The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 6: Conclusions

At last I am bringing this series (part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5) to a conclusion.

In part 1 I looked at how Al Mohler rejected the scholarly position on women’s leadership in the church apparently because he was persuaded by a fundamentalist appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture“, on a matter where the biblical teaching, if properly understood, is in fact far from clear. In part 2 I looked further at this fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and showed how this method is fundamentally flawed and could in fact be used to give supposedly biblical support to almost any teaching.

In parts 3, 4 and 5 I looked at the scholarly approach to understanding and applying the Bible, as taught at evangelical Bible schools. By using this approach I explained why the Bible, at least at Titus 1:6, should not in fact be taken as prohibiting women elders.

Now it should be clear that I have a lot more sympathy with the scholarly approach to the Bible than I do with the fundamentalist one. But I also have some serious reservations about the scholarly approach.

I mentioned in part 5 how the cessationist position, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are no longer in operation, can be used to negate any applicability today of any biblical command. But ironically the whole scholarly approach to the Bible is based on cessationist assumptions, and usually the fundamentalist approach also is, because both ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying Scripture. (Some interpreters follow the fundamentalist approach and claim to do so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; this is likely to be even more dangerous than attributing a fundamentalist interpretation to one’s own intelligence.) Even Gordon Fee, who is not a cessationist, carefully avoids any suggestion, in chapters 3 and 4 of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, that the Holy Spirit has any part in the exegesis or application of the New Testament letters. Presumably this is because any appeal to the Holy Spirit would immediately lead to his book being rejected by the scholarly establishment as well as by cessationist readers.

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; the link at this point is to the current edition at

But, whereas scholars and fundamentalists ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture, the Bible itself teaches that this is the key to how it can be understood today. It is clear from the gospels that neither the scribes and Pharisees for all their scholarship, nor Jesus’ disciples before the Resurrection despite having Jesus with them for three years, had a clue about how to interpret the Old Testament Scriptures properly. It was only after the Resurrection, for example on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35), that the Scriptures started to open up to the disciples. But Jesus promised that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, TNIV). Fifty days later the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), and the apostles seem to have been filled immediately not only with boldness but also with a completely new level of understanding and application of the Old Testament Scriptures. In a similar vein, Paul taught:

7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

    “What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
    and what no human mind has conceived—
    these things God has prepared for those who love him” —

10 for God has revealed them to us by his Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:7-10 (TNIV©)

Now I recognise that there is some validity in the cessationist counter-argument that John 16:13 was spoken to the 11 apostles, some of whom under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote the New Testament books; and that what was unclear before Pentecost was the Old Testament, which has now been made clear to Christian believers through the New Testament which is clear.

But can the Bible, even the basic Gospel message, really be understood today apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Paul did not teach this, but he wrote:

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

2 Corinthians 4:3-4 (TNIV©)

Thus he implies that the same veil which prevented the Israelites from understanding the Law of Moses (3:13-16) prevents unbelievers from understanding the Gospel. But, Paul taught, only the Holy Spirit can take away this veil and reveal the meaning of the Scriptures to those who come to believe:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:14 (TNIV©)

But concerning those who thought that they could understand the things of God through their own studies apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where are the wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

1 Corinthians 1:18-21 (TNIV©)

So where does this leave us? Does it imply that each individual Christian can claim the authority of the Holy Spirit for their own interpretation of Scripture, however invalid it may be from a scholarly viewpoint? Surely not! Does it imply that the church can interpret and apply the Scriptures under the guidance of the Spirit? In principle, I would say “yes”, but unfortunately the actions of church leaders through the centuries show that there is no guarantee that the church, in any form visible on earth, is in fact being guided by the Spirit.

It seems to me that the scholarly approach does have value in providing an exegetical and hermeneutical framework within which to evaluate any claim to guidance by the Spirit. Thus I would reject any such claim if it contradicted the teaching of Scripture as discovered by the scholarly approach. There is also a lot of room within the hermeneutical approach taken by Fee, and described in part 5 of this series, for the Holy Spirit to guide the church and individual believers. This is particularly true of matters which may be culturally relative.

To apply this to the issue of women in leadership in the church and Titus 1:6, I would come to the following tentative conclusions. Paul may well have expected Titus to appoint only men as elders, within the specific cultural situation in Crete. But he did not lay down a clear teaching for every situation that only men could be elders. This is therefore a matter on which believers and churches need to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And on such matters this guidance is not necessarily the same for all. I would thus accept it as valid for any one church or church grouping to decide to accept or reject women elders, or pastors or priests, as guided by the Holy Spirit within their specific cultural context. But churches and individuals should not claim that their decision on this is absolutely morally binding on all people or churches for all time. They should certainly not allow this to be a barrier to fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters who have taken a different position on this matter.

4 thoughts on “The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 6: Conclusions

  1. Peter,

    I’ve just got back from a short family get-away and haven’t been able to comment on this series. But I am very interested and also glad that you’ve taken this subject on.

    More comments soon…

  2. Again I say, please join us at Christians For Biblical Equality,, for great publications and discussions on this same subject.

  3. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 5: Scholarly Application

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