Abraham, McLaren, and the place of scripture

Brian McLaren has inspired some further reflection about the things that William J. Abraham has been arguing about the nature of scripture.

After posting the Asbury definition of holiness, I spent a few minutes digging around for another voice addressing the same question. In just a few minutes, I did not find exactly what I was looking for, but I did find this interesting McLaren blog post in which he defends Rob Bell and Love Wins from a criticism by Albert Mohler.

In the post, McLaren explains that all we have as Christians are different interpretations of the gospel. We do not have the gospel itself, but our own versions of it.

Our versions (mine included) are all, then, human interpretations of the gospel of Christ and the apostles, and human interpretations of the original message are not exactly the same thing as the original message. Some are more true to the original and some less, but no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed. That doesn’t mean we can’t proclaim anything with confidence, but it demands a proper and humble confidence rather than a naive and excessive confidence.

Which brings me back to Abraham’s thesis, laid out in the opening sentence of the first chapter of his book Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology:

The fundamental problems which arise in treatments of authority in the Christian faith stem from a long-standing misinterpretation of ecclesial canons and epistemic criteria.

To an extent, McLaren illustrates the argument Abraham has been making.

McLaren argues that because of the complexity of communication, we can never fully transmit a “message” to another person and so the original meaning is always distorted in some way. Since scripture is a product of a communication effort, McLaren argues, and our readings of scripture are always distorted as well, we cannot refer back to scripture to settle arguments about spiritual realities. McLaren does not extend his humilty about scripture to the point that he demurs from criticizing other people’s interpretations, of course, but his argument is essentially that scripture is more like shifting sand than a solid foundation. He is making an epistemological argument. He is saying we can’t know what we think we know about the things revealed in scripture.

Abraham also cautions against poorly thought-out appeals to scripture to settle arguments about what we know and can justifiably claim about God, but for different reasons than McLaren. Where McLaren marshals a rather rudimentary theory of communication, Abraham offers a philosophical and historical argument. He argues that scripture was never intended primarily as a way to settle arguments about what we can know and rationally claim about God, hell, and all manner of other topics. Scripture, Abraham argues, fails utterly in this role, a role he argues was imposed on it long before the Reformation. McLaren, in trying to knock down the claims people make for the clarity and certainty of scripture, is continuing this ongoing use of scripture as an authority in settling arguments about what we can and cannot know. He is attacking what Abraham sees as an unfortunate but understandable mistake in the history of the church.

What scripture as canon is intended to do for the church, Abraham argues, is to serve as a means of grace along side several other canons of persons, materials, and practices. Scripture’s function is to “make us wise unto salvation” not to knock down other people’s arguments about the timing of rapture or the particular tortures of hell.

Although in the end McLaren and Abraham have some similarities in their conclusions, I do not think Abraham would find McLaren’s overall arguments all that persuasive. I’m not arguing that the two men share conclusions about the best way to arrive at doctrinal commitments.

For Abraham, having Albert Mohler and Brian McLaren argue about what we can claim to know with good reasons about the nature of hell by citing scripture (in Mohler’s case*) and “our fundamental sense of human justice” (in McLaren’s case) is not only fruitless, it is based on absurdly sloppy epistemology. It assumes all kinds of things about the nature of knowledge that would not make it through a freshman philosophy course.

But there are ways in which Abraham strikes me as inhabiting some of the same space as McLaren. Abraham is arguing, I think, that the modern and post-modern critique of the way the church uses scripture has real bite. For Abraham, this is not a signal to the church that it should pitch over the side its historic teachings, but it is an indication that we put our eggs in the wrong basket a long time ago and need to now rectify the error.

In the end, these musing may not be either comprehensible or interesting to most of you my readers. But they relate to issues that I find pressing at the moment. So, as always, I appreciate your tolerance.

*For what is worth, here is Mohler’s response to McLaren’s post in which he zeroes in on the same quote.



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