Today I am concluding a three part series on the often overlooked but enormously important doctrine of the clarity of scripture. In part one I looked at the biblical evidence for the clarity of scripture, in part two I looked at the varying views of the clarity of scripture that have arisen over time, now as the series comes to a close I want to look at the greatest threat to the doctrine of clarity in this day and age, postmodern hermeneutics, and the most vocal proponents of the postmodern hermeneutics, the emergent church movement. While the emergent church is essentially dead as a movement, its influence remains in the damage done to the understanding of the doctrine of clarity, especially among Christian youth. Many youth weened on postmodernism in their education are not just standing on a slippery slope, they are gleefully careening down the slip-n-slide of postmodernism toward the cliff of damnation.
In recent years the certainty of the modern age has been supplanted by the ambiguity of the postmodern. Postmodernism replaces the correspondence model of truth (the idea that something is true only if it actually corresponds to reality) with a coherence model that believes that a statement’s truth is not determined by whether it reflects reality, but rather by how much it agrees (or coheres) with other true statements. This philosophical shift in epistemology has impacted virtually all areas of theology including the question of the clarity of Scripture.
When examining the postmodern approach to perspicuity (the clarity of scripture) it is important to remember that there is not one single postmodern approach. Postmodernism undergirds many theological movements that take differing views of Scripture and the Gospel.
One unifying feature of postmodernism is its reliance on the community of faith to determine the meaning of Scripture. Some go so far as to assert that there is no meaning in Scripture apart from the community that uses it. This line of reasoning leads inevitably to the belief that there is not a static meaning of any text.
The notion of a dynamic reading of the text is simply incompatible with the biblical evidence. When the New testament writers and Jesus quoted the Old Testament they did so expecting their hearers to understand what the original readers of the text would have understood. Despite being removed from the original context by centuries, they were still expected to understand the original meaning of the text. It is easy to forget that the early church was as far removed from the writing of the Pentateuch as 21st century believers are from the writing of the New Testament, yet the New Testament authors clearly expected the first century believers to understand the Old Testament (by the way without use of commentaries or other resources). Additionally the recipients of the New Testament letters were often gentiles who had very limited exposure to the Old Testament prior to reading the quotation in the New Testament Epistle. New Testament communities were clearly different from Old Testament communities, yet they were able to understand the meaning of the Old Testament.
Leland Ryken, arguing for formal equivalence in translation, notes that the prevailing principle in hermeneutics must be to discern authorial intent and that the best way to learn what an author means is to observe what he says. The implication is clear, Scripture cannot mean what it never meant, and the meaning of the text is found in the text, not in the community using the text.
Another feature of some veins of postmodern thought is an emphasis on deconstructionism. This is essentially a pulling apart of the text in order to find new meaning. Discussing hermeneutics, Richard Kearney (the Charles Seeling Professor of Philosophy at Boston College) states, “everything should be deconstructed.” The twin principles of community and deconstruction are seen in Kearney’s analysis of Genesis 22. By pulling apart the language of the text Kearney claims to be able to separate the voice of God from Abraham’s tribal memories. By extracting God’s voice in Genesis 22 from Abraham’s communal/tribal context and reinterpreting it through the readers community then the meaning of the text (for you) can be found.
David Allen, dean of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offers a blunt appraisal of this type of hermeneutic:
“Deconstructionists…have thrown out the rules and the referees. Languages and texts are treated as play things. The more grotesquely they can be twisted out of their natural meaning the better.”
This kind of approach to the text clearly violates the biblical principles of clarity outlined in part one of this series. Paul often used the Abraham narrative, and unless he explicitly said otherwise, as in Galatians 4:21-25, expected his readers to understand the plain meaning of the text.
Other postmodernists view suspicion of the text as a virtue, and certainty of meaning as a vice, akin to phariseism. This vice of certainty is then supposed to result in the legitimizing of racism and cultural oppression. In order to prevent this, Merold Westphal, distinguished professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, advocates a hermeneutic informed by the kind of self examination that can be learned from noted atheists such as Marx and Nietzsche. This leads to his nonsensical statement that “The biblical text can be morally troubling on biblical grounds.” Such an approach not only does violence to the concept of clarity, but fails to heed the warning of Colossians 2:8 not to be taken captive by vain philosophy, or 2 Corinthians 6:14 which asks “what fellowship does light have with darkness?”
While academic post moderns, their names and arguments alike, may be unfamiliar to you, these dangers are not limited to the academic world. The Emerging Church movement and its post-liberal wing known as Emergent have brought many of these ideas into the popular Christian context. The de facto spiritual leader of the emergent movement is Brian McLaren, and his view of clarity is telling.
In his book a Generous Orthodoxy he states, “Clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, playfulness and intrigue (carefully stimulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.” He traces this notion back to the work of the father of post-liberalism Hans Frei. Clearly the work of postmodern academic theologians has made its way into the popular Christian consciousness, and is a threat to the spiritual health of the Church.
The outworking of Mclaren’s hermeneutic of uncertainty is seen in the uncertainty of his own positions, and as he make clear in Generous Orthodoxy, he finds value in espousing wrong ideas if it stimulates thinking. However when wrong statements about the Gospel are concerned the stern warning of Galatians 1:8 – 9 that anyone preaching a different Gospel is accursed is applicable. While he never seems to articulate what his Gospel is, Mclaren does state that he finds value in the Roman Catholic sacerdotal system and veneration of Mary, that it is possible to become a follower of Jesus and remain in “a Hindu or Buddhist context” and that the meaning of the Gospel is continually rediscovered as it is carried to different communities. It seems clear that that he is preaching a different gospel and that this flows from his lack of certainty and the subsequent lack of submission to biblical authority.
Just as the Galatian believers were in danger of being cut off from Christ, so too are those who may subscribe to McLaren’s rejection of the exclusivity of Christ. Equally lost are any who are reached with the Gospel that he preaches that extends the offer of salvation through Christ to those who remain in Pagan religions. This is the danger of the postmodern attack on clarity, that souls will be lost and Christian walks will turn into limps when the plain meaning of Scripture is denied.
Some Concluding Thoughts
The clarity of Scripture is foundational to the Christian life and the proclamation of the Gospel. In order to declare the good news and to submit to the commands of scripture and to live a life pleasing to God, believers must be confident in their ability to understand the meaning of Scripture.
The biblical evidence is clear, Scripture is understandable by the simplest of believers, even children, and God will hold all people accountable for understanding and obeying His Word. Although the evidence is clear, there has been a constant attempt throughout church history to muddy the doctrine of clarity, and today is no exception. Postmodern hermeneutics attack the concept of clarity in a variety of ways, have made their way into the popular consciousness of the church and endanger souls.
The clarity of Scripture must be defended, and taught to God’s people. As theologian Charles Hodge explained, “The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures.” The faith of God’s people depends on it.