By Alan Bean
I remember back in 1978 when Harold Lindsell published Battle for the Bible. I was in my final year at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. None of my professors thought much of Lindsell’s diatribe. In fact, he was written off as a silly man with antiquated ideas.
Forty-five years later, Lindsell’s Simple Simon theology is the controlling ideology at my alma mater and throughout the evangelical world. To argue otherwise is to surrender your orthodoxy card.
The change didn’t come gradually. In fact, it all happened while I was working on my doctorate at Southern. When I arrived in 1989, the school was much as it had been in 1978, moderate, cautious, and, within strict limits, tolerant of theological diversity. There was no room for genuine liberals, of course (this is the Southern Baptist Convention we’re talking about); but God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it conservatives were also not welcome.
By the time I walked across the stage to receive my diploma from newly installed president Albert Mohler the school had changed beyond recognition.
If you want to understand the bedrock assumption of the new evangelical orthodoxy you could read Lindsell’s book or, to save time, just check out this brilliant post from Fred Clark, the Slacktivist. The subject is homosexuality. Conservative evangelicals like Al Mohler don’t hate gay people; but they argue that their commitment to biblical authority requires that homosexuality be rejected and condemned without reservation. Clark, an evangelical himself, heartily disagrees.
Keller was paraphrasing marriage equality advocate Jonathan Rauch in order to argue that condemnation of homosexuality as a sin is inextricably bound up with the linchpins of evangelical faith. Here’s what he said:
If you say to everybody, “Anyone who thinks homosexuality is a sin is a bigot,” [Rauch] says, “You are going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible.” Completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. You are basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their entire faith out the door.
To be clear, Keller isn’t saying that evangelicals’ “entire faith” is based on the belief that “homosexuality is a sin.” What he’s saying is that this belief arises from — and has thus become the pre-eminent shorthand exemplar of — a particular way of reading the Bible and of appealing to its “authority.” Since that approach to the Bible is at the center of what Keller says it means to be an evangelical Christian, it cannot bend without the whole thing breaking.
The deeper problem with what Keller is saying here is that he’s equating evangelicals’ “entire faith” with the “approach to authority” and “the way in which they read the Bible” that we have assembled. Assemble an approach to authority, then assemble a way in which to read the Bible and then you can build your faith on top of that. Your “entire faith” is a product of your prior choice to embrace an approach to reading the Bible and to authority.
That’s backwards and upside-down. It makes your entire faith an edifice constructed on top of the foundation of one particular, peculiar, non-negotiable hermeneutic. Keller is rewriting the beloved old evangelical hymn:
How frail a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in your choice of a particular approach to authority and the way in which you read the Bible.
The original, for those unfamiliar with the song, goes like this:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word.
The remainder of the hymn shows that its composer, John Keith, agreed with the author of the Gospel of John — that Jesus is the “Word of God” upon which all our faith depends, not the Bible and certainly not the way in which we have chosen to read the Bible.
If Jesus is the basis for your faith — the object and the subject and the substance of your faith, then your “approach to authority” and “the way in which you read the Bible” can be completely disassembled without you having to “kick your entire faith out the door.”
In fact, if Jesus is the center of your faith, then you’re probably going to have to regularly and repeatedly “completely disassemble” your ideas about authority and the way in which you read the Bible. Your faith will require you to do that. Almost constantly.
And when you completely disassemble your approach to authority and the way in which you read the Bible, you’ll wind up with nothing left except your faith. Your faith is what remains after all those other constructs have been completely disassembled.
And they will be. Probably more than once. Probably often. All those constructs you’ve carefully assembled — your approach to authority, the way in which you read the Bible — will at some point be dismantled before your eyes. If they were the foundation, and your faith was something built later on top of them, then it will fall with them.
But if faith was your starting point and your foundation, then the collapse of all those things assembled on top of it won’t affect it. You can sweep away the rubble of them and begin building anew with the foundation intact.
For most Christians, embracing a previously excluded group of marginalized people won’t require a radical tearing down and rebuilding of the hermeneutics we’ve constructed atop the foundation of our faith. For others — those who have somehow convinced themselves that such exclusion is an essential aspect of their religious identity — that disassembly and reconstruction may be as dramatic and traumatic as Keller suggests. But that doesn’t mean this disassembly isn’t necessary. Or that it isn’t inevitable.