Monday, August 19, 2013

Hard to Be Understood

Why essentials and non-essentials?  Why uncertainty on belief and practice?  Why doubt in interpretation and application?  Why an excuse for disobedience?  Why a reason for unity with those with a radically different position on numerous subjects?  Why?  There's a go-to verse.  Let's call it a proof-text for postmodernism.  What is it?

2 Peter 3:16, "As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction."

Amillennialist?  No worries.  Hard to be understood.  Infant sprinkling?  No problem.  Hard to be understood.  Continuationism?  Hard to be understood.  Rock music in church?  Hard to be understood.  Crazy church growth methods?  Hard to be understood.

How much are we to take from what Peter said about Paul's eschatological writings within his epistles? Peter said that "some things [are] hard to be understood."  What are we to take from that?  What kind of teaching is to be fleshed out from that?

To understand Peter's statement, we should start by considering what he was not saying.  He was not saying that they could not be understood.  The Bible doesn't say there is anything that can't be understood by a believer.  Unbelievers miss things, because they don't have the capacity to understand things inspired by the Spirit of God.  They do not possess the Spirit and so they can't understand.  But believers can understand everything.  So Peter was not saying that certain things Paul wrote can't be understood.  It's true that some are harder than others, but still understandable, and so men are still responsible to understand them.

If Peter was wanting to express that certain of Paul's writings were not to be understood, he could have easily said that, but he didn't.  He said, "hard."  Hard.  "Hard" means you've got to work a little harder to get it, but you can get it.  It's like the manna for the Israelites in the wilderness.  It was hard to get it, but not impossible.  It was harder than if you had a manna vacuum or it came in big chunks instead of in hoarfrost form or if you could get a monthly supply in one day.  "Hard" doesn't mean impossible.  "Hard" doesn't give you a pass, so that you can say, "we can't understand everything, because, after all, Peter said 'hard to be understood.'"  No, you can't take "can't understand" from "hard to be understood."  "Possibly not to be understood" is truly "above that which is written."  It is adding to scripture something that isn't there.

I was talking to a prominent evangelical about this (who most would call a conservative evangelical, OK, it was Phil Johnson) and he quoted 1:7 from the Westminster Confession to defend a lack of dogmatism, an uncertainty, about meaning.  Let's consider what the WCF said:

All things in scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Do you agree with the WCF on "hard to be understood?"  I contend it is not defending "impossible to be understood" or "possibly not understood."  It says, "not alike plain," and, "nor alike clear unto all."  I contend that the WCF is debunking the excuse that "you might not understand salvation, since there are things that are 'not alike plain.'"  It's not making some kind of point about the non-understandability of Scripture.  It isn't.  I believe that is reading into the WCF.

That first sentence of that little section of the WCF is not creating a doctrine of muddiness or cloudiness or fogginess.  It is not excusing uncertainty.  It is not contradicting a WCF belief about perspecuity.  It is simply saying that just because certain passages are harder to be understood doesn't mean that salvation doctrine isn't clear.  That's it.  Phil Johnson himself was using 2 Peter 3:16 and the WCF (1:7) to attack on certainty and dogmatism.  I see uncertainty as an evangelical fundamental.  They are dogmatic in their uncertainty.  It's a major way they keep their kind of unity.  They can stay together by reducing doctrines to those they think the Bible requires certainty.  In itself, this is unbiblical.  God doesn't talk that way in the Bible.  And they use in a major way this one statement of Peter in 2 Peter 3:16 to make that point.

Phil writes about me and postmoderns:

Virtually everything is clear and certain in your mind. The pomos' pathological uncertainty is in part a reaction to the unwarranted hubris of the rigid fundamentalist perspective you represent, and vice versa.

I would call Phil's thoughts here a kind of evangelical psychobabble.  His point isn't in the Bible.  He's shooting from the hip.  It might make sense to some that postmodernism is a pendulum swing from fundamentalism.  That's not how it works though.  Clarity doesn't spawn uncertainty.   What could be defended scripturally is how that postmoderns see a semi-truck sized opening through "hard to be understood," opened by evangelicals like Phil Johnson.  The embrace of "hard to be understood" as meaning "impossible to be understood" is the cause of postmodernism.  They take that idea, defended by conservative evangelicals, to its logical end.

As much as the postmoderns use "hard to be understood" as impossible to be understood," the evangelicals, including the conservative evangelicals, create a lot of methodological space for themselves with "hard to be understood."  They ward off criticism with "hard to be understood."  They explain their unity with divergent beliefs and practices with "hard to be understood."

I mentioned what "hard to be understood" is not.  It is not impossible, but it is also not a pass to overlook differences in belief and practice.  Peter doesn't say that.  The WCF doesn't say that.  This is another example of "above that which is written" (1 Cor 4:6).  In order to sustain evangelical and fundamentalist unity, various factions can have their infant sprinkling and amillennialism and continuationism and know that it won't cost them fellowship.

Of course, uncertainty is viewed as a virtue by postmoderns.  They sometimes call it epistemological humility.  Certainty means pride in their book.  I believe that evangelicals also think of certainty, the kind of faith the Bible describes should be typical of a believer, as pride too.  Uncertainty excuses a multitude of sins.  "Hard to be understood" does not warrant uncertainty.

"Hard to be understood" has been twisted, ironically "wrested," to create a belief of uncertainty, a conviction of doubt.  I wish it wasn't typical of the "exegesis" of the evangelical and the fundamentalist to use such a statement to make room for wrong belief and practice, but it is.  "Hard to be understood" is like the "necessary and proper" clause of the U. S. constitution.  The founders didn't intend for so much to be read into just three words.  Our bloated bureaucracy leads back to what is "necessary and proper."  "Hard to be understood" leads to excused uncertainty and doubt, to an attack on conviction, and to permit methodological excesses.

Let's be certain.  It's easy to understand "hard to be understood."  Something "hard" is not impossible.


Joshua said...

Fundamentalist to Conservative Evangelical: But the Bible says...
CE to F: No way man. That's just interpretation. Good people (by my definition) disagree and that's fine. Your problem is pride in your own opinions. You can't know that for sure. Where is the epistemological humility?
CE to Emergent: But the Bible says...
E to CE: No way man. That's just interpretation. Good people (by my definition) disagree and that's fine. Your problem is pride in your own opinions. You can't know that for sure. Where is the epistemological humility?

The cycle continues... Both CE and Emergents are singing from the same hymnal here - the insufficiency of scripture on a broad range of things the Bible covers. The Emergents just have a broader range than their evangelical cousins.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Right, right, right Joshua. Again.