By Bruce Gourley
The “Battle for the Bible” is over, and the Bible lost.
Sometime within the past 33 years since Harold Lindsell fired the first public shot in the Bible battle, fundamentalist Christians (including not a few Baptists) quietly placed their holy book behind a protective firewall, pledging allegiance to modern inerrant interpretations. Feigning conservatism, they sacrificed the historical Jesus on the Western altar of religious creeds and small government.
Today, the agenda of the Religious Right, including many prominent fundamentalist Baptists, lies outside the Bible. That their politically conservative but extra-biblical agenda is a construct of modernist thinking seems to be of no concern: they proudly pledge overarching loyalty to the human construct of inerrancy and fidelity to unrestrained capitalism.
Yet in Southern Baptist circles, denominational leaders and many pastors now openly fret over the shrinking fruit of their labors. Baptisms are at their lowest level in decades, missionary appointments are down some 40 percent, church membership and denominational finances are on the skids, and annual June SBC meetings of recent years have tried in vain to construct a formula to stop the hemorrhaging.
Baptist historian Bill Leonard, examining the bigger picture, recently argued that “demographics and sociology” are largely responsible for SBC woes, indicating that unless Southern Baptists move beyond their white, rural, Southern, politically conservative loyalties, the decline will continue.
Some Southern Baptists agree with Leonard’s basic assessment, but hold out hope that fundamentalism yet has a bright future. In corresponding fashion, political observers on both sides of the aisle are offering the same judgment of today’s Republican Party.
Rising hand-in-hand, Baptist fundamentalism and small-government Republicanism are adrift together, struggling to stay above water. Unable to reverse the demographics, Republicans hope to “increase their share of the minority vote” (including Southern Baptists), while one fundamentalist Baptist response to denominational decline focuses on making more Baptist babies and Liberty University recently banished Democrats from campus. For some Baptists, procreation and political correctness offer hope where an inerrant theology has failed.
Yet for Baptists at large, Scripture itself has historically played a central role in matters of faith and life experience. Modern fundamentalist utilization of creeds as cover for extra-biblical political agendas was simply smart politics — for a while.
To be fair to fundamentalists, however, the question of what to do with the Bible poses a challenge for all 21st-century Christians throughout the world. For those who do take Scripture seriously, the quest to allow the Bible to be the Bible on its own terms causes discomfort, individually and corporately.
The Old Testament paints a vivid historical portrait of flawed faith leaders and a God whose redemptive presence in the world at times seems just the opposite. The New Testament, centered on the person of Christ, fleshes out a radical and counter-intuitive warning to resist the siren call of the world’s power structures by immersing oneself in loving others and redeeming the oppressed and marginalized.
Collectively, Scripture denies any certainty of a “correct understanding of God” (as one unnamed Baptist church openly claims) or any validity for self-serving agendas.
As in every previous era of human history, this century is replete with oppressive power structures, greed, poverty, hate and negligence of creation. Yet the convergence of unparalleled population growth, the instant dissemination of hatred through modern communication technologies, the ascendancy of greed-driven economies, and the increasing marginalization of the poor and dis-possessed, all against the backdrop of the accelerating destruction of our planet’s environment, pose quandaries on a scale heretofore unknown.
While Scripture does not provide all the answers posed in today’s troubled world, the biblical Christ places our lives and our world in a transcendent context. Now is not the time to bury the Bible beneath our personal prejudices, politics or posturings. We must allow the Bible to speak freely to us, for much in this world has yet to be redeemed.