Evangelicals & the Bible

Over the past several years, as I’ve taught the Bible in various settings, I’ve heard something odd from evangelical people.  And I’ve heard it often enough that it seems fair to call it a pattern.  When I first began to hear it, I was baffled.  I couldn’t imagine the sort of mindset that would give rise to the comment.

I began to hear it often enough from undergraduate students that I developed some responses that I’d trot out, using the occasion as a teaching moment.

Over the past few months, though, I’ve heard it more regularly, and I’ve tried to figure out what’s behind it.  I’m not sure I’ve completely wrapped my head around it just yet, but I’m going to take a few posts to think out loud about it.

I think that the comment I’ve been hearing indicates something that’s a bit warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible. 

Now, before I get into this discussion, there’s a bit of autobiography that may explain why this comment strikes me as very strange.

I was raised in a Bible family.  We read passages of Scripture each morning.  A few evenings a week my Mom made popcorn and my sisters and I would watch Moody filmstrips (filmstrips!) of Bible stories.  We all participated in several Bible memorization programs throughout our childhoods.  At family gatherings, there were lively discussions of difficult passages of Scripture and differences between Christian traditions.  I pretty much grew up in the linguistic world of the King James Bible.

Soon after arriving at college, I owned the faith personally and began to devour the Bible.  I poured over it, read it voraciously, marking up passages, discussing it with friends and roommates, and grabbing for any resources that would help me understand it.  I was amazed that while I was so familiar with the Bible, there was still so much that was new.

I took a Bible backgrounds class my senior year and realized that while I might know a passage of Scripture really well, grasping its ancient cultural setting brought completely new levels of understanding.  I was overwhelmed with how much more there was to discover.

I went off to seminary, then, with great eagerness to continue exploring and a love for learning.  When I left seminary and entered my doctoral studies, I was blown away to discover new ideological worlds that made more parts of the Bible make greater sense.

This basic posture toward the Bible of excitement about continual discovery has never left me.  And this is probably why the comment I’ve heard regularly over the last several years has caught my attention and left me baffled.

When I began teaching evangelical undergraduates, it wasn’t long before I heard a student say, “I’ve never heard this before.”  My first response was, “I know, and there’s so much more to discover!”

But then I heard another variation: “I’ve never heard this before.  What you’re saying isn’t biblical.”

I asked for clarification.  The student responded by saying, “well, I think there’s a verse somewhere that says something like . . . ,” proceeding to blend together three different passages with the chorus of a praise song.

I figured this sort of thing was just the arrogance of youth, but it began to happen regularly.  Just about three weeks into every semester, a student would raise his or her hand and say, “I’ve never heard this stuff before.”

I began to respond by saying, “you’re welcome!  You or your parents are paying me thousands of dollars to tell you things that you don’t know.  This is what we call ‘education’ and it sounds like I’m doing my job.”

It began to dawn on me, however, that there was something about evangelical culture that was making these students assume that if something was unfamiliar, it was unbiblical.

In the last few years, though, I’ve heard this comment from other evangelicals in other settings.  It seldom comes from a posture of challenge, but from some sense of betrayal.  A person lamented to me recently, “I’ve never heard this before.  I’ve been in an evangelical church my whole life and this has never been taught.”

I’m currently teaching a course in a non-evangelical setting.  The responses I’ve gotten have been telling.  I’ve heard, “this is so interesting,” and “thank you, I’m really enjoying this and learning a lot.”

Only one person has said to me, “I’ve never heard this before.”  You guessed it—an evangelical.

What strikes me as odd is that the very thing I have come to associate with studying the Bible—the excitement of discovery—is the very thing that somehow frustrates the evangelicals I’ve been teaching.

Like I said, I think this indicates that there’s something warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.

Over the next few posts, I’ll try to get at this and offer some suggestions about what it might tell us.

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46 responses to “Evangelicals & the Bible

  • Greg

    I’m looking forward to reading your take on this. Mine (for what it’s worth) is that Evangelicals do not distinguish between their theological tradition and the Bible. Anything really worth knowing in the Bible has been conveniently packaged in their doctrines. If it isn’t contained therein, it probably isn’t biblical. Or at least it isn’t particularly important. Accordingly, exegesis bores American evangelicals. We prefer hype, God talk, platitudes and moralizing. We already know what the Bible says. Now say it differently and inspire us.

  • Paul

    Very honest post Tim,

    I feel your pattern.

    I have experienced this… With comments like, “There are no theologians saying that…I’ve never heard that.” or “Where did you read that? I haven’t seen that.”

    Where is the wonder? Why may we not plunge into the depths and the richness of his grace? Is there not room for new and great thoughts about our rich God and the community formed around his name?

    Tim, does it feel like to you that many evangelicals have picked their teams of acceptable truth sources and If your thoughts, interpretation or exegesis of the Text differs from the party line you are automatically suspect?

    And…I am wondering if you think this a distinctly evangelical phenomena?

    • timgombis

      Precisely, Paul! Choosing acceptable truth sources is in one sense, ‘normal’, but in another sense, completely un-evangelical! But it’s the reality and it’s one of the main problems. “You are being biblical” sometimes means, “that’s not what I heard X say about this passage.” And you can fill in the blank with any number of folks.

      Only an evangelical thing? Not sure. But there are dynamics about our culture that make us do this.

  • Allen Browne

    Thought-provoking post, Tim. You’ve touched on something significant.

    My background is similar to yours (Bible reading and prayers at home), and I recall being explicitly warned not to let those theologians destroy my faith when I set off for college (1970s). Undoubtedly I did have defensive walls against unfamiliar interpretations as not being true to God and his “Word.” Evangelicalism is, by nature, defensive (against modernity/liberalism), just as Protestantism was defensive against Catholicism, and some forms of Judaism were defensive against early Christianity. It’s a long heritage.

    Like you, I now live with a “basic posture toward the Bible of excitement about continual discovery.” (Great phrase!) But, it’s hardly surprising if students fear sewing on a new piece of cloth lest it tear the old. In some ways, that has to be healthy, even if it makes them resistant to what I am teaching.

    Perhaps a student will find it easier to let go of existing thought structures (strictures?) if I can draw them closer to the character of Jesus and an expansive understanding of his gospel? After all, the main danger of Evangelicalism is believing that the Scriptures themselves give life instead of Life Giver (Jn 5:39-40).

  • Raymond Morehouse

    I think what you are describing is less Evangelical-specific than your post would lead us to believe. I was leafing through Daniel McRaney’s book “You are Not So Smart” recently and walked down the same path as your post. Then I realized that he doesn’t have any particular group in mind; he is just talking about being human.

    When confronted by new information about a subject we think we know a lot about, the initial response is (unwarranted) disbelief. The more we know the more skeptical we are of things we have never heard of.

    I think this is a growing problem across western society when it is all too easy to have the impression that we understand complex topics because we read the Wikipedia article or watched the slick Youtube summary video.

    I certainly don’t want to detract from your point, but I think that it would be a lot more accurate if applied across the board. The attitude you are describing is, I think, far less to do with the way “evangelicals regard the Bible” and much more to do with how human beings regard themselves, their knowledge, and the possibility of new ideas.

    • timgombis

      I think you’re right that it’s a far wider phenomenon that just something that affects evangelicals. We probably see it in politics, among other things. But I’m just trying to lift up the hood on my own culture to see what factors are there that can be modified or transformed so that we are in a position to be nourished by Scripture.

  • Betsy

    Quite honestly though, as your student, I have heard you say some things that I’ve truly never considered before. Was it wrong to express that? I don’t think so. Several of your statements in class has caused me to go back to the Word and rethink my paradigms. As I continue to search Scriptures, in some points, I’ve come to agree with you…in others….I’m still searching. I will say, the “shake up” of the walls of my theology has been great. Because it has awakened me from a lethargy. I truly don’t know as much as I thought I did. However, to my original point…you have said some things that are pretty striking and I think the response of “I’ve never heard that before!” is quite natural!

    • timgombis

      Hey Betsy! No doubt that response in a general sense is normal and even good. I should probably specify that I’m thinking of the tone of the expressions I’ve sometimes heard–a tone of disapproval or challenge, and then sometimes a tone of lament. So, sometimes the comment reveals that a person is frustrated by the process of learning or is upset by hearing something unfamiliar. The process of having paradigms constantly reshaped ought to be normal and even embraced!

  • Gabrielle Lassetter Flynn

    As a student of yours who thought something along those lines, your class was a very enlightening class. While I didn’t agree with all of your points of view, it was great to have to learn what I really think instead of going with the ‘Godly flow.” I spoke with many friends who had taken your classes and not taken them and everyone I spoke with seemed to have the same concern. They wanted your proof, your scripture to back it up, and anytime we asked for it your produced it. I believe the reason I personally responded that way was due to my major, psychology. Its not a hard science but your still have to have proof for what your saying, it doesn’t have to be a number or a geometrical proof, but it does have to have some logical pattern that is backed up with theory or scripture.

    I really enjoyed your post and thanks so much for sharing. I enjoyed your class as well, still have the notes, and look at them from time to time. :D

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, Gabrielle. This sort of reaction of wanting Scriptural backup, desiring to dig into the text of Scripture is the commendable evangelical posture of submission to Scripture. That’s huge–it’s the Berean response and not the Thessalonian response.

      That’s the sort of give-and-take that also engages the process of education and bears good fruit for everyone involved, student and teacher.

      I’m not so much getting at that, but at the attitude of dismissiveness, the notion that the unfamiliar is inherently unbiblical.

  • David Dion

    Being a former student of your’s I can honestly say that you did call your students to think deeply about what the Bible says and challenged us to be Bereans. We waited to be told what to believe: what we have heard all of our lives. I have to admit i was guilty of this and because of your teaching as well as others, I have/am actively sought what he bible actually says and for that I thank you

  • Linda Nicola

    I never heard this before! That was my response to most of what I heard…usually from non-Christians. Want to get a great Biblical education—talk to Pagans. They know more about the bible than most people I know. I started really digging into the bible to counter what they said, and found mostly they were right. I left Christianity for a while because of this. But Christ kept calling me…It was if I had to empty myself of all the garbage I was taught in the evangelical (Southern Baptist) church and come back to Christ as a child, with fresh eyes. I had to read and study and learn for myself with no preconceptions or agendas. That was when I truly became Christian.

  • Brad

    Roger Olson gave a talk recently the future of Evangelicalism that I think sheds some light on this. Some Evangelicals have rigidly embraced an understanding of tradition in an attempt to shore up evangelicalism against doctrinal drift. For them theology’s task is to defend tradition. The constructive task of theology is closed.
    Other evangelicals see the task of theology as still open and ongoing. No doctrine or tradition is so established that it cannot be reconsidered and amended in the light of fresh and faithful reading of Scripture. The new perspectives on Paul would be a good example of this latter approach. The sometimes hysterical reaction of some evangelicals to the new perspective belies their placing of their understanding of tradition over the witness of Scripture. Some laypeople can have a similar reaction when they come across ideas that are foreign to their understanding of the Christian faith. We all have a tendency to react that way when we hear something challenging. Thank you for reminding us to put God’s word above our own preconceived notions of what God tells us through Scripture.

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, Brad. I read Olson’s ‘Reformed & Always Reforming’ with great excitement. He seemed to have captured the evangelical posture with which I was raised–that eagerness to understand Scripture while holding doctrinal formulations relatively lightly, always willing to re-shape them in light of the text. That’s one reason why I’ve always been baffled at reactions to the new perspective on Paul. I’ve been stunned that evangelicals preferred dogmatic traditions that weren’t their own to an evangelical methodology, which sought greater insight from Scripture no matter the dogmatic cost. To me, that’s an outright evangelical surrender. We should’ve seen some major evangelical leaders turn in their membership cards in light of some seriously anti-evangelical behaviors!

  • Russell Gehrlein

    Excellent post, Dr. Gombis! I especially appreciated your semi-sarcastic response about their parents paying thousands of dollars to challenge their thinking, which indeed should have made them thankful to you for doing your job well. You have challenged me this semester in our online class in Romans. I do appreciate your fresh, and always biblical approach, so keep it coming!

  • Lisa

    Dr. Gombis, I have yet to be one of your students, however, I have said that exact phrase to other professors. What I have to come to realize is that I wasn’t hearing some of the things I am being taught in seminary at church. I felt so frustrated by that, so I have switched churches to a church where I feel they are going deeper into the Bible and using large chunks of scripture instead of a few verses.

    As I have given this some thought one of the things I have realized is that in this day and age when we have a question we google, we don’t dig into the material to search for the answer. I know that at times I have done this with Biblical things. If I had taken more time to dig into the Bible, pray and reflect I might not have said that phrase a few times.

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  • Michael Butler

    I believe the age of internet savvy evangelicals leaves their learning processes much to be desired Tim. That along with addiction to constant movement and entertainment. We are in a very ungrounded society at large and no less within the Christian community much less the evangelical community. Evangelicals have always been different because of their historic focus on depth and understanding of God’s Word.
    People are more interested today with who is left on the island in Survivor or which bachelor, bachelorette or American Idol contestant has been voted off than what God’s Word is saying.
    I believe we are witnessing the effects of what Paul warned us about in end time society. II Timothy 3 describes the world we live in and the effect on believers is hard to miss.
    I try to teach my congregation that it is like a pickling process we are being subjected to. We live in a world that has major skews of consciousness in areas we dare not get involved in, but the effect of being immersed in this society has a noticeable impact on the church. We have to be intentional and begin to say, “no” when it comes to following culture. Until the church resists the temptations of this culture and begins following Jesus in what He says in Matthew 6:33 “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”, we will sadly continue to see more of the same….

    • timgombis

      You may be on to something here, Michael. There’s a sense in which evangelicals have been wary of being “worldly” in some senses, but have completely capitulated to worldly ways of life in others. Being a seriously shallow culture may be one of those ways.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        With Christianized knockoffs of EVERY pop-culture thing within the Christianese bubble so you never have to interact with a Heathen except for drive-by prosletyzing sallies.

        “Of the World but not in it.”

      • timgombis

        That’s a massive part of the problem. Evangeliculture has mimicked / mirrored the culture but made itself utterly alien to it. So bizarre . . .

  • thebreakfastdictator

    Hey Tim,

    This was my very experience in college. I was a religious studies major at Gardner Webb in NC for one semester before I transfered out and to a “real” bible college. I was so taken aback by textual criticism and it’s seeming implications that I couldn’t stand to be there. That was in 2000. Thirteen years later, now that I’ve been willing to accept scholarly criticism of the Bible, I can’t get enough. It brings the Scriptures to light and life in a way that is so wonderfully rich.

    It took me a while to warm to ideas outside of fundamentalism (like inerrancy, or that the earth may truly be really really old), but now, I’m just so glad for the process and the reform it brought to my own mind and life in Christ.

    David

    • timgombis

      Those initial exposures to sophisticated study can be very disconcerting, for sure. When illusions about the Bible are exposed as such, we need robust and godly community around us to help us get to grips with the true character and purpose of the Bible.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I think that the comment I’ve been hearing indicates something that’s a bit warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.

    In three words, they regard it as The Party Line.

    “Biblical”, “Scriptural”, “Gospelly”, all translate to “Ees Party Line, Comrade.”

    And you can take it from there.

  • theoldadam

    Evangelicals have grown up on a steady diet of the law. Their view of the Christian life and the Bible is law (what ‘we do’) based. It even starts there with the believer needing to DO something…accept Jesus, or make a “decision” for Jesus. And then it just continues from there as a spiritual ascendent project revolving around what they do…or don’t do.

    Gospel language, then, tastes like poison to them. Because they have been weened on the poison of the law. Using it not to kill (themselves off), but to make them better. As St. Paul tells us, the law cannot do that. It only makes us worse.

    Thanks.

    Great topic.

  • Levi Nunnink

    Or how about “that sounds Catholic” with the implication being “Unbiblical”?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      That just adds “NO POPERY!” snarl buzzwords to the mix. Some 350 years after the Treaty of Westphalia, there are a lot of Protestants out there still fighting the Reformation Wars. “NO POPERY!” has become their tribal identity marker. If Papists do A, We True Christians must do Not-A.

  • Walt

    I believe that we Methodists have developed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to help us deal with “where does that come from” and to help follow how a doctrine is developed. The quadrilateral is not always used this way, but it has helped me analyze first my own and then others’ process. If I can say, “This is the Biblical basis, this is a tradition, this is what experience contributes, and this is how this material has been extended logically,” then I can more easily find what God is up to.

    The quadrilateral, BTW, recognizes the elements of Scripture (primary), tradition, experience and reason.

    Sadly, many of our members are quite willing to tolerate a rather large “fog index” rather than to ask for a Biblical-faith explanation for various doctrines. They can then be vulnerable to feel-good positions which area actually only vaguely connected.to the scriptures. Analyzing with Scripture primary many times brings similar responses to those you’ve mentioned here.

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  • Joe Rutherford

    At the beginning of the Church God took some people and made them into something new. They were new creatures. Before them there were no creatures or persons like them. God told them, “Freely you have recieved, freely give”. So they went about telling the way of salvation and teaching all the commandments of our Lord. They did not put a monetary price tag on teaching. They did not charge thousands of dollars to do what God ordered them to do.

    Why do so many scholars today charge thousands of dollars to do what the Lord said to do for free?

    • timgombis

      Many scholars do this for free, serving churches and other Christian groups by teaching and sharing their training without remuneration. The Lord (and his apostle) actually said that ministers should be paid, but that’s a bit beside the point.

      Can you cite a biblical text where the Lord said to grant university or seminary degrees for free?

      • Joe Rutherford

        I don’t recall any biblical text addressing the modern university system per say. It did not exist then in the eastern med as it does today. There were teachers who taught for money. In the NT, teachers who taught religion for money were recognized by the Apostle Paul as false teachers. Paul refused to charge the Church for teaching, though yes he stated that he had the God given right to. He worked at his trade to pay his way, but if someone freely offered him a donation he accepted it, pointing out that the giver would be blessed. In Acts is written the statement of Paul to the elders at Ephesus, “I have worked with these hands, setting an example for you…”. You can not count the times you have read the NT, so I don’t need to qoute scripture after scripture and spend the rest of the evening telling you things you already know. I always look for ways to improve my walk with God and for ways the Church can also improve. If paying Christian universities thousands of dollars improves spirituality, then I ought to be in pretty good shape. I’m still working hard to pay off my wifes student loans for her biblical degrees. Before God to whom I shall give account to now and in the day of judgement, I say the modern Christian university system is bogus. Learning the Bible is very good and we should be benifited by teachers in the local Church who have the right motives. These things said, the problems today are far more than the universities and I can’t blame any one person. We all need to improve. If you would like to exchange ideals about helping the Church improve, point to me a contact email and we could discuss what makes for better Christians. This blog site is not the place for lengthy discussions and condemnation never helps.

        who have the right motives in their heart

  • lydiasellerofpurple

    I grew up with a very rich tradition of study but it included historical context which was considered important lest we proof test with inappropriate application. A perfect example is how folks tend to read Romans now without any understanding of what was going on at the time. Or how they read Ephesians without any cultural understanding of Ephesus.

    But I found that within the last 20 years that is not really the norm in most evangelical churches I have been around. It seems they believe Christianity started in the 1500’s and read a more Western view back into scripture. As if Luther or Calvin founded Christianity as we should know it.

  • Pat Pope

    As an evangelical, I share your frustration. I hear it too and I recently posted this thought on Facebook:

    “Fleshing out this thought: when someone refuses an interpretation as not being within the realm of possibility without even considering it, they’re basically saying that for them, the faith is once and for all settled and no other interpretation is to be entertained. Thoughts?”

    I think within some evangelical circles, the faith is taught with a certainty that does not allow for speculation or new or expanded interpretations. In fact, I think certainty is a god all its own in some circles. As if certainty is a badge of honor and to not be certain calls one’s faith into question.

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  • Jim Huber

    I don’t recall whether I openly stated “I’ve never heard this before” in your classes, but I will admit to thinking it. My fundamentalist roots (and its disdain for evangelicalism) had impacted my mind and attending seminary has opened it up again. 😊

    Perhaps what you have seen is an artifact of modern intellectual laziness in combination with the intimidation of an old fashioned, sweaty browed fundamentalist preacher. In short, some of us were almost discouraged from truly reading God’s Word unless it was read through the filter of our pastors of our younger days.

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