What follows is an excerpt from my book The Evangelical and The Open Theist.
The story of evangelicalism is one of complex theological development and expression. Through the years, the term evangelical has carried a wide range of meanings.[i] While modern evangelicalism is by no means a monolithic movement, across the spectrum its foundational beliefs lie in its affirmation of three major theological principles:
(1) the complete reliability and final authority of Scripture in matters of faith and practice; (2) the necessity of a personal faith in Jesus Christ…and (3) the urgency of seeking actively the conversion of sinners to Christ.[ii]
The first principle is the most pertinent to the question at hand, though the implications of open theism touch on the second and third principles as well.
The Evangelical Understanding of Scripture
The great diversity among evangelicals makes any effort to define the evangelical view of Scripture quite difficult. Realizing this, evangelicals have at various times come together to formulate statements of faith distinctive enough to differentiate themselves from other groups—such as Roman Catholics, Eastern Christians, and liberal Protestants—but broad enough to leave the interpretation of such statements to the individual.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s affirmation of the “unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible,” for example, leaves great room for interpretation, typical of many such attempts to define evangelical bibliology.[iii] While there may be disagreements among evangelicals regarding terminology, such as the meaning of “divine inspiration,” “entire trustworthiness,” and “authority of the Bible,” the common strand binding all evangelicals together is a high view of the authority and reliability of Scripture in matters of faith.[iv]
Yet, recent years have witnessed a debate over who can legitimately claim the title “evangelical.” Issues ranging from evolution to conditional immortality have forced evangelicals to reevaluate where to draw the line between evangelicalism and broader Christian thought. Nowhere has this trend more clearly manifested itself than in the intense, emotionally charged debate surrounding open theism.
Yet the difficulty associated with defining the term “evangelical” compounds the difficulty associated with determining evangelicalism’s compatibility with all but the most blatantly unorthodox Protestant theologies. Consequently, determining the place—or lack thereof—of open theology within the evangelical tent requires the establishment of a basic understanding of what it means to be an evangelical.
Evangelicals readily agree that they hold a high view of Scripture. What constitutes a high view of Scripture, however, is a matter open to debate; and yet in order to evaluate properly the legitimacy of open theism as an evangelical school of thought, a basic understanding of the evangelical view of Scripture is essential.
Therefore, in this chapter, I will outline the basic evangelical approach to Scripture in order to assess its compatibility with open theism.[v] The best way to grasp the evangelical understanding of the Christian Scriptures is to evaluate how self-professing evangelicals have themselves defined that understanding.
The Nature of Scripture
At the core of evangelical theology lies a distinct understanding of the character of Holy Scripture. Christianity Today International affirms that the “sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error.” Article VII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that “inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine.”
Article IX goes on to affirm that
inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write…[we deny] that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word.
The very phrase “authority of scripture,” is a “shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture.”[vi]
Article XI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, adequately summarizing the consensus evangelical view, affirms “that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.”[vii]
Finally, the Evangelical Theological Society, the most visible battleground in the traditional-openness debate, summarizes the broad evangelical view regarding the nature of Scripture: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”
The Purpose of Scripture
Since the first century, Christians have affirmed Scripture as the signpost pointing the way to salvation.
You are contentious, brethren, and zealous for the things which lead to salvation. You have studied the Holy Scriptures, which are true, and given by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing unjust or counterfeit is written in them (1 Clement 40:1-3).
This historic understanding of Scripture plays an important role in evangelical theology because at the heart of evangelicalism is the effort to maintain what evangelicals view as the historic faith. This becomes particularly understandable in light of nineteenth-century German liberalism and the attempts to “demythologize” the Bible by theologians such as Rudolph Bultmann.
To evangelicals, Scripture stands as the invariable keeper of the apostolic teaching. Evangelicals do not view themselves as a 20th century phenomenon but rather as defenders of the two-thousand-year-old teachings of Christ and his apostles. Evangelicals understand their faith to be firmly rooted in what they believe to be “historic or biblical Orthodoxy.”[viii]
Modern evangelicals echo the call of Clement of Rome. Although it is their view of Scripture that generally distinguishes them from other schools of Christian thought, salvation by faith in Christ is the fundamental tenet of evangelical theology.[ix] To the evangelical, Scripture is the infallible guide directing humanity to salvation.
The Westminster confession affirms the “full discovery [Scripture] makes of the only way of man’s salvation.”[x] The Tyndale University College and Seminary asserts that “through the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us in the Scriptures today to accomplish his purpose of salvation in Jesus Christ.” The 1st summary of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is less oblique:
God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.
Scripture is the ultimate means to salvation, for it is through Scripture that people encounter the claims of Christ and their implications for daily life.[xi]
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School believes the
Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, to be the inspired Word of God, without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of his will for the salvation of men, and the Divine and final authority for all Christian faith and life (emphasis added).
Clause 2 of the 1974 Laussanne Covenant, a declaration of European evangelical faith, affirms the “power of God’s Word to accomplish his purpose of salvation.” The Japan Bible Seminary argues that Scripture “contains all that God pleased to reveal to men concerning salvation.”
The common theme running throughout evangelical expressions of bibliology is the idea of the Bible’s place as the written revelation of God for the salvation of man. “In every age and every place, this authoritative Bible, by the Spirit’s power, is efficacious for salvation through its witness to Jesus Christ.”[xii]
This understanding of Scripture and authority, however, introduces ambiguity into the formation of systematic theology. That is to say, if Scripture exists to bring men to saving grace, as the typical evangelical will affirm, then where Scripture is ambiguous or unclear on matters of doctrine, there is room for various interpretations. This opens the door for theological diversity within the evangelical community.
Of course, there is a limit to the diversity evangelical theology can tolerate. Obviously, Arianism and Mormonism are excluded, as well as alternative schools of Protestant theology, such as nineteenth-century German liberalism. The pertinent question, therefore, is, “Does evangelical diversity allow the presence of the open-theist?” Evangelicals “take it for granted that [they] are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture.”[xiii] The question is, does open theism—or more importantly, do open theists—line up? In other words, does ascription to open theology necessitate a non-evangelical understanding of Scripture?
Important to this discussion is the understanding that, while evangelicals believe that Scripture points the way to salvation, they do not believe that the affirmation of their understanding of Scripture is necessary for salvation. Take, for example, Article XIX of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith…We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.
Therefore, the issue at hand is the validity of an open theist’s claim to the title “evangelical,” not the legitimacy of his or her claim to the title “Christian.”
The Authority of Scripture
A proper understanding of the evangelical concept of biblical authority is essential in understanding the evangelical mind. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that the
authority of the Holy Scripture…depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.[xiv]
The preface to the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy argues that the “authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian Church in this and every age.” It continues,
Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises (Summary 2).
Elsewhere, it expounds,
As [Christ] bowed to His Father’s instruction given in His Bible (our Old Testament), so He requires His disciples to do—not, however, in isolation but in conjunction with the apostolic witness to Himself that He undertook to inspire by His gift of the Holy Spirit. So Christians show themselves faithful servants of their Lord by bowing to the divine instruction given in the prophetic and apostolic writings that together make up our Bible (Exposition: Authority: Christ and the Bible).
Campus Crusade for Christ affirms that Scripture is the “supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks.” The World Evangelical Alliance affirms Scripture as the “supreme authority of faith and conduct.” Fuller Theological Seminary, in its doctrinal statement, “What We Believe and Teach,” affirms this understanding of Scripture, stating that its own
doctrinal commitment is built on a submission to the authority of Scripture, which must stand as teacher and judge of all that we think and do. It both inspires and corrects our doctrine and our conduct. It must always be clear that for us as Evangelicals, the Scriptures outrank all of our doctrinal statements, even statements as carefully written and as strongly believed as those in [this] Statement of Faith.
Evangelicals do not take the authority of Scripture lightly. To the evangelical mind, “what Scripture says, God says; its authority is His authority, for He is its ultimate Author.”[xv] Evangelicals everywhere agree that Scripture is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.[xvi]
The key to understanding the place of open theology within evangelicalism, therefore, lies in ascertaining its compatibility with this understanding of Scripture. After all, according to evangelical belief, the “supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined…can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”[xvii] “For the evangelical, any theological stance which does not accept the inspiration and authority of Scripture cannot rightly call itself Orthodox.”[xviii]
If the open theist can, without logical contradiction, affirm both open theology and these foundational evangelical beliefs, then he or she can rightfully claim the title “evangelical.” If not, then the Evangelical Theological Society would have been justified in removing open theists from its membership roles.
If you are interested in reading more, you may explore my website further or purchase the entire book on Amazon.com.
[i] For the purposes of this book, I use the term evangelical as it generally appears within modern Western culture and scholarship. The term has been applied in other parts of the world to all Christians who are not Roman Catholic and during the Reformation to distinguish the followers of Martin Luther from those of John Calvin (Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals: The Story of the Emergence of a New Generation of Evangelicals (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 3). All other uses of the term, as well as its association with neo-evangelicalism, are outside the scope of this book. Because of the nature of the debate, the word evangelical here and throughout this book refers to those holding to some form of sola scriptura and to the 66 book canon of the Protestant Bible and therefore excludes Roman Catholics claiming the title. Furthermore, it is important to note that the terms evangelical and fundamentalist are not synonymous. The fundamentalist movement is more narrow and hardline in its definition of the faith, leading a former President of Fuller Theological Seminary to label it “orthodoxy gone cultic” (Richard J. Moux, The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 39). Its positions are adequately defined in The Fundamentals, a series of essays compiled over several years in the early twentieth century. Evangelicalism, among other things, allows for a historical-critical study of Scripture. (See generally the writings of George Ladd). Opposition to historical-critical study of Scripture is a central foundation to the fundamentalist movement. While the fundamentalist movement may have influenced modern evangelicalism, drastic differences between fundamentalist presuppositions and evangelical scholarly methodology makes the study of the fundamentalism unnecessary for the task at hand.
[ii] Quebedeaux, 3-4.
[iii] J. I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 21. Unless otherwise noted, all references throughout this chapter to the various evangelical statements of faith—except the Westminster Statement of Faith—are quoted as they appear in Packer and Oden, 39-57.
[iv] Where possible, I refer to evangelicals as holding to a “high view” of Scripture to avoid the intense emotional and academic baggage more exclusive terms, such as inerrancy and infallibility, carry. Debates regarding the proper terminology—with their complex nuances and varying implications—to associate with the evangelical view of Scripture are outside the scope of this book.
[v] This book has no interest in proving the validity of either evangelicalism or open theism as they stand alone, only in determining their compatibility with one another.
[vi] N. T. Wright, “The Laing Lecture 1989 and the Griffith Thomas Lecture 1989,” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991), available <http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm> (19 September 2006).
[vii] Despite common ground among all evangelicals, there still exists disagreements over the nature of Scripture. Article XII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example, affirms the scientific reliability of Scripture, denying that “scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” This stands in opposition to the spirit of Fuller Theological Seminary’s understanding of biblical inerrancy, which argues that applying the term inerrancy to “matters like chronological details, precise sequence of events, and numerical allusions,” is “misleading and inappropriate” (Fuller Theological Seminary: What We Believe and Teach).
[viii] Quebedeaux, 4.
[ix] John H. Gerstner, “The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith,” in The Evangelicals, ed. David. F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975), 23.
[x]“Westminster Confession of Faith,” available <http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/> (25 February 2007), ch. 1 sect. V.
[xi] Quebedeaux, 4.
[xii] “Amsterdam Declaration,” 2000, Definitions, 4.
[xiii] N. T. Wright, “Laing Lecture.”
[xiv] “The Westminster Confession of Faith,” ch. 1 sect. IV.
[xv] “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” 1978, Article IV.
[xvi] Gerstner, 32.
[xvii] “The Westminster Confession of Faith,” ch. 1 sect X.
[xviii] Quebedeaux, 5. “Orthodox” is capital in the original. Regardless, the source refers to right belief, making “orthodox” a more appropriate form. There is no reference to the Eastern Orthodox Church.