Tim Keller, Rachel Held Evans, and the Authority of the Whole Bible

Read the Bible

*This article originally appeared at For the Church (ftc.co).

When someone like Rachel Held Evans responds to something Tim Keller tweets, especially when she responds negatively, social media heats up a few degrees.

Last December, Tim Keller tweeted: “Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete.” Rachel Held Evans responded with a tweet-storm challenging Keller’s statement.

Evans’s tweets, however, missed Keller’s point. Keller argues that, generally-speaking, mainline Protestants and evangelicals differ on the matter of Scripture’s authority. This means that they differ in their fundamental approach to the Bible as a whole. Evans responds to Keller by challenging the way that evangelicals interpret specific texts.

Thus, Evans finds Keller’s assertion hypocritical. She points out that, while evangelicals claim to affirm Scripture’s authority, they seem to pick and choose what texts to obey at face value. In essence, this makes evangelicals no different than mainline Protestants who contend that certain texts in Scripture are culturally bound and, thus, obsolete.  If evangelicals think that the Levitical law is passé, they can’t be so rigorous about Paul’s equally culturally-bound prohibition of women from eldership. At least, in her view, mainline Protestants are consistent.

But Evans’s response is misplaced. She underemphasizes the fundamental difference between evangelical and mainline Protestant interpretive approaches: what we believe about the text of Scripture, itself. Is Scripture God’s inspired word, without error in spite of the fact that it comes to us through human agency? Or do the human authors of Scripture lend their fallible humanity to the Scripture such that it contains God’s words, but requires us to sift what is obsolete and what is enduring?

Evangelicals, as Keller pointed out (and as Bebbington argues), have traditionally believed the former. That belief both shapes the way that evangelicals approach the whole of Scripture as well as individual (difficult) texts. If every word of Scripture is breathed out by God (1Tim 3:16), then the reader’s task is to bring every possible tool to bear on the text to understand the author’s meaning. At the end of the day, evangelicals may disagree over interpretations of specific texts—we may need to clarify or revise our understanding in light of further study—but the text remains the word of the living God to whom we owe our worship and obedience.

While Mainline Protestants highly value Scripture as God’s inspired word, they are reluctant to agree that all of Scripture is equally inspired and authoritative. The task of the reader, then, is to determine what rings true—separating the enduring substance from the culturally-conditioned chaff. The authority is not in Scripture, but, dangerously, in the interpreter.

Read the whole article at For the Church.

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