Theology in the Modern Era: Nathan A. Finn on Scripture and Authority

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Nathan A. Finn serves as Provost and Dean of the University Faculty as North Greenville University.

Introduction

Arguably, no single doctrine was subject to greater revision during the modern era than bibliology (the doctrine of Scripture). At the very least, revisionist views of Scripture were uniquely important; one’s view of the inspiration, authority, and interpretation of the Bible necessarily affects how one conceives every other doctrine. When it comes to Scripture (and many other topics), one could even interpret modernity as an ever-evolving crisis of authority and the various responses to that crisis. This chapter will focus on developments related to biblical inspiration, authority, and interpretation during the past three centuries.

Historical Overview

The eighteenth century is often referred to as the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, because of the advent of new philosophical assumptions that dramatically influenced the transatlantic intellectual world. In reality, though the Enlightenment dates to the seventeenth century, there was no single Enlightenment—and scholars do not agree in their interpretations of various versions of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, contrary to popular understanding, not all theologians (even the more conservative)perceived the Enlightenment as a threat to the faith. Many Christian thinkers embraced certain Enlightenment emphases to help buttress their understandings of orthodoxy.

During the premodern era, theologians practiced a variety of strategies of biblical interpretation, many of which you have read about in previous chapters. What these approaches had in common was a belief that the Bible is God’s inspired written Word. As such, Scripture is authoritative and trustworthy, reflecting God’s own character. This changed with the advent of modernity and its revisionist views of the Bible. Many theologians now believed the Bible to be a thoroughly human book, that it should be interpreted like any other book, and that its historical and scientific truthfulness should not be assumed.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Protestant theologians were divided between traditionalists, progressives, and mediating theologians who tried to find a middle way. The traditionalists took on the name “fundamentalists” following the publication of a twelve-volume series of pamphlets titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to Truth (1910–1915). Though they were divided by denominational differences and classical debates over matters such as election and baptism, fundamentalists saw themselves as a loose knit movement that argued for traditional views on the very fundamental doctrines that had become contested in the modern era.

By the latter years of the twentieth century, scholars across the theological spectrum evidenced renewed interest in premodern approaches to biblical interpretation that were overtly theological in their orientation. In particular, scholars gave renewed emphasis to the genre of biblical narrative, the presumed thought world of the biblical authors, the unity of the final form of the canon, exegetical strategies such as allegory and typology, and the conviction that the Bible animates the life of the church. The “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” proved to be a truly ecumenical movement, resonating with both conservatives and liberals, and systematic theologians and biblical scholars, among Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. Nevertheless, critics across the theological spectrum raised questions about its methodology and boundaries.

Case Studies

1. The Princeton Tradition

2. Karl Barth and Barthianism

3. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

4. The Southern Baptist Inerrancy Controversy

For the Church

Scripture offers a trustworthy word. Though the modern era raised doubts in the minds of many, the consensus of the church for two millennia has been that the Bible represents God’s trustworthy written words to humanity. This is because Scripture attests to its own truthfulness (2 Tim 3:14–17;2 Pet 1:19–21) and the trustworthiness of the God who inspired it (2 Sam 7:28; Ps 33:4; 111:7; John 17:17). The health of the church is intricately connected to the soundness of her doctrine—and sound doctrine depends on a trustworthy Scripture.

The battle for the Bible is perennial. This chapter has recounted some modern battles over the Bible, in particular its divine inspiration and truthfulness. But this is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, the battle for the Bible is an ancient war that began in the garden of Eden when the diabolical serpent first raised doubts about the trustworthiness of God’s words: “Did God really say?” (Gen 3:1). It all went downhill from there.

When challenges to the doctrine of Scripture arise, whether from inside or outside the visible church, pastors and other leaders must be ready to defend sound doctrine and equip others to do the same (1 Tim 3:1–2; Titus1:9). To let down our guard is to invite the disaster of doctrinal and eventually moral drift. And to be clear, we only drift in one direction: away from biblical faithfulness.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021