Critical Realism

OK. I’ll be done soon on Smith’s book. One thing that has come up in the last section is Smith’s proposal that a better way forward from Biblicism is a thoughtful critical realism that enables a Christian to interact with the Biblical text with the nuance that is required to interpret it with the humility, discretion, and unity-mindedness that I think most evangelicals desire. What is critical realism? It is an epistemological approach that is a half way point between hard foundationalism (truth is absolute and we can know absolutely) and post-modern perspectivalism (whether there is absolute reality or not, we will never know beyond our particular, and often isolated, perspective). Critical realism affirms absolute reality/truth and yet affirms, because of our finitude and fallenness, that perfect knowledge is not attainable. However, we can know things with sufficient accuracy, as long as we humbly admit our continued blind spots, keep in conversation, are teachable, and continue to grow in our pursuit of truth.

The irony is that I would label myself a critical realist. So would a lot of the pastors and scholars Smith cited as Biblicists, even if they don’t use that particular label. Very few people in thoughtful evangelical circles today embrace hard foundationalism. What this means is that method has not really advanced the case. We are now back to the issue of interpretation. Among critical realists there are still going to be PIP issues. Some are still going to suggest that inerrancy and infallibility are important affirmations that bolster practical confidence and submission to the text. Others won’t. Some are still going to encourage the church that a Christ-centered, gospel focused, hermeneutic is still going to shape a Biblical theology of different aspects to life, such as dating, leadership, parenting, and the like. Others won’t. There are still going to be abiding politics surrounding certain issues that will compel certain tribes to defend Biblical clarity on that issue: so progressive critical realists will strongly advocate that the Bible is clear on brotherly love, financial generosity, and justice, but maybe not modes of baptism, church membership, divorce, or homosexuality. Traditionally minded critical realists will suggest the Bible is clear on the latter but perhaps with varying degrees of importance and gravity.

This brings me to my last point, and something that Smith rightly speaks to. What we want to see happen is not so much a pulling back from letting the Bible frame and define all of life, but rather that we know how to weigh the importance and relevance of each Biblical theological point. Equal clarity does not mean equal gravity. Perhaps there are too many evangelicals that do fall into the trap of believing that if something is true, it is just as important as anything else found to be true. To illustrate, I think once a person is saved, they are eternally within God’s grace. I think that is clear in the Bible. I also think that the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is God’s Son and that he shares the Divine essence as the second person of the Trinity. I think both are clear enough that I can humbly say that I believe both with all my heart. But, the doctrine of Christ’s person is more important – in fact, I declare, along with history of the church and its creeds, that Christology is a make it or break it truth. So, eternal security is not a hill to die on for me. But, who Christ is…well…is.

So, critical realism does not really solve PIP, but it can alleviate how we deal with PIP – which I think is mostly what bothers Smith. In fact, PIP exists in Roman Catholicism. The magisterium does not really get you much of a net gain. So, maybe this is a lot more about the spirit and perspective than the raw fact of PIP.


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