Explaining the Change

In relation to the weakened view of Scripture developing among churches and denominations, Iain Murray poses the question, “Why did Christians in Britain ever give entrance to such a reversal of belief on Scripture?” He then gives the answer–

The question is so fundamental that it is very surprising that it is so little considered. How is it to be explained? Could it be that Christians agreed that the trustworthiness of Scripture was not necessary for Christianity to survive? Did they think that faith could stand without the Bible? Were they simply ready to give unbelief free entrance into the denominations? I do not believe that an explanation along those lines is possible. We have to look elsewhere.

Far from rejecting the Bible outright, the new theology of the Bible which the German liberals had spread actually affirmed the Bible as much as ever. But they meant something different in their terminology and views than what evangelicals mean. I could say, “I believe in the resurrection,” and one who holds to the weakened view of Scripture could reply, “Yes, amen, I believe in the resurrection too.” But my meaning and his meaning are totally different and incompatible. My meaning is that Christ physically and bodily arose from the grave–their meaning is that the spirit and memory of Christ’s example and love arose and lives now through His memory and teachings, whether He bodily arose or not. He does not have to actually rise from the dead literally–what matters is the significance and meaning we can gain from the Bible’s metaphorical lessons.

An example of this is seen clearly in William Barclay’s New Testament commentaries, which were very popular among Southern Baptists and others during the 1960’s-1980’s. Born in 1907, Barclay was the Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow, and a very popular author and speaker. His small, and seemingly useful commentary set on the New Testament could be seen on the shelves of most Baptist pastors. Barclay wrote a book entitled The Mind of Jesus, which was a summary of the life and teachings of Jesus, based upon the record supplied in the four gospel accounts. This book was the main textbook in one of my New Testament classes during my senior year at Hardin-Simmons University, a supposedly conservative Southern Baptist school.

In class one day, we read and discussed a particular chapter from the book on Lazarus and his resurrection. Jesus had raised Lazarus back to life, Barclay affirmed. But what really happened in the event? Understand that I am not directing quoting Barclay here, but rather am summarizing and paraphrasing the essence of his view. Had Lazarus actually died physically? Well, we can’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter whether it was physical death or not; it doesn’t really matter whether the account is to be taken literally or not; that is not the point of the record, Barclay argued. What really probably happened was this.

Lazarus had fallen in his life, perhaps morally and socially to such an extent, that he was as good as dead to his family, the town, and society around him. Totally rejected, he was dead, as far as any future hope of a meaningful life. His life was destroyed due to circumstances and he may as well be dead. As far as any restoration to a proper standing in the community was concerned, his social status, family relations and social acceptability were all gone. He needed to be restored in all ways of life.

So what did Jesus of Nazareth do for Lazarus? The Bible says in John 11 that when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had lain in the grave four days, and his sister said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time, he stinketh.” What does this mean? It must mean that Lazarus’ life was a stench to the community, to his family, and to all those who knew him because of what he had done. But Jesus raised him up to a restored life, showing him compassion, forgiveness, love, tenderness, acceptance and raised Lazarus back up to life from failure, loss of family, social status. Jesus gave Lazarus his life back after dismal failure had killed his social standing and future. Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the grave of life’s worst problems, and gave his life a new beginning.

Barclay’s interpretation of the event– It doesn’t really matter if the miracle was literal or symbolic–we can’t really know for sure–both science and proper critical methods of viewing the Bible would doubt the historicity and certainty of physical miracles. The real message of these miraculous accounts is the spiritual meaning and application for life that we can derive from them. In Lazarus’ case, what is important is not that he was actually dead and physically raised, but rather what does the event symbolize to the reader? Just this–that Jesus of Nazareth, the great teacher and example, can raise any life from the worst situations, and give them meaning and restoration of mental, emotional, and social health. This is the lesson of Lazarus’ “resurrection.”

Such is the method of interpreting Scripture that became prominent with the weakened view of Scripture. Iain Murray goes on to show that-

The compatibility of the new teaching with evangelical faith was not to be questioned. Far from being a case of unbelief, it was argued that a more critical view of Scripture would actually promote the Gospel. The change was not a defeat, but an advance. It was claimed that greater success for Christianity would surely follow the acceptance of the ‘new apologetic’.

Thus the new and weakened view of Scripture was accepted as the right way of viewing the Bible, through the lens of modern and critical methods of analysis. Man must determine what is beneficial from the Bible. Man is the determining factor in evaluating what is trustworthy in Scripture and what is not accurate or historically reliable.

Professing Christians today would be astonished if they realized how many religious people, church members, and supposedly good pastors and preachers actually hold to this view of Scripture. It has been the dominant view in American churches over the past seventy years at least.

The general attitude that emerges from the proponents of the modern, weaker view of Scripture is expressed well by Mr. Murray–

What they emphasized was that the future of the faith did not lie in the words of a book [the Bible], but in the living Christ [sounds good?-MT]. Scripture is a guide, helpful as a sign for the traveler on a road, but the presence of the living Christ is better than any sign post. Which is preferable, it was asked–to be dependent on the ‘letter’ of the Bible or to have the personal guidance of Christ? So, they promised [argued]that to move on from the traditional view of the inerrancy of Scripture would not be to belittle Christ; on the contrary, it would give Him greater honor.

The acceptance of these views became so thorough and powerful throughout evangelical circles that anyone who did not accept them looked foolish and appeared to be against the progress needed to make the gospel intellectually acceptable to the masses. Murray says that, ‘Unless the persuasiveness of this line of argument is recognized, it is impossible to understand why so many evangelicals gave the movement their support’.

Murray continues–

One of the most popular of those voices was that of Henry Drummond, hero-worshipped in Scotland and beyond, both as a scientist and an evangelical. In The Life of Henry Drummond, by Professor Adam Smith, we are told, somewhat apologetically, that Drummond shared in the D. L. Moody missions in Glasgow in 1873-75. But by the time of his death in 1897, Drummond had, in Smith’s words, ‘traveled from the positions of the older orthodoxy’, and from Moody’s ‘narrow and unscriptural theory of inspiration’. [Moody held to the verbal inspiration of the Bible, and here Smith calls it ‘ the unscriptural theory. – MT]

– to be continued

Mack Tomlinson

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