Tim Keller, Rachel Held Evans, and the Authority of the Whole Bible

by Jonathon Woodyard March 14, 2018

When someone like Rachel Held Evans responds to something Tim Keller tweets, especially when she responds negatively, social media heats up a few degrees.

Last December, Tim Keller tweeted: “Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete." Rachel Held Evans responded with a tweet-storm challenging Keller’s statement.

Evans’s tweets, however, missed Keller’s point. Keller argues that, generally-speaking, mainline Protestants and evangelicals differ on the matter of Scripture’s authority. This means that they differ in their fundamental approach to the Bible as a whole. Evans responds to Keller by challenging the way that evangelicals interpret specific texts.

Thus, Evans finds Keller’s assertion hypocritical. She points out that, while evangelicals claim to affirm Scripture’s authority, they seem to pick and choose what texts to obey at face value. In essence, this makes evangelicals no different than mainline Protestants who contend that certain texts in Scripture are culturally bound and, thus, obsolete.  If evangelicals think that the Levitical law is passé, they can’t be so rigorous about Paul’s equally culturally-bound prohibition of women from eldership. At least, in her view, mainline Protestants are consistent.

But Evans’s response is misplaced. She underemphasizes the fundamental difference between evangelical and mainline Protestant interpretive approaches: what we believe about the text of Scripture, itself. Is Scripture God’s inspired word, without error in spite of the fact that it comes to us through human agency? Or do the human authors of Scripture lend their fallible humanity to the Scripture such that it contains God’s words, but requires us to sift what is obsolete and what is enduring?

Evangelicals, as Keller pointed out (and as Bebbington argues), have traditionally believed the former. That belief both shapes the way that evangelicals approach the whole of Scripture as well as individual (difficult) texts. If every word of Scripture is breathed out by God (1Tim 3:16), then the reader’s task is to bring every possible tool to bear on the text to understand the author’s meaning. At the end of the day, evangelicals may disagree over interpretations of specific texts—we may need to clarify or revise our understanding in light of further study—but the text remains the word of the living God to whom we owe our worship and obedience.

While Mainline Protestants highly value Scripture as God’s inspired word, they are reluctant to agree that all of Scripture is equally inspired and authoritative. The task of the reader, then, is to determine what rings true—separating the enduring substance from the culturally-conditioned chaff. The authority is not in Scripture, but, dangerously, in the interpreter.

It’s helpful to note the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics. Andrew David Naselli writes, “Hermeneutics concerns principles of interpretation (i.e., it’s about how the interpretive process works), and exegesis applies those principles. Hermeneutics supplies the tools to discover a text’s meaning, and exegesis uses those tools” (Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament, 2). Principles of interpretation are what stand behind your approach to a text. That is, when you come to a text, what do you believe about it? When it comes to the Bible, do you believe the “whole Bible” (per Keller) is the ipsissima verb dei? Do you believe meaning is determined by the author or are texts “open” and meaning left to the reader? Is the quest for meaning even appropriate? These are hermeneutical questions, not exegetical ones. And the question of authority is a question of hermeneutics, not exegesis.

Therefore, when Evans refers to Deuteronomy 21:18, she points out differing interpretations of the text. The central issue in this conversation, however, is what we believe about the text itself. Is it the word of God or have we discovered it’s the insertion of a later redactor and therefore obsolete? The question is not first over our differing interpretations of 1 Corinthians and whether or not head coverings are cultural issues. The first question is whether or not 1 Corinthians is the inspired Word of God and communicates divine truth. If it is, it is not obsolete and we need to work hard to understand the authors' intentions (exegesis). In short, the more fundamental discussion is whether or not the whole Bible is authoritative.

Evans concludes: “Main point: It's true that evangelicals and Mainline Protestants tend to have some general differences in their interpretation & application of Scripture. But that doesn't mean one group has a "high view"& the other a "low view." It just means they're different. THE END.”

The general differences between evangelicals and mainline Protestants are not simply a matter of interpreting and applying individual texts differently. It is a matter of authority. Evangelicals cede the authority to Scripture. Mainline Protestants retain the authority in the reader. No one, undoubtedly, wants to be labeled as having a “low view” of Scripture—but that doesn’t make the label less accurate.