Biblical theologians try to describe the character and activity of God from perspectives deeply shaped by their understanding of the Bible. Yet what exactly is "the Bible"? Most Jewish theologians define it as that collection of 22 ancient Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls compiled over several centuries and eventually written down in the first millennium BCE, designating its major sections via the mnemonic TaNaK—Torah ("The Books of Moses"), Nevi'im ("The [Former and Latter] Prophets"), and Ketuvim ("The Writings"). Protestant Christians revere this same collection (designating it the "Old Testament"), but add 27 more documents from another collection (designating it the "New Testament"). Catholic and Orthodox Christians accept both of these collections, but add 13 more "deuterocanonical" scrolls, commonly called the "Apocrypha".
Generally speaking, evangelicals define themselves as Christians who try to follow the commands, examples, and necessary inferences of the documents preserved in the Protestant Bible. Unlike fundamentalists, evangelicals do not read every biblical document through a simplistic literalist lens. Instead, they attempt to let each document interpret itself within its own literary-historical context; i.e.—poetry is read in the context of other ancient poems; narrative in the context of other ancient narratives; lawcodes in the context of other ancient lawcodes, and so forth. Many evangelicals are aware of the much larger Judeo-Christian corpus of apocryphal, pseudepigraphal, and sectarian texts contemporary to the Protestant canon, but most follow the admonitions of the earliest Christian leaders who warned their congregations not to read them as sacred scripture.
Yet even within the Protestant Bible, evangelicals tend to dwell on some scrolls at the expense of others, creating a veritable "canon within the canon". For example, even though TaNaK includes a variety of wisdom/poetic as well as legal/prophetic scrolls, most evangelicals tend to focus on the latter at the expense of the former. Thus, even though Torah articulates several theological concepts more or less unique to Hebraic thought—creation (Genesis), redemption (Exodus), holiness Faith in God 27 2012 (Leviticus-Numbers), covenant (Deuteronomy)—evangelicals tend to prioritize these concepts in the following "order of importance": redemption, covenant, holiness, creation. Further, as liberal Protestants tend to focus on those biblical documents rooted in ideas about material creation (reading Genesis and Job through lenses colored by postmodernist pluralistic tenets), evangelicals tend to focus on those biblical documents rooted in ideas about spiritual redemption (reading Acts and Romans through lenses colored by static, individualist, "scientifically" modernist tenets).
This helps explain why so many evangelicals adopt what others imagine to be "hard and fast" responses to contemporary moral questions. For example, with regard to one of the issues often spotlighted in the national media—marriage—evangelicals argue that marriage should be defined in terms of heterosexually monogamous human relationships. Why? Because the founder of their faith, Jesus of Nazareth, following his TaNaK, clearly advocates it as such (Exod 20:14, 17; Mal 2:10-16; Matt 5:27-30; 19:3-9; 1 Cor 5:1-13). Further, this also helps explain why many spiritually-minded homosexuals gravitate to liberal Protestant churches instead of conservative evangelical churches for support and acceptance. Why? Because liberal Protestants tend to spend much more time in the universalistically sapiential texts of the Bible than they do on the particularistically prophetic texts.
The challenge for evangelicals however, as it is for Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and all other religionists, is to develop understandings of their sacred texts which genuinely attend to their entirety, not just those sections that they find themselves socially, economically, and/or politically predisposed. One way to illustrate this quickly is to observe how many contemporary evangelicals interpret the ideas and actions of the 44th American president, Barack Hussein Obama. Even though their Bibles command them to "submit to the governing authorities" (Rom 13:1) and to pray for those "who occupy high positions" (1 Tim 2:2), some evangelicals consider it their "patriotic duty" to do just the opposite, thereby ignoring, if not overtly violating the theological messages embedded in these texts. Further, even though the Protestant Bible condemns the behavior of those "believers who go to law against other believers" (1 Cor 6:1-8), some evangelicals ignore this text as well, particularly those who find themselves entrapped, for whatever reason, in the anguish of marital separation and divorce.
Such behavior provokes thoughtful critics like Aleksander Solzhenitsyn to categorize Westerners as a whole as professors of "litigation over listening" (See his 1978 Harvard speech, posted at www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html). In addition to these concerns, one might also look at the intractable, thorny problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Even though the Protestant Bible clearly commands its adherents to love "all the world" (John 3:16; Matt 28:18; 1 Cor 6:9-11), some evangelicals proudly refuse to speak to anyone who isn't white, heterosexual, middle-class, male, and/or Republican—much less love such "outsiders".
Thus, as with all the other theologies previewed in this issue of Emeritus Voices, inauthentic evangelicalism is just as puzzling, just as disagreeable, and just as prone to extremist distortion as inauthentic Catholicism or inauthentic Orthodoxy, not to mention inauthentic Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, or Islam. In a world like ours, so prone to extremist lunacy, it's sometimes difficult to imagine a truly genuine, truly authentic, truly holistic theology. Yet inauthentic behavior does not justify inauthentic analysis. With regard to Christianity, G.K. Chesterton once put it like this: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."
© Michael S. Moore
Dr. Michael S. Moore received his PhD from Drew University in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in 1988 and has been teaching ASU undergraduates since 1992. He is the husband of Caron (an AP English teacher at Sandra Day O'Connor High School in Glendale, AZ), and the father of two married sons. He is the author of Reconciliation: A Study of Biblical Families in Conflict (College Press, 1994) and Faith Under Pressure: A Study of Biblical Leaders in Conflict (Leafwood, 2003). His most recent book is WealthWatch: A Study of Socioeconomic Conflict in the Bible (Pickwick, 2011).