In a recent post, I noted just how easy it is to pick up hermeneutical tools that are ill-suited for handling Scripture, if indeed Scripture is the Spirit-breathed, self-attesting Word of the sovereign, triune God. Like taking toy blocks and a screwdriver to a window that has been painted-shut (mine is still shut, by the way), pastors and theologians often pick up contemporary models of knowing and theories about the accessibility of truth (and therefore about the relative possibility of making absolute claims about biblical truth) without adequately considering the approach demanded by the sacred text itself.
One growing hermeneutical approach to Scripture--or, better yet, one epistemology that undergirds a common approach--attempts to steer a middle path between a naïve objectivism ("What I plainly read in the text is what it means--period") and full-blown hermeneutical relativism ("We all understand what we read only according to how we are conditioned to read, either individually or communally"). This increasingly popular hermeneutic recognizes the limitations of the human mind, but ultimately declines to dissolve the idea of truth in an ocean of postmodern skepticism. Some will recognize that what I'm describing in broad strokes is sometimes called critical realism.
If using that term hasn't induced you to click away from this discussion, maybe we can get a bit more philosophical, just for a minute. Critical realism recoils from the arrogance and exclusivist instincts of a bygone Enlightenment hubris (who doesn't?); but it has also read the obituary of radical postmodern hermeneutics and wants no part of it (who does?). In the hands of pastors and theologians, this newer approach believes, on the one hand, that a text of Scripture, to some degree, actually reflects its author's mind and refers beyond itself to a coherent and knowable reality. It asserts that the gospel isn't a made-up fantasy or simply a product of my deepest wishes. It is real! And yet, on the other hand, critical realism also recognizes that the reader, author, text, and extra-textual reality are all moving targets within their respective times and places, and that each dimension is unavoidably filtered through each of our unique, fallible (and often colliding or, better, "subverting") worldviews. In short, this approach assumes that there is real truth to be known, but that such truth can only be provisionally known by a series of ever-improving approximations. The "best" approximations, or narratives, or models, it is said, make the most sense of the relevant data currently available. Those that offer the most "explanatory power"--usually as determined by the deepest intuitions or experience of the one involved--take the lead and the rest of us are to adjust our worldviews accordingly.
This "critical realism" is a potent siren song for well-meaning, sophisticated, Reformed evangelicals seeking to make sense of Scripture (and make Scripture sensible) today. It calls us to listen long and hard to secular scientific conclusions regarding human origins before making final judgments about Genesis. It supplies an overall context for narratival construals of religious experience (e.g., "how-does-my-story-intersect-with-the-grand-Story" descriptions of the Christian faith). For those keeping score at home, it is, in one way or another, the operating epistemological paradigm of scholars such as N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Thomas F. Torrance, and J. Wetzel van Huyssteen. It has perhaps become the unrecognized paradigm of many more.
This critical realist epistemology, however, comes with a huge ball and chain. Adapting the words of Colonel Jessup--this model can't handle Scripture's definitive truth claims. According to critical realism, all truth per se, especially truth about and from God, is unattainable and may only be approximated by progressively constructed models derived from human investigation and reflection: e.g., I believe there was a historical Fall because I sense there is something wrong with the world. I believe Jesus was resurrected because it best explains the worldwide explosion of the Christian church. I believe the gospel is true because it has changed my relationships at work, etc. These may be supplementary evidences by which the Spirit confirms Scripture's witness in our hearts, but should they be determinative for our faith or the centerpiece of our evangelistic witness to others?
For now, let us consider whether the apostle Peter, for example, was acknowledging the provisionality of all truth claims when he said that we may "know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus" (Acts 2:36)? Or whether Jesus' bodily resurrection was the best explanation among many for the data of the empty tomb when he said that "it was not possible for him to be held by [death]" (Acts 2:24)? Was the apostle Paul resting the inexcusability of all men before God (Rom 1:20) upon a knowledge of Him that lies on the far side of a spiraling path of conversation between divergent voices?
If not--and here is the key question--is there an alternative approach to preaching and teaching Scripture that exhibits Christ-like humility, that hears the cry and questions of the world's unbelief, that avoids Enlightenment arrogance and postmodern quicksand alike, and yet lovingly stands upon the nothing less than absolute (and, sometimes, hard to repeat) claims Scripture makes about God, creation, sin and the redemption wrought by Christ? That way, and that way alone, I submit, will not be a meandering pathway to a comfortable conference table, but is the direct and narrow road to Spirit-fueled preaching and teaching that has the power to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).