Evangelical is a term that describes a particular brand of Christian. A milder kind of fundamentalist. Typically we define an evangelical as a Christian who holds to the authority of the Scriptures and the spread of the Gospel. Evangelicals generally would push for an experience of conversion, ie. a born-again experience, and would emphasize the work of Christ in redemption. Basically, if you consider yourself a “Billy Graham Christian,” you are an evangelical.
Neo-orthodoxy is a theological movement/system that emerged in the early 20 century as response to 19th century liberalism and the response of fundamentalism to the liberalism. It is a very complex and varied body of theology influenced by the philosophical movement known as existentialism. One of the hot topics debated by the neo-orthodox had to do with the nature of Scripture, the revelation of God. I have often described the neo-orthodox view in this way: The Bible does not become the Word of God until it comes alive in me.
Basically the neo-orthodox struggled with the same things we struggle with. How does an ancient book transform a modern man? How are the things talked about in the pages of Scripture, affecting a particular people in a different locale and era, relevant to the 20th century? Their answer, the Word becomes incarnate in each person who lives out the ideals of Jesus’s teaching. Harvie Conn describes the neo-orthodox view of the Bible through the words of Karl Barth:
“One may read the Bible without hearing the Word of God, says Barth. The Bible is merely a ‘token,’ but, at the least, a token through which the Word does come to us. The relationship between God and the Bible remains real, but indirect. ‘The Bible,’ says Barth, ‘is God’s Word in so far as God speaks through it…The Bible therefore becomes God’s Word in this event…’ (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics). Until it becomes real to us, until it explodes in our life, until it speaks to us in the existential situation, it is not the Word of God. Thus, says Barth, the Bible is a record of past revelation, and a promise of future revelation.” (Harvie Conn, Contemporary World Theology)
Now many of you may be saying, “amen, I think…” You shouldn’t. This perspective removes all objective, discernable truth from the text and makes it dependent upon the experience of the reader, and his subsequent obedience to whatever he deems to be the truth of the Scripture to validate the Bible as revelation from God. In this system, the historical fact of the resurrection is not important, rather that you live the “resurrection life” is the important issue.
Now you may be saying: “not me.” Well, how many times have you gone to Bible study and said these words: “What this passage means to me…” ? You have probably said that at least once in your life without any reference to the meaning of the text in its historical context. You didn’t understand what Jesus (or Paul or Peter etc.) originally meant by the saying at hand, but “the Spirit” gave you a meaning for your particular life situation. There really is no difference between that and Karl Barth. It may have been helpful in principle, but it wasn’t necessarily the Word of God.
This is reflected in the modern church in the need to be “relevant” and the abandonment of exegetical preaching. Instead of starting with a text, understanding the text, communicating the basic meaning of the text and then discerning an application to modern man, pastors now reverse the order. We start with a relevant topic, seek a text that “fits” and ignore the original meaning and import of the text, citing that sort of preaching as foreign to the ears of the modern seeker. Whereas the pastor may be able to still discern the harmful line of misuse, the average parishioner may or may not have that same ability. The result is that the Bible has become an acceptable Ouija board, just lead me to the right passage and the answer to my problems will be solved.
Evangelicals have also begun to diminish the importance of doctrinal clarity and explanation. I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered dangerous expressions of the doctrine of the trinity. Most modern Christians cannot declare the very basic definition that the church has held regarding the trinity. The doctrine of the trinity is not unclear! It is expressly taught in the Bible, and expressly taught in the historic creeds of the church. The doctrine of the trinity is understandable, in fact the church has gone to great lengths defining the doctrine and selecting the wording of this primary and critical doctrine. Any Christian can affirm and explain this doctrine. But in our neo-orthodoxy, we cast the doctrine to the garbage pile of irrelevance, claiming that it is impossible to understand and apply. Like a complaining math student we say, “how does algebra (the trinity) apply to my life?” We use that reasoning to abandon the study of doctrine.
It is high time that evangelicals return to their roots. We believe in the authority of Scripture, in what is called the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. All of the parts of the Bible are inspired and the actual language form, the words and styles of literature are inspired. That inspiration exists apart from my understanding and application of the Word. It is in the understanding and application of the Word that lives are transformed – but the Bible is not a set of Tarot cards, intended for my personal life direction.
I often tell people, the Bible was written for you and every generation of believers, but it was not written to you. In other words we need to figure out the original meaning of the writer to his audience. That is the primary step. Once the meaning has been determined we can apply the principle of truth to the context in which we live. The order is critical. This distinction will help us to be faithful in our study of the Scriptures, both in mining its meaning and its modern application.