An Evangelical ‘Litmus Test’
Accepting Genesis 1–11 as real history?
Early in 2007,1 I recall there were at least three issues within a few months where different individuals or groups in Australia, all calling themselves evangelical, demonstrated interpretations of the Bible significantly different from orthodox views long held by evangelicals in the past. For example:
- The support of a same-sex relationship register in Victoria;
- The endorsement by a number of evangelicals and evangelical churches of Jim Wallis, the “king-pin of the American religious left” and his book God’s Politics; and
- A Bible College president who told a new lecturer that the College’s ethos was “evangelical not fundamentalist” adding that fundamentalists take a literal reading of the Bible—with the unspoken implication that the evangelicals don’t.
The term “evangelical” has its origins in the English Reformation and was then applied to certain movements in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Macquarie Dictionary defines the word as “1. relating to the Gospel and its teachings; 2. related to those Christian bodies which emphasise the teachings and authority of the Scriptures, in opposition to that of the church itself or of reason.” This started me thinking just what constitutes an evangelical today and just how do evangelicals differ from liberals or fundamentalists?
Five years ago, I attended a lecture on evangelicalism by Stanley Grenz where he posed the questions, “Does evangelicalism have a future?” and, “Why and in what form?”2 It is the final aspect of this “form” which is of interest.
I had always assumed that evangelicals believed in an inerrant Bible. So, if they do, what form does that “inerrant belief” take? The Macquarie definition claims that evangelicals emphasize the teachings and authority of Scripture. But, how much of the Bible has to be reinterpreted, or its authority watered down, to arrive at the religious left position? Also, what distinctive did the Bible College president use to separate evangelicals from fundamentalists? There will always be levels of debate on biblical interpretation, but what is of concern is not so much the increasing level of anti-theism with its direct attacks at Christianity, but rather the subtle, subversive attacks on the accuracy of the Bible.
Evangelicals must be able to handle a changing world—after all, from its very outset, the New Testament church had to deal with division.3 However, unity does not imply uniformity,4 and there should always be room for individual differences and, more especially, Christian love when those differences are being discussed. It would appear self-evident (although some will always question such a statement) that the church should not tolerate doctrinal error, but, once again, what precisely constitutes “error”.5
Any student of biblical history would be aware of the swings in emphasis that can take place over time in a movement as ill-defined as evangelicalism. There are arguments for the church being “progressive” or “relevant” but we are yet again faced with the issue of ill-defined words. Does the church, for example, have to set aside doctrinal purity—if there ever is such a thing—to be progressive or relevant?
This is all very reminiscent of the fundamentalist vs liberal debate which raged between the mid 1800s and 1925. George M. Marsden, in Fundamentalism and American Culture, included a cartoon depicting the “slide” from Christianity to Atheism as a series of descending steps. Those “steps” were: the Bible not infallible, man not made in God’s image, no miracles, no virgin birth, no deity of Christ, no atonement, no resurrection, agnosticism and finally atheism.6
In 2007, inclusion of the Virgin Birth might seem surprising. However, a century ago, standard Christian terminology was being “redefined” so that liberals might appear to be in agreement with the fundamentalists and yet in reality, they were poles apart. One of the distinctives of orthodoxy, therefore, became a belief in the Virgin Birth, a doctrine which was hard to redefine.
A century later, words are again being redefined. Words like “fundamentalist”, “evangelical”, “right wing”, “literal” and “Bible-believing” all now conjure up images—usually negative—in people’s minds without them being defined. They have become “sound bites”—a technique used on TV to paint a negative image in one or two words without providing the opportunity to correct that misinterpretation. For example, “conservative versus progressive” paints a very different picture to “Bible-believing versus liberal”—and yet the latter words are often what the former ones really mean.
Returning to the story of the Bible College president, there is a remarkable similarity between his rejection of the “literal” view of the Bible and the first step in Marsden’s cartoon. In a later conversation I had with the new lecturer to whom the “literal” remarks were made, who incidentally is involved with a “Bible-believing” church, it transpired that he didn’t believe in a literal (I prefer the term “straight”) reading of Genesis 1–11 either, but added that “in order to understand the Old Testament, it was crucial to understand these chapters.” He was abusive towards creation science material labelling it as “rubbish”, denied a global flood based on “scientific evidence”—but was unable to provide any—and also denied other geological issues.
This lecturer then dismissed (without providing reasons) theological questions I raised such as, what did Jesus mean by statements like, “As it was in the days of Noah … ”. Instead I was told that Genesis was merely stories, “like how Jesus taught in parables in the New Testament.” My comment that the New Testament clearly states that Jesus was teaching in parables, but there is no such qualification in Genesis was simply dismissed. I was left with the very distinct impression that he had moved further down the steps in Marsden’s cartoon.
The liberal vs fundamentalist debate back in 1925 was “settled” on the issue of Genesis 1–11 at the (in)famous Scopes trial where the fallible word of man took precedence over the infallible Word of God. Interestingly, none of the “science” used in that debate would stand up to scrutiny today. It has all been discarded.
This made me wonder whether a belief in Genesis 1–11 could be the modern “litmus test” for evangelicals—the modern equivalent of believing in the Virgin Birth.
Now I fully appreciate that many “conservative evangelicals” would feel insulted to be labelled “liberal” simply because they do not believe in a straight reading of Genesis—but does this in itself negate the proposition?
If Genesis 1–11 is “myth” or “parable”, then apart from creating the obvious problems regarding the doctrines of God, man, sin, etc., how do we read the 4th Commandment? If the 6 days there are also myth, how do we read the other commandments—are they also myth? Furthermore:
- If Adam was myth, why does the NT refer to Jesus as the last Adam?
- If Noah and the Flood were myth, why did Jesus (the way, truth and life) refer to the days of Noah?
- If Noah was true, but the Flood merely local, why did Noah go to the bother of building an ark over 120 years—why not simply emigrate?
- If the Flood did cover all the local mountains by about 7 metres (Genesis 7:20) and the ark did land on the newly formed Mt Ararat as the waters were receding (Genesis 8:4), then apart from the rather difficult (miraculous?) concept of a 5,165 metre (approx 17,000 feet) local flood, what does removing the story of a global flood do to one’s doctrine of both God and man?
Many other questions come to mind, but I will finish with just one: “Why did Jesus die?” If Jesus died for our sins, then the challenge for those believing in a local flood or a mythical or poetic Genesis 1–11 is to work through the major theological issues this raises.
An expansion on that question is well beyond the scope of this article! However, for the moment, the real question for conservatives who reinterpret Genesis is, “Where do you stop?” At what point do Bible-believers cease to be what the term implies? Without realising it, they are subtly removing the miraculous and ultimately negating the work of the cross. Marsden observed that “the fundamentalists’ most alarming experience was that of finding themselves in a culture that by the 1920s was openly turning away from God.” In the 1920s, the liberals lumped the evangelicals and fundamentalists together. However, today, if evangelicals continue to absorb humanistic thinking, reinterpret the Bible and proclaim the social Gospel or the modern “science” Gospel, have they not moved into the liberal camp?
What is NOT needed is a further split in the church, but what I contend here is that evangelicals need to stop looking at theology in light of modern, secular beliefs and return to what the Bible actually teaches. I appreciate many evangelicals will disagree with my “litmus test”. I hope they will still accept, in love, my motives for suggesting it—and possibly suggest a better test if there is one.
- This article has been adapted from Birch, R., An evangelical “litmus test”, Salt Shakers Journal, May 2007; www.saltshakers.org.au. Return to text.
- Grenz, S., “Future”, 2002. Return to text.
- 1 Corinthians 1:10–17. Return to text.
- 1 Corinthians 12:12–27. Return to text.
- Ross, A.P., Is Christ divided? Moody, pp. 10–13, Sept/Oct 1999. Return to text.
- Marsden, G.M., Fundamentalism and American Culture, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 173, 1980. Return to text.