November 14, 2007
Postcard from San Diego: Fighting 'Bibliolatry' at the Evangelical Theological Society
Talbot's J.P. Moreland warns that evangelicals are “over-committed to the Bible.”
While the ballroom sessions of the first day of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting had more attendees, no session was as packed as J.P. Moreland's "How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It." While the average breakout session seems to be attended by fewer than 50 people, easily more than 200 packed the room to hear Moreland's talk, with dozens standing and more listening outside the door.
It's little wonder why so many people attended. ETS membership has only two doctrinal requirements: you must affirm the Trinity and the inerrancy of Scripture. The first part has not been controversial of late, but the second was the focus of the society's recent fight over open theism and was named as a reason why Francis Beckwith could not remain as ETS president after his conversion to Roman Catholicism.
In short, to accuse evangelicals of over-commitment to the Bible at ETS would be like accusing environmentalists of talking too much about climate change at a Sierra Club meeting. But Moreland, who has gained some prominence as a philosopher and apologist, wasn't pulling any punches.
"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," he said. "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."
The problem, he said, 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 authority for faith and practice."
Suppose an archaeologist discovered a portion of the ancient city of Jerusalem that was specifically described in the Old Testament, Moreland said:
Could the archaeologist have discovered the site without the use of the Old Testament? Once discovered, could the archaeologist learn things about the site that went beyond what was in the Old Testament? Clearly the answer is yes to both questions. Why? Because the site actually exists in the real world. It does not exist in the Bible. It is only described in the Bible and the biblical description in partial.
Likewise, Moreland argued, "because the human soul/spirit and demons/angels are real, it is possible, and, in fact, actual that extra-biblical knowledge can be gained about these spiritual entities. ? Demons do not exist in the Bible. They exist in reality."
By not researching how demons work, how to fight them, and other such issues by, for example, working with exorcists, Christian scholars are harming the church, Moreland argued. In a similar vein, he thinks evangelical scholars and the movement as a whole are rejecting "guidance, revelation, and so forth from God through impressions, dreams, visions, prophetic words, words of knowledge and wisdom."
"We shut that down because of charismatic excesses," he said. "Because of abuses, we fear teaching people how to use it. We think it's all going to be Benny Hinn or something like that."
A third area where Moreland critiqued evangelical over-commitment to Bible was in the scarcity of evangelical appeals to natural theology and moral law in their political and cultural discussions.
"The sparse landscape of evangelical political thought stands in stark contrast to the overflowing garden both of evangelical biblical scholarship and Catholic reflection on reason, general revelation, and cultural and political engagement," he said. "We evangelicals could learn a lesson or two from our Catholic friends."
That wasn't as provocative a statement coming a few months after the ETS president became one of those "Catholic friends." Catholicism is on the agenda here, and Catholics are both implicitly and explicitly discussed in the meeting's many discussions of justification. But Catholicism doesn't seem to be the "new open theism" at ETS.
No, more provocative was Moreland's argument about why evangelicals became over-committed to the Bible. Rather than developing a robust epistemology in response to secularism, he said, evangelicals reacted and retreated. Now evangelical theologians aren't allowed to come to any new conclusions about the truths in Scripture, and they're not allowed to find truths outside of Scripture. As a result, he said, they're engaged in "private language games and increasingly detailed minutia" and "we're not seeing work on broad cultural themes."
There are, quite frankly, a number of papers here that reflect private language games and increasingly detailed minutia. There will be in a few days, too, at the joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. And there are at just about every other major academic conference I've ever attended. But I think Moreland's critique stung here perhaps more than it might elsewhere. This is a group torn between its desire to do respectable scholarship and its desire to serve the church. Moreland's jeremiad hit them on both fronts.