This will be a heavy series. I hope to generate conversation, some consternation, and (at the end of the day) some light. Here’s my big point: Some evangelicals have been tossing sharp barbs for a long time at “liberals” or “mainliners” for disregarding the Bible. (It would not be hard to give good examples.) Most evangelicals criticize liberals on the basis of a robust commitment to the Bible — and in so criticizing they believe it is they who are being faithful to the Bible.
Evangelicals tacitly assume or overly claim that they believe the whole Bible; they practice the Bible much better; and their theology is based on the Bible and the Bible alone. The contention is simple: liberals deny the Bible; we (evangelicals) don’t; we (evangelicals) are faithful and liberals are unfaithful.
Let me suggest that evangelicals, too, do plenty of Bible-denying but they deny in a different way. They question the sufficiency of Scripture.
I call this problem Zealotry. Here’s what I mean: Zealotry is conscious zeal to be radically committed, so radically committed that one goes beyond the Bible to defend things that are not in the Bible. Which is the mirror image of the accusation made by many evangelicals against liberals. The “beyond the Bible” stuff is not in the Bible and it means evangelicals get themselves committed to things that are not in the Bible. What’s the difference, I ask?
Trotting alongsie this zeal is a friend named immunity: Zealots think their zeal makes them immune to criticism because they are so zealous for God; their zeal never to get close to breaking any commandment makes them better than others. In other words, zeal shows just how deeply committed a person is to God and therefore immune to criticism. What, they reason to themselves, is wrong with doing more than the Bible? Does not God recognize our zeal?
This is an old tactic: the rabbis called this “making a fence around the Torah.” Example: the Torah says not to work on the Sabbath. So, let’s specify every kind of “work”, they say. So they come up with 40 or so kinds of labors that are “work.” These various kinds of works are the “fence” and the Sabbath command is the Torah. If one does not do such “work” a person does not violate the Sabbath working law. The idea is “add, add, add” and “clarify, clarify, clarify” and if follow the “adds” and the “clarifies” you’ll not break the Torah’s commandment — always more general, always less specific, always open to some interpretation.
Is the practice of making a fence around the Torah a trust that the Bible is wise? I think not. Making fences around the Torah suggests God needs our help to make his will a little clearer.
I contend that evangelicals do lots of “fence making”. One example, and I’ll give others in this series: the Bible says don’t get drunk. The evangelical fence is “don’t ever drink alcohol, and you’ll never get drunk.” (True enough: if you never drink, you’ll never get drunk. That’s not the problem.) The problem is this: quickly, the “fence” becomes the “Torah” and drinking alcohol in moderation is no longer good enough. Anyone who crosses the fence has broken the Torah (which she or he hasn’t, folks). Zealotry commits to the fence and in so doing goes beyond the Bible. Commitment to keeping the fence is a sign of radical commitment. It gives immunity. It ends up being no longer biblical but lets something else be “biblical.” Is this what God wants?
Nope. Zealotry through fence-making is a failure to trust what the Bible does say, and it is a trust in what the Bible does not say, and it ends up snubbing God’s good Word which evangelicals believe is sufficient. Come now, let’s stop castigating liberals or let’s start being more biblical.
And I don’t care if a group of good and godly folk get together and make a decision and say “we’ll avoid alcohol totally.” (Frankly, they usually have a little thump to the chest to show their commitment and assert their immunity.) By so doing, they are saying this: What God says isn’t good enough. We know better. Sure, they don’t say this, but it is what they are doing — in the name of zeal. They are zealous for one thing, while the liberals being criticized happen (if they care to examine the case) are zealous for something else. Those “something elses,” my friends, are not in the Bible.
This is what I mean by Zealotry. It is zeal to do what God says so bad that one is willing to construct a new Torah that goes beyond the Bible and in so doing betray a trust in God’s sufficient revelation in Scripture. (And I’m not bringing in Tradition here; that’s another development.)
Zealotry is only slightly different than the liberalism evangelicals complain about. You might just as well call it a zealous liberalism or a liberal zealotry. It is a failure to let the Bible be God’s Word and a decision to let something else be the final word.
Tomorrow: the motivation behind Zealotry.