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What Could Be More Dangerous than Liberalism?

If you let your eyes wander up to the header you’ll see that my tag line includes the word “liberal” and not in a negative light. I’ve even written about being a liberal charismatic believer. So if you’re wondering how I can use both labels at once, follow the link. But in certain circles, “liberals” make good enemies, you know, the kind of enemies that you know will help make other people your friends—the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

And so Adrian Warnock points to a post by Micah Fries, titled simply Fighting with Scripture. In this post he speaks of the joys of being Southern Baptism following the conservative resurgence, and how nice it is to know that those around him embrace infallibility and inerrancy. In this portion of the universe, the old enemy, liberalism” has been laid to rest and it is easy to ridicule, at least in these sanitized domains. Now my point here is not to beat up on Southern Baptists. I do not consider those who believe in biblical inerrancy to be either worse Christians or scholars than those who do not. In fact, I hope that more moderate and liberal theologians will read and engage with conservative scholarship. I do like to make the point that those of us who see biblical inspiration differently are not the enemies, and may have something to contribute as well.

Just a couple of lines from the post:

Liberalism, of course, reduces God’s word, and in doing so attempts to make a mockery of those who would dare take that word at face value. It assumes a position of great authority, in fact it could be argued that it assumes a position of greater authority than scripture itself as it attempts to “rectify” the “errors” found in the bible.

When I see “of course” in a sentence like that I must confess that it gets under my skin a bit. You see, I don’t think I “reduce God’s word.” Rather, I attempt to understand God’s word as clearly as possible. I don’t “make a mockery of those who would dare take that word at face value,” in fact, I try to avoid mockery. (There are those who assume that disagreement, especially vigorous disagreement is mockery. I’ll just have to live with that.) But still, the issue here is not whether to take “God’s word” at face value. The question is just what that face value is.

Let’s illustrate this for a moment from Genesis, the great controversy these days. I’ve just edited, and my company has published, a book titled Creation in Scripture by Herold Weiss. It takes a look at the various ways in which creation is discussed in scripture. What it taught me as I edited it was how much more there was to the “face” of what the Bible has to say about creation than most people realize. There are major texts in scripture that are rarely part of this discussion. Many people who try to discuss creation see a “face” of God’s word that is like viewing a large mountain through the trees. You see a little bit of the mountain where light gets between all the trees. But the mountain is more than what you see in that way.

And how do I get the face value of scripture? Do I read Genesis 1 & 2 as a 21st century citizen of a scientific era? Do I try to get into the perspective of someone from the ancient world? The face looks considerably different depending on which of those perspectives I take.

My intent here is not to demonstrate what particular view is better, but rather to show that the simple statement that “liberalism reduces God’s word” is somewhere between inadequate and false. It’s inadequate in the sense that it doesn’t do justice to what moderate and liberal students of scripture do when studying. It’s false because very often the liberal interpreter is actually seeing more of the “face” from which the “value” is derived.

This reminds me of my discussions with KJV-Only advocates. They refer to any word or phrase that is present in the KJV but not in a modern version as something that has been removed from scripture. In vain does one point out that the best Greek manuscripts do not have the word or phrase in question, and that one might just as well say that the KJV added it to scripture. What are you taking as your standard? More importantly, how are you using and applying that standard?

In order to have valuable discussions of these points we need to state the questions a different way. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals understand scripture differently. We need to discuss passages on that basis, and examine our hermeneutic first. It’s often valuable to take a passage that is slightly less controversial and ask how we look at that passage. We may well continue to disagree (doubtless in many cases we will), but perhaps we would have a better understanding of why and how.

I share the concern of the authors I linked with reference to legalism, though I don’t think the accusation that it is “adding to scripture” is the best way to address it. I suspect legalism is more a matter of where we place things in our thinking and acting. Having just taught from Ephesians 2 and done preparation to teach from Ephesians 3, I see a fairly clear relationship between grace and action. It’s not that legalists do too much, though some do, it is that they place rules and their actions in the wrong place in their relationship to God. Grace, God’s grace, comes first.

In pursuing correct theology, I think we often fall into the same danger. We make theology our works and become legalistic in terms of what people should believe. But placing barriers of knowledge and belief ahead of grace is just as damaging as placing barriers of action. We can get into the position of earning God’s favor through getting things right just as easily as through doing things right, and often with even greater damage.

Legalism will not be defeated by making sure people’s theology of grace is thoroughly correct and orthodox. Legalism is defeated by grace in action. God’s grace, and yes, God’s grace displayed through God’s people.

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