Opinion: Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism

Biblical authority is life-giving and love-enhancing. Understanding the big picture removes stumbling blocks that cause some to reject the Bible.

May 22, 2017 by

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I often encounter Christians who once were fundamentalists but now distance themselves from that kind of faith, which they found to be spiritually oppressive. Often, this distancing has to do with the Bible.

Seeing the Bible as a source of violence and judgmentalism, they may say they like Jesus but find the Old Testament (or Paul or Revelation) a problem.

I sympathize. The way some people use the Bible does underwrite hurtful attitudes and actions. Parts of the Bible lend themselves to such use.

I love the Bible and use it as a source for teaching peace. Post-fundamentalist friends have told me that while they admire my attempts to wring peace from the Bible, they think I am engaged in spin and am misleadingly optimistic.

I had one such conversation recently. As we talked, I realized my friend still reads the Bible in a fundamentalist way. It’s just that now she disagrees with what she finds there.

I suggested it would help if she could move past her fundamentalist hermeneutic. She agreed, but noted this is difficult. Not because she still wants to believe in that approach but because it is so deeply ingrained in her mind.

‘House of authority’

I sense that belief in biblical authority is more important for fundamentalists than the actual content of the Bible. They often call a view biblical without showing how it reflects the Bible’s actual teaching.

Let’s think in terms of a “house of authority” where three elements are at work: the revealed Scripture, church hierarchies to interpret the Bible and church structures to enforce the interpretations. This structure is necessary for fundamentalist biblical authority to work. The text cannot enforce its own authority but needs human agents to do it.

Actual authority, then, does not rest with biblical content but with human interpreters. But the emphasis on biblical authority provides an illusion of divine sanction for what actually are human efforts to define truth. The power of this authority stems from how it cultivates fear about the consequences of uncertainty: chaos, vulnerability, lack of control.

A fundamentalist approach gives authority to the pieces more than the whole of the Bible. A key doctrine is “verbal plenary inspiration”: Each word is directly inspired by God and therefore without error. So isolated texts have great authority.

It is an unfortunate irony, then, that when many post-fundamentalists don’t like something in the Bible (such as divinely commanded genocide in Joshua), they feel they have to reject the Bible altogether. Why this all-or-nothing approach? They still look at the Bible through the lens of a system they have rejected. They overlook the fact that the fundamentalist view of the Bible is far from the best way to interpret it.

A more affirmative view

The following points may help exorcise the ghosts of fundamentalism and embrace a more affirmative way to read the Bible.

Fundamentalist Christianity is modern.

There is nothing sacred or even time-validated about the fundamentalist approach to the Bible. It only makes sense in the light of modern rationalism and of efforts to establish truth based on irrefutable arguments and hard evidence. Fundamentalism responded to the rise of modern skepticism. It is a defensive measure that does not arise from the actual living of Christian faith over the centuries.

We can affirm biblical truth without taking it literally.

We may find truth in the Bible in ways that are similar to how we find truth in literature, poetry, music, visual art, stories told by traditional cultures and other ways that do not rely on scientifically verifiable facts or strict logic.

The Bible’s truth inspires love-enhancing ways of life. A stumbling block for post-fundamentalists is violence in the Old Testament. We may learn from these stories without assuming God literally told Joshua to lead the Hebrews in genocide. There is truth in these stories, though we are not bound to take them as literal history.

Jesus loved the Old Testament.

Most post-fundamentalists like Jesus a lot but do not share Jesus’ love for the Old Testament. But they should. If we start with Jesus’ positive view, we notice Old Testament emphases in his message: the created world reflects God’s love; the importance of forgiveness, as Esau and Joseph showed in Genesis; a concern for vulnerable people; a critique of power politics, like the story of Israel asking for a king in 1 Samuel 8; and God’s power expressed as servanthood, as in Isaiah 40-55.

A narrative approach helps resolve many problems.

We look for meaning in the Bible in relation to the big picture. Each book of Scripture was written as a narrative whole. When the books were gathered together, they gained additional meaning in relation to each other. The whole shapes the meaning of the parts.

Thus we see the God-ordained violence in Joshua in light of what follows. The establishment of a territorial kingdom for a people who would “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12) ended in failure. When the Babylonians destroyed the Hebrew kingdom, maintaining a nation-state was no longer an option for God’s people.

The story of the violence of Joshua’s time shows why such violence could never be possible again. God will never again channel the promise through territorial kingdoms. Based on the Bible’s overall story, the political message of the Old Testament is not that God might command genocidal violence to establish and defend a nation. Rather, the kingdom of God is no longer to be linked with the possession of territory. This lesson is reiterated in the life and teaching of Jesus.

Biblical authority is life-giving.

One reason post-fundamentalists distance themselves from the Bible is because they think the only valid way to use the Bible is as an absolute authority. However, this notion of authority comes from later doctrines about the Bible rather than the Bible itself.

To treat the Bible as life-giving rather than as having absolute authority makes it easier to approach the Bible as a positive resource and not as oppressive and coercive. Like Jesus, Scripture’s authority is gentle and persuasive. The Bible’s true authority comes from its ability to guide us to love God and love our neighbor. If we expect that the Bible gives a message of peace, we are better prepared to recognize the message and not be distracted by elements that seem to undermine it.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.


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  • Evan Knappenberger

    ur the best, Ted. they should put you in charge.

    evan knappenberger

  • Chad Miller

    Excellent article – I just used a quite from the Early Anabaptist Bern Conference 1535.
    “we consider the OT valid as long as it points to Jesus” (found in Boyds new work CWG) to many of those even in our mennonite churches this sounds “liberal” or to none “verbal inspiration” – a Jesus centered reading of the Bible, this is who we are.

  • Gary Hill

    thanks Ted, I share your concern for the deception that turns a person’s heart away from what God is saying in the Scriptures to the making an idol of the Bible. Very subtle, effective but in reality just another way to turn precious souls away from God. I believe that If we preach the Scriptures simply and without bias, and doctrinal theological speculation this will effectively rebuke the spiritual attacks upon the hearts of God’s people.

  • Joshua Rodd

    If the Bible doesn’t have absolute authority, than who and what does?

    • Gerald J. Mast

      No one can lay any foundation other than the one which has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. I Cor. 3:11.

      • John Gingrich

        And how can we “know” Jesus and his foundation if we don’t accept the authority and/or the revelation we receive from scripture?

    • Evan Knappenberger

      Try to imagine a universe where authority is relational. Also, Christs authority comes from the father not from scripture, and christ is still among us.

      evan knappenberger

  • Conrad Hertzler

    I just got my copy of Mennonite World Review yesterday and I this morning I am still mulling over this op piece by Mr. Grimsrud. I found myself reacting to a number of things last night, and this morning, while not feeling “reactive”, those things are still bothering me. First of all, I also believe that the Bible presents a narrative. That God, through 40 authors writing 66 books, preserved His message to His people. I am glad to read Mr. Grimsrud’s statement “I love the Bible”. And I share his concerns about fundamentalism and not seeing the big picture. However, I found this piece to fall short in some crucial areas (although I realize that it is impossible to include one’s entire doctrine of biblical interpretation in an op ed piece). It struck me as I was reading that Mr. Grimsrud is displaying that same fault that he sees in fundamentalists: that his view of biblical authority also rests with human interpreters. This was a very academic piece, to be sure, but nowhere did I read anything about the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we approach the Scriptures. Does not the Holy Spirit enlighten our heart and mind as we study the Scriptures and help us to understand “the big picture” and what God is saying to His Church today?

    Also, I found myself scratching my head at the paragraphs under “We can affirm biblical truth without taking it literally”. I agree with that statement to a point. There are certainly word pictures and visions recorded in the Bible that aren’t meant to be taken literally. And poetical books need to be read as poetry. But when I arrived at the end of that short section, my question was, does Mr. Grimsrud believe that any part of the Bible can be read literally? Does he believe that the Scripture contains absolute truth?

    The statement that encapsulates my concerns with the piece is found at the end. Mr. Grimsrud states, “Like Jesus, Scripture’s authority is gentle and persuasive…If we expect that the Bible gives us a message of peace, we are better prepared to recognize the message and not be distracted by elements that seem to undermine it”. Mr. Grimsrud seems to be advocating approaching the Scriptures with one single idea: that Bible is a message of peace. All other passages which seem to contradict that are “distractions”? Again, is not Mr. Grimsrud guilty of the very same scriptural approach (human interpretation) that concerns him about fundamentalism? I am so thankful that God did indeed make a way of bringing reconciliation between Himself and mankind and that we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. The Bible indeed has the message of peace. But this is not the complete picture of who God is: a God of complete justice and sovereignty who exercises His will at His own pleasure, a God of perfection and holiness who commands holiness from His people, and yes, thankfully, a God of grace who forgave his covenant people time and again and who continues to display His grace to us today. Maybe those elements that seem to be “distractions” should rather make us fall on our faces before Him as God, completely “other” and whose ways are many times beyond our comprehension. We can accept the Bible as a message of peace but realize that God may define peace in a way that we don’t understand and work toward that peace in ways that don’t make sense to us. Yet He has given us a small glimpse into His character through the Scripture.

    I am reminded of the conversation between Mr. Beaver and the children in “The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis:
    “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

    Again, I realize that this is a brief glimpse into Mr. Grimsrud’s approach to Scripture, but I get the impression that Scripture is not something that can be used to teach us truth, but rather just guides us with ideas about God. This God is a safe, gentle and loving God. Yes, but so much more!

  • Rainer Moeller

    I deeply dissent. Maintaining “biblical authority” without “literality” means in practice: the average readers have no say about what’s authoritative, it is in the hand of professional “interpreters” of the Bible. This is in fact an ideology which reserves authority to the theologians (that’s why it has been so successful in the theological profession).

    Either Biblical authority in the literal sense (“literal” = what everyone would read out of the Bible), or no Biblical authority at all (this is the more advanced Quakerish position).

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