Should the matter of diverse interpretation concern evangelicals when they think through the issue of biblical authority? Is it naïve to hold to sola scriptura when evangelicals can’t agree on interpretive decisions on even the most generally agreed upon texts? These are questions that Christians have struggled with since the early days of the church; recently Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has asked them in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not A Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos, 2011). For Smith, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, the “biblicism” of evangelicalism is challenged by what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (PIP). I have not read the book and this post is not intended as a comment on Smith per se. Rather, in response to reviews of it by Robert Gundry, Peter Leithart and Kevin DeYoung, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has lamented that they have missed the point of Smith’s argument. McKnight questions whether evangelicals believe PIP is a serious enough challenge or if it has been adequately met. He asks: “does not our claim that the Bible is revelation and clear get a massive shock when we examine who (sic) pluralistic our interpretations are? Shouldn’t a clear Bible yield clearer interpretations? Or have we fallen so much for diversity that we don’t even see this as a problem.”
Scot McKnight is a respected biblical scholar and I don’t want the following to appear condescending. But is PIP that severe of a problem? Don’t bible college undergrads learn how to answer the problem of diverse interpretation in their foundational courses in hermeneutics? I’m not asking these questions tongue-in-cheek; I fear I may be missing something and would love clarification.
Let me rehearse what I believe to be an answer (there are many, as DeYoung’s rejoinder points out)—without wanting to test McKnight’s intelligence, I’m sure he must know this—and see if it is at least plausible, if not wholly satisfying.
The character of Scripture as revelation is not impugned because there are diverse interpretations. The problem isn’t to do with a lack of clarity in revelation; the problem is with the moral condition of the interpreter. There is an objective, authoritative revelation from God that is comprehensible and understandable in the mind of God and should be understood by human beings. It isn’t understood because our minds are marred by sin; often called the noetic effects of sin. As sinners, we approach the text of Scripture with bent presuppositions that negatively impact our understanding. The problem is our “pervasive sin nature” that accounts for the “pervasive pluralism.” This is the case not only when it comes to biblical hermeneutics, but when we seek interpretations of anything in reality.
While Scripture is clear, sinners have various spiritual helps in overcoming the moral hindrances to interpretation such as the imago Dei, regeneration and the indwelling of the Spirit; thus revelation can be known, however imperfectly.
Does sin answer the problem PIP poses to biblical clarity and authority? It strikes me that if it does, sola scriptura isn’t challenged by Smith’s or McKnight’s concerns. To answer McKnight’s question: no, PIP does not undermine sola scriptura (what Smith calls “biblicism”). The challenge McKnight gives to evangelicals is to “prove that pervasive interpretive pluralism is not a problem.” If I’m right, then his challenge has been met.