Navigating the whirlwind of interpretative pluralism
Roman Catholics aren’t wrong about everything. Even about what they say about us Protestants. Take University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. He’s a former Evangelical who has crossed the Tiber because, among other things, he wearied of what he calls Protestantism’s "pervasive interpretive pluralism." By this he means how Protestants perpetually disagree with each other over what the Bible teaches.
Smith’s mordant despair can be challenged. Protestants agree enough that we not only recognize each other as kin, but we work with each other across denominational lines in lots of important projects – from relief and development agencies to evangelistic campaigns to children’s clubs to, yes, even theological seminaries.
Still. The new head of the World Evangelical Alliance said in an interview that the most important item on his agenda is improving Bible knowledge. But should it be?
Perhaps he has in mind the level of Bible knowledge – and of literacy in general – among the exploding populations of Protestants in Africa and Latin America.
Canadian studies have repeatedly shown, however, that even lifelong believers in a country that was majority Christian for generations, where literacy is high and there is easy access to the Bible, often never acquire basic Bible knowledge.
More ominously, the main problems facing us won’t be solved by teaching more Bible content. Most of us don’t use well even what Bible knowledge we do have.
Protestantism has exacerbated the individualism of our culture to encourage each of us to decide everything for ourselves.
I have been teaching theological method and ethical reasoning for a number of years and have three observations to mention here.
First, even graduates of such courses are just beginning to learn how to put together the vast and complicated teachings of the Bible into a coherent theological framework they can apply to their lives. But why should they even try to do that on their own?
Protestantism has exacerbated the individualism of our culture to encourage each of us to decide everything for ourselves. Catholics have been warning against this atomization of theological authority for half a millennium.
And modern consumerism makes us all the more prone to interpret the Bible conveniently in line with our preferences, or to conform to the values of our class, ethnicity or region. We rarely let the Bible confront us, let alone truly change our lives.
Second, Protestants refuse to be "priest ridden," as the old anti-Catholic stereotype has it – doing just as their pastors say. Instead, when I ask my students if they consult their pastors, they usually say no. Why not?
Third, even if Christians did seek help from their pastors, it seems absurd to expect every Canadian pastor to become a Repository of All Wisdom. Yet too many feel they must undertake a few weeks of study and then deliver a series of sermons on subjects scholars might take a lifetime to master.
Our Catholic friends don’t settle for everyone figuring out everything for himself or herself. Not even priests. Instead, their Church has marshalled its considerable resources to provide standard, steady answers – in catechisms, manuals of ethics, guides to spirituality and more.
Most Protestant theological work, however, is done by – you guessed it – individuals. This professor or that pastor publishes his or her views by book or by podcast, leaving audiences to pick what they like from the marketplace of options.
In our concern to be not-Catholic, I fear we Protestants have overcompensated. Let’s consider the best elements of their example instead – and stop reinventing wheel upon wheel.
I’d like to see The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, or Christian Higher Education Canada, or a coalition of academic deans of Canada’s major Protestant seminaries convene a task force to write basic guides to doctrine, ethics and piety. Publishing online would mean they could be any size. Some might be generically Christian while others would reflect the important differences among various traditions. If collectively writing such guides would be too onerous or contentious, what about creating a shortlist of recommended ones?
We Protestants co-operate impressively on so many vital matters. How about providing reliable instruction for our hardworking pastors and earnest churchpeople who really must not be left to fend for themselves in the whirlwind of pervasive interpretative pluralism?