Friday, January 28, 2011

Hinlicky and the "Domino" Theory of Biblical Interpretation

More on the Hinlicky post.

Hinlicky attacks Robert Preus (of beloved memory) for holding to the "Domino" theory of biblical interpretation.  What does he mean by this?  The idea is that if you doubt the truth of one portion of Scripture (i.e. seven days of creation, Jonah in the whale, etc.) then you'll end up doubting all of it.  Hinlicky seems to think its a childish way of look at thing.

A couple of points.

First, how does one explain the most recent ELCA decisions without recourse to the fact that as the minds of most laypeople go, this is really how it works?  In other words, once the Bible ceased being an absolute authority in the ELCA (well, actually its processor bodies, to be clear) everything in the minds of the laity was up for grabs.  If you doubt this, listen to some of the debate points made by the liberal opposition during the Church-wide assemblies.  The most telling moment was when a young woman got up to the podium and said "Well, it's all very silly that we wouldn't bless homosexuality because of the teaching of Scripture.  After all, I'm going to become a minister and the Scriptures reject women's ordination as well.  So if we don't take them seriously on that point, then why on homosexuality?"  Now, Hinlicky himself would not follow this line of reason and he considers it to be crass (he's against homosexuality, but for women's ordination- he claims its one of the few things preventing him from becoming Roman Catholic!), but it's hard to deny the logic here.  It's also hard to deny that since the LCMS held the line regarding historical Jonah and 7 day creation back in the 70s, we're not debating homosexuality right now but rather whether or not we want to have contemporary worship.  Granted it's bad that we have to argue about this at all, but its better than the meltdown that the ELCA is facing.

But why does Hinlicky think that there's an alternative?  The main reason is that for modern theology the older Scholastic tradition's idea of the dual principium of God (the essential principle of theology) and his Word (the cognitive principle) have gone out the window.  They have for about 200 years or so.  What's replaced them is an unending search for an "essence" of Christianity.  Particularly for German Protestant dogmatics after Schleiermacher, this takes the form of trying to adduce every article of the Christian faith from the doctrine of Christ.  Depending on one's fancy, this can generally be transferred to the realm of the ethical and so made to serve as the basis for rejecting various practices that one does not like (homosexuality), while validating practices that one does like (women's ordination).  Hence, we can see why he does not think that you totally give up the farm if you get ride of inerrancy- even if there are problems with the scriptural texts, the real "essence" of Christianity remains.  This is why he always appeals in his Seminex-like manner to the "gospel."

There are a number of troubles with this approach, not least of which is that it is extremely arbitrary application.  I would again point out that if one rejects the truth of the Scriptures then one must only have a theology which is probable.  Even if one believes that they have found the true "essence" of Christianity, it is merely their own conjecture.  This is one of my biggest problems with someone like Pannenberg's theology.  Pannenberg says that Christianity is objectively true based on the fact it is provable from universal history.  Nevertheless, even with the data of history (and he is correct that history vindicates Christianity) he can only show that it is probably true based on the historical data- since all historical data can prove is probability.

So, in a sense, Hinlicky is correct.  Yes, Christianity still could be true if every word of Scripture was not true.  Nevertheless, it would only be "probably" true.  And if that were the case, it would not create the "full assurance of faith" (Heb 10) that the New Testament talks about.  

Lastly, Hinlicky's approach simply leads to making things up to fill in the gaps.  When McCain and I asked him about historical Adam and Eve, he answered that Adam and Eve were simply a name for the first humans who evolved to the level to become self-conscious and then were capable of rejecting God.  How does he know this?  In his book, Paths Not Taken, he makes the remark that we need reason and revelation to work in tandem (he posits that they mutually illuminate one another- Zwingli would be pleased!) to figure out things like: Why God killed the Dinosaurs?  He also says that reason shows us that (contrary to Scripture) death is just natural and has nothing do with sin.  This of course then makes total nonsense of the relationship between Christ's death and resurrection.  But again, the question is asked, how does he know this?  In other words, Hinlicky's approach leads to the creation of gaps within the scriptural worldview by trying to hold this worldview together with aspects of the secular-materialist philosophy.  In order to work out the problems created by the incoherence of these two worldview, leads him simply start making things up in order to fill the gaps, like a imaginary theoretical Adam and Eve, which he has no access to.


  1. Thanks for taking on such nonsense in print.

  2. Well done again.

    Basically Hinlicky's method of interpretation fails to answer the burning question: SEZ WHO?

    My mom says someone from CORE told her he was shocked to learn the ELCA was going contrary to Scripture (on homosexuality). When she asked him why he didn't join the LCMS, he flatly said that he wanted women's ordination & open communion.

    My thought at the time was that these folks are only kidding themselves when they say their problem is with the ELCA going against Scripture; they're really just homophobic. If your objection to the church blessing homosexuality is really based on Scripture, you have to accept all of Scripture & not be willing to reject its authority on another issue because it doesn't suit you. Any honest person would have to respect that position as a religious conviction based on Holy Writ. But if you're going to cherry-pick doctrines to consider authoritative, you may expose yourself to be a plain old bigot.

  3. Robbie- Very good point.

    I might add as well that it seems to me that what was at issue for many in the ELCA who were upset about homosexuality was that they had drifted into the mentality of American Protestant culture. For most American Evangelicals, closed communion and women's ordination are not really taboo in the way they are for orthodox Lutherans (look at Joyce Meyers and Beth Moore). Homosexuality is an issue in a big way and is a cultural hot-bottom issue. It is felt that condemnation of homosexual behavior is what differentiates Christianity from the culture.

    This why I suspect many LCMS Bible classes (that I have attended) revolve on a weekly basis about people complaining that life isn't like it was in the 50s and about the "gays" and the "muslims" (two groups that are most regularly obsessed on)- rather than discussing topics that expose people's own sin or any of the central teachig of the faith. American Protestant culture gets to define what's biblical and not the Bible.

  4. The assertion that Christianity could be true if the Scriptures were not reliable (inerrant, for example) is simply silly. Hinlicky doesn't believe the Bible but he wants to claim that he is a Christian. How does one assert that the Word of God is unreliable and then say they trust in Him who is the Word of God?

    Christianity is true with or without Scriptures, but it is not without Scriptures, and if it were, we would have no reliable witness to it. To argue that God's Word is not reliable and that it need not be for the faith to be real or true is to argue that we would do just fine if air could not be breathed or light did not illuminate anything. It is to argue something that is not real or demonstrable, simply because one wishes it were so.

    Sometimes people try to become more clever than God.