The evangelical claim to having the “biblical view” is a false claim. For starters, there is no such thing as the “biblical view” on subjects as diverse as those now embroiled in the sad appellation known as the “culture war.” A more honest appraisal would say, “This is my view of the meaning of this particular biblical text.” There are 66 books in the Bible. That at least means that it is closer to the truth to say, “According to St. Paul.”
There simply is no “biblical view” that covers all the areas that evangelicals wish to claim as the authoritative word of God. The books of the Bible are no longer that of the various authors and editors but rather the Church’s Scripture. The evangelical interpretations are not all identical suggesting that interpretation plays a major role in shaping how texts are read.
Evangelicals place great stress on the authority of the Bible. They have framed their understanding of the Bible as “the biblical view.” The media has cooperated in this framing by repeating the evangelical claim — “biblical view” — as if this is the only possible view. This raises the question of why are evangelicals so often divided over how to interpret the Bible and arrive at this “biblical view.”
The evangelical claim of presenting the “biblical view” has to stand up to the scrutiny of the great diversity of biblical texts. Failing in this endeavor renders the claim of having the “biblical view” suspect. The claim also has to confront the challenge of postmodern critics who claim that all metanarratives — unified, totalizing stories — are oppressive and abusive. The postmodern challenge lays waste to the evangelical claim of the “biblical view.”
By insisting that the Bible has a single point of view, evangelicals are judged by the reality of their own oppressive and abusive practices. They demonstrate the primary point of postmodern criticism: Metanarratives are power grabs designed to place one group in the “one-up” position of authority over all others. According to the very claim that evangelicals make, their “biblical view” has been used to justify the abuse of women, Jews, slaves, colonized peoples, immigrants, and homosexuals. There is abundant evidence that the “biblical view” espoused by evangelicals is still a power move to maintain a male hierarchy, and in particular, white male supremacy over all facets of life.
To even make the claim of presenting the “biblical view” is a rhetorical sin. There is no legitimate backing for this claim. There is no evidence that the claim is even remotely connected to the truth. This is a rhetorical con job, and it has to do with framing. “Frames are,” according to George Lakoff, “mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” Evangelicals have successfully framed their perspective, their way of thinking, their plans and goals, as well as what counts as good or bad as the “biblical view.” Not only does the media accept this “frame job,” but progressives also buy into it by using the term, “biblical view” when discussing evangelicals’ positions on social issues.
We activate the frame by making the mistake of using their words. In order to reframe the debate, it is important to stop using an evangelical framing. This can occur in two ways: one, when an evangelical uses the frame “biblical view,” dispute the frame as false and misleading. Two, reframe the issue by speaking of the progressive view of Scripture. This will, among other claims, consist of reminding people that a developing ethical consciousness has more power than an evangelical insistence that a literal reading of Leviticus 18 gives the “biblical view.”
The evangelical framing of “the biblical view” usually shows up in debates over social issues. Evangelicals are keen to speak of the “biblical view” when it comes to women in ministry, homosexuals, abortion, and secular politics. The “biblical view” becomes the go-to argument that is designed to end all discussion and dissent. Once the “biblical view” claim takes the floor, there are no dance partners except those who are in full agreement with the “biblical view” of evangelicals. This, of course, means, that other Christians, have something other than the “biblical view” about women in ministry or homosexuality. Such a catchall argument fails because it eliminates reasonable doubt, different readings, and disparate interpretations.
Christians enter deep, dark waters when they attempt to use isolated biblical texts to present the “biblical view” of human sexuality. This is complicated by the way evangelicals interpret the Hebrew scriptures. Are they claiming that a particular Jewish reading of the Old Testament is the “biblical view”?
Perhaps there is a legitimate fear among evangelicals that opening the Bible to so many different readings ends in subjectivism or relativism. This an inferential leap that is unnecessary because interpretations are not those of an independent agent dealing with an independent autonomous text, but those of an interpretative community of which the preacher is but a member. Again, a more accurate claim is to say, “This is an evangelical view of the Bible.”
Roman Catholics have a more legitimate claim to an authoritative statement about the Bible within the confines of Catholicism. After all, the Catholic Church is the oldest community in existence for reading the Scripture. In addition, this includes the Office of the Magisterium.
Evangelicals have no such office for determining if interpretations by various and sundry preachers reflect a “biblical view.” For Catholics and the Orthodox, there is the view of the necessity of Scripture to reside within church practice. In other words, the priest can say, with authority, “This is the Catholic view of the Bible.”
The Church makes the Bible a unified text not broken into verses, commandments, and aphorisms. In this context, an evangelical seems like a person with a distorted mind fixated on verses of Scripture. In such a scenario, you can envision an evangelical cutting isolated texts from a copy of the Bible, and pasting them all over the walls of his office.
A more helpful approach would be to allow the community that has read the Scripture longer than any Christian group, the rabbis, to guide our reading. Ellen Davis has such an inspiring appeal for Christians to read the Scripture in community with the Jews. There are two primary principles in Jewish interpretation of Scripture: “peshat” and “drash”. Peshat means “straight” and refers to the plain, simple, and decontextualized interpretation of the text. In this reading, there is a universal principle and no particular or changing circumstances. The second principle of “drash” refers to how the text is to be lived and applied. This reading makes room for new interpretations, for context, and for developing ethical consciousness. This type of reading leads to a yoking of the universal with the local and particular. The reading becomes an embodied reading more concerned with the effects the Scripture has on bodies rather than on doctrines. This offers the possibility of ongoing argument, debate, and dissent within believing communities. This seems like a better way.
There is nothing in my claims that calls into question evangelical interpretations of the Scripture. These interpretations have their place within the context of all other Christian interpretative communities. My claim is that evangelicals do not have the one and only “biblical view.” What they have is an individual, often private authority that spreads in the evangelical universe and becomes the “biblical view.”
In the evangelical rendering, there is either a limitation in some form of the claim of “biblical view” or an acceptance of all these different evangelical views as the true and legitimate form of the Christian life. Evangelicals have been weighed in the balance of two centuries of biblical scholarship and have come up “wanting.” There is no “biblical view” no matter how often and how loudly evangelicals plead for one. In the end, what they think is their best argument is just a defensive sort of whining that begs the rest of the world to set aside all critical faculties and accept the fantasy that evangelicals really have the “biblical view.” Two words: They don’t.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).