Biblicism and Scholasticism

There is a spectrum. On the one side is a kind of Biblicism which goes so far as almost to deny interpretation. No creed but the Bible is a motto that is either naïve or duplicitous. You have to interpret the Bible; you have to do that because it is a complex book. If you pretend that you do not interpret, you will only interpret badly: rejecting good interpretations and interpreting without careful reflection. You may get the easy parts right: they require least interpretation; but you will get all the rest wrong, and this will drag on what you got right.

Next on the spectrum you might find those who want to keep interpretation at a minimum. This tends toward literalism: the idea is that anything you interpret means as little as possible, the range of meaning is kept narrow. You control interpretation that way. The problem still remains, however, if the Bible is a book that requires sophisticated interpretation because it is a big, complex book that speaks of big, complex things. It seems to me that the impulse to restrict interpretation to the most manageable narrow band is going to face theologically complex doctrines developed over time, especially more recent ones, with suspicion. Older ones might be grandfathered in, but real understanding or enthusiasm for them will be hard to achieve.

Then you have a more robustly theological interpretation, informed by a tradition of theological reflection. Here it is appreciated that theology is complex because what is revealed is complex, and that the complexity of revelation requires some hermeneutical sophistication. I would mark this position’s place on the spectrum by adding that theological sophistication is appreciated somewhat, but not entirely: philosophy, which contains the tools for sophisticated theology, is not appreciated as it should. The result is partly examined theology because there are unexamined philosophical assumptions. And I wonder if this is not where Evangelicalism in general finds itself.

There are two more positions on my spectrum: ones philosophy for theology rests on modern assumptions. The second rests on pre-modern assumptions. And this is where the Confessional divide can be seen: the Confessions were not written on modern philosophical assumptions, they were written on pre-moderns philosophical assumptions. The system of doctrine they present is called classical theism because it rests on classic metaphysics—classic philosophical ways of understanding and speaking.

This last can be disparaged in this way: we see Aquinas doing theology, we say he is just being speculative, he just wants to accommodate theology to Aristotle and pagan learning, overawed by it. What is the problem with rejecting what Aquinas did? Consider that perhaps he was not accommodating, but instead elaborating something every step of which was crucial, exceeding in sophistication because informed in things we nowadays ignore and therefore do not understand. If he was, and had reason to be, you are shooting yourself in the foot by throwing him out.

When you throw out ancient metaphysical assumptions, on the basis of which orthodox theology was formulated, you are saying you have a better basis for arriving at the same conclusions. You have an epistemology and metaphysics (all your philosophy, in short) that are derived directly from Scripture. People do this: it goes under the name of presuppositional apologetics, but it is a commitment to support 17th Century Reformed Orthodoxy (in its main instances) in ways that exclude what is derived from ancient philosophy. People who do this expect to get the same essential system of doctrine on a surer basis. Some think that is what the Reformers were doing anyway, and they are just making it more explicit. (Historians are not inclined to agree with this evaluation of the Reformer’s effort.) Perhaps all who do so think this way. I think it is a kind of Biblicism.

What if what you get from ancient philosophy is true? Then what you will end up with, if you jettison those classic assumptions, will begin to change and to creep. And this is why those defending their 17th Century confessions, seeking to keep as much of them as possible because they represent a coherent symbol of the doctrine formulated on the basis of careful and age-long interpretation of Scripture, this is why they are starting to become apologists for pre-modern metaphysics.

What if you cannot derive the underlying philosophical assumptions which you use to formulate doctrine from the Bible? What if this is not revealed there, but is rather like learning the languages (Hebrew grammar is not revealed or taught in Scripture, but assumed), a part of your human responsibility? What if it is like learning math, or geometry?  Then when you assume that you get it from the Bible (or your unerring miraculously supercharged Christian brain, I suppose) you will smuggle in, in our day, modern assumptions. You will use Kant warmed over, or some such. And you will do so in an unexamined way, even if it is pointed out to you that is what you are doing, because you are refusing to go where you need to.


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