Fundamentalism and Interpretation (Vanhoozer)


I have always been skeptical and uneasy about a fundamentalist method of interpreting Scripture. Although I have several other reasons for my unease, one worth mentioning is Kevin Vanhoozer’s helpful critique of the fundamentliast hermeneutic in Is There a Meaning in This Text? Below are a few excerpts.

Though fundamentalists cry “back to the texts themselves!” In reality they tend to confuse the text with their way of reading it. “What it meant” becomes “what it means to us now.” Fundamentalism thus preaches the authority of the text but practices the authority of the interpretive community.

Or, I might add, fundamentalism preaches the authority of the text but practices the authority the community’s leader. Vanhoozer continues:

Thus what appeared as one of the most conservative approaches to the text, fundamentalism, ironically turns out to have more in common with one of the most radical, for in privileging their own interpretive community, fundamentalists discover a strange bedfellow in Stanley Fish. The irony is acute and painful: while professing to stand under the Word, the fundamentalist is actually a User.

…An insubordinate desire for objective certainty ultimately affects the way some read the Bible. A misplaced desire to honor “Holy Scripture” leads many fundamentalists to read the Bible as a book of true statements. The problem, in my opinion, is not so much their identification of The Bible with the Word of God as it is their theory of meaning and reference. A picture of meaning holds fundamentalists captive. This picture equates the meaning of a text with its referent, that is, with its empirical or historical correspondence. Is this is essentially modern theory of meaning and truth that generates literalistic interpretations and harmonizes where all parts of the Bible are read as though the primary intent were to state historical facts. Whereas Bultmann dehistoricizes historical material, fundamentalists may historicize unhistorical material.… Though the Bible contains propositions…it is much more than a collection of proof texts.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? p. 425-426.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Religious Fundamentalism of Evolution/Darwinism (Johnson)

 (This is a re-blog from July, 2012)

I’ve heard about Phillip Johnson’s book, Darwin on Trial, but until recently I haven’t read it.  And I’m very glad I finally did. This book does not deal with superficial issues.  It gets right to the heart of the matter by examining the logic, presuppositions, and religious aspects of Darwinism. Darwin on Trial captured my attention immediately in the first chapter when Johnson said that the book was going to explore “whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism” (p. 14).  In other words, is evolution based on fact or faith?  Does Darwinism start with fact or with faith?  Here’s Johnson:

“I do not think that many scientists would be comfortable accepting Darwinism solely as a philosophical principle, without seeking to find at least some empirical evidence that it is true.  But there is an important difference between going to the empirical evidence to test a doubtful theory against some plausible alternative, and going to the evidence to look for confirmation of the only theory that one is willing to tolerate.  We have already seen that distinguished scientists have accepted uncritically the questionable analogy between natural and artificial selection, and they have often been undisturbed by the fallacies of the ‘tautology’ and ‘deductive logic’ formulations.  Such illogic survived and reproduced itself for the same reason that an apparent incompetent species sometimes avoids extinction; there was no effective competition in its ecological niche.” (p. 28-9).

You may have to read that paragraph again to see the depth of critique there.  Johnson later says, along those same lines, “It is one thing to say that there are gaps [in the fossil record], and quite another thing to claim the right to fill the gaps with the evidence required to support one’s theory” (p. 48).  Here’s one more quote to give you yet another angle on Johnson’s point.

“The fossils provide much more discouragement than support for Darwinism when they are examined objectively, but objective examination has rarely been the object of Darwinist paleontology.  The Darwinist approach has consistently been to find some supporting fossil evidence, claim it as proof for ‘evolution,’ and then ignore all the difficulties” (p. 86).

To be sure, Johnson doesn’t just make these claims over and over.  He supports them with examples from scientists and scientific studies.  In reading the book, I learned about the basilosaurus, saltationism, mutations, natural selection, materialism, and so forth. It isn’t for beginners!  Furthermore,  Johnson’s work is well documented so the curious reader can trace out some of his arguments.  If you have not yet read this book and are interested in this topic, I strongly recommend it.  It isn’t just for Christians; I’d give it to friends or family members who hold to evolution but are willing to learn and be challenged. (If you do get Darwin on Trial, you probably want to get the newest updated edition – from 2010 I believe.)  Though others may disagree, I believe the book shows that Darwinism is indeed a sort of religious fundamentalism.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Five Evangelical Protestant Ironies

Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity In his excellent book critiquing evangelicalism’s relationship to modernity (Dining with the Devil), Os Guinness lists five ironies about the condition of Protestant evangelicalism in America.  They are short, but sweet.  If you want the larger context, you’ll have to get the book – he explains these five points throughout the book in a most persuasive manner.

First, Protestants today need the most protesting and reforming.”

Second, evangelicals and fundamentalists have become the most worldly tradition in the church.”

Third, conservatives are becoming the most progressive.”

Fourth, Christians in many cases are the prime agents of their own secularization.”

Fifth, through its uncritical engagement with modernity, the church is becoming its own most effective gravedigger.”

Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 61-62.

rev shane lems

KJV-Onlyism and the Quest for Certainty

One major desire of many KJV-Only groups is the desire for absolute certainty when it comes to Bible translation.  James White calls it “the argument for certainty” and says that it is “the glue that holds…KJV-Onlyism together.”  Many KJV-Only groups say that we must have absolute certainty in Bible translation; the KJV is the perfect translation, therefore we are absolutely certain it (and no other translation) is inspired and infallible.  “It is argued that unless we embrace the KJV as our final authority, we have no final authority at all and, hence, all is subjectivity and uncertainty.  People to not want subjectivity but desire certainty and clarity, and so we must hold to the traditional text” (White, 132).

White gives a helpful critique of the desire for absolute certainty.

“This argument is extremely powerful and should not be underestimated.  Many people fulfill their longing for certainty in religious matters by swearing allegiance to a particular leader or system.  For example, many Roman Catholics find the idea of an infallible pope very comforting, for when things get confusing they always can turn to a source of absolute authority.   In a similar way many Mormons look to their Prophet and Apostles in Salt Lake City, and Jehovah’s Witnesses look to the Governing Body at Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn.  Others find a TV preacher or evangelist and, without stating it in so many words, invest him or her with some level of infallible religious authority.  The fact that groups offering this kind of trust-us-and-we-will-give-you-absolute-certainty-in-all-religious-matters system continue to attract followers and should tell us that the lure of complete certainty is strong indeed.”

“Protestants, however, should be quick to question any such notion. … As imperfect human beings we will make mistakes.  Like Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, we see in a glass darkly in this life.  There are things that are unclear, that are simply not as plain as they someday will be.  The KJV translators themselves said in their preface…, ‘As it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption.’  Those who offer certainty beyond all questions, the translators would rightly say, are being presumptuous with God’s truth.”

“If we say that we can have no certainty regarding the biblical text unless we embrace the KJV (or the TR), we are only moving the questions one step back and hoping no one notices.  How can we be certain of the textual choices of Desiderius Erasmus, or Stephanus, or Theodore Beza?  How can we be certain that the Anglican churchmen who chose amongst the variant readings of those three men were themselves inspired?  Are we not in reality saying, ‘I must have certainty, therefore, without any factual or even scriptural reason for doing so, I will invest the KJV translators with ultimate authority’?  This truly is what KJV Only advocates are doing when they close their eyes to the historical realities regarding the biblical text (p. 133-134).

In the words of Scott Clark, this is the QIRC (the quest for illegitimate religious certainty): “…to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable” (Recovering the Reformed Confession, 39).  KJV-Only groups view the KJV as the “standard by which orthodoxy is measured” (ibid.).  This is a fundamentalist mindset rather than a Reformed one, since neither Scriptures nor the confessions clearly tell us which Bible translation to use.  Bible translation is a matter of wisdom, prayer, and Christian liberty, not standard-of-orthodoxy-absolute-certainty matter.  If you think about it, it isn’t hard to see how legalism and the QIRC go hand in hand.

The above quotes by James White are from King James Only Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009).

rev shane lems

The Two-Book Fallacy? (Or Barth and Fundamentalism Together!)

Someone recently pointed out an article to me on the topic of creation and Scripture called “The Two-Book Fallacy” by Jason Lisle, a director at the Institute for Creation Research.  In the article, Lisle very clearly and very firmly says that the Reformation teaching of God’s “two-books” is fallacious and unbiblical.

In other words, Lisle argues that Christians should not call creation one of God’s books because it doesn’t say anything with words and propositional statements.  Further, Lisle doesn’t like the two book view because some people use it to defend evolution or an old earth.  Still further, he writes, “Interpreting the Bible in light of some other ‘book of God’ is a distinguishing characteristic of cults.”

Lisle also says that nature “is not a book or record that contains propositional truth,” and that rocks or fossils “don’t literally mean anything because they are not statements made by an author who is intending to convey an idea.”  In other words, nature doesn’t tell us anything because it doesn’t use words or grammatical phrases.  “The primary purpose of nature is not to teach, but to function.”

Though Lisle attributes the two book view to Francis Bacon, it is actually used in the Belgic Confession (1561) which was written well before Bacon lived:

“We know [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Rom. 1:20).  All which things are sufficient to convince men and leaven them without excuse.  Second, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation” (BCF 2).

I’m not going to give a full review and critique of the article here.  However, let me encourage you to read it (HERE), check out yesterday’s blog post (HERE) and also consider these responses:

1) Referring to creation/nature as a “book” is an analogy based on clear Scripture teaching.  For example, Psalm 19 says that the heavens “declare” God’s glory (cf. Ps 8), Romans 1 says that God has revealed his divine attributes clearly in creation (cf. Acts 14:17).  Solomon tells us to go to the ant and consider its ways (Prov. 6:6).  This also has to do with the fact that all humans (who are created beings) are made in God’s image with a sense of the divine (Ecc. 3:11, Rom. 1:18ff, 2:15).  It is an example of biblicism to say the term “book of nature” is unbiblical.

2) Denying that nature contains truths, facts, and information about God the creator is a denial of general revelation reminiscent of Karl Barth (“Barth” and “fundamentalism” together!?).  Lisle is essentially saying that God only reveals himself in words and propositional statements.  To be sure, God does reveal himself using words, but the Bible also describes God revealing himself in and through nature.  Consider (along with the above Scripture references) the OT stories of when God (extraordinarily) revealed himself in the storm, whirlwind, fire, earthquake, and other theophanies.  Indeed, God is sovereign in such a manner that he can and has revealed himself in creational ways.  I’m wondering how creation scientists can study rocks and fossils and make scientific conclusions if, as Lisle says, “they don’t mean anything.”  Isn’t Lisle sawing away at the tree branch on which he is sitting?  (As a side, consider how, in church history, general revelation has functioned in apologetics – could there even be Christian apologetics if God didn’t reveal himself in creation?)

3) Just because some have supposedly used the two book view to prove evolution doesn’t make the view wrong (I believe this is called the Domino Fallacy in logic).  And hinting that the two book view is wrong because cults interpret the Bible in light of some other “book of God” is also poor logic (I believe this is called the Faulty Analogy  – it’s like saying Christians shouldn’t use the KJV because Mormons often use it).

I suppose this article is one of the many reasons I’m not a fundamentalist and why I am instead Reformed.  Based on Scripture, I’d say the Belgic Confession is right and this article is wrong.  In fact, if you read the article carefully, you’ll notice (ironically) that the author didn’t use Scripture to make his point for Scripture and against general revelation!

It is true that the book of general revelation does not tell us about our guilt, God’s saving grace, and our response of gratitude, but that doesn’t mean we should deny the fact that God reveals himself in nature.  Denying general revelation is a very dangerous move in Christian theology; it’s not a trivial matter!   I’ll end with these great words by Herman Bavinck:

“Whether God speaks to us in the realm of nature or in that of grace, in creation or in re-creation…it is always the same God we hear speaking to us.  Nature and grace are not opposites: we have one God from whom, through whom, and to whom both exist.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics II.75.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The American Baptism of Secularization (Or The Baptism of American Secularization)

Instead of fighting it, baptize and bless it:

“The question of Christianity and civilization was complicated.  Mid-nineteenth-century Western culture was in the midst of a process of secularization – by which is meant a trend away from distinctly Christian influences.  The magnitude of the revolution was, as Martin Marty points out, ‘comparable to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.’  Yet in America, as Marty also demonstrates, this upheaval produced little direct confrontation between the forces of faith and infidelity.  Unlike many European countries, the United States experienced little virulent anticlericism and hostility to Christianity in the nineteenth century.  The characteristic American response was to bless its manifestations – such as materialism, capitalism, and nationalism – with Christian symbolism.”

This paragraph is found on page 49 of Marsden’s outstanding survey of Christianity in America around the turn of the 20th century: Fundamentalism and American Culture.

shane lems

Students of Emergent (Emerging Students?)

I know some of you might disagree, but I’m pretty convinced that we can learn quite a bit from the Emergent movement.  Of course, the Emergent movement is quite “liquid,” so I guess I tend to appreciate the more orthodox side of it – I learn more from those who are more faithful to Scripture, in other words.  I’ve mentioned An Emergent Manifesto of Hope ed. by Pagitt and Jones (2007) here before, and though some of the chapters were frankly repulsing, I think one of the better ones is “Humble Theology” by Dan Kimball.  Here are a few excerpts.

“I want to be continually discussing, learning, reading, and thinking seriously about all varieties of theological thought.  I want to be constantly exploring which theological beliefs have changed throughout history, which ones have remained consistent.  There are many unknowns and mysteries in theology.  We should be able to continually think and learn about theology with open hearts and open minds.  It is not a weakness to explore theology outside what we’ve been taught in our specific church or seminary.  It’s not a weakness to admit there is a lot we just don’t know.  I see that as a strength, not a weakness.  Weakness is when we simply close our minds and become afraid to explore different ideas, which may mean we are afraid to be challenged or discover something new.”

In some ways and to some extent we try to do that on this blog (and see here for more info). Kimball closes the chapter with a few thoughts to ponder.  I’ll list a few (emphasis his).

We can hold certain beliefs as truth and not feel arrogant or close-minded when we do.  Yes, there is mystery, and yes, there are a lot of unknowns, but we can still confidently say we do know certain things that God revealed to us. …  It is not a weakness to be open to theological rethinking. … Approach theology with humility. … Be loving and gracious to others when you disagree.”

These are things worth wrestling over, especially in our changing times.  A hundred years ago we could stand for the truth against the liberals with a fundamentalist defensive posture.  Today is a different day.  We need a different posture of standing for the truth.  We have different people to speak the gospel to – not many higher critics and liberals, but more skeptics, doubters, mockers, the broken-hearted, and the poor.  Humility and love is, I believe, a great posture to assume as we stand on and for the truth.  And it sounds quite biblical!

Speaking of being students of Emergent, I have this “Five Perspectives” book coming in the mail, so stay tuned.

shane lems

sunnyside wa