situated in history, and as such, they are products of their historical/cultural perspective.

4) Textuality – text as text: the normal tools for interpreting meaning in any text are the appropriate tools for interpreting meaning in biblical texts. In other words, when we read “Joseph was lowered into the well”, the meaning is conveyed by the content of the words “Joseph”, “lowered” and “well”, just as it would be if those words were written in personal letter, a historical footnote, or any other work outside of the biblical canon. Attempts to use “secret codes” or numerological sequences to unlock the “true” meaning of the text are therefore inappropriate to interpretation (think Kabbala, or “The Bible Code“).

5) Data – the text is an robotic engineer on an ‘NC‘ class star cruiser with a positronic brain incapable of human emotion. Just checking to see if you were still with me.

The second and third stakes in the Evangelical tent are, to me, the most interesting. It is the 2nd stake, infallibility, that marks out the left most boundary of the evangelical hermeneutic – it is the essential difference between Marcus Borg (the Jesus Seminar) and Ben Witherington or Scot McKnight.

Likewise, the third stake marks out the right boundary. It’s the third stake in the Evangelical tent that we have a tendency to to forget, to our detriment, because it is the third stake that separates Evangelicalism from Fundamentalism.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, was the subject of a public scorning a few months ago for daring to assert that the moon does not, actually, produce it’s own light. He dared to suggest that the moon’s light was merely a reflection of the light of the sun.

This is a problem for Fundamentalists. Because, you see, Genesis clearly states that God created two lights, one for the day, and one for the night, and fundamentalism requires a literalist reading of that text. There is no room for taking into account the historical or cultural situation of the author, and reading the text from within that perspective. A fundamentalist is fundamentally commited (get it?) to reading Genesis with the same kind of literalism with which one would read a newspaper article or, say, a science textbook. And so, Bill Nye’s assertion that the moon does not produce light becomes a contest of authority, between the literalism of Genesis and the literalism of Bill’s scientific data. And hey, look, if that’s really the fight, I’ll gladly put $20 down on God. $30 if my jury duty check has come and I have the extra cash.

But that’s not really the fight, is it? Evangelicalism isn’t bound in the same way that Fundamentalism is when it reads Genesis, because it recognizes that the author wrote from a certain cultural and historical perspective, and from his perspective, there was a bright light in the day, and a second light at night. A historical hermeneutic of Genesis also recognizes that the authorial intent matters to the interpretation – the point of the passage isn’t a scientific assertion about the origination of the light coming from the moon, it was that God made provision for human existence in the ordering of creation. We need light to see, so God instituted a means of light for day and for night. To agitate for a literal reading obscures the significant point of the passage.

Here’s why this matters – in the rush to defend the left flank against a diminishing view of scriptural accuracy, we have left undone the hard work driving in the right-hand peg, of teaching the people in our care how to read The Book with an eye toward the historicity of the authors. We’ve told them to believe it’s true, thundered that from pulpit and screen and print, but we haven’t taught them how to understand the thing about it that is true. A belief in the infallibility of scripture is a crippling kind of intellectual deprivation when coupled with the sort of literalism that fundamentalism espouses.

So, I am (still) an Evangelical, and not a critical deconstructionist, because I have to believe that an omnipotent God is capable of speaking an infallible truth into human experience, and I have to believe that a compassionate God would. But also, I am (still) an Evangelical, and not a fundamental literalist, because I have to believe that God’s dialog with humanity took place in time, in space, in history, and in the midst of the very real cultural features of our human existence. It is an unfolding story, whispered in human ears, etched on human hearts, and relayed through their hands.

This is the great strength of the Evangelical tent, and how it holds up so wide a canopy.

25 thoughts on “Why I am (still) an Evangelical

  1. corey

    a TOTAL letdown. This is a fine and good, but I thought there was gonna be more Mac/ Apple content here. bummer.

  2. aly hawkins

    I think perhaps part of the problem with the word “infallibility” is that it’s not a very specific word. It’s negative; it tells us what the biblie is not: fallible. But what is the bible?

    This has always bugged me. The other words — tent pegs, as you have them — Evangelicals stake down for the bible are positive: inspiration, historicity, textuality. These words mean something very specific, and they communicate unambiguous ideas about what we believe the bible to be. But “infallible”…man, it’s just so vague and unhelpful. It’s like me calling Ash “unassuming.” Not assuming of what, exactly?

    The main point of your definition of infallibility is “the texts do not err IN THEIR PURPOSES.” I suggest we come up with a positive (and I mean “positive” in a specific grammar-type way, not a touchy-feely way) word that emphasizes this idea of God’s purposes, agenda and intent in inspiring the text, rather than a word whose emphasis doesn’t tell us anything about THE POINT of the text. (You nicely illustrated this with the Science Guy example: the point of the Genesis passage is God’s provision for human need, but “infallible” doesn’t come close to pointing us in this direction.)

    Could we turn this thread into a GroupThink? My suggestion to replace “infallible” is “reliably demonstrative of God’s purposes.” (I know it’s a phrase and not a word. Maybe I’ll come up with something more succinct later.)

  3. michael lee Post author

    Aly – I’m going to mull this over a bit, and write more later, but my initial reaction is that the there’s not a good positive statement that expresses the idea of infallibility with the same kind of precision. I’m not sure that we need to sacrifice that precision for the sake of syntax.

    Also, I know some people might take up arms over the distinction between “infallibility”, a word that hasn’t gotten much press in evangelical circles, and the word “inerrancy”, which has flown from many banners. I think the Fuller statement on biblical authority, linked here, provides a great context for understanding how “infallibility” is used in this context.

  4. Chad

    All I know is that Bill Nye needs to be burned at the stake.

    Great article, Mike.

  5. aly hawkins

    Dude, we shouldn’t change it “for the sake of syntax.” I know I fly around at night in the guise of Grammar Girl, but this suggestion is not motivated by a desire to see all words in their proper places for the sake of my supernatural OCD (which was thrust upon me at the tender age of 6 by the bite of a radioactive spider who couldn’t stop spelling). No, I have a genuine concern for the “crippling kind of intellectual deprivation” which you have described. I’m suggesting that our word choice may be part of the problem — not THE problem, but a substantial slice of it. Words have power, and when we don’t pick the right words to communicate the right ideas, we direct that power in ineffective ways by communicating wrong ideas…or at the very least, muzzy and indistinct ideas.

    I’m suggesting that “infallibility” communicates a wrong (or at least muzzy) idea. It focuses it’s power on “without error” instead of “God’s purposes.” Which is the more important idea here, deserving of our attention? I believe we should be willing to sacrifice precision for the sake of primacy of importance.

  6. Jeremy

    Good stuff….I like reading things that make me think and its strange (in a good way) how and why stuff like this comes up…

    It seems lately that I have had to be very specific in what I believe and how I convey that belief to friends that have little or no understanding about what it actually means to be a Christian. Reading things like this really forges my thoughts and encourages me to seek out opinions and teaching by others. Thanks Mike. I clicked on 4 ads for you.

    Aly, I like your instinct about the word infallible. Growing up in the church this was always something that I really wrestled with and I think you hit the nail on the head with the connotation of the word itself. When I asked hard questions about things I was often met with a sharp “infallible” backlash that never really answered my question. I felt like it was a cheap way of getting around difficult ideas. It was not until I really started investigating and finding people way smarter than me who would talk to a lot of these points did I get the whole idea of “infallibility.” Fuller sums it up great when they say, “Thus, sloganeering can never be a substitute for the careful, patient analysis of what God’s Word teaches, including what it teaches about itself.” I think that’s why I like the Fuller Mission Statement so much. It’s not pretentious. As for a better word to use, while reading it, the word that jumped out to me is ‘Trustworthy.’ That to me is what the Bible is. It’s inspired by God and we as the Church have put it through the wringer to make sure that what it contains is just that, inspired. Because of this I can trust in it fully. For me personally, I can think of no better compliment than when someone calls me trustworthy.

    So Mike, I’m with you. Regardless of the horrible negativity associated with the word, I’m an Evangelical. And I have the big hair and the Costco size can of Aquanet to prove it.

  7. Scot McKnight

    Mike,
    Great post. I like “identity-forming” for my view of Scripture. It implies authority and truth and all that, but it goes farther into what Scripture does to us and for us.

  8. june

    “We’ve told them to believe it’s true, thundered that from pulpit and screen and print, but we haven’t taught them how to understand the thing about it that is true. A belief in the infallibility of scripture is a crippling kind of intellectual deprivation when coupled with the sort of literalism that fundamentalism espouses.”

    One of my primary goals in life is to stop the chain chain chaaaaiiin of this with my own children. I am, in fact, desperate to teach them how to understand Truth in a way that I was not taught in all my years of church and Christian college attendance. Thanks for this post Mike. It spurreth me on. (I don’t mean to say that I think God/Christianity/Truth/faith/moonlight call all be explained perfectly…I’ve already started using the phrase “It’s a mystery” in regard to certain things they ask about.)

    Aly, your point about language is well-taken…and yet, I tend to end up feeling hopeless about language sometimes. In this age, words seem to have very short shelf lives and morph into so very many meanings that no one could’ve foreseen. Maybe I’m wrong about that. It’s all muzzy to me. (I’m generally not smart enough to be in this class.)

  9. michael lee Post author

    Scot, you need to let me know ahead of time if you’re planning to read the blog … that way I can make sure the posts are well-thought through and witty, instead of just a shambling jallopy of meaningless verbage.

    Sheesh.

  10. aly hawkins

    Michael, perhaps when you link to Scot, you should just be prepared. (Note: This is good-natured sarcasm, in case it doesn’t come across in print.)

    Also, since he didn’t say otherwise, I’m claiming that Scot’s backing me up on the whole “infallibility” GroupThink thing, since he suggested “identity-forming.” This makes me feel Okay about me.

  11. Jesus

    So, what’s the deal? Here i am, cruising my favorite blogs and you write this nice little post and I think, “Right on, homes.”

    You know I’m here because I promised to be with you until the ends of the earth. Hate to break it to you, but that includes your little blog. So I’ve been here all the time, and now Scot McKnight makes one post and you go all gaga.

    Get a grip.

    And tell Chad to stop using naughty words.

  12. corey

    I feel like a dick, you know, correcting the Son of Man and all, but in pop culture, “Holmes” is traditionally spelled with an “L”.

    Peace, out. And thanks for the sacrifice.

  13. Cliff

    Michael

    Really good post. I grew up evangelical but I still need good reminders about why that heritage is so valuable.

    The infallibility thing seems really important to me, too. I find it interesting that you use the notion of truthfulness (“We’ve told them to believe it’s true, thundered that from pulpit and screen and print, but we haven’t taught them how to understand the thing about it that is true.”) as the positive alternative. Was that intentional?

    This business of Truth is a pretty hot debate in postmodern circles, and needs more working out than I see here. See the discussion here between Emergent and traditional evangelicalism on this.

    Cliff

  14. Chad

    Corey – Peace be unto you.

    Aly – I’m always watching, always judging. I’m on you like white on rice.

  15. Chad

    Shoot.

    I think it would have been funnier had I taken to time to re-login as the messiah.

  16. Bill

    I’m not crazy about the word “infallible” either. Merriam Webster defines it as:

    “1 : incapable of error : UNERRING
    2 : not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint”

    This implies that:

    1. there are absolutely no kinds of errors (from a 21st century perspective)
    2. if you just read the Bible, it won’t mislead you

    Number two does not take into account the difficult task of interpretation. I realize that you (and Fuller) are using the term in a more technically defined sense, but my point is that the popular, basic definition of the word is a hindrance in my opinion.

  17. Larry Edgar

    I think we keep trying to use words to describe things and ideas that are really mysteries, the words don’t stick so well. Perhaps words can point at Truth, but shouldn’t be construed as Truth itself. It’s especially hard with words that are over two thousand years old. In our scientific age, we like ideas to be tied up all nice and tidy and neat and rational. As someone once said, we shouldn’t confuse the map with the land itself.

    Having said that, I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m not really an evangelical.

    Lse

  18. Kansas Bob

    Fundamentalists masquerade in many forms … thanks for delineating Evangelical thinkings. I particularly agree with “the texts do not err in their purposes”. Danny Sims (simsdanny.blogspot.com) has an interesting recent post that says that

    … the purpose of the bible is not to know the bible but to know God …

    I like that because even we Evangelicals lose sight of this and get immersed in the minutia of the proverbial trees and lose sight of the forest.

  19. Melody

    So you are going to join the likes of Rod, Al, Don and others who have been running the music thing forever? Congratulations, you must be some musician and also a fun guy.

    I emerged here because of your evangelical bent which is all to rare in blogland and you have that APU thing attached to you as well. I’m glad there are still a few left at the old homestead and I really like what you said. It seems to me that a great many in the emerging movement never were evangelical so it’s odd they want to claim the title now. You are well spoken on the subject and I will tune in again (no pun intended).

  20. Melody

    Sorry Michael, I was at APU when it was still APC. I graduated with Rod and was 1 year ahead of Jon Wallace and no, I’m not telling any stories about them. (I’m dying to, but I won’t) I was a music major (theory/composition emphasis) and teach music in public schools.

  21. Melody

    If Rod had ever consumed alcohol or danced, Sharon would not have married him so he couldn’t take the risk. He nearly got ex-communicated for playing drums at church once, though. In my book, he is Top ‘O the Heap.

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