The central thesis of Christian Smith’s book is that the American evangelical doctrine of Scripture is impossible given the presence of so many varied interpretations of Scripture. If the Bible were really what biblicists say it is–universally applicable, internally consistent, clear, and the very words of God–then Christians of sound mind and good hearts would agree on what it says. That’s the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. How should we respond?He is already getting into a bit of a straw man here. Catholic believe the bible is "universally applicable, internally consistent, clear, and the very words of God." We don't say PIP proves the bible is not those things. Atheists say that. We just say the bible alone is not enough to produce meaningful unity and objective certainty.
Let me outline a constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs that can help make sense of this phenomenon.The scope here is nebulously defined. What exactly do we need to find clearly in scripture? The answer is it changes over time. As consensus disappears over more and more questions they are declared to be not part of this whole counsel of God. Even if you set aside the issue of disagreements. The bible simply does not have everything we need to love as Christians. For example, it does not tell us how to conduct a Christian wedding. It does not tell us how to say a sinners prayer. It does not tell us what should happen at a Sunday morning worship service or even that there should be one. So these are nice words from the Westminster Confession but they don't mean much when you scrutinize them a bit.
1.We need a proper understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible does not tell us everything we want to know about everything. It does not give explicit instructions for many of life’s dilemmas. Wisdom is required. But we do believe, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).
2. We need a proper understanding of the clarity of Scripture. “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed fro salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (WCF 1.7). (For more on the clarity of Scripture see this post and the related links.)Now we get a different definition for the next article of the same Westminster Confession. Now we get the narrower "for salvation" definition. Previously there was God's glory, man's salvation, and faith and life. This is often quoted by protestants. Things that are not required for salvation it is OK to disagree on. Not really. Morality is important. Understanding God and understanding ourselves is important. Worship is important. To say scripture is only clear on matters directly related to salvation is not enough.
Scripture is clear. It is us who are lousy listeners. We tend to try and avoid the truth of scripture and convince ourselves it does not say that. It is not clear enough to overcome that. The trouble is we do that subconsciously. We are not just unaware we are doing it. Often we are absolutely certain we are not doing it. The problem is not that we don't get a clear answer from scripture. It is that we get an answer we think is crystal clear but it is wrong. That is what PIP shows us. Matters of salvation are not exempt from this.
3. We need a proper understanding of Sola Scriptura. We do not interpret Scripture apart from creeds, confessions, and the traditions of the church. Indeed, we ought to put the burden of proof on any who would overturn the historic consensus of the church. But in the end everything—tradition and historical formulations included—must be tested against the final authority of the Bible.So exactly what is this "burden of proof" that someone needs to meet to turn over the creeds and confessions of the church? Who does this testing against the bible? This is all done inside the same head. The creeds act as a line in the sand. They are somewhat helpful Still when an appealing heresy comes along what will stop people from going wrong? If the heretic makes his arguments from the bible, and they always do, then there is nothing. All you have is your biblical argument against his. If the heresy is appealing for other reasons that is not going to be a fair fight.
Which doctrines are central? Is there a list in scripture? A lot of times importance is confused with consensus. The doctrine of the Eucharist is often seen as unimportant by protestants because there is a lot of disagreement. It isn't unimportant. They are just disagreeing over an important matter but they can't admit it.
5. Christians come to different conclusions on Scripture for several reasons. As Carson points out in Exegetical Fallacies, sometimes Christians disagree on interpretations because we have not looked hard enough at an issue or a text; sometimes we disagree because we are too bound to our own tradition or too eager to please our friends (dead or alive); sometimes Christians disagree because the effects of sin distort our interpretive abilities. And sometimes Christians disagree because one is wrong and the other is right. Hopefully I’m humble enough to remain open to correction and learning new things. But I also hope to be forthright enough to say, yes, I do think Mormons, Arminians, Egalitarians, and Dispensationalists are wrong—not equally wrong by any means, but on certain matters wrong nonetheless.The biggest exegetical fallacy is that it is possible to avoid exegetical fallacies. We do get bound to our traditions and to the ideas of people we have come to respect. We do get effected by our sin and our pain and a host of other things. The trouble is we don't see it. Out biggest bias is that it is likely the other guy who is mistaken and not us. It is not true. No matter how careful and prayerful you are in your exegesis you can still end up in serious error. You just end up more certain of your serious error.
6. We should recognize that PIP is a problem for everyone everywhere. Are there not multiple interpretations on Chaucer, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1919 Black Sox, Christology, and the nature of the gospel? Perhaps authoritative Church Tradition can solve the last two problems (and those like it). But moving to a Magisterium only pushes the problem back another level. PIP exists for papal encyclicals as much as it does for evangelical theology. Wherever there are humans there will be disagreements about what things mean. That should make us cautious about concluding from PIP that something is necessarily wrong with the Bible or evangelical notions of its authority.PIP does not exist for papal encyclicals to nearly the same extent. Encyclicals are often written after a controversy has come up. People might disagree over what Humanae Vitae says on some point or other but nobody is unclear about what it says about the morality of the birth control pill. There will never be clarity on what scripture says about that question. Why? Scripture was written long before the pill was invented. Humans will have disagreements but a living magisterium can provide clarity when it is needed. The bible cannot do that precisely because the bible is static.
7. We should realize that PIP is not a new phenomenon. PIP has always existed in the history of Christian interpretation. But the church fathers, just to cite one example, still believed the Bible was harmonious and believers should and could affirm the right doctrines in all areas of faith and practice. Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine” is all about how to interpret the Scripture correctly. While I may not agree with every point of his method, he certainly believed applying the right methods would get you to the right truth (see especially NPNF 2.539; 2.556). “What difficulty is it for me when these words can be interpreted in various ways,” Leithart quotes Augustine as saying, “provided only that the interpretations are true?. . .In Bible study, all of us are trying to find and grasp the meaning of the author we are reading, and when we believe him to be revealing truth, we do not dare to think he said anything which we either know or think to be incorrect.” PIP was no deal-breaker for Augustine. It did not undermine his confidence in the understandability and internal consistency of Scripture. Likewise, Justin Martyr was “entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another” (ANF 1.230) and Origen affirmed that “Scripture is the one perfect and harmonized instrument of God, from which different sounds give forth one saving voice to those who are willing to learn” (ANF 9.413). The Fathers believed the Bible was internally consistent and that they had understood it correctly while their opponents misunderstood it. Evangelicals say the same.This is confusing a few things. St Augustine, like many early church fathers, did not think scripture should be interpreted just one way. He believed in many levels of meaning to one passage. That does not means the problem of false interpretations goes away. Quite the opposite. The more analogical interpretations are more speculative and more likely to be wrong.
Sure they believed they were interpreting the bible correctly but one of the big reasons they believed that is because they immersed themselves in the apostolic tradition of the church. There was not a bunch of traditions with equal claim to being biblical. There was the Catholic church and then a bunch of fringe groups, same as today. It is just that evangelicals are the fringe groups. Back then they claimed to have the bible on their side too. The real saints embraced both scripture and sacred tradition.
8. Despite the widespread existence of PIP, at some point everyone wants to say that Scripture says something clearly, whether others disagree or not. Smith concludes that Ron Sider’s book is spot-on and that Nicene Christology is true and nonnegotiable. Many people—sincere intelligent people—disagree. There are lots of interpretations out there about the person of Christ. So how do we determine which is correct? If we conclude that a certain interpretation is right about the person of Christ (or Ron Sider’s claims for that matter) and that others are wrong, is that biblicism?Nobody says Catholicism eliminates disagreements. What it eliminates is confusion about what the true faith is. Those who disagree with Nicene Christology have broken with the faith. We know this not from Ron Sider but from the Catholic church.
In the end, no one thinks PIP completely undermines the clarity, consistency, and relevance of Scripture.That cannot be more wrong. PIP has devastated the credibility of Jesus in today's world. You talk to anyone who is not embedded in one particular tradition and one of the first objections you get is that Christians don't agree on a lot of things. How can we believe you have the truth if you can't agree on what that truth is?
9. We must distinguish between meaning and significance. Smith lists seventeen different “readings” he’s heard or seen on John’s story about the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). But almost none of these “readings” are mutually exclusive. Most of them either fairly exegete the text or fairly seek to express the significance of the text for contemporary believers. Just because different sermons come up with different homiletical points does not mean PIP has eviscerated an evangelical approach to Scripture.This is fair. I have heard a lot of sermons on John 4 that go in different direction and many of those directions are valid Catholic interpretations. I can probably get past 17. I think Smith might be reaching a bit here but I would have to see his list to be sure.
10. We should be a biblicist in the same way Jesus was. He believed that the entire Old Testament came from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). He believed that for Scripture to say something was the same as God speaking (Matt. 19:4-5). He believed the inspiration of Scripture went down to the individual words (John 10:30). He believed that Scripture cannot fail, cannot be wrong, and by implication cannot ultimately contradict itself (John 10:35).This is the same logical leap protestants always make. Someone who has a high view of scripture must be a protestants. Catholics believe in the bible. They just don't believe in the bible alone. Jesus never taught the alone part.
He believed that the apostolic teaching–what is now preserved in the words of the New Testament–would be divinely inspired by the Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15).This completely begs the question. None of these verses talk about scripture. They talk about the revelations of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. They are preserved in the New Testament and in Sacred Tradition through apostolic succession. But why would we respect one of these and not the other? Look at John 16:12=15:
I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.This talks about the Spirit speaking to the apostles at some future time. Would he also speak to their successors? Why not? Why can't this revelation still be happening through the bishops? The early church thought so. It does not say the Spirit will inspire the writing of some books and those books will bless you. Sure that is part of it but there is no reason to believe it is the whole thing.
He settled disputes on all kinds of matters, from Christological to ethical to political, by appealing to Scripture, often “prooftexting” from a single verse (see Matt. 41-10; 19:1-7; 22:32). He believed there were correct interpretations to Scripture that others should recognize even in the midst of interpretive pluralism (Matt. 5:21-48; 22:29).That is exactly what He does today through His body, the church. He does not expect everyone just to recognize what interpretations are correct. He authoritatively declares one to be correct. In these examples he is making interpretations way beyond what is in the plain meaning of the text. He is developing doctrine. He is giving a deeper truth than you could get from simple exegesis of the passage. He is showing how authority strengthens scripture and does not undermine it.
PIP can point out problems with some fringe elements of evangelicalism. It can also highlight some more common popular-level mistakes in handling Scripture. But at the heart of an evangelical doctrine of Scripture is the belief that the Bible is all true, that it tells us everything we need to know to be saved and to please God, that it never makes a mistake and never contradicts itself when properly interpreted, that it has principles that speak to all of life, that the most important parts can be clearly understood, and that in all its parts God means to point us to Christ. Whether that is biblicism or not I’m not sure. But it’s the way Jesus approached the Bible, and that’s good enough for me.Again he finesses around the Sola part of Sola Scriptura. Catholics can agree with everything here. It baffles me that he could write such a long post about Sola Scriptura and at the end be able to so completely misstate the position he was supposed to be defending. The idea that God gives us nothing but scripture. That if we disagree about scripture we have no place to go because scripture is the highest you can go. So PIP means you are stuck. You have to violate Sola Scriptura and declare one interpretation to be right or declare the matter to be unimportant or something. You don't have the authority to do that but the system is unworkable.