In Response to Richard Beck and Derek Rishmawy: Fundamentalists, Hermeneutics, and Sola or uh Solo Scriptura

In the past I have written much on a reality I was first introduced to in 1999 at Bible College; i.e. the reality that we all as Christian Bible interpreters have an interpretive tradition. Recently Richard Beck made the claim in regard to Christian Fundamentalism that,

… we all have a hermeneutic. The only question is whether you are consciously vs. unconsciously using a hermeneutic. Fundamentalists are interpreting the text unconsciously. Fundamentalists are interpreting the text right and left, they are just unaware that they are doing so. This lack of awareness is what produces the sorts of statements described above.[1]

biblegunIn other words as Derek Rishmawy summarized, “For Beck, though, the mark of a fundamentalist is that they alone believe they don’t have a hermeneutic, even when they do.”[2] So Beck’s critique against Fundamentalists, and against what he wrongly calls out as Sola Scriptura (which he should have labeled Solo Scriptura), is that when Fundamentalists claim: “this is the clear teaching of Scripture,” that they are providing a “diagnostic” of themselves insofar that they are not even self-aware enough to recognize that they are indeed doing interpretive work when engaging with and reading Holy Scripture.

I fully agree with Beck’s assessment of Fundamentalists, but it is too short-sighted, and in fact like I alluded to above this isn’t reflective of a historic understanding of Sola Scriptura or the historic notion of ‘Scripture alone’, instead what Beck is referring to is the more naïve concept that can be labeled as Solo Scriptura or de nuda Scriptura, ‘Scripture all by itself.’ Sola Scriptura never denied the reality of interpretive tradition, and in fact made robust and thick appeals to it during the time of the Protestant Reformation, say among folks like Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al. Beyond simply entailing the idea that Scriptural interpretation involved appeal to prior interpretive tradition, say with reference to Augustinian, Athanasian, Irenaen, et al categories, the concept of Sola Scriptura was also meant to signify a new theory of authority. In other words, Scripture, as one of the principia of the Protestant Reformation, was the place of which all else was subordinate, even the church. So the church was not the magesterium, but Scripture now held that place of authority for Protestants.

Furthermore, as I just asserted above, Beck’s critique stopped short, it isn’t just the Fundamentalists who embody the kind of ‘emotional instability’ that leads to ex cathedra like pronouncements of ‘this is clearly what the Bible teaches,’ indeed it is also the so called ‘Liberals.’ In other words, all humans are prone to thinking they are right and everyone else is wrong, even if this is held in a collectivist sense; i.e. a tribe of people find their identity sociologically around a set of common-shared belief about this or that. The problem isn’t really that either, I would contend, i.e. the idea that we think we are right (even if it is group-think), and everyone else is wrong in regard to this or that biblical interpretation; the problem is the attitude with which that approach is held. It is okay to be convicted by the idea that the view you hold about Scripture is indeed what ‘Scripture clearly teaches,’ it is just not okay to absolutize that approach resulting in a sectarian attitude where I look at other views and other people as necessarily less than me, or my group/tribe.

With all of that said, let’s close with some good words on this and Sola Scriptura with reference to John Calvin from Angus Paddison:

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scriptura approach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant regard for the ling and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant Biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of the so-called “historical critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[3]

So Paddison takes things a step further, and in a fruitful direction I think. Not only does his analysis highlight the shortcomings of Beck’s analysis – that this hermeneutical naïveté should be restricted to Fundamentalists alone – but Paddison also identifies, as I asserted previously, that the problem is not just an issue of ‘emotional imbalance’ (as Beck theorizes in his post), but that there is a critical component that lies behind this ostensible emotional imbalance; it is the move away from the historic Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura, and a move towards Solo Scriptura, as if the text of Scripture can be abstracted out of its theological and confessional location, and instead approached in a ‘naked’ way simply reconstructing what the text itself says by appeal to historical-grammatical-rhetorical-literary analyses. We see this move to Solo Scriptura, even if in different ways, by both ‘Liberals’ and ‘Fundamentalists,’ and we see this move being held up by Enlightenment rationalist historicist-critical approach to the text of Scripture. This move fosters the belief, the Modernist/rationalist belief that our mind’s have the capacity to cut through all presuppositions, tossing off the husk and getting to the kernel and essence of what Scripture means; this move allows folks (with the proper attitude in place, or improper as the case may be) to assert that ‘this is clearly what the Bible is saying,’ without any consideration that there just might be traditional, confessional, and theological categories informing their conclusions – even if they think they have been able to get beyond all of that. In the end, I would contend that Fundamentalists (and Liberals) are part of a tradition of biblical interpretation known as rationalism that does indeed evince itself as reflective of an emotionally unstable and imbalanced approach to not only Scripture, but life itself.

[1] Richard Beck

[2] Derek Rishmawy

[3] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2009),

One thought on “In Response to Richard Beck and Derek Rishmawy: Fundamentalists, Hermeneutics, and Sola or uh Solo Scriptura

  1. Consider the Scripture as its traditional term ‘kanon’. If it is a ‘ruler’, imagine literally, just because it measures and reveals the truth, someone still needs to teach you how to use a ruler. You might think the numbers on the side are incidental and its proper use is to hit people, or hang on the wall decoratively. Tyndale is right that everyone, including the ploughboy, can, and should, understand the Scripture for his/herself. But that never meant he was just tossed a Bible and left alone.

    I’m finding the whole ‘solo'(bad Latin…)/sola/prima scriptura terminology insufficient to get at what people want to talk about. Just because we have a hermeneutic doesn’t mean its not true or right or fitting. In many ways, ‘fundamentalists’ and liberals are different sides of the same coin. That is a coin that has rejected the ‘Totus Christus’.

    Good post Bobby!


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