Friday, August 2, 2013

Knowing God

In a recent post, the Limits of Authority?, a conversation followed in the comments, about 'reason' and its role in the discernment of truth. (See below re cited comments.) This led to a challenge as to whether I agreed or disagreed with the presuppositions of commenter Shawn. I guess the challenge has an air of dilemma as commenter Alison attempted to illustrate an impaired argument in Shawn's comments. Thus if I agree with Shawn I am allegedly a man offering an impaired argument and if I disagree with Shawn I am not a true conservative. Yes or no?

At stake is not so much the personal expressions of these matters by either Shawn or I but the general line of Reformed Protestant theology as it evaluates the roles of Scripture, tradition and reason, proposes the singular importance of Scripture ('sola Scriptura' or Scripture alone), makes claims about the clarity of Scripture, works out principles of interpretation, and thus generally makes claims concerning our knowledge of God's revelation in a theological world in which there are a variety of claims competing with one another (principally Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Reformed Protestantism, Anglicanism (to the extent it has distinctive features not shared with the other claimants) and liberal Protestantism).

Clearly one way to answer Alison's question would be to write a very long book, encompassing (at least) Scripture, Augustine (maybe Origen as well), Basil & co, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, Ricoeur and Thiselton. Another way is fewer words, here and now, but at greater risk of further dispute!

The important questions Alison raises, as I see it, are these:

(a) if 'reason' is impaired through sin, how can we make any claim to know the truth?

(b) how can Scripture be the only valid guide to doctrine when there are disagreements over its interpretation and the doctrines that are derived from it?

But Alison has also asked if I agree with Shawn's presuppositions. In order not to avoid that question let me say straight up that I agree with Shawn that human reasoning is impaired through the Fall (1), Scripture alone is the only valid basis for church doctrine (2), and Scripture is clear in what it teaches (3). Where, on further conversation with Shawn, we might disagree (as best I can make out on the basis of comments which I always try to remember are brief rather than comprehensive statements) is (3) the extent of Scripture's clarity: the general Protestant claim is that this clarity concerns Scripture on salvation (a point made in this post) rather than Scripture on everything.

In a slightly more extended answer I think one should also say: (1) 'the Fall' is not a uniform understanding across all of Western and Eastern Christianity, but does that really matter? The claim about human reasoning being impaired through the entry of sin into the world is a claim which does not rest solely on an interpretation of Genesis 3. It rests on the understanding of sin in the Bible, that it infiltrates and affects every aspect of human life. The claim about reason is a claim that human reasoning is prone to think in wobbly ways about God, to head for conclusions which suit us rather than God's truth. That is, human reasoning is not naive and sinless, an infallible means of leading us to God's truth. (2) Scripture is the 'only valid basis for church doctrine' because it is the foundational text of Israel and the church, recording for all generations the voice of God spoken through the prophets, apostles and most especially, through God's only Son. All other bases for church doctrine must be measured against this record of the voice of God.

Saying that still leaves Alison's two questions to respond to. I shall attempt to get back to them later in this post, but for now I will post it ...


S: "Because of original sin, human reason is radically corrupted, and not a reliable guide. Nor are human beings reliable, whether scientists, philosophers, or Church authorities.

Scripture alone is the only valid basis for Church doctrine."

A: "Rather, all Shawn’s points are derived from Scripture by “human reason” which in Shawn’s case is “not a reliable guide”. All three of Shawn’s conclusions from Shawn’s “radically corrupted” reasoning are not universally held by Christians, nor have they been universally held in the Christian Tradition.

Also, as has been mentioned here before, those who hold to Shawn’s conclusion cannot agree with each other on the Church doctrine that they claim Scripture is the basis for."

S: "On Original Sin; "Sin came into the world through one man." Romans 5:12.

And; "The judgement following one trespass brought condemnation on all." Romans 5:16

And; "we were BY NATURE children of wrath, like the rest of mankind." Ephesians 6:4

On the corruption of human reason; "They are darkened in their understanding." Ephesians 4:18

On the sufficiency of Scripture alone; "ALL SCRIPTURE is breathed out by God." 2 Timothy 3:16......... No mention of tradition also being so.

Those are just a small sample of relevant passages concerning those doctrines. Many more could be cited.

As far as disagreements over Scripture are concerned they are always a result of human error and sin, rather than a problem with the clarity or sufficiency of Scripture."

A: "Revelation is by Scripture alone. There are different interpretations of Scripture. This is the fault of human error and sin. Human reason is radically corrupted and so cannot be relied upon to rightly interpret the Scripture. Numbers do not matter. So a minority interpretation can be the truth, and a majority position false.

So God has produced the only source of revelation knowing that we cannot use it for that purpose. And with eternally devastating consequences, or so some interpretations of Scripture have it – but who knows!

As to Shawn’s scattering of Bible quotes – some are well-known for their ambiguity even in the original Greek, none mention the doctrine explicitly, and all are open to a variety of interpretations. "


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Peter. Finally.


Peter Carrell said...

I do appreciate, Alison, that you ask great questions, which should only be answered in a careful manner!

Rosemary Behan said...

Everyone might find Peter Jensen's book "Revelation" good on this subject. Revelation meaning that the Bible is the revelation of God and nothing to do with the last book of the Bible.

Bryden Black said...

I have now responded to my fellow bloggers on the original thread, FYI ...