Is Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism a Devastating Blow to the Clarity, Functional Authority, and Absoluteness of the Bible?

According to Christian Smith, pervasive interpretive pluralism (PIP) is a significant obstacle to a genuine adherence to the way many evangelicals (whom he calls biblicists) view the clarity, authority, and absoluteness of Scripture. He makes some good points. But, I think there are valid ways to respond that neither obscure and dismiss his wisdom nor embrace unequivocally his arguments. As I have been thinking over his arguments some thoughts about the nature of Scripture and what it means that Christians have clear differences in many different places have come to the fore. My thoughts have implications for any text, not just the Bible. Here is a list of things to ponder:

1. Because of our finiteness and fallenness, humans will always have imperfect interactions with another object, not least texts. This will lead to slight or significant differences of interpretation. We can criticize the subject, but PIP vis a vis any object is not enough to question the identity and function of the object, one way or the other. In fact, I found myself confused at times whether Smith viewed this as an issue with the Bible or with us, or both.

2. PIP is often an issue of rhetoric, not of actual and thoughtful belief. This is not good, but many Christian preachers, writers, and teachers overstate their case for the sake of making a point in such a way that their view seems more drastically counter to another point. When you witness various thinkers, in a panel like setting, who are humble and precise, one often finds they have much more agreement than difference and that those differences are a matter of emphasis or angle, not actual distinction and contradiction.

3. PIP is Smith’s interpretation (which ironically is a PIP itself) of something that communications scholars have long studied, which is both a blow to some of Smith’s arguments and also postmodern literary theory in general. This phenomenon is the layering and complexity of truth because of the media wherein the media will influence how we evaluate and emotionally respond to the idea is is meant to convey. This does not compromise or make illusory the sender’s intent, nor does it mean the media is errant. But, every sender needs to be aware that she sends an idea through a medium that could obscure her meaning, if not done well or given the recipients issues with the medium.

All truth is communicated through a medium: visual, auditory, voice, music, body motion, touch, you name it. This is the world of semiotics. The truth can never be utterly distilled from that medium in that moment, but one of the unique things about being human, in the image of God, is that we believe there is truth that is distinct from the medium, even though we cannot fully tease it out. Humanity believes in the abstract, the ideal, the distinction between form and essence. In as much as God is totally autonomous and has asceity, so truth that stems from God is not anchored to the medium that is used to convey it even though it is attached to it. Attached but not anchored. Truth is only bound by God.

Therefore, I think PIP may just be the interaction between a finite creature and the semiotic complexity of a text. The problem is not ambiguity or built in errors, but rather that we humans can sometimes mistake a layer or aspect of medium for a truth. This is not good, I concede, but it does not mean that there are actual problems with the Bible or that the Bible is not a conveyor of absolute truth. Again, much of this is evangelicalism learning to think about interpretation in more nuanced terms. We are growing in our understanding of naive realism versus a critical realism, which I commend and try and employ. I appreciate Smith’s rebuke on that account. But, though he does not want to, he does feed our propensity toward relativism one hand hand and/or our propensity toward frustration and subsequent despair on the other. Enough Christians already struggle with the Bible and it has nothing to do with PIP. It has to do with what I will want to address in a later blog – the interpretive spirit and method we want to employ as we come to God’s voice.

4. The Bible, as a whole, is a witness to the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Smith commends this view in his later chapters. I ‘amen’ this proposal. But, here is the deal: no one is going to question the infallibility, inerrancy, and authority of Jesus himself. But, this side of heaven, if Jesus was to manifest himself to a room of 100 people and then preached a sermon, proclaiming his love and glory, then I will bet you my back teeth that after that event there would be PIP amongst the congregation. Even the risen and living Lord would get 100 different conceptual and psychological reactions to his presence and teaching – some small in significance, but some grand. So, is Jesus like the Bible – perhaps having done a less than perfect job communicating himself? No, obviously not. I do not claim the Bible is on par with Jesus. No evangelical does. But, if we are going to use Smith’s logic, then we have to say that his PIP argument does not establish the conclusion he draws about the nature of the Bible nor how we should then approach it as Christians. I don’t think PIP in fact dings much. It is just a reality of a fallen and finite world. But again, Smith does make some good points that correct the less nuanced and less thoughtful sides to evangelical Bibliology…Bibliology, not Bibliolatry…come on!

By the way, Smith and others like Enns, are working off presuppositions of their own, which in turn drive their critiques of evangelical Bibliology. For instance, in Smith’s critique of harmonization, he is already starting with a supposition that there are contradictions in Scripture due to the nature of the text as Smith sees it. Those who try and harmonize believe in a different nature of Scripture. So, who is right? I throw my chips in with the ‘biblicists’ because there is a pretty decent theological argument that how God chooses to reveal himself will have His character embedded into it, like utter truthfulness. God is true. God chooses a text to reveal himself. God revealed himself not just through the text but in the process and form and product of the text. Therefore, that text bears his truthfulness.

So, in conclusion, it is a fact that there are a multiplicity of traditions, viewpoints, and doctrinal persuasions amidst Christianity, all purporting to claim allegiance the Scripture. But, I do not think that means that there is an uncrossable ditch between the reader and the text or that the text is not inerrant or functionally absolute in its authority. It just means that we do two things: 1) we try and get better methodologically. As simplistic as that seems, or even a red herring, I think method has a lot to do with outcome in Biblical interpretation. And 2) we grow in our comfort with the ambiguity and multivalence of the experience of interpreting the Bible in a community of fallen and finite people. The problem is not with the text, just as it could not be with Jesus himself. The problem is with our fallen condition. One thought on that, while I do not think error will exist in the new heavens and earth, I do think that people will still respond and react in different ways to truth, beauty, goodness and glory in heaven. Again, there are angles and layers to truth. Some layers will catch us in a way that it does not someone else. That is not pluralism of truth, just response and application.

PIP does not compromise a traditional evangelical view of Scripture. It might render certain parts of it questionable, but the idea that Scripture has God’s personal traits imprinted onto its identity, like total truthfulness in what it claims, infallibility, unity, sufficient clarity, etc, still stand in my mind. I would love to see Smith debate a scholar of communication. I think we would find some of the things I could only allude to here teased out in a meaningful and extended way.

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3 responses to “Is Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism a Devastating Blow to the Clarity, Functional Authority, and Absoluteness of the Bible?

  1. Tony

    I’m not sure, but Smith’s criticism of “biblicists” and Scripture reminds me of two places in the Word. The first is where God takes Jeremiah to the potter’s shed to demonstrate His Authority over creation and Israel and asks Jeremiah, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter? (Jer. 18:6a). Additionally in Isaiah we see a similar statement from the Master Potter to one of His servants, “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker…will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Our finite understanding of the infinite is as a barnacle attached to the hull of a nuclear-powered submarine making protestations about that vessel. No mattere how well thought out these thoughts, they will fall short of Who He is. Honestly, some of the discussion is above my head (I’ve had to keep my dictionary handy for this one), but one thing I know is the old Tony would not even try to understand the Word, Living or written. The Tony He has begun to create (Php. 1:6) is in love with both Words and longs to know Him more daily. That change (and both Messiah and His Word) are not threatened by Mr. Smith, indeed I believe He welcomes genuine query, no matter how harsh. I only pray that the Mr. Smith’s of the world, while criticizing both the Word and those who, they believe, are believing in smoke and mirrors; that the closer and more detailed their examination of these Truths to detect error, their eyes would be opened to the wonder of the Word!

  2. Caroline

    The point, it seems here, is the question of what “methodology” of reading Scripture one considers true or not true, faithful or unfaithful. How do we discern between different readings? I think you are right on that people who seem in stark disagreement often agree when they listen to each other with generosity and charity, but we also need, if we take Scripture as the ultimate authority to Christian teaching, to realize your statement: that teaching comes through people reading it. Who do we trust when reading it? Every teaching is a particular, albeit possibly Spirit inspired, reading, and the question that seems to rub Dr. Smith is how to discern between different readings that claim to be authoritative and Scriptural, seeing that some of these readings can be really harmful to people and to their belief and faith, and even, finally, to Christian identity. Do we read the Bible and get the Trinity or not? According to who? Is it a faithful reading to read it and not see Trinity? If the answer is no, we have to wrestle with that backs up that belief, if not the Bible itself from where the reading comes.

    Also, as a side note, Christian Smith himself is a professing Christian who, when he was here in Durham, was an invested member of Blacknell.

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