The first article of the Assemblies of God’s Statement of Fundamental Truths concerns Scripture: “The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct.” This “high” view of Scripture is a hallmark of theological conservatism and unites the Assemblies of God with the larger evangelical community. It also differentiates the Assemblies from the mainline Protestant community, which—under the influence of biblical criticism—often has a “low” view of Scripture as the culturally relative and fallible record of human spiritual longing.
Unfortunately, a “high” view of Scripture in theory does not guarantee the correct interpretation of Scripture in practice. In Abusing Scripture, Manfred T. Brauch examines “the consequences of misreading the Bible,” in the words of the subtitle. His intended readers are not mainline Protestants, however, but theologically conservative evangelicals—including those of us in the Assemblies of God. We routinely critique the “speck of sawdust” in mainline misinterpretations of the Bible, while wholly ignoring the “plank” in our own. Brauch refuses to ignore the plank.
Brauch is past professor and president of Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary), as well as the author of Set Free to Be and Hard Sayings of Paul. The seminary has been described as “conservative, yet progressive” because of its combination of theological orthodoxy and social activism. The primary example of this conservative progressivism is undoubtedly Ron Sider, Palmer’s best-known professor. Brauch is also an able exponent of that tradition.
Abusing Scripture offers a sixfold taxonomy of ways evangelicals (including us Pentecostals) are guilty of “doing violence to” Scripture:
The abuse of the whole gospel through a failure to address human need for salvation in both “personal and social dimensions”
The abuse of selectivity, which “is not an outright distortion of the meaning of given texts” but rather entails “ignoring or rejecting…other parts or passages of Scripture that support a different teaching, or present an alternative perspective, or advocate an opposing view”
The abuse of biblical balance by means of “emphasizing certain biblical doctrines, perspectives, teachings, themes or mandates, while ignoring or minimizing the equal, or even greater, importance of complementary ones”
The abuse of words, “when words and expressions are decoded (by teachers or readers) in ways that are not in keeping with the original encoding [by the biblical authors]”
The abuse of literary and theological context, in which the meanings of specific passages are not derived from “the immediate textual materials that surround them” or from “the overarching theological concepts in broader literary contexts”
The abuse of historical situation and cultural reality, which is really a failure to discern between “those things in Scripture that are culturally or historically relative, and, therefore, limited in their inspired authority to the people and situations addressed at that time, and the things that are transcultural and transhistorical, where the authoritative Word of God ins binding for all Christians at all times and in all cultures”
Throughout his discussion of this taxonomy, Brauch returns to three illustrations of these kinds of abuses in practice: “(1) the use and justification of force and violence in human affairs; (2) the relationship between men and women in home, church and society; and (3) the concern for justice and the sanctity of life in all areas of human relationships, institutions and culture.”
Brauch avoids low-hanging fruit with his choice of examples. He easily could have written a multi-volume account of, inter alia, the abuses of Scripture by dispensational premillennialism, the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” and Christian Zionism. Instead, he focuses on attitudes and practices that are deeply entrenched in the evangelical community: its reflexive patriotism and knee-jerk support for America’s wars, its still-too-common defense of patriarchy, and its privileging of evangelism over social concern.
The Assemblies of God has a slightly better, though still mixed, track record on these very same issues. As Paul J. Alexander documents in Peace to War, the Assemblies of God moved from being a pacifist church to a card-carrying member of the so-called “religious right” for patriotic rather than biblical reasons. (As an advocate of just-war doctrine, I think the Assemblies made the right decision but for the wrong reason, but that’s an argument for another day.) The Assemblies has ordained women to the ministry since its founding, but it still has local churches that refuse to let women preach to men (and because of our practice of local church sovereignty, there’s no way for district councils or the general council to force the issue). Finally, some in the Assemblies are reluctant to address social issues other than abortion and gay marriage, lest we fall prey to the theological errors of the Social Gospel Movement.
Although I do not agree with every reading of Scripture Brauch offers in this book, I do think his sixfold taxonomy and three illustrations of abuse identify real problems within evangelicalism generally and the Assemblies particularly. But read this book, and decide for yourself!