This series is an attempt to elucidate the dialectical (both/and) tension at the heart of Brethren theology and to relay its importance for today. These posts are using the definition of evangelicalism found in David Bebbington’s magnificent work Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. More specifically, we will be exploring the distortions of Bebbington’s criteria and offer a corrective from J. Allen Miller for Brethren life. You can find my comments on Bebbington’s criteria here and my biographical sketch of J. Allen Miller here.
|Bebbington Criteria||Distortion||Miller’s Corrective|
Biblical authority among certain American evangelical groups has become synonymous with inerrancy—the belief that Scripture is without error and/or the original autographs do not present anything contrary to fact. Miller never mentions inerrancy in his writings, a doctrine born out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that serves as context for his thought, but he provides a necessary corrective to such an understanding of the Bible. Miller’s writings are less epistemological (how we know the Bible is authoritative) and more fideistic (our knowledge must be based on revelation and faith). Miller ultimately believes that all truth claims are taken on faith. He writes:
If objection be urged against Revelation, as being unscientific, then I shall simply reply, that, as all instruction of the youth of the Race is based upon principles, morally, logically, and metaphorically sound, so the higher instruction of the Race given by God through Revelation, can in every particular rest upon the same premises.
The struggle for Miller was not in the inerrantists (fundamentalist) quest for the authority of Scripture. The authority of the Bible is essential for Miller’s theology. The struggle came in the basis for such an authority.
In his book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Christian Smith defines what he calls “Biblicism” as
a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function. That constellation is represented by ten assumptions or beliefs:
- Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
- Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
- Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
- Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
- Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
- Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
- Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
- Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
- Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches. The prior nine assumptions and beliefs generate a tenth viewpoint that—although often not stated in explications of biblicist principles and beliefs by its advocates—also commonly characterizes the general biblicist outlook, particularly as it is received and practiced in popular circles.
- Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
Miller’s struggle with the constellation above would be the tension between sola scriptura and the role of reason necessary for such a claim to be sustainable and meaningful. If the historic context of liberalism was a perceived elevation of reason by theological liberals over the sacred text of the Bible, then how can biblicism (Smith’s definition) utilize this same tool as essential to understanding the text? How does this cooperate with a plain reading of the text? Miller was quite comfortable with the tension between revelation and reason finding it a source of creativity rather than a source of division and harm. Consequently, he is critical of scripture understood a priori (independent of experience), as if the Bible needs no context or training. He is also critical of reason a priori understood as if experience of the Bible is not essential to understanding it. He writes:
Apart from Revelation, Reason is the ultimatum of man’s capacity, and Conscience of his power. But neither reason nor conscience can solve the great problems of human life. Reason itself is by far too narrow in its range to be an unerring guide through life. Reason illumined, and Conscience quickened by a Divine Revelation will be adequate.
To such an observation, present day thinkers like Christian Smith agree. Smith suggests that a corrective is a Christocentric hermeneutic.
The purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus….Truly believing that Jesus Christ is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address.
Similarly, Miller’s understanding of Scripture is not found in the perfection of reason (read liberalism) or in a quasi-rational proof of the veracity of the Bible (read fundamentalism). Instead, Miller centers the authority of Scripture in the person of Jesus—a Christocentric hermeneutic.
But one of the strongest evidences of the Inspiration and authority of the Old Testament writings is found in the testimony of Jesus and the Apostles. Jesus Christ as a witness cannot be impeached. Possessed of the Spirit of God without measure; coming into the world to bear witness to the Truth; proving by His works that He was the Messiah; teaching as one having authority, we feel confident of the infallible truth of His testimony. And what is the testimony Jesus bears in the Scriptures? By a careful reading of the four records of the Gospel, we find Jesus everywhere speaking of the Scriptures as the Word of God. Jesus certainly regarded the Scriptures as clothed with divine authority, and infallibly safe when He thus used them.
By shifting from an inerrantist approach to Scripture to one that captures the centrality of Jesus as its source of authority, we will next address the punctiliar nature of the “decision for Christ” and how a process of ongoing discipleship is a better articulation of salvation.
Next Post: Decision for Christ to Conversionary Discipleship
 J. Allen Miller, Christian Doctrine: Lectures and Sermons (Ashland, OH: Brethren Publishing Company, 1946), 117.
 Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 205, Kindle.
 The method used to interpret, understand and apply the Bible.
 Smith, The Bible Made Impossible,1989, Kindle.
 Miller, Christian Doctrine, 121.