Thursday, December 3, 2015

J. Ramsey Michaels on Evangelicalism: Quote of the Day

One of the finest books I have been in the process of reading now for some time, I (Still )Believe, (Zondervan) coedited by a mentor and friend, John Byron, is full of wonderful stories of some of the most prominent Biblical scholars in the world today. One of the contributors, J. Ramsey Michaels, has over the years, also become a mentor and friend to me as well. It was with great anticipation that I read Ramsey's essay, "Four Cords and an Anchor" (173-185), where he describes in some detail his journey through the four cords of his faith, namely, Roman Catholicism, Fundamentalism, Anabaptism, and Calvinism.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading Ramsey, whether it is his magisterial commentary on John (NICNT) or his works on Flannery O'Connor, knows of his unique ability to simultaneously wax poetic and pinpoint the issue at hand, with a beauty and clarity that few writers possess. In this regard, Ramsey resembles one of his heroes, Amos Niven Wilder.

A great example of these traits is on display when Ramsey recounts his 25 years at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and his status as an "evangelical." At this stage in the essay, Michaels reflects on the perplexing nature of that description:

In many ways evangelicals are a strange breed, exemplifying to an extreme the principle of 'no creed but the Bible.'  Whether the buzzword is infallibility or inerrancy, the Bible is all that unites them.  Their common belief in an infallible Scripture seems to produce no other beliefs in common, other than the basic elements of the gospel--Christ's death and resurrection--that define Christianity. It is as if the Bible teaches nothing in particular other than the gospel. They are low church--or else high church, Calvinistic--or Arminian. They practice believer's baptism--or infant baptism. They believe God created the world in six days--or millions of years. They ordain women--or not. They speak in tongues--or not. Self-styled evangelicals can be found on both sides of virtually every theological, ecclesiastical and ethical issue that matters. Moreover, they regard this as one of their strengths, a testimony to their 'diversity' or 'openess.'
How is this possible? By the magic of 'hermeneutics.' I may confess my faith in an inerrent Bible, but what really counts is how I read it and interpret it. Something is wrong when our common agreement that the Bible is 'infallible' or even 'without error' produces agreement on vitually nothing else. If that is the case, what good is it? If  'evangelical'  means simply Christian, or even just Protestant, is it not redundant? (177-78; italics mine).
As one can see in the above quote, Michaels expresses well what a slippery, inadequate label "evangelical" is while simultaneously exposing the ironic nature of the entire enterprise, wisely noting that our interpretive traditions often play the largest role in how we read the Bible.

As a side note, I am happily reading the reflections of some of my favorite scholars  (Fee, Lincoln, Michaels, Hagner, McKnight, etc...) in this wonderful book. This has been one of my favorite books of 2015 and I recommend purchasing a copy here.

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