Why I’m a Conservative

Evangelical Christians often make the charge that those who do not share their theological commitments are “liberals,” while claiming the domain of “conservatism” for themselves. They claim those who reject certain of their doctrines, such as the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, read the Bible with a “bias” that distorts the text and obfuscates proper exegesis. I demur.

I come from an ecclesiastical tradition that prioritizes biblical teaching over and above all human theological constructs. While Reformed Evangelicals are committed to reading the Bible within the boundaries set by various creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, and the Westminster Confession, adherents to the Stone-Campbell tradition (my tradition) have historically accepted such creeds only insomuch as they can be shown to be consistent with the Bible. Thus, as a faithful adherent to my own faith tradition, I tend to see Reformed Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and other creedal traditions as the “liberals,” who impose humanly-constructed theological filters onto the text, obstructing the hermeneutical process.

Conversely, as a so-called “Restorationist,” my commitment is to the Bible as understood after a process of strict historical-grammatical exegesis. Whereas Evangelicals have a bias derived from their commitment to their accepted creeds, my bias (yes, I have a bias) is the historical-grammatical method. Now, this does not place me in a space above other traditions. My Eastern Orthodox friends will insist that the historical-grammatical method is itself an obstructing bias, because a proper theological hermeneutic does not take the historical-grammatical meaning of the text as primary. This is fine, insomuch as this is their explicit faith tradition.

But Evangelicals often tend to disguise their creedal hermeneutic under the pretense of an historical-grammatical hermeneutic, and this is not fine. If they were to be honest about their true biases, then I would accept their hermeneutic as part of their tradition, even though it’s not a hermeneutic I myself am willing to accept for my own practice.

From the vantage point of my tradition, I am a conservative, and they are the liberals. They are the ones who liberally filter the Bible through their own theological constructions. On the other hand, I and those within my tradition (insomuch as we live up to our ideals) are the conservatives. We wish to conserve the Bible’s historical-grammatical meaning, to conserve the original voices of the Bible’s authors, and allow them to speak to us without imposing our own assumptions and theological constructs upon them, which would be refusing to let them speak.

So, as a committed proponent of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, I leave myself open to correction on any point. If I can be shown that my reading of a particular text makes less sense of its historical location and grammar than another reading, then I am happy to adjust my reading. Anyone who knows me (even detractors of mine who have known me for years) will recognize that the evidence for this is ample. My reading of a number of texts has changed, as I have allowed my commitment to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic to correct my earlier readings of the text which were more ideological in nature and derived from specific faith commitments.

For instance, I once believed that a principled ethic of nonviolence could be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. I no longer believe this to be the case. I once believed that Jesus was a principled pacifist. I no longer believe this to be the case. I once believed that the Synoptic Gospels made claims for Jesus’ divinity. I no longer believe this to be the case. I once believed that a particular law of Moses demonstrated that a fetus was not as valuable as an adult. Currently, I am uncertain of the text’s meaning, but am open to multiple possibilities. The list of changes I’ve made in my readings of the texts is long, and ever-growing, as I continue to seek to understand the texts grammatically and within the context of their historical locations, which includes geography, political structure, class structure, literary traditions, and so on. I wish to conserve and preserve the voice of the authors in the Bible, before I proceed to make theological judgments about the texts. This, for me, is the only way I know how to be honest, both with the texts, and with myself and my own assumptions.

This is the methodology I have inherited from my faith tradition. So from the perspective of my tradition, I handle the text as a conservative, whereas many Evangelicals handle the text liberally. Of course, from their perspective, because they operate under different hermeneutical assumptions, they are the conservatives and I am the liberal. But what they mean is that they are invested in conserving the Bible as interpreted through the creeds that are accepted within their brand of orthodoxy, and I am a liberal because I have no investment whatsoever in their creeds.

So the logical conclusion of the assumptions of my faith tradition is that the doctrine of inerrancy is a human imposition upon the text, a filter that biases the interpreter against the various voices of the biblical authors. Whereas most Evangelicals assert that the Bible in its entirety is perfectly consistent with itself and completely without error, I recognize that the Bible makes no such claim for itself. Yes, certain authors make certain such claims about certain texts, but other authors in the biblical canon demonstrate an easy willingness to flatly disagree with other authors and other perspectives within the same canon (which itself is a later human construction). So the Bible does not claim inerrancy for itself, but rather the Bible preserves a number of voices in contention with one another, and as an adherent to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, that is how I understand the Bible. It is an argument with itself, which involves a number of voices with a variety of positions on various questions. Thus, when I allow those different voices to contend with one another, I am reading the Bible as a conservative. Those who insist that the Bible is inerrant and internally consistent are just rehashing the same old liberal canard that has been answered over and over.

9 thoughts on “Why I’m a Conservative

  1. I have to say that I love your ability to be intellectual about presenting your stance on life from the few different posts I’ve read (and a little of your “Is God a Moral…” review). While being personal (in a good way), you don’t seem to get vindictive and make it personal (in a bad way).

    Getting to my point of interest, concerning your views of conservative and liberal, I wonder why someone with your intellect is interested in a certain sect of religion more than another. I understand what your referencing conservative and liberal to, but being more concerned about what these things actually are is what is still important to me. The real part of the point; although I’ve been inspired by different religions I haven’t found a reason to pick one over another and thus I ask someone who intellectually I can respect enough to want to hear why it is they have. If you don’t mind that is.

  2. Hey, Nick. Thanks for your comment. That’s a great question. My motto is “begin where you are.” I don’t choose to be a Stone-Campbell Christian because I think it’s the most correct; I identify as one because that’s my heritage. I try to take it as far as it can go, but I am very open to learning from and identifying with any denomination, religion, philosophy or tradition that has some truth to tell, and most of them do. I see no reason to cast off my heritage just because it’s imperfect. I want to bring out the best in it, while sitting at the feet of as many other traditions as I can.

    One of the reasons I point out the difference between Stone-Campbell ideas and Reformed Evangelical ideas, however, is that I hope to make it clear to those within my own tradition that their own commitments put them in tension with mainstream Evangelicalism, which is something that has been lost from view, even though the Stone-Campbell movement began as a protest against Reformed Christianity.

  3. And I don’t really care whether I’m called a conservative or a liberal. The real point of this post is that such labels are utterly useless.

  4. For sure. And that is a brilliant outlook. I wish I could’ve had that all my life and still been open to new things. My father thought I was getting too obsessed with religion at a young age and figured it would be best to keep me away from it. Since then I’ve never been able to make my way back to a single religion, or sect (not completely bad). Still I feel most religions touch more on truth than do most things people are typically interested in. I haven’t come across many people interested in religion with your stance on life, and I have to say it’s refreshing. I wish everybody could portray what they really have going on like that (even if different from you or me).

  5. Conversely, as a so-called “Restorationist,” my commitment is to the Bible as understood after a process of strict historical-grammatical exegesis.

    I think I am missing something here. Is your commitment to the historical-grammatical method of exegesis derived from your tradition, or is it separate from it? While not necessarily at odds, it seems odd to claim that a tradition that started before the historical-grammatical method came into existence has that method as a fundamental tenet. Perhaps you are using historical-grammatical in a different way than has been commonly used since the 20th century? Is the historical-grammatical method taken to be standard procedure inside the Stone-Campbell tradition?

    I’m not trying to be annoying, I’m just confused.

  6. Here are Alexander Campbell’s seven rules of interpretation:

    RULE 1. On opening any book in the sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it. . . .

    The peculiarities of the author,-the age in which he lived, his style, mode of expression, illustrate his writings. The date, place, and occasion of it, are obviously necessary to a right application of any thing in the book

    RULE 2. In examining the contents of any book, as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, etc., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates. Is he a Patriarch, a Jew, or a Christian? Consider also the persons addressed; their prejudices, characters, and religious relations. Are they Jews or Christians, believers or unbelievers, approved or disapproved? This rule is essential to the proper application of every command, promise, threatening, admonition, or exhortation, in Old Testament or New.

    RULE 3. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, etc., the same philological principles, deduced from the nature of language; or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.

    RULE 4. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have, according to testimony (i.e., the dictionary,) more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning: for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passage fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.

    RULE 5. In all tropical language, ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.

    RULE 6. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories, and parables, this rule is supreme: –Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point—to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.

    RULE 7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensible: We must come within the understanding distance.

  7. Thanks for the reply. I had no idea that Campbell had written such detailed rules for applying historical and grammatical principles to interpretation. Campbell does interest me as he tangentially intersects the tradition I used to be a part of (Mormonism). Could you recommend a single volume to understanding Campbell’s thought? Double bonus points if it covers him biographically and/or the early Campbellite movement.

  8. You nailed it! Just remember, when you are dealing with a certian mentality, Up is always Down, and visa versa. Thanks, Thom!

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