Pervasive interpretive pluralismThis question was very familiar to me, as I had just been rereading The Bible Made Impossible by sociologist Christian Smith, a book that was greatly influential on my journey through religious doubt (so much so that I bought a case of copies to give away, wanting others to read it). Its first half is a vigorous critique of an approach to the Bible which Smith calls "biblicism", which he characterizes as "a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability". (p. viii) In making his case, Smith draws attention to the widespread doctrinal diversity among Christians (particularly evangelical Protestants), a phenomenon he calls "pervasive interpretive pluralism", and which he argues renders biblicism impossible in practice if not in theory:
The very same Bible—which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious—gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest. Knowledge of “biblical” teachings, in short, is characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism. What that means in consequence is this: in a crucial sense it simply does not matter whether the Bible is everything that biblicists claim theoretically concerning its authority, infallibility, inner consistency, perspicuity, and so on, since in actual functioning the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations. (17)The import of pervasive interpretive pluralism is that for virtually any Christian doctrine, from the major to the minor, there exists a range of teachings on it held by various churches and denominations, all claimed to be based on the Bible. Zondervan's Counterpoints series of books walk the reader through the variance on many such doctrines. From Smith and other sources, I've compiled a fairly complete list of teachings for which there exists such pluralism:
- Christology (classical, kenotic, adoptionist...)
- The Trinity (though modern Unitarians arguably base their theology more on "rational" thought than the Bible, other groups like Christadelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, The Way International, and Oneness Pentecostals reject the trinity on biblical grounds, as did the early unitarians)
- Nature of the Church (not as much variance as between Protestantism and Catholicism/Orthodoxy, but there is still different weight placed on the institutional nature of the Church between, say, an Anglican and a Baptist)
- Church polity (episcopal, presbyterian, congregational)
- Legitimacy of ordained ministry (i.e. how the "priesthood of all believers" is understood)
- Methods of church discipline
- Legitimacy and value of creeds and confessions
- Styles of worship (traditional, contemporary, blended, choral or congregational singing, Psalms-only, use of instruments, regulative principle...)
- Use of images or sensory aids in worship
- Christian relation to the Sabbath
- Baptism (infant/adult, significance)
- Real Presence in the Eucharist (the subject of the first division among the Protestant reformers)
- Continuation of spiritual gifts in the present
- Importance of the gift of tongues
- Women's roles in the church and the home (patriarchalism, evangelical feminism, complementarianism, egalitarianism...)
- Divorce and remarriage
- Birth control
- Corporal punishment of children
- Capital punishment
- Slavery (there may be agreement today, but there was fierce disagreement between competing "biblical" views less than 200 years ago)
- Church-state relations
- Ethics and use of wealth (private property, meaning of material success, tithing...)
- Celebration of [religious] holidays
- Christians' relation to culture
- The nature of salvation
- Nature/reality of total depravity and original sin
- Significance of a "conversion experience"
- Atonement theology (PSA, governmental, moral example, Christus victor...)
- Role of good works in the last judgment (and the nature and number of the last judgment(s))
- Sanctification and its relation to salvation
- Eternal destiny of the unevangelized (exclusivism, inclusivism, universalism), and infants
- Wearing of jewelry/makeup
- Swearing oaths
- Asceticism and celibacy
- Imminence of the Second Coming (putting a definite date to it, expecting and planning on it in the next few years/decades, or simply living in readiness)
- Rapture and the Millennium (pre/post-tribulationist, premillennialist, postmillenialist, amillenialist)
- Understanding of the "antichrist" (the papacy, a figure in current events, or yet to come?)
- Role of the Jews in salvation history (a major distinctive of dispensationalism)
- Understandings of apocalyptic prophecy (preterist, futurist, historical, idealist)
- Nature of hell (eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, purgatorial universalism, C.S. Lewis' view...)
- Free will/determinism and predestination (Calvinism vs. Arminianism)
- Eternal security
- Nature of God's foreknowledge (unconditional or based on foreseen faith?)
- Bibliology; nature of the Bible itself
- Perspectives on Paul
- Relation between the Testaments
- Biblical inerrancy/infallibility
- Nature of the divine image in humanity (and to what extent or in what way has it been lost?)
- Historicity of Adam
- Biblical literalism
- Value of reason/rationality in faith
It sounds well, to lay so much stress on the authority of the Bible, as the only text-book and guide of Christianity. But what are we to think of it, when we find such a motley mass of protesting systems, all laying claim so vigorously here to one and the same watchword? If the Bible be at once so clear and full as a formulary of Christian doctrine and practice, how does it come to pass that where men are left most free to use it in this way . . . they are flung asunder so perpetually in their religious faith, instead of being brought together? (19)
However they may differ among themselves as regard to what it teaches, sects all agree on proclaiming the Bible the only guide of their faith; and the more sectarian they are . . . the more loud and strong do they show themselves in reiteration of this profession . . . It will not do to reply . . . that the differences which divide the parties are small, while the things in which they are agreed are great, and such as to show a general unity after all in the main substance of the Christian life. Differences that lead to the breaking of church communion, and that bind man's consciences to go into sects, can never be small for the actual life of Christianity, however insignificant they may be to their own nature. . . . However plausible it may be in theory, to magnify in such style the unbound use solely of the Bible for the adjustment of Christian faith and practice, the simple truth is that the operation of it in fact is, not to unite the church into one, but to divide it always more and more into sects. (19-20)Smith does not argue that biblicism creates pervasive interpretive pluralism, but rather that it is unable to account for it, tends to exacerbate it, and is ultimately rendered superfluous by it. How, then, are we to explain it?
The problem of authorityHere is where I must play my Orthodox card. Non-Protestant Christians, myself included, generally attribute the diversity of teaching Smith describes to the principle of sola scriptura, and the problem of authority inherent to it. I'll try to describe this problem differently and more clearly than I did in my critique of sola scriptura in the Journey to Orthodoxy series, focusing not so much on the teaching per se as on how it is applied in practice.
A common definition of sola scriptura goes something like this: the Bible alone is the highest and final authority in matters of Christian faith, teaching, and practice. More thoughtful definitions will be careful to note that it is not the only authority, ascribing some legitimacy, usefulness, and derived authority to traditional Christian teachings, hymns, or creeds—insofar as they are based on the Bible. Under sola scriptura, all such formulations are seen as fallible human creations with no authority of their own, no claim on my conscience, except what they gain by speaking truly with the backing of the authoritative teaching of Scripture.
It seems like a modest and cogent enough proposal: try to peer behind, or beneath, all the layers of extra stuff that has been added onto the teaching of the Church over the centuries to glimpse the pure, undistorted Gospel in the pages of Scripture. But hidden inside it is a radically new stance toward human authority, which is placed decisively lower than the "authority of Scripture". No mere man has authority over my conscience; no earthly power can take the place of God's word and tell me what to believe. Human teachers and traditions may be helpful resources and aids, but the Bible always gets the final say. This rhetoric sounds well and good, seemingly recognizing our human fallibility, and I don't doubt that it is meant that way, but what gets forgotten is the need to interpret Scripture, and the inescapable subjectivity of this task.
This became an especially serious issue as sola scriptura came to be applied less on the level of large, often national churches (as it was in the early days of the magisterial Reformation) and more on the individual level, spurred by developments like the Radical Reformation, Pietism, and the Great Awakenings. Seen in this light, what sola scriptura entails in practice is that the individual Christian's personal interpretation of Scripture becomes authoritative for that individual; no one else can tell him or her how to read or what to believe. "The teaching of Scripture" comes to be identified in practice with "my interpretation of Scripture". Obviously, this becomes a problem when two parties hold conflicting "biblical" views. As pervasive interpretive pluralism shows, the "plain meaning" of Scripture on a given matter is rarely plain to everyone. How to determine who (if anyone) is more correct?
This new stance towards human tradition and authority makes resolving disagreements of interpretation nearly impossible. As interpretive authority is shifted from a common body or tradition to Scripture itself and (in turn) the individual reader of Scripture, there is no longer any way to hold together individuals or factions who are inclined to see things differently and cannot come to agreement between themselves, or to determine who among them (if anyone) is in the right. There is then little recourse except schism. This is the problem of authority. In traditional Christianity such disputes are resolved by calling a council, as in Acts 15 or the succeeding centuries of Church history, but when Scripture alone is finally authoritative, councils are merely exercises of limited human authority and can again be rejected if they are thought contrary to Scripture. Each party may well start his own tradition, believing himself to be upholding the true teaching of Scripture and the other to be unwilling or unable to discern it. The classic example of this is Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy, and such divisions have been continuing ever since.
A disclaimer: obviously, not every Protestant embodies this kind of divisiveness and insistence on the authoritativeness of one's own interpretation. Thankfully, most do not—and, not coincidentally, most Protestants don't form their own churches or denominations. So please don't read the above as an attack on or attempt to describe everyone who affirms the principle of sola scriptura. To whatever degree you participate in and uphold your church's body of tradition and doctrine, however much you seek to live in harmony and unity with other Christians who may or may not agree with what you believe (and you may be better at this than I am!), that is a very good thing; it is commanded by the Scriptures and expected of the Church. But I argue that it does not come from the principle of authority implied by sola scriptura, which, at its worst, has legitimated doctrinal divisiveness like that of early Christian heretics.
Orthodox Christianity holds a different attitude to authority and tradition, as I have written in my Journey to Orthodoxy series. The word "tradition" and its Greek equivalent, paradosis, both connote receiving something passed on or handed off. Doctrine is received from one's spiritual parents or teachers (as in 1 Cor 11:2 or Gal 1:8-9), rather than derived for oneself by an independent reading of the Scriptures (though we are of course encouraged to read the Scriptures and glimpse the faith through and in them). Holy Tradition, the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit originating with the apostles' teaching (cf. Acts 2:42), is said to be authoritative (in response to which claim sola scriptura asserts that final authority belongs to Scripture alone), the continuation of the authority vested in the apostles by Christ. The teaching of an individual, even a bishop, no matter how "biblical" it seems, cannot overrule the consensus of the Church originally received from the apostles and kept by their successors. The communal, shared nature of traditioned truth mirrors the communal nature of salvation as spiritual, transformative union with Christ (and, transitively, with each other). The human mediation involved is no cause for concern, and does not mean that Tradition is necessarily as fallible as you or I. God came to earth as a man, sent his Spirit onto men, and is saving and redeeming men. By his grace, we can become conduits of his truth, not obstacles to it that need to be cleared away.
The ChurchThe problem of authority is closely tied in with a distinctive ecclesiology—one of the areas in which, as noted above, there is substantial pluralism among evangelicals. But generally in Protestantism, an ecclesiology prevails in which the church is visibly divided but invisibly one, consisting of those God alone truly knows as his, in a way that is not essentially inhibited by the visible schisms among churches. Which institutional church you belong to is unimportant, it is thought, as long as you truly follow Jesus. The original, visible Church fell away in a "great apostasy", but in its invisible essence the Church continued through the centuries. Thus the phenomenon of pervasive interpretive pluralism, while unfortunate and confusing, does not mean the Church is divided into countless pieces; Christianity is just expressed in many different forms instead of one, and members of the true Church can be found in virtually any of them, believing and worshipping the same God earnestly and authentically according to their conscience, just as the more visibly united early Christians did.
But this redefinition of "unity" in light of such glaring division tremendously cheapens the unity of the Church confessed in the Nicene Creed. This "Church" does not enjoy anything like the unity Paul described in 1 Cor 1:10, and that the Orthodox Church has enjoyed (though never perfectly or free from the troubles of sin) since then. Even calling this state of disconnection and pluralism "the one Church" does violence to the term. It is unprecedented in Christian history to suppose that after a schism, both parties can still somehow belong to the "body of Christ", or to suppose that members of churches holding distinctly different faiths can both be part of the one Church. Paul and the other epistle authors have no such flattering or reassuring words for schismatics. Such sentiments are more Gnostic than Christian; when applied to the Church as body of Christ, they resemble the heresy of Docetism. As Smith quoted John Nevin earlier, "Differences that lead to the breaking of church communion, and that bind man's consciences to go into sects, can never be small for the actual life of Christianity, however insignificant they may be to their own nature."
The enabling effect of such an ecclesiology on schisms is this: if you or your church rejects/divides from someone you consider a false teacher, this individual is not obliged to repent and seek to be reunited to his old church, but can instead join (or start) a different church. His membership in the true Church, fully independent of his membership in a local church body, is never endangered by such interpersonal conflicts. In traditional Christianity, such a person would be told in no uncertain terms that he was no longer part of the body of Christ until he repented and returned to it. This, then, is why sola scriptura inevitably produces divisions among Protestants: because it legitimates schism, makes it a justifiable response in order to liberate oneself and one's conscience from what one views as false teaching, and, after doing away with any higher authority than individuals' interpretations of Scripture, leaves no other way to resolve doctrinal conflicts.
Traditional Christians have always applied the biblical teachings of the Church as the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15), temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27), against whom the gates of Hades will not prevail (Mat 16:18), to the visible Church, the one founded by Christ. The Church is identified with a particular body, a particular tradition, a particular faith; it is not an intangible abstraction that assumes a multitude of forms. The Lord did not come to Earth as a phantasm, but as a man. This Church could no more cease to exist than Jesus could return to earth as a mortal man to recreate it, contrary to his promises to return in glory (Mat 16:27). No one has the authority or the ability to divide the body of Christ and start another church than the one the Lord established. It would be unthinkable enough for the Church to vanish and then be recreated by mere men, even if they demonstrated the same unity of faith that the apostles did. But as seen above, modern claimants to represent "biblical Christianity" manifestly do not and have not. The blanket skepticism with which theories of the "great apostasy" treats all other prior and competing forms of Christianity makes it very hard to believe that your church has finally "gotten it right."
Tu quoque?A possible objection to what I have been saying is that traditional Christianity is also divided. There are four main Christian communions all claiming apostolic succession and that they are the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church": the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Chuch, and the Church of the East, as well as numerous smaller churches that have separated from them (such as the Old Believers or Old Calendarists). Traditional Christianity, it seems, fails to practice what it preaches. Doesn't this then show that the true origin of schism and division among Christians is simply sin, and is thus ever-present and not new to sola scriptura?
This is a good question, and an important one to ask since Orthodox critiques of sola scriptura (mine included) can give the impression that rejecting it will result in perfect unity, which is of course not true. I would respond with two points. First, though traditional Christianity is not fully united, the difference in the number and depth of divisions between it and Protestantism is so great as to be qualitative. There is vastly more consensus and less disagreement; for instance, Oriental and Eastern Orthodoxy are still strikingly similar in belief and worship despite having been in schism for almost sixteen centuries. The last major schism between churches claiming apostolic succession was the Great Schism in 1054. There is also nothing like Smith's pervasive interpretive pluralism; most of the issues listed above on which Protestants differ have never been controversial, because there has either always been general agreement on them, they are acknowledged to be of secondary importance, or multiple perspectives are recognized as being jointly valid. As I explored Orthodoxy, I found that it actually realizes the Protestant ideal of "in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity".
And second, I would say that while sin is indeed the "cause" of schisms on a very high level, Tradition arguably helps to restrain and dampen the effects of sin on the unity of the Church, while sola scriptura fans the flames. Yes, the Orthodox Church has undergone schisms and some Protestants enjoy a great deal of unity and consensus within their church or denomination, but I don't think there is any systemic problem contributing to schisms in the Orthodox Church like the problem of authority I described above. Instead, I see Holy Tradition making it much harder to divide the Church, such that the three aforementioned major schisms were not instigated by individuals or congregations, but occurred between entire national churches with conceptions of the faith that had come to be irreconcilable, in part due to linguistic, cultural, political, and geographic disparities (rather than merely reading the same Bible in different ways). Even if one of the parties to these schisms continues to be the "one true Church" afterwards (as all agree to be the case), the sin that contributed to them is shared by all and mourned by all.
In the case of schisms among Protestant denominations, if there is "sin" involved in such schisms, it tends to be the other party's sin of denying the truth of God's Word and being led astray into error; thus, one feels right to reject and separate from them as false teachers worthy of condemnation, such as the Bible warns about (cf. Gal 1:6-9, Col 2:18-19, Jude 1:3-4)—in other words, to actually initiate the schism. The large number of Christian churches and denominations, it is thought, is due to existing churches falling into error, and authentic believers coming out from them and becoming separate. This inverts the old pattern: the schismatic party, rather than being the one condemned as in traditional Christianity, is instead said to be justified and a force for doctrinal restoration. Schism ceases to be violence against the body of Christ and becomes a mechanism for maintaining true doctrine, which is in turn an unrealized ideal the Church must journey towards rather than a treasure she was entrusted with by Christ and has held since the beginning. Sola scriptura, especially as it has been applied in the wake of the Radical Reformation, extends to all Christians the responsibility and authority to "rightly divide the word of truth" traditionally held by the bishops, the successors of the apostles. With such a multitude of little bishops, is it any wonder that there exists such a plurality of Protestant teachings?
The sea of relativismIn my own experience, Orthodox (or Catholic) claims to be the "one true Church" tend to be viewed by Protestants as deeply, problematically arrogant. But such a skeptical attitude toward any church claiming authenticity merely leaves one with the pervasive interpretive pluralism Smith describes, with multiple competing "biblical" truth claims on virtually any teaching or practice and no authoritative answers as to who may be right. The baseline of skepticism enabled by sola scriptura towards claims of absolute doctrinal truth actually bears much resemblance to the attitude of secular skeptics towards absolute truth claims in general. Absolute truth exists, evangelicals like to argue in a number of ways, yet while living with an unprecedented state of doctrinal pluralism and rejecting truth claims more absolute than their own.
There are several ways that Protestants manage this, and I don't claim to list them all here. For those who are content to accept and uphold the teachings of their particular church tradition, the reality of pervasive interpretive pluralism feels remote, and may not be noticed at all. The existence of other Christians who hold an irreconcilably different faith based on the same scriptural foundation need not bother someone who is able to receive and live in his or her own church's teaching with simple faith.
Many evangelicals take something of an a la carte approach to doctrine, not feeling strongly bound to any particular tradition, selecting beliefs from various traditions on the basis of their interpretation of Scripture and the Christian faith. The way I used to do this, at least, resembled deciding your positions on the "issues" at stake in a presidential election: this is what I believe on predestination, this is what I believe on women's ordination, this is what I believe about the nature of the Bible, and so on. This approach goes hand-in-hand with an ecclesiology that locates the one, invisible Church among true "followers of Jesus" across hundreds of different traditions. The subtext of such a theory is that maintaining an authentic, life-giving relationship with God through Jesus is of primary importance and what makes you part of "the Church", while what you believe is secondary and may well conflict with what others in "the Church" believe; what matters is how it bears on the relationship. Believers following the a la carte approach are well aware of the conflicting voices on a wide array of topics, but rather than a confused cacophony they merely see a variety of paths and options for arriving at a faith in accord with one's conscience.
At one time this individualistic approach, exemplifying the freedom to believe according to one's conscience guided by Scripture and unfettered by any human power, felt liberating to me, but in my doubt I realized this liberty was actually confining and profoundly relativistic. If my beliefs simply arose from my own scripturally-informed convictions, I had no confidence that they were true, especially if the scripturally-informed convictions of others led them to different conclusions. Even if I instead aligned myself to a church and accepted its faith tradition as my own, this merely pushed the problem of pluralism up to a higher level; did I prefer this church because it had most faithfully preserved the truth out of the wide plurality of denominations, or simply because it teaching was agreeable to me?
Despite its original intention of rescuing the truth of the Christian faith from its captivity under tradition, the attitude toward authority of sola scriptura ultimately made this truth even more unreachable and intangible. And for me, this was not a merely intellectual search; I found that I couldn't force myself to keep living a faith that seemed riddled with contradictions however I looked at it. This seemingly inescapable confusion about what is true, combined with an inability to trust any of the answers I found as anything more than my own preferences, is what I came to think of as the "sea of relativism".
In the midst of this confusion, Holy Tradition came not as an oppressive "teaching of man", or even primarily as a body of doctrinal truths more coherent and plausible than the one I had been attempting to construct, but as the soothing presence of Christ in the storm of my confusion. The Church established by Christ had not become diffused into this dreadful, unknowable pluralism, like a gas or an abstraction, revealed truth intermingled with human error. The gates of Hades will not prevail over this Church; how much less the arguments of men! Through the prayers and worship of the Church, through the sacraments, through the writings of the Fathers, and (of course) through the inspired words of Scripture, I can have an encounter with the living Christ not mediated by my own subjective interpretation of things (or by cumbersome human institutions and traditions). The only obstacle left after my confusion and doubt dissipated is my own stubborn, apathetic heart, in need of the Healer.
In conclusionEven after months(!) of polishing, this post still ended up more polemical than I had hoped. Following the example of countless Orthodox teachers I've read, I am trying to rid myself of that habit; I don't need any other Christian tradition to be wrong to accept Orthodoxy as the truth. In this spirit, I'll try to bring this post full circle, back to the question my friend raised (or at least how I've kept it in mind): how do evangelical Christians concerned about the current state of Christianity as divided among hundreds or thousands of traditions (as I once was) respond to Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1:10? The answer I've been pushing for through most of this post is simply "become Orthodox." But I don't presume to have convinced everyone or anyone, so in order not to leave you empty-handed, I will offer a few other thoughts.
The most basic thing, applicable to Protestants and Orthodox alike, is to avoid adding to the division and instead seek to embody the unity and agreeability Paul prescribes for the church in Corinth. Pray that God by his Spirit would fulfill these words of Paul in you: "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Eph 4:1-3) Seek out and affirm points of truth (what St. Justin Martyr would call "seeds of the Word") in others' Christian traditions; this is the basic method of Orthodox ecumenical dialogue. When you do come to disagree on something, try to do so constructively, and to understand the reasons others believe as they do.
But this still does little to address the fragmented state in which evangelicals find their churches—the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism again. Perhaps the first step to applying Paul's words to this divided state is simply to recognize it. Even though you (hopefully) aren't personally responsible for it, you have inherited a form of Christianity that, more than any other, has failed to abide by Paul's words in 1 Cor 1:10, to preserve the unity of the early Church. So please, acknowledge this, and stop pretending it doesn't really matter in the name of humility or ecumenical goodwill. I have come to prefer the Roman Catholic Church's claims to be the original Church, even if I disagree with them, than the prevailing evangelical attitude that such claims are not necessary, or even possible. As I explained above, this attitude reeks of a relativism which evangelicals are right to reject in other contexts.
Even if you don't think the early Church has continued to today or that Holy Tradition is anything more than the fallible attempts of of godly men and women to understand the Unknowable, studying church history can still give you a more historically founded perspective on your beliefs and show just what it meant for the Nicene Creed to affirm "one holy catholic and apostolic Church". You can study for yourself how we got from the church of the apostles to the vast multitude of churches we have today, and perhaps come to a diagnosis of your own as I did in this post. Connecting with the historical Christian tradition(s) is an important part of the spirit of unity I described above; it is unity across time rather than space. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."
Though I have not done a good job of representing it here, the unity the Church ideally enjoys is far more than doctrinal. The Christian faith has always, asymptotically, extended beyond human understanding, to the heights of heaven. The Church is the "passage" to heaven, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, and the "vehicle" that takes us there is communion—the creed's "communion of saints", which is understood as a life-giving unity with and under Christ the head, transcending time and space as he does. This is the unity that St. Paul calls us to. Don't settle for less.