Exegetical Populism

A number of years ago I was in a church where the pastor constantly spoke of the need to “Put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” What this meant was that preachers and teachers should make truth accessible to everyone in the church; to follow the metaphor, the baby Christians in the church should be able to reach the cookies. This is commendable—no pastor should preach in a way that opaque, technical terms are so loaded into a sermon that only specialists can understand. Implicit in the statement, though, is that the church should all remain eating cookies taken from the bottom shelf. It was definitely the case that this pastor did not want his congregation to grow beyond his sloganeering of theology; he came across as intelligent and profound, but I believe that there was an element of fear on his part that to have congregants surpass him in knowledge put him on the defensive.

While this scenario doesn’t work itself out in every church, there is a sense where Christians are kept from progressing in their knowledge of the faith. Whether from fear, or the lack of desire to do the grunt work of theological learning and teaching, churches leave their members gurgling on the milk of theology, when they could all be dining on grade A steak.

William B. Evans makes a similar observation in his essay hosted at the Reformation21 site called, “Perspicuity, Exegetical Populism, and Tolerance: A Reply to G. I. Williamson.” Evans, who is Younts Professor of Bible and Religion at Erskine College, discusses the common misappropriation of the perspicuity of scripture among Reformed Christians. The oft-held idea is that perspicuity means that all of scripture is crystal clear to all Christians at all times. This means that the generally held notions of simple Christians, who have no training, should be the basic theological perspective of the church at large. Evans argues that this is at odds with the Westminster Confession’s teaching on perspicuity, and indeed scriptures own teaching on the subject (cf. WCF I.1; 2 Pet. 3:16). Perspicuity means that those issues to do with the broad story-line of scripture, that is caught up with the gospel and redemption, are what is clearly apprehended by all. Thus the brilliant mathematician, and the lowly minimum wage worker can all easily understand the gospel.

There are other teachings in scripture, however, that are harder to understand. And for that, the church needs her teachers to be educated in order to, within their God-given ability, teach clearly those things that are difficult. When it comes to such teaching, a lot more tolerance and understanding is needed, because issues in interpretation often lead theological experts in different directions. This can be seen in debates over eschatology; some are premillennial, others are amillennial. Nobody should make those a test of orthodoxy, because of the legitimate interpretations on either side of the issue. As eschatology is a good example, so is protology. In the history of the church, as I have pointed out in earlier posts, orthodox theologians have held varying views on days of creation or age of the earth. There are legitimate concerns that one’s theology could lead them in a dangerous direction, but because of the principle of the analogia fidei, those concerns aren’t always necessary. Evans cites eschatology again as an example: a person may become convinced of postmillennialism, but this does not necessarily mean that they will become a hyper-preterist because other texts of scripture keep them from it. So too with protology: a person may be old earth, but the analogy of faith keeps them from accepting evolution.

To be stuck at the lowest common denominator out of fear will grid-lock a church. Evans calls it “exegetical populism,” where the uneducated, “ordinary” Christian, who has no training in theology has the final say on matters that require sophistication and understanding. How would a group, church or otherwise, progress along these lines? If electricians were kept at a very basic understanding, will they ever get past the mere changing of light bulbs? As Evans asks: “When did naivete become a prerequisite for exegesis?” The implication is that everyone should remain theologically naive. If so, why do we have seminaries? Why do Christians get doctoral degrees–or any degree? Why read books? If exegetical populism were the standard fair in Christian history, there would be no Augustine, no Aquinas, no Calvin, no Owen, no Edwards, no Warfield, no Lloyd-Jones, no Carson. No matter how uncomfortable it may be in a given context, church leaders must get beyond “cookies on the bottom shelf” Christianity, they must move the church forward, so that it isn’t stuck at the level of the most simple-minded in the congregation.

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2 Comments

Filed under exegesis, hermeneutics, scripture

2 responses to “Exegetical Populism

  1. A church should not only focus on the teachings of the Bible “the whole counsel of God” but also personal spiritual development-a Christian should know their Bible and should have a pastor who explains-teaches-models-the teachings of the Bible-but Christians should grow in inner experimental knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christian-they ought to practice the spiritual disciplines of reading the Bible, meditation, prayer and contemplation-a balance between head and heart knowledge.

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