Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part II

I think it is virtually incontestable that evangelicals in America have for centuries invested themselves in an epistemology and consequent hermeneutic of Scripture that is indefensible.  Smith spends some time in the book outlining some of the relevant history, lighting upon, for instance, the common sense realism of the Scottish Enlightenment that funded the theology of Old Princeton. This ‘mental science’, as Mark Noll and Brooks Holifield, among others, have noted, became the adjunct to 19th century Princetonian theology that Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophy was to the medieval university.  As Smith puts it, ‘implicit in Scottish commonsense realism is a ‘picture theory’ of language, which says ‘words are directly knowable by the mind, and, in addition, are direct representations of the objects ot which they refer. Logically, therefore, words and sense impressions are identical in that each refers directly to objects. Those objects, in turn, are directly and with utmost certainty known by the mind” (p. 56). Adoption of commonsense rationalism led Charles Hodge to affirm that Bible was the storehouse of revelatory facts for the theologian in the same sense that nature was the storehouse of natural facts for the scientists. One still finds these kinds of affirmations in theologians like Wayne Grudem, but they are damaging for evangelicalism because they are simply not true. They constitute a stipulative form of foundationalism that results in a false certainty about the meaning of Scripture and fissiparous and schismatic tendencies on the basis of these false certainties. The irony, as Smith points out, is that evangelicalism’s ‘practice of sola scriptura [which, as many have noted, means something different than it did in the Reformation] in America as a means to arrive at pure doctrine and practice is that the populist pursuit of Bible-only-ism started off as an ideological project not of conservatives but of heterodox liberal Protestants driven by Enlightenment ideals’ (p. 84).

I am qualifiedly in agreement with him as well that we need to acknowledge the ambiguity and multivocality of Scriptural texts and the need to distinguish between dogma, doctrine and opinion, especially as the freedom to admit a realm of adiaphora opens evangelicals not to relativism but to tradition, mystery and charity:

‘Evangelicals today cut themselves off from a relevant and important vocabulary–which, when properly used, often describes well Christian faith and life–when they expunge from their theological vocabulary the category of mystery.  They also in so doing perpetuate the problematic tendency in much of evangelicalism toward a dry, know-it-all rationalism in the form of a systematic cognitive covering of all intellectual bases–which ultimately has more to do with modern Enlightenment than scripture’ (p. 145).

I don’t think the answer to the false turns in evangelicalism is to convert to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. My concern, however, is not that evangelicals will convert but that they will fail to acknowledge the ways in which their tradition has maintained (albeit in a theoretically anemic and hermeneutically deficient way) a high view of the inspiration and normativity of the Scriptures and the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For all their faults, evangelicals have by and large heeded the warning of Roy Harrisville: ‘Whoever you are, if you do not repent and believe the testimony laid down in this book concerning God and his Christ, it will judge you to inconsequence, render your reading of it, your interpretation of it, your preaching on it a comic  spectacle to the world to which you believed you had to adjust it, and your church will die. As well it should’ (‘The Loss of Biblical Authority and Its Recovery’, in Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, eds. Jenson and Braaten, pp. 60-1). If evangelicals do not learn the lesson that the solution to the fundamentalist and evangelical varieties of modernism is something old and not something new, shiny and relevant, they will fail to be faithful. And that will be a great loss for the church and the world.

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