Friday, September 12, 2014

The Myth of a "Plain Reading" of Scripture: Calvinism and Modern Naiveté

St. Augustine
A couple weeks ago, four Christians authors came together in Chicago to debate Calvinism. It consisted of two Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones) and two Free-Will Theists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). You can watch the debate here and here. There was one point that was made by Montgomery that I thought needed a focused response. Zahnd responded to it but unfortunately didn't have time to drive the point home. I would like to do so here.

Zahnd at one point said when we're talking about Scripture we need to be reading scholars of Scripture, and he mentioned N.T. Wright and a few others. Montgomery in his response said, "I understand we should read guys like . . . N.T. Wright. 'The Great N.T. Wright.' But I'm like, 'We need to read more Paul. We need a plain reading of Paul." A plain reading of Paul, he suggests, would lead us to the doctrines of Calvinism.

The huge problem with this understanding is that there is no such thing as a plain reading of Paul. This is the arrogance of modern readers: we presume to be a post-ideological society in which we can divorce ourselves from our subjectivity, we can be disinterested readers approaching texts objectively, without any biases or preconceived ideas. Such an understanding is incredibly naive.

In the West Side Story song "I Feel Pretty," Maria sings "I feel pretty and witty and gay." We today don't often use the word 'gay' to mean happy, but we know there was a time when that's what was meant when the word was used. Let's say a 100 years from now the word 'gay' is solely understood to be 'homosexual' and no one knows of any other meaning. When people of that time hear Maria's song, they'd think she was saying she felt homosexual. A "plain reading" of the song would suggest such an understanding. But of course we know this would be mistaken. What they would need to do, we are aware, is study the historical usage of the word 'gay' to understand what it meant to the author of the song.

It is the same with Scripture. And that's just a minuscule example. We are separated from the historical Paul culturally, geographically, linguistically, ideologically, etc. Paul wrote 2000 years ago to specific communities in specific situations with specific needs. You're telling me we don't need to understand any of that context to get at what Paul is saying? We can just naturally extract Paul's meaning from the page?

We all have lenses through which we read Scripture. Truth-seekers will call their lenses into question, study other lenses, recognize the limitations they have in understanding certain things because of their lenses, etc. Truth-seekers don't pretend as if their lenses don't exist and then act like the conclusions they draw from their "plain readings" are true.

A "plain reading" of Paul is impossible for us.

Daniel Montgomery sees Calvinism in Paul because he is separated from the context of the writings, because he was taught such a reading, and ultimately because of Augustine. It was Augustine a few hundred years after Paul who first extracted Calvinist-like doctrines from Paul's letters. And the lens Augustine read through was a Neo-Platonism/Christian synthesis.

If Calvinism is what Paul meant when he wrote, why did it take a few hundred years for someone to read it that way? And why was it only after someone combined Christian theology with Neo-Platonic ideas?

It is easy for modern people to see Calvinism in a plain reading of certain biblical texts because we have been subjected to that reading. It is inception: the thought is given to us, followed by the text. We can only start to understand Paul when we study the historical context--the Sitz im Leben. It's the difference between exegesis and eisegesis.

If you think Calvinism is what was meant by what Paul wrote, you better have good reasons based on a study of Paul's context. I am open to hearing such a case and being proven wrong, but after an extensive exegetical study of the passages in question, I have found Calvinism wanting. In fact, I don't see how someone studying the historical context can still be a Calvinist.

And that's why it's so difficult, but also why it's so important.

See also my discussion of various Calvinist proof texts:
"The Historical Romans 9, or Why Everything You Thought You Knew is Wrong"
"Predestined in Christ: Ephesians 1 and Calvinism"
"Calvinism in Acts of the Apostles"