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.