The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 2: The Fundamentalist Approach

In Part 1 of this series I looked at how Al Mohler became a complementarian, and in doing so apparently rejected the scholarly arguments which were dominant at his seminary on the basis of a fundamentalist appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture“.

In this part I will look at the fundamentalist approach to studying the Bible, and prepare the way for describing what I see as the proper scholarly approach. I will do this in the context of what must have been one of the Bible passages which Mohler studied before becoming complementarian. On this blog I have previously looked at 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and so on this occasion I will look at another passage, in fact just a short phrase, which is translated very literally “the husband of one wife” in RSV, but less literally “faithful to his wife” in TNIV. This phrase is found in Titus 1:6, where it refers to elders, and in 1 Timothy 3:2,12 referring to “bishops” or overseers and to deacons respectively. As Lingamish notes in his original discussion of this phrase, in 1 Timothy 5:9 there is an opposite phrase translated “the wife of one husband” in RSV and “faithful to her husband” in TNIV. I will concentrate on Titus 1:6 because it is here that the phrase is applied to elders or presbyters, and most Christian traditions seem to understand modern pastors or priests as in some equivalent to biblical elders.

So let’s start by looking at Titus 1:6 from the fundamentalist approach to the Bible. On this approach, it is indeed a simple matter. This verse gives some conditions for anyone to be appointed as an elder, and one of these is that an elder must be “the husband of one wife“. As a husband must be male, the implication is very simple: elders must be male. And, from the same approach to 1 Timothy 3:2,12, “bishops” and deacons must also be male. I am sure that it was in passages like this that Carl Henry found “the clear teaching of Scripture” about which he challenged Al Mohler.

It is interesting, however, that not many traditions also take the position, equally clear from this verse on this method of interpretation, that “bishops”, elders and deacons must be married. It is also interesting that this interpretation when applied to deacons contradicts another Bible passage, Romans 16:1, where Paul writes approvingly of Phoebe, a woman deacon. Yes, “deacon” (TNIV) is the correct translation here, not “deaconess” (RSV), nor “servant” (NIV, ESV), for she is described with the same grammatically masculine Greek word used for “deacon” in 1 Timothy.

This illustrates the weakness of the fundamentalist approach to Scripture. It can be highly selective; an interpreter can choose to give great importance to small phrases, even the tiniest grammatical details, which support the position which he or (more rarely!) she supports, while ignoring the main teaching point of the passage in question. It can also be highly ingenious in finding excuses to dismiss other passages which seem to be contradictory – while rejecting similar attempts to dismiss the original interpretation as “deny[ing] the clear teaching of Scripture“. In the case of Romans 16:1, the ingenious attempt to dismiss “the clear teaching of Scripture” that Phoebe was a deacon has even been written into several Bible translations. A further weakness of fundamentalist Bible interpretation, not seen so clearly in this example, is that fundamentalists often take verses entirely out of their original context.

In fact, it is possible to support almost any position on any issue of current controversy in the church with this kind of interpretation of Scripture. (Yes, I could even put together an argument for gay bishops if I wanted to!) An interpreter can take a verse of two out of context, selectively latch on to small points within those verses, and use them as support for any teaching they might choose to promote. They then use their ingenuity to reinterpret any verses which might seem to contradict their position. And when anyone tries to disagree with them, they resort to ad hominem arguments like “how … could [you] possibly deny the clear teaching of Scripture on this question[?]“, sometimes even hinting that someone who doesn’t accept their argument might not be saved.

I wish this were a caricature of fundamentalists, but unfortunately I have seen far too many arguments which are just like this, not just on the blogosphere but even in works which people like Mohler claim to be scholarly.

In part 3: Principles of Scholarly Exegesis I will, by way of contrast, start to look at the proper scholarly way of interpreting the phrase in Titus 1:6.

10 thoughts on “The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 2: The Fundamentalist Approach

  1. This illustrates the weakness of the fundamentalist approach to Scripture. It can be highly selective; an interpreter can choose to give great importance to small phrases, even the tiniest grammatical details, which support the position which he or (more rarely!) she supports, while ignoring the main teaching point of the passage in question.

    I grew up in a denomination in the US that sees the bible as verbally inspired, inerrant and infallible (what used to be respectfully called “fundamentalist” without any connotions of being mad or bad).

    I just want to say “Amen” to what you have said. There is actually a heck of a lot of tradition applied to the bible and there is most definitely a presuppositional overlay applied to all sorts of questions but they are presented as the “plain and clear teaching of the bible”. Tell someone they have come to the question with a presupposition rather than extracting the answer directly from the bible and they will flip.

    The practice of what I call “parsing the grammar of bible verses” whilst ignoring the narrative or broad context is maddening.

    I do not know how to have a conversation with people who adopt this hermeneutic, however. In a recent conversation where I pointed out that Jesus used passive resistence and advocated forgiving seventy times seven, I was told that I was not approaching the question in a biblical manner – because I could not string together a series of proof-texts as propositional statements from here there and yonder in the bible, but was appealing to the broad narrative of Jesus’ behaviour in the synoptic gospels.

  2. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Blog Archive » The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 1: Introduction

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  4. hmmm, I agree with your conclusion. Interestingly enough, some Bibles will translate the one phrase as “husband of one wife” and then translate the other phrase “faithful to her husband” as if the parallel isn’t there.

    This might not be a caricature of Fundamentalists. But it is a caricature of Henry. Alone with the fact that he was a close friend of Karl Barth and others theologians, Henry is way too smart to be a Fundamentalist. Go read his six volume theology.

    Also, while I agree with you that women can and should be in ministry and also that men and women are equal both in ontology and function (as if the two can be separated), there are excellent exegetes who do a very find job arguing that certain passages do suggest a complementarian view point.

    Peter O’Brien, for example.

    And if you think he’s a fundamentalist, how about Ernest Best. The nature of the Household code in Ephesians is a major part of the reason that he doesn’t think Paul wrote the letter. In his view, it conflicts with Galatians.

  5. Thank you, Mike. Sorry if I was unfair to Henry. I was basing this on no other information about him than the Mohler quote. Of course this could be taken in a quite different way, as ridiculing the idea of biblical inerrancy. That probably wasn’t intended either. More likely Mohler’s detailed study of the relevant Bible passages was just what Henry intended. But Mohler’s account of the incident does seem to promote the whole concept of the fundamentalist approach to the Bible.

    Also I didn’t mean to imply that the only arguments for complementarianism are fundamentalist ones. There certainly are more scholarly ones. It is just that the arguments which are thrown around in popular works, such as those associated with CBMW, are essentially fundamentalist ones even when dressed up in more scholarly clothing.

  6. and I understand your point. More often than not, a complementarian’s exegesis is questionable. Particularly, its generally easier for a complementarian to ignore and cultural or historical facts if it allows them to interpret the text in light of their ideology.

    I don’t know if you saw my post about that HERE

    My observations suggest to me that such fundamentalist exegesis is generally the exception to the read of their scholarly work, that they are essentially inconsistent in their hermeneutic. A good example of this is Thomas Schreiner’s Romans commentary.

  7. Mike, thanks for your comments and the link to your post about Merkle’s article. I hadn’t seen your post (I wish I had time to read your blog regularly), but it does seem to illustrate my point about the inadequacy of complementarian scholarship, the way it retreats into fundamentalism and reliance on tradition (a point I also make in my latest post) rather than primary sources.

  8. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Complementarianism: Sola Scriptura or Sola Traditio?

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