Home Repair and Hermeneutics (Part 3)
In a previous post (and here), I noted how sophisticated, Reformed evangelicals are both disclaiming the arrogance of Enlightenment rationalism and skirting the bottomless pit of postmodern relativism, contending that total human objectivity is an illusion and postmodernism is intellectual quicksand. Few would disagree. The trouble is, what do we do now?
According to the increasingly popular approach known as "critical realism" or "critical rationality", the most sure footing is found between the illusion and the quicksand--that is, coherent truth is out there, but, because our biographies and assumptions perpetually fog our respective lenses, we must realize that truth, absolute though it may be, will always lie just beyond our grasp. And it's not only our lenses. Our feet, too, stumble upon new and unexpected evidences that can alter the trajectory of our journey, turn us around, lead us temporarily astray, or put us on a new path altogether. But journey we all must, halting, listening, committing, reorienting, or meandering as the case may be. And yet, by a process of critical reflection and self-questioning, by opening up our religious beliefs and biases to enough voices, both past and present, and with a wide enough breath of experiences at our disposal, we can gradually orient our thinking correctly and approach truth through a series of ever-improving approximations. We can be sure, at least for the moment, that we are on the road that offers the best empirical fit, that makes the most sense of what we see, and we can even invite others to check out our way for themselves; but ever announce we have arrived at truth, itself, we must not.
One practical result of this approach for Reformed pastors and theologians, I have argued, is a gospel message that diminishes the character and clarity of Scripture, dilutes the intellectual strength of the gospel offer, and functionally introduces a subtle dose of provisionality into our theological claims. Scripture's hammer blows against sin, even humbly delivered, are downgraded to lashes with whip of linguini. Appeals to Christianity's "explanatory power" (as filtered through the minds of unbelieving hearers) begin to trump thoughtful, but direct, appeals to the Bible and the God who wrote it. Additionally, we influence our hearers into becoming confused Bereans, who read a text and then run out into the world to see if these things are so (cf. Acts 17:11). We start appreciating those with whom we disagree not because they force us to return to the sufficient Scriptures, but because they offer another opportunity to compare notes in our common quest for extant, though as yet unattainable, ultimate truth.
I submit that a better approach to preaching and teaching about the existence of God and His redemptive plan in Christ self-consciously acknowledges the self-sufficient Spirit who proceeds from the Father and Son in perichoretic unity and is, for that reason, the omnicompentent and successful Communicator of divine truth to all people (not despite, but rather within their own cultural contexts). As the sovereign Agent of revelation, the Spirit not only hears divine truth (John 16:13; 1 Cor 2:10) and infallibly delivers it (John 15:26), but also enables His people to receive with confidence, and therefore know (1 Cor 2:12), God's authoritative Word. In other words, because God is its ultimate Author and Teacher, Scripture is sufficently and savingly clear about the Christ it proclaims. That deserves saying again: the perspecuity of Scripture is not the product of the interpretive task (i.e., it is not delineated by what we can agree on), but its prerequisite (i.e., we may and should know what the Spirit has made plain concerning the Bible's integrating center, Christ crucified and raised; cf. Luke 24:25-27; 1 Pet 1:10-12). Under this approach, Christian claims to epistemic certainty regarding core revelational and redemptive truth do not constitute irrational fanaticism or entail, as one self-proclaimed "postfoundationalist" has put it, "absolutism and hegemonic totalization". Instead, they are part and parcel of the Spirit's sovereign authority and activity to reveal and illumine divine truth to those whom He has made alive.
A final plea of sorts, then: let us acknowledge our finitude, but revel in the infinite God. Let us acknowledge demographics, but trust that no obstacle will thwart God's communicative purposes. Let us listen humbly, but speak boldly. Let us hear again Martin Luther (no naive Enlightenment rationalist, in my view), who thundered, "To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart ... Away, now, with Skeptics and Academics from the company of us Christians; let us have men who will assert, men twice and inflexible as very Stoics!" (Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger [New York: Anchor, 1962], 167-8).
Proclaiming the gospel message with unwavering conviction of its truth hardly makes one a card-carrying Enlightenment modernist. It certaintly does not guarantee that all hearers will be persuaded, even intrigued. What it does do is show us to be unlike virtually anyone our unbelieving hearers have ever met: emissaries who know that even the most hardened skeptic cannot escape the voice of God in creation or in the Scriptures He has infallibly written through fallible men, that our very personhood is tuned to His frequency, that His Word never fails, and--most importantly--that the only solution to the moral disintegration and compounding guilt that marks every passing day of our hearers' lives is the glorious, clear, and sufficient gospel of the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). If we hold to this message, in this way, we may also be the tools He uses to fortify, and thus adorn, the church in which He deigns to dwell.