In this post I am offering a revision, of sorts. I am going to consolidate two posts that I’ve had up in the last few days, into one; and in the process attempt to correct some things that I said about the movement ReThinking Hell (RH), and at the same time explain a distinction between what I mean when I speak of solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura. Once I’ve accomplished that I will briefly touch upon the type of interpretive-theological tradition I’m committed to as an Evangelical Calvinist.
To begin with, let me make a correction, let me not speak of RH in global terms; let’s think of them in more partitive ways when it comes to their hermeneutical approach vis-à-vis its doctrine of Scripture. As the founder of RH (Peter Grice) has been letting me know via email, their approach is more diffuse, made up of the tapestry of hermeneutical approaches that characterizes the panoply of evangelical theologians and exegetes. Okay, I’m willing, at this point to grant him that. Nevertheless, there are some prominent voices in their ranks, such as Preston Sprinkle and Chris Date who forward what we might call, and what I am calling, the solo Scriptura approach. In light of that we will take a look at an emphasis that Sprinkle believes is valuable about the approach that RH takes to the Bible. He writes in endorsement of ReThinking Hell:
Hell is a crucial topic, especially for Evangelicals. And it needs to be revisited. For too many years—thousands, actually—believers have thought about Hell with closed Bibles. It’s time to reopen them. It’s time to think biblically, not confessionally or traditionally, about this misunderstood and debated doctrine. Rethinking Hell is doing the church a great service by stirring discussion and forcing us to read what the Bible says about Hell.
If I were going to provide my own definition of what constitutes a solo Scriptura (or nuda Scriptura) approach I couldn’t be more precise than what Sprinkle offers. It is placing the Bible and its teaching in competition with confessionalism and church tradition; it is to buy into the enlightenment idea that we can read the Bible without the received understanding and permutations of the church in the history of the interpretation; that we can read the Bible without informing theologies “tainting” our exegetical conclusions. This, I contend, is the mood offered by a movement like ReThinking Hell (or at least by some of its most prominent voices); and they advertise it straightaway by lifting that type of spirit up through using Sprinkle’s endorsement of them as a place to go for undercutting the traditions (at least the tradition on hell) and confessions of the church by abstracting the Bible from its theological and intellectual context. Let me clarify, before we get ahead of ourselves; I’m not saying that contending with the tradition is bad, as we work it into dialogue with the scriptural witness, instead I am challenging the idea that we can or should read the Bible in an abstract way that is removed from the reality of its reception in the church’s history and the theology that that reception has produced. I am contending that solo Scriptura people, even if they claim otherwise, per enlightenment constraints, believe we can read the Bible “nakedly” (de nuda).
In contrast to this, sola Scriptura understands that it is not possible or advisable to read the Bible theology-less; and that the tradition of the church is an important aspect of engaging with the text of Scripture at an exegetical level. Angus Paddison offers some good words here, let’s listen in:
The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.
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 that 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 the 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 scan regard for the long 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 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’ [sic]. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it 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.
In the quote I emboldened: “often mutates into biblical scholarship alone.” This is the warp and woof of what constitutes a solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura approach, as Paddison so helpfully develops for us as he engages with Calvin. And this, I contend, is exactly the type of approach that funds the work that ReThinking Hell is engaged in (or at least the work that is being done by some of its most prominent members); the Sprinkle quote suffices to illustrate this in spades. As I’ve listened further to some of RH’s spokesman in debate (Chris Date in particular), he goes out of his way to make sure that all he wants to know is how Scripture speaks of hell. What he means is what the solo Scriptura approach will produce for him. It is rooted, as Paddison helps us see, in the enlightenment project that seeks to move the church away from the church, ironically, as it reads Holy Scripture. This is the way of a naked modernity penetrating the church in such a way that it ends up distorting Scripture’s witness to Christ rather than enhancing it.
I believe ReThinking Hell’s approach (at least some of its more prominent voices) is less than desirable when it comes to engaging with Scripture. I don’t think the solo Scriptura approach is grounded in a rich Christology, nor do I think it thinks about Scripture’s place ontologically as that is embedded in a Christian Dogmatic way of thinking (as described by John Webster so well in his little book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch). Do I think this is a problem that characterizes some of ReThinking Hell’s members alone? No. It’s a problem that the evangelical church at large is ensconced within; some of RH’s members simply reflect the evangelical culture they are part of.
What is My Interpretive Tradition?
As is clear for anyone who has read here for any amount of time this section is wasted on you; you know where I’m coming from. For matters of full disclosure, and anyone who happens upon this post who doesn’t know, let me make it exceedingly clear who informs my approach and why. My approach is largely funded by Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance.
I believe Karl Barth has done a revolutionary thing in regard to the categories and motifs he has offered the church. Yes, Barth might be a single man, but his reworking of election/predestination (as he inherited some of that from a French school of thought), and his style of Christ concentration is nothing more than an interpretive tradition in and of itself; as explanatory and weighty as what we get from Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Athanasius, Augustine et al. So why would I attempt to do theological-exegesis from outside of a theological tradition that I think provides the greatest explanatory power when we come to consider some very basic realities as we get into engaging with the inner-logic of the text of scripture? Indeed, this isn’t just true for me, it’s just as true for those who claim to “just be reading the Bible;” this is the irony of the solo Scriptura approach, or at least of an approach that believes it can read the Bible without theology necessarily informing their exegetical conclusions. It is inevitable and inescapable that we all bring theological preunderstandings to the text (and I contend this can be a good thing if its good theology). The hermeneutic and interpretive tradition I work from is Barthian, Torrancean (Thomas Torrance), and one that attempts to resourcefully and constructively receive from the whole of church tradition; albeit through the broader framework I have already noted.
I don’t think the basis of ReThinking Hell’s approach, in general, really appreciates the role that interpretive tradition plays for them in coming to their own conclusions about hell. They can’t just read the Bible and come to those conclusions, there are too many other things going on. So my question to them is what do they think represents their theological tradition; what is their hermeneutical framework being funded by? Do they think this framework has anything to do with their exegetical conclusions, or do they believe that their exegetical conclusions have purely funded their subsequent development on a theology of hell? I am positive (because I’ve heard him say this over and over again now) that Christ Date, of ReThinking Hell, believes that biblical exegesis comes prior to and indeed supplies the furniture of any developing theological framework post exegesis. This is why I say some prominent voices at ReThinking Hell are solo Scriptura thinkers, because they absolutely are. Yet the irony remains, even solo Scriptura proponents have informing theological frameworks funding their exegetical conclusions, even when it comes to their theology of hell; it’s just that they haven’t been self-critical enough to admit that, nor transparent enough for others to recognize what that is. So it’s left to outsiders to attempt to identify what that is for them, and let others know what in fact is informing their approach; theologically. If for no other reason but that we are transparent about how we are approaching Scripture. That’s an important fact to know when we are looking to others to teach us what the Bible says.
 Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 66-7. [emboldening mine]