Monday, December 31, 2007

It's just a man up there

Over the years I've attended various conservative churches and during the main part of the service there's typically a man up there in the pulpit pontificating about sin and how we live in a godless nation and how God's judgment is pending. Abortion often came up and sometimes evolution, depending on how conservative the place was. The preacher typically acknowledges that he is not God and that except by God's grace he would not be able to do any of what he does. At the same time there's the unmistakable claim that if one does not agree with or ultimately obey what is being promulgated from the pulpit then one is not disobeying and rebelling against a man but against God. So the preacher gets to disclaim his authority by telling his audience that he is not God and that he is just a man like every other that you see in the audience, yet his message is that of God and is not like that of a mere man (save perhaps those who are divinely appointed to similar positions of power and who promulgate compatible "biblical" messages).

John MacArthur, Jr. gives the following rationale for the totalitarian authority structure of an inerrantist church service:

"The only logical response to inerrant Scripture, then, is to preach it expositionally. By expositionally, I mean preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as it was intended by God. Expository preaching is the proclamation of the truth of God as mediated through the preacher." (, p. 3.)

So the preacher who is not God becomes God during the service. Even if it is not the preacher himself who is thought to personally undergo theosis (it's his message that does), the preacher is still thought of by the faithful as a man who can, in at least one important respect, be God for the people. It's not education or personality or intelligence that accomplishes the preacher's mediating capacity (although these traits would not hurt). The divine transformation of the preacher's words is made possible in the minds of many conservatives by the doctrine of inerrancy. And if one is convinced of a close connection between inerrancy and preaching, as MacArthur is, then to critically question a sermon is to ultimately question God, because to question the preacher is to question the Bible and to question the Bible is to question God. Now such a distinction between error and truth with regard to preaching may encourage a tendency to attribute all homiletic errors to the preacher and all homiletic truths to God. This reinforces the view that all human contributions to religion are bad and that only the divine contributions can be considered good. And if there's anything that a conservative evangelical does not want to be it's be based on merely human notions and traditions. I think this view contributes immensely to J.P. Moreland's "over-committment to the Bible" syndrome (on which see ).

MacArthur makes the following inferences a little later in the paper:

"[Liberals] err by a priori giving the critic a place of authority over the Scriptures. This assumes the critic himself is inerrant...Presuppositions are involved either way. Will men place their faith in the Scriptures or the critics?...If the Bible is unable to produce a sound doctrine of Scripture, then it
is thus incapable of producing, with any degree of believability or credibility, a doctrine about any other matter. If the human writers of Scripture have erred in their understanding of Holy Writ's purity, then they have disqualified themselves as writers for any other area of God's revealed truth. If they are so disqualified in all areas, then every preacher is thoroughly robbed of any confidence and conviction concerning the alleged true message he would be relaying for God." (p. 14)

Without inerrancy, preachers are unable to preach. No wonder they are unwilling to critically discuss the doctrine, much less give it up. With such dire consequences to giving up inerrancy and without any intermediate possibilities between inerrancy and "disqualified in all areas," it is no wonder that evangelicals fight for inerrancy as if they're fighting for their lives. At least in one regard, they seem convinced that they actually are fighting for their lives because without inerrancy, it's just a man up there on Sunday morning.