Saturday, January 27, 2007

The "Silver Bullet" School of Scriptural Interpretation

There is a school of Scriptural interpretation that I will call the "Silver Bullet" school. It is committed, either explicitly or implicitly by its practices, to this interpretative principle:

If one wishes to establish that proposition P is a view expressed in Scripture, all that one needs to do is find a single passage which seems to say, or to entail, that P.

The Silver Bullet school is quite common among Evangelicals. I often hear it in their radio sermons (and where I live the radio waves are saturated with Evangelical radio). I have heard a "proof" of the doctrine of Sola Fide of this sort, for instance. A single passage was named, and on this basis alone the truth of Sola Fide was derived.

The Silver Bullet school is hopelessly naive. If we consider for a moment what Scripture tells us about universal reconciliation, we can easily show that this is so.

By "universal reconciliation" (UR) I mean that view that, in the end, all will be saved. UR thus entails that no one will spend an eternity in hell, however we might conceive of it. Of course UR does not imply that we do no suffer for our sins. We do. Nor does it entail that there is no place where sinners are sent to suffer for their sins. There might be such a place on UR, but if there is, none remain there for eternity.

Two sorts of arguments might be offered for UR, one Scriptural and the other philosophical. Let us consider the Scriptural for a moment. Collected below are verses which seem support UR and verses which seem to reject it.

Verses that seem to embrace universal reconciliation:

  • John 12:32: "And I [Jesus Christ], when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

  • 1 John 2:1-2 "My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for[a] the sins of the whole world."

  • Acts 3:21: [Jesus] "must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through the prophets."

  • Ephesians 1:9-10 "And he (God) made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ."

  • Romans 5:18-19 "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous."

  • Romans 8: 18-19 "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God."

  • Romans 11:32: For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all

  • 1 Timothy 4:10: "We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe."

  • Revelation 5:13 And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.

Verse that seems to entail a rejection of universal reconciliation:

  • Matthew 7:13-14 "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. 14"For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it."
  • Matthew 22:14 "For many are called, but few are chosen"
  • Matthew 12:32: "And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come."
  • Matthew 25:46 "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life"
  • Mark 16:16 "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God."
  • Matthew 10:23 "And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved"
  • Hebrews 10:39 But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.
  • Revelation 21:6-8 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

(The list of passages is taken from the Wikipedia article on universal reconciliation.)

Each verse in the first list seems clearly to entail UR. Each verse in the second seems to clearly entail the denial of UR. (Let us here put emphasis upon "seems". We might well find that our considered judgment will diverge from what seemed to us true as first. More on this in a moment.) What then are we to do if we wish to know what Scripture tells us about UR? We might of course pick one passage from either list and simply say that it's decisive. But that would be arbitrary. Why choose one passage instead of another? In particular, why choose a passage from the Pro List instead of a passage from the Con List? Surely one cannot provide good Scriptural support for a thing by arbitrary choice of passage. This alone is sufficient to undermine the Silver Bullet school. But let us press on. The water here is deep and we've barely broken the surface.

If we do not pick one verse and render our judgment by it alone, there is but one strategy left: in their context, and in the context of the remainder of Scripture and the theology that seems most concordant with it, weigh the passages against one another and thus (hopefully) come to a judgment about which seem decisive.

Now, I will not argue here that the proper judgment favors Pro UR or that it favors Con UR. Instead let me make what seems an obvious point: the arguments that one will marshal in support of one's view will likely be subtle, difficult and long, and since this is so, there is ample room for disagreement. My plea is thus as follows: let the parties to the dispute about UR recognize that there is room for disagreement, and let them not dogmatically assert that their view is certain. Hold to your view (I hold to mine), but do not dismiss out of hand the views of those who oppose you. They have some measure of Scriptural support, and some measure of reason too; and if your view should prevail, it is not because it was the obvious victor from the start, but rather it because it came out on top after a lengthy, subtle and difficult dispute.

The dispute over UR is not unique in this regard. One can gather both Pro and Con lists for each of the five Solas, for instance. The conclusion that I would draw about each is the same as I drew about UR: there is ample room for disagreement, and one ought not simply dismiss one's opponents out of hand. It might well turn out that you are wrong.

1 comment:

Jim Anderson said...

Debates between advocates of this school are often referred to as "Bible ping-pong."