Christian author and radio host Michael L Brown recently remarked: “The ultimate reason I’m not a Calvinist is the overwhelming testimony of scripture, carefully exegeted, from Genesis to Revelation. I understand my Calvinist friends have come to the opposite conclusion based on their study of Scripture. The question is: Why?” Brown is making the sort of statement I’ve seen time and time again from theologians on any side of some controversial question: “X is the clear teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood.” Now, the problem with that sort of statement is that when you ask why people disagree with X, you are asking why they disagree with the plain teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood, and to that question there is typically one of two answers: said person is not intelligent enough to properly understand or interpret scripture, or else they are wickedly disobeying it. With this point made – either implicitly or explicitly – the pinching and eye poking soon follows.
The problem isn’t that anyone is too stupid or too wicked (OK, sure, some theologians are one or the other, or both), the problem is that much that is pronounced as the “clear teaching of scripture” is anything but clear. Take this particular issue: Calvinist versus Arminian interpretations of scripture (we’ll leave aside for now the eminently more sensible secret option three: molinism). For either side to claim that the Bible clearly teaches their position is to vastly overstate the case. There are verses which seem to support a “Calvinist” view of providence and others which clearly support an “Arminian” one. This presents a difficulty for claiming either view is the “clear teaching” of Scripture carefully exegeted. Proponents of each position are typically adept at taking those verses which are claimed by the other side in support, and showing how they are consistent with their own position after all. Seemingly there isn’t a verse supporting Calvinism or Arminianism that can’t be interpreted differently by those with the contrary persuasion.
What is assumed more often than not in these debates is the idea that theologians – or regular church Joes – go to scripture as objective interpreters and allow it to speak to them as it actually is. But that strikes me as flat out false. We all come laden with baggage. Brown overlooks that when people approach scripture they typically do so from within a certain theological tradition and with an interpretative framework in place. Moreover, a person’s control over such things is fairly limited. Someone born and raised in a Presbyterian church is far more likely to operate from within that church’s interpretative parameters, and thus adopt a Calvinistic hermeneutic, and typically without even realising it. He’s absorbed it with his mother’s milk, as it were. It isn’t that he is less careful or less intelligent or more sinful than Michael Brown, it’s simply that his interpretative presuppositions and theological tradition differs.
This principle holds in many areas of our intellectual life. None of us – not even those brilliant internet freethinkers – arrive at our beliefs from some neutral view from nowhere after rationally and systematically following some prescribed objective method. I suspect our believing this or that is a much more passive process than we appreciate. Often, for a whole host of reasons, we simply find ourselves with the beliefs we have. Of course we can (and should) critically reflect on our beliefs, and may even effect some noetic change or other – but, by and large, the judgments we make, particularly on matters of controversy, are coloured by a multitude of factors largely beyond our direct and significant control: culture, upbringing, psychological makeup and 101 other contingencies of life. And all this before we acknowledge the all too human tendency to read one’s views into the Bible, with the result that eisegesis regularly masquerades as “careful exegesis.”
So, why does a Calvinist see the “clear teaching of scripture” differently from Michael Brown? Because they aren’t Michael Brown, and because no-one reads the Bible without some interpretative lens in place.
Stephen J. Graham