“Underdetermination”, diversity and truth

In a recent debate between proponents of Open Theism and Classical Theism, much was made of the suggestion that Scripture “underdetermines” the matters in question. This suggestion was made, apparently irenically, by moderators of the debate but also, less intuitively, given their claim to be more Scriptural, by some on the “openness” side. This would appear to be because they are currently perceived as the “fringe” (although within academia there are grounds for saying that the “voluntary-kenotic-perichoretic-relational-panentheist paradigm” is the new orthodoxy – see this blog  re academic theology overall and this  essay  on the same trend in Evangelicalism), and can gain a better foothold by the strategy of saying, “You can’t use Scripture to disprove our views.”

I noticed the debate because in a discussion on BioLogos, on the sovereignty of God, my opponent seemed to be drawing on much of the ambience, and some of the actual points, made in it. For example, although nobody had mentioned, or hinted at, “heresy”, he at one stage said that in these enlightened days, accusations of heresy are unhelpful, which was a point made in the aforementioned debate by proponents of the view more likely to be viewed as innovation, and therefore as heresy.

Since heresy is defined as “teaching contrary to orthodox doctrine” it follows that if nothing is heresy, then nothing is orthodox either. Nobody seems to take that easygoing line in any other subject – in evolutionary science, for example. “You believe in special creation, I believe in undirected natural selection – the evidence is underdetermined, so what does it matter?” Indeed it is a trivial disagreement compared to the question of God’s nature.

But the parallel I’d like to focus on was the suggestion in our own discussion that Scripture is “underdetermined” on the extent of God’s sovereignty and providence, because for every text one can find to support the near-universal view of the tradition one strand of the theological spectrum, others can be cited by those taking the opposite view.

Now this admission seems, at first, very congenial to Christian peace, harmony and mutual respect, or at least to agreement to differ. To treat issues as vital when they are handled as matters of indifference by Scripture would be bigotry. If God hasn’t made things perfectly clear, they must clearly be matters of indifference, so why argue about them? But perhaps one should also be cautious of the premise that Scripture actually is underdetermined, seeing how well that contention accords with the current academic fashions of postmodernism.

To the postmodern deconstructionists, no texts carry intrinsic meaning, their significance being entirely in the eye of the interpreting reader. More strongly, to insist on any particular meaning is, in itself, an act of cultural oppression. So in that view it’s not just that a particular text like the Bible yields a range of legitimate interpretations, but that interpretation itself has little or nothing to do with authorial intention (which is long lost, if it ever existed), and everything to do with the agenda we bring to the text. See here and here. Moreover, to prefer a particular interpretation carries connotations of the immoral use of power. And the intrinsic immorality of the exercise of power is at the heart of the “VKPRP” agenda.

Now, as with all extreme movements, we tend consciously to reject the excesses of Postmodernism, whilst unconsciously imbibing some of its underlying assumptions. A parallel to that would be the Enlightenment thought patterns that infuse us all, even the most vehemently Anti-Enlightenment Fundamentalist. Eddie Robinson has been very candid about this in discussions of miracles on BioLogos: his “gut” instinct as a modern is to discount them, and he recognises the need to fight that unevidenced assumption in the face of biblical and other evidence.

Few Christians would, after all, disagree that there is authorial intent in Scripture, or even that in some way God, as teacher, is behind it. But a range of modern ideas dilute that. Theologically, the currently fashionable stress on its human authorship over the divine leads to an expectation of contradiction in the Bible, whether between authors or, very often, within a single text, either because it was amended by editors, invented from wholecloth by nonentities or because the biblical authors were themselves inconsistent.

Such an idea justifies the idea of pick ‘n’ mix texts: I prefer the texts that show God’s love, you prefer the texts about his wrath – and that says something about you, given that the text itself is a resource of mixed value. In that context, seeking “the whole counsel of God” from a thoroughgoing approach to Scripture makes no sense – you may as well try to harmonise the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the same way, “meliorist”…  a nice word, from McDermott’s article, linked above, from Latin “melior”, meaning “better”, implying a desire to improve Christianity beyond what it ever was, rather than reform it to its original pristine form… meliorist theologians have no understanding, or desire to understand, the idea of dual causation. To them, where Scripture is human, it cannot be divine; just as for Christ to become human he has to empty himself of divinity; to create God has to make room for creation by lessening himself; and to rule creation, he must coerce it. Classical theists have never had problems believing that God and what is created may both be fully active in their own being, without mutual interference, but are routinely accused nowadays simply of saying that God “calls all the shots” – a position no orthodox traditionist ever held.

Then again, against an intellectual background of “interpretation as oppression”, it is easy to take even the most obvious interpretation, held with confidence, as a sure-fire mark that something is wrong. “Facility is always suspect.” Doctrinal certainty is by nature coercive, despite Luke 1.4 or 1 Tim 4.16. Needless to say, it would be fine to treat as quite secure the interpretation of any passage that appears to endorse ambivalence about doctrine (eg 2 Cor 3.6).

Further, the realisation that ancient texts emerged from different worldviews has been taken, in Postmodernism, to mean that attempts to penetrate those worldviews are hopeless, because “original meaning” is inaccessible to us, or is even an incoherent concept. Therefore what the text means for us today is not just an important aim of a careful interpretative process, but its beginning and end. We must impose our worldview on the text, because we can’t, and shouldn’t, access any other. It’s therefore legitimate to deal with Genesis as outdated science, simply because we have no other way of seeing things than through material categories… though paradoxically it helps to claim the academic high ground of knowledge about the cultural prejudices of the Bible writers.

For Postmodernism exempts itself from the snare of cultural conditioning, even though its priorities match so closely the peculiarities of our current culture. It’s always the inspired writings that are in error, and never the modern writings that critique them.

But superficially, at least, the discussion is carried on at a less conceptual level: the Bible, our Christian foundational text, turns out (we are told) to be too ambiguous to settle such matters as divine sovereignty. It can support widely divergent views. So maybe God doesn’t consider those things important, as long as we keep to certain key truths of the faith (however they may be ascertained – as a one commentator put it, sola theologia is what tends to become the guiding principle). Or maybe God couldn’t get Scripture to speak clearly on these issues, what with working through fallible authors from a primitive culture, and so on, so that we must bring greater wisdom to bear, such as the current state of intellectual consensus about how the world is, or which “tradition” appeals most to the Academic subculture.

But in point of fact the problem of contradictory interpretations isn’t limited to the Bible. A little candid research will show that even those who have sought to explain the Bible clearly from a particular viewpoint are interpreted in opposite ways by their friends and enemies. Witness the massive and contradictory literature on what John Calvin really teaches, or Thomas Aquinas, or St Augustine… or even Thomas Jay Oord or Peter Enns, who can explain for themselves and still generate divergent understandings.

Greg Boyd, for example, explains Irenaeus in a way that makes the latter sound a thoroughgoing proto-Open Theist. I read him entirely differently, as have commentators down the centuries. But it’s interesting that when I stumbled upon Boyd’s exposition of Irenaeus on the web (searching on “Irenaeus”), without knowing its author, I almost immediately thought, “That sounds like it must have been written by an Open Theist”. Sure enough the author turned out, when I checked the strapline, to be Boyd. But does that mean one should just shrug and say “All meaning is imposed on texts by readers and so all interpretations are equally valid,” or does one seek to drill through to the author’s genuine intention, and reject interpretations that distort? Is Boyd the first to understand Irenaeus aright, or is he distorting his meaning? Or does it not matter, as long as Boyd has “a valid approach”?

The varying interpretations made of any text from Dickens to Hitchens suggest that, strictly speaking, it is not the Bible, but language that is underdetermined. It’s always been possible to take a text and use it selectively – or even fairly thoroughly, with enough ingenuity – to mean something quite new.

However, we used language for countless millennia before Postmodernism, and managed to cope with the facts that (a) language is susceptible to misinterpretation but (b) language is the only means we have to convey important truths, and is reliable enough to do so. But for (b) to override (a), a host of things other than the possible grammatical meanings of the text are required, which add up, in the end, to getting into the mind of the author.

Back in Tudor times, framing ones enemies by reading hidden meanings into their writings was a fine art. Queen Elizabeth’s spies would easily find material in this post to confirm a Catholic plot against her, were they so motivated. So there are moral dimensions to correct interpretation, and spiritual dimensions too.

To say that Scripture “underdetermines” a doctrine – such as that of providence – is in effect to claim that since language underdetermines meaning, all interpretation is arbitrary – a very post-modern view. But “underdetermination” at root just means disagreement – if two people disagree on what a single writer says, at least one of them is wrong. At very least, neither has recognised that the author contradicts himself. Scripture may of course be self-contradictory, but until one stops regarding it as an authority, then some understandings are, self-evidently, better than others.

To prefer one subset of texts over another is not a legitimate way of dealing with (what one believes to be) a unified message: one must accommodate the “problem texts” to ones understanding too. And this, of course, is what the catholic (small “c”) Church has done since New Testament times. It is a hallmark of “meliorist” positions like Open Theism that, despite sometimes calling it “an authority” they dismiss that “catholic tradition” as culturally determined (largely by the tired old claim that it is moulded by “Greek” rather than “Hebrew” ideas – though finding any ancient Judaistic equivalent to Open Theism is problematic). When that is insufficient, the “final authority”, the Bible, is neutered in practice by similar claims of cultural determination.

Of course none of the time-honoured interpretative strategies, taken on their own, is infallible. Reason and logic can be blind. Councils have erred. Popes have sinned against the truth. Democratic churches have succumbed to the spirit of the age. Seekers after the Holy Spirit’s guidance have been deceived by demons. “Experience of God” is not easily distinguished from canonising ones own prejudices. Yet amidst all that, there is a messy thing called “the rule of faith” which separates the Doctrine of Christ from pretenders to that title. There is something deeply egotistical in the claim that only this generation (and only ones own enlightened sector of this generation) has understood the gospel of Jesus Christ – or experienced God as he actually is, even when that claim is couched in calls for humility or academic freedom.

John Biddle in the seventeenth century found clear evidence in Scripture that God has a body and a physical location (and also, like the Open Theists, that he does not know the future) – but he was (dangerously) wrong, and required a John Owen to refute his error and protect the weak believer from what was in essence idolatry. Interestingly for the current debate opposing “dogma” to “experience of God”, Owen’s critique enlisted not only reason, but the call of a heart in deep communion with God, against Biddle’s “crass biblicism.”

The Gnostics used Scripture selectively for their view of the Creator as an incompetent Demiurge, and without those like Irenaeus spelling out the dividing line between them and the apostolic gospel many more would have been deceived.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, like the Arians of old, use Scripture to prove that Christ is a mere creature, though they insist on their Christian credentials (it being “the Church” who are heretics).

As Mark Knopfler said, of street preachers: “Two men say they’re Jesus/ One of them must be wrong.” The fact is that truth matters in matters of salvation, and even in matters of a love-relationship with Christ. And you can’t have truth without distinguishing it from error. At the best of times that’s hard – try as one might, it’s quite possible to be dead wrong. But the tools for making the effort have been around as long as truth itself, and need to be fully employed. They include faith, rational argument, the Holy Spirit, the tradition of the saints and no doubt many other things. But I don’t think that shrugging off Scripture as “underdetermined” is a useful one.


This link is unconnected with the post except as the source of the Knopfler quote, but it’s worth another hearing anyway.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to “Underdetermination”, diversity and truth

  1. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Another good column, Jon, which makes many good points covering a large amount of ground. Regarding your comment about my own statement, i.e.:

    “Eddie Robinson has been very candid about this in discussions of miracles on BioLogos: his “gut” instinct as a modern is to discount them, and he recognises the need to fight that unevidenced assumption in the face of biblical and other evidence.”

    I’d add that what really surprises me is that, whereas one would expect someone like myself to be skeptical about miracles (having been raised in a big mainstream Church with liberal tendencies, and having imbibed thousands of pages of science fiction and popular science in my youth, almost all of it written by hardened materialists), one would expect self-identified evangelicals to be more supportive of them. That’s why I find it odd that I’m in the unexpected position of defending the possibility of things like demonic possession, exorcism, etc. on BioLogos, against ECs who seem to be generally skeptical of miraculous accounts of anything. And heck, I’m not even defending demonic possession etc. aggressively — I’m merely asking how an evangelical can justify ignoring the plain sense of the Gospel texts. And for that I get called a “fundamentalist” by beaglelady!

    I guess part of the problem is that EC/TE is not really a theology or confession, but merely an affirmation that one can believe in evolution and Jesus at the same time. So anyone can call himself or herself an EC/TE as long as he/she conceives himself/herself to in some sense belief in Jesus or the Bible, and to accept evolution. No responsibility to any well-articulated theological tradition is required. That’s the difference between what you are doing here and what often if presented on BioLogos. You are asking: “What does the project of evolutionary biology look like from within an orthodox Christian view of God, Creation, revelation, the Bible, etc.?” The others are more often asking: “What sort of theological changes have to be made to the Bible and/or the Christian tradition in order to accommodate evolution?”

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Quite so, Eddie. On your last point, of course, the question must be raised of what is meant by the “evolution” to be accommodated. One critical essay on origins positions I read recently considers the definition of theistic evolution now to be that of John Polkinghorne, ie “creation allowed to make itself.”

      That is, actually (especially in the context of P’s writing) , a very strong theological claim about the nature of sovereignty and providence which excludes all teleological versions of evolution unless you assume that, like the Bible, it’s “underdetermined” (!) and really means “God allows creation to make what he has willed.” (I suspect George Brooks would put that spin on it, if he can make Peter Enns out to be an Inerrantist!)

      If Polkinghorne’s definition were universally accepted, then I’d be a theist and an evolutionist but emphatically NOT a theistic evolutionist, and it would justify those mainstream Southern Baptists, IDists and so on who say that theistic evolution is anathema. That’s nothing to do with crass biblical literalism, but everything to do with core biblical theology.

      Nothing at BioLogos officially embraces that position, of course, “evolution is the means God uses to create” having a different metaphysical nuance. Nothing for those Southern Baptists to see here, folks. But it still appears that the ateleleogical trope floats around both amongst many commenters and many columnists, including the responses by both to specific challenges to the orthodoxy, or even the coherence, of God’s non-government (rather than non-intervention).

      Over the years I’ve got used to the phenomenon of the occasional “in but not of” believer, self-identifying as a dissenter against some of the doctrinal positions of their own Church. I even had a Congregational minister once who praised his denomination for allowing him to sit loose to its doctrines.

      But if such a minister and most of his congregation are saying, “My Evangelical faith is Bible based, but of course miracles are incredible scientifically, Paul was just mistaken about Adam and sin, Jesus was culturally conditioned and the rest of the Bible must be judged on my opinion of its merits” … then you have to ask why that Church doesn’t just advertise itself as Liberal.

      Likewise, in any denomination one may get an occasional visiting speaker who preaches contrary to the doctrinal position of a church. Maybe even an ecumenical lecture series inviting other traditions to strut their stuff in the name of dialogue. But if the church regularly hosts every variety of radical new theologian who has got into hot water at his Christian college, invites the local Jehovah’s Witnesses to lead a service and hardly ever has teaching from its own tradition, then the poster outside that reads “The Gospel of the Old Rugged Cross is still relevant to You!” should, maybe, be replaced.

      There’s a point where open-mindedness becomes sheer confusion. For example, what is one to make of Jim Stump’s using Thomas Jay Oord as his third position on divine action (after Plantinga’s apologetic for miracles and Russell’s quantum God-of-the-Gaps)? Oord suggests we get realistic and admit that God is too intrinsically weak to do anything to change evils in our lives. But at the same time Chris Stump, in the home-schooling section, is asking people for prayer requests to take before the throne of grace.

      The good thing, I guess, is that any of these guys accuses us of misrepresenting their position, we have the ready answer that their position was underdetermined anyway.

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