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The Future of Evangelicalism 1

posted by Scot McKnight

BillyGra.pngHere is a part of a piece posted last Monday at Patheos.com, which was also picked up by WaPo. But, I want to have a discussion about it here so I will spread it out over three days (MWF) on this blog to facilitate conversation on a variety of topics:

            Some
are announcing the end of evangelicalism, like former evangelical and now anti-evangelical
journalist, Christine Wicker. Others, like evangelical sociologist, Bradley
Wright, describe a movement that is holding its own if not actually gaining
some ground. David Wells, theologian and author, speaks for many when he
contends the theological bottom is falling out of much of contemporary populist
evangelicalism, while megachurch after megachurch pastor reveals an optimism
that numbers are growing. From a variety of angles, then, evangelicalism is
under investigation, and one of the concerns is its future. What is the future
of evangelicalism?

            I’m
neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. So answering the question about the
future of evangelicalism is something I can only probe into on the basis if
what I know and see and hear and sense.

Evangelicalism: What
is it?

            Perhaps
we could begin with some definitions. If we define “evangelical” as those who
faithfully sustain the Reformation’s central impulses, like justification by
faith and the solas, I would contend
that evangelicalism will be here for a long time. There are plenty who will
keep the Reformation’s gospel and theology alive. If we define “evangelical” as
those who are faithful to the Great Awakening(s) and revivals of America, who
carry on the work of folks like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley and D.L. Moody,
along with the missionary movement that flowed from that kind of
evangelicalism, I would say that movement is sputtering along and is not likely
to go away anytime soon. But I would caution that the great drive for
evangelism has seriously waned on American soil, and the promptings that
created missionary work all over the world has fallen on dry days. And,
finally, if we define “evangelical” as the coalition that was created in the
1940s and 1950s and 1960s around such luminaries as Billy Graham, Carl Henry,
John Stott and J.I. Packer, I would say the days are numbered.

The Neo-Evangelical
Coalition

            More
needs to be said about the nature of the evangelical coalition that I see
falling apart. The evangelicalism that formed in the 1940s and 1950s, more accurately
called “neo-evangelicalism,” was a reaction to strident forms of
fundamentalism, a call to serious intellectual engagement so that
evangelicalism could gain both theological and academic credibility again, and
a big tent coalition to work together for evangelism and theological
development.  By and large, this
big tent coalition combined the Calvinist and Wesleyan segments of
evangelicalism, found places for Christian colleges and parachurch ministries
and missionary societies and a plethora of magazines and radio stations, and
gave special places to evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Carl Henry.
This big tent evangelicalism did not spend its energies fighting over theological
issues so much as it galvanized those energies for missional and theological
work. One reason it did not fight theologically is because its theology, though
it clearly embraced those across a wide spectrum, was more or less grounded in
a common affirmation of the centrality of the Bible, the necessity of
conversion, the clarity of an atonement-shaped gospel message, and an
expectation that real Christians were hard at work in local churches, in
evangelism, and in community-focused activism.

            But
that coalition has all but broken apart, and not just because that theology is
less central. It is only heritage-rich institutions like Christianity Today and memories in 50 and 60 and 60somethings that
perceive both what neo-evangelicalism was and what it has become..  The only way the older coalition can
survive is if Christianity Today
and I see no other genuine alternative – can continue to attract
consensus-shaped evangelicalism.




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Carol Noren Johnson

posted August 9, 2010 at 2:26 pm


Are you then saying, Dr.McKnight, that the magazine, “Christianity Today”, by itself needs to uphold evangelicalism?



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AHH

posted August 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm


I note Scot’s description of neo-evangelicalism as a reaction to strident forms of fundamentalism.
It seems to me that factions not far from “strident forms of fundamentalism” have for some time been trying to dominate the Evangelical movement. I think for example of the efforts of Al Mohler recently discussed here, or Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible, or the ouster of Pete Enns from Westminster Seminary.
As came up on a thread here a week or two ago, much of this revolves around hardline views of “inerrancy” which some would make a litmus text for inclusion in the Evangelical tent (and often for orthodoxy). As long as many influential leaders insist that a fundamentalist approach to Scripture is an essential part of Evangelicalism, and many others of us who self-identify as Evangelical think such an approach is not viable, the coalition may not be able to hold.
Of course one can ask if we should really care about the future of “Evangelicalism”, or if maybe the concern should be the future of the Evangel.



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EricG

posted August 9, 2010 at 3:44 pm


I don’t follow — why is Christianity Today essential? It has circulation of 140K, which is dwarfed, for example, by the number of separate monthly visitors to this blog. See http://churchrelevance.com/resources/top-church-blogs/
Perhaps new coalitions will be formed electronically.
This is admittedly speculation (based on my own reading of trends in CT articles), but it is my sense that CT has been struggling to find a balance in happines of different groups of subscribers, some of whom who have very different predispositions on the issues of “broad coalition” and “big tent.”



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Barb

posted August 9, 2010 at 3:50 pm


as an Elder in a PC(USA) congregation that describes itself as “evangelical and reformed” I’m all for seeing evangelism’s tent be defined as big enough to include us. I’m not sure of the motives of those who seem to work at a definition that excludes us. I’m pretty sure that to those outside of the church at all these arguments provide much fuel for the all anti-church sentiment.
I agree with AHH above–we should be concerned mainly for the Evangel itself.



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Tim

posted August 9, 2010 at 4:19 pm


I personally could care less about any future for Evangelicalism. The movement is now and has been for quite some time dominated by fundamentalists who hold to an inerrancy doctrine so strict that outside the fundamentalist fold, virtually no believing Biblical scholar considers it even intellectually tenable. I keep hearing how “the important thing is that one comes to Jesus.” B.S. That is not the only important thing. Not sacrificing one’s ability to critically think on issues that in large part determine their entire worldview is of crucial importance as well.
So….what I hope for fundamentalist evangelicalism is that they either:
1) finally engage the real world with an appreciation for science, critical thinking, and a genuine curiosity to understanding reality outside their dogmatic scope.
or
2) are finally and vocally acknowledged by the society around them that has left them behind for what they are – Christians who have abdicated their ability to reason independently for the comfort of false certitude.



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kevin s.

posted August 9, 2010 at 4:58 pm


@Tim
Would I be out of bounds in guessing that, once evangelicals finally, at long last, embrace reason, their application of reasoning and curiosity will lead them to conclusions similar to your own?
I don’t think scientific “hot button” issues are going to have any substantial bearing on the future of Evangelicalism People will decide for themselves one way or the other, and the discussion will move on.
However, we will continue to be at odds with the world’s perception of how we ought to employ reason and curiosity. We still believe in a God who came to Earth, died for our sins, and then came back to life. For that alone, we will be mocked for our allegedly false certitude.
There will always be those, likely a majority, who believe all that stuff is hocus-pocus. I have no plans to comport my beliefs to their paradigm, and the moment evangelicalism does so, it will become irrelevant.
Anecdotally, I am seeing a rebound from a temporary swoon in interest in evangelicalism. My church is growing, and I have seen a heightened interest in the gospel message.



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Bill

posted August 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm


I don’t know if Tim considers the condescension of his tone to be helpful or not. It is clearly the tone of the political left when they look down on political conservatives. I fully appreciate science, but I reject the naturalistic worldview assumptions that accompany it–when it attempts to decide what scripture means in a given situation.



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Martin Davis

posted August 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm


As a former Evangelical that converted to Buddhism and now a Practicing Catholic, I speak as one who was brought to an understanding of Jesus Christ through Evangelicalism (in fact, through the Willow Creek seeker-friendly approach) but felt after many years that being Evangelical was not enough!! (to paraphrase the title of the wonderful book by Thomas Howard)
Evangelicalism, IMHO, has come to equal ?Seeker Friendly Christian Entertainment? in many respects. The Gospel has become a set of guidelines for a better personal life and there is generally very little depth to the theology – mostly because I see it based on a very limited view of the Bible. I was drawn away from this approach because I felt as if I was being recycled through 1st Grade over and over again – and never getting to the meat of what it means to believe in the power of the Eucharist and the Resurrection. Buddhism had appealed to me because of its claim of ancient origins and lineage of teaching. I naively thought this was unique. Until a friend filled me in on the ?1500 year gap? in Protestant theology and I discovered the beauty of the Orthodox/Catholic Liturgy and the depth of its teaching.
Evangelicalism may survive as a kind of ?Pop? Christianity – like American Zen has become to historical Buddhism. However, it needs not reformation – but restoration to its roots before it becomes merely a social club with a conscience.



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Tim

posted August 9, 2010 at 5:17 pm


For those who have read my post and commented on my “tone.” Please understand that I am not some “naturalist” who views science as the be all end all. I very much believe in God and was raised Evangelical myself. I speak after having viewed the Evangelical church from the inside, and even attended North Park University where Dr. McKnight teaches.
My tone is negative. Yes. Is that a problem? I’m not criticizing Evangelical Fundamentalists concerning their Belief in Jesus. Nor am I criticizing Evangelicals about not being science cheerleaders. I am criticizing them for indoctrinating their members into a worldview that belittles science and discourages engagement with mainstream academic views outside their community.
Again, I understand there are Evangelicals outside of a fundamentalist perspective. But in my view you are very much in the minority and not characteristic of the movement as a whole. So when I speak to these issues, I don’t have you in mind.



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Brianmpei

posted August 9, 2010 at 5:41 pm


I’m interested to see where these posts and discussion will go. I wouldn’t disagree with your definition of terms but I would add that my experience has been that the popular definition of ‘evangelical’ is very different that where you are starting. There is a pile of baggage with that term and the same way ‘gay’ just used to mean ‘happy’ I think ‘evangelical’ can’t stand apart from popular perception/use any more.



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Bill H

posted August 9, 2010 at 5:47 pm


Tim
I appreciate where you are heading, but I think the criticisms are more along the lines of having an enlightened dogmatic critique a flawed dogmatic leaves dogmatism on the table. Whether you find it reasonable, the question of inerrancy finds its root in the exercise of reason on the part of the fundamentalist thinkers of the 19th and 20th Century – some of whom were recognized scholars and academics of that day. Here’s a thinker I rarely agree with – John D Crosson – but his point about the myth of progress and the ever shifting nature of reigning paradigms suggests less dogmatics on both sides (and theistic evolutionists are just as dogmatic as creationists, of course TEs proudly claim the evidence). I have no quarrel with science, as a method for discerning the validity and correlations of replicating events in the physical world, but as a arbiter of truth in areas outside of the immediately present physical world, well that is biting off a large chunk.



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Tim

posted August 9, 2010 at 5:52 pm


Bill,
I think you presume too much. I understand that Evangelical fundamentalists loudly proclaim their dogma, but what dogma did I proclaim? I understand that the forcefulness of my language has commonalities with those who are dogmatic, but an alternative explanation could be that it could be simply the sign of someone who has been frustrated in one way or another by walls being put up to discourse and knowledge.



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kevin s.

posted August 9, 2010 at 7:18 pm


I will agree that Christians have a tendency to use their faith to evade difficult philosophical and scientific questions. This phenomenon is not limited solely to fundamentalists.
I often boggle at the ignorance of those whose theology is rooted in the social gospel as it pertains to fundamental economic and ideological questions. When I hear that Social Security reform violates the commandment to obey our parents, I see the same air of certitude you decry.



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Tim

posted August 9, 2010 at 7:39 pm


Thanks for your insights Kevin. I agree that certitude in untested opinions is by no means something fundamentalist Evangelicals have a monopoly on!



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dopderbeck

posted August 9, 2010 at 8:31 pm


Times change. Isms change. The 1950s – 1980s are over. Why wring our hands about that? Thank God in many ways that those years are behind us. I think Books and Culture is a better sign than the CT magazine. B&C is a good sign. I can’t read CT anymore because it tries too hard to satisfy the right wing. Let’s move on.
I think the missionary impulse of the previous generation is being transformed on healthy ways into a holistic missionary impulse. We are growing up.



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Tim Dalrymple

posted August 9, 2010 at 9:26 pm


I don’t see CT pandering to the right wing. I actually see them occupying a centrist position very carefully and very effectively. Witness their recent declaration on Creation Care, for instance. I agree that Books and Culture is a good sign, but I don’t know if it quite has the breadth of readership or subject matter to serve as a unifying force.
@Tim, it seems to me that you are generalizing too much from your own experiences and surroundings. I tend to do the same. I tend to believe that most evangelicals are thoughtful, good-natured, engaged with science and culture, and sensitive to nuance – because I have spent most of my life in such communities. And I must say, having recently moved to Atlanta, and having gone to more than a few churches in recent months, I’m actually encouraged that every one of the churches I attended was quite respectable in all of these respects. So, be encouraged that it might not be as bad as you think. Where do you live? I find pretty strong regional differences within evangelicalism.



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Bill

posted August 9, 2010 at 9:42 pm


Sorry Tim,
I don’t mean to be harsh, but the phrase “abdicated their ability to reason independently for the comfort of false certitude” makes it unnecessary to “presume” condescension.
I have no idea what dogma you espouse, but your judgment of those with whom you disagree is obvious.
I like the basic old fashioned idea of a confession of faith. It gives the fence. Outside of the fence is bad. Inside, in different places, we argue over coffee.
Peace



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Tim

posted August 9, 2010 at 11:11 pm


Bill,
Thanks for your comments. I recognize my statement was harsh and for many evangelicals likely hyperbolic. But I would challenge you to walk a mile in my shoes and see if a similar sentiment doesn’t spring to mind.
I have tried for the better part of a year to get my fundamentalist Evangelical family (and they are really just typical evangelicals, not nuts or uber right-wing) to take even a glancing look at Historical Critical research as accepted by the majority of devout non-fundamentalist Protestant and Catholic scholars. I have tried to get them to take even a passing look at the evidence supporting Evolution as articulated by a non-creationist. All I’ve run into is a massive reality bubble. I even heard the pastor at my old Church get up and tell the congregation that doctrinally they are expected to reject modern scientific conclusions to the contrary and affirm that mankind was specially created and not evolved.
Also, let’s face it. It isn’t the Methodists or the Lutherans that are firing professors from tenured positions at seminaries because they report that their scholarship has lead them away from an inerrancy position on scripture. It isn’t the Episcopalians that are trying to fight the teaching of Evolution in our schools. It isn’t the United Church of Christ that is leading a “culture war” toward our society accepting narrowly defined “Christian values.” It is the Evangelicals that are doing these things.



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Tim

posted August 9, 2010 at 11:21 pm


Tim,
I live in the Chicagoland area. I recognize my “sample” of the Evangelical population may be non-representative. You might want to take a look at my last paragraph to Bill in my last post to perhaps provide additional input into why I feel somewhat comfortable “generalizing” beyond my immediate experience. The problem in my understanding is the more moderate, open voices in Evangelicalism seem to be loosing out. Does moderate Evangelicalism have alternatives to Focus on the Family (see their “Truth Project” if ever you needed a text-book example of a fundamentalist worldview), or the Family Research Council? I know on the scholastic side, that moderate Evangelicals are chipping away at the barriers that thus far have been keeping out good scholarship (provided they are employed in a university that won’t fire them should they cross some doctrinal line). But among the lay people, I just don’t see it. Let me know if you can provide me with better information to flesh out my point of view.



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Bill

posted August 10, 2010 at 9:50 pm


Hi Tim,
I’ll stick with my fence analogy. If we live and believe within a quality confession. And if we get the summation of the law–really get it–then these issues are things we argue about over coffee. I assure you, I am more than scientifically literate. I believe it is the best possible way to explain the natural world–provided that supernatural things are not happening or haven’t happened in that world. But God, to me, is the rule maker. He violates natural laws at his pleasure. When supernatural things happen, Science is useless.
Sometimes–I think–we have to say there is the “scientific” answer (one that presupposes naturalism at least in a methodological sense) and the “Christian” answer, that flows from scripture. If Evolution bothers you, try defending rising from the dead or raising someone from the dead.
If you think EVERY supernatural occurrence in scripture is metaphorical, then you probably will not be comfortable around evangelicals, but then, in heaven, you will probably have to have some on the same street.



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Tim

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:20 am


Bill,
I read the fence analogy as simply an upholding of orthodoxy in whatever form deemed appropriate by the community that puts up said fence. This tells you what you can think, or more accurately, what you can’t think. It doesn’t tell you how to think. So I don’t find it particularly useful. What if your best pursuit of knowledge leads you outside the fence?
Also, why are you asking me the question on whether or not I think that every supernatural occurence in scripture is metaphorical? It’s like, if you advocate for acceptance of Historical Criticism and Evolution you’re immediately lumped in with Dawkins and the Jesus Seminar.
To end with, I’m not really sure if you’re implying that acceptance of Evolution as fact has anything to do with naturalistic presuppositions, but if you are, this really has nothing to do with why I find the evidence compelling. I simply accept it because the evidence is just too overwhelming. There are just too many predictions that have been born out that if one was to conclude that Evolution was false, we’d have multitudes of such highly improbable coincidences that the only reasonable inference we could make would be that some higher/divine entity was messing with us.



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bill

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:08 pm


Tim,
You make several good points. I don’t mean to lump you with anyone. You are obviously bright and engaging.
Don’t hate me for saving time and using Wikipedia…but this passage explains my thoughts well:
The questions of higher criticism are widely recognized (though to varying extents) by Orthodox Jews and many traditional Christians as legitimate questions, yet they often find the answers given by the higher critics unsatisfactory or even heretical. In particular, religious conservatives object to the rationalistic and naturalistic presuppositions of a large number of practitioners of higher criticism, which lead to conclusions that conservative religionists find unacceptable.
Many conservative Bible scholars practice their own form of higher criticism within their own supernaturalist and confessional frameworks. However, most traditional Christian exegetes examine the Bible chiefly through the Bible itself, believing that clear places in scripture give the best help in explaining the less clear places. Hence their exegetics, to one degree or another, depend upon lower criticism.
Perhaps I’m simple, but I don’t spend too much time chasing issues that godly men and women have argued about for centuries. For me… there isn’t a there there. I love both Phillip Johnson and Francis Collins!
I don’t believe in a young Earth, but I don’t believe in chance-based gradualism either. I’m fine if I’m wrong.
What is significant is the value and purpose and reliability of scripture. Watering that down is to me the dreaded and cliched “slippery slope.
My version of the fence came, not with the issue of science, but with issues of election/predestination.
How one reconciles, for example, the choice deterministic dichotomy of scripture is a lesson in humility. I choose to believe both are true. Well, in an Aristotelian sense, they cannot both be true.
After years of struggle, this actually comforts me…that I understand my own finitude and choose not to make my “understanding” the measure of God.
In the end, I believe we have, supernaturally, the Bible we were meant to have. Christ modeled respect for seemingly arcane pieces of scripture.
I will try to interpret them literally unless there is overwhelming reason not to, and then I will try to find the truth contained in them.
Without a confession or agreement on some basic truths we are all just “rolling our own.”



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Tim

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:48 pm


Bill,
I am not referring to Historical Criticism as practiced by scholars with naturalistic assumptions. I am talking about Historical Criticism as practiced and accepted by such notable and believing Christian scholars as James D. G. Dunn, the late Raymond Brown, John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders, and James H. Charlesworth.
So what would this look like? Well, you wouldn’t presuppose that miracles don’t occur. You wouldn’t presuppose that prophesy can’t be predicatively accurate. You wouldn’t presuppose that God never intervened in this Earth. And you wouldn’t presuppose that Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead.
What you would do is approach the Bible both as a believer and as a historian. This is the type of Historical Critical research that I am talking about.
As far as what you deem important, that’s up to you to determine. If you have a firm notion of what Scripture is (or what you would like it to be), and don’t want to “water it down” through techniques that many believing scholars adds more life and meaning to the Bible, I guess that’s you prerogative.
But such an approach to me sets up a dynamic whereby truth is measured with dogma as its only referent, and progress in understanding is stymied if said truth and dogma aren’t in fact as aligned as the dogmatic adherents believe.



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Bill (not evangelicalmonk)

posted August 11, 2010 at 3:26 pm


Hi Tim,
I made several points I wish you had time to address including
Christ’s deference to scripture.
The lack of any logical successful explanations of seemingly irreconcilable truths. e.g. free will election
The very real idea of a “slippery slope.”
In theory I have no problem with anything you said.
Would you enlighten me with an example where this method had gleaned a different than traditional understanding that would ruffle my fundamentalist feathers, but not assume naturalism.
Also, how important is it that others agree with this different understanding? Is it important, or is it the validation of method that you feel strongest about?



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Tim

posted August 11, 2010 at 4:29 pm


Bill,
I think one crucial issue in all of this is you need to recognize your starting point to scripture. No one receives the Bible with a blank doctrinal slate. The fundamentalist view of the Bible is that it is inspired cover to cover, permeated with divine revelation throughout each and every passage, in such a manner as to reveal straightforward truth with absolutely no factual errors in the original autographs. Would it be great to have a Bible like this? Well, sure – I don’t see why not. But is this the Bible we have? That’s one of the reasons we have Biblical scholars – to investigate questions like these.
So, what is Christ’s view of scripture? Well, if you are an inerrantist, it follows that you view the passages alluding to Jesus’ view of scripture as inerrant descriptions. So you can prooftext those. If you aren’t an inerrantist, and you happen to think that there was a significant period of oral transmission before Jesus’ sayings were put down on paper, you might want to take a broader look at the content of the gospels rather than a few prooftexts that might have been inaccurately recorded. What I think is that Jesus had a great respect for the Bible, and preached within that framework. Beyond that level of detail, I think it is very speculative to try to connect with what Jesus’ exact take on scripture was. I think that is a bit of a mystery. I would say that prooftexting isolated passages of Jesus’ purported sayings as “proof” of inerrancy falls into the category of “begging the question”, as the only reason you would give such credence to isolated prooftexts in the first place is if you already had an inerrantist framework.
As far as the “slippery slope” argument. To me it doesn’t matter as a methodological issue in pursuing truth. Either you give yourself every advantage to pursuing truth or you don’t. The consequences of that pursuit are secondary. If you feel that investigating the scriptures without being bound by dogma, then you are making a very similar argument that the Catholic Church made during the reformation.



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Tim

posted August 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm


…last sentence should be:
“If you feel that investigating the scriptures without being bound by dogma is objectionable or dangerous, then you are making a very similar argument that the Catholic Church made during the reformation.”



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Tim

posted August 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm


…and as far as “ruffling fundamentalist feathers”, I would say the dating of the Book of Daniel would be a really good example – particularly given the reasons for that dating – and the broad extent to which it has received credibility and acceptance across devout, believing Biblical scholars. Other examples would include the accomodationist view of Genesis given ANE parallels and modern scientific research concerning the age of the Earth and evolution, the Historical Critical perspective, as informed by archeology, on the conquest of Canaan being not entirely historical and the parallels with the concept of Herem, and the conclusion that the Bible was not in fact theologically harmonious, but actually records various factions arguing against each other’s views (particularly throughout much of the Old Testament).



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bill (not evangelicalmonk)

posted August 11, 2010 at 5:23 pm


Thanks,
That is exactly what I asked for.
I’ll spend some time with your thoughts.
Thanks for the exchange. I really do appreciate it.



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