Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Epistemological Deficiencies of the Postmoderns Formerly Known as Protestants (Part 1)

The title of the article, “Sola Scriptura Properly Conceived and Practiced,” caught my attention because it held out the hope that I might finally see a “workable” alternative to that which the author of the article constantly mischaracterizes as “soloscriptura--or as he sometimes likes to call it, the “culturally conditioned, radical, sectarian, Gnostic, Enlightenment-enslaved version of sola scriptura." As I have argued in the past, I think consulting a bunch of dead guys is fine, so long as no more is made of it than the practice of consulting biblical scholarship at large when seeking to understand a passage of Scripture. But past biblical scholarship (in the form of, say, the creeds) is no more “holy” or useful than is consulting contemporary scholarship; and indeed, contemporary biblical scholarship (to the extent that it is evangelical scholarship) has every advantage over the old in terms of insight and avoidance of mistakes committed in the past. Most of the ancient creeds (by which I mean fourth and fifth century) are far too dependent upon Aristotelian and Platonic categories to be all that helpful for arriving at a truly biblical understanding of concepts such as the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ (among other things), and as such go well beyond the Scriptures in articulating what is essential to orthodoxy (see my past articles on Historical Theology, esp. this one).

But a certain former Protestant who has become enamored with both postmodernism and Roman Catholicism of late constantly berates those of us who have the unmitigated gall to suggest (gulp) that the Scriptures can actually be understood (gasp!) without having to devote one’s life to the reading of medieval history or contemporary philosophical works. And he has dedicated his life, it seems, not only to reading these works but to allowing them to influence his entire worldview, which he subsequently baptizes and presents to us as "Christianity."

And so I read . . . and read . . . and read some more . . . looking for his alternative “solution” to the “unworkable” evangelical principle of sola scriptura. I would have thought, after all, that a title such as “Sola Scriptura Properly Conceived and Practiced” would yield something . . . anything that would hold out what that title itself had promised. And through it all I read (for the eleven-hundredth time now) quite a bit on the belief that mine is a “false understanding and practice of sola Scriptura” that “bears more likeness to the radicalized form of 'democratic' appeal that characterizes Modern American society than it does to what the Protestant Reformers themelves [sic] practiced”--Yes, yes, we know; we’ve had that tiresome line shoved down our throats for the past two years. And so you can imagine how anxious I was at the prospect of seeing, finally, how the author himself had at long last solved the problem that has plagued us Gnostics for all these years; namely, Just who gets to interpret Scripture?

But my hopes, in the end, were dashed. To my astonishment, the author proposed no solution. Instead, he concluded his article by saying, “Some of us are making some poor stabs at correcting these deficiencies,” and then by linking to two other articles.

And so I ventured a look at the other two articles. Surely there would be something there that would act as a “workable” alternative to my highly deficient understanding that the Bible is the final authority in matters of faith and practice, and that no appeal to the theological decisions of a “magisterium” (in the form of creed or council) is binding on the conscience of the believer. And so again I read . . . and read . . . and read some more.

One of the articles, after again berating the evangelical practice of sola scriptura, summed up this way:

So if none of us--not even us thoroughly convinced sola Scriptura types--can get way from a concept of a "Churchly interpreter", what can we make of statements such as the ones I opened this entry with? What can we make of statements that say the decrees of Councils must be "wholly" in line with Scripture, and that the final judge of what Scripture means can only be the Holy Spirit Himself speaking in Scripture? Now we are getting into some pretty deep epistemological and historical waters, so to keep from making this blog entry a tome, I'll stop it here with a few questions which will hopefully generate some discussion over on the new discussion board.
In other words—you guessed it—no proposed alternative solution. And beware the reference to "some pretty deep epistemological and historical waters." That's usually code for "I'm right, and you should just take my word for it." A philosophy professor at Western Michigan University (Ph.D. Vanderbilt), with whom I have been in correspondence and whose work I will be citing in this series--and who specializes in epistemology and wrote his dissertation on Foundationalism (in favor of Foundationalism, contra the recent article against it by the author formerly known as a Protestant)--said it best when quoting another philosopher: "six inches of muddy water looks as deep as the ocean."

And so don't allow yourself to be misled by someone who hasn't yet earned his undergraduate degree but who presents himself as an expert in epistemology, and attempts to convince you that his ideas are somehow mainstream and well accepted, and that if the rest of us were only as well read as he is in this area we would all happily come to the same conclusions that he has. The author merely cites the “problem” (as he perceives it), but then stops short of solving it for us. It’s a case of “I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it isn’t.” Unfortunately, that’s just a very optimistic way of stating the converse: “I can tell you what it isn’t, but I can’t tell you what it is.” Such an observation contributes absolutely nothing to the question of epistemology or ecclesial authority. Worse, the “problem” is really only a problem from the standpoint of the postmodern formerly known as a Protestant. It’s not really a problem for the rest of us. Indeed, following even the avenue along which the author would have us go results in insuperable difficulties with deciding just what is Christian truth and what is not. I will expand on this a bit next time when we look at some real-world test cases. The author claims that the evangelical practice of sola scriptura is “instable” and “unworkable.” We will see to what extent the author’s theory itself is stable and workable.