‘Interpretive pluralism’ doesn’t require tolerance as long as you’re willing to accuse everyone else of wicked intent

Neither Emo Philips (above) nor Christian Smith was the first to observe what Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” That’s Smith’s fancy term for the rather obvious fact that lots of different Christians have lots of different views on what the Bible says and what it means.

The term, in other words, is a description, not an attempt to explain what is being described. This is simply what we see — an undeniable, unremarkable, no-duh observation: different Christians interpret the Bible differently.

So Richard Beck wasn’t saying anything particularly new or strange in his post last Friday on the implications of this interpretive pluralism. But Beck does do a fine job of restating the matter quite clearly:

People who claim to literally interpret the inspired and inerrant Word of God do not agree on what the bible says.

Christian Smith calls this “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” And this pervasive interpretive pluralism isn’t just found among progressives and liberals. It is found among evangelicals and fundamentalists, among the very people who claim that they are reading the bible very, very literally. Pervasive interpretive pluralism exists among biblical literalists. 

Which brings us to the problem at the heart of Protestantism.

The problem at the heart of Protestantism is that the bible is unable to produce consensus. This isn’t a theological claim. This is an empirical fact.

Sola scriptura produces pluralism. The “bible alone” creates doctrinal diversity. Biblical literalism proliferates churches.

And 500 years of Protestantism is Exhibit A.

We Protestants would love to be able to appeal to the Bible as a kind of paper pope. We’d love to be able to resolve all disputes and questions and differences of doctrine, emphasis or understanding by asking, “What does the Bible say?” and then allowing the Bible to be the definitive, authoritative arbiter to settle the matter.

But that has never worked. And the more we turn to ask “What does the Bible say?” the more it seems we proliferate our differences of doctrine, emphasis and understanding. The Bible cannot be used to settle our disagreements because we cannot agree on what the Bible says and means.

Beck goes on to discuss the implications of this “interpretive pluralism.” It is, he says, “a fact with an important moral implication”:

If you are going to accept the burden of being of Protestant, of living with sola scriptura, then you are going to have to learn to welcome doctrinal diversity.

If you want to be biblical you’re going to have to reconcile yourself to pervasive interpretative pluralism. That’s life being biblical. Being biblical requires a fair amount of tolerance for doctrinal diversity. Being biblical means creating a big tent.

So if you want to be biblical — if you want to go sola scriptura and drop the magisterium — then you are morally obligated to assume the burden and responsibility of welcoming the doctrinal diversity you will create.

That’s one potential moral implication of the unavoidable reality of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” And it’s one that Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk agrees with. He writes:

A certain tolerance, a certain wideness of mercy, a certain ecumenicity should be the hallmark of Christian Protestantism.

But this Protestant faith must be of the kind that is also willing to stop saying, in many instances, “the Bible says,” as though it’s as clear as the nose on your face. It will be a Protestant faith in which the Bible becomes the starting point for discussion, not the point at which discussion ceases. It will recognize that our understanding of the Bible is influenced by reason, history, tradition, experience, and culture in ways that are both pervasive and subtle. It will show a willingness to engage in discussions across interpretive lines without feeling threatened, without insisting that every disagreement is a threat to the heart of the faith itself. It will be humble, holding many, if not most, of its conclusions lightly and humbly, showing generosity to those who arrive at different ones.

But when it comes to the moral implications of interpretive pluralism, Beck and the chaplain are in the minority within evangelicalism. The more common, dominant “moral implication” derived from the fact of interpretive pluralism is this: Some people must be right and everyone else must be wrong. Therefore, don’t be wrong.

From that perspective, Beck and Chaplain Mike are being reckless with their talk of “diversity” and “tolerance” and “big tents” and “discussion.” Such talk can only serve to make Christians complacent about the grave danger of being wrong — of falling into error and sin by failing to discern the one, true biblical interpretation that stands apart from the multitude of incorrect, false, deceived and rebellious alternatives. Talk of diversity and tolerance can only lead to a lukewarm lack of concern for absolute truth.

For these folks, the stakes are incredibly high. The difference between the correct interpretation and all of the many false ones is as stark and as consequential as the difference between Heaven and Hell. And thus, for them, the overriding moral implication has nothing to do with tolerance or diversity, epistemic humility or ecumenicity. For them the greatest moral obligation is to rescue others from the destruction and damnation of error:

For wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Beware of false prophets. …

This very different understanding of the moral implications of interpretive diversity reflects a very different understanding of what God is like. Richard Beck and Chaplain Mike urge Christians to show one another the mercy, grace and generosity that they believe God extends to all of us as fallible, finite humans. But if your starting point, instead, is the idea that human fallibility is damnably intolerable — that it separates us from a holy and perfect God and makes us deserving of eternal torment — then such big-tent tolerance and generosity toward one another is inappropriate. It’s a failure to recognize that error and incorrect interpretation could damn us all to an eternity of Hell.

One page of People Who Are Right, plus 431 pages of People Who Are Wrong.
One page on People Who Are Right about the Bible, plus 431 pages on People Who Are Wrong.

And when the stakes are that high — infinitely, eternally high — then the epistemic humility that Beck and Mike call for is a luxury that Christians just cannot afford. Anything less than complete and total certainty is just terrifying.

So, then, where can such certainty come from? How can these Christians be certain that their particular interpretation of the Bible is the one correct one — the narrow way that leadeth to life and not one of the many incorrect interpretations along the broad, wide way that leadeth to destruction?

Their answer is that we have the blessed assurance that the Holy Spirit will guide us in understanding the Bible correctly, if only we devoutly open ourselves to such spiritual guidance. If we turn to the Bible with pure hearts and the best of intentions, then the Spirit will not allow us to go astray.

That sounds lovely, at first. It seems for a moment to be a devout expression of evangelical piety and the kind of intensely personal devotion it can produce. But then, once it sinks in that this idea is a response to the inescapable fact of interpretive pluralism, you begin to realize that it isn’t lovely at all. It’s actually just a sanctimonious euphemism for a really vicious and nasty accusation being made against every other Christian or group of Christians in every other place and time.

Given the fact of interpretive pluralism, “We know our interpretation is correct because our hearts are pure and we are led by the Holy Spirit” means that everyone else who has a different interpretation must have impure hearts and must not be guided by the Holy Spirit.

Both sides of that equation reinforce a moral arrogance that complements the epistemic arrogance it serves. We are good people because we interpret the Bible correctly, and we interpret the Bible correctly because we are good people. They are bad people because they interpret the Bible incorrectly, and they interpret the Bible incorrectly because they are bad people.

All of this also serves to elevate our purity of heart and spiritual good intentions over any consideration of any meaning intrinsic to the text itself. If I am a well-intentioned person with a good heart — with “Jesus in my heart” and “a heart for Jesus” — then that is all the hermeneutic or exegesis or scholarship I will ever need.

It’s not just the joy, joy, joy, joy that’s down in my heart (where?), down in my heart (where?), down in my heart to stay. It’s also the hermeneutics.

 

 

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