A Great Pro-Protestant Argument against Sacred Tradition from Ross Douthat

Matthew Lee Anderson and Derek Rishmawy just spoke on their Mere Fidelity podcast to my favorite New York Times columnist, the conservative Catholic Ross Douthat, about his new book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, a work critiquing the current pope for his push toward liberalizing the body he leads.

Rishmawy went rather around the block and back again to say it, but I felt he made an excellent point (my transcript, which I spent my whole commute on the bus getting down for you as accurately as I could, removes some verbal clutter):

One thing that struck me is it’s—you’re kind of on the two horns of the ressourcement [the return to the sources that conservatives see in Vatican II] and the aggiornamento [the “getting-with-the-times” updating that liberals like to see in Vatican II]…. The papacy itself is what keeps the thing problematic, because…on a Protestant logic…you can go back to the original sources, whether it’s the text or the fathers and say, “Well, actually, we misread them, or we’re reinterpreting… [We’ve had a] fresh encounter of the Spirit, better Greek exegesis… We actually are reading the texts in a better way, and so we’re more conforming to the Word of God and Sola Scriptura, and [its] final authority—without completely chucking tradition, but just setting it in a secondary role and we can have some sort of reform according to the Word of God based on the sources, that goes in a more updating way.”

Now the liberal mainline usually went way beyond that and actually tried to reform the text itself. And it’s not even clean Protestantism. But…you have that impulse to reform, that impulse to update. But [given] the theology of the papacy, the theology of [the] magisterial authority of the church and what it’s already said—…if the liberals in the communion win…using the power of the papacy, they have to concede the Protestant point, that the previous papacy can get things wrong… It can be reformed according to some revelation—the Word of God or some sense of the Spirit. Or [if] they lose, the papacy continues unchanging, [and] all of its statements are in an unbroken line of continuity with only internal development that only looks like it’s been changing…. It seems like the Reformation-era issues are still in play.

In other words, the liberals in the Catholic Church have a dilemma: if the pope gets to contradict Catholic tradition in the arena of sexual ethics (etc.), then they have to admit that popes can be wrong. Later in the interview Douthat says basically the same thing: Catholic liberals don’t appear to recognize that if the pope radically changes the tradition, he undercuts his own authority, because (and this is Mark Ward, not Ross Douthat:) popes create tradition and tradition creates popes. The two are part of an indissoluble system.

But Douthat’s immediate answer to Rishmawy was this:

One thing that’s interesting to me about watching this play out is that ten or fifteen years ago, if you talked to a slightly smug conservative Catholic… they might say to you something like, “Look, the great weakness of Protestants in resisting the spirit of the age is that you don’t have a papacy and the authority of tradition, you just have the Bible itself. And the Bible in the hands of modern interpreters is going to lead to modern interpretations unless you have some sort of institutional guarantor of continuity with the past. And so, you foolish Protestants, you need a pope. You need the magisterium. Otherwise, your more liberal brethren are just going to run with their liberal interpretations and no one’s going to be able to stop them.” That’s what the smug Catholic would’ve said.

But you could make now…a counterargument, which is that in effect the idea that the church has, going back to John Henry Newman but arguably the figures before that, this idea of development of doctrine, this idea that the interpreters of doctrine—the pope, ecumenical councils, the church, and so on—that there can be what look like changes of various kinds but are in fact the full truths of the Church being understood in an unfolding way. That idea can become a kind of intellectual license for creative reinterpretation, in a way that Protestants with their sola scriptura sense don’t feel license to do.

When Douthat appeals to tradition and the Bible, he says he now has liberal Catholics telling him, “Don’t be such a Protestant—don’t be a fundamentalist.”

Which just goes to show ya. Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody has an intellectual baseline, a bedrock of axioms lying directly on top of the hot magma of their loves. If you love the zeitgeist, your thinking will fall in line. If you love the Lord, you’ll listen to his words. Building institutions to promote and defend the truth is important and good. But it will never fully work. Those institutions themselves are shot through with the effects of the fall, with people who love idols.

Sometimes I have wished for a pope. A buddy pope who tells my theological opponents, “U R WRONG!” with cool-looking encyclicals on parchment. A tough pope who keeps me in line, too, when I need it. A biblical pope who is just enforcing Christ’s words. And as Douthat points out in the interview, Catholic tradition has long held a line on divorce that (many? most?) Protestants have let go. But if Catholic tradition isn’t sufficient to keep Catholics from entertaining the idea that maybe men can marry men, then what is it good for? What good is it to have a pope? Sola scriptura has, perhaps, given us mainline Protestantism (I’d rather say people have twisted it into mainline views). But surely Catholic tradition has given us liberal Catholicism—and a bunch of other accretions. I’ll stick with my sola scriptura, norma normans non normata, ad fontes, ressourcesment. Christ will build his church. I don’t need a mediator or a magisterium besides those prescribed in Scripture.

A Must-Read Must-Read

I’m really liking Jonathan Leeman. He humbly lets his gifts be sublimated to those of Mark Dever when the two chat on 9Marks Pastors Talk episodes, but when I read The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love and then went and heard his paper at the 2016 ETS—I saw that Leeman himself is really theologically and intellectually sharp. And doctrinally solid. This recent article by Leeman on gender roles at the 9Marks site is an absolute must-read.

His analysis of “broad” vs. “narrow” complementarians is very helpful; his graciousness is palpable. His wisdom is… Okay, I’ll stop gushing. Go read it.

My non-denominational, biblicist training might possibly have pushed me in a “narrow” direction, making my complementarianism focus solely on wives submitting to husbands and men taking church leadership roles. But my overall conservatism and, especially, my respect—and continual search—for “creational norms” put me clearly in the “broad” camp with Leeman. That is, I’m primed with him to see divine norms in biology and even in culture.

But Leeman helps people like me make sure not to find norms where they aren’t: that could lead to injustice. And it helps me remember not to be too firm about norms that required several judgment calls to arrive at.

And he cautions us all, on the other side, from putting ourselves in a position in which we are apologizing for the Bible. This is so true:

When churches hesitate to say what distinguishes men and women, God’s explicit precepts for the church and home begin to look arbitrary, even a little embarrassing. You can hear the Sunday school lesson now: “The Bible teaches that women should not be elders, but here’s what I really want you to hear: women can do everything else a man can do.” The tone or subtext is, “No, these commands don’t make a lot of sense because we all know men and women are basically the same. But he is God, sooo…”

And this is brilliantly simple and, in my opinion, profoundly true:

Wisdom issues an “ought,” as in “men ought” or “women ought.” But wisdom’s “ought” is a little different than the “ought” of law. Wisdom’s “ought” sounds like something from Proverbs (“a wise son hears his father’s instruction”). Law’s “ought” sounds like something from Exodus (“you shall not steal”). Wisdom’s “ought” comes with an “ordinarily.” Its opposite is folly (the father might be a fool, a thief, or a typical dad who gives mixed advice). Law’s “ought” comes with an “always.” Its opposite is sin. Yes, sin and folly often overlap, but not always.”

This has application beyond gender roles, but it surely applies to them.

I’m really jazzed about this article, if you couldn’t tell.

Must-read, must-read, must-read!

The Preserved Word of God for English-Speaking Peoples

“Preserved” is the key word in KJV-Onlyism these days. Just about every KJV-Only doctrinal statement I see uses that word “preserved.” But I’ve been thinking for a long time along with famous systematic theologian Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what they think it means.

A new friend from KJV-Only circles contacted me on Facebook, asking me how I would assess the bibliology statement from a KJV-Only mission board. It turns out that the language is used elsewhere, and my best guess is that the original source is Heartland Baptist Bible College. So I’m going to use their text. I will bold the statements that concern me in this post, the ones about preservation.

Here’s Heartland:

We believe the Holy Bible was written by men supernaturally inspired: that it has truth for its matter without any admixture of error; that it is and shall remain to the end of the age, the only complete and final revelation of the will of God to man; and that it is the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.

We believe the Authorized (King James) Version, Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples by way of God’s divine providence and work of preservation; and that the Authorized Version translators were not “inspired,” but were merely God’s instruments used to preserve His words for English-speaking peoples.

By Holy Bible we mean that collection of sixty-six books, from Genesis to Revelation, which, as originally written and providentially preserved, does not only contain and convey the Word of God, but is the very Word of God.

By inspiration we mean that the books of the Bible were written by holy men of God as they were moved by the Holy Ghost in such a definite way that their writings were supernaturally and verbally inspired and free from error, as no other writings have ever been or ever will be inspired.

By providentially preserved we mean that God through the ages has, in His divine providence, preserved the very words that He inspired; that the Hebrew Old Testament text, as found in the Traditional Masoretic Text, and the Greek New Testament text, as found in the Textus Receptus, are indeed the products of God’s providential preservation and are altogether the complete, preserved, inerrant Word of God.

We therefore believe and require that the Authorized Version (King James Version) be the only English version used and or endorsed by the staff, faculty, and student body of this college.

There is much here that I joyfully affirm, of course: inspiration, inerrancy, the 66-book canon, the final authority of the Bible. I don’t want to fail to stress my wholehearted agreement with these historically orthodox beliefs. And I believe the people confessing them are truly my brothers.

But I find the language of “preservation” applied (repeatedly and insistently) to a translation to be confusing and misleading at best. We must guard against all language in doctrinal statements—where precise language is the whole point—which suggests that any one translation is perfect, or that it is the best available, or that all other translations should be avoided and viewed as untrustworthy. The Bible simply does not teach these things, even by “good and necessary consequence.” If the Bible is our “supreme standard,” and it is, we must refuse to go beyond its claims in doctrinal statements. When we do, we are building our doctrine on the same foundation on which Wile E. Coyote often found himself.

I’m going to bracket in this post the question of whether the Bible teaches that God will preserve his words in an unbroken line of perfect manuscript copies. I certainly have an opinion on this important question, but it actually isn’t relevant here. No matter what answer a KJV-Only brother might give to that question, I would like to urge him to stop using “preservation” language of any translations; this word properly belongs only in a discussion of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words God inspired.

“To Preserve, v.”

I looked up “preserve” in the three major contemporary dictionaries I always use. Here are the relevant senses, or so it seems to me:

New Oxford American:

maintain (something) in its original or existing state: all records of the past were zealously preserved

Merriam-Webster:

1 to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction: protect
2 to keep alive, intact, or free from decay

American Heritage:

To keep in perfect or unaltered condition; maintain unchanged: fossils preserved in sediments; a film preserved in the archives.

I have earnestly tried, with some encouragement from two intelligent friends (one KJV-Only and one not), to read “preserved” in KJV-Only doctrinal statements to mean something different than “maintained in its original, unaltered, unchanged, intact state.” Maybe by calling a translation “preserved” they’re only saying that an accurate translation of God’s preserved words are themselves God’s words. I can affirm that, but I don’t think that’s what preserved means in standard English. English can bend pretty far under appropriate circumstances, but I’m just not seeing it. No, to “preserve” is to “keep intact.”

To call a translation a tool for “preservation” of the source text is therefore a serious confusion of categories. It’s like saying that an ornamental bush trimmed to look like a mushroom really is a mushroom. It’s like saying that a bus is a plane because, clearly, they are both oblong vehicles which can move many people at once.

I am troubled when Heartland calls the KJV “the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples” (the language I see more commonly [here’s an example] is that the KJV is “the preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples”). Never mind for the moment that the English speaking peoples speak a different English than they did 400 years ago (that’s the problem my new book focuses on); I want to know: what is this “preservation” language supposed to mean when applied to a translation? If a translation “preserves” God’s words, then that translation would seem to be keeping them in perfect or unaltered condition.

What “Preserve” Appears to Mean

And that, friends, is either nonsensical or a doctrinal innovation I can’t accept. Let me state the obvious: every word in the KJV is completely different from every word in the Hebrew and Greek. Ἀ-γ-ά-π-η is 100% different from l-o-v-e. The KJV in that sense “alters” every last jot and tittle of the originals by putting them in an entirely different language with an entirely different script (I borrow this point from Bible translator and linguist Mark Strauss). Sure, the originals and the KJV mean the same things, and I’m glad to affirm that they do. But it’s still nonsensical to say that the KJV (or any translation) “preserves” the originals—if “preserve” means “keep intact.”

But I don’t like to attribute nonsense to people; I want to believe that Heartland is affirming something definite. So when this doctrinal statement confesses that a particular Bible translation revision made by a few dozen Anglicans between 1604–1611 was the object of “God’s divine providence and work of preservation” to the exclusion of all others (they’re not even allowed to “use” other translations, much less “endorse” them), they seem to me to be saying that the KJV can serve as a standard fully equal to the originals. By words like “intact” they seem to me to be saying that the KJV is perfect. I spoke at length on the phone with a Heartland professor in the last year (a gifted and dedicated guy), and when I asked him whether he would update any of the language of the KJV if he could, he said, “Well, you can’t alter the Word of God.”

This—viewing the KJV as perfect and inviolable—is a significant deviation from orthodox bibliology. Yes, a translation is God’s word, and this is important to affirm; but a translation is not God’s word in the same, ultimate sense as those originals. If we’re unsure what a passage means, the ultimate appeal is to the inspired Greek and Hebrew. Translations don’t trump the originals. Ever. And they don’t fully equal them. Nowhere does the Bible itself tell us to expect perfect Bible translations. “All Scripture is God-breathed,” yes—and the human subjects involved were “holy men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21; Bibliology 101). The KJV—and Reina Valera and Louis Segond—translators are not properly considered among the group of men moved by the Spirit. The Bible never tells us to expect this.

I’m not even sure what a perfect translation looks like: what is a “perfect” translation of a difficult word like στοιχεῖον (stoicheion) in Col 2:20? What’s a perfect translation of the disputed phrase in Rom 1:5, ὑπακοὴν πίστεως (hupakoen pisteos), often translated “obedience of faith”? To have a perfect translation means, in these and many other cases, making perfect interpretations of those phrases—do we really think all those Anglicans managed it? They certainly didn’t think so.

And what about the tiny judgment calls abounding in Bible translation—ones for which the KJV translators themselves felt compelled to add notes mentioning alternative renderings? Is it “trusted” or “hoped” in Eph 1:12? The KJV translators weren’t certain:

What about the even tinier judgment calls—like the one I came across while reading a new translation of the NT during my lunch break:

“The foxes have lairs…” The KJV has, of course, “The foxes have holes…” Which is it? Is it the more general holes or the more specific lairs? The referent is clearly the same in each case, and the lexicons give both glosses. Which translation is “perfect” and “intact”?

And what about the times when a MT/TR-based translation into another language, like the Spanish Reina-Valera of 1909, makes a different interpretation of a text than does the KJV? Who’s got God’s words, the English speakers or the Spanish ones? To pick a random example, the last word in Numbers 23:21 is translated them by the KJV and él (“him”) by the Reina Valera of 1909. Presumably this is a matter of interpretation on someone’s part. Who got it right? Who has God’s word there and who doesn’t?

KJV-Onlyism is a search for a perfect, physically accessible doctrinal standard: the KJV. I suppose I wouldn’t mind having a perfect translation, but that isn’t what God gave us, or promised to give us.

The Preserved Vulgate

One of the signal errors of the Roman Catholic Church was that for many centuries it treated their preferred Latin translation as possessing an authority which even they now recognize it did not. I say they recognize this because it is my understanding that Catholic translations are now made from the Greek and Hebrew originals. Even today there are Catholics who wish to go back to the days of the Latin rite. But some of the Vulgate’s translations, like poenitentiam agite, led to major problems over centuries. (Footnote: interestingly, the TR now preferred by the KJV-Only was originally accompanied with a new translation into Latin by Erasmus.)

No one, I guarantee you, stood up one day in any Catholic church and said, “Starting next Sunday, we’re going to read the Bible and conduct our services using a language no one can understand.” So how in the world did it happen? Slowly. Latin became Spanish and Italian and Portuguese and French; and the last one on that list just happened to pour numerous words (from multiple French dialects in different parts of France, it turns out) into the language of a nearby island country through successive invasions, and we got modern English. But the Latin Vulgate was “preserved.” It remained basically unchanged, kept intact. And eventually it became unintelligible to the common people.

One of the reasons we can’t have a perfect translation is that you can’t say a language is, once and for all. A language is always changing, always becoming something new and slightly different, until the changes add up and misunderstandings begin to occur more and more often. The “English-speaking peoples” of today don’t all speak precisely the same English—witness Kenyan, UK, Aussie, South African, Guyanese, Singaporean and other Englishes. And the “English-speaking peoples” of today most certainly don’t speak the English of the Elizabethans. One of the reasons translations can’t be perfect bullseyes is that languages are moving targets.

Charitable Hermeneutics

It just so happens that a friend of mine knows the now-deceased (?) gentleman who says he came up with the “preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples” language. I have not been able to track down more information, but my friend says this guy said he didn’t mean for that language to become what it has become.

So I’m not sure what the language originally meant, but I believe I know what it’s being used to mean now. The most charitable interpretation I can put on the common KJVO language—“The KJV is God’s preserved Word for English-speaking peoples”—goes something like this: they want to accord exclusive status to the KJV, but they recognize they can’t call it “inspired” (to be clear, I applaud this recognition). So instead they call it “preserved” (or “intact”)—which is somehow less than “inspired” but still makes the KJV superior to all other English Bible translations; yea, even perfect.

I have looked at hundreds of KJV-Only doctrinal statements, and not one of them explains whether other English translations are also “God’s preserved word”; this tends to leave the impression that they are not. More commonly (maybe 25% of the time?) these statements reject all other English translations, as Heartland does, and they insist that only the KJV will be “used” in their church or school or mission board. Recently I’ve even seen a few of them calling the KJV itself the “ultimate authority” for faith and practice.

They don’t actually tend to call the KJV “perfect” outright, but that’s the only thing I can get out of all the “preservation” language when applied to a translation.

Brass Vernacular Tacks

Some KJV-Only leaders, the ones working on developing the theological rationale for the movement, have come up with some impressive argumentation for their viewpoint. It is not irrational, I think, to conclude from “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” that we need every one of God’s words. It’s not a huge step from there to assume that, well, we must have all these words somewhere. It’s not an impossible step from there to say that a good God would give us all the words, and just those words, in our language.

I do think there are significant flaws in this reasoning, and I’ve discussed some of them in the past. But I’m supposed to be bracketing this question… So let me get to brass tacks, two foundational reasons why I’m skeptical of TR-Only views:

  1. The Bible never tells us to expect perfect translations. The Septuagint used by Jesus and the apostles was not perfect, just good. (Don’t believe me? Listen to the KJV translators in their own preface: “The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it.”) I don’t want language in my doctrinal statement to claim more than the Bible claims.
  2. And after spending multiple years on the issue of vernacular Bible translation and the KJV, I’m utterly convinced of this: the end point (I’d actually say the beginning point) of TR-Only reasoning is that we have have to accord top or exclusive status the KJV. And that means we have to read and memorize and teach from a translation people can’t fully understand because we no longer speak the English it uses. And that just can’t be right. What good is it to have all the right words if people can’t understand them? Paul speaks directly to this issue in 1 Cor 14. And the KJV translators do, too, in their excellent preface:

Without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, “Read this, I pray thee,” he was fain to make this answer, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”

This is why I’m always saying to the TR-Only: give us a translation of the Bible into our English using whatever texts you prefer.

Crossing Sea and Land

In the two weeks since my book’s release I’ve started to get letters from people who are in the process of leaving KJV-Onlyism. KJV-Onlyism has little to fear from me: I get the impression that these people were already skeptical and bought my book immediately upon release because they knew it would help them know how and why to leave KJV-Only bibliology behind. Also, I want to say that I cautioned all of them to be respectful and gracious toward—and grateful for—their heritage. I think it’s ugly to feel arrogant over people you agreed with yesterday, a denial of 1 Cor 4:7.

I also think it’s ugly to crow about the proselytes one has made within Christianity; that is, from one doctrinal view to another, even if one is aberrant. I don’t feel like saying to the KJVOs, “See my converts? Ha, take that!”; I just feel sad. I feel sad that we can’t be unified because of the KJVOs’ doctrinal innovation. I feel sad for the missionary, the assistant pastor, and the senior pastor who’ve contacted me recently and told me of their return to bibliological orthodoxy—because I know they’re going to lose friendships, and I don’t want them to be cast adrift relationally. I feel sad for the kids who are taught verses they can’t understand when the NIV and ESV are a click away. The idea that Christians would forbid not just the endorsement but the “use” (!) of Bible translations other than a 400-year-old one people struggle to read—I’m just at a loss. This is divisive extremism of the saddest and most unnecessary kind: how could regenerated people engage in it? This whole topic fills me with dread.

But the Bible fills me with hope: regenerated people have God’s Spirit; they have gifts and brains and love and Christ’s righteousness. Loving, rational, Bible-based appeals can make a difference. I’m seeing that difference, even if the results are currently small. So here’s my double appeal to the KJV-Only: 1) take advantage of the riches of modern English vernacular Bible translation: “all are yours” (1 Cor 3). And 2) don’t go beyond the Bible to “preserve” the Bible.

Wise Words from Lesslie Newbigin on Pluralism and Secularism

I’m listening to Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1988). My local library had it among their digital audio loans, and I thought it was high time I went through a Newbigin book. The book comes from lectures he delivered in Princeton’s Warfield lectures of 1984—and yet it sounds like things that didn’t hit the evangelical mainstream for a decade or more after that. Remarkable.

(Newbigin makes dismissive comments about fundamentalism,  particularly its supposedly blinkered view of science, but I’ve come to realize that the whole point of mentions of fundamentalism is dismissiveness. Outside of some scholarly works in which careful definition is attempted, “fundamentalism” only ever means, “The dummies to my right.” These dummies never get to speak, because presumably all they could say is “Bar, bar, bar.” Ah, well. The book is still packed with wisdom.)

This quote jumped out at me this morning:

Of course, as contemporary history proves, Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology. But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all. They can never agree that there is one law for themselves and another for the world. They can never admit that there are areas of human life where the writ of Christ does not run. They can never accept that there are orders of creation or powers or dominions that exist otherwise than to serve Christ. Whatever the institutional relationship between the church and the state—and there are many possible relationships, no one of which is necessarily the right one for all times and places—the church can never cease to remind governments that they are under the rule of Christ and that he alone is the judge of all they do. The church can never accept the thesis that the central shrine of public life is empty, in other words, that there has been no public revelation before the eyes of all the world of the purpose for which all things and all peoples have been created and which all governments must serve. It can never accept an ultimate pluralism as a creed even if it must—as of course it must—acknowledge plurality as a fact. In fact, it cannot accept the idea … of a secular society in which, on principle, there are no commonly acknowledged norms. We know now, I think, that the only possible product of that ideal is a pagan society. Human nature abhors a vacuum. The shrine does not remain empty. If the one true image, Jesus Christ, is not there, an idol will take its place.

These words made me think of none other than Stanley Fish, who said in an epochal First Things piece,

A person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch….

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

So, on the one hand, I’m not aiming for a theocracy. I can’t go around immanentizing eschatons all day. That’s not my job. I’m Awaiting the King; he will do that. I acknowledge the fact of pluralism. But I can’t accept that pluralism is a good, only a lesser evil—a lesser evil than coercing people’s consciences to confess belief in something they don’t believe in. I like the ad-hoc nature of the church-state relation suggested by Newbigin, because it seems to me that that’s what most Christians will get. They have to be able to live and think Christianly under any regime. But as Jamie Smith points out, sometimes prophets who stand athwart society get elected to high office; they’ve got to be able to get to the work of construction, of bringing change. They can’t cease to be Christians at that time and suddenly become convinced pluralists. I think that every day, and in every way, we push for whatever good we can get away with without doing any evil (like coercing consciences).

Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism and Recent Trinitarian Controversies

Just a short reflection on the argument among Reformed theologians about theology proper (read, for example, Frame’s review of James Dolezal here and here).

I think some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are looking to confessions and scholastic categories and other elements of reasonably-stable-and-long-term-but-not-overtly-Catholic church tradition for a way out of the interminable theological disputes going on around and among us.

But these disputes are our lot under the sun, because we’re all fallen interpreters; and I think the Bible (see those hapless Corinthians) leads us to expect disagreements. I totally get the fatigue, and I’m tired too (at the ripe young age of 37)—and I think confessions are useful for terminating many disputes healthily. Churches ought to have careful doctrinal statements and ought to hew to them; so should parachurch organizations (schools, camps, publishing houses) and denominations.

But as friends of mine in a Reformed Baptist group recently (re-)discovered, a confession also adds to the list of documents over whose interpretation Christians end up disagreeing. I will not say “I have no creed but the Bible”; I am bound by the confessions of faith that God has placed me under at my church and even at my job. But adding human statements to divine ones is never sufficient to keep fallen people from twisting the truth. “Pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a strong argument against Protestantism, sure, but it’s also a strong one against Catholicism and Protestant (hyper-)confessionalism. They added human statements to divine ones, and I don’t think they’re doing much better in the unity department.

It’s my “something close to biblicism,” learned in part from Frame and in part from my heritage, that lets me conclude, along with the Bible, that the noetic effects of sin must always be expected and never forgotten. In others and in myself. Till glory!