Sorting Out the Players in the Certainty Debate

David Mappes October 28, 2010




Imagine you are the quarterback in a bowl game, dropping back for a pass. As you look downfield, you notice that all the players on both teams are wearing jerseys in subtle shades of gray—and you can’t tell them apart. Confused, you call for a huddle and begin reading from the playbook strapped to your arm. Players interrupt and begin to argue, shouting “No, that’s not what the coach means by ‘screen pass!’ ” “Yes, it is!” and then, “That’s just your interpretation!”

This imaginary scene may seem chaotic, but it is a fitting description for current trends in hermeneutics and theology. Careful pastors and church members need to understand subtle but important differences in terminology that are being adopted by a new generation of scholars.

“Hermeneutics” comes from the Greek term hermeneuo, which carries the idea of explaining, interpreting, or translating the sense of one language to another. In a more technical sense, the term denotes the science and art of interpretation; thus various rules and norms of interpretation are employed to determine the author’s meaning in the text. These interpretive principles are not always fully agreed upon or consistently practiced, but until recently, literary scholars have agreed that the author’s intended meaning could be understood and correctly applied. And until recently, evangelical believers have contended that we can understand the Author’s intended meaning and apply it to our lives.

Embracing Certainty and Simplicity

Literary scholars use the term “interpretative certainty” to describe the idea that sufficient literary evidence exists in a text so as to remove reasonable or justifiable doubt regarding the author’s meaning to the extent that the interpretation is nonnegotiable and absolute. Some interpretations have sufficient literary evidence for certainty, while other interpretations are held at a confidence or assurance level. As one might expect, textual meaning is a controversial matter in Biblical interpretation, but it is also discussed in the world of literature and law. Students are used to answering questions such as, Can we be sure what Hemingway meant in The Old Man and the Sea? or Can we be sure what the founding fathers meant in the U.S. Constitution?

The term “simplicity” (“single meaning”) indicates that the author’s determinative meaning does not change, remaining fixed and constant over time. The interpretative process entails a historical-grammatical-cultural method, and the authority of the interpretation is further validated through the analogy of Scripture. Since all Scripture is a product of God (Who has a single divine intent), then a carefully nuanced interpretation (a canonical, coherent, congruent, consistent, and comprehensive interpretation) provides objective validation against all other evidence or incorrect interpretations marshaled against it. Hence some interpretations can be so discernible, definable, and preservable that they can adjudicate any counterview. When we say we are certain of an interpretation, this does not mean we claim omniscience, nor does it mean the interpreter holds all interpretations to the same degree.

Questions from the Postconservative Evangelicals

Challenges to these hermeneutical norms became popular after World War II. The new hermeneutic suggested that the meaning of the author is actually a fusion between the reader’s perspective and the author of the text, essentially denying both certainty and simplicity. With the flowering of postmodernism, the notion of simplicity (single meaning) and certainty (no plausible, justifiable doubt) was radically denied. As a result, the very nature of doctrine, Biblical authority, and issues of knowability are being redefined. In 1976 Carl F. H. Henry wrote God, Revelation, and Authority to raise concerns that the role of words and the nature of truth were becoming “misty and undefined.” Henry believed that “this uncertainty stifles the word as a carrier of God’s truth and moral judgment,” leading to the “breakdown of confidence in verbal communication” that marked contemporary times.

This postmodern shift (or turn) has led to major challenges for conservative evangelicals who have held to a strong view of verbal inspiration and inerrancy. During the early years of the fundamentalist-liberal controversy, the defining issue entailed who had the correct view of truth and how respective camps could validate their own view of truth. Today the issue is much more sophisticated and entails if truth can be known and to what extent it can be known.

Here is where the players become harder to distinguish. A new group known as postconservatives is attempting to reform and revise evangelicalism—while still insisting they are professing evangelicals. Writing in the Christian Century, Roger Olson called the group a “new mood arising within North American evangelical circles.” Some of the key voices include the late Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and Leonard Sweet. Their proposed reforms involve both the practice of truth and their understanding of the nature of truth itself. Postconservatives use adjectives such as “bold,” “fresh,” “vibrant,” and “relevant” to describe their views, and words like “humble” and “tolerant” to describe themselves. They frequently employ buzzwords such as “dialogical,” “postcritical-communal,” “non-foundational,” “provisional,” “open,” “contemplative,” “generously orthodox,” and above all, “emergent.”

Since the postmodernist argues that all truth assertions/language (including Scripture) is constructed by a particular culture/society, then any truth assertion (including Scripture) is actually a cultural expression particular to one social group. Thus the postmodern emerging kind of Christianity argues that everyone (including the Scripture writers) operates from his own presuppositional culture filters that distort the very reality he sought to present. Many postmodernists famously declare that perception is reality. According to many postmodern theologians, the Scriptural writers did not present truth and reality, only what the writers perceived to be real and true.

A Loss of Certainty

Many of these emerging postmodern Christian authors then conclude the following:

Tolerance and dialogue are held as the loftiest of virtues, because all knowledge can be held only at a provisional level of confidence (not certainty) and because it is subject to continual revision. Those that assert certainty are often referred to as arrogant, divisive, subversive, and disruptive to this communal norm of tolerance. This “tolerance” is then incorrectly portrayed as humility.

The author’s intent can change according to the reader’s situation, confusing the author’s meaning with the reader’s personal application. This fusion creates the inability to critique and correct another’s interpretation, since meaning is personalized as meaningfulness. As a result, the reader is always driven to discover new meanings.

There is a difference between the Scripture and the actual words/revelation/intent of God. Moral commands and doctrines in Scripture become more of a human author’s partially distorted view on a matter rather than God revealing His truth and reality. This separation between the Scripture and God’s revelation then creates a type of mystical and neoorthodox approach to interpreting the text. In short, the reader becomes the determiner of meaning and significance of the text, not the Biblical Author.

A Conservative Response

Conservative theologians have continued to promote a kind of hermeneutical realism (not perception), declaring that the author’s verbal meaning is fixed, determinative, and constant and can be known in varying degrees (depending on the literary evidence in the text). A distinction is made between the author’s meaning and the text’s meaningfulness (or significance) to the reader.

In a changing evangelical arena where it is becoming more difficult to recognize teammates, pastors and church members should carefully evaluate resources that are filled with exciting buzzwords but laden with not-so-new neoorthodox theology. We have the wonderful opportunity to offer truth to a world that is ever changing—we offer hope and trust in the unchanging and knowable Word of God.

In a world where everyone attempts to be relevant, it is worth considering that the meaning of Scripture cannot be made relevant. It is relevant, because relevancy is based upon the Author’s intended meaning. It becomes significant as readers correctly interpret and then apply the Author’s meaning.

David Mappes (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is an associate professor of theology and Bible exposition at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pa. This article was published (with minor changes) in Baptist Bible Seminary’s Paraklesis (Summer 2010). If you would like to comment or read further resources related to this article, please visit http://faculty.bbc.edu/dmappes. For a free subscription to Paraklesis, e-mail Paul Golden at pgolden@bbc.edu.