Primary or Secondary Importance?: Interpretive Anarchy?

How do we find agreement in dogma when there is no final infallible interpreter and thus such a wide variation in interpretations?

With the Reformation and its call for Sola Scriptura there arose what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as an interpretive anarchy. This can be seen most tellingly in Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by evident reason–for I cannot accept alone the authority of popes or councils, for they have repeatedly contradicted each other– my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

 

It could be argued that the very concept of primary and secondary doctrines is a very Protestant problem, precisely because it comes down to an understanding of interpretive authority. Older writers referred to primary doctrines as dogma, those doctrines which have a definite and decidedly fixed authority to which all believers ought to submit. Herman Bavinck teases out the problem a bit: “Rome can teach [what is dogma] because it attributes infallibility to the church. But the Reformation recognizes no truth other than that which is given on the authority of God in Holy Scripture.”[1]

Okay, for Rome all doctrines are, in a sense, primary doctrines in so far as the Roman Catholic Church has an infallible interpreter of Scripture and tradition in the Magisterium.[2] But with the Reformation and its call for Sola Scriptura there arose what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as an interpretive anarchy. This can be seen most tellingly in Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by evident reason–for I cannot accept alone the authority of popes or councils, for they have repeatedly contradicted each other– my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

Now, with this single move, each individual reader becomes the captain of his own interpretive ship, no longer captive to other so called authorities, but captive alone to his own subjective reading of God’s word. The problem then becomes how to find agreement in dogma when there is no final infallible interpreter and thus such a wide variation in interpretations? You’ve no doubt heard that too-often repeated and all too-lazy rebuttal: “well, that’s just your interpretation.”[3]

Bavinck is right when says that among the Reformed, “the principle into which all theological dogmas are distilled is: God has said it.” And yet, sadly, our ability to interpret what God has said is more often like the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch:

“Do you understand what you are reading?” asked Philip.

“How can I unless someone guides me?” answered the Ethiopian (Acts 8:30-31).[4]

As Kevin Vanhoozer has provocatively asked, “the distinction between ‘fundamentals‘ and ‘little things‘ brings us back to what many consider the Achilles heel of Protestantism… for who decides what belongs to the fundamentals and what to the little things?”[5]

To be sure, we see this problem show up time to time within Scripture. Think of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15; the issue was one of interpretation and dogma. Did gentiles have to become circumcised in order to become faithful Christians? Many in Judea saw this as a right and even “necessary” (vs. 5) understanding of both the Old Testament and the Gospel. Here a council is gathered to investigate the issue and to debate the doctrine at hand. And note three things; first, they do so with laborious rigor – “there had been much debate” (vs. 7). Secondly, they examine the Scriptures (vs. 15-17). And thirdly, they seek, over time, to come to a conclusion together – “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church…” (vs 22), and “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord…” (vs. 25).

Read More

×

We need your help. Donate now.

Share
Tweet
+1
Share