I’ve remarked before on how uncommon it now is to find straightforward Evangelical teaching on evangelical websites, especially in the US. Nearly everyone wants to distance themselves from biblical inerrancy, probably through wishing to distance themselves from Fundamentalism and crude literalism. I think this is because, as I mentioned in the post linked above, on that side of the Atlantic (and because England catches a cold when America sneezes to an increasing extent over here) “Evangelical” has ceased to mean “united to Christ by faith in the Evangelical doctrine of the Reformation”. Instead it implies only “believing one has a personal relationship with Jesus”.
Although the novel doctrine of scriptural errancy arose from critical scholarship, the evangelical high ground is usually maintained when such things are discussed by recourse to the claim that we get our doctrine from the living Christ, not from the dead word. I think that’s just a restatement of the broad church slogan of a century ago: “Christ unites, doctrine divides.” The Bible, it is said, is only the words of humans in some (limited) way inspired by God, and so is not to be relied on. What matters is what we are taught directly by Christ living in us by his Spirit.
Those who follow things in more depth might explain how the New Testament arose in terms of the assumptions of critical scholarship (assumptions, which I believe to be entirely unsupported by history and spurious, if I’m to lay my cards on the table). And those assumptions are that the early Church wasn’t interested in history, but in the life of the Spirit. A prophet deemed to be speaking by the Spirit might proclaim a new story, or teaching, of Jesus. It would be accepted into the tradition uncritically, and so eventually might find its way into our Bible. For this reason, even evangelical commentaries are full of discussions about the sitz im leben (life situation) within the Church where a particular pericope arose, in order to distinguish what is sub-apostolic from what is “authentically dominical”.
At this point the thoughtful reader might, validly, ask a question. If we believe that Christ living in us can lead us to discern truth, why do we not believe that these early Christians, living their life of the Spirit a lot closer to the apostolic source, were equally able to discern it? Are we saying, unlike the liberal scholars, that the New Testament was not written by true Christians believing they were directed by the living Christ, but by charlatans inventing legends and morality arbitrarily to suit their own agendas?
Well, that would be too harsh, would be the reply. These Christians were truly indwelt by Christ, but like all humans (we’re still undecided about Jesus himself, here, in the light of kenotic theology…) were prone to error. Because of this a great deal of error is in the New Testament. We do not have there what Jesus did and said, but what is represented to us as his words and deeds.
And what accounts for the error? Well (is the claim) it’s the cultural conditioning of the early Christians. We’ll leave aside the cultural conditioning of Jesus, which is still a minority position, though in the ascendent in TE circles, it appears. Much of the early Church was Jewish, and carried across a misplaced belief that the tanakh was the pure word of God, evidently failing to appreciate that Jesus didn’t share that belief. That’s why we can know that Jesus’s teaching endorsing the Old Testament isn’t authentic. Gentile Christians were skewed by the teachings of the Church, which of course bore little resemblance to those of Jesus himself, which had unaccountably disappeared under the pile of prophetic accretions within a decade of the resurrection. In particular, most were influenced by the teaching of Paul, whose reinvented Christianity we now know to cut straight across that of Jesus. And all that is before we take account of Greek philosophy, ancient science, diaspora inter-testamental Judaism, half-retained pagan beliefs and so on. What is amazing is that anything of Christ remains in Scripture at all.
How does one distinguish the truth from the error? Strangely enough, as I have suggested above, all the theological effort still seems directed to what can be shown to be historically authentic, whereas the “living Christ teaches us” doctrine surely ought rather to be looking for “what the early Church really did get from Jesus by prophetic revelation.” In practice, the average forum contributor will take a different tack: they discern the truth and error in the Bible by trusting that the living Christ in them is leading them the truth. For example, “I know in my heart that the loving Jesus would never condemn anyone to hell. Therefore Mark 14.21 must have been falsely attributed to Jesus.”
Again, you might thoughtfully ask what it is about Christians today that prevents their being misled by cultural prejudices just as they say the biblical writers were. How can we know that our own opinion on Mark 14.21 is more reliable than Mark’s? Well, if people are pressed on issues like this, or ethical matters like homosexual practice, they will tend to answer that we now have the benefit of scientific research and critical scholarship, the first confirming our own position, and the second disconfirming the biblical position. It won’t escape you, I trust, that this is just another way of saying, “I am unquestioningly conditioned by my culture.” Just as the first century believers were, it is said, thoroughly products of their time, so are we – only in actual fact we lack the insight to question why it is that the living Jesus doesn’t put us at odds with our culture as the early Church (history shows) was with theirs, to the point of persecution.
But there’s a further, even more disturbing, conclusion to be drawn. If the difference between a first century understanding of gospel teaching (including, of course, the meaning of the saving acts of Jesus) and our own is the difference in our cultural conditioning, then it cannot be because the indwelling, living Lord is teaching us better than he did the early disciples. Unless, that is, “the Spirit of Christ” is just a synonym for “western science and critical scholarship”.