Robert H. Gundry


Bible-reading and "pervasive interpretive pluralism."

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Nor does Smith's appeal to the late Barth's christological reading of Scripture cut ice, at least not with me. For in Basel during the fall of 1960 I regularly climbed out of the basement of biblical studies to attend the theological seminars held by Barth upstairs, only to hear him repeatedly engage in subjective judgments on what in the Bible carries authority and what therein does not. Dismissively, for example: "Oh, that's just a bit of Jewish apocalyptic that crept into Scripture." As I wrote shortly afterward to an acquaintance, "For all Barth's likeableness I must think that [Cornelius] Van Til's harsh judgment on his theology is more grundlich and closer to the truth than the sympathetic attitude which has appeared even in some American evangelical circles …. So far as I can see, Barth is the sole judge of what in the Bible is authoritative for him." Others disagree, I know; but that was my take.

Perhaps feeling some inadequacy in a christological reading of Scripture to solve sufficiently well the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, Smith reaches behind the New Testament to the early church's "rule of faith," which existed prior to the canonizing of New Testament books and allegedly helped regulate the process of canonization. This rule of faith consists, it is said, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that books containing it got canonized—hence, a canon behind the canon as well as within the canon. What then of Christian books that didn't make it into the New Testament even though they too present the gospel of Jesus Christ? And how is it that those books which did get canonized can be legitimately interpreted, according to Smith, as disagreeing on the essentials of Christ's gospel, i.e., on the rule of faith? And why are my suspicions aroused when Smith repeatedly cites the fate of the unevangelized as an open question and refers again and again to the gospel of God's reconciling the world to himself through Christ but says nary a word about divine judgment and the lostness of unbelievers despite the apostle Paul's declaring that for their salvation people have to believe in Christ, that to believe in him they have to hear about him, that to hear about him preaching is necessary, and that the preaching requires a sending of preachers (Rom. 10:9-17)? Paul also qualifies "the ministry of reconciliation" by describing himself as "an odor deriving from death, resulting in death" through the preaching of this very gospel to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16; 5:19).

As to the ancient Christian creeds, they were forged in response to pervasive interpretive pluralism; and to date they haven't put a stop to pluralism outside biblicist circles any more than inside them. Nor has a strong teaching office. Not even pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Magisterium have stopped it among theologians, clergy, and lay people of that communion, not to detail disagreements among Roman Catholics on the Magisterium itself. If both Scripture and tradition are unalterably ambiguous, then, how can "a stronger hermeneutical guide" be judged "consistent with, if not directly derived from, Christian scripture and tradition"? "The larger, longer Christian tradition" with which Smith wants American evangelicals to interact is itself shot through with interpretive pluralism, as he himself says: "church history is replete with multiple credible understandings, interpretations, and conclusions about the Bible's teachings."

Toward the same end of wider interaction, Smith distinguishes between dogmas (beliefs nonnegotiable for any Christian), doctrines (beliefs firmly held but not considered crucial to the faith), and opinions (less sure beliefs), and then urges evangelical Christians to decrease the number of their dogmas in favor of increasing the number of their doctrines and mere opinions: "For example, many evangelicals have the tendency to push the 'penal satisfaction doctrine of atonement' up to the level of dogma." To the contrary, Smith wants to make this doctrine negotiable because some Christians prefer, say, the Christus Victor theory of atonement. Never mind that the apostle Paul included Christ's having died "for our sins" among "the foremost things" in the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3). Sorry, but victory without the penal is pyrrhic.

Smith also wants evangelicals to expand the number of interpretations they regard as adiaphora, matters of indifference—like baptism by immersion versus baptism by sprinkling (as though baptizein in the Greek New Testament could mean merely "to sprinkle"). Expansion of adiaphora should be accompanied, he says, by "further insights and implications of what the gospel means for belief and life in the world," as in the matter of slavery, for instance. Despite explicitly negative biblical statements concerning homosexual intercourse, does his including it among christianly disputable issues tend to put it on a theological trajectory similar to the one traveled by slavery? (This is a question, not an accusation.) In any event, the charge that "biblicism lacks the imagination and categories to understand the dynamic nature of the gospel and the church's understanding of truth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit" masks with the happy-face of doctrinal advance a lot of nonbiblicist interpretive pluralism in the questionable twists and turns of church dogma. The charge of interpretive unimaginativeness also rings somewhat hollow, given the echo of Smith's cannonades aimed against biblicists' imaginatively using the Bible as a handbook for "perfect and explicit instructions on every imaginable topic it seems to address, as well as indirectly to literally every possible topic."

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