Monday, September 12, 2005

What the Bible Really Teaches

Keith Ward

I have tried to set out what the Bible teaches on a number of issues that fundamentalists get wrong. What fundamentalists say about the coming in glory of Christ, about the Sermon on the Mount, about the possibility of universal salvation, and about the resurrection and life after death seems to me to be pretty obviously wrong. On all these subjects the Bible actually teaches the opposite of what fundamentalists say. When it comes to specific topics in morality, like issues of gender and sexuality, of politics and medical advances, my main point has been that the Bible challenges us to think through these things for ourselves, giving guidelines, but not issuing definitive commands. I would expect disagreement on some of these issues. But that disagreement is not about what the Bible teaches. It is about what we conscientiously decided when we seek to apply biblical principles to hard moral issues. That disagreement is something we find within the pages of the Bible, something we should expect, and something we have to work through prayerfully and charitably.

So I will end where I began, distinguishing evangelicalism from fundamentalism. Evangelicals have been a major reforming influence on Christian faith. They have made the reading of the Bible by the laity in the vernacular important to Christian life and prayer. They have successfully criticised some of the exclusive and authoritarian practices of traditional Christian Churches. And they have made a living experience of Christ the centre of Christian faith.

Fundamentalists, however, subtly pervert these evangelical insights. They impose an authoritarian interpretation of the Bible that is as dogmatic as any medieval Catholic theology, and usually less informed. They make their faith even more exclusive than that of those Catholics who claimed that there is no salvation outside the Church. And they make intellectual assent to ‘sound’ doctrines amore important test of Christian faith than life in the Spirit.

The greatest tragedy of fundamentalism, however, is that it gets the Bible wrong. Fundamentalists read back into the Bible a sort of literalism that could only have existed after the sixteenth-century growth of science, which suggested that only literal truths are real truths. They impose on it a millenarian belief that became outdated in the second Christian generation, that ignores all scientific knowledge about the universe, and that betrays a deep fear of science and reason. In this respect, they betray the long Christian tradition that always saw the universe as the work of the divine Wisdom (and thus as supremely reasonable), and that gave birth to science as rational investigation into the handiwork of divine reason. And they distort the basic nature of Christian revelation, which is in the person of Jesus and in relationship to that person, and not primarily in the words of any book and intellectual submission to those words.

From chapter 11 of What the Bible Really Teaches – a challenge for fundamentalists, published by SPCK 2004
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