How Evangelical zeal actually says the Bible is not enough

This week Scot McKnight wrote an interesting piece worth reading here. Scot Argues that the characteristic of zeal amongst evangelicals works in two ways;

1. To challenge the sufficiency of scripture by creating identities around extra-biblical boundary markers

For example, the bible says not to be drunk, some evangelical circles may add to this by affirming that drinking alcohol at all is unadvisable if not sinful. In this way although they may stop short of calling their extra-biblical additions sinful it is clear this behaviour dictates whether you are in or out of this particular sub-set of the Church.

2. Zeal creates immunity to accusation

How can someone be mad at someone who, in their enthusiasm, goes above and beyond (a trait the protestant work ethic has always held in high regard)? Scot McKnight argues that this is motivated ultimately by a fear of freedom, a fear that if we left it to the average believer to read the scripture in the presence of Holy Spirit, the outcome may not be the extra-biblical boundary markers the denomination or sub-group was formed around.

Zealotry, at its bottom layer, is the unwillingness (1) to trust God to work in others, (2) to trust others to listen to God, and (3) to trust ourselves to do what God wants. The ambiguity created by freedom is fearful to many, so they make fences and laws — and in so doing, they create a bounded society of zealots who convince themselves that, even though the Bible does not say something, what they are saying is really what the Bible wanted after all.

This temptation to decide what the bible wanted after all is certainly a deep one. We are desperate as I mentioned in an earlier post, to be clear about which group we are in, and that we are addicted to propping our personal and group identities up with second-order things

  • which bible translation,
  • a view on baptism or communion etc,
  • a leaning towards a certain spiritual gift / preaching / prophecy / healing etc.

rather than unifying themes which are certainly more predominant in the new testament.

Inheriting a Protest

In this way we are inheritors of the protestant reformation, the only issue is, as one of my theology professors was keen on saying;

“Protestants are a group of people gathered around protest, the only trouble is, they’ve forgotten what they are protesting against”

I have often concluded this foundational identity of protest is the DNA that continues to encourage the fragmentation of the church, as we have historical-amnesia for the reasons behind the reformation and conclude we are to protest against one another. We are finding ever more minute and petty ways to fragment ourselves instead of marvel at the grace and revelation that exists in the varying church traditions from which we can draw and be nourished.

So we fracture based on our interpretations of scripture, but after all we do need to interpret scripture, right? But what I am getting at here is how we build identities around interpretations. I am more and more convinced we do this not because our primary desire is to be rigourous or even faithful in our interpretation but in fact the strongest desire of most Christians is to belong to a sub-group of Christianity.

But God’s invitation is for us to belong to Him first and foremost. I am not however creating a trajectory for the “lone-ranger believer” phenomena that exists in Christian history currently, but talking about the importance of how we understand our identities as related to God and other Christians.

The Bible is often not as clear as we would like

While I affirm most evangelical interpretations of scripture, We often feel frustrated at the ambiguity of scripture towards issues we want black and white backing for. But before bemoaning what we wish scripture was clear on, we should recognise what is present in the texts. What is present is significant and ordained by God as sufficient for the Church. Depending on how you count there are 76 or 92 One-another statements in the scripture, practical exhortations about how to relate to one another, so clearly the authority of scripture is majoring on this rather than the mulititude of social and moral issues we might like to have pages of scripture dedicated to.

The reason we go beyond the Bible is because the biblical summons is ambiguous, or not as concrete as we might like. There are other reasons, most of them not good. – Scot McKnight

So I began thinking, what interpretations do I affirm, that I would struggle to make a solely scriptural foundation for1, and I came up with a few, maybe you have some?

My rule of thumb for doctrine and interpretation is that there are enough devout, prayerful and Godly people through the history of the church that most interpretations that have continued to have two or more sides over time, are not easily conclusive from scripture (I have picked a short list that I would affirm the traditional evangelical view on but am being honest in saying I can’t argue solely from texts – maybe you can, if so jump in on the comments below).

  • A Ceremony being the biblical starting point of a marriage
  • Children may not be baptised until an age of accountability
  • Not giving all your possessions away

What are on your list?

I heartily recommend reading through Scot’s post, it certainly made me consider how evangelical zeal operates in a way that actually undercuts many foundations of the tenets of evaneglicalism and may actually be subverting our ability to have a witness of unity amongst the church. We are tempted to feel like the fragmentation of the Church is due to our fidelity but often, it seems, it is down to our insecurity.


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  1. which is not to say, I only affirm things I have proof-texts for, but if the protestant community is gathered around affirmations such as sola scriptura then arguing out of logic or tradition that doesn’t have some clear basis in scripture should trouble us. 

6 Comments on “How Evangelical zeal actually says the Bible is not enough

  1. Regarding children not being baptized until “an age of accountability”, I would suggest repentance as the key prerequisite to baptism. Throughout Acts we see calls to repentance, which are often followed by documented baptisms. So although we don’t see a prohibition for child baptisms, we do see a depth and potency that precedes baptism. I would guess most 5 year olds are not yet broken by the knowledge of their sin, and are therefore unable to turn and change their “inner man”.

    • Kevin, thanks for coming back to me on this. In practise I definately agree with you, but lt me have a stab at the arguments for paedo-baptism; 1) Acts is representing a first generation of believers who believe in adult-hood but historical jewish belonging was more covenantal and caught up groups of people as well as requiring ‘accountable agents’ to service their covenantal belonging. I think we would want to say something like this to explain children who die before age of accountability. 2) Cornelius whole household is baptised, although I wouldn’t want to base my whole argument on silence, its worth noting that adults, slaves and children, all whom would have been considered part of a household are not teased apart here, 3) Theologically what is happening in baptism is the renewal of life, the enacting of a re-birth which is entirely an act of grace on behalf of God. As we grow up in faith, we recognise our faith maturity at the moment of baptism was far from where it may end up, and we may have even held siginficant amounts of error in belief and practise regarding even central topics surrounding the gospel etc, and yet God honours our baptisms. As I said, I haven’t been in a position where I have been asked to baptise an infant or child, but on paper, it is not, for me, as black and white as the tradition I have grown up in Christ within had asserted. Consider me, in process!

  2. That seems like a blanket assessment of ‘evangelicalism’, which is an extremely varied and even disjointed community. There’s a huge evangelical community to which I don’t think those accusations apply.

    On ‘not giving all your possessions away’.
    – The idea that we need to give everything away often comes from Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man. I’m pretty sure that the point of Jesus command to the rich young man was not the losing of stuff, but the gaining of Jesus. He said the problem was that he LACKED something, rather than had too much of something. It seems to me that the man’s stuff was just an obstacle, rather than the main subject. In the same passage in Mark, I think Jesus warns Peter not to think he’s ahead in the kingdom just because he gave up his possessions.
    – The New Testament discusses disciples who have homes and use them for the kingdom. Joseph of Arimathea is described as both a rich man and a disciple. It seems that whether or not you have stuff is not the issue, but rather wether your stuff – or lack thereof – is help or hinderance in pursuit of Jesus and his Kingdom.

    I know that can easily be twisted into disobedience, but as McKnight points out: ‘the biblical summons is ambiguous, or not as concrete as we might like’.

    • Josiah, Thanks for these thoughts. On the evangelicalism is broad, agreed. I think for us to be able to talk in any type of group terms there will be an exception, but at some point we need to be free to state broad themes which relate to broad groups and take for granted it doesn’t count for everyone. I am not setting myself apart from evangelicals in the post, as much of the reflection for me was directed back at myself and the evangelical communities we help give leadership to.

      On giving away possessions, I agree with your interpretation of those verses, I think possessions relate to our sense of worth and become barriers to the Kingdom of heaven both for those who have and have not, I think the scriptural witness is an encouragement that personal worth, identity, security and comfort no longer rest on things that can be destroyed.

      All that being said, I think there are other areas such as the beatitudes, which lead me to wince or perform some interpretive acrobatics to relativise Jesus’ clear commandments.

      On the Marriage ceremony thing, I think I can clearly see some pragmatic, practical benefits of it, but ceremonies are cultural liturgies, and afterall what else do we have to incarnate the truths of christianity into that our cultural surroundings, but given the current high blood pressure surrounding marriage, Im not sure there is clear enough biblical data to prescribe a ceremony as the only initiate option for a covenantal relationship. With all of the issues I mentioned, I mention them because I tend to hold to the conservative view point, and was trying to practise a little vulnerability in recognising I can’t always back the things I would like to feel strongly about. Thanks for your reponses Josiah!

  3. Also – I’ve wondered about the marriage ceremony thing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

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