Sunday, January 7, 2024

Where Did it All Fall Apart?

In the summer of 2023, I read Daniel Hummel’s The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism. In chapter 11, which deals with scholastic dispensationalism, I came across the following about Lewis Sperry Chafer and his relationship to the broader fundamentalist movement.

“The Same year that [William Bell] Riley published ‘The Menace of Modernism,’ Chafer published ‘Salvation’ (1917), a work with not one reference to current events….Chafer fashioned his work to ignore its historical moment, while Riley’s writings were a direct response to it.” (p. 180)

“By 1922 Chafer had grown disillusioned with Riley’s leadership of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, with its constant agonizing over timely, rather than timeless, issues of concern….A more rigorous institution was needed if pastors were to be fundamentalist Bible expositors rather than rabble-rousers.” (p. 182)

Shortly after I read that, while driving home from work, I was listening to the recording from a chapel service at Dallas Theological Seminary where Jen Wilken spoke on teaching the Bible. She had a lot to say about small groups—especially women’s Bible studies in her experience—being generally given topical studies (often with an emotional focus) when the Christians attending those studies often lack a basic understanding of the overall scope and story of the biblical witness.

So, having read the comparison of Riley and Chafer, combined with hearing Wilken's chapel message, the gears started turning. Could the trend away from teaching doctrine and toward purely “practical application” sermons in the 80s/90, together with the rise of Evangelical political activism related to current events (which, while often rooted in biblical truth, didn’t always take the time to actually lay the scriptural foundations for the superstructure, but sometimes simply declared, “This is the biblical view”), combined to contribute to the decrease in biblical literacy (and in turn, what Dru Johnson calls biblical fluency) that we have heard so much about over the past decade? I think of all the college and seminary Bible professors I’ve heard comparing the biblical knowledge of incoming students today with that of students 20-30 years ago. 

In trying to convince people how God could help make their lives better (Christian Smith’s “moralistic, therapeutic deism”), did we fail to actually teach people about God’s own self-revelation in the Scriptures?

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