August 4, 2020

Richard Beck: The moral implication of interpretive pluralism

Communion of Saints (tapestry), Nava

Communion of Saints (tapestry), Nava

Unpublished: Being Biblical Means Being Doctrinally Tolerant
Richard Beck

• • •

Richard Beck gets down to brass tacks in an excerpt from an unpublished article he had written about how doctrinal gate-keeping can be a delusional exercise. The first sentence states an obvious point that is somehow ignored regularly by those who insist most strongly on the “clear teaching” of the “inerrant Word” —

People who claim to literally interpret the inspired and inerrant Word of God do not agree on what the Bible says.

This is Christian Smith’s “pervasive interpretive pluralism” in a nutshell. And Beck calls it “the problem at the heart of Protestantism.” The plain fact, borne out through centuries of biblical study, interpretation, and scholarship, is that “the Bible is unable to produce a consensus.” As Beck says:

Sola scriptura produces pluralism. The “Bible alone” creates doctrinal diversity. Biblical literalism proliferates churches. . . . A magisterium gets you one church. A literal reading of the inspired and inerrant Word of God gets you many, many churches.

Yet diverse groups within and alongside the Protestant tradition maintain without a trace of hesitancy that their particular interpretations of Scripture articulate its plain teachings. I’m sure this is so for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that even the most well-educated people in many groups and traditions are not well informed about what others believe and teach. Christian churches have enough trouble instructing their congregations in what they believe, much less encouraging them to be broadly informed about the teachings of the Church catholic. In my experience, what teaching they actually do about other traditions tends to be stereotyped, reactionary and defensive.

Richard Beck believes that the lack of interpretive consensus on the Bible places a moral burden on Protestants:

If you are are going to accept the burden of being of Protestant, of living with sola scriptura, then you are going to have to learn to welcome doctrinal diversity. If you want to be biblical you’re going to have to reconcile yourself to pervasive interpretative pluralism. That’s life being biblical. Being biblical requires a fair amount of tolerance for doctrinal diversity. Being biblical means creating a big tent. So if you want to be biblical — if you want to go sola scriptura and drop the magisterium — then you are morally obligated to assume the burden and responsibility of welcoming the doctrinal diversity you will create.

A certain tolerance, a certain wideness of mercy, a certain ecumenicity should be the hallmark of Christian Protestantism.

But this Protestant faith must be of the kind that is also willing to stop saying, in many instances, “the Bible says,” as though it’s as clear as the nose on your face. It will be a Protestant faith in which the Bible becomes the starting point for discussion, not the point at which discussion ceases. It will recognize that our understanding of the Bible is influenced by reason, history, tradition, experience, and culture in ways that are both pervasive and subtle. It will show a willingness to engage in discussions across interpretive lines without feeling threatened, without insisting that every disagreement is a threat to the heart of the faith itself. It will be humble, holding many, if not most, of its conclusions lightly and humbly, showing generosity to those who arrive at different ones.

Bottom line, though: such a drastic change will require that we all take a different perspective on the Bible and ourselves.

A chaplain can dream, can’t he?


  1. Certainly Beck’s views are interesting and provocative. But do Protestants *have to* live with sola scriptura? My Episcopal Church recognises a “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

    So, for instance, the Bible plainly says that Joshua got the sun to stand still in the sky for a whole day, so his army could finish killing Amorites. But I’m pretty sure that Reason, noting that such an extraordinary event is not recorded in any contemporary history, is generally willing to ignore this plain Bible statement. (For my own judgment — no theologian here — I am willing to ignore this “event” because it is in plain contradiction to the plain Bible statement, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.”)

    Maybe I’m demonstrating your point, rather than arguing with it, Chaplain Mike! 🙂

    • Maybe. 😉 I would argue that the problem is not Sola Scriptura per se, but the abuse of it by Reason. And by Reason, I mean the Enlightenment-esque setting of propositional truth and logical inference as the only, or at least the most valuable, typo of truth. And that type of Reason can serve under naturalistic assumptions just as well as theistic ones. (The Joshua passage is a good case in point. Who can say whether or not God caused a local phenomenon that appeared to make the sun stand still? Or is it a literary metaphor (more on that next)?)

      If you believe Reason is the way to go, then you’re going to approach the Bible looking for Propositional Truths. Once you have those Propositional Truths, you can then deduce further truths from them via the laws of logic, and bingo! You have your systematic theology and denominational doctrinal statement all ready for print!

      This works… if the base materials are abstract, unequivocal statements of Truth. I can remember some early arguments with my now-wife where I ranted “There is Truth out there! I want Truth! Truth that is as clear and undeniable as mathematics!!!” She would just smile sweetly at me and say “Dear, the Bible isn’t a math textbook.”

      And she’s right. The Bible is many things, but at heart it is a Story. It contains poetry, historical chronicles, prophetic songs, many many things – but most of them aren’t direct statements of Propositional Truth. With poetry, history, prophecy, et cetera, context (historical, cultural, linguistic) is everything. But for much of Protestantism, moreso in the past than now, the Story was relevant only insofar as it brought us the Propositional Truths we craved. The Story was just the platter – the Truths were the meal.

      And that is where the problem Mr. beck describes comes up. When you take a section out of a story and apply the methods of Reason to it, you aren’t starting from a mathematical-level statement of Truth. The very process of selecting and analyzing such a passage will be frought with your own historical, cultural, and philosophical context (BIAS, if you will). And since there are so many different starting contexts, you get… well, you get the mess that is current American Protestantism. It is our own overinflated expectations of our exegetical competence, and our putting Truth over Story (instead of serving the Story, and it’s Main Character, Jesus), that got us where we are today.

      Your mileage may vary. 😉

      • “the most valuable, TYPE of truth.” Great Maker, I need my caffeine… :-/

      • If we approach the Bible with sensitivity to its literary, rather than propositional, character, that means we should interpret it with the understanding that good literature regularly yields more than one meaning when interpreted. In addition, good literature frequently gives multiple meanings that are paradoxical and stand in tension to each other, requiring a creative act on the part of the reader to find imaginative ways to exist in the tension that the author has left. That is, good literature requires interpretative communities that are creative, and that extend the creativity of the text rather than merely trying to settle on one meaningful, received interpretation. Any good story yields more than one story for its readers. This is what Beck is saying about the Bible.

        • flatrocker says

          And the interpretational variations become part of the accepted landscape. From the Mormons and Joel Ossteen to Bart Ehrman and Westboro Baptist and all points in between…. it’s either all ok and we stop wrestling with the sectarian tension or we look for common orthodoxy that we can commune within. That is if communing is actually what we seek. And if communing is truly what we seek, then commonly held orthodoxy becomes the binding agent. And by consequence, somethings must be defined as heretical and non-communal. Either we live with the tension of orthodoxical authority or we remove the tension and allow complete equality and validity for competing views. The issue always, always, always comes back to who gets to decide this?

          • Common orthodoxy? What is THAT? Even the most simple items are grounds for interpretation, such as “There is a God”. Ask a Mormon, ask a Unitarian and ask a Baptist if they agree on that and you get three different answers. They all believe in “God”, but WHO that God IS, is up for debate.

          • Marcus Johnson says

            From the Mormons and Joel Ossteen to Bart Ehrman and Westboro Baptist and all points in between…. it’s either all ok and we stop wrestling with the sectarian tension or we look for common orthodoxy that we can commune within.

            Not so. The dualistic thinking (it’s this or the other thing, nothing else) underscoring that statement is symptomatic of an epidemic running rampant through post-enlightenment Protestantism that the truth of the Bible is singular, or it is relative and we should all go home. However, nowhere in the Bible does the phrase “one truth” appear.

            What about the third option: that we can assume that just because a story can yield itself to several perfectly legitimate perspectives, we are not obliged to affirm that every perspective is right? We can take into account author’s intent, historical context, intended audience, genre analysis, etc., all the things good literature analysts consider, and come up with several truths. And reasonable, educated people can share their conflicting perspectives and still be in community with each other. If humanities scholars can do it, the church certainly can give it a shot, right?

          • Isn’t it true there are no articles in the original languages in the Bible? We add those to aid modern readers?

            So…Jesus is way, truth, life. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is a way, a truth, and a life.


          • StuartB, that’s why we need context. Follow through on John 14:6 and it becomes more specific, with context taking the place of the definite article. Jesus says, “no one comes to the father except through me.” No article needed.

            I ran into this several years ago in a discussion with a friend who is a retired bible scholar. He said that since the Aramaic in Jesus’s presumed original words had no definite article, one could not assume that his nickname for himself, “son of man,” is necessarily messianic. The problem is, that doesn’t take context into account. In Mark 14:62 when Jesus was asked whether he considered himself messiah, he answered (with or without the article), “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

            With the “sitting at the right hand” and “clouds of heaven” Jesus ties himself to Daniel 7, which is no doubt messianic. And then there’s the response from others: the high priest tore his robe at the blasphemy, and they voted to put Jesus to death. No article necessary to understand what he meant.

          • Isn’t it true there are no articles in the original languages in the Bible? We add those to aid modern readers?

            No Stuart, that is not true. Greek has a definite article. The problem comes when you try to build theology based upon its presense or absence.

            When you equate two things, the second part of the equation assumes the article of the first.

            So in John 1:1 “The Word was God.” The Word has a definite article. God does not. But God does not need it in this linguistic context either as God is being equated with The Word.

          • flatrocker,
            Who gets to decide who gets to decide? Sorry, but I’m not going (back) the way of Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy; those are not options for me, or for those whom I love. I’ll live with the messiness, and trust that God’s grace in Jesus is wide enough for the messiness I intend to tolerate.

          • Stuart,
            Not only are their articles, they are also present in the verse you quote.

          • oscar, When flatrocker talks about “common orthodoxy,” I think he means Roman Catholicism, though I could be wrong and will accept correction. I’m pretty sure that flatrocker locates legitimate Christian authority to interpret scripture in the Magisterium, which he probably would also say speaks for and represents the whole Church, laity and clergy together. Is that correct, flatrocker?

          • flatrocker says

            Not sure if this is the answer to your question, but it seems like you are reading too much into my comment. Maybe the word “orthodox” carries a sensitivity that I glossed over. If so, my apologies. I should have used the phrase “common ground” as opposed to “common orthodoxy” as it relates to a desire for christian community. My point is there is, and always has been, sectarian tension within our messy Christian family. We are either accepting of this tension and allow validity of voice and equality of thought as geniune parts of the family (i.e. welcome Westboro, Osteen, Ehrman, Mormons or we draw lines of exclusion. Which by necessity creates an exclusionary authority. And whether this authority is corporate or personal, it is present nontheless. As you stated earlier, ‘who gets to decide who gets to decide” is always at the root of the tension. On this we agree.

            Personally, I think the more compelling question is do we see a deeply connected communal life as a fundamental goal of Christianlty? And are we willing to gracefully pursue this as a most noble endeavour? If so, then common ground is closer for us than we know. And my prayer is that “common orthodoxy” will not be too far behind. This is the gift and opportunity that IM provides us here.

          • flatrocker, I don’t mean to be contentious. My personal history puts me in a different place with regard to questions of authority than you, and also with regard to the pursuit or non-pursuit of orthodoxy. I think Marcus is correct in his comment above when he says that responsible, sober, considered readings of scripture may arrive at different conclusions, but that there are limits to such differences of interpretation outside of which interpretation becomes reckless and irresponsible. Even in secular literature, there are interpretational limits; if true in the canon of Western literature, or any other world literature, this must be more true when it comes to biblical interpretation, since the whole idea of literary canon is derived from biblical canon.

    • ‘tradition’ (small t ) is fine. But never when it contradicts Scripture…or the gospel. Reason?

      That can take you anywhere. Luther called it, “the devil’s whore”…it will do whatever you want it to do. Be careful with your ‘reason’. After all…we are all little self-obsessed idolators.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Luther called it, “the devil’s whore”…it will do whatever you want it to do.

        So can The Plain Meaning Of SCRIPTURE(TM).

        And waving around the Holy Book reinventing the wheel with each schism after schism is better?

        Be careful with your ‘reason’.

        And with your Faith Faith Faith Alone.

      • “‘tradition’ (small t ) is fine. But never when it contradicts Scripture…or the gospel.”

        An excellent example, Steve, of what Beck is talking about. Luther would certainly have agreed with you, but then he has had 500 years to think about it since.

      • I’m curious when the church stopped reforming.

    • As far as taking that thought to a logical conclusion, as far as observational ability of that time would go, all God needed to do was provide any light source over that area that was as bright as the sun would be, regardless of what time it was, or the position/rotation of the earth

      So as the person relating this story, I could easily say that the sun didn’t go down, as what I observed was that it stayed bright for a really long time.

      • I’m willing to consider that Exilic Jews needed a few hero stories of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan establishing their dearly missed Israel.

  2. This is something that I’ve become more and more convinced of over the 14 years I’ve been a Christian. It helped – and still helps – that one of the first passages that God highlighted for me was Romans 14:1-15:7ish. Originally it was called to my intention as I tried to work through my firm conviction in evolution and my church’s then current statement of faith that emphasized creationism and sounded young earthish. (I think that point has since been deleted or reworded.) But it has remained one of the key passages of scripture for me and my walk.

    And since it is in scripture, I think that the tolerance, mercy and ecumenicity ought should be the hallmark of all Christians. Not just of Protestants. The discussions ought not just to be among those living today, we should also engage with and discuss the teachings of those living in former times. C. S. Lewis suggested that we ought to read at least two old books for every modern book we read. I don’t go that far – but we should read old books, and it has become easier to do so since Google Books and similar efforts have put many (most?) out of copyright books online.

    I cannot take the time to go deep on every topic. The one I spend the most time going deep on is finances. I’ve read reasonably widely in the Ante-Nicene and Nicene Fathers on hat topic, and was shocked at how different the sub-topical selection of the fathers is from 20th century American teaching on finances. The sub-topics of tithes and stewardship, combined, were less than 3% of the fathers topical selections in the sample I read. They are, as far as I can see, the primary sub-topics of the 20th century (and thus far of he 21st) American teaching. The primary topics of the fathers in my sample were Almsgiving at roughly 24%, then Wealth at roughly 14% and Coveting at roughly 13%. That sampling and study has spun my head round, and I’m revisiting positions that I had previously reached conclusions about.

    For Christmas I asked for, and got, the book “Perspectives on Tithing: 4 Views”. If the rest of the series is as well done as this book is, the series is a good example of scholarly discussion across interpretive views. And we get some such cross-interpretive discussion here at Internet Monk, which is a significant part of why I read and comment in this community.

    But I wish I could also have such discussions in person with my congregation. I am fearful of trying. There are multiple reasons, but they fall in two main camps. First, fear of an attacking reaction from those with whom I try to discuss. Second, fear of creating doubt and uncertainty in those who are not ready to handle it. Neither is healthy. But I don’t know what to do.

  3. When it comes to the bible and literalism I’ve found this article very helpful
    (Prays for html working right)

  4. Christiane says

    “People who claim to literally interpret the inspired and inerrant Word of God do not agree on what the Bible says.”

    I found this out the hard way. I am a Catholic whose maternal grandmother was a Southern Baptist. So, when on television, I heard about a group calling themselves ‘the Westboro Baptist Church’ picketing our dead soldiers’ funerals, I wanted to find out if this group was the same denomination as my grandmother of blessed memory. Of course, to my relief, I found out that it wasn’t. I also began a journey to learn more about my grandmother’s faith and I did it by going to Southern Baptist blogs. One, in particular, confused me. SBCvoices had many references to ‘the biblical gospel’ and not all of the descriptions were ‘the same’, so I thought I was misunderstanding the context maybe and I asked about the variance in definitions over a period of time, and of many commenters. Well, this was not welcomed. I was called ‘ingenious’, my comments were heavily ‘monitored’ and in time, the administrator decided that it was best that I no longer comment on his blog, a decision which I respected, because it is HIS blog. So, I never did find out the REASON(s) why there were so many variances and emphases on what the ‘biblical gospel’ was, and at one point was told it was not the same as the Holy Gospels in sacred Scripture. But I did meet a lot of good people and I did learn quite a bit, and I have no doubt that many of the Southern Baptist people are faithful to Our Lord in the way of their denomination, and that they are sincere people.

    When I read the quote, this: “”People who claim to literally interpret the inspired and inerrant Word of God do not agree on what the Bible says””, I thought that must be a partial answer to my question about the ‘biblical gospel’. And I also now think that the variances were also a matter of different perspectives and emphases of the people defining the term on that blog who belong to the SBC denomination.

    I don’t regret my journey. I do regret frustrating the poor administrator, but I didn’t realize the sensitivity my questions provoked. Well, I did try. And maybe that is the important thing . . . I went to THEM find out about THEIR beliefs; in my own Catholic world, this is considered a great courtesy. Maybe someday, things will be better for all of us Christian people among ourselves . . . Michael Spencer gave me a lot of hope for that possibility.

    • ‘ingenious’: I think you meant ingenuous? 🙂

      • But, “ingenious” (clever and inventive) versus “ingenuous” (innocent and unsuspecting)… which is a sadder thing to be called pejoratively?

      • Christiane says

        well, I think the spelling MIGHT have been different . . . but I can tell you that the context was simply ‘you should know the answer, so why are you asking it” . . .

        thing is, there was no ‘the answer’ . . . there were ‘the answers’ plural, but no one agreed-upon definition that they could point to for ‘biblical gospel’

        it did not help that I had been told that the ‘biblical gospel’ was NOT the same as the four Holy Gospels of the bible . . . that strange comment may have been the reason WHY I pursued my line of questioning that so annoyed some people . . . I was trying to sort out what they meant . . . still confused . . . but at least I asked 🙂

  5. Richard Hershberger says

    Most of this is readily apparent from study of the history of the Reformation. The early Reformers naively thought that once they abandoned centuries of Tradition and turned to Scripture, they naturally would arrive at consensus. We all know how well that worked out. In their defense, they didn’t have the history of the Reformation to look at and learn from. Today we lack this excuse.

    The one point I differ on is that “A magisterium gets you one church.” Yes, it gets you one church. And another, and another… Let us not pretend that Christendom was unified prior to the Reformation. Even within the limited scope of Western Christendom, such unity as existed had devolved into a matter of secular power. Just ask Jan Hus.

    • Richard,
      I was thinking the same thing about the magisterium. If it really gets you one church then we would still have one church.

    • There truly is one Church. But it is not for us to know just who is in it. “The wheat and tares grow together.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And all too often the individual Evangelical sees himself as the Only True Stalk of Wheat amid all the Tares.

        • And yet true humility would suggest the alternative possibility of being the only tare among all the wheat… but that is a frightening thought and hard to really grasp in action even when acknowledged in thought.

    • How much was the doctrine of Sola Scriptura a genuine, a priori guiding principle of the Reformers, and how much was it a post facto exercise in damage control after a very visible break with Rome? (I know they all generally pled apostolic continuity, but without the magisterium you have to reach for something else, and the Scriptures are an obvious place to look to.) If it was mostly the latter, then I suppose they weren’t thinking about possible splintering effects of the doctrine: they just needed something to replace the magisterium, and they needed it quick.

      • aka, how politically or rhetorically motivated was sola scriptura, as opposed to “truth”?

    • Good point, Richard. The Roman Catholic Church was pregnant with the Reformation because it was multiple churches contained by one institution (although, in connection with this, we should remember the institutional dissonance caused by the Western Schism, when the idea that there was a clearly defined, visible and recognized Magisterium evaporated before the eyes of believing Catholics, and the ensuing crisis was not resolved for decades [some, like me, would say it was never completely resolved at all, but merely papered over, and played a major part in the subsequent development of the Reformation.]).

  6. When I look at only scripture and today its many commentaries I find that none of them ring as whole hearted truth. I look at the four Gospels and realized at this early juncture there were already four different points of view. Start adding the early church fathers and were off.

    I find that the further we get away from the time and place the more we interpret. Sometimes I hear something that just makes total sense with all the rest of scripture, In other words not out of place. I try to look at scripture as a whole not in little pieces. How does this get expanded on like the layers of Hebrew poetry and have harmony with the rest in a total story.

    A magisterium is basically doing the same things as we do in the protest of not being able to come to a table unless we jump through the special hoops and swallowing all the things it requires as it decides what God wants. My problem with a magisterium. I am not saying that this doesn’t work for some and I am not its judge nor want to be but I do have decide whether I would want it. I prefer being free to love and have faith God is taking me there.

    I wonder sometimes that even angels had decisions to make and they are on the other side and what that might mean for me. I wonder if my development in love will be ongoing after leaving here and if it will take me forever. I look at the things I thought in my twenties and how that has changed so much and if that is the way it is for most. Which leads me to the thought that it should be only God not only scripture because everyone of us is still a work in progress and what we think today is subject to change much like the scientific community or just about anything humans do.

    So having pluralism does not bother me so much as I believe in a supreme being called God and if anyone can make something out of the mess it would be Him and it would be in love something I still struggle to do with the same kind of grace He has. In fact I welcome it because in it I find the little nuggets of truth that fit for me. Of course one would have to realize I am actually looking or seeking them as I find them. Most of us don’t care to. I have found as I extend the same grace back to God being reconciled that this being not what I would choose is what most people have a problem with especially when I look at the young men who know Him not struggle with living in this world and making their own way. Of course this is subject to change but I think it might be in the way it is added to or in the way it will lead me to Him and I or us as that is what the story is about. My thoughts are living pages are still being written.

    What we find today in the recent decades is that communities are no longer tight knit in which we are known. We can have do whatever we want. So if some church uses this or that to get someone to come in. It is a process that is more recent and still evolving and finding its way. Why we allow that process no grace when we critique it is beyond me. 500 years of development since the reformation and we can see this idea evolving and have a history to look at. It is only happening much faster now as that trend will continue.

    If pluralism isn’t a bother for me my only question would be pervasive. Is pervasive alluding to the fact it is being perverted? Like that has never happened before and then where does faith fit into that.

    • Why we allow that process no grace when we critique it is beyond me. 500 years of development since the reformation and we can see this idea evolving and have a history to look at. It is only happening much faster now as that trend will continue.

      Excellent point, w! When we look at, and critique, how things are done in evangelical circles we tend to be unsparing in our criticism. An equal measure of GRACE is missing, a longer look in the mirror is REQUIRED.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      A Magisterium is an Institutional Memory Trace of Interpretation.

  7. IndianaMike says

    “A certain tolerance, a certain wideness of mercy, a certain ecumenicity should be the hallmark of Christian Protestantism.”

    I think that this is particularly well-stated because “certain” is the exact right word and should not be confused to mean “unlimited”. Though we will also debate where the boundaries lie, we must not be afraid to say that boundaries exist.

  8. I’m right’ you’re right. I’m wrong; you’re wrong. Oversimplification I know, but we would be better off if we would acknowledge what Richard Beck is getting at here.

  9. ‘Biblical” as an adjective begs the question: “What, exactly does THAT mean?” I hope the author spent some time qualifying what the term means, but his very proposition is calling for a broader interpretation. So, what we end up with is an overly broad term describing an overly broad proposition. In other word, useless!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      ‘Biblical” as an adjective begs the question: “What, exactly does THAT mean?”

      All too often, Nothing. It’s used as an empty buzzword, just like “Gospel” in all the corrupt “ministries” Wartburg Watch keeps an eye on.

      Or worse, it becomes the Thoughtstopper Party Line.

      • It’s a race for qualifiers. Biblical, gospel oriented, words in red, spirit-filled, true believer, a real christian, blah blah…

        You quickly realize just how empty and meaningless those qualifiers are, useful for establishing dominance in a discussion only.

        Here’s a fun trick. Find out someone else’s qualifiers that they regularly use, and then apply them first in a discussion towards a position or person they don’t agree with. Shuts things down real quick.

    • This is an instance where the author is using a term from the other side to make his point. They insist on being “biblical.” Beck is saying, if you were truly “biblical,” you’d be more aware that your interpretation is not the only one.

      • Exactly. And it’s a great point.

      • Well, that just wasn’t obvious enough for my linear brain. If the author doesn’t put ” ” around the word “biblical” it implies he is using his OWN definition of the word. As it was presented it was not precise enough to convey his intent.

      • “if you were truly “biblical,” you’d be more aware that your interpretation is not the only one.” I agree and it is a constant frustration to me that I know very, very few churchgoers who would agree with this

    • All too often, I’ve seen it used for “whatever I prefer to believe” or “whatever the Christian tradition I identify with says the Bible means.”

  10. From your lips to God’s ears, Chaplain Mike.

    And then from his, back to mine again and again. I can rhapsodize about how wonderful this ecumenist’s mind is in the abstract, but when it comes to actually relating to people who disagree with me, I have a very hard time (not that relating to people who agree with me is easy, either).

    How far, though, do we go with this?

    • The Creeds establish the baseline for orthodoxy.

      • What, then, are we to do with groups like the Quakers and the Salvation Army, who reject baptism and thus cannot affirm the Nicene Creed in substance or in name?

        • Unless, I suppose, we meet them on their terms and admit that their understanding of the word doesn’t match ours.

        • There will always be questions like this, and my instinct would be to be generous even though I disagree with groups that don’t practice baptism, which I consider of great importance. Of course, since we have no church councils to rule on such matters, others may determine differently.

          • This is even more to Beck’s point, isn’t it, that even baptism – the need for it – is open to interpretation? And nowhere in the Bible does it say “One must recite the Nicene Creed to follow Christ”, right? In fact, there are some texts that suggest Jesus accepts and saves folks who do NOT do those things. 😉

          • That’s where I’m settling, too, CM.

            And at the end of the day, generosity is all there is, isn’t it? It’s the only thing we can give to others, the only thing we can ask from others, and the only thing we can ask of God.

        • The Salvation Army does not “reject” either sacramental Baptism or Holy Communion; while it’s true that the SA does not practice the administration of these sacraments, it does not prohibit its member from participating in them, if they choose, and it accepts that they may be ways that God imparts his grace to believers, though not necessary ways.

  11. In full agreement here with Beck’s main point and glad to see him mention Christian Smith, who I regard as required reading for an informed discussion. Quibbling, however, with this: “If you are are going to accept the burden of being of Protestant, of living with sola scriptura . . .” Red flag, tulip waver alert, perhaps Beck is not speaking out of the Reformed tradition, but my siren went off anyway. Not THE definition of Protestant in the wider tradition, as pointed out above, and not one I would accept. Aside from the amusing absurdity of five “onlys”, my only sola is “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is ONE.” It’s in the Bible, if that carries any weight in this matter. I believe all else is derivative.

  12. “A certain tolerance, a certain wideness of mercy, a certain ecumenicity should be the hallmark of Christian Protestantism.”

    Well, there’s a first time for everything. Really, there have been controversies of interpretation since Day One. “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos…etc” In the earliest NT documents we have, the authentic Pauline letters, we note an obvious lack of consensus about even the most fundamental aspects of who Jesus was and how he intended his followers to conduct themselves. Is it an improvement to replace this state of affairs with a stultifying consensus? A consensus that could only be maintained by coercion I should add.

    The real problem is when these warring interpretations try to use the power of the state to enforce their views on each other. Exactly why religiously motivated attacks on the secular idea of separation of church and state are so dangerous. But as long as these folks can be prevented from lording it over each other then as far as I’m concerned the healthy approach is to let a thousand flowers bloom.

  13. A few years back I had an opportunity to do a few preaching nights that gave me, among some other guys, an opportunity to get the feel for putting together and communicating a sermon. I recall that in one of them I mentioned something that I admitted that I was wrestling with conceptually, and had yet to fully come to grips with, but felt confident enough to expound on where I as. The feedback that I got back on that sermon was that if I was 90 % certain on something, that I should speak it like I was 100% certain on it.

    That still sticks in my mind after all of this time because that seems like a terrible way to go about things. I suppose that the flip side of things would be to not utter anything in a sermon that you aren’t 100% sure about, but then I would wonder if most of us shouldn’t just remain silent.

    I think that we need to get more dialogical in our teaching, admit that we are likely better equiped to arrive at truth as a body than as one man pretending that he has everything fugured out.

    Would be really interested to see what that looks like.

    • I know that in WRITING you are supposed to write with certainty (avoid words like “mostly,” “usually,” “almost”), but man o man…it seems like in PREACHING you want some of your doubts and uncertainty to shine. That’s where humility is shown, right? Nothing worse than arrogant, know-it-all preaching. Well, for some of us, anyway. 😉

      • More than even humility, I think that being transparent in that way encourages questions and discussion. I’m all about having a dialogue with people about the Scriptures.

        There was a book that a friend of mine referenced to me that spoke about about finite and infinite speech. I haven’t read it so I may be misrepresenting it, but finite speech is meant to go purely in one direction, it is conveying information. Infinite speech is that speech which encourages a response. Our churches largely contain the former, but I would really like to see the latter.

  14. “Bottom line, though: such a drastic change will require that we all take a different perspective on the Bible and ourselves.”

    Well said.

    Looking at the character of God differently might be necessary too. In my past evangelical life, god was often portrayed as obsessed with doctrinal purity (this being synonymous with “faith alone”. There was an obsession over where to draw lines. When god is prepared to throw heretics into the lake of fire for honest theological errors, it’s going to cause defensiveness, and the kind of fear that’s bred from that is hard to break free of. And in this type of systematic belief system, an attack on the tiniest thing in the system is an attack on the entire system – it’s all connected. Scripture grenade throwing seems like a natural outgrowth of this. To have a more generous exchange of ideas we’d need to believe in a God who’s a bit more generous and understanding of doctrinal confusion. If we see God is gracious to us, we can be free to be gracious to others.

  15. If “the problem at the heart of Protestantism” is that “the Bible is unable to produce a consensus,” the problem at the heart of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is that their interpretative traditions exclude the voices and perspectives of many Christians, even within their own folds, and no consensus including the voices and perspectives of these Christians is ever really sought or ultimately countenanced.

    • Robert – indeed. I would say more, but a series of lengthy convos with a convert to the Orthodox church (*not* anyone who posts here) have left me feeling kinda burned out on this topic and others related to it.

      Judaism has no single dominant strand of interpretation and practice, and has historically been open to all kinds of discussion. I think we xtians would do better if we adopted that as a festure of our own interpetation and practice.

    • That may well be, Robert, but it’s not what Beck is writing about. And he’s not advocating Rome or a magisterium, merely making a rhetorical point. Beck is affiliated with one of those groups that is an epitome of Protestant schism over biblical literalism: the Church of Christ.

      • I do realize that, CM. But I think the fact that the Bible is unable to produce a consensus is a Christian problem, not just a Protestant problem. There are many members of the RCC, some quite influential, who embrace non-traditional and creative Biblical interpretations that articulate perspectives which until recently had been silenced in the name of interpretative authority. This issue of the Bible not producing consensus is a live issue in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church.

        • Robert – yes, and from what little i know, there are many different branches of thought and interpretation within Orthodoxy as well.

          CM, i think Robert’s points are valid and that it’s not possible to truly address these issues without looking at them in a broader context. Especially true given that there is no single thing which is definitively Protestantism per se. (At least, not so far as i can tell…)

        • I think your point is pertinent for an ongoing discussion, but it’s not with regard to Beck’s post. He doesn’t have Rome in view at all.

          Nevertheless, I’m glad you brought it up because the myth of certainty and delusion about one’s rightness in religion is not by any means limited to Protestants alone.

  16. OlfProphet says

    Thanks Mike H! I was wondering if someone would finally say something I would concur with. Frankly the today’s topic is so much I say, you say that its akin to the story of the 5 blind men describing an elephant. Not to mention, the loudest and most strident voices are usually the ones who will compromise the least
    I love the RCC, but I’ll never agree with a lot if its doctrines, and I’ll never be a member there. But, I know God is for it and that’s the bottom line for me..I will always respect that which God has blessed.

  17. A generous orthodoxy? Sounds like McLaren deserves an apology.

  18. Before McLaren came Vern S. Poythress’s “Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology”.

  19. Hi All,

    I think flatrocker nails it in, ” Either we live with the tension of orthodoxical authority or we remove the tension and allow complete equality and validity for competing views.”

    If you are staking your eternal “wellbeing” on a path, you need to know which “path” & how to travel that path. If the Apostles weren’t meant to construct the church (under the Holy Spirit), it would have been destroyed under the massive persecution it underwent in the 1st few centuries. The initial structures of Bishops, Monastics, and Councils were put in place, under Providence, to guard it from disintegrating into localised tribes that would be wiped out in succeeding generations. Pick your flavour of Novatians, Montanists or Arians as an example.

    In a pluralist world that believes and pushes the synchronisation of world views, how long will the current form of protestantism last ? Which denomination hasn’t fallen into heresy, especially over the last 100 years ? Which denomination (apart from Pentes), isn’t in decline ? I would suggest the lines of orthodoxy cut through a lot of current denominations & even in the RC and EO heresy exists in the more “institutionalised” areas of the church rather than the monastic heart..

    More critical to tolerance is, who & what determines the core “rule of faith” to ensure salvation to an individual ? We can be tolerant of divergent views but there must be a “path” that makes objective truths “livable”. There must be points on that path that are “milestones” on the Way to Salvation. If we agree we can’t just say “the Bible says…”, then there must be a fairly clear alternative way of saying, to become a disciple you need to…


    • ” Either we live with the tension of orthodoxical authority or we remove the tension and allow complete equality and validity for competing views.”

      “Either you believe the entire Bible, from cover to cover, as the inerrant Word of God, or just throw the whole book in the trash can.”

      This is the false dichotomy of religious absolutism, and it cuts a line all the way from the outer precincts of independent evangelical fundamentalism, right through the vast institutional regions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy . You will find adherents of it in every Christian camp.

      • “Either you believe the entire Bible, from cover to cover, as the inerrant Word of God, or just throw the whole book in the trash can.”

        Given just those options, the trash can it is.

        But I bet there are more options.