You will often hear fundamentalist Christians lamenting that many Christians today are slipping away from believing in the authority of the Bible. They point out that when Christians adopt non-fundamentalist views on things, they often end up sliding down a slippery slope into serious error.
This is absolutely true. It cannot be denied that there are many professing Christians in our day who gradually move further and further away from biblical principles in various ways.
Of course, fundamentalists argue that the solution to this is to adopt their understanding of the Christian faith. Become a fundamentalist – problem solved!
For those of us who are not persuaded by fundamentalism, however, this is not an option.
Problems with Christian fundamentalism
Personally, I find Christian fundamentalism to be exasperating. It tends to treat issues very simplistically. It is very poor at distinguishing between what is important and unimportant. It often forces a modern, Western mindset onto the ancient Jewish texts of the Bible. And, perhaps above all, it constantly explains things away in very unconvincing ways, especially the meanings of biblical passages. I find it to be very dishonest.
I sometimes almost wonder whether new Christian converts in fundamentalist circles are actually told that explaining things away is part of what being a Christian is all about. There is so much of this that goes on. And I think that fundamentalists get so used to behaving in this way that they lose sight of what they are actually doing. They think they are defending biblical truth, when really they are just making excuses for things.
To explain things away, however, is to be dishonest. And dishonesty is a sin. So we should always fight tooth and nail to be as honest as we possibly can be about everything, including our interpretation of the Bible.
What is more, when non-Christians think they see Christians being dishonest, they usually run in the opposite direction. This means that fundamentalist approaches to things frequently put people off becoming Christians.
Fundamentalists can also quite often be found telling people that they can’t become Christians unless they agree with some very specific view on something that is really not very important. So fundamentalism puts unnecessary obstacles in the way of people’s salvation.
And finally, when fundamentalists explain away the meanings of biblical passages by taking very unnatural interpretations, this gives a great big green light to those who want to do so in other passages too. So ironically fundamentalism actually encourages people to misinterpret the Bible.
Preferring non-fundamentalist evangelicalism
In my firm view, we do much better to take a non-fundamentalist evangelical approach to the Bible. This avoids all the problems I have just mentioned. But it allows us to get all the goodness out of Scripture.
My own approach to the Bible is very simple. When I read any passage, I am constantly asking God, ‘Why did you put this in Scripture? What do you want me to know from this passage? And what do you want your church to know from it?’
I find that if I do this, I get from the Bible all the evangelical doctrines and all the traditional moral teaching of the church. I get all the goodness out of Scripture that a fundamentalist gets. But I avoid all the dishonesty and explaining things away of fundamentalism.
Refusing to explain things away
It is true that if we refuse to explain things away, matters are often not as neat and tidy as we might like.
For example, having spent many years of studying the Bible closely, I am convinced that it contains some mistakes in minor issues.
Actually, even fundamentalist Bible scholars almost always agree that minor errors have crept in to the text since it was written. I agree with this. But I am also sure that there were minor errors in the text to begin with. Crucially, however, none of these affects anything that is of importance for life and faith.
Similarly, it is clear that the authors of the Bible were often much less precise about things than we tend to be in modern Western culture. And when they came to write history, they clearly felt a liberty to modify their sources to a certain extent. This means that narrative in Scripture is not intended to be strictly historical in every detail. Again, however, this is not something that affects anything that is important.
There is also some strong evidence that not all the books of the Bible were written by the people who are traditionally believed to be the authors. But again, this isn’t really all that important.
I think too that there may well be good scientific evidence that God used macroevolution as a means to do some of His creating work. However, if He did create in this way, it is a far cry from theories of random evolution, where the world and people originated by chance. So there is nothing really dangerous about thinking that God may have used macroevolution to some degree.
Of course, fundamentalists would object to all the points I have just made. But I am convinced that in order to do so, they have to keep on explaining things away. And this is so dishonest and harmful.
Taking great care not to go wrong
There are, then, big problems with Christian fundamentalism. Nevertheless, fundamentalists are absolutely right to point out that when Christians adopt views like the ones I mentioned in the previous paragraphs, all too often they end up sliding down a slippery slope into serious error. There are many professing Christians who would agree with me about the things I listed above, but who have not kept believing in the authority of Scripture. Instead, they are now in reality against God on serious issues. Some are even tragically paving their own roads to eternal destruction as a result.
Christians, like myself, who accept that there are minor mistakes in Scripture, must not be deceived into thinking that the Bible contains errors in anything that matters. And if we allow modifications around the edges of some of what the church has traditionally believed, we must make sure that we don’t go too far. We must be very careful not to end up denying the authority of the Bible.
‘The Manual for the Human Life’
God has given us Scripture as ‘The Manual for the Human Life’. What this collection of documents teaches us about anything of importance is consistently true. Everything it teaches about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation, the church, morals, etc., etc. is always correct. And it therefore needs to be believed and acted upon. As 2 Timothy states:
‘All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in uprightness.’
We must not allow ourselves to lose sight of this. Rather, as we read the Bible we should constantly be praying, ‘Lord, what are You teaching me and Your church in this passage? What do You actually want me to know here?’ And then we must alter our beliefs and actions accordingly. If we start thinking that the Bible is wrong in what it teaches about things that are important for life and faith, we are the ones who have actually gone wrong.
If, then, like me, you are someone who takes seriously the claims of mainstream Bible scholars and scientists, and you are open to understanding Christian things in the light of these claims, please be sure that you tread extremely carefully. Watch out that you don’t slip away from believing in the authority of the Bible.