Skip to content

Why Can’t I Own Canadians?: Biblical Realism as Alternative to Fundamentalism

Whom shall I hate? Whom shall I reproach or commend? Whom shall I exclude from full participation in the life of my church or community?

Fundamentalists know.

For reasons set forth in Parts I and II of this series, I consider fundamentalism to be a snare and a delusion. But I myself am more certain of answers to these questions than postmodern sensibility might expect me to be. With a degree of conviction sufficient for the shaping of my life, I am sure I should hate no one. I am sure there are good reasons for reproaching some human beings, and for commending others. And although I allow substantial leeway for people I disagree with, I am sure there are limits on who gets to benefit from full participation in the life of my church or community.

Anyone who is Christian — anyone, in fact, who is moral — must stand up for goodness and repudiate evil. In some cases, moral judgments are difficult, and may allow only expressions of doubt, or raising of questions. But sheer relativism cannot occupy the same ground as religious and moral conviction.

It turns out, then, that real convictions define the Christian life. But how shall we justify these convictions, and how shall we adjust them when they seem off-center, out of kilter?

The Gospel answer is focus on Christ — Christ risen and Christ present today through the Holy Spirit. To say it differently, the Gospel answer is radical grace, for it is radical grace—God’s unswerving mercy and forgiveness; God’s transforming presence — that Christ embodies and proclaims.

But all this hangs on a method of Bible reading that is neither acceptable to fundamentalists nor beholden — this also is crucial—to the prevailing assumptions of the day. I will call this method (after other writers who lean toward the Radical Reformation point of view) Biblical Realism. Here I am going to say what this method is and why, if we fought off fundamentalist tendencies and embraced this method instead, it would spare Adventism at least some of its infernal disputatiousness.

Biblical Realism is, first of all, a readiness to read Scripture in accord with the lived faith of the believing community. The modern world has bequeathed us a substantially secular outlook. Bible scholars steeped in this outlook have developed what is called the “historical critical method” of Scripture study, and the deliverances of that method can, in truth, be very helpful. But lived faith is an experience of grace. Faith expresses the conviction that grace is real, and that the God of grace actually hears us when we pray. Grace is the way things are; it is not just an artifact of human imagination.

So insofar as modern assumptions may deny the reality of grace, or the reality of the God who is gracious, those assumptions cannot govern our Bible interpretation. It is true that modern knowledge matters. We need not think that the Bible contains all we need to know: to learn more about astronomy or anesthesiology or French, we may embrace other sources. But for answers concerning the significance and potential of the human spirit, we must let the Bible speak even when it may be alien to contemporary sensibility. Lived faith privileges the Bible because lived faith is evidence for the grace—and the reality—of the God whose story the Bible tells.

Second, Biblical Realism relativizes creeds and creed-like statements of official belief. Statements of faith may function as helpful summaries of the convictions that underlie a religious community’s frame of mind and way of life. But the Bible — no creed and no written statement of belief — is the ultimate written authority for the church. The story the Bible tells is the true determinant of authentic Christian belief.

Even the most time-honored creeds fall short. The famous ones from Nicaea and Chalcedon in the fourth and fifth centuries emerged out of a storm of theological bickering that was often speculative and sometimes violent: its path was strewn with corpses and well as damaged reputations. What is more, the disputants who came finally to (a sort of) agreement overlooked the greatest mistake of the era, namely, the church’s the slide into obeisance before the political authority of the Roman Empire.

More attention to Scripture might have stopped the slide. It now seems certain, in any case, that both Testaments call the faithful to profound skepticism with respect to imperial power. The fact that this was missed underscores the point that Bible is the church’s single most important document, and that statements of faith are dangerous unless they are taken to be provisional and open to correction.

Third, Biblical Realism concentrates on what the Bible concentrates on—the story of God’s dealings with humanity, and the vocation to which God calls us. Theologians veer easily into speculative theorizing about mysteries that admit of no solution. The Bible makes, to be sure, startling claims. It says God liberated Israel, but Moses was crucial; it says Jesus was our brother, but was also the “exact imprint” of God. Yet the Bible takes little if any interest in explaining these things, or in lessening mystery through ever-finer increments of verbal precision. Instead, the Bible tells the story of how the divine-human connection has played out in actual human lives, and invites readers to become part of that story themselves.

All this suggests the necessity keeping doctrine within its bounds as what the poet Kathleen Norris calls “an adjunct and response to a lived faith.” If doctrine becomes a means of excluding people who are engaged in the practice of discipleship, that signals a distortion in understanding. It is a distortion that borders on idolatry and has nothing at all to do with the faithfulness that is God’s primary concern.

The Bible story comes, of course, to a decisive turning point, a grand ideal. It is not, even for itself, a catalogue of proof-texts, but rather the inspired (as we Christians say) account of a journey. On the journey the turning point, or grand ideal, is Christ – Christ risen and Christ present through the Holy Spirit — and the living Christ is the Bible’s interpretive key. Here is the single, most important lever for determining what in Christian life and thought is true, or justifiable, and what is not.

These points reflect what the Bible itself has to say. Biblical Realism says No to flat, mechanical readings of Holy Writ. By calling us to constant theological self-examination, it says No to rigidity and arrogance. In telling the story of the incarnate God, it even says No to inward-looking separatism: you engage the world, you don’t run from it. Biblical Realism is thus an unassailable refutation of Fundamentalism.

But what matters just as much, Biblical Realism directs our attention to life to practice, to discipleship. Previous Adventist generations locked themselves into pitched battle over whether the sanctuary in heaven was literal or figurative. Biblical Realism would have steered them away such a speculative preoccupation. And that would have moderated Adventist disputatiousness. But besides liberating us from irrelevant and distractive quarrels, a turn to discipleship would assist us in remaining “faithful,” as Stanley Hauerwas has written, “to the character (the story and skills)” of authentic Christian life

Radical grace—in us—would have a chance. We would fight less. We would love more.


The chair of the Adventist Forum board (publisher of Spectrum), Charles Scriven, Ph.D., is president of Kettering College of Medical Arts and author of The Promise of Peace: Dare to Experience the Advent Hope.

This concludes a three part series, Why Can’t I Own Canadians?. Read all three here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.