I generally agree with Evangelicals Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens, who contend that Evangelicals have to do a better job reconciling their faith with science. And I agree with them that fundamentalists who deny what science is telling us about human origins, preferring instead a literalistic interpretation of Genesis, are badly off course. But then there’s this description of the sort of intellectually respectable Evangelical they prefer:
They recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution and says next to nothing about gay marriage. They understand that Christian theology can incorporate Darwin’s insights and flourish in a pluralistic society.
That gay marriage point is, ironically enough, a sign that the authors accept, when it suits them, a fundamentalist, literalist approach to Scripture — precisely the thing they condemn! Deciding that if the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn a thing, then the Bible must implicitly permit is, is reverse proof-texting, one designed to suit liberal ends.
Of course Scripture says nothing about gay marriage. Such a thing was unthinkable in the days of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say anything about the atomic bomb either. By this logic, “reason” tells us that Christian condemnation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is irrational.
That would be absurd, of course. If Christians condemn the atomic bombings, they do so based on what Scripture tells us about the dignity of human life, of innocence, of war, of justice and mercy. We derive Christian moral teaching about a particular phenomenon based in part on the larger context presented to us in Scripture. That, and in the way the interpretive tradition developed. For example, by Giberson & Stephens’s logic, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity — the central dogma of the Christian faith — must be rationally denied, because there is nothing explicit in Scripture defines it. Do Giberson & Stephen deny the Trinity? I’m sure they don’t, but if not, why not? The Bible says “next to nothing” about the Trinity, after all.
On gay marriage, one has to make all kinds of leaps to reconcile it with Christianity and Biblical moral teaching about the meaning of marriage. Aside from St. Paul’s explicit condemnation of homosexual behavior, there is no way — or at the very least, no easy way — to reconcile same-sex marriage with the Christian moral tradition.
This is not, let me be clear, an argument against legalizing same-sex marriage. That is a different argument. What I’m focusing on here is an argument among Christians, about how we Christians are to interpret our own Scripture and tradition. Giberson & Stephens are making a specific claim about the supposed irrationality of Christians claiming that the Bible opposes same-sex marriage, and they’re saying this is so on the slimmest of exegetical reeds: because Scripture is silent on the specific subject. How rational is this?
Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.
To some, and perhaps to our authors here, “the opening of the Evangelical mind” implies acceptance that whenever secular liberalism contradicts faith, faith has to back down. That’s false, simplistic, and a dead end. In the best sense, the opening of the Evangelical mind is in part an opening to truths that come to us through scientific discoveries, not denying them on fideistic grounds, but working intelligently and within the tradition to reconcile them to our theological convictions. Also, the opening of the American Evangelical mind means coming to realize how insufficient it is to open the Bible and expect to completely understand it, without knowledge of context, and without an appreciation of how the long Christian intellectual tradition, from the Fathers and the Councils, to Palamas and Aquinas, through the Reformers, all built on what they had received. In that sense, how humble is it for these Evangelicals to disregard 2,000 years of Christian moral teaching about the moral status of homosexuality and the meaning of marriage to embrace a radical innovation in Christian moral theology that was all but unthinkable, even by the most progressive Christian theologians, 40 or 50 years ago? How literalistic and overconfident is it for them to do so based on the lack of an explicit condemnation of same-sex marriage in the Bible, and to assume that any Christian today who believes same-sex marriage is wrong on Biblical grounds must be guilty of irrational fundamentalism?
Not all latter-day fundamentalists are theologically conservative.
UPDATE: Alan Jacobs reacts. Read the whole thing. Excerpt here:
There’s some truth to this, of course, but — forgive the griping — it’s deeply annoying to me. First, it doesn’t say anything that Mark Noll didn’t say in 1994; and second, the only reason it’s in the NYT is that it flatters the prejudices of the readership. A more nuanced view of evangelicals, like the one Alan Wolfe wrote for the Atlantic some years ago, would never run in the NYT.
Of course not. When it comes to religion, closed-mindedness, willful blindness to nuance, and knee-jerk prejudice are considered in certain places and contexts as signs of an open mind.