Solving the Case of the Missing Mojo (1): Discernment and Interpretation Do Matter

One of the more interesting extended responses to my recent post on “How Conservative Presbyterianism Lost Its Mojo” came from Matt Tuininga, who remarked along the way: “What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.”  Matt’s reference to “intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine” is vitally important and I’d like to comment further on it here.

Not long ago I participated in the successful ordination examination of a recent seminary graduate and gifted young candidate for the ministry who, I think, will do quite well.  But I also saw something disturbing.  After the candidate recited a litany of conservative positions—e.g., literal six-day young-earth creationism, no ordination of women period (not even to the diaconate)—I asked him how he might distinguish between doctrines and issues of primary, secondary, and even tertiary importance.  He had no clear answer to that question.

After the presbytery meeting I spoke with another graduate of the same seminary and his comments only reinforced my concerns.  Regarding his seminary training he candidly observed: “Those are certainly distinctions we did NOT [emphasis his] learn. For us, if it was in the confession it’s [a matter of] primary importance. We were also taught that any view of creation other than literal had to logically be theistic evolution at the end of the day.”

By and large it seems that we are not teaching our seminary students to make wise distinctions between matters of ultimate and lesser theological importance.  Or to phrase it a bit differently, we are failing to teach Calvin’s wise and ecclesiologically necessary distinction, wonderfully explicated in PCA minister David Bowen’s Vanderbilt dissertation, between matters “essential,” “important,” and “indifferent.”  Just as importantly, we have failed to inculcate the epistemological humility that flows from the classic orthodox Protestant distinction between the archetypal knowledge of God himself and our own ectypal knowledge of divine truth.  As Richard Muller notes, “the Reformed orthodox often drew, from the concept of an ectypal theology limited both by human finitude and by sin, the conclusion that theology as we know it must be imperfect” (Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, I:238).

But is it not important and even crucial that seminary graduates be able to answer such questions of proportionality?  After all, the conservative Reformed community historically (and rightly) thought that rejection of the Incarnation was a denial of essential Christian doctrine, while a range of views on the days of creation, for example, fell within the bounds of orthodoxy.  At least until recently!

In addition to our failure to teach students about such necessary complexities, there are at least two other factors that have contributed to this recent shift.  First, the ever-present context of cultural conflict has become the lens through which many theological issues are viewed.  Whether it be odd speculation about an “eternal subordination of the Son,” or the rise of the so-called “Biblical Patriarchy” recently and properly critiqued by Rachel Miller, or opposition to the ordination of women even to an office of service like the Presbyterian diaconate, a lot of conservative theology is being driven the desire not to give an inch to the feminists.  Likewise, the recent trend in conservative Reformed circles toward literal six-day young-earth creationism is certainly not driven by any new exegetical insights into the meaning of Genesis 1 or any new scientific evidence, but rather by the desire to exclude Darwinism and its cultural implications a priori.

Unfortunately, what has emerged is theology that is often just as “political” as anything on the left, and from this political polarization flows an approach to theological controversy in which there is increasingly little room for complexity and interpretation.  Nuance, judgments of charity, the recognition that reality is often more complex than we might wish, and necessary shades of gray have been replaced by the binary logic of black and white, truth and error, faithfulness and compromise.  Little wonder, then, that the Balkanized conservative Reformed theological landscape looks more and more like an exercise in Manichaean politics.  Little wonder that positions long regarded as acceptable are now suspect and even unwelcome in some presbyteries, or that a view almost extinct in 1960 (except among Seventh-Day Adventists) has become a touchstone of orthodoxy.

Second, as we noted above, one of the casualties of the current politicized context is a nuanced approach to interpretation, and this is evident in both the interpretation of Scripture and the confessional tradition.  With regard to Scriptural interpretation any number of issues could be cited but the debates over the “days of creation” in Genesis 1 provide a useful example.  Here the necessary interpretive process has been short-circuited in at least two ways.

On a more popular level, some have argued from a position of what I have termed “exegetical populism.”  Building on a misunderstanding of the historic Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture (i.e., that all Scripture is equally accessible), they contend that we should interpret Scripture as the average person does.  As one fellow has suggested, by privileging the hermeneutic of “God’s simple people” and “the vast majority of Bible-believing people” and “ordinary people” we will avoid the “tyranny of theological experts” (I have earlier dealt with such contentions here and here).    Of course, such rhetoric taps into a long tradition of American religious populism, but it doesn’t sit particularly well in the Reformed context with its tradition of a learned ministry.  On the face of it, such arguments could well be seen as a rationale for doing away with seminaries entirely!

Thus a different sort of strategy has emerged—the arguments for an intra-biblical hermeneutic.  The immediate occasion for this was, without doubt, the well-publicized and controversial views of former WTS Old Testament Professor Peter Enns, who has argued at length that a recognition of the Ancient Near Eastern context of the biblical documents drives one to the conclusion that there is all sorts of “messiness” and “myth” in the Bible, and that a failure to recognize the human dimension of the Bible with its “problems” is nothing less than “scriptural Docetism” (for the record, I’ve engaged Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation here).    Responding to Enns, some have sought to minimize both the human dimension of Scripture and the interpretive aspect of our appropriation of Scripture.  More specifically, they contend that extra-biblical materials should not play a role in the interpretive process—especially, e.g., that inconvenient ANE stuff about the “firmament” in Genesis 1 that suggests the ancient Israelites’ phenomenological take on the structure of the universe was similar to their ANE contemporaries (and that militates against an attempted literalistic reading of the text).

Of course there are problems with this sort of position, which I’ve treated here and here.  Never mind that the Reformed tradition has historically and rightly insisted that extra-biblical information has a legitimate role to play in the interpretive process, and never mind that the broader church (both before and after the Reformation) has failed to reach a consensus regarding the interpretation of the days of creation.  And never mind that this position represents a rejection of the historic Old Princeton and Westminster view of biblical inerrancy in favor of something that owes much more to American Fundamentalism.   But lest we get lost in the details and miss the forest for the trees, the broader problem is this: that cultural pressures have induced many of us to adopt theological positions that are historically, methodologically, and substantively problematic.

But efforts to minimize the interpretive aspect of Scriptural appropriation run up against the fact that interpretive diversity among Christians is simply undeniable.  Thus, some seek respite from the hermeneutical challenge in the confessions of the church.  While Christians differ about what the Bible teaches, they may say, the confessions are clear.  Except, of course, that there are hermeneutical issues here as well.  After all, the confessions are not divinely inspired; they are human documents written by finite and sinful human beings in particular historical contexts, and as such they must be interpreted.  But the temptation to view the confessions as trans-historical persists, and an increasing number of people seem to think that the confessions must be acknowledged rather than interpreted, that the appropriate stance is simple submission rather than contextually responsible appropriation.

A relatively benign example of such thinking is evident in a recent essay by David Garner, in which he poses a somewhat unhappy choice between creative interpretation and sympathetic advancement of the Westminster Confession.  Garner goes on to make the odd suggestion that those who seek to interpret the Confessions are engaging, whether they realize it or not, in something akin to Derridian deconstruction or reader-response criticism.  In all this Garner seems to miss the fact that we simply cannot (and do not) affirm the Westminster Standards in precisely the same ways that seventeenth-century people did, and that interpretation is both necessary and inevitable to proper application (I’ve dealt with these issues here and here).

All this suspicion of interpretation, it seems to me, suggests a broad and pervasive loss of confidence.  Conservative Reformed theologians of a generation or so ago evinced an assurance that was compelling and energizing.  They sensed that they had the best arguments—whether biblical or confessional—and they were willing to present them winsomely and with confidence.  Now, however, there is the persistent tendency to hedge our bets and to try to settle matters on the narrowest possible grounds and on the most favorable terrain.   More often than not those narrow grounds are confessional in nature—thus some will argue against the Federal Vision or Pete Enns on the grounds that their views are subconfessional rather than that they are unbiblical or unscholarly.

But this is both problematic and unlikely to succeed.  Confessional fundamentalism is not the answer.  The lesson of history is that confessions only exert their proper influence as subsidiary standards insofar as they reflect a real and compelling theological consensus, and that they are no substitute for such consensus.  For example, the decision of the Council of Nicea regarding the homoousios of the Son, important as it was, settled nothing.  The Arian Controversy was not effectively ended until much later—after the devastating theological critiques of Arianism by Athanasius, the rapprochement of the Athanasian homoousian (same substance) wing and the homoiousian (like substance) wing at the Synod of  Alexandria in 362, and the modification of Nicea in order to reflect the legitimate concerns of the Cappadocians at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

So, let’s not allow wrongheaded suspicion of interpretation to short-circuit the theologizing that is necessary to the spiritual health of the conservative Reformed churches.  Let’s at least begin to recognize that the broader culture has been driving many of the polarities and conflicts we currently experience, and that we need to start distinguishing things that are really important from things that are not so important.