I recently saw a snippet of an interaction between Joel McDurmon and Mark Jones that made me think of something. And why not?, say I. It’s still kind of a free country. Why can’t I think of oblique stuff? So I offer this, not as my own engagement with their debate, but rather as a free standing observation, one that may or may not be relevant to their discussion. But whether it is, or no, it is certainly relevant to a heck of a lot of other stuff.
It has to do with the relative merits of a biblicist approach to understanding the text (and the world) and a confessional, historical approach to understanding the same.
I grew up in a biblicist tradition, and hold it right there. What do I mean by biblicist tradition? What kind of oxymoronic juke move is this? Well, as a shrewd old Baptist preacher once put it, “We Baptists don’t believe in tradition. It’s contrary to our historic position.”
And this is the basic point I want to make — the inescapability of assumptions brought in from outside the text. But before getting there, and before trying to make that point, I did want to say that I grew up in a biblicist tradition, and I retain — down to the present I retain — a great deal of affection and respect for it. Biblicists often see in the text what other traditions do not see, and which in some cases these other traditions are not allowed to see. I have learned a great deal from the biblicists, and from all kinds of biblicists — whether anabaptist or VanTilian. So as far as that goes, as the great Augustine once put it, “go, dog, go.”
But one of the things the biblicists frequently do not see is the regulative and governing nature of their own presuppositions. There is a tendency among them to think that because they are coming to the Bible “raw,” with no hermeneutic to speak of, they don’t need to evaluate those assumptions in the light of Scripture. Their position is “just biblical.” They would hold their foundational assumptions up to the light of Scripture if they had foundational assumptions, but fortunately, being just biblical, they do not.
Now I know there is a ditch on the other side of the road as well. There are those who have elevated a tradition to the level of Scripture. That tradition is explicit and defined, and so it should be possible to compare it to the teaching of Scripture — but because of an overriding a priori assumption that it must OF COURSE harmonize, nobody need trouble themselves. This is the formal position of the Roman communion, with Scripture and tradition both ostensibly on the throne.
And of course, historic Protestant churches — being populated with human beings, just like Rome — can do the same thing. But because that principle is not formally embraced among Protestants, it need not be defended. At least the Catholics, backs to the wall in the course of the Reformation, needed to invent the casuistry of the Jesuits.
So historic Protestants who have a set of formal doctrinal commitments — established by natural law, history, the creeds, systematic theology, the confessions — can sometimes drift into a default system where their “system” trumps the plain meaning of the text. So that is granted, and when it happens, we should all say, all together we should say, alack and alas. It is a fallen world, and the best of men are men at best.
But my point is that we cannot get away from this by jettisoning natural law, history, the creeds, systematic theology, and confessions. That is because the only thing we succeed in doing is hiding from ourselves the nature and extent of our dependence on *all* of them. We actually jettison nothing but self-awareness.
Biblicists think that an energetic sprint can get them away from the gum on their shoe.
I once was talking with a godly saint who — steeped in Trinitarian practical realities — said that he didn’t use the term “Trinitarian” because it wasn’t in the Bible. It wasn’t biblical. My reply was that the term “biblical” wasn’t in the Bible either. The conversation thereafter staggered to an uneasy halt.
Now given that absolutely everyone has controlling presuppositions, I want to do everything in my power to keep mine out where I can see them. As Socrates put it once, the unexamined presupposition is not worth sitting on. Presuppositions can be sneaky little busters, and they really bear watching.
But they all have names. When you get to know them, they cause a lot less trouble.
And incidentally, my desires in this, however noble they might be, do not mean that I have successfully examined all of my assumptions. No, I know that I have not. But I do know that I have examined a lot more of them, in the light of Scripture, than I had done back in the day when I thought that I didn’t have any.
Back in those halcyon days, I didn’t know that there were preconditions of thought. There was just thinking, I thought. And look, here’s a Bible. There was just reading, I thought.
But actually, no.