Recently Evangelical Academic J.P. Moreland wrote and gave a paper before the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done about It.” Now, normally, I wouldn’t pay any attention to this since I’ve come to regard Evangelicals the way I regard Liver and Onions but as this paper was appealed to in a positive way on a Christian Theology site that is often quite good I thought I would give this the once over.
So, I hope to examine this paper in the next several entries. If you want to read the paper in its entirety you may access it here,
Dr. Moreland starts his paper by writing,
“… To be more specific, in the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ. And it has produced a mean-spiritedness among the over-committed that is a grotesque and often, ignorant distortion of discipleship unto the Lord Jesus.”
This criticism is starting to get wearisome from the academic community. First we heard this kind of thing from Dr. John Frame in his article, “Machen’s Warrior Children,” and now we get the same kind of from Dr. J. P. Moreland.
Before we go any further the reader should realize that I am probably one of those mean-spirited people whose over-commitment to Scripture in a false, and irrational way has left me a practitioner of a grotesque and often, ignorant distortion of discipleship. To the contrary it could be that Dr. Moreland, because of his under-commitment to Scripture, has become the kind of disciple that just makes up discipleship as he goes along and consequently he see’s the true disciples as ‘over-committed, and mean-spirited.’ The problem though with even suggesting that as a contrary option is that I probably just gave proof of my mean-spiritedness.
But I digress…
First, this kind of accusation demands something more then vague generalities. Just exactly who in the ‘Evangelical Community’ are exercising an over-commitment to Scripture and just exactly what does that over-commitment look like?
Second, given the where the Church is in the States today, is one of our major problems really that we have too many wrongly over-committed Christians? Just where is this problem creeping up in such a way that it is creating havoc in the Church?
Dr. Moreland writes,
1. American Evangelical Over-commitment to the Bible. The very idea that one could be over-committed to the Bible may strike one as irreligious. In a sense, this judgment is just. One could never be too committed to loving, obeying and promoting Holy Scripture. In another sense, however, such over-commitment is ubiquitous and harmful. The sense I have in mind is the idea that the Bible is the sole source of
knowledge of God, morality, and a host of related important items. Accordingly, the Bible is taken to be the sole source of authority for faith and practice. Applied to inerrancy, the notion is that the Bible is the sole source of such knowledge and authority. The Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura does not entail this claim. For example,
the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) says “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”3
Similarly, the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (1978) states:
We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God. We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source. We affirm that the Scriptures are the supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and that the authority of the Church is subordinate to that of Scripture. We deny that Church, creeds,councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.4
Clearly, the idea that from within the Christian point of view, Scripture is the ultimate authority, the ultimate source of relevant knowledge, does not entail that it is the sole authority or source. But this fact has a severe public relations problem and, as I will
illustrate below, many in our community make this entailment, or at least accept the consequent. Right reason, experience, Creeds, tradition have all been recognized as subordinate sources of knowledge and authority within the Christian point of view subject to the supreme and final authority of Scripture. The idea that Scripture is the sole such authority is widespread among pastors, parachurch staff, and lay folk. And while Evangelical scholars may not admit to accepting the idea, far too often it informs their work. To cite one example of this egregious problem, in concluding his study of the social and political thought of Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer and John Howard Yoder, J. Budziszewski observes that All four thinkers are ambivalent about the enduring structures of creation and about the reality of general revelation. Although Henry vigorously affirms general revelation, he undermines it just as vigorously. Although Kuyper unfolds his theory mainly from the order observable in creation, he insists on hiding this fact from himself, regarding his theory of creational spheres as a direct inference from Scripture. Although Schaeffer acknowledges the importance of general revelation, he makes little use of any part of it except the principle of non-contradiction. No sooner does Yoder affirm God’s good creation than he declares that we have no access to it.
First, the reader should notice that Dr. Moreland really sees this problem of being wrongly over-committed to the Bible as a major issue in Evangelicalism. He even describes this problem as ubiquitous.
Second, we should notice that Dr. Moreland drives a distinction between the Scriptures being the ultimate authority and being the sole authority. Dr. Moreland willingly admits that Scripture is the ultimate authority but insists that it is not the sole authority. Dr. Moreland then appeals to other putatively lesser authorities naming them as ‘right reason, experience, Creeds, and tradition’ and insisting that these ‘have all been recognized as subordinate sources of knowledge and authority within the Christian point of view subject to the supreme and final authority of Scripture.’ This is all very good unless one suspects that what Dr. Moreland is trying to do is find a way where these lesser authorities can operate independently of the authority of Scripture. You see the problem with these lesser authorities is that as authorities they are only as good as their commitment to the Scriptures.
Let us take ‘right reason’ as an example. By what standard do we measure the ‘right’ in ‘right reason?’ Can ‘right reason’ be an authority over us if ‘right reason’ doesn’t presuppose the authority of Scripture and the God of the Bible? I quite agree that ‘right reason’ is an authority but I insist at the same time that this authority can never be right unless it is beholden first to the sole and ultimate authority of Scripture. How do we determine that ‘right reason’ is right unless we go to the Scriptures as our ultimate authority on the rightness of reason. Does such an appeal to Scripture in order to determine the rightness of ‘right reason’ constitute the sin of making Scripture the sole authority?
Similarly, with ‘Experience’ as a lesser authority we find it to be the case that ‘experience,’ in order to be a lesser authority has to be interpreted before it can be appealed to as an authority. The question that begs being asked is, ‘by whose standard will we interpret our experiences in order for them to become a valid lesser authority’? You see the ‘experience’ or the ‘right reason’ of a pagan is going to be a lesser authority that informs them in quite a different way then they inform a Biblical Christian. The same is true of the nominal or immature Christian or even a Philosopher of the Academy with the wrong presuppositions who appeals to ‘experience’ or ‘right reason’ as a lesser authority upon which to base belief or behavior. The point is that while lesser authorities do exist they are only as good as ultimate authority in which they are rooted.
What Dr. Moreland has done here is basically appealed to John Wesley’s quadrilateral hermeneutic but Moreland’s mistake is the same as Wesley’s. Lesser authorities not rooted and grounded in the ultimate authority will lead to wrong conclusions every time. ‘Right reason, experience, Creeds, and tradition’ may be lesser authorities to appeal to but these lesser authorities do not and can not operate autonomously from the ultimate authority that is God’s Holy Word. Lesser sources of authority and their validity are only as good as their ultimate authority. Again we must ask if insisting on this makes one guilty of turning Scripture into the Sole authority?
Now we turn briefly to Dr. Moreland’s observations regarding general revelation. Dr. Moreland seems to want to suggest that general revelation can be rightly understood and embraced quite apart from special revelation. Now, it is true that general revelation is understood but it is also the case for the unbeliever that He suppresses that understanding in unrighteousness. Indeed, the only way that any of us can get general revelation right is by understanding it in light of special revelation. Dr. Moreland’s problem here is one that we are going to be concentrating on more in later posts. Dr. Moreland seems to think that Christians ought to embrace some kind of Natural Law framework and this no thinking Christian can consistently do. In light of this observation it is interesting to notice that 3 of the 4 thinkers (Kuyper, Henry, Schaeffer) that Moreland uses by way of illustration were presuppositionalists of one sort or another. My spidey senses suggest that this is the root of Moreland’s real problem of to many over-committed Christians. Again, we all agree that Creation has enduring structures and that general revelation is true. What we don’t agree upon is the commitment or ability of fallen men to live in keeping with the enduring structures of a God given creation. What we don’t agree upon is the effect of men suppressing the truth of general revelation in unrighteousness and how that work of suppression severely affects the validity of the information gained from the lesser authorities of ‘Right reason, experience, Creeds, or tradition.” What we don’t agree upon is Christians appealing to lesser sources of authority that operate in a quasi-independent way from Scripture.
So we agree that Scripture is the ultimate authority. We agree that there are lesser authorities. But I wonder if we agree that Scripture is the sole authority for the lesser authorities. I wonder if we agree that the lesser authorities cannot be appealed to without considering from the presuppositions that inform the lesser authorities.
We will look more at Dr. Moreland’s paper later.