Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the second essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

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One of my fondest memories as a child was spending the night with my grandfather to go fishing the next morning. We woke up early on Saturday morning and grandpa started the coffee in an old stainless steel percolator. As it was brewing he said, “Markie, go get the cookies.” I shuffled off to the low-lying shelf in the dining room where a black flower print tin sat within my reach. As grandpa peeled-off the lid a puff of air filled the room with the smell of coconut macaroons. After pouring his coffee he took a thick blue plastic cup, filled it three-quarters of the way full with whole milk, and topped it off with a splash of coffee to make me feel like a big boy. After slurping cookies drenched in coffee flavored milk, he helped me get dressed and we loaded the fishing gear into the old Scout truck.

Grandpa and Nick

This pale green tank looked like it was made for war, and one of its distinguishable features was a concrete reinforced steel bumper that could level a small tree. Once the rods and tackle boxes were secured in the back, we opened the creaking doors and jumped in. If the noise of the doors where not loud enough to wake the neighbors then the roar of the cold engine surely was. The truck rumbled through the old neighborhood until we got the major road that would take us from downtown Lakeland to the Fin and Feather fishing ponds on the outskirts of Polk County in the old phosphate mines.

As we were driving down South Florida Avenue, a young man in a blue Camaro started tailgating the old Scout truck. Grandpa eyeballed him in the rearview mirror and then casually spit Red Man tobacco over his left elbow hanging out the driver side window. I could see a glimmer of anger in his eyes, but he kept his cool as the Camaro accelerated and barely squeezed between the front end of the truck and the back end of a car in the left-hand passing lane. Grandpa knew this scared me, and so he looked over with a smile lopsided by a wad of chew and said, “Well, if he woulda got a piece of that concrete bumper that woulda taught ‘em!” His laugh made me laugh, and I thought, “My grandpa is so cool.” This man taught me many things in life other than fishing, and with the exception of my parents was the person who had the greatest overall impact on my life. The greatest gift he gave me was the experience of unconditional love. Grandpa adored me and I knew it.

Most of you never met my grandpa, but after reading this story you probably have some sense of who he was and the kind of impact he had on my life. In addition, the way that I tell the story gives you some insight into my life as a child. What makes this possible is good character description. The more stories I tell, the more you will come to know this great man, and the more likely it will be for him to impact your life indirectly though the storytelling. If this is my purpose, then what is not important are the factual details of the account.

What if I told you upon further reflection that the cookie tin was not black but indigo blue, or that grandpa filled the plastic cup two-thirds of the way with milk instead of three-quarters. What if the Scout truck was yellow instead of pale green, or what if the passing car was a Corvette instead of Camaro? What if this account does not describe a single historical event in my life but is a composite story that draws on my fading memory of several different fishing trips with my grandpa? Does any of this make the story untrue? Would knowledge of factual errors or artistic license render this story incapable of giving trustworthy testimony about my grandfather’s personality and character? I think not. I can get many of the facts wrong and still tell the truth about grandpa in a way that will move and inspire you.

This example helps us to understand that there are different ways of telling the truth. In addition to factual analysis, truth can be powerfully communicated through metaphor, analogy, simile, and symbol, and in various mediums like poetry, music, visual and performing arts, story-telling, fables, fiction, preaching, personal testimony, wisdom sayings, and philosophical discourse. Indeed, sometimes figurative language is better suited to express the truth, as when writing a love note. What better communicates love: (1) “When I see parts of your body, neurotransmitters are released into my bloodstream and create a surge in dopamine levels,” or (2) “In your eyes, the light the heat; in your eyes, I am complete; in your eyes, I see the doorway to a thousand churches; in your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches.” It is not only possible to communicate truth in figurative language, but sometimes it the best way to do so.

Although humanity received many gifts in modernity with the birth of the natural and social sciences, an important problem followed in its wake: the hegemony of factual analysis. According to this view, truth is equated with factual claims verified by empirical evidence. Any other way of telling the truth is seen as inferior and must be subordinated to the facts. Modern people seem obsessed with the question, “Did that really happen?”

A clear example of this hegemony in Christian theology can be found in Charles Hodge’s theory of plenary verbal inspiration in the nineteenth-century. In an attempt to ground his religious claims in objective truth, he developed a theory of divine inspiration that reduced the Bible to a compendium of facts dictated by God to infallible communicators. (See the first essay in this collection, “The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration.”)

However, this hegemony of factual analysis creates enormous problems for religion because (as most Christian theologians readily acknowledge) religious language is inherently metaphorical and analogical. This is true because there is a qualitative difference between God and the world, which is determinative of how human beings experience, reflect on, and communicate divine revelation. All God-talk operates on a principle of metaphoricity because it seeks to bring to speech what we cannot directly apprehend or express. Human thought and language is limited and cannot capture or contain the infinite ground of being. If truth is construed as a one-to-one correspondence between factual claims and empirically verifiable evidence, and if there is never a simple one-to-one correspondence between God and what we say about God (as if God were an object in the world subject to our investigation), then we can say nothing true about God. Such a constrained definition of truth also creates problems because the Bible is constituted by many different genres that cannot be reduced to a compendium of facts without doing violence to the text. Finally, it is widely acknowledged by scholars that many biblical claims are false when considered on a purely factual level in light of contemporary historical studies (“The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration“). If the only way to assess truth claims is through factual analysis then we are left with two equally bad options: either (1) dispense with the Bible as untrustworthy, or (2) dismiss the findings of scientific research by accentuating the fallibility of human proposals and the infallibility of scripture (i.e. appealing to blind faith to defend an irrational ideology).

Thankfully, postmodern philosophy has called the hegemony of factual analysis into question and provided an escape from this false dichotomy. Important studies in hermeneutics have generated new conversations about how to understand and evaluate truth claims. Although this huge body of literature is beyond the scope of this piece, I will present some of its most salient insights in the fifth essay of this collection, “All Reading Is Interpretation: Important Insights in Theological Hermeneutics.” At this point, it is sufficient to highlight that there are different ways of telling the truth. If we are open to this reality then we can begin to rethink what we mean when we say that the Bible is true.

 Lionel Nietzsche

In the next essay, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture,” we will draw on insights from contemporary theology and biblical studies to see how the Bible came to be. Then we will be in a better position to understand what it means to call the Bible “scripture” and what we mean when we say that it is inspired by God. Any claim of inspiration assumes that the Bible is in some sense true. How it is true is yet to be seen, but once we are freed from an overly constrained definition of truth as “just the facts” we get some interpretive breathing room to reflect on more creative proposals.