It nearly goes without saying that evangelicals have a special relationship with the Bible. It’s not the same as their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but it can sometimes come close.
For one thing, when we talk about “the Word,” it is sometimes hard to tell if we’re talking about the Bible or the person of Jesus, for we generally capitalize Word in either case. And we tend to talk about the Bible as if it is a living thing, as per 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed.” It harkens to Genesis, when God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).
As such, we talk about a Bible passage that “speaks to us” or about how we “heard God” as we read a passage of Scripture.
To remind us of the personal nature of the Bible, we often remind one another that, as much as anything else, the Bible is to be read as a personal letter from God to us. This analogy was eloquently advocated by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:
My listener, how highly do you value God’s Word? … Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved. I assume that God’s Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God’s Word in the same way the lover reads this letter.
In another essay he casts a distrustful eye to learned commentaries—in his view, they often obscure the plain meaning of the text as they explore the linguistic and historical context of a passage. Instead, he says,
Each of us should read this letter solely as an individual, as a single individual who has received this letter from God. In reading it, we will be concerned foremost with ourselves and with our relationship to him. We will not focus on the beloved’s letter, that this passage, for example, may be interpreted in this way, and that passage in that way—oh, no, the important thing to us will be to act as soon as possible.
Formerly—in the era of physical Bibles—an evangelical’s devotion could be gauged by how worn the pages of his or her Bible were or how many verses were underlined or annotated. Carrying around one’s Bible was like holding hands with a lover.
So when liberal scholars and agnostics criticize the Bible and question its authority, we get defensive, not so much because of our theology of the Bible, but because it feels like they are attacking a loved one. Our devotion to and relationship with the Bible can, of course, wander into bibliolatry. If some Catholics can imply that Mary is practically a fourth member of the Trinity, sometimes evangelicals inadvertently and similarly exalt the Bible. But mostly that’s a caricature.
Other critics blanch when we use words like inerrant or infallible to describe the authority of the Bible: “Only God is inerrant!” they exclaim. Well, of course. But when we use those words, we don’t mean them in the same way we mean them when we’re talking about God. The problem with so many criticisms of evangelicalism is that they traffic in the very thing we are accused of: literalism.
Here I’m not going to engage in a theological defense of inerrancy. That has been done and done well by others (note, for example, this online series by Tim Challies, or the book-length treatment by Craig Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions [Brazos, 2014]). In this series, I’m more interested in noting why, at an experiential level, evangelicals are inclined to use words like inerrant and infallible to describe the Bible’s authority, why they trust the Bible so. Again, I’m not saying that the theology is unimportant to evangelicals, for they wouldn’t continue to hold to such descriptors if there were not sound biblical and theological reasons to do so. But there are also existential reasons that reinforce the theological.
‘I Sense God Telling Me…’
One reason we trust the Bible is this: Scripture demonstrates to evangelicals that it is absolutely authoritative and trustworthy as we engage it. We open our Bibles and it never ceases to amaze us that we read something we believe God wants us to hear personally. It’s not that we hear a voice, but from time to time we have this intuitive sense that the verse under discussion was written just to us. When this sort of thing happens, a skeptic might say we’re confusing a spiritual moment with the very common feeling one gets when experiencing a coincidence. Of course, evangelicals understand that we have to “test the spirits” by talking with others and praying more about what we believe God is telling us. But we’ve tested the spirits enough times to know that it is very often the case that God has, in fact, been speaking to us through Scripture.
I was foolish enough to get married without having a job in hand, so the first order of business after the honeymoon was to find work. I had been fruitlessly looking for work as a grocery teller (where I had some experience) when one morning as I was reading the Bible during my “quiet time,” I sensed that God was telling me (that’s a very common evangelical phrase, by the way: “I sensed God telling me”) that a job waited for me in youth ministry. This thought came out of the blue: I had not considered such a thing up to this point.
Not knowing how to go about finding such a job, my wife and I drove around to look at a few churches and see if any were advertising for a youth minister! Well, that was crazy, but it’s the sort of thing evangelicals do when they sense God leading them. We pulled into one church parking lot, Millbrook Presbyterian, and I was ready to go in and ask if there was an opening, but the offices were closed.
We finally figured out that the search might be a little more fruitful if we checked the job listings at the local seminary. When we did, we discovered that Millbrook was, in fact, looking for a youth minister. Long story short, that’s where I ended up working for a year.
Coincidence? Wish fulfillment? Maybe. Evangelicals are smart enough to know that we sometimes confuse God’s leading with our delusions. Life is indeed a deep mystery much of the time. But frankly, no skeptic will ever be able to talk me out of believing that God was indeed speaking to me as I read the Bible that morning.
The Authority of the Holy Spirit
Believing God speaks to us through Scripture, of course, often begs the question of interpretation. Aside from these occasional special moments as above, we rely on the Bible to understand what we are to believe and how we are to live. But a common criticism of evangelical and Protestant reliance on sola scriptura, “the Bible alone,” is this: “All well and good, but according to whose interpretation? Doesn’t the very existence of tens of thousands of Protestant denominations suggest that there may be thousands of opinions about what the Bible teaches? What type of authority is that?”
This question has prompted some evangelicals to cross the Tiber or the Bosphorus and move into Catholic or Orthodox traditions. They are looking for an infallible teaching office (Catholicism) or a finally definitive teaching tradition (Orthodoxy) which can have the last word on interpreting the Bible. One understands the attraction, especially after so many disputes in our movement about “what the Bible really says”!
But evangelicals tend to believe that to rest interpretive authority in a human institution is to shift authority from the Bible to that human institution. This desire might be understandable—who doesn’t wish for clear, unmistakable, holy authority? But in the end, we think it foolish to actually ascribe such authority to any human institution or person. One does not have to rehearse historical examples of church authorities who got it not only wrong, but very wrong.
Evangelicals, instead, are willing to live with a little ambiguity in the matter of interpretation over disputed matters. Rather than put our trust into an institution or person, we put a lot of stock in Jesus’ statement that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth (John 16:13). For example, the church had to argue and debate about the Trinitarian nature of God for close to 300 years before that issue was settled, but it was settled. For that matter, a great deal of how we understand the faith has been more or less settled in this way—after decades, if not centuries, of heated debate.
That’s why, while we respect and look to our pastors and teachers past and present, we never fully trust them. We reserve the right to test what they say against the teaching of Scripture. It’s the way we hold our leaders and ourselves accountable.
The variety of approaches to authority is illustrated in the way different traditions try to put an exclamation point on their teaching. When Catholics want to make a decisive point, they often will say, “The church teaches.” The Orthodox will say, “The early fathers taught.” Evangelicals continue to say, “The Bible says.”
The Evangelical Tradition
We’re not naive. We recognize that some interpretations are based on nothing more than a personal, idiosyncratic interpretation. No question that there have been needless divisions over matters of personal interpretation. But despite the pitfalls of individual interpretation going wild, evangelicals don’t in practice believe every passage is up for personal interpretation. Like Christians of other traditions, we, too, have a certain body of teachers whom we trust and a certain history of teaching we respect. We tend to give preeminence to the evangelical tradition, large portions of which happen to be teachings the vast majority of Christians abide by. So we not only pay close attention to theologians like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, but also to John Calvin and Martin Luther, and we even resonate with many things taught by Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory of Nyssa.
It’s not a coincidence, then, that evangelical statements of faith are so similar to one another. The outline and contents of CT’s statement are very representative of that of other evangelical churches and nonprofits. In fact, J. I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden wrote a book on that very point: One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus. As they say in the introduction:
The following pages present a series of extracts from evangelical statements of faith produced between 1950 and the present day. … Many such documents were available to us, for few evangelical organizations and associations have failed to produce at least one. … They embody a shared interpretation of the Bible, a shared understanding of the gospel, and a shared view of the church and its mission, and when on occasion they differ from each other in detail it is within this overall frame of agreement.” (p. 14)
This “overall frame of agreement” comes about as a result of a tradition of interpretation that we believe has been guided and blessed by the Holy Spirit. For all our differences and ongoing arguments, to be an evangelical means we live in this tradition of interpretation. So while it might be logical to suppose that every evangelical Christian will interpret the Bible individualistically, given our view of the Bible, few of us are so proud to think we can do so faithfully. And so we look to the teachers who stand in this tradition to give our understanding of Scripture.
Take the doctrine of Christ’s nature. On the face of it, the Bible’s teaching about Jesus’ nature is confusing if not contradictory. But after centuries of rigorous interpretation and debate, the church concluded that Jesus was “God from God, Light from Light, very God from Very God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father through whom all things were made.” But also that “For us and for our salvation, he was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and made man.” To put it simply, Jesus is fully God and fully human.
So today, if a teacher begins to argue from Scripture that Jesus was either not fully divine or fully human, we’ll rehearse the biblical passages and the traditional interpretations of those passages that have stood the test of time.
Looking for Consensus in All the Right Places
Of course, within this unified tradition, there are traditions that move in different directions on other matters. Catholics, for example, believe that grace is primarily communicated in the sacraments administered by a sacramentally ordained clergy. Many evangelicals tend to think Catholics believe this because of tradition only, but Catholics make a biblical argument for this view. We beg to differ, because we believe—and are supported by another history of interpretation—that suggest the grace of God is more dynamic than that.
Some evangelicals are shocked to discover that those who adhere to traditions with which we disagree actually have sophisticated biblical arguments for many of their views. It leaves us wondering, “So who is right? How do we know the evangelical interpretation is the correct interpretation?”
Well, in the ultimate sense, we don’t know. That is, we humbly recognize that it is indeed often a matter of interpretation, and we trust God to sort these things out in the end. In the meantime, we’re called to bring our own reason and convictions to bear and then do and believe what our conscience concludes. We are not asked to be right but to be faithful to the truth we believe God has revealed to us. And to be charitable toward those who believe God has led them to a different conclusion.
Being charitable doesn’t mean we’re indifferent to crucial differences. We’re not about to say it doesn’t matter what another believes. What we believe and how we live determines the communities we will give ourselves to. To not believe that God has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to not be a Christian any longer. Similarly, but more narrowly, to believe that Christian participation in war is sometimes justified is to no longer be an Anabaptist. To not believe that Scripture is completely and finally trustworthy is to no longer be evangelical. And so on.
To be clear, our tradition of interpretation is subject to the authority of Scripture. We, therefore, are willing to challenge and change the tradition when we believe it contradicts Scripture. For example, for centuries it was largely assumed, especially among Southern evangelicals in the early 19th century, that slavery was a legitimate practice. Historical events—a bloody Civil War—forced us to look more closely at how exactly the Bible talks not only about slavery but the biblical meaning and value of a human being. The result was a new consensus that repents of and rejects the practice of slavery and any biblical interpretation that tries to defend slavery.
This leads some to wonder if any doctrine or teaching could be subject to reinterpretation. The answer is maybe, in theory. But any change would have to be accepted by a large body of believers to whom we look to for theological guidance, and it would have to be accepted for a considerable length of time by the whole church. And most importantly, it would have to be cogently argued from Scripture. Teachings about the Trinity, the Incarnation, and so forth that have not only been grounded in large portions of Scripture but have also been accepted by the vast majority of Christians in history—those we can pretty much give our lives to.
This is one way to understand the dividing line between us and mainline Christians over human sexuality today. They believe God is doing a new thing in liberalizing sexual ethics, and they interpret the Bible accordingly, saying many passages that teach otherwise are no longer applicable today. We say, “Who says?” And we look at church history and the churches and leaders we respect, not only in the US but globally, and what we see is that the overwhelming majority of Christians past and present continue to teach that these passages are very much applicable today. In short, mainline liberals have failed so far to make a persuasive biblical argument to prompt us to change our minds and those of Christians worldwide.
This sort of thing has happened regularly in Christian history, so in some ways, we’re not particularly alarmed. When it does happen—when a group comes up with a novel interpretation that defies the church’s historical and present teaching, it usually ends up becoming a small sect at best and heretical at worst.
Living the Tensions with Charity
I don’t mean to put a neat bow on this issue. Scripture remains a great source of tension in the movement. Evangelicals love to squabble about the meaning of this passage or that. And thus our ongoing debates about creationism and creative evolution, egalitarianism and complementarianism, about what biblically constitutes the most serious social problems the nation faces, and so forth. Biblical debates will be with us always. We get that, and we accept that as part of the price of not wanting to close off the teaching work of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said would lead us into all truth.
At our best, we don’t turn to Scripture as a weapon to wield against our opponents (but yes, we do that too sometimes), but turn to Scripture to hear the voice of our Lord to us, to me.
And if my fellow evangelicals are anything like me, what I often hear Jesus saying to me is, “Love one another, even as I have loved you.” This comes across to me as both absolutely trustworthy and authoritative, and in such a way that I cannot escape it. My infallible Lord has spoken to me! Sometimes this prompts me to apologize to a brother, sometimes to listen more carefully to a sister. It doesn’t make our differences disappear, but it does help us to work together on matters we absolutely agree on, because, after all, the Scripture we trust “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).