ETS & Evangelicals misunderstanding sola scriptura?

20/11/2007 23:33

The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) is not particularly well-known to most UK evangelicals. It describes itself as "a professional society of Biblical scholars, teachers, pastors and others involved in evangelical scholarship in order to serve Christ and His Church" which was founded in 1949 and "devoted to the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures and the gospel of Jesus Christ". Its doctrinal basis is short and focussed - "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory."

The Society apparently has over 4,000 members, publishes a quarterly journal, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) - recent back copies are accesible online - and has an annual conference which is taking place at present.

ETS has been in the news in recent years due to attempts by certain conservative evangelicals to remove leading theologians such as Clark Pinnock who are seen as too progressive/liberal and because its President, Frank Beckwith, resigned last May on becoming a Roman Catholic.

Christianity Today’s blog reports what is apparently one of the most controversial papers at this year’s conference which was given by evangelical philosopher J.P. Moreland. He has responded to this report (and some of the comments on it) on his own blog where - contrary to the end of the CT report - he has also posted his paper which is entitled How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What can be Done about It

The reason it is controversial is clear from the opening paragraph:

In the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ. And it has produced a mean-spiritedness among the over-committed that is a grotesque and often ignorant distortion of discipleship unto the Lord Jesus.

While some evangelicals will find the idea of ’an over-commitment to Scripture’ as odd, in fact the argument of the paper will I think strike most English, certainly most Anglican, evangelicals as obvious (even if those of more Barthian sympathies may be cautious about his strong advocacy of natural theology and natural law). Its apparently contentious nature in a conference of evangelical scholars and church leaders appears from here as another sign of the difference in culture between UK and American evangelicalism (also evident in the ETS focus on ’inerrancy’, a term which has thankfully never become a shibboleth or gained a strong following in British evangelicalism). Having said that, there is perhaps the danger that in certain British conservative evangelical circles the error Moreland critiques is making an appearance. Two of the examples he cites - hostility to charismatic claims and an apparent belief that all that is really necessary for pastoral training, counselling etc is found in the Bible - do apparently have a following and can gain credibility as to their orthodoxy through appealing, however misleadingly, to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

Moreland’s basic argument, however, appears to me to be similar to that which I learned a couple of decades ago as an undergraduate from a book by the evangelical philosopher, Arthur Holmes - All truth is God’s truth. It follows from this conviction that evangelicals need not be frightened of engaging with other academic disciplines, even if the fruits of these disciplines sometimes challenge traditional evangelical interpretations of Scripture. There are, obviously, critiques to be made at times of idolatrous and ideological approaches in academic study but it is also sometimes through learning from those other disciplines that we are enabled to recognise our evangelical blind-spots and discover afresh that God has yet more light to shine from his Word.


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