Saturday, January 26, 2013

(Evangelical) Doctrine and Historical-Critical Exegesis

Within a tradition committed to the doctrine of sola scripura, some issues arise regarding the source of doctrine, its malleability, and the relationship between doctrine and academic conclusions. What role does academic inquiry and discovery have in informing Christian doctrine? Conversely, does Christian doctrine place limitations on what sorts of academic conclusions are possible or acceptable?

In a recent post titled The Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: We Are Not Allowed to Use it, Peter Enns decries the fact that, within Evangelicalism, "doctrine determines academic conclusions." That frustration is perhaps understandable (given Evangelicalism), but does Enns believe that doctrine should be as fluid as the current archaeological, linguistic, and historical academic consensus on various issues? One suspects he wouldn't fully reverse the formula and declare that "academic conclusions determine doctrine", so what is the correct relationship between the two?

My sympathies are split on the matter: on the one hand, I think evangelicals are right to be highly suspicious of current trends in academia affecting or altering received doctrine and tradition. If Christ is the source of true doctrine, which he handed down to the Apostles, and which has been faithfully preserved within the life of the Church by the Holy Spirit, then no academic finding or conclusion can possibly affect doctrine. This general disposition of Evangelicals is the proper one.

The problem is that this general disposition is at odds with what they believe to be the source of doctrine. If "the Bible alone" is the source of doctrine, then doctrine will necessarily be subject to revision as academic discoveries are made regarding the cultural context of the original text, comparative linguistic studies are done, and archaeological discoveries are made. This cautions against making doctrine out of issues that are not inherently doctrinal in nature, but that is only part of the problem. With "the Bible alone", doctrine is already varying according to the many ways people interpret "the Bible alone" (see: the thousands of denominations within Protestantism). And so it isn't clear just which or whose doctrine(s) we're talking about.

Evangelicals should follow their gut and conclude that doctrine ought not be subject to the whims of academia. They should also follow their gut in endeavoring to hold fast to tradition over and against innovation. But this ultimately means rejecting traditions and doctrines which they have received that were at one point innovations and a departure from the faith once delivered to the saints (and which thus can possibly come into conflict with sound academic research). Such as sola scriptura.

Historical-critical exegesis of scripture can be a valuable tool for deepening and broadening our knowledge of the scriptures, but the doctrines of the faith are not subject to change, addition, or subtraction. The doctrines of the faith can be articulated more precisely in order to combat heresy, but they don't change as they were given by Christ who is "the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Heb. 13:8).

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