The Slippery Slope: An Iron Law of Theological Declension?

Bill Evans head shot

PCA minister Rick Phillips has a post over on entitled “The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box.”  In his brief article, which seems to be directed largely against his “progressive” opponents in the PCA, Phillips references a former PCA minister who has gone from being on the hip and relevant end of the PCA, to affirming the ordination of women and leaving the PCA, to affirming the propriety of homosexual behavior, to questioning the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement.

All this is evidence, Phillips contends, of an inevitable “slippery slope,” and he makes the following three arguments:  First, he contends that there is an “unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world’s demands.”  Second, he argues that “the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women’s ordination” and that “the cost of abandoning the clear biblical teaching of male-only ordination is the abandonment of the authority of Scripture against all further demands of secular culture.”  And finally, he maintains that once one goes down the path of denying the authority of Scripture one will eventually deny Christ and the gospel.

What are we to make of this Phillipsian iron law of theological declension?  As an historian who studies the impact of theological ideas, I’m tempted to think that there is something to it.  After all, ideas do have consequences.  But the deterministic note and air of apodictic certainty give me pause and cause me to wonder if life may be more complicated than Phillips allows.

What are some of the complexities missed?  First, the doctrine of inerrancy is not by itself a solution to everything that ails us.  Now for the record I affirm the doctrine in its classic form as defined from Augustine to Old Princeton, and I think it’s important—for theology, worship, pastoral care, and, indeed, all of life—that we affirm the truthfulness of Scripture in all that it teaches.   But by itself the doctrine of inerrancy is a rather formal affair, and my sense is that we currently have a number of competing versions of the doctrine of inerrancy present in the conservative Reformed context (some more adequate than others).  Where the rubber tends to meet the road is on the question of interpretation—what is this inerrant and infallible Bible actually teaching?  More often than not hermeneutics is where the real battles are being fought out.

Generally speaking, evangelical leaders don’t set out to deny the authority of the Bible.  Rather, over time they adopt a series of interpretations on what they deem to be plausible grounds, and the cumulative weight of these can lead eventually to the denial of the full authority of the Bible.  In other words, contra Phillips, the denial of the authority of Scripture, more often than not, may lie closer to the end point of the process of declension rather than to the beginning.

Sociologists of knowledge such as the late Peter Berger called our attention to “plausibility structures,” the social realities that help to shape our sense of what is believable and acceptable.  A 2015 article in World Magazine on the former PCA pastor in question helps to make this point.  He was planting a church in San Francisco, a city long known for its open and affirming stance on homosexuality.  His oldest son came out of the closet, and a well-known gay billionaire became interested in the ministry of the church.  It’s not hard to figure out how this man’s change of views happened, and Phillips’ iron law of theological declension doesn’t do justice to the existential realities of this particular case.  Sure, doctrine is important, but people aren’t brains on sticks.

In other words, the current crisis may be not so much one of biblical authority (though that is certainly an issue) as it is a failure to navigate the problem of what H. Richard Niebuhr in his Christ and Culture called the competing authorities of Christ and culture.  Yes, Scripture is our final authority, but our grasp of Scripture is inevitably partial because we read the Bible through the lenses of our encultured experience.  Moreover, the problems resulting from this are evident on both the right and the left.  For example, the temptation for the contemporary progressive left is to baptize whatever is going on in the prevailing culture.  Conversely, the temptation for the right is to react mechanically against that prevailing culture and to read Scripture in reactionary mode.  In both cases, the full authority of Scripture is compromised, and simply bloviating about inerrancy doesn’t advance the discussion.  What we need is sanctified wisdom and discernment.

Second, there is Phillips’ fixation on the ordination of women as a bellwether for this declension.  Here there are enough counterexamples to give us pause.  For example, the very conservative RPCNA has been ordaining women to the diaconate since the late nineteenth century, and my own denomination (the ARPC) has been doing so since the 1970s.  Neither group has fallen headlong into theological liberalism.  Then there are the many people and congregations, a good many of whom affirm the ordination of women to all church offices, who at great personal and monetary cost have left mainline denominations such as the PCUSA and TEC (primarily because those denominations have endorsed homosexuality) in order to affiliate with more conservative groups such as the EPC and ACNA.

This may come as a surprise to some in conservative Reformed circles, but continued faithfulness in these challenging times involves much more than having a correct doctrine of Scripture, important as that is.  It also involves understanding the often subtle (and inevitable) nexus of culture and interpretation.  It involves guarding our hearts in reliance upon the Holy Spirit and seeking to be obedient in every area of our lives.  And it involves having a robust understanding of God’s created order and the creational norms embedded in it.