Neo-evangelicals in the final stage of drift away from a fundamentalist heritage pretend great reverence for the Bible. But when examined closely, their reverence does not stretch far enough to hide underlying disbelief, for they fail to treat Scripture as a perfect and final revelation from God. They postulate that the true Word of God must be discerned either by trimming finite excess from Scripture or by supplementing Scripture with knowledge dispensed directly to our minds by the Holy Spirit.
Taking away from Scripture
Many today, following the lead of Fuller Theological Seminary, limit the authority of Scripture to narrow questions of faith and practice. They deny it comprehensive authority, extending to questions of science and history. Although they concede that the Bible contains trustworthy revealed truth, they insist that it contains error also. How can we pick out the truth? They reply that the mark of reliable and authoritative truth is its direct relevance to Christian faith and practice. When the Bible speaks on moral and theological issues, then, according to this school of thought, the Bible may be believed.
The distinction between moral-theological truth and scientific-historical truth appears tenable only because, in the Western intellectual tradition, we expect them to be recognizably different. Thinking of the results of hard-headed academic research, we imagine scientific-historical truth to be concrete, intelligible, and testable. Thinking of the propositions of speculative philosophy, we imagine moral-theological truth to be abstract, elusive, and unverifiable.
But our preconceptions are very wrong. Biblical teaching on morality is simply a compendium of practical advice, having as much direct bearing on behavior as any prescription coming from scientific psychology or medicine. Also, Biblical teaching on theology is largely a recital of facts in the realm of history. God created the world, He came as Savior, and He intends to come again. How then can moral-theological truth in the Bible be distinguished from scientific-historical truth?
Take, for instance, the story of Israel's deliverance from Egypt. This story, relating a crucial stage in the unfolding plan of redemption, clearly has great theological significance. Yet it is also a record of events purporting to be history, although their historicity is doubted by many leading scholars today. What should a Christian's position be? Should he regard the story as an infallible article of faith or a fallible detail of history? Perhaps a neo-evangelical will reply that the Holy Spirit will lead us to the right conclusion. But one of the more popular conclusions among people claiming to be Spirit-filled is that the Bible is entirely true. So, the neo-evangelical is put in an awkward position. He must assume that all these Bible-believing Christians, both past and present, are being misled either by ignorance or by powers of darkness. From his point of view, these Christians have gullibly overextended their faith in the Bible.
How, then, may they be saved from excessive belief and restored to proper skepticism? A typical neo-evangelical evades this uncomfortable question. If pressed, he may respond that too much faith may be tolerated as harmless. Yet surely a God of truth would want His children to perceive the exact boundaries of truth in the received text of Scripture. If these boundaries exist, we have a sacred duty to find exactly where they are.
But such boundaries, if they exist, are by no means clearly marked. The neo-evangelical claims that to locate them requires laborious study, informed by all the internal evidence uncovered by textual criticism and all the external evidence uncovered by historical and archaeological research. Most of the people with whom God desires to communicate are not scholars, however. If scholarship alone can determine the scope of reliable revelation, the layman desirous of finding the truth must depend on others. He must rely on experts in Biblical interpretation. He must consult with a scholarly elite to find out what God is really saying.
Thus, in its ultimate tendency, the neo-evangelical doctrine of Scripture interposes learned opinion between the believer and his Bible. But learned opinion varies and fluctuates, and a layman is in no position to weigh the competing views of experts. So, church leaders must step into the vacuum of uncertainty by declaring which views are correct. In effect, they take upon themselves the authority to dictate how the Bible should be interpreted. They set themselves above the Bible itself, for what matters is not what the Bible really says, but how they construe it.
Disdain for the believer's right to interpret Scripture for himself has long been characteristic of the Catholic church, but in recent generations the pulpits of liberal and neo-orthodox churches have also resembled miniature papacies. The voices coming from them have claimed to possess higher knowledge than a humble believer could obtain by reading and accepting the Bible as literal truth. Today, similar voices rise from the pulpits of all neo-evangelical churches that have gone so far as to deny inerrancy.
As we might have predicted, these churches are racing towards rapprochement with their Catholic and neo-orthodox sisters in heresy. Some years ago, Billy Graham, a prominent neo-evangelical, singled out a Catholic pope, John XXIII, and a founder of neo-orthodoxy, Karl Barth, as the two greatest theologians in the twentieth century. It is evident that the battles of the Reformation are still being waged. Indeed, the Reformation is not a single episode in history, but a continuing struggle since the first century.
It is preposterous to think that God wants priests or professors to stand between Him and His beloved children. Such men tyrannize over the humble believer by demanding assent to mere theories and speculations, sliding ever deeper into unbelief. In the usual course of things, the humble believer ignores the experts and adopts instead the safer policy of trusting the Bible. According to neo-evangelical theologians, this humble believer is deceived. But who has deceived him if not God? Would a truthful God, recognizing that His children would have no refuge from unbelieving lies except in their Bible, allow this book to contain error?
At the root of neo-evangelical devaluation of Scripture is a faulty conception of God. No Christian doubts that God wants man to seek redemptive truth in the pages of written revelation. But the neo-evangelical believes that God allows this revelation to be alloyed with exaggerations, fables, and culture-bound values. Why? What is the sovereign purpose of God in allowing error to coexist beside truth in the one book essential for salvation? Is it so that His children will develop skill in separating truth from error? But Scripture does not ask to be dissected with the tools of critical analysis. Rather, pervaded by a high opinion of its own veracity, Scripture expects to be believed with uncomplicated faith. Paul says,
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
2 Timothy 3:16
The testimony of church history is that humble followers of Christ have always looked upon Scripture as a legacy of His words, precious and inviolate in their truth. No other view may be found where Christianity has reached shining excellence through hardship or persecution.
If Scripture contains error, here then is a strange anomaly. A God of truth allows His self-revelation not only to be mixed with error, but also to contain assertions claiming absolute truthfulness for this revelation in its entirety. For example, Jesus says,
Scripture cannot be broken.
Since Jesus reveals the mind of the Father (John 8:26), we must conclude that the Father wishes us to accept Scripture (the written Bible) as authentic divine revelation. If there is error in the Bible, is He not therefore presenting error as the truth, and is He not guilty of lying? But the Father cannot lie, nor can He do anything that might justly be regarded as complicity in lying. Therefore, the Bible which He encourages us to accept as His Word deserves our unreserved belief.
Yet the neo-evangelical scorns inerrancy. Perhaps he imagines that God put error in the Bible to dramatize its message and heighten its appeal. To impress us with the majesty and power of God, the Bible teaches that the Flood was universal, whereas really it was limited in extent. To avoid offending our squeamishness, the Bible teaches that God hates all death and bloodshed, whereas He engineered a pitiless struggle for existence that lasted millions of years before the Fall.
Thinking of this kind would be the logical development of views commonplace in neo-evangelical circles, especially among the more learned and influential. Already, they are very close to saying that God bends the truth to His own advantage. It is evident that their god is not the God of the Bible, but a projection of their own character (Psalm 50:21), for anyone who accuses God of being a liar is a liar himself. A distinguishing mark of neo-evangelicals has always been a desire for friendly dialogue with men in distant corners of false religion and philosophy. In such dialogue, neo-evangelicals reveal their basic dishonesty. To achieve common ground, they are quite willing to muddy or modify true doctrine.
Adding to Scripture
Over the years, the charismatic movement has proved itself to be a branch of neo-evangelicalism. It has the same earthly mindedness, the same dislike for personal separation, and the same deficient view of Biblical authority.
Although many charismatics enthusiastically endorse the inerrancy of the Bible, they greatly diminish its authority by assigning greater importance to the present leading of the Holy Spirit. They are very attentive to subjective experience, which they regard as the field of the Spirit's activity. Indeed, as they listen to their own thoughts, they may suppose that something they hear or feel is really the Spirit speaking to them. They say, "The Spirit told me," or, "The Spirit gave me this thought," or, "The Spirit led me to this conclusion." Perhaps, perhaps not.
The Spirit can certainly direct our thoughts, but like the wind, He Himself is invisible. We can see only the effects of His presence. But just as a leaf can shake from various causes besides the wind, perhaps from some tremor in the earth, so our thoughts can arise from various causes. We can never say with absolute certainty that a certain thought comes from the Holy Spirit. We must concede the possibility that it is self-generated, or even that it comes from an evil spirit, garbed in light. We can confidently attribute it to the Spirit only if it is Scriptural and only if it diverges sharply from our own mental habits. Before we admit it to an important decision, however, we must thoroughly test it by prayer.
But though a thought appears to come from the Spirit, we should never exalt it to the level of divine revelation. To equate subjective experience with the voice of God is the highest arrogance. When the prophets said, "Thus says the Lord," they were not ennobling their own thoughts with the Lord's name, as do modern charismatics. Rather, they had actually heard the Lord speaking to them. The Lord had communicated to them directly through a voice that was perceptibly not internal in origin and clearly not under the prophet's control. Today, the Lord may stir our thoughts, but He does not speak to us directly. And since our thoughts have complex origins that cannot be infallibly discerned, we cannot claim to be channels of infallible revelation.
The charismatic may, however, uncritically suppose that anything pious in his mind is the Spirit's voice, and he may learn to follow his own thoughts as his primary guide. The Bible may then fade into the background and become his secondary guide. If a conflict arises between inner leading and the Bible, he undoubtedly will realize that the same Spirit must agree with Himself. But he may be reluctant to admit that inner leading is the faulty product of his own sinful heart. Rather, to maintain his heart's desire, he may cling to inner leading and reinterpret Scripture to agree with it. So, even though he may not be guilty of slicing away parts of Scripture as unworthy for use, he nevertheless sets the imaginings of his own mind on the same level as Scripture. He does not subtract from Scripture, but he adds to it.
By letting inner leading reshape his understanding of Scripture, he can evade any God-given teaching that strikes him as uncongenial. In the end, there is nothing to keep him from backsliding into the deepest pits of folly. His first misstep was departure from the Christian doctrine that Scripture is a perfect and complete rule for life, and this departure must be labeled as heresy.
People on the neo-evangelical road are a mixed group. Some are truly God's children, headed for His stern chastisement. But others going down this broad highway of a popular trend need to examine themselves and question whether they really know the Lord. It does not matter that they had a Christian upbringing. It does not matter that they are good people, active in a church, surrounded with Christian friends, fluent in all Christian rites and usages. All these are externals, mere window dressing on the heart. The question is, have they ever turned from their sin and sinfulness and received the salvation available through Christ alone? Have they ever cast themselves in dependence upon Jesus as Savior and Lord?
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.