There is no single view about the authority of Scripture held amongst analytic theologians. There is no single view about how to use Scripture in theological argument among analytic theologians either. This should come as no surprise to those acquainted with analytic theology. It is, after all, a methodological approach to doing theology that is pretty “thin” on substantive theological commitments—including commitments about the inspiration, authority, and use of Scripture in making theological claims.
For this reason, my remarks on this topic can be taken as the reflections of an analytic theologian on Scripture’s use in philosophy and theology. But they can hardly serve as an expression of the analytic theological view of Scripture because there is no such thing.I shall proceed in the remainder of this paper to offer some personal reflections on what I take to be the use of Scripture in philosophy and analytic theology, focusing on analytic theology in particular. As a matter of fact, most analytic theologians I know of have a fairly high view of Scripture and think it is an important theological norm that should play a role—for most, a significant, or even foundational role—in the shaping of one’s theological judgments. That should come as no surprise either. Most analytic theologians (but not all) have a fairly traditional way of thinking about sources of theological authority because most are fairly traditional Christian theists.
Nevertheless, that still leaves a lot of room for differences of view amongst practicing analytic theologians. And, as I have already indicated, it doesn’t prevent someone from working as an analytic theologian without such traditional sensibilities—and there are some (not many) analytic theologians who may have more revisionist views about these matters.
With these initial remarks in mind, I shall proceed in the remainder of this paper to offer some personal reflections on what I take to be the use of Scripture in philosophy and analytic theology, focusing on analytic theology in particular. My remarks proceed as follows. First, I shall say something about the relationship between Scripture, theological authority, and tradition. This is important because without some sort of theological reason for thinking Scripture is an authority there would be little reason to discuss its use in philosophy or analytic theology. And without some understanding of the relationship between Scripture and its authority, and the role of tradition and its authority, we will be unable to adequately weigh competing theological claims. Second, I shall say something about the relationship between Scripture and hermeneutics as I understand these matters, which includes saying something about the relationship between Scripture and metaphysics. This leads me to reflect on the role of Scripture in theological argument, and the way in which it is used in arriving at particular conclusions. In the final section I offer some closing remarks on the theological upshot of the foregoing reasoning.
Scripture, Theological Authority, and Tradition
Let me begin with some theological assumptions with which I approach this task. First, I assume that some version of theological realism is an appropriate way of thinking about theological method. Realism in this context is the notion that truths in a particular domain of discourse are mind-independent. So, theological realism is the claim that there is some mind-independent truth of the matter with respect to theological claims about God. Along with this claim about theological realism goes the notion that theology is truth-apt, and truth-aimed. It may turn out that we know next to nothing about God independent of human reflection on the divine.God has ordained that Scripture is the normal means by which he speaks to his people down through the ages. This does not prevent him from utilizing other means by which to speak to his people. In that case, our stock of theological truth that is mind-independent would be very small indeed; most of our theologizing would be a sort of anthropomorphic theology—that is, the projection of our own ideas onto some putative deity to which we have very limited access.
I suppose that something like that would be the case independent of divine revelation. However, it seems to me that Scripture is an instance of divine revelation, or at least the means by which God reveals Godself. It is the primary site of such divine revelation as far as historic Christianity is concerned. I see no reason to distance myself from that claim. Here I will not get into the messy business of giving some account of how Scripture is the means by which God reveals himself. All I will say is this: it seems like a relatively secure historic theological claim about the status of Scripture is that by means of these biblical texts God speaks. God could speak through other texts. He could speak through a Mozart concerto or a dead dog (as Karl Barth once said). But Scripture has a normative status as the means by which God speaks that a Mozart concerto or a dead dog do not. By that I mean: God has ordained that Scripture is the normal means by which he speaks to his people down through the ages. This does not prevent him from utilizing other means by which to speak to his people. But it does give Scripture a particular status not granted to other means, be they dead animals, beautiful music, or any other human artifact, including other great written works. I suppose that this is an important part of what theologians mean when they say that Scripture is the norma normans non normata, that is, the norming norm that is normed by no other.
The claim that “Scripture has a pre-eminent place in theological discourse because it is the normal means by which God speaks to his people” is itself a theological judgment, and one not found in Scripture. (2 Tim. 3:16 is not obviously a text about the whole of the canonical New Testament. To claim that it is, is question begging.) The claim that Scripture has a pre-eminent place in theological discourse as the normal means by which God speaks to his people is a theological judgment about the normative status of Scripture. How does Scripture come to have this status? That is a thorny theological conundrum. In answering it, we should distinguish between bestowing authority upon an entity, and recognizing the latent authority of an entity.
When the Pope gives a particular person a clearly defined role in which that person acts on behalf of the papacy as a legate, the Pope bestows authority upon that person so that they may act as a legate. That authority is entirely derived from the action of bestowal; the legate only has the authority he possesses to act on behalf of the papacy because it is given to him. Such authority can be rescinded, of course. Scripture does not have its status as theological norm merely because it is bestowed upon it by some creaturely agent or agents, such as an ecumenical church council. The Church does not bestow authority upon Scripture so that from that moment onwards it possesses a particular authority until and unless the action of the Church is rescinded. Rather, Scripture’s authority is recognized by the Church. When John the Baptist came preaching in the desert he was recognized as a prophet. His diet, his clothing, his asceticism, his manner of life, and—above all—his message, marked him out as one with authority divinely bestowed. How did his hearers know this? Because they recognized these different indicators as signs of divine approval. Here was God’s messenger. It seems to me that Scripture’s place in the life of the Church as a norming norm is like that. The people of God, that is, the Church, recognize in Scripture the signs of God’s imprimatur. They perceive that God has authorized these texts in such a manner that by means of them he speaks.Collections of letters and other documents were in circulation alongside oral testimony passed on from the earliest apostolic times, and liturgical forms as well. These various sources of theological authority grew up together, so to speak. So when the leaders of the early Church were trying to assemble the biblical texts, they were looking for signs of divine imprimatur. In the case of the New Testament texts, one important way in which this was done was by establishing whether a particular letter or gospel had apostolic authority. (I take it that appeal to apostolic authority is relevantly similar to recognizing signs and indicators of divine approval of a text—in this case, matching up the divine approval communicated via apostolic testimony with the putative divine imprimatur of a candidate text.) The question they asked themselves was something like this: Could this particular text be traced to the apostles or their immediate disciples, and/or did it contain teaching consistent with the apostolic teaching?
However, this picture is too tidy as it stands. As William Abraham, amongst others, has pointed out, in the apostolic period the biblical canon was still in its formative stage. Collections of letters and other documents were in circulation alongside oral testimony passed on from the earliest apostolic times, and liturgical forms as well. These various sources of theological authority grew up together, so to speak. The Rule of Faith existed alongside the letters of Paul, and liturgical forms such as the Didache. There was no time in the life of the early Church at which there was something like a leather bound tome of biblical teaching to which all could appeal as the final norm in matters of theological judgment. Rather, the biblical texts were recognized by the Church as authentically apostolic, in conformity to the Rule of Faith and in keeping with the liturgical practices passed on from earliest times—all of which were theological authorities “in play” in the formative phase of the early Church. It was a process that was messy, contested, and politically fraught. Nevertheless, the fact that the recognition of the biblical canon was a messy, contested, and politically fraught process does not necessarily detract from the authority of the texts themselves, any more than the fact that the Declaration of Independence is the product of a certain politically messy, contested, and fraught set of circumstances should lead us to believe that the origin of the Declaration tells against its importance as a document that conveys political authority. That would be an instance of the Genetic Fallacy, which conflates the provenance of a thing with its truth-value. Nevertheless, the fact is that Scripture developed as a theological norm alongside other norms, and recognizing the latent authority of the particular collection of texts that became the New Testament was a process that took time and involved judgments that included measuring up candidate texts to other theological norms that had grown up along with the biblical texts themselves.
Scripture and Hermeneutics
In the previous section we briefly considered some formal issues with respect to Scripture’s status as a theological authority. What about more material concerns? By that I mean, what about considerations that have to do with how we use Scripture theologically rather than methodologically? Some people working at the interface between philosophy and biblical studies today (e.g., Yoram Hazony, Dru Johnson) think that Scripture has an epistemology and makes metaphysical claims that are internal to the biblical texts themselves. These texts yield certain epistemic or metaphysical claims, so these scholars think—and not merely trivial or obvious claims but substantive claims that are theologically salient.It seems to me that the Bible is metaphysically and epistemologically underdetermined in important respects, and is theologically polyvalent in certain ways as well. I am much more skeptical that this is the case than these scholars seem to be. It seems to me that the Bible is metaphysically and epistemologically underdetermined in important respects, and is theologically polyvalent in certain ways as well.
Let me explain. First, some remarks about how the Bible is metaphysically underdetermined. An example I often use in the classroom is that of divine immutability. There are biblical passages that suggest God does not change (e.g., Num. 23:19; Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17). There are also passages that suggest God does change (e.g., repenting of creating human beings in the Nohaic narrative of Genesis 6). How should we understand such passages (assuming we think they are all passages by means of which God speaks)? Much depends on which data we privilege, as well as the assumptions we bring to the texts in question. For instance, those who hold to a version of classical theism will think God is atemporal and therefore immutable in a strong sense: he does not change in any substantive way. Often, such assumptions are scoffed at in contemporary theology by those who think it obvious that the texts in question presume God is capable of real, substantive change in his character and decisions as a consequence of dealing with his creatures. That may be true, of course. But note that claiming God is capable of real, substantive change in his character and decisions as a consequence of dealing with his creatures involves hermeneutical decisions about how to think about these texts just as much as the classical-theistic alternative. And, like the classical theistic position, it too requires justification. These things are not obvious; they are matters for which argument is required. It seems to me that much depends on how we approach these texts, what we expect of them theologically (that is, what we think they can convey to us), and how we interpret the data they yield. It is not clear to me that Scripture on its face implies that God is mutable. That is a metaphysical judgment that one makes on the basis of a certain way of reading these texts that includes assumptions about things like the divine nature and God’s relationship to his creatures, as well as the privileging of certain texts over others.
Second, Scripture is epistemically underdetermined. I think it is obvious that Scripture teaches that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate. But apparently this is not obvious to every reader of the biblical texts. Some people, having read exactly the same New Testament documents as me, come away from that reading with the idea that Jesus of Nazareth is a mere human being, a Jewish peasant prophet who may have had messianic pretensions. As with the first point about metaphysical judgments concerning Scripture, I think that here too much depends on the data one privileges, as well as the assumptions one brings to the reading of these texts. If one is, say, a committed metaphysical naturalist then one is unlikely to find evidence for the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate in the New Testament.Our respective theological frameworks, ostensibly giving an interpretive structure for the reading of the same biblical texts, are (sadly) often what divide us. By a similar token, if one is a hermeneutical universalist then one is unlikely to think that we can establish any truth-claims about who Jesus is that are theologically realist in nature on the basis of the New Testament texts alone, and so on.
Third, in some respects Scripture is theologically polyvalent. I do not mean to say, “Scripture is polyvalent simpliciter.” That would be to invite the objection that I am making a wax nose of Scripture, and I don’t think Scripture is a wax nose. However, I do think that Scripture is consistent with more than one theological frame of reference. That is, I think that there is a range of different theological frameworks each of which is compatible or consistent with the biblical texts. Obviously, that is not equivalent to saying that there is a range of different theological frameworks that are true. The fact that one thing is consistent or commensurate with another thing does not necessarily mean that the first thing makes the other thing true or false; the claim is merely that they are in principle compossible. Consider: Scripture is consistent with both a Ptolemaic view of the cosmos as well as a Copernican view of the cosmos (and other views besides these, no doubt). That does not mean that on the basis of its consistency with Scripture we can show that the Ptolemaic view is true. What we can say is, the biblical material is commensurate with both the Ptolemaic cosmology, and Scripture is commensurate with the Copernican cosmology. In which case, Scripture is commensurate with more than one way of construing cosmology. (Whether this is true or not all things considered it is certainly the case that many Christians in the past have thought that either the Ptolemaic cosmology or the Copernican cosmology is consistent with Scripture. The infamous trial of Galileo is good evidence of this.) If Scripture were not consistent with more than one theological framework then plausibly theological disputes would be much less fractious. But the fact is, Molinists can debate with theological determinists, free will theists, and open theists about how to understand the relationship between divine foreknowledge and free will precisely because the texts are underdetermined in important respects that are theologically salient for this debate. Similarly (in evangelical Protestant circles at least), the interminable debates between Arminians and Calvinists about human salvation turn in large measure upon how certain biblical texts are interpreted. Our respective theological frameworks, ostensibly giving an interpretive structure for the reading of the same biblical texts, are (sadly) often what divide us.
This polyvalence applies to particular doctrines we derive from Scripture as well, including central dogmas of the faith. The Trinity is a good example of this. The word “Trinity” is not a biblical term, but it may be thought that the Bible implies a doctrine of the Trinity. There may be indications of the doctrine in Scripture, of course. But, as is well known, it was not until the formation of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol that we have an unambiguous doctrine of the Trinity. It is at least arguable that one could understand many of the biblical passages thought to imply this particular dogma in a way that is consistent with, say, Arianism instead of Trinitarianism.The take away is not that we cannot trust Scripture or that Scripture cannot tell us important theological truths, but that our grasp on these matters may be more fragile than we sometimes think. Why think the Arians were wrong? Presumably because they were teaching a novel way of thinking about these texts that was not in keeping with the apostolic teaching. But that is to invoke hermeneutical tools in addition to the plain reading of the texts in question in order to arrive at a particular doctrinal conclusion. And even when we reach that conclusion, that is really only the beginning of theological reflection. For what do we mean when we confess the dogma of the Trinity? To what are we subscribing? In answer to this sort of question a plethora of different models of the Trinity have arisen in Christian theology, all of which claim to be consistent with the biblical material, though they are incommensurate with one another.
Some central doctrines of the faith do not have the canonical form that the Trinity does. The atonement is an example of this. Because there is no agreed upon canonical form to this doctrine, how we understand the biblical material informing our reasoning about the atonement has generated numerous distinct and often incommensurate views about the nature and scope of Christ’s reconciling work, all of which can find some support in the biblical material.
Let us take stock: To my way of thinking, these considerations about metaphysical and epistemological underdetermination, as well doctrinal polyvalence, suggest that we should hold our different theological views about particular material and doctrinal considerations (as they are drawn from Scripture) tentatively. The take away is not that we cannot trust Scripture or that Scripture cannot tell us important theological truths, but that our grasp on these matters may be more fragile than we sometimes think—especially when it comes to arcane matters of theological dispute such as a given model of the Trinity, or a particular doctrine of atonement.
But how should we use Scripture in philosophy and analytic theology? In a sense, the foregoing is the beginning of one answer to that. It is one way of construing the place of Scripture in theology from which one could draw a lesson on how to use Scripture in theology—or at least, a lesson on how Scripture should inform our theologizing, which is one sort of theological “use” of Scripture. An exciting development in recent analytic theology is the way in which analytic theologians have begun to address two important and related matters that bear on the question of the use of Scripture in this way. The first of these matters is the role of tradition in theological judgments, which we have already touched upon. Understood broadly to include things like liturgy, there is good evidence that analytic theologians are beginning to turn their attention to these matters as important factors in how we form theological views on the basis of the appeal to a certain sort of privileged testimony that bear in important ways upon the use of Scripture in theology.Even where there is not much explicit reference to biblical texts, it is often true that Scripture functions as a kind of theological norm that informs the arguments being made. (Examples include recent work by Terence Cuneo, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Abraham, and others.) A second matter has to do with the way in which analytic theology relates to biblical studies. Here too there is the beginning of a real engagement, with work being done in the Hertzl Institute in Jerusalem (from a Jewish philosophical-theological point of view), and in the Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the University of St Andrews (see, for instance, the videos of the recent Logos conference held there this summer, which are now available online).
It is often said that analytic theologians don’t make much use of Scripture. At times this may be true, though there are some prominent counterexamples to this claim, e.g., the work of Eleonore Stump in Wandering in Darkness and in her forthcoming sequel, Atonement, or Michael Rea in his recent Gifford Lectures. And even where there is not much explicit reference to biblical texts, it is often true that Scripture functions as a kind of theological norm that informs the arguments being made—as is true (I suppose) of much non-analytic contemporary systematic theology which makes no more direct reference to Scripture than the average analytic theologian does. Still, more work on this front is needed and more substantive attention to, and use of, Scripture in making theological judgments. To what end? Well, that depends. Once more, there is no single analytic approach to these matters. But one can point to interesting examples such as Stump and Rea. For instance, Stump suggests that there is a certain sort of knowledge that one can only get by attending to the sort of narratives one finds in places like Job. This sort of knowledge cannot be had by simply stating the core conceptual claims of the narrative in propositional form—or so she claims. This is theologically salient and interesting. I am not sure what to make of the claim, but it does provide good evidence for thinking that not all analytic theologians think the biblical texts are husks containing the conceptual kernel of propositions that can be extracted and arranged in logically valid arguments.
Let me close by summarizing what I take to be the main claims I have made here.
How we use Scripture depends in important respects upon assumptions that are independent of the texts themselves, assumptions that are often philosophical in nature.
Scripture itself is metaphysically and epistemologically underdetermined in important respects. It needs to be understood in the context of a theological framework that is not provided by the text alone.
Scripture is in important respects theologically polyvalent. That is, it is consistent with more than one theological framework.
Theological frameworks are the product of various theological traditions (such as Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, and so on).
Our theological engagement with Scripture should include the acknowledgement that our own theological judgments about the texts in question are fallible, and subject to correction.
This is hardly the last word on the subject. But perhaps it may contribute to the ongoing debate.
These essays were originally presented at an Evangelical Philosophical Society panel at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
Scripture and Philosophy: Source, Supplement, or Stumbling Block?