The Word of God and the Error of Textualism

Here is a sobering word from A.W. Tozer, one of the great men of God from the last century. It must be read with an open heart and mind.

A generation ago, as a reaction from Higher Criticism and its offspring, Modernism, there arose in Protestantism a powerful movement in defense of the historic Christian faith. This, for obvious reasons, came to be known as Fundamentalism. It was a more or less spontaneous movement without much organization, but its purpose wherever it appeared was the same: to stay “the rising tide of negation” in Christian theology and to restate and defend the basic doctrines of New Testament Christianity. This much is history.

What is generally overlooked is that Fundamentalism, as it spread throughout the various denominations and non-denominational groups, fell victim to its own virtues. The Word died in the hands of its friends. Verbal inspiration, for instance (a doctrine which I have always held and do now hold), soon became afflicted with rigor mortis. The voice of the prophet was silenced and the scribe captured the minds of the faithful. In large areas the religious imagination withered. An unofficial hierarchy decided what Christians were to believe. Not the Scriptures, but what the scribe thought the Scriptures meant, became the Christian creed. Christian colleges, seminaries, Bible institutes, Bible conferences, popular Bible expositors all joined to promote the cult of textualism. The system of extreme dispensationalism which was devised, relieved the Christian of repentance, obedience and cross-carrying in any other than the most formal sense. Whole sections of the New Testament were taken from the Church and disposed of after a rigid system of ” dividing the Word of truth”.

All this resulted in a religious mentality inimical to the true faith of Christ. A kind of cold mist settled over fundamentalism. Below, the terrain was familiar. This was New Testament Christianity, to be sure. The basic doctrines of the Bible were there, but the climate was just not favourable to the sweet fruits of the Spirit.

The whole mood was different from that of the Early Church and that of the great souls who suffered and sang and worshiped in the centuries past. The doctrines were sound but something vital was missing. The tree of correct doctrine was never allowed to blossom. The voice of the turtle dove was rarely heard in the land; instead the parrot sat on his artificial perch and dutifully repeated what he had been taught and the whole emotional tone was sombre and dull.

Faith, a mighty, vitalising doctrine in the mouths of the apostles, became in the mouth of the scribe another thing altogether, and power went from it. As the letter triumphed, the Spirit withdrew and textualism ruled supreme. It was the time of the believers’ Babylonian captivity.

The error of textualism is not doctrinal. It is far more subtle than that and much more difficult to discover, but its effects are just as deadly. Not its theological beliefs are at fault, but its assumptions. It assumes, for instances, that if we have the word for a thing, we have the thing itself. If it is in the Bible, it is in us. If we have the doctrine, we have the experience. If something was true of Paul it is of necessity true of us because we accept Paul’s epistles as divinely inspired. The Bible tell us how to be saved, but textualism goes on to make it tell us that we are saved, something which in the very nature of things it cannot do. Assurance of individual salvation is thus no more than a logical conclusion drawn from doctrinal premises, and the resultant experience wholly mental.

(From : The Deeper Life by A.W. Tozer , Sovereign World )

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