The Future of the Bible in the Evangelical Church

It is time to close this series of blogs with a projection of the role of the Bible in the evangelical church as we move forward. Let me start with my analysis of where we are today, the current ground game in play. I will do this by asking two defining questions.

First, where is the locus of authority in the evangelical church today? As mentioned above, Martin Luther and those who followed him used the Bible as a means of redirecting the authority in the church from trained hierarchical teachers to the individual believer. This is still true today (and will continue), but things have changed from Luther’s day. Now, men and women who have training and degrees in biblical studies have a small or non-existent voice of authority in the church. This may sound like sour grapes to some, but I have experienced this more than once in ministry. It is at the scholar’s peril that he or she challenges a cherished but unbiblical belief in a local church. I rarely do this anymore, but when I have, my advice will often be rejected in one of two ways. First, the church leader being challenged (exposed) may intimate that my Ph.D. in New Testament has corrupted me and turned me into a liberal, so I cannot be trusted. Second, a church leader will basically answer, “And so say you!” meaning, “Even if I’m wrong, I’m not changing my position.”

However, a strange corollary to this has emerged in the last decade, the nationally influential scholar/pastor. There are a few dozen evangelical pastors who have achieved a national platform through publications, blogs, tweets, conference speaking, and other media. While the university professor’s authority is dismissed, the pastor’s knowledge and authority are accepted. After all, he has written two books! This is a mixed bag, for some of these guys (and they are almost all male) are well educated, and I don’t know where it will come out. I admire hard working pastors and their dedication to preaching the gospel and building the church. Sometimes, though, the personality characteristics that lead to a megachurch (narrow focus, self-confidence, independence, flamboyance) make it difficult to participate in a community dialog about the meaning of biblical texts. Grant Osborne exhorted his students (including me) to always practice a “hermeneutics of humility,” realizing the best exegetes may make mistakes. We need more of this today.

All this is to say that the Bible is often a tool for the most influential authorities in the evangelical church, the influential pastors and their disciples. Most church members have no interest in Luther’s ideal of careful Bible study by the educated and godly layperson. They want their doctrine and theology delivered in 140-charcter bites, sometimes a series of these tidbits strung together as a sermon. (We used to call this “proof-texting,” which hatched a flock of bad approaches to the Bible that have now come home to roost.) I don’t see this trend changing soon. I await a rediscovery of the Bible and its authentic authority for a future generation.

Second question, what do evangelical church people want from the Bible? It is easier, maybe, to say what they don’t want. Many don’t want the Bible to stand in criticism to the way they live their lives. Rampant materialism, covert racism, excuses for immorality … please don’t bring any biblical truths to challenge these things! Many want comfort from the Bible, to know that God loves them and they don’t need to change anything to please him. Even more, many want to keep the Bible at arm’s-length so that its light of truth does not shine too brightly on their lives. This seems to me to be the role of the Bible for most Evangelicals for the foreseeable future. It is like the wise uncle who lives out of state. He may have good advice, but we don’t want to hear it, and it is easy to ignore him.

I do believe, however, there is a growing hunger among evangelical church members for a healthy meal of biblical truth. They have been fed baby food for too long. They want a biblical steak, or at least seasoned and sautéed sliced eggplant (for vegans).

I am encouraged by a couple of things that have happened in my church, Wildewood Christian Church in Papillion, NE. First, our pastor, Ron Wymer, has committed himself to include more doctrinal and theological meat in his sermons. He is doing a D.Min. degree and was challenged in a recent class to bring theology back to the pulpit, and he has been doing this. But Ron preaches from the Bible, not a systematics textbook. I applaud him, even if I disagree with him some time. For me, it is better to have a sermon where I might disagree a little, than a sermon that has nothing worth disagreeing about.

Also, this church has been gracious to allow me to teach in its “Wildewood Academy,” a Wednesday night program for adults who are desiring serious study of the Bible. We have been wading through the book of Revelation, and I am amazed at the response. We have almost outgrown our classroom. We are tackling some tough stuff, places in Revelation where I have to say, “I’m not sure what this means.” But we are seeing this great book of theology and worship in ways that speak to our lives and our faith. These faithful, Berean-type church members are a great encouragement to me and the church.

So there is hope …

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (part 3)

This is the fourth installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. Recently we have been looking historically at the early church’s practices concerning Scripture. The early church, before the completion and collection of the New Testament, esteemed the Scriptures from its Jewish roots, using the Greek translation of the Old Testament we call the Septuagint. At the same time, words of Jesus were accorded special, Scriptural-like authority before our Gospels were written. The writings of the apostles were also esteemed and began to be treated as Scripture. Beginning in its early centuries, serious Christian writers were both using Scriptural citations in their polemic and apologetic writings to define and bolster their positions. Great scholars like Origen began to do systematic exposition of Bible books, using predefined methodology to interpret the meaning of Scripture for their readers.

Skip to the sixteenth century. The church is in the final stages of emerging from the “dark ages,” a development influenced by many things. Not the least of these factors is the invention and continuing perfection of the printing press. In the 1450s, the first major publishing project began using movable type. The publisher, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, chose his first book carefully and his choice is instructive. He printed the Bible in a grand fashion, impressively large and luxuriously bound. What is important for our study is that he chose the Bible as his first project and that the version he used was the Latin Vulgate text, which included the books of the apocrypha.

The cost of Gutenberg’s Bibles and the limited production meant they found homes in large churches and libraries, not in homes (for the most part). Even with papal approval, the Latin text made it inaccessible to all but the learned. Yet the printing technological revolution had begun, and there was money to be made in producing smaller and less expensive books. This spurred something of a revival of biblical scholarship, partly because printers needed reliable texts to publish that would be accepted by the church and the public.

At the same time, the authority of the church in Rome was being questioned on many fronts. This can be attributed to factors such as rising nationalism, abuse or neglect of spiritual authority, crusade fatigue, rediscovery of classical pagan philosophers by the humanists, and the extravagance of building projects in Rome and elsewhere despite grinding poverty in much of Europe. This set the stage for a German-speaking Augustinian monk, Martin Luther.

It is not overstatement to say that Martin Luther changed the entire trajectory of biblical scholarship, and that his influence continues until today. Luther did this in two primary ways. First, he began to study the texts of Bible books in something like an objective, modern way. He wanted to know what the author said and meant when the author originally wrote. Luther did not feel bound by traditional interpretations that were sometimes intended to benefit the church establishment.

Second, Luther believed that Scripture needed to be widely available to all Christians. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the church was his German translation, later called the Luther Bible. For the first time in 1,500 years, Christians might be able to own a copy of the Bible in their home and read it in their language. In both of these things, we like to think that Luther shifted the locus of authority from the Roman Catholic church and its magisterium to Scriptures, but that is not really what happened. As we shall see, the Scripture is now seen with a new level of authority, but the shift was from the authorized church interpreters to individual Christians as interpreters. If a semi-learned layman could read Scriptures for himself, then he could interpret it for himself, too.

This is the beginning of the evangelical tradition of today: Scriptures widely available in common translations and at low cost for a literate church membership. In America, one of the motivations for public schools was to produce a literate people who were able to read the Bible for themselves. Protestants have little patience for official, church-decreed interpretations of Scripture. We can read it for ourselves!

Next: Biblical Authority in the Evangelical Church Today

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 2)

This is the third installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. The last blog indicated that “Scripture” for the early church was what we would call the “Old Testament” today. The functional Scripture of the church was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (LXX). This indicates a couple of things. First, that the idea of “Scripture,” the written word, as having unique authority was retained by the church from its synagogue origins. Second, the idea that we must study the Old Testament in the original language (Hebrew/Aramaic) has little historical basis in the earliest church. Third, that our mania to have absolute exactitude concerning every word of Scripture and its original meaning also has little basis in the earliest church.

How did we get where we are today, where there is a sincere desire to recognize authority in the Bible while tolerating a low level of biblical literacy in our churches?

This blog can only use a big brush and very broad strokes in this, but let me point out a couple of developments. First, the words of Jesus were accorded special respect and authority in the early church, even before the Gospels were written. For example, in Acts 20:35, Luke portrays Paul as ending his discourse to the Ephesian elders this way:

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: It is more blessed to give than to receive.

This little saying, attributed to Jesus himself, is not recorded in the Gospels. It is significant that Luke himself did not include it in his first volume, what we call the Gospel of Luke, for he often foreshadows material in Acts with material in Luke. If Luke is writing in the late A.D. 70s, he pens this forty years after Jesus said it, but he gives us no context for Jesus making this assertion. He is also writing twenty years after the event in which he portrays Paul as quoting it, and here the context is important. Paul is speaking with apostolic authority to a group of church leaders and ends his discourse with this verse. Quoting Jesus finalizes his argument and both compliments and surpasses his own authority.

We also see this in some of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings. One example is Clement of Rome, probably writing in the AD 90s. Possibly the co-worker of Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3, Clement writes to the church in Corinth in a letter we call 1 Clement, a book saturated with scriptural quotations and allusions. Decrying divisions in the Corinthian church, Clement makes this statement:

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. (1 Clement 46, Ante-Nicene Fathers translation).

This seems to be a quotation of Matthew 18:6 (perhaps Mark 9:42), but not with the precision we would demand today. What it shows us is that this early church leader (Clement) and his fellow Christians saw authority in the words of Jesus, and that Clement used a written source (Matthew or Mark) for these words.

Second, in the centuries following Clement, other church leaders and scholars used both the Old Testament and the writings that became the New Testament with authority. Sometimes the New Testament authors were quoted to bolster a command or teaching. Others did lengthy, systematic expositions of certain books. For example, Origen (flourishing c. A.D. 200-250) wrote lengthy expositions on books of the Bible from the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Genesis, Lamentations, John, Romans). His exegetical method may seem inadequate today (referred to as “allegorical” or “spiritual” interpretation), but the fact that the greatest scholar of the church’s first two centuries would expend so much effort on biblical studies is significant. Origen’s efforts also included his famous Hexapla, a six-columned work showing the Hebrew text, a Hebrew transliteration in Greek, the Septuagint text, and three other Greek translation of the Old Testament. Now lost to us, the Hexapla’s purpose seems to have been to establish the best possible Greek text of the Old Testament for use in scholarship and in the church. This, again, is an attestation to the high esteem in which Scripture was held in the early church and the seriousness of the scholarship devoted to it. It is also a move to raise the stakes for the exact words of Scripture, to have a trusted text that is the basis for interpretation.

Next: Biblical Authority in the Reformation

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 1)

Evangelicals today face a great paradox within their churches. On the one hand, Evangelicals take a strong position on the importance of the Bible. On the other hand, members of our churches have inaccurate and meager biblical knowledge, and no general penchant for gaining more and better information. Furthermore, preaching and teaching in the church today seems ineffective and lacking in biblical truth. We have a general church membership with a low level of biblical literacy, and church leaders who barely rise above it.

How did we get here? I know there are many exceptions to the generalizations above, but I doubt that anyone would assume today that if a person identified herself as a “Christian,” we could be confident that this person had a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible.

I remember an epiphany I had years ago when my daughter was old enough in school to begin having notes sent home in her backpack by her teacher. I was often appalled by these notes, which had spelling and grammar errors. These were my daughter’s teachers! English teachers! My epiphany was in realizing these teachers did not know English well, and this was because they had not been taught well. The result was a generation of students with inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of English, and then those students became teachers. This is somewhat parallel to the situation in Evangelical churches. The inadequately educated students are now the teachers.

How, though, did we ever get to a place of expecting our church preachers and leaders to have a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible? Or better, why should we expect this? Should we still expect this? More basically, why does the Bible have a privileged position of authority in the Evangelical church? Allow me to offer a couple of observations.

First, the idea of “Scripture” or “Sacred Writings” was inherited by the church from its Jewish founders. At the time of Jesus, the ancient writings of the Law (Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Former and Latter) were recognized as having authority that could command respect and obedience. One could win an argument or demand behavior if one could cite a verse of recognized Scripture. This trumped all opinions. To be sure, the Jewish community of the first century did not simply view their Scriptures as proof-texts to be used in argumentation. They also saw them as telling their story as a nation and giving them an identity as the people of God.

So, like the synagogue, the early church had Scriptures, roughly identified with what we call the “Old Testament” in the Evangelical church. The early church’s Scripture did not include the “New Testament,” because its books were still being written, collected, and recognized. When Paul writes in 2 Timothy that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …,” he is not talking about the New Testament, but about the Old Testament. Application of this verse to Christian writings is retroactive, perhaps anachronistic, maybe even circular argumentation.

One significant difference is that the early church’s “Old Testament” was the Greek translation we call the Septuagint (LXX). The idea of learning the Hebrew language to exegete the Hebrew text of Genesis would never have occurred to the Greek-speaking Gentile leaders of Paul’s churches. The authority of the text, as they understood it, was perfectly intact when using a translation such as the LXX. It would be hard to imagine a first century preacher telling his congregation that he had insights into Scripture they could not fathom based on his study of a Hebrew text. Such a claim would be little more than Gnosticism, touting a secret knowledge to gain authority and power. All this is to say that when we understand that the Scriptures of the early church were a Greek translation, our desire to have absolute exactitude concerning every word and its original meaning may be overly zealous today.

The earliest, documented use of Scripture by the Christian community comes in the writings of the New Testament itself. In the next installment of this series, we will attempt to understand not only how the New Testament writers use Scripture (the Old Testament), but how they understand its authority and how this established the tradition of biblical authority in the church that continues to this day.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Future Church, Future Bible

Upheaval. Chaos. Questioning. Fear of Future. Disregard for Tradition. Distrust of Experts. Dismissal of Science. Alternative Facts and Truths.

A negative appraisal of the current situation in American politics and social life sees elements of all of these descriptors in play today. It is easy, however, to see these things confined to cable TV news, internet news sites, and Washington, D.C. We believe our lives are insulated from such turmoil, at least for the most part. Questioning? Haven’t we always done this? Don’t we have a right to question authority? Fear of Future? Who wouldn’t be afraid after living through 9/11 and the Great Recession? Disregard for Tradition? Isn’t it about time we jettisoned some of the archaic traditions that hold us back? Should we let our past control our future? Distrust of Experts? Can’t I look up anything on the internet and find a source I like? Aren’t we all experts these days? Dismissal of Science? Scientists don’t agree on anything, do they? And aren’t the answers of science always changing? Didn’t they tell us at one time that menthol cigarettes could heal our lungs? Alternative facts and Truths. Isn’t there a lot of fake news out there? Haven’t the major news agencies we trusted in the past shown themselves to be purveyors of an agenda I don’t like? Isn’t Walter Cronkite dead?

Where does this fearful and questioning environment come into the church? We are long past the days when we could believe the church was a “Fortress of Solitude” untouched by raging conflicts in the cultural and social world. Whether we admit it or not, our religious identity is at the core of this situation. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “Religion is the essence of culture and culture is the dress of religion.” What are the religious elements behind our cultural upheavals?

In a series of blogs over the next few weeks, I would like to explore a specific aspect of this, the religious identity of the church as expressed in current culture. What lies behind the cultural expressions our society experiences in the church today? More specifically, I want to look at the role of the Bible in the church’s religious identity. Then I want to play the role of a futurist and project a little. What will be the relationship between the Bible and the future church?

My father was a medical doctor (M.D.) and had been drilled about a couple of things in medical school that were essential to his profession. One was that he always was to sign his name with “M.D.” at the end. So he wasn’t “Charles E. Krause.” He was “Charles E. Krause, M.D.” His degree conferred upon him a unique status that he should take pride in and publish whenever he could. A second thing he was taught was that other medical people who claim to be “doctors” but were not “M.D.” were suspect, probably quacks. In my family, visiting a chiropractor would be grounds for disinheritance. These and other things were drawn from the culture of medical schools when my father was being educated, an effort to define an elite identity for medical school graduates at the top of the medical world’s influence hierarchy. This culture (from the 1950s) would be aghast at the idea that medical information could be accessed from the internet, that a person with a medical degree from a place like Pakistan could be a real doctor, and that (of all things) a person could receive a flu shot in a Target pharmacy given by a pharmacist (as I did last week). In the end, this wasn’t so much about competency and certainly not about consumer value. It was about “protecting the shield,” insuring that medical doctors were highly competent and appropriately respected.

I’m afraid my field of expertise, biblical studies, has some of these same tendencies. We distrust and dismiss opinions on the Bible coming from anyone who does not have at least a master’s degree from a reputable school. We cringe at the misinformation about the Bible and its interpretation that can be found on the internet. We are aghast at preaching that largely ignores the Bible, and misinterprets it when it is used. We, too, have been “protecting the shield” of our guild, PhDs who know the original biblical languages and talk to each other in terms no average church person could understand or appreciate. When we look into the future of the church’s relationship to the Bible, are we part of it? Are we part of a new synthesis or a lingering part of an old problem?

Here are the topics I want to look at in the next few weeks:

  1. How did the Bible come to have a place of authority in the church and what is the nature of that authority?
  2. How did the assumption of this authoritative role for the Bible form part of the essence of the Evangelical church, and how was this essence dressed in popular cultural expressions of evangelicalism?
  3. What is the “realpolitick” role of the Bible and biblical experts (like me) in the evangelical church today?
  4. What is the likely future role of the Bible and its experts in the future church.

I hope you are along for the ride!

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Part 5: The Evangelical Church Is Amazingly Vibrant

evangelicalism-2017Where does the evangelical movement go from here?

In the previous blogs I have identified four trends that I see as troubling (even dangerous) for the future of evangelical Christianity:

  1. The increasing abandonment of biblical authority in terms of practice.
  2. The surrender of evangelicals to right-wing political agendas.
  3. The ongoing dominance of systematic theological constructs to define evangelicalism.
  4. The decline of both the effectiveness of and the demand for evangelical theological education.

This presents a pessimistic outlook for the future, and those who know me will attest that this is not my style. I am the eternal optimist, and I am optimistic about the prospects for evangelical Christianity. Why? Because I find the evangelical church to be amazingly vibrant.

I have had contact with many different evangelical church in the past few years. There is no single way to characterize them, but perhaps they can be divided into two categories: striving or thriving (certainly not buzzwords original to me).

Striving Churches. These are churches that are not growing. They are either plateaued (temporarily) or in decline. This can be for many reasons: declining community, loss of key members, bad reputation, poor facilities, etc. But the number one reason (in my experience) is the lack of effective and committed leadership. By this I mean the church lacks leaders who are:

  • Thinking strategically
  • Fiscally wise
  • Personally committed
  • Doctrinally sound

All of these are important, but the most important for the survival of the church is the first, strategic thinking. What I mean by this is the capacity to envision what a church should look like in the near future (2-3 years) and then to craft a reasonable strategy to get there. Many smaller churches are unable to do this, defaulting to plans that seek to restore the past glories of the congregation rather than adjust to the changing situation. Sometimes a church has declined to the point there is no realistic future for it.

When a “striving” church ceases to strive, it will die. This is not a doomsday scenario. Throughout the history of Christianity, churches have been planted, thrived, and died. Paul’s church in Ephesus, perhaps the most important church in early Christianity, no longer exists. Why? Because economic forces shut down the city of Ephesus. This can happen today and the Christian community will be relocated or transferred to other congregations rather than signal the end of the church in totality.

Thriving Churches. The evangelical landscape has many vibrant, dynamic churches. I would characterize a “thriving” church as one that has most or all of these characteristics:

  • Growing membership base
  • Fiscal health and stability
  • Talented, innovative staff
  • Dynamic worship services
  • Healthy mix of generations
  • Observable impact on the community

beacon-lighthouseHere is the good news: there are numerous evangelical churches like this all over America. When I visit a metro area, I often try to find out what the thriving churches are in that city. It is usually not too hard, because people who live there will know. Thriving churches are not candles under a bushel basket. They are cities on a hill, shining the light of Jesus brightly. They are beacons in their communities, guiding people to Jesus and his church.

What will the future hold? Part of the dynamic is that the role of the keepers of the evangelical flame has shifted from schools, societies, magazines, and denominational leaders to the vibrant churches of today. I think this shift is permanent. There are no national, universally accepted spokespersons for the evangelical movement. There are local leaders, some of whom have national reputations. And, for the most part, these are the leaders of the vibrant evangelical churches of our era.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Part 4: Theological Training for Pastors is Not Valued

evangelicalism-2017Where do evangelical churches find staff members?

Accurate statistics are difficult to find, but I would estimate that there are more paid staff positions in evangelical churches today than ever in the history of America. Where do these church leaders come from?

In the 19th century, American churches were using the European method of preparing pastors: college or university training. As some universities became increasingly secular, even hostile to the church, the pastor-training endeavor might be isolated to a “divinity house” or separate institution within the university. This pattern continued into the 20th century and is still used by mainline Protestant denominations.

At the same time, there were always pastors without a university background. They may have learned their trade under the tutelage of an older pastor or be largely self-taught. Such individuals were more likely to be found in rural situations where their lack of college education was similar to the members of their churches. But city churches demanded well-educated pastors.

Part of legacy of the Liberal/Fundamentalist controversies in the first half of the 20th century was the perception that the mainline seminaries were no longer to be trusted to train church leaders. The graduates of these seminaries were seen to be theologically liberal and to have lost confidence in the authority of the Bible. A reaction to this was the rise of the Bible college movement, the establishing of autonomous colleges whose curriculum centered around the Bible and whose focus was to produce pastors for conservative evangelical churches. In 1947, the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges was established to bring credibility and standards to these Bible colleges. In 2004, the name was changed to the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

In the post-war years, a stream of evangelicalism dissatisfied with the educational standards of Bible colleges and still distrustful of the mainline seminaries began to establish seminaries and graduate schools to bring a higher level of training for evangelical pastors. These included Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), Dallas Theological Seminary (founded 1924, expanding with the ascension of John Walvoord to the presidency of DTS in 1953), the merger of two schools to become Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (1969), and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (so named in 1963). These seminaries began to attract faculty with Ph.D. degrees from top-flight institutions, often British universities. These seminaries adopted a Master of Divinity curriculum as a graduate level method of training pastors for evangelical churches.

Many evangelical churches today have pastors who are graduates from an ABHE school or from an evangelical seminary. However, it is easy to see that a disconnect has developed between the evangelical institutions of higher education and the churches they were founded to serve.

Why is this? I offer three reasons.

  1. In some ways, the evangelical project in colleges, universities, and seminaries has been unsuccessful. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, many Bible colleges and seminaries focused on producing graduates who were theologically orthodox Bible scholars and not on producing pastors with ministry skills necessary for the church. There was an idea that if students were drilled in Bible and theology, that they would figure out how to do ministry once they got a job in a church. This has sometimes succeeded, but has had some spectacular failures. Bible knowledge and people skills are not the same thing.
    Second, the Bible colleges in particular became isolated from the churches they were founded to serve. This can be seen in a couple of ways. One was that the faculty members of some Bible colleges were academics, not pastors. While able to teach history or theology or Bible with great precision, they had little but theory to offer students in pastoral studies. They were not successful church leaders, but sometimes refugees from failed ministries.
    Another factor was that churches were increasingly reluctant to send their best young people to be trained as pastors. The reasons for this are complex, but Bible colleges were more and more tasked with rehabilitating church misfits rather than molding high-potential students.
    Simply put: too many of the wrong faculty and the wrong students to be successful and respected as a source for churches looking to hire staff members.
  2. Larger churches began to groom and hire staff members from within. The reason for this is articulated in many ways. Some churches believe paid staff members must be permeated with the church’s particular “DNA,” meaning its methodology that has proved to be successful. In other cases, this has been little more than the hiring of family members of the lead pastor or other influential church members. Often this is seen as less risky, assuming that a person will be observed in action as a volunteer for several years before an offer of employment is made.This has been successful, very successful for many large and growing churches. It seems to me, though, that we are living on borrowed time here. Large churches often have a core of older staff pastors with theological training from a college or seminary, but this store of training is being stretched thinner and thinner. It feels like a few professionals working with many skilled amateurs.
  3. Lastly, formal theological education is not valued by many churches. A pastor with a master’s degree or doctorate is not respected because of their education, only because of their performance. So, in many churches, the preaching, while it may be entertaining, is shallow, repetitive, and with little biblical content. Proof-texting reigns. Biblical literacy among evangelicals is at dismal levels. Theological contradictions, mild heresies, and non-Christian teachings are all too common. The popularity of “preaching without notes” has sometimes devolved into “preaching without preparation.” Commitment to Christ is sometimes superseded by commitment to the congregation.

I don’t think it has to be this way. Colleges need to do a better job of preparing students for ministry rather than for careers as Bible scholars. Bible college teachers should be practitioners who love the church. Churches need to value both theological education and ministry skills. And we desperately need to design delivery systems for theological education that will be used by the many church staff members who have had none.

We all need to do better in this.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of its author, not necessarily those of his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 3: The Systematicians Still Reign

evangelicalism-2017Modern evangelicalism has its roots in the European Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, particularly the stream that comes from John Calvin and his writings. “Calvinism,” after all, is not a book in the Bible but a theological construct based on Scripture. It seeks to answer theological questions not directly addressed by any particular passage of the Bible. This is done in various ways, but mostly using syllogisms. The syllogistic method assumes that if two propositions clearly addressed in Scripture are combined, a conclusion (third proposition) may be deduced that will have equal biblical authority. If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

The problem is the choice of “A” and “B” will influence the outcome, “C.”

A – God is invisible to the human eye. (Romans 1)
B – Jesus was recognized as God by the early disciples. (John 20)
C – Therefore, Jesus was invisible.

I know this is an unfair and ridiculous example, but it shows the danger of careless theology by syllogism. To me, the basic problem is that syllogistic approach privileges logical method over the authority of Scripture if we are not careful. It assumes that our powers of rationality are an authority higher than God’s Word.

Syllogistic method, therefore, is not the province of biblical scholars who seek to interpret Scripture passages directly. It is the realm of systematicians. There are two levels for this in evangelical systematics. First is the “Analogy of Scripture,” where two (or more) passages of Scripture are used to draw a theological conclusion unstated by any single passage. A common version of this is the strategy of taking “clear” passages of Scripture to illuminate “less clear” passages of Scripture.

The second level of this syllogistic method is the “Analogy of Faith.” In this method, previous theological conclusions derived from the Analogy of Scripture method are used to interpret Scriptures whose theological intent may have some murkiness that is undesirable.

Where does evangelicalism stand in this regard today? In my 30-year career, I have seen the rise of biblical scholarship within the ETS that is somewhat disconnected from the syllogistic methods of the systematicians. The thoroughgoing biblical scholars seem to be guided by a couple of assumptions:

  1. Authorial Intent. This assumes that the only valid meaning of a text is the meaning intended by the original author for his original audience. If the biblical author is teaching his readers something about God (theology), we must understand this in context and therefore learn about God from an inspired source.
  2. Reluctance to allow indiscriminate application of outside texts for the interpretation of texts that are not self-evident in meaning. Therefore, the best help for interpreting a text is another text in proximity. For example, what does John 4:10 mean when it has Jesus promising “living water” to the Samaritan woman? It is not explained in chapter 4, but the phrase “living water” comes up again in chapter 7, and there the author explicitly says it refers to the “Spirit” (John 7:38-39). A common characteristic of evangelical theologians has been to use Paul to interpret everything. This is amazingly consistent if you watch for it. How many times have we seen an evangelical pastor preaching Nehemiah and throwing in a couple of quotes from Romans to help us understand? Or, preaching Daniel, we “cross-reference” Revelation to help us understand Daniel’s prophecies.

Grant Osborne, in his influential book The Hermeneutical Spiral, sought to challenge the indiscriminate cross-referencing of verses as a “best practices” method for interpretation. Osborne, one of the most capable evangelical biblical interpreters of his generation (and my teacher and friend), demanded that a strategy for consultation of texts beyond the immediate verse be ordered according to a “logical context.”



The Logical Context graphic from Grant Osborne’s “The Hermeneutical Spiral” p. 22

Osborne’s students (including the authors of the current college classroom standard, Grasping God’s Word) have challenged the legitimacy  and supremacy of the systematicians in places like the ETS.

If you are still reading, you may be asking, “Why are you drawing such a hard distinction between biblical interpreters and systematicians? Aren’t the systematicians biblical scholars, too? And don’t the biblical interpreters produce theological conclusions?”

Here’s the difference, and I say these things from the perspective of one who is squarely in the biblical interpreter camp. The systematicians and biblical scholars have different starting points and therefore different products. The biblical interpreters seek to recover the author’s intended meaning in a given text and are not controlled by systematic presuppositions. The systematicians used the Bible as a resource with which to construct their comprehensive and coherent theological grids. The systematicians begin with questions and seek answers from the Bible. The interpreters begin with the Bible and uncover its answers without initial concern for how that might fit into a master system.

In 2016, the differences were on full display at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting in San Antonio. The conference’s theme was “The Trinity,” which is both an essential, hallmark evangelical doctrine and a theological edifice created by systematicians. It was clear, at least to me, that systematics and systematicians are still the dominant party in the ETS. This has many ramifications, but let me offer three in particular.

  1. Decline in biblical scholarship. I know this is a huge generalization, but in past generations, systematic theologians were also fabulous biblical scholars. John Calvin was a student of the Bible first and the author of the Institutes second (in my opinion). Luther, who was a theologian and a keen biblical scholar (especially in the Old Testament) was also influenced heavily by Augustinian theological presuppositions. Frankly, I don’t see this in the ETS as much now. I see systematicians who are amateurish in their handling of the text. To be fair, I see biblical scholars who attempt systematic syntheses who are not trained in systematic theology.
  2. The uneasy truce between Calvinists and Arminians in the ETS is waning. The Calvinist theologians have always controlled the ETS as far as I can tell. But there was always a mix of the two perspectives. Both groups understood their theological conclusions as “biblical,” even if they seemed to be irreconcilable to some. The ETS weathered a storm a few years back with the rise of “Open Theism,” which I have described elsewhere as “Arminianism on steroids.” This theological view was seen by the Calvinists of the ETS as a threat that could not be allowed within the membership, and it was crushed. Since then, I don’t detect much in the way of an Arminian voice or perspective in the ETS, especially among the plenary speakers or presidential addresses.
  3. The systematic method is dominant in evangelical preaching. I will say more about this next week, but there is a long-term decline in biblical preaching. We are now given thematic sermons based on proof-texts rather than teaching a particular passage. Many pastors have their favorite proof-texts that show up with regularity in their messages, no matter what the starting text might be. This is systematic presentation on the popular level. Scripture becomes a tool for theological presentation, not the source of doctrine the authors intended.

Next week: #4, Theological training and the church.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily the views of his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 2: Faith and Politics

evangelicalism-2017In the previous blog, I discussed issue #1 for evangelicals: the decline of biblical authority. Here is the second issue:

2. Separation of politics and faith is more and more difficult.

Recent elections have been polarizing in the Christian world, and I mean more than the presidential primaries and election. It is often assumed that evangelicals vote as a block and must be courted by candidates. It is true that evangelicals represent 10-20% of those who vote, numbers that may be decisive in close elections. One problem with this political analysis is the ignoring of minority communities, for many black or Latino churches would be considered evangelical except their members are not white working class folks and, therefore, outside the evangelical voting block.

Therefore, the “evangelical vote” is loosely defined on things other than church membership. It includes white people with right-wing political loyalties who attend church with some regularity but with many exceptions. It has a strange mix of covert or overt racism, rural anger at urbanites, demand for tax cuts, unrelenting criticism for public schools, and a patriotic bent that idealizes America of the past. Hot buttons for the “evangelical” voter are support for America’s military and for the nation of Israel. For politicos, the “evangelical vote” may include conservative Catholics and Mormons, distinctions lost on national media and pundits.

At Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meetings, this is evident. There is a large block of members, perhaps the majority, who seem unable to understand that not all the members are right-wing Republicans. For some, the message seems to be that if there are disagreements here, the non-right-wing Republicans should resign their memberships for it is impossible to separate the society from politics. To me, this is seen in two specific events, one in 2015 and one in 2016.

First event: In 2015, the business meeting of the ETS was used to pass four resolutions relating to gay marriage and sexual identity. (See Stanley Gundry’s analysis of this situation here.) These resolutions covered topics that have been studied and debated within the society for many years. It seemed in 2015 as if the time for debate or disagreement was declared over, and the majority conclusions in these areas were now required areas of orthodoxy for ETS members.

I was unable to attend this meeting, held in Atlanta, but would have voted “no” on the resolutions. This is not because I fundamentally disagreed with their intent (although one of the unspoken agendas is to deny women an equal role to men in church leadership). It is because this is not what the ETS exists for. Gay marriage (which I do not support) has become a political issue. Let us keep studying and presenting a biblical answer to this issue for public use, but there is nothing in the stated purpose of the ETS that either expects or even allows for this sort of action, unprecedented in its history as far as I know. I do not want the ETS to be seen as politically partisan and I am saddened that many members have no concept of separating the ETS from political frays.

Second event: In 2016, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave an opportunity for President Obama to appoint a justice to the highest court. In defiance of the Constitution, this nomination was blocked without a hearing. Many evangelicals saw this unprecedented maneuver as a victory, hoping a new President would appoint a justice who would participate in a reversal of Rowe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion in America. The evangelical politicians who claimed to be “constitutionalists” were hypocritically comfortable with this disregard for the intent of the Constitution when it suited their religious and political agenda. I think this will be regretted. There is more at stake in Supreme Court personnel than the abortion issue: pro- or anti-business decisions, voter suppression laws, etc. I believe we will need to weather an intense constitutional crisis before we ever see a new member on the nation’s highest court. Many evangelicals will think this is worth the fight no matter how destructive that battle may be.

This attitude is exemplified by politicians who campaign on the promise to “go to Washington and fight,” an appealing message to many evangelicals. Politics is a battleground, not a system (however flawed) to elect leaders who will govern the nation. This may be understood in biblical ways: challenging the Pharaoh, denouncing the corrupt and heretical kings of Israel, resisting the hostile Roman empire; all seen as exemplars for citizens fighting against their own government.

Let illustrate this in my own state. The current governor, Pete Ricketts, is widely praised, even admired, by evangelicals in the state of Nebraska. He wins support by promising to cut property taxes (even while the state is facing a $900M budget deficit, huge for Nebraska). He led a voter referendum to repeal the legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty in the state, even contributing from his own vast fortune for this purpose. He gives the appearance of fighting the government for conservative voters (even though he is the government). These are moves applauded by many evangelicals. But Ricketts is not an evangelical, he is a Roman Catholic. The religious connections with evangelical church-goers is weak, the political connection is strong.

The separation of faith and politics is nearly impossible for some, and politics is often the trump card.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 1: Biblical Authority

evangelicalism-2017Rapid change is the norm for now. This includes politics, economics, social standards, and ways of communicating. Irony abounds. Distrust of the “mainstream media” is countered by the proliferation and acceptance of “fake news.” Social media is hated and loved by the same audience.

What about the evangelical Christian world? Where does it stand as we begin 2017? Is it in a period of rapid change?

The modern evangelical movement came out of post-WWII reactions to the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early part of the 20th century, battles somewhat suspended during the Great Depression and the second world war. One of its enduring post-war expressions is the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), founded in 1949 to define and defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and to do biblical and theological research among a community of scholars who accepted this doctrine.

I have been member of the ETS for over twenty years and have attended a dozen of the annual meetings. As a Ph.D., I am a full voting member of the Society, one of about 4,000. Since I joined, I have been fascinated by the social aspects of the ETS: the influence of certain members, the uneasy alliances, the method of dealing with those seen as threats, the integration of new generations of scholars, and the growing influence of publishing houses (among other things). My analysis of the current state of evangelicalism is based on the shifting tides of the ETS as well as other personal observations. Here are five things I believe define evangelicalism in 2017.

1. Biblical authority is an increasingly empty claim for evangelicals.

The ETS stream of evangelicalism was based on two presuppositions concerning the Bible. First, the Bible spoke with God’s authority and was therefore the final word in all matters for humans. Second, the Bible was without mistakes in any and all matters (inerrant). Therefore, churches, families, and society itself should be ordered around teachings of the Bible.

Of course, the rub is that the Bible must be interpreted in order to be used. This has always been a weakness in evangelical scholars (see #3 in two weeks), for proof-texting and systematizing were widely used. The problem with proof-texting in particular was that it allowed the choice of some texts and the ignoring of other texts when one wanted to use the Bible as an authoritative guide.

On the congregational level, this picking and choosing is more evident than ever. Some large churches avoid teaching on the prohibitions and expectations of Scripture so as not to alienate congregants and (especially) visitors. God is love, not justice or judgment. Even when biblical standards are taught, they are widely ignored by members. Example: there is little difference in rates of divorce or premarital sex between evangelicals and the general population.

A few years ago, I was “working” at a Starbucks and overheard an interesting conversation between two young mothers who had just dropped off their children at school. One said, “I hear you and your family have been attending _____ Church. Do you believe all that stuff they teach? They are radicals in so many social issues, so out of step with modern society!” Answer, “Well, we don’t believe any of that stuff, but they have good programs for our kids.”

This is certainly no endorsement of biblical authority in the lives of members of a very large and well-know evangelical church.

Next week: 2. Separation of politics and faith is increasingly difficult.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and in no way are intended to speak for his employer.