Thursday, December 27, 2007

People or doctrine?

What is Christianity all about anyway? Are Christians primarily interested in people or are they primarily interested in doctrine? Or perhaps this is too simple; perhaps Christians would not (publicly) choose one over the other but say that both are major facets of the total religious package. Or perhaps some would say that Christianity is really about the business of reforming people precisely by means of reforming their doctrine. Or perhaps they would proffer that although Christianity is concerned with reforming doctrine, this is done secondarily, so to speak, by primarily reforming people.

To fear the LORD is to hate evil;
I hate pride and arrogance,
evil behavior and perverse speech.

...and wrong doctrines and the people who after years and years of honest research still come to believe them.

My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness.
All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse.
To the discerning, all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge.

Perhaps "true" Christianity is about trying to pressure people to agree with one's doctrine for their own good and for their own eternal well-being and maybe even for that good feeling that comes with brazenly sticking up for what God has revealed to be true once and for all. Of course, those who resist what our mouths speak--even if they too claim to be Christians--do not really have knowledge and are bereft of true discernment since they do not hear what we are speaking since we are speaking the truth. I suppose this is one way of looking at it.

But whether Christianity is primarily about people or doctrine is a question that can be posed in a host of different contexts. My concern here is the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. Is evangelicalism about the spiritual formation of people or preserving the doctrine of inerrancy? I pose this question here to myself and only indirectly to others. I am presently convinced that THE problem with evangelicalism is the doctrine of inerrancy. But maybe I am wrong; maybe I cannot see the forest for the trees. Maybe it's the type of people who are attracted to evangelicalism who make inerrancy such a natural view of Scripture to take. Said another way, perhaps evangelical culture necessitates inerrancy. Maybe it's not the doctrine of inerrancy that leads to spiritual malformation; but rather spiritually and psychologically unhealthy people (an unhealthy collective culture) who lead, through the course of their Christian formation, to inerrantist-type doctrines.

What do I mean by spiritually and psychologically unhealthy people? Consider the following list of character traits that many evangelicals tend to exhibit simply in virtue of conforming to the collective evangelical culture (taken from

"1. Christians endorse a high standard of conduct for others, and then largely excuse themselves from a serious pursuit of such a life...
2. Evangelical Christian piety in America is mostly public... If its public, we do it well. If it's private discipleship, we probably don't do it at all.
3. Many evangelicals relate to others with an obvious- or thinly disguised- hidden agenda... [People] are annoyed and sometimes angered that we are following some divine directive to get them to abandon their life choices and take up ours. They want to be loved as they are, not for what they might become if our plan succeeds
4. We seem consumed with establishing that we are somehow "better" than other people, when the opposite is very often true...
5. We talk about God in ways that are too familiar and make people uncomfortable...
6. Evangelicals are too slow to separate themselves from what is wrong...
7. We take ourselves far too seriously, and come off as opposed to normal life..."

I can see how these traits, when taken together, contribute on a cultural level to the natural promotion and acceptance of a view of the Bible that is inerrantist. From this vantage, then, evangelicalism would be primarily about people, and evangelical doctrine could be interpreted, at least in part, as an ad hoc articulation of a pre-doctrinal mindset brought to religion by evangelical people themselves. This is an upsetting scenario because then those who are looking to reform evangelicalism are not merely dealing with either this or that unsuitable doctrine or even with a whole system of unfruitful doctrines. Much rather, evangelical reformers are dealing with people, a whole culture of people who profess to love God but who have created, whether implicitly or explicitly, a doctrinal framework that maintains that level of spiritual and psychological health that they formerly possessed upon hearing the gospel and that probably partially contributed to their believing the evangelical presentation of the gospel in the first place.

Dialectically speaking then, inerrancy cannot help but be what it is--a watershed belief for evangelical Christianity. Even so. inerrancy may not be the cause of the unhealthiness of the evangelical mindset, but rather a prominent symptom. Donald Dayton reviewed James Barr's Fundamentalism years ago ( and wrote: "Barr’s book, however, serves notice that the minor adjustments of modern postfundamentalist evangelicalism are unequal to the task. The rejection of inerrancy will require a more radical rejection of the underlying thought forms that produced it." I understand this to mean that it's not merely the case that inerrancy has not been overcome because the adjustments made by postconservatist theologians are too minor, but that the doctrine of inerrancy cannot be eradicated, unless the people who rely on it are collectively willing to undergo a radical process of spiritual and psychological healing. Dayton reads Barr as follows: "I take Barr to be suggesting that these facts are not unrelated and that confinement in the straitjacket of that intellectual system is a major reason that 'modernized and up-dated evangelicalism has [not] attained to any conceptual framework that is intrinsically different from the fundamentalist one, or that it has even tried.' I myself [Dayton] am inclined to agree with Barr about the poverty of this postfundamentalist theology and tradition for the future of evangelicalism -- though I would want my evangelical colleagues to understand clearly that I reject this tradition not to reject biblical or evangelical faith but to seek rather a more adequate conceptual framework through which to be more faithful to the Scriptures."

Dayton's review was written 30 years ago yet the same religious dynamics are still very much with us today. What Dayton describes as "seeking a more adequate conceptual framework" strikes me as such a profound change in thinking that it almost sounds like he's calling for another conversion, and if that is the case then this new conversion, as it were, would describe a new phase of Christian understanding whose genesis and emphasis travels more from people to doctrine than from doctrine to people or even from doctrine to doctrine. For some fundamental spiritual and psychological need is being met (however inadequately) by the doctrine of inerrancy, and whatever those needs may be, would-be evangelical reformers must address these first before anything like Dayton's conversion can take place.

According to Dayton, Barr observes that evangelical inerrancy belongs to a psychological matrix that is comprised of at least three main beliefs: "Barr defines the movement primarily in terms of three negative characteristics: (1) "a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible," (2) "a strong hostility to modern theology" and "the modern critical study of the Bible," and (3) a sharp distinction between "nominal" and "true" Christians (i.e., fundamentalists)." Although these beliefs clearly do not exhaust the evangelical mindset, these three seem to me to stand or fall together and, accordingly, unless one can effect the cultural abandonment of these three conjointly, a doctrinaire fundamentalism will remain implicitly operative in evangelicalism, postconservative or otherwise.