One of the foundational elements of theological musing, study, and debate is the acknowledgement of interpretive lenses. I’ve mentioned before in my post on biblicism that one of the problems with so much of Christendom’s application of Scripture is that of interpretive pluralism.
Lately I’ve been engaging in conversations where the trump card of “Scripture says this” has been thrown onto the table. I understand the sentiment, and I applaud its appeal to a higher authority than one’s own, but I would like to caution those of you who use it. Scripture alone in itself cannot be appealed to as support for your argument about the nature of God. I’ve mentioned time and time again that the Bible was not written to us (though it certainly can have been written for us and for our benefit). We cannot assume that the people to whom (and by whom) the Bible was written experienced life circumstances the way that we do. Of course, they were human just as we are human, and there are certainly many aspects of the human experience that ring just as true today as they did several thousand years ago.
However, there have been several major events in humanity’s history that have drastically altered our perspective on life. The point of this post is not to delve into all those events, but I’ll describe just a few.
First, Greek philosophy.
The earliest Christians were slow to develop any kind of philosophy of Christianity. Much of the faith was based on Judaism, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that were it not for the harsh Jewish reaction towards the “Followers of the Way” (as Christians were known back then), our faith might look incredibly different from how it looks today.
However, that’s not what happened, and Christianity developed along a much different course. Due to the spread of Christianity within the Greco-Roman world, many of the more influential converts to this new faith weren’t converting from Jewish society, but were instead coming from Greco-Roman society. This slowly led to Christianity adopting a sort of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The first of this new school of Christian philosophy was Titus Flavius Clemens (aka Clement of Alexandria). The Platonic influence continued from Clement to his student Origen. Almost a century following Clement and Origen, Augustine continued to evolve Neo-Platonic philosophy within Christianity. Following Augustine, philosophers like Boethius and Dionysius brought Neo-Platonic thought deeper into the heart of Christian philosophy. Erigena, Peter Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and others carried on the pseudo-Dionysian theme.
How does Platonic philosophy influence Christianity? There are numerous ways, but one major impact that this Greek-influenced theology had on Christian thought was in the way God is portrayed. To the Platonist, God is an impersonal being, wholly detached from the goings on of human life. Rather than a God that exists in and among human interaction, as Jewish theology often proposes, God exists apart from the world. This led to Christians viewing God’s throne as being “somewhere up there,” and not making his dwelling among us.
Platonic philosophy brought about a dichotomy between the “physical” and the “spiritual” planes of existence, putting God squarely in the “spiritual” plane and humanity in the “physical” plane, with Jesus supernaturally occupying both and bridging the gap between God and Man.
God’s interaction with the physical realm is therefore limited to certain events. Calvinists might say that God resides outside the physical realm but maintains absolute control over it, orchestrating every detail according to his will. Some Arminians might say that God remains in charge of the physical realm and exercises control over it when he has a particular plan that he wants to set in motion (i.e. the redemption of humanity). In both cases, God occupies a different realm from humanity.
Second, the Edict of Milan.
Prior to Constantine’s rise as the Roman Emperor, Christianity had to exist as an underground community due to widespread and pervasive hatred of their religion. There had been several points throughout the Roman Empire’s history where Christians were tolerated, but by and large they were mistreated throughout most of the Empire’s and Christianity’s coinciding existence.
That all changed with the Edict of Milan. Constantine the Great went several steps beyond simply tolerating Christians; he actually made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, ushering in an era in the Western world known as “Christendom,” an era of Christian domination of the West that would last from the 4th century to the first decade of the 21st century.
So how did this particular event shape Christianity? I won’t go into very much detail here as I’ve covered that in a post I wrote several years ago. But basically what it did was drastically alter the praxis of the Church. Christianity became less a lifestyle and more a religion. Practicing Christianity, which had been marked by caring for the homeless, feeding the poor, and developing communal lifestyles, instead became known by attending established gatherings or services, sacramental practices, and paying indulgences to the Church.
Third, the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was an era of discovery and, while not specifically or intentionally an attack on Christianity, became one due to many notable conflicts between Enlightenment ideologies and the Church’s theology. The Enlightenment influenced Christianity in a few ways, and it is incredibly difficult to separate Christianity from its Enlightenment influence.
The Enlightenment challenged Christianity, causing the Church to react poorly to it. Due to new scientific discovery, much of Christianity was being questioned. An example of this would be the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun. The Church held that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth. The Church held the power of excommunication and wielded it against men like Galileo, who challenged the way Christendom approached new scientific discovery. These types of challenges exist even today, though the focus has shifted quite a bit.
On the other hand, however, Christianity adopted the Enlightenment’s approach to discovery. Everything must be verifiable and rooted in fact. In order for the truth to be the truth, it had to adhere to this new definition of “truth” that included fact checking, evidence analysis, and story corroborating. Christians began to define truth in the same way, view Scripture through this lens, and interpret it based on those findings.
These (among other things) have had a profound impact on the evolution of Christianity throughout the centuries.
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Now, I’m not saying these are necessary good or bad influences, but I point them out because I want us to be aware that there are all sorts of things that change the way we view Scripture, our faith, and even our history as Christians.
Whenever I hear someone say something to the effect of, “The plain reading of Scripture yields such and such a conclusion,” I immediately stop listening. (I know, that’s a response I need to work on, but it’s so difficult for me to refrain.) Why? Because there is no such thing as a plain reading of Scripture.
Here’s an example.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
Within traditional Evangelical circles there are no fewer than two commonly held interpretations of this passage. Let’s start with the less common (though most controversial and most voiced by popular theologians like James Montgomery Boice, John Piper, and James White). This interpretation holds that God predetermined before the foundation of the world each individual who would be saved. In other words, from “predestination” to “justification to “glorification” and everywhere in between, God determined and performed everything related to our salvation. “All those ‘predestined’ will also be ‘called.’ All those ‘called’ will also be ‘justified.’ All
those ‘justified’ will also be ‘glorified.’ None of those ‘predestined’ will fail to
be ‘glorified’ in the end. Therefore, man’s will and response to God cannot be a
determining factor regarding his salvation” (Tim Warner, PFRS Commentary on Romans 8:28-30).
The more commonly held interpretation is that God determined that the the destiny of those who follow his Son Jesus would be conformation “to the image of his Son.” In other words, predestination means that God determined those people’s destiny ahead of time. Those whose destiny it was to be conformed to King Jesus’s image were called by God; if they meet those qualifications, then God justified them and finally glorified them.
Another interpretation that’s gaining some modicum of popularity (and that is also compatible with the second) goes beyond just this particular passage and analyzes St. Paul’s entire message on the unnecessary dichotomy between Israel and the Gentile believers. In other words, St. Paul is immensely concerned that the Jewish believers accept the Gentile believers and that the Gentile believers understand that they are full citizens in God’s Kingdom of Israel).
So here’s the point I’m trying to make. We have to acknowledge our interpretive lenses. We all look at Scripture through different lenses and that vastly influences how we handle the Bible, and by extension, how we view God.
Calvinists have their interpretive lenses. Classical Arminians have theirs as well. Wesleyan Arminians have their own set of interpretive lenses, as do Open Theists.
Pentecostals view the Bible very differently from Baptists, yet they’re both Evangelical denominations.
Protestants don’t come to the same conclusions as Anabaptists about most of what’s in Scripture, and in much the same way the Roman Catholic Church differs greatly in its handling of the Bible than does the Eastern Orthodox Church.
So when someone says, “Here’s what the Bible says, and if you disagree, then you’re wrong,” I generally conclude two things about that person. First, he/she is unwilling to acknowledge that there are innumerable interpretations of the passage he/she is using. Second, he/she is unable to see that his/her own handling of Scripture is itself one interpretation in a myriad of other acceptable interpretations.
I realize I’m venting a bit in this post, but I write this because I believe that honest, friendly debate can and does happen, but it only occurs when people are willing to acknowledge the fact that they have a lens through which they are reading Scripture. Without that acknowledgement, we’re doomed to angry, vitriolic arguments where strawmen and ad hominem fallacies run rampant throughout.