Editor’s note: This is the sixth part of an ongoing series in which Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, reviews the steps that led him away from fundamentalism.
My first encounter with a “liberal” theologian came when I was in college. Beyond an introduction to philosophy and a comparative religion course, the University of Albuquerque required every student to take six hours of electives in philosophy and theology.
I elected to take a course on contemporary Protestant theology that was taught by a Father Crews, an Episcopal priest. The texts for the class were Karl Barth’s “Word of God, Word of Man,” Paul Tillich’s “Shaking the Foundations” and Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Nature and Destiny of Man.”
The first thing I learned was that during World War II neo-orthodox theologians had thoroughly discredited liberal theology. After Auschwitz, no one could ignore the reality of evil and naively affirm that humanity was advancing toward a higher stage of civilization. So Father Crews was really introducing me to his version of neo-orthodox theology. It was not a pleasant experience.
I liked what I read in the textbooks a whole lot more than what I was hearing from my teacher. Father Crews was a fairly extreme communitarian. Katharine Jefferts Schori, current presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, expressed this thinking in a nutshell when she recently declared that the belief that God saves individuals is “the great Western heresy.”
In such thought, Christ died for the church (community), not for people (individuals). It’s hard to imagine a theological position more opposed to the thinking of a conservative “born again” Baptist.
Father Crews didn’t assign papers or give tests. He just made comments and asked questions about the assigned reading in the textbooks. Grades were based on reading the assigned texts, class attendance and participation in class discussion. Read I did. Attend I did. Participate I did. At least half of every class was an ongoing argument between Father Crews and me over the authority of the Bible. The grade I received from Father Crews, however, did not reflect the effort that I put into his class.
Father Crews asserted that the community of the church was the primary source for religious authority. He argued that the Bible was written by the community, preserved by the community, collected into a canon considered authoritative by the community, transmitted from one generation to the next by the community and could only be properly interpreted by a scholarly community trained in textual criticism and the historical-critical methods. For him, the authority of the Bible was subordinate in every way to that of the community.
Having just extracted myself from the dysfunctional community of fundamental Baptists, I viewed all talk about the authority of the religious community and its clergy or scholars with suspicion. I reserved judgment on the role of community in relation to the Bible until a time when I could examine the issue more thoroughly for myself.
Meanwhile, I argued from the perspective of traditional Baptist theology peppered with a dose of the rationalist apologetic method that I had absorbed from reading Christianity Today and Moody Monthly. From that perspective, Father Crews’ theology was hopelessly subjective and relativistic. In my mind, for the church to be sure of it message and mission, the Bible had to be the supreme authority for the church’s faith and practice.
Class after class, week after week, Father Crews responded by demolishing the notion of biblical inerrancy, by attacking the authority of the Bible and by ridiculing the idea that the Bible could be properly interpreted without the aid of a community of scholars.
At first, I responded by defending biblical inerrancy. Eventually, I began conceding, as necessary, whatever point he would make about minor errors on matters of fact or history. I held firm in defending what I believed to be the major issue – the authority of Scripture on the essential matters of faith and practice. It was a long semester for both of us.
This experience taught me that I needed to know a whole lot more than I already knew about the way the Bible was written, preserved, canonized and transmitted. It also convinced me that, as a way to describe the authority of the Bible, the word “inerrant” is a dead end. It is not a biblical word. It is a word that claims more for the Bible than the Bible claims for itself.
I stopped using the word “inerrant” to describe the Bible. That decision would prove to be my most momentous step away from fundamentalism.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.