A Pot/Potter Thing
What is the relationship between reason and Scripture? To rely on human reason without reference to Scripture is classic liberalism, but what about relying on Scripture without reference to reason? Is this desirable, or even possible? What do we do when human reason appears to conflict with Scripture, whether on trivia (like the identity of ‘the smallest of all seeds’, or the age of the earth) or on theology (like an all-loving God ordaining that some go to hell)? How should reason and scripture interact?
In some ways, this question has jumped up the list of biblical questions as a result of the recent debates about hell. So this week, in an omnibus edition uber-post, I thought it would be good to highlight a fascinating article that presents some intriguing conclusions on this whole question, and then offer some thoughts in response.
Jeff Cook, a Christian philosopher who posts occasionally at Jesus Creed, responded recently to Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle’s book Erasing Hell, which was itself a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Cook found fault with Chan and Sprinkle for repeatedly insisting (along the same lines as Job, Paul in Romans 9, and others) that our minds are incapable of fathoming the deep mysteries of God, and that we should not put God’s revealed words in Scripture in submission to human reasoning. This, Cook suggested, was both impossible and self-defeating. Impossible, because we cannot read the Bible without using human reason, and there are no theory independent readings of Scripture; and self-defeating, because Chan and Sprinkle are reasoning about God, in order to reject the idea that we can reason about God:
Lumping together both what the authors see as the “incomprehensible” horror of divinely mandated genocide and the “incomprehensible” goodness of the crucified Jesus, the writers say, “It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God’s plan of redemption, even though it doesn’t make sense to us. Neither should we erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with us. As soon as we do this, we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for [created beings] to do” (136).
Is this right? Can the intellect be set aside? Can we avoid putting God’s word/actions/character in submission to our reasoning when reading the Bible? I don’t think so. Let me give an example of why we must think hard about *how* we read the Bible, or else we will lose the proper understanding of the Bible.
In American Christianity, one school of thought says that the Bible ought to be read as a narrative. That is, we engage the scripture as the ever-moving story God is telling about himself. Another school of thoughts suggests we read the Bible as a legal document—that the binding truths articulated in the flow of the text apply to all people at all times. Still another school suggests we read the Bible through our stories, our situation, allowing the language to be God’s personal word to us. Of course, these schools can read the Bible in similar and complementary ways, but they will eventually hit some disagreements. For example, when asking whether or not women should speak in church, those affirming the narrative-reading may say that passages restricting the speaking of women were teachings for a specific community, in a specific city, that had specific problems. The legal document Bible reader may object that rejection of such passages is unacceptable for it is a clear teaching in the text. The one reading the scripture exclusively in light of their own situation may go either way depending on the women in her community and how much they annoy her.
How we choose to read the Bible deeply affects what the Bible says. There are no theory independent readings of the Bible. Our theories will move the text despite our best efforts. So what should we do? This is where the intellect is vital and to minimize it in our arguments is to leave the meaning of the scriptures susceptible to those with a bully pulpit, immense charisma, or more sinister still—our own misguided desires for the text to say something it does not (as Sprinkle rightly cautions).
Since arguing about “how” we ought to read the scripture is both good and unavoidable, we can reject the claim that “As soon as we [erase eternal conscious torment], we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for [us] to do” (136). This is a self-defeating misstep. The authors are asking us through reasoning about God’s actions to reject reasoning about God’s actions.
Without dismissing Cook’s important questions, which I don’t want to miss, I should say at this point that this final paragraph is very unfair to Chan and Sprinkle; they are not rejecting ‘reasoning about God’s actions’ at all, or (as Cook says earlier) ‘setting the intellect aside’, but rejecting ‘putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning’. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, John Calvin in the Institutes, and for that matter Paul in Romans 9, were able to reason about God, while nonetheless remaining submitted to his character, words and actions as revealed in the scriptures. This is what Chan and Sprinkle are urging, and to miss this distinction – as if the only alternatives were (a) standing in judgment over God’s character or (b) anti-intellectualism – is to create an unfortunate false dichotomy. Anyway:
As such, those who affirm the unavoidable role of the intellect in Bible reading and reject “Erasing Hell’s” conclusions might say: I see an argument clearly that affects my reading of scripture as significantly as the arguments for valuing author’s intent, or reading the Bible as narrative, or even the arguments for seeing the scripture as God’s inspired word. The argument goes something like this:
1. If God exists, he is exceedingly generous, compassionate, and creative.
2. If God exists, he knows the future of any world he actualizes.
3. A being who is exceedingly generous, compassionate, and creative will not actualize a world he knows will culminate in the everlasting incarceration and torment of a human soul.
Given 1-3, If God exists, he will not actualize a world in which a human soul will suffer in torment for eternity.
Because the intellect is unavoidable in our reading of scripture, and because eternal conscious torment is logically inconsistent with God’s attributes in the argument above—it seems obligatory to reject the traditional interpretation of passages showcasing hell. If such arguments are valid, the Bible *must* be teaching something different than eternal conscious torment, or else the Bible is not displaying the God who is real.
Now, this is not the place for a(nother) discussion about hell. What is significant here, in the context of looking at the Doctrine of Scripture, is the questions Jeff Cook is raising about the relationship of reason and the Bible. At a very simple level, the argument runs:
1. Scripture is often believed to indicate X.
2. Human reason indicates that not-X.
3. Therefore either (a) Scripture does not indicate X, or (b) Scripture is wrong.
What is interesting about this syllogism is that there are examples of it being accepted as valid, and examples of it being rejected as invalid, by the same people. If X were, for example, ‘the earth is flat, unmoving, and is built on pillars’, then the vast majority of living evangelicals would accept the argument above: human reason has shown this isn’t the case, so the Bible must mean something else. (But if the scientific community did a U-turn, and demonstrated conclusively that the earth was flat, unmoving and built on pillars, then my guess is we would be much more likely to believe that Scripture taught this, despite the fact that the texts in question are poetic in nature). If, on the other hand, X were ‘Jesus of Nazareth came back to life’, then all evangelicals would reject the argument: Scripture is clear, so human reason must be wrong. The difference lies in the relative confidence we have that we are right about (1) the meaning of Scripture, and (2) the validity of our reasoning regarding the case in question.
In other words, a more accurate analysis of what Jeff Cook is actually saying might be:
1. Scripture appears to indicate X.
2. Human reason indicates not-X.
3. Therefore either (a) Scripture does not indicate X, despite appearances; or (b) human reason is wrong, despite appearances; or (c) Scripture is wrong.
4. I am convinced that Scripture is not wrong on the point in question.
5. I am convinced that human reason is not wrong on the point in question.
6. Therefore Scripture does not indicate X.
The question, when framed like this, is over (5): how certain are we that human reason is right? Generally, we are very confident that the earth is round, and less confident that the Bible says it is flat – so we happily accept the syllogism above.
Now let’s make it slightly less cut-and-dried. What of the statement of Jesus that the mustard seed is ‘the smallest of all seeds’ (Mark 4:31)? Or of the claim in the Mosaic law that rabbits ‘chew the cud’ (Deut 7:14)? For some evangelicals these are accurate statements, about the relative sizes of seeds and of digestive practices in rabbits, that must be affirmed, since they are clearly taught in the Bible; human reasoning must be wrong. Others would argue differently, being so confident of (5) that (6) is accepted quite happily: Jesus is not making a scientific pronouncement on the sizes of seeds, and Moses is not making a scientific pronouncement on the digestive systems of rabbits, but both are allowing for ideas that would be generally believed in their world (even though they aren’t technically accurate) in order to make wider points.
But this then opens up all sorts of other questions that worry evangelicals. How many other things are affirmed in Scripture that aren’t actually accurate? The genealogies of 1 Chronicles? The flood? The exodus? The miracles of Jesus? When Paul talks about Adam as a historical figure (Rom 5:12-21), is he just saying something that was widely believed in his day, even though it isn’t actually accurate (as most contributors to biologos.org believe)? Doesn’t this cast doubt on Paul’s reliability? What other examples might there be?
And this, in turn, gives rise to a third approach, which is to affirm the statements, and insist that they do not conflict with human reason in the first place: the mustard seed is, in fact, the smallest seed that a Palestinian farmer might sow on his soil; rabbits do, in fact, re-chew partly digested plant material, but using cecotropy rather than regurgitation; and so on.
Easy peasy, some say. But what about this one:
1. Scripture appears to indicate that death entered the world as a result of human sin.
2. Human reason (specifically, paleontology, geology and evolutionary biology) appears to indicate that death was in the world long before human beings existed.
3. Therefore either (a) Scripture does not indicate that death entered the world as a result of human sin – the texts that speak of ‘death’ refer either to the physical or spiritual death of humans, or both; or (b) Human reason is wrong – the dating of fossils, clues in the human genome and so on have been wrongly interpreted; or (c) Scripture is wrong.
4. I don’t buy 3(a), because it doesn’t seem true to Scripture.
5. I don’t buy 3(b), because it doesn’t seem true to science.
6. I don’t want to believe 3(c).
Intriguingly, Wayne Grudem – who can hardly be described as fluffy on the doctrine of Scripture! – admits in Systematic Theology that Scripture appears to suggest 3(b), and science appears to suggest 3(a), which could lead some readers to expostulate something along the lines of (7) … (and here’s where I stop on this one, at least for the moment, for fear of shaking the open can of worms all over the floor, and being slowly eaten by them).
Here’s the big question. Given that we cannot avoid using reason in our interpretation of Scripture (as Jeff Cook rightly says), but given also that the scriptures regularly insist that our reasoning will not always be able to fathom the ways of God (as Francis Chan rightly says), how do reason and Scripture interact? And I think that the answer is that human reason is a great servant, but a terrible master: it can be, must be and will inevitably be used to help us understand Scripture, but it must not be used to assess whether or not Scripture ‘ought’ to say something, with a view to manipulating the Bible into saying something that it doesn’t. So we should use our minds to think about the meanings of texts, the genres of literature, the shape of the biblical story, and how that all might apply today – but we should not use them to constrain exegesis with preconceived ideas about what God should or should not be like. The apostle Paul felt this temptation, and he knew that the readers of his greatest letter would too – but for him, it was a pot / potter thing.
Actually, the part of me that loves New Testament studies – which is quite a big part – wonders whether this approach could lead to the death of exegesis (which I am sure is not Jeff Cook’s intention). Instead of using our reason to establish what a text or author meant in the original setting, and working outwards from there to doctrines and theology, we start with our logical deductions about what God is like, move from there to what the doctrines ought to be, and then (having concluded that a biblical doctrine of hell could not be such-and-such) constrain our exegesis to fit the doctrine we’ve decided is suitable. This, surely, cannot be right. If we distort the text to fit our agreed theology, we will be guilty of appalling exegesis – and critical scholars will be absolutely right to say so. When expounding (say) Matthew 25, we are meant to look for the original meaning of the author, whatever that means for our doctrine. The fact that somebody might not think the results cohere with their idea of what God should be – even if that leads him or her to prefer their idea of God to what the Bible actually says – is, frankly, irrelevant when it comes to establishing the meaning of a particular text. The pot doesn’t get to hold a gun to the head of the potter.
So what happens if, when the exegesis has been done carefully, it turns out that the Bible says something that appears to conflict with human reason? To be honest, in view of Francis Schaeffer’s statement that ultimately there will be “no final conflict” between reason and Scripture, it simply becomes a question of reviewing the logic, then reviewing the exegesis, then reviewing the logic, and so on, until it becomes clear where the mistake has been made. So in theory, I ought to be able to go through the big supposed clashes du jour - evolution, hell, compatibilism, etc - and explain where I think the exegetical and/or logical mistakes have crept into each argument.
But where would be the fun in that?
This is the final part of a five-part series on The Biggest Theological Debate of the Next Twenty Years by Andrew Wilson.