God’s Letter to Us: How Evangelicals Read Scripture by Mark Galli

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It nearly goes without saying that evangelicals have a special relationship with the Bible. It’s not the same as their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but it can sometimes come close.

For one thing, when we talk about “the Word,” it is sometimes hard to tell if we’re talking about the Bible or the person of Jesus, for we generally capitalize Word in either case. And we tend to talk about the Bible as if it is a living thing, as per 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed.” It harkens to Genesis, when God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).

As such, we talk about a Bible passage that “speaks to us” or about how we “heard God” as we read a passage of Scripture.

To remind us of the personal nature of the Bible, we often remind one another that, as much as anything else, the Bible is to be read as a personal letter from God to us. This analogy was eloquently advocated by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:

My listener, how highly do you value God’s Word? … Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved. I assume that God’s Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God’s Word in the same way the lover reads this letter.

In another essay he casts a distrustful eye to learned commentaries—in his view, they often obscure the plain meaning of the text as they explore the linguistic and historical context of a passage. Instead, he says,

Each of us should read this letter solely as an individual, as a single individual who has received this letter from God. In reading it, we will be concerned foremost with ourselves and with our relationship to him. We will not focus on the beloved’s letter, that this passage, for example, may be interpreted in this way, and that passage in that way—oh, no, the important thing to us will be to act as soon as possible.

Formerly—in the era of physical Bibles—an evangelical’s devotion could be gauged by how worn the pages of his or her Bible were or how many verses were underlined or annotated. Carrying around one’s Bible was like holding hands with a lover.

So when liberal scholars and agnostics criticize the Bible and question its authority, we get defensive, not so much because of our theology of the Bible, but because it feels like they are attacking a loved one. Our devotion to and relationship with the Bible can, of course, wander into bibliolatry. If some Catholics can imply that Mary is practically a fourth member of the Trinity, sometimes evangelicals inadvertently and similarly exalt the Bible. But mostly that’s a caricature.

Other critics blanch when we use words like inerrant or infallible to describe the authority of the Bible: “Only God is inerrant!” they exclaim. Well, of course. But when we use those words, we don’t mean them in the same way we mean them when we’re talking about God. The problem with so many criticisms of evangelicalism is that they traffic in the very thing we are accused of: literalism.

Here I’m not going to engage in a theological defense of inerrancy. That has been done and done well by others (note, for example, this online series by Tim Challies, or the book-length treatment by Craig Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions [Brazos, 2014]). In this series, I’m more interested in noting why, at an experiential level, evangelicals are inclined to use words like inerrant and infallible to describe the Bible’s authority, why they trust the Bible so. Again, I’m not saying that the theology is unimportant to evangelicals, for they wouldn’t continue to hold to such descriptors if there were not sound biblical and theological reasons to do so. But there are also existential reasons that reinforce the theological.

‘I Sense God Telling Me…’

One reason we trust the Bible is this: Scripture demonstrates to evangelicals that it is absolutely authoritative and trustworthy as we engage it. We open our Bibles and it never ceases to amaze us that we read something we believe God wants us to hear personally. It’s not that we hear a voice, but from time to time we have this intuitive sense that the verse under discussion was written just to us. When this sort of thing happens, a skeptic might say we’re confusing a spiritual moment with the very common feeling one gets when experiencing a coincidence. Of course, evangelicals understand that we have to “test the spirits” by talking with others and praying more about what we believe God is telling us. But we’ve tested the spirits enough times to know that it is very often the case that God has, in fact, been speaking to us through Scripture.

I was foolish enough to get married without having a job in hand, so the first order of business after the honeymoon was to find work. I had been fruitlessly looking for work as a grocery teller (where I had some experience) when one morning as I was reading the Bible during my “quiet time,” I sensed that God was telling me (that’s a very common evangelical phrase, by the way: “I sensed God telling me”) that a job waited for me in youth ministry. This thought came out of the blue: I had not considered such a thing up to this point.

Not knowing how to go about finding such a job, my wife and I drove around to look at a few churches and see if any were advertising for a youth minister! Well, that was crazy, but it’s the sort of thing evangelicals do when they sense God leading them. We pulled into one church parking lot, Millbrook Presbyterian, and I was ready to go in and ask if there was an opening, but the offices were closed.

We finally figured out that the search might be a little more fruitful if we checked the job listings at the local seminary. When we did, we discovered that Millbrook was, in fact, looking for a youth minister. Long story short, that’s where I ended up working for a year.

Coincidence? Wish fulfillment? Maybe. Evangelicals are smart enough to know that we sometimes confuse God’s leading with our delusions. Life is indeed a deep mystery much of the time. But frankly, no skeptic will ever be able to talk me out of believing that God was indeed speaking to me as I read the Bible that morning.

The Authority of the Holy Spirit

Believing God speaks to us through Scripture, of course, often begs the question of interpretation. Aside from these occasional special moments as above, we rely on the Bible to understand what we are to believe and how we are to live. But a common criticism of evangelical and Protestant reliance on sola scriptura, “the Bible alone,” is this: “All well and good, but according to whose interpretation? Doesn’t the very existence of tens of thousands of Protestant denominations suggest that there may be thousands of opinions about what the Bible teaches? What type of authority is that?”

This question has prompted some evangelicals to cross the Tiber or the Bosphorus and move into Catholic or Orthodox traditions. They are looking for an infallible teaching office (Catholicism) or a finally definitive teaching tradition (Orthodoxy) which can have the last word on interpreting the Bible. One understands the attraction, especially after so many disputes in our movement about “what the Bible really says”!

But evangelicals tend to believe that to rest interpretive authority in a human institution is to shift authority from the Bible to that human institution. This desire might be understandable—who doesn’t wish for clear, unmistakable, holy authority? But in the end, we think it foolish to actually ascribe such authority to any human institution or person. One does not have to rehearse historical examples of church authorities who got it not only wrong, but very wrong.

Evangelicals, instead, are willing to live with a little ambiguity in the matter of interpretation over disputed matters. Rather than put our trust into an institution or person, we put a lot of stock in Jesus’ statement that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth (John 16:13). For example, the church had to argue and debate about the Trinitarian nature of God for close to 300 years before that issue was settled, but it was settled. For that matter, a great deal of how we understand the faith has been more or less settled in this way—after decades, if not centuries, of heated debate.

That’s why, while we respect and look to our pastors and teachers past and present, we never fully trust them. We reserve the right to test what they say against the teaching of Scripture. It’s the way we hold our leaders and ourselves accountable.

The variety of approaches to authority is illustrated in the way different traditions try to put an exclamation point on their teaching. When Catholics want to make a decisive point, they often will say, “The church teaches.” The Orthodox will say, “The early fathers taught.” Evangelicals continue to say, “The Bible says.”

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Source: Christianity Today