Many years ago when theological liberals gave up on biblical morality, they did so while also rejecting Scripture as the divinely inspired Word of God. Much of what became modern evangelicalism (the loose banner under which the great majority of Bible-believing churches, denominations, and associations fall) defined itself in contrast to theological liberalism’s rejection of the Bible. Evangelicals hold to a high view of Scripture, affirming its inspiration and authority to define both what we believe and how we are to live. While there is a spectrum of opinion on issues such as inerrancy (the accuracy of the biblical text to the smallest detail) and textual criticism (how do we determine exactly what the original manuscripts recorded, even as we work with copies), evangelicals are agreed that the Bible alone, whether in the original languages or when expressed in an accurate translation provides God’s written revelation.
Yet in spite of an enduring commitment to the authority of Scripture, today we are seeing an ever increasing adoption on the part of people who call themselves evangelical of practices that until recently have been thought of as theologically liberal. These practices are mainly in the realm of gender, sexuality, and marriage, including role definitions for men and women, divorce, and sexual practices other than traditional heterosexuality.
Unlike theological liberals, who do not necessarily base morality upon Scripture, the new evangelical liberals continue to claim to hold to its inspiration and authority. In fact, some claim that their openness to such things as same-sex marriage are because of, not in spite of, Scripture. They will accuse other evangelicals as holding not to Scripture, but humanly based traditions, similar to how at one time some Christians used the Bible to justify slavery.
It is always good and right to be open to change based on Scripture. Our doctrines are not authoritative, only the Bible is. Therefore, our doctrines only carry the Bible’s authority when they accurately reflect biblical truth, and must be tweaked as necessary. Evangelical liberals claim to be doing this, but their conclusions, in my opinion, are taking them far away from God’s Truth.
I would like to propose two reasons for how it could be that some people could be rejecting the authority of Scripture, while claiming to uphold it at the same time.
The first reason is a failure to adhere to the entire Bible. The attempt to prioritize Scripture is legitimate and necessary. As Yeshua said to the religious leaders of his day, “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Scripture does contain issues that are weightier than others. So, we need to learn how to view some elements of Scripture through those that are more important. But note that Jesus was clear that just because some matters are weightier than others doesn’t mean the others should be neglected. Paul wrote Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). While determining how “all Scripture” applies to life today may be a challenge, it is necessary to equip God’s people for godliness.
Legitimate grappling with the meaning and application of Scripture should not be confused with the way evangelical liberals tend to overemphasize certain passages, while denying the truth and relevancy of others. For example, developing a theology around the quoted words of Yeshua in the Gospels as if they somehow have more authority than other parts of the Bible, creates a skewed version of God and his Truth. The Bible is an integrated whole. All that Yeshua taught is firmly rooted in God’s prior revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures and is the basis upon which the rest of the New Testament is written. The liberal Jesus who is only about mercy and love, eclipses the fuller truth of God, who is indeed loving and merciful, but not devoid of justice and holiness. Only a full reading of Scripture provides a legitimate balance.
The second reason for this inconsistent adherence to Scripture is the misguided concept that the forms of Scripture are incidental to its contents. Let me explain. God’s truth is revealed through the Bible, but how so? Biblical concepts are communicated through a wide variety of literary genres, including story, legal statements, songs, proverbs, prophetic utterances, and letters. For the most part the people and events referenced are historical and the subject matter is expressed within these real-life contexts. This information, originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, like all languages, use particular word choices to express ideas. Is the inspiration and authority of Scripture only found in the ideas themselves or in the actual word choices used to express them? For example, did God inspire Isaiah to say, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31), or could Isaiah have said anything he liked as long as he got the point across? If the words themselves don’t really matter, they are incidental, not essential, to their meaning. Is God’s choosing of the people of Israel incidental or essential to God’s plans and purposes? Do they exist simply as a convenient metaphor for a generic people of God or do his promises to a real nation of real people make a difference in how we understand God and life? Does it matter that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah as Scripture reveals, or is that just a colorful way to tell the world that heaven’s champion has come? Is the revealing of God as Father incidental or essential in understanding who he really is? Does it matter if we relate to him as Father or can we just as easily think of him as “Mother,” if that’s more appealing?
It makes little sense to claim that only the concepts of Scripture are inspired, while the forms through which these concepts are communicated don’t really matter. Paul didn’t write “the truth contained in Scripture is inspired, but rather “all Scripture is inspired.” It must be that way, because if the inspiration was only in ideas, then there are no safeguards to control how we interpret it. But if instead we always have to go back to what Scripture actually says, then we are less inclined to come to conclusions outside of the boundaries it itself establishes. If the words themselves don’t really matter, it doesn’t take long before we replace God’s inspired words with our own, all the while fooling ourselves that we have derived them from Scripture, when we have actually made them up.
I don’t think that Liberal Evangelicalism is sustainable. It is only a matter of time before the inconstancies that drive this position will force them to show their true colors and cause them to distance themselves from both the authority and inspiration of Scripture. In the meantime, let those who are convinced that the entire Bible is indeed the written Word of God stand firm, and not be intimidated by those who are allowing the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of God determine biblical truth.