Friday, March 8, 2013

Being Honest About the Text (Part 2)

In Part 1, I shared the gently edited text of my debate with a Protestant couple about infant baptism. Their contention was that the Lutheran teaching that Baptism has saving, regenerating, forgiving, sanctifying power, which also applies to infants, is a damning, counter-biblical heresy. In response, apart from quoting the clearest New Testament witnesses to Baptism (all of which favor the Lutheran teaching), I more or less said that the burden is on them to prove that the Bible teaches the contrary—a burden of proof that that, in my opinion, they have not met.

In Part 2, it is not my intention to continue this debate about Baptism. Rather, I want to use it as an example to illustrate some concerns about biblical hermeneutics that arose in my mind while I was considering how to respond to Mr. and Mrs. Blank of Anywhere, USA.

First, a matter of anthropology. The classic Reformed system of theology, from which pretty much all American Protestantism is either derived, modified, or in rebellion, is founded on certain assumptions about human reason. Reason, or at least "enlightened logic and reasoning," as Mr. Blank puts it, can not only be relied upon but may even be considered a source of knowledge alongside (though perhaps slightly lower than) the holy text. The proper interpretation of that text cannot conflict with reason. God (it is further assumed) would not reveal anything that is obscure to human reason—unless, again in Mr. Blank's words, we are speaking of "the darkened reasoning of the unregenerate, carnal mind." Following the fingerposts of reason, one must inevitably arrive at a form of doctrine relatively similar to the content of Calvin's Institutes, or the Three Forms of Unity, or the Westminster Standards, or the Thirty-Nine Articles, or [insert the title your sect's founding statement of faith here]. Obviously, the unanimity of consensus flowing from all this enlightened reasoning is too overwhelming to be ignored. (Irony off)

The thing that gets me, anthropologically speaking, is that the reasonable, rational, Reformed system of doctrine does not allow for any absolute certainty that your (i.e. any individual's) reason is enlightened, as opposed to "darkened, unregenerate, and carnal." To be sure, there is that decree that the Sovereign God made in eternity, before the beginning of time, specifying who among us is destined to be redeemed, enlightened, and saved without fail, and who is to be hardened, befuddled, and damned without reprieve. But seek what evidence you may, you can never be certain you are of the elect—never, that is, until the veil is pulled aside either by death or by the Lord's coming. Any evidence that you are a sincere Christian can be faked; a "seeming saint" may not even realize that his felt faith is but a tormenting fume from hell. The rest of the story is as easily told as counting the petals of the TULIP. As long as you're outside of grace, you're Totally depraved, and so your judgment in spiritual matters is not to be relied upon—see again Mr. Blank's "darkened, unregenerate, carnal." And in the event that there's a devil set aside for you, by dint of Unconditional (double) predestination, your reason will never be anything but spiritually darkened, unregenerate, and carnal—no matter whether it seems otherwise during this life. Since Jesus' atoning death is Limited to those pre-selected for grace, none of God's promises are meant for you and so any faith you might put in them is vain. And since grace is Irresistable (but only to the elect) and the faith is Persistent (but only in the elect), any resemblance between a hardened reprobate and a sincere Christian must be coincidental. After all, the fact that they end up in hell will prove (retroactively, at least) that they never truly received Christ, or were even offered Him, since they could not have resisted Him if offered or fallen away if received.

It's one of those brilliant rationalizations that can never be falsified by any reasoning whatsoever, because it turns around and devours its own tail, world without end. And the upshot is: You may think you're a sound Bible interpreter, but for all you know—for all you can possibly know with any degree of certainty in this life—you are just a sham Christian reading the text through a veil of carnal, unregenerate, darkened reason. Epistemologically, this system provides no basis for evaluating the aptness of its own application of the holy text. Simply put, assuming TULIP—which is nothing if not a monument to the application of human reason to the systematization of biblical theology—no theologically consistent exegete can rely on his own reason. Again, epistemologically speaking, if the election to grace (which no one can be sure he himself possesses) is a prerequisite for reading Scripture through the lens of "enlightened reason," and if any seeming Christian could be applying darkened reason unawares, then all reason is purely subjective and may prove, in the end, to have been a satanic deception. And thus the rational assumptions that create this epistemological crisis must, themselves, be suspect. And so round and round in an endless, paradoxical conundrum.

But that's just the appetizer. Morsels of the meatier main course protrude, in a half-baked state, out of odd and sundry paragraphs of my debate with Mark and Dru. The crux of the problem is whether phrases like "sola scriptura," "the inerrancy of Scripture," "Scripture interprets Scripture," etc., are sufficiently resilient as hermeneutics to bear weight in a doctrinal system that deals honestly and respectfully with the holy text. I am, suddenly, in doubt. The observations that trouble me:

First, "sola scriptura" ("the text alone"), as I saw the Blanks applying it, seems to have a coded meaning. This coded meaning is somehow intertwined with the sentiment, which the Blanks are far from alone in expressing, that "I have read the Bible cover to cover every year for the last 25 years, so I'm pretty sure I know what is and isn't in it." This avowal of expertise always seems to appear in breathtaking proximity to either an assertion that Scripture says something it doesn't, or a denial of something that it definitely says.

Another piece of baggage carried by "Sola Scriptura" is the assumption that the burden of proof lies on God. The purpose of His Word is then not to proclaim the truth with creative, renewing power, but to prove certain arguments, directly, explicitly, unmabiguously, and in terms too strong and specific to be gotten around. "Certain things," I say; these strict rules of evidence don't apply to everything—and we reserve for ourselves the right to determine what doctrines must be established by such a strong test of scripturalness. We require God to close every conceivable loophole, to give us multiple witnesses, to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, solely on the basis of evidence that no reasoning can rationalize away—though such evidence can never be, once our reason is fore-armed with half of a Bible verse quoted out of context. Using this as the basis of a transparently fallacious syllogism, we can then browbeat anyone who opposes us with the charge that they are—what was my phrase? ah! yes—damnably counter-scriptural heretics.

Mark the number and magnitude of novel teachings and sectarian dogmas that have flown under the flag of "Sola Scriptura!" Mark the aptitude of annual, cover-to-cover Bible readers who, for all their expertise, can actually interpret every verse that directly refers to Baptism as though the words "washing," "water," or "baptism" weren't there. Mark how they will actually contradict the primary assertion of a sentence's main clause on the basis of an adverbial clause or a complementary, neighboring sentence. Mark how readily they will begin a sentence with "My Bible never says" and continue it with an almost word-for-word Bible quote. Mark how they will challenge Holy Writ to disprove an idea of recent origin, which some clever-boots somehow convinced them was biblical, and then ignore anything the text says in answer, unless it meets the exacting test which they insist must be met before they will consider their claim falsified. And then mark how they will tar anyone who simply, unquestioningly believes what the Bible says, with the epithet of "heretic" and the charge of reading foreign ideas into the text. Mark what "sola scriptura" means according to their code!

Again, I do not want to go over my arguments regarding infant Baptism again. The issue, spotlighted by my controversy with the Blanks, simply makes for a good illustration of what troubles me. Can "sola scriptura" stand up as a principle of biblical interpretation? Not, I believe, if that means that infant baptism is a heresy because the Bible doesn't explicitly mention infants being baptized, or because it doesn't specifically command that they be baptized. "Sola scriptura" doesn't deserve the dignity of a serious hermeneutic if it means subjecting God to the role of a prosecuting attorney who needs to prove anything we choose to question beyond a ghost of a doubt. There are many doctrines that nearly every Protestant believes without question on the basis of far less biblical evidence—including some of the dubious assumptions on which the Blanks based their reasoning. I would have expected people who profess to put so much stock in the sovereignty of God to be more respectful of His Word. But then again, if they have read His holy text over and over and still claim, on the basis of "sola scriptura," to believe what they do about what it says and doesn't say, they must either be liars, blinded and deluded by the devil, or reading the text through the veil of darkened, unregenerate reason. Which of these would be the most charitable assumption?

Is "sola scriptura" up to hermeneutical snuff? There are some reasons for concern. First, if you can't read the text rightly without already being enlightened and regenerate, then either you are approaching the naked text as an unregenerate heathen (and thus unable to interpret it rightly), or you are bringing knowledge to the text that you received elsewhere. Give credit where credit is due. Who told you how to interpret the text? And so, even if they aren't in the room with you and the holy book, can you really claim to be alone with the naked text?

Second, if so much depends upon reading the text rightly—up to and including the eternal destiny of those who hear and read your account of it—can you dare confront the naked text on your own, without any reference to the insights of prior interpreters? How can you be sure you haven't missed a crucial distinction, or a historically significant textual variant? Do you know every verse of the Bible by heart, including all the variant readings in the original tongue? Have you honestly considered every possible translation and interpretation, without any aids to memory outside the text itself? Can you infallibly and exhaustively cross-reference every Bible verse that may be relevant to the text immediately before you, or even judge which verses really are relevant, without being prompted by a prior interpreter or interpretive aid? And if you do consult such resources, how did you decide which authorities to trust? Ryrie's Study Bible, Thompson's Chain Reference Bible, and Elwell's Analytical Concordance (for example) are all examples of interpretive aids that bring a decided bias, and in some cases a downright heretical one, to their selection of which Scripture ought to interpret which. They illustrate how the choice of which passages you judge to be relevant to the text before you can have a big impact on how you interpret it. And can you really go "sola scriptura" while deciding which, if any, translations or editions of the holy text to read, and what contributions by which lexicographers, grammarians, commentators, teachers, and preachers to take into account before you arrive at your interpretation?

I used to groan with impatience whenever somebody answered "Scripture alone!" with "Yeah, but when is Scripture alone?" But let's be honest with ourselves—or, if we need something that commands our respect, let's be honest with the text: When we say that the Bible must be the "sole source and norm for all doctrine and practice" in the church, we're not actually imagining ourselves alone in a sealed room with nothing in us or around us but the naked text. Heck, we can't even find two or three exegetes who will agree on precisely what the text is! What we really mean—if "sola scriptura" is to have any objective value as a hermeneutic—is that the holy text and our interpretive tradition (embodied, for example, in a set of confessions to which we subscribe because (quia) they proclaim the truth of Scripture without error) feed into each other in a continuous loop. We accept what Scripture plainly says without trying to reason around it; we accept where it is silent without trying to fill the gap with our own "lofty speculations" (2 Corinthians 10:5); we test the form of sound words we have received (2 Timothy 1:13) only against the testimony of Scripture; we question everything we hear, placing it up against the text to see whether it is so (Acts 17:11); but we accept that, after all, we have not received the Word of God from the Bible alone, and that before we dare approach the "naked text" on our own, we must first hear the Gospel proclaimed and receive instruction in sound doctrine. And so the circle keeps turning: Scripture informing and correcting what we believe, teach (or are taught), and confess, and the preaching and teaching we have received preparing us to read the text with better comprehension.

I want to go on further to discuss the coded meanings of other hermeneutical principles, such as "Scripture interprets Scripture"—though I may have covered that sufficiently in my debate with the Blanks—and the "Inerrancy of Scripture," which Protestants customarily braid together with Scripture's Authority, Clarity, and Sufficiency, to use as a flail against anybody who doesn't read the text with the same horse-blinders that we wear. Then there's the contention (also covered somewhat in Part 1) that God would never tell us anything contrary to reason, or anything that we wouldn't understand; and, of course, the whole Law-Gospel issue (again), which lay at the bottom of so many of the Blanks' assertions about Baptism being an ordinance we are required to perform. What past discussions have not covered, there will be room for in future installments. Until then, my sage advice is to put less stock in how many pages, chapters, or books of the Bible you have read this year... and go to church!

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