Waxing theological

  1. Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
  2. Getting crowded at the “heart of the Gospel”


Maybe I need to get out more. I didn’t know that sociologist Christian Smith, in a paroxysm of convertitis, had thrown down the (book-length) gauntlet 6 years ago:

Biblicism, an approach to the Bible common among some American evangelicals, emphasizes together the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Acclaimed sociologist Christian Smith argues that this approach is misguided and unable to live up to its own claims. If evangelical biblicism worked as its proponents say it should, there would not be the vast variety of interpretive differences that biblicists themselves reach when they actually read and interpret the Bible.

Smith describes the assumptions, beliefs, and practices of evangelical biblicism and sets it in historical, sociological, and philosophical context. He explains why it is an impossible approach to the Bible as an authority and provides constructive alternative approaches to help evangelicals be more honest and faithful in reading the Bible. Far from challenging the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Smith critiques a particular rendering of it, encouraging evangelicals to seek a more responsible, coherent, and defensible approach to biblical authority.

(Amazon Book summary)

Inasmuch as Smith coined the smash hit “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and might just score another earworm, quite a few others have tried to take up that gauntlet, including (after just one obvious search):

Since it’s six years post hoc, and I just heard of pervasive interpretive pluralism in those words, I guess Smith’s attempt to highlight a Catholic and Orthodox commonplace by giving it a catchy name did not change the game forever, or even for very long. But despite all the erudite refutations, and the missteps made by a sociologist directly engaging matters of theology in a provocative book, The Slacktivist and the Internet Monk boldly own the nub of Smith’s charge.

Internet Monk (quoting Richard Beck):

 As Beck says:

Sola scriptura produces pluralism. The “Bible alone” creates doctrinal diversity. Biblical literalism proliferates churches. . . . A magisterium gets you one church. A literal reading of the inspired and inerrant Word of God gets you many, many churches.

Richard Beck believes that the lack of interpretive consensus on the Bible places a moral burden on Protestants:

If you are are going to accept the burden of being of Protestant, of living with sola scriptura, then you are going to have to learn to welcome doctrinal diversity. If you want to be biblical you’re going to have to reconcile yourself to pervasive interpretative pluralism. That’s life being biblical. Being biblical requires a fair amount of tolerance for doctrinal diversity. Being biblical means creating a big tent. So if you want to be biblical — if you want to go sola scriptura and drop the magisterium — then you are morally obligated to assume the burden and responsibility of welcoming the doctrinal diversity you will create.

Slacktivist (omitting where he quotes Internet Monk quoting Beck):

We Protestants would love to be able to appeal to the Bible as a kind of paper pope. We’d love to be able to resolve all disputes and questions and differences of doctrine, emphasis or understanding by asking, “What does the Bible say?” and then allowing the Bible to be the definitive, authoritative arbiter to settle the matter.

But that has never worked. And the more we turn to ask “What does the Bible say?” the more it seems we proliferate our differences of doctrine, emphasis and understanding. The Bible cannot be used to settle our disagreements because we cannot agree on what the Bible says and means.

So, then, where can such certainty come from? How can these Christians be certain that their particular interpretation of the Bible is the one correct one …

Their answer is that we have the blessed assurance that the Holy Spirit will guide us in understanding the Bible correctly, if only we devoutly open ourselves to such spiritual guidance. If we turn to the Bible with pure hearts and the best of intentions, then the Spirit will not allow us to go astray.

That sounds lovely, at first … But then, once it sinks in that this idea is a response to the inescapable fact of interpretive pluralism, you begin to realize that it isn’t lovely at all. It’s actually just a sanctimonious euphemism for a really vicious and nasty accusation being made against every other Christian or group of Christians in every other place and time.

Given the fact of interpretive pluralism, “We know our interpretation is correct because our hearts are pure and we are led by the Holy Spirit” means that everyone else who has a different interpretation must have impure hearts and must not be guided by the Holy Spirit.

A lawyer is as apt as a sociologist to get as roughed venturing onto the turf of the tough Evangelista Theologismo gang, so I’ll leave it at this:

  • Slacktivist and Internet Monk are, I believe, correct. Further, their defense is what I (probably eccentrically) call “making a virtue of necessity.” If you can’t bear life without a doctrine that makes you fractious, then make fractiousness a good thing. “Isn’t it wonderful that there’s a church for every personal preference!”
  • I’ve found my answer place to stand, and I’ve made no secret of it.


While I was waxing theological (the preceding item took me much of Independence Day, on and off, as I read responses to Smith interspersed with doing other stuff), I remembered a pet peeve that seems worth mentioning.

Back in the day, I was among people, particularly preachers, whose mouths got ahead of their brains as they abused and misused the term “literally,” as in “College students on campus today are literally raising Cain/cane” (since it was spoken, there’s no telling which homonym was intended, but I’m quite certain he wasn’t talking about land grant colleges in sugar-producing states).

It was basically an hyperbole, and one that was self-referentially absurd when the hyperbolic term was “literally.”

For whatever reason, that “literal” abuse seems to have subsided, only to be replaced by another. Today, the misuse that bugs me is “X is at the very heart of the Gospel” (or “the Christian faith”).

If X was the deity of Christ, or his atoning death, resurrection and ascension, I’d have no particular problem with that locution.

But X might be the institution of marriage, consisting of husband and wife clinging to each other and becoming one flesh — with the corollary that men don’t marry men, women don’t marry women. I agree with every word of that about marriage, but in what conceivable sense is it “at the very heart of the Christian faith”? That “heart” seems to me to be getting pretty congested with sundry truths that people happen to feel vehement about.

I don’t think that it’s categorically wrong to utter truths that are “hurtful” to someone (it might be contextually wrong), but how would you feel were you a homosexual person who read that the conviction “Homosexuality Strikes at the Heart of the Gospel” was reportedly uttered by J.I. Packer?

Sorry, I can’t find a live link to text or video of Packer saying that — only the linked attribution from 9 years ago. Maybe the dead link makes it even more poignant:

  • By “homosexuality,” did Packer include same-sex attraction without unchastity?
  • Or is it limited to unrepentant pursuit of homosexual acts?
  • Why does the headline persist in cyberspace when the corroboration has all gone missing?
  • Why is it so important to preserve that equivocal conclusion in digital amber?

Orthodoxy, as I’ve said before, is a maximalist faith. We haven’t defined jillions of dogmas, but it is far from the spirit of Orthodoxy to seek the minimum requirements for salvation. I have no trouble holding that any clear Christian teaching is very important without declaring it “central,” or “at the heart of the Gospel.” After 20 years, I’m pretty confident about saying that I don’t think distinguishing the core truths from other truths is a very Orthodox endeavor — but I still think I understand what others are trying to do with that distinction.

So what did J.I. Packer mean about homosexuality striking at the heart of the Gospel? Packer is almost 91 years old. I was reading his popular but serious work more than 45 years ago. Has he, in his dotage, descended to sheer hyperbole in describing a sin which, to my knowledge, no Christian body teaches is unpardonable?

I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.

If I’m being an Aspie literalist about this, can someone point out how so many things can be at the heart of the Gospel, or how anything sexual is there, or whatever else it takes to set me straight (if you’ll pardon the expression)?

And don’t anyone dare say that I’m minimizing the seriousness of unrepented homosexual acts (I still believe every word of this, my most serious effort to date on the topic at hand). Rather, I’m maximizing the seriousness of wild hyperbole that sends a most confusing message about the meaning of the Gospel, which the world already seems to think, with some cause, is pursed-lip Moralistic Therapeutic Deism with a bonus list of people one may, or must, hate.

* * * * *

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.