Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Christian Smith on Presbyterian Narcissism

Properly calibrating the proper relationship between Scripture (exegesis) and tradition is a problem both perennial and practical, not least in defining group identity for any number of Christian denominations and sects.  Does one interpret Scripture through the lens of tradition?  Or does one interpret the Bible with tradition (in which case such Reformational perspectives as sola scriptura and prima scriptura both fit the bill)?  Or, perhaps, should one interpret Scripture without tradition, even sweeping tradition into the dustbin as a hindrance to contemporary appropriation of the Bible (a radical view of solo scriptura)?

One who has wrestled with such matters is Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame.  Smith was raised as a good evangelical boy, attending Wheaton College and eventually graduating with a BA from Gordon College.  Even after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard and joining the faculty at the University of North Carolina, Smith's credentials as a card-carrying conservative Presbyterian were impeccable.  Nevertheless, things changed, as he publicly converted to Roman Catholicism, later explaining his defection in terms of evangelical Protestantism's wrongheaded embrace of "biblicism."  I have fairly substantial criticisms of Smith's work, but he unquestionably has his fingers on the pulse of such Reformed groups as the PCA and OPC, who to varying degrees claim to be both "biblicist" (or at least "biblical") and "confessional."  In contrast to modern Roman Catholicism, whose scholars gladly admit that the church's teachings go beyond Scripture (for a wonderful example, see Joseph Fitzmyer's fine Commentary on Romans, where at times in his exegesis of chapter 3 he sounds positively Lutheran), such conservative, self-consciously "Reformed" Presbyterians insist that their very detailed confessions embody the "system of doctrine taught in the Bible.They thus imagine they can have their cake and eat it as well, seemingly ignoring the common-sense insight that all interpretations of Scripture are historically-located, and hence historically conditioned.

The point is that such a commitment to finely detailed traditional confessions not only clashes with the confessions of other Christian bodies, but also leaves very little wiggle room for adopting more recent perspectives on Scripture derived from advances in other areas of knowledge or reassessment of the historical meaning of the biblical text itself.  And this has, not surprisingly, led to such unfortunate matters as heresy trials and professorial removals because of positions adopted that are perceived as being "against the teaching of the confession" and thus assumed to be against Scripture itself.  Moreover, many of these disputes are over seemingly picayune differences in interpretation occasioned by the current state of academic biblical studies.

Smith deals with this matter in a recent guest post on Pete Enns's blog.  In this post Smith applies an insight of Sigmund Freud that the psychologist termed the narcissism of small differences.  Smith summarizes this concept as follows:
The basic idea is this: groups of people are often most sensitive and snotty toward those who they are most socially alike. Human groups do not have their fiercest conflicts with those who are quite different from them. Instead, they display the greatest pettiness and viciousness in fighting those who they look the most like.
This phenomenon is indisputable.  One of the things that struck me most when I was studying the "factionalism" of Second Temple Judaism in my doctoral student days was the degree to which the various "parties" vilified the others, even (at times) lumping Jews with different convictions together with the Gentiles as obvious "sinners" (classic in this regard were the Essenes of Qumran, who labeled the [almost certainly] Pharisees as "seekers after smooth things").

This tendency has certainly been true to my own experience as well.  I was raised in a very dispensational fundamentalist home and attended a very dispensational fundamentalist college.  Yet, the major focus of my college professors' polemic was not on the "liberal" German theologians and biblical scholars whose teachings dominated secular academia, but rather on the "Reformed Covenant Theologians" whose theology conflicted with the dispensational premillennialism the school's doctrinal statement implicitly taught was the essence of the faith (and this despite being taught a very "Calvinistic" theology of the accomplishment and application of redemption by my dispensationalist father!).  It was a major scandal (!) when one of the school's most prominent students "defected" to Covenant Theology and attended Westminster Seminary.

The fact of the matter is that such small matters of theology (or, in many older fundamentalist circles, practice) serve as de facto boundary markers that define group identity and provide people with a safe place to anchor the intellectual contours of their faith.  The obvious problem, however, is that such a focus on small differences tends to exaggerate the magnitude of these differences and simultaneously blinds one to the major issues that should garner one's attention instead.  One further problem that I have noticed:  defense of the particulars of one's "distinctions" in small matters becomes the occasion of pride for those who perceive themselves to be the pious defenders of tradition (they would say "truth") against attack from nefarious newcomers.

It is here that groups like the PCA have succumbed to what I believe is an unfortunate lack of focus.  Of all contemporary denominations, they have been most active in recent years in policing their ranks against the intrusion of unwanted ideas from outside the camp.  The most famous instance concerns the so-called "New Perspective on Paul."  The 34th General Assembly of the PCA in 2007 appointed an ad interim committee to study the New Perspective, Federal Vision, and Auburn Avenue Theology.  The committee's report clearly condemned the New Perspective (as well as the other matters) with detailed comparisons of the writings of Jimmy Dunn and (especially) N. T. Wright with the Westminster Confession.  On many occasions they clearly misunderstood what Wright was actually saying (so I would argue), but they did definitely show a divergence between certain emphases of the New Perspective and those of the confession they clearly were much more qualified to interpret (it is no surprise to me that the major players on this committee were church historians and theologians).  Setting aside the propriety of confessionalism per se, what struck me is the black and white clarity with which they viewed the situation and the more than implicit sense of the danger they perceived in the New Perspective to the core of the Christian faith.

I know that the New Perspective, at least as expressed by N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, Bruce Longenecker, and even Jimmy Dunn, does not constitute a danger to the core of the Christian faith, even to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith.  I say this because I wrote my dissertation on Paul's teaching on justification in Galatians back in 1995, long before the controversy over the New Perspective became hot in evangelical and Reformed circles.  Indeed, when I started my research, I intended to defend the traditional view of justification (a la Tom Schreiner) against the criticisms of Dunn and (especially) Ed Sanders.  My research, however, much of it influenced by Wright's 1992 Climax of the Covenant, led me to embrace a modified New Perspective that in no way denied the chief emphases of the Protestant teaching on justification, but which grounded theology better in the historical-critical concerns of the text.

By the first decade of the 21st century, however, the neo-Reformed crowd had clearly risen to the occasion, and a spate of books appeared (and keeps on appearing) condemning the "errors" of the New Perspective.  The dispute came to a head at the 2010 ETS Convention in Atlanta, when Wright and Schreiner squared off in a series of lectures on justification.  Schreiner is one of the best advocates of the so-called Old Perspective, but Wright clearly (in my view) won the day.  Moreover, he clearly self-identified as a Reformed theologian and argued that his modifications to the older Reformed understanding in no way invalidated their core insights.  Schreiner, for his part, was firm in his response, but acknowledged at the end what few of his defenders would. "Wright," he said, was a "rocket bursting in the sky over the evangelical world.  All we want to do is change the trajectory slightly."  That is clearly right, and the mark of a scholar who actually knows the issue.  Nevertheless, when I remarked in a biblical faculty meeting at the college where I was then teaching that Wright's view wasn't at fatal odds with the Reformation view of justification, I was (by virtue of my "favorability to the New Perspective") henceforth considered unworthy to teach at the (nonconfessional!) school by the department chair, who is not a New Testament scholar but a church historian.  It is this "narcissism of small differences" that will serve to mute the witness of the evangelical church to Christ for years to come, unless the trend is reversed.

Last week I came upon yet another example, when I read of the attempt by some to ban the practice of intinction (i.e., the dipping of the host in the wine before giving it to the communicant) in PCA churches.  Indeed, last month, by a margin of fourteen votes, the 40th General Assembly voted to send a proposed amendment to the Book of Common Order to the Presbyteries that will effectively ban such a practice.  Now, I am no lover of the practice of intinction.  But argumentation to the effect that "Jesus said to both eat and drink" manifests a brutal hermeneutic that masks a (probable) deference to tradition and makes a mountain out of a molehill.  And, if you ask me, any church body that uses unfermented grape juice and serves individual pieces of leavened bread on trays for individuals to partake of themselves, often at their own time, has no ground on which to stand to criticise other s for how they celebrate the Eucharist.

Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35).  By this standard, the fissiparous narcissism of small differences is a scandal that directly hinders our mission as followers of the risen Lord.  Let us all study the Bible and come to firm, detailed opinions.  All beliefs matter, after all.  But let us not overstate our differences or use them as pretexts for unnecessary division, for not all beliefs matter to the same extent.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. I could not agree with you more.