Author’s note: although this blog post is critical of some of Dr. Mohler’s statements (and the assumptions underlying them), I am grateful for his presence as a public Christian leader. Indeed, his efforts to maintain theological orthodoxy in the face of increasing cultural hostility, and to publicly witness to that orthodoxy, are both brave and deeply encouraging.
Dr. Al Mohler, “the reigning intellectual” of American evangelicalism, is a figure often wreathed in controversy. Of course, this is partly a consequence of being a leading conservative churchman in a country busily divesting itself of its Christian heritage. Proclaiming the exclusivity of Christ is bound to scandalize others, particularly when so many people are wedded to modern tropes concerning tolerance and diversity. But the venerable President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary occasionally exceeds the gospel’s intrinsic offence with a statement that is rather questionable, even within the sub-culture of conservative evangelicalism. Recent headlines, in which Dr. Mohler has been roundly criticised for past comments concerning the Bible and slavery, are illustrative.
Why the commotion? Last month, religion reporter Jonathan Merritt wrote that a TV transcript had been unearthed, featuring a relatively young Dr. Mohler talking with two other guests on Larry King Live in 1998. While the discussion was originally concerned with what Scripture says about wives submitting to their husbands, it turned to the question of slaves and masters. Resting on Ephesians 6:5, Dr. Mohler claimed that although the Bible does not endorse slavery, it does enjoin slaves to remain obedient to their masters. When pressed on the matter, he reiterated his position, arguing that “if you’re a slave, there’s a way to behave”. Even as King tried to tease out the logical implications of what Dr. Mohler had said by raising the issue of runaway slaves in pre-civil war America, he appeared unmoved – arguing there “really” was no “loophole” to the command that slaves submit to their overlords. Dr. Mohler finished by implicitly contrasting this allegedly biblical view with what “popular culture” might say about owning human chattel. A stunned King quickly cut to a commercial break.
We should note, of course, that Dr. Mohler recently repudiated those earlier comments, condemning them as “stupid”. And one mustn’t forget that they were uttered over two decades ago, amidst the cut-and-thrust of live debate. But there seems to be little to account for his apparent interpretive shift; no principled reason why he now rejects his earlier understanding of the relevant texts. Moreover, while Dr. Mohler has written eloquently about the need for a sophisticated theological hermeneutic, a simplistic, literalist reading of Scripture is not, for him, an isolated incident. He has, for example, spent a good deal of energy arguing that Genesis straightforwardly teaches a young earth (presumably by adding up the genealogies in Chapters 5 and 11), and that the book’s first chapter speaks plainly of “days” as 24-hour units of time. In contrast with Dr. Mohler’s performance on Larry King Live, those efforts have come in the form, not of hurried, impromptu rejoinders, but of scripted remarks that reflect a mature, considered position.
There are multiple issues at play here. But I want to focus on what Dr. Mohler’s handling of Scripture reveals about some of the assumptions embedded in his approach to divine revelation. Both his slavery comments on Larry King Live and his premeditated statements on the age of the earth reflect several crucial interpretive and hermeneutical defects.
The problem of naïve biblicism
The crux of the problem is this. Dr. Mohler’s apparent view of Scripture too often verges on what one might call a naïve biblicism. It’s been described as the illusion of a “pure” understanding of biblical truth, shorn of all presuppositions and historical considerations. A naïvely biblicist approach to the text of Scripture tends towards the conviction – often unstated – that the Bible is a uniformly timeless document, communicating self-evident propositions with pristine clarity. The reader, armed with little more than good faith and common sense, is easily able to understand and appropriate those truths.
This basic view generates a cluster of interlocking practices, all of which can be harmful to good readings of Scripture: a belief that biblical statements do not require interpretation, but can be read off the page in unmediated fashion; a failure to properly grapple with the historic Christian tradition, and what it might say on questions of exegesis and theological method; and the assumption that the Bible’s prescriptions can be applied straightforwardly to modern contexts, quite apart from the issue of hermeneutical or cultural “gaps”. As some of Dr. Mohler’s public remarks seem to imply, he is at times guilty of succumbing to all these deficiencies. Sadly, he is not alone: his views are shared by a great swathe of people within (American) conservative evangelicalism.
Dr. Mohler’s comments suggest that the only prerequisite for the good faith reader is direct engagement with the relevant texts; understanding that exceeds the semantic or the syntactical is, on this view, largely unnecessary. Hence, Paul was handing down clear and exceptionless oracles about the relationship between slaves and masters. Hence, Genesis 1 is divided into seven solar days, each one of 24 hours’ duration.
This is Dr. Mohler’s first error. He neglects the need for anything more than a “thin” notion of interpretation, at least in these instances. But “thick” interpretation – that is, genuine, substantial elucidation of a text – is often necessary for two, mutually reinforcing reasons. Firstly, we must reckon with the fact that the text emerged out of a particular thought world, a particular socio-cultural matrix, which is very different from our own. What is foreign requires de-mystifying, and what may seem obvious can require nuancing. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright perceptively observes that all Scripture is “culturally conditioned” from beginning to end – having been produced, not only in, but in many respects by, a particular time and place. Even a simple reference to “day” may conceal an entire cosmology – a mental universe – that is radically different from our own (something Old Testament scholar John Walton has done much to emphasise). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is so opaque that it cannot be understood. I certainly don’t recommend one abandons the Reformation commitment to the broad clarity of Scripture. But deep cultural and intellectucal shifts over the past 2,000 years provide prima facie evidence that apparently simple biblical references may mask a good deal of ambiguity. Moreover, when both apostolic and denominational tradition suggest that Holy Writ might not always offer a clear window into the mind of the biblical author, we do well to exercise caution.
Any would-be exegete must contend with the fact that comprehending biblical texts requires both internal interpretation (i.e., understanding the internal logic of the passage, and its function within the narrative flow of the book), and external interpretation (recognizing the historical “situatedness” of the passage, its relationship to other biblical texts, etc.).
An analysis of Ephesians 6:5 makes this clear. Several points commend themselves. Far from embodying timeless, universal truth, Paul’s command to slaves in the congregation at Ephesus was intimately tied to his broader aims in the letter. He was not rendering judgment upon the institution writ large, but upon concrete situations as they arose in the church. Moreover, Timothy Gombis has persuasively argued that in Ephesians, Paul sought to articulate the lineaments of a “new humanity” – an alternative arrangement within the politeia of God, which counterposed the harsh, often capricious social order in which the early Christians found themselves. He addresses slaves directly (and before masters), thereby “granting them a place of dignity and honour”. His admonition to masters (v.9) is grounded in the fact that the same Lord presides over both parties. With a few swift strokes, Paul relativises the position of sovereignty a slaveholder might otherwise have adopted. Finally, the remarkable demand that masters treat their human holdings well (cf. Col 4:1) would have contrasted sharply with prevailing cultural wisdom (Aristotle, for one, characterised the master-slave relationship as one of tyranny).
Much of this corresponds to what biblical scholar William Webb has dubbed the “redemptive movement” of Scripture: an ethical dynamic established by the biblical texts, advancing God’s redemptive project (sometimes incrementally) in the face of countervailing forces. Indeed, the apostle’s indirect challenges to slavery’s harsh excesses in Ephesians and Colossians are exceeded by his letter to Philemon, where he speaks of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, as a fellow “brother” (Phil 16). As N.T. Wright suggests, the note of radical equality resident in the term “brother” “set a time-bomb” beside the entire system. And while one looks in vain for explicit condemnation of slavery in Paul’s letters, it cannot be stressed too often that the early Christians were a persecuted minority, bereft of the kind of power needed to challenge head-on a “ubiquitous institution” (so William Klein). The upshot of all this is that to read a passage like Ephesians 6:5ff as if it were offering abstract commands of an exceptionless character is to miss the point entirely. It also substitutes a mechanical, isolative reading for one that is more sensitive to the text’s literary contours and historical milieu.
Secondly, all of us are ensconced within a certain way of understanding reality. That understanding inevitably acts as a lens through which we observe a text. No one approaching a biblical passage does so unencumbered; we all bring to it certain presuppositions, biases, and so forth. Some have been formed by the ambient culture (and are frequently imbibed unconsciously). Others involve the conditioning of a specific theological or denominational tradition. Thus, a Baptist and a Presbyterian can read the New Testament and derive very different ecclesiological models from it – the one opting for a style of congregationalism, the other for a governing body of elders. To say this is not to counsel interpretive despair: it is still possible to arrive at a robust understanding of scriptural truth, despite the ongoing influence of contemporary context. But the point is that having been catechized into certain patterns of thinking by the secular and religious worlds we inhabit, we may well be predisposed towards certain readings of the Bible – some of which will compel us to patiently engage in exegetical negotiation with the text.
Dr. Mohler has implicitly tried to circumvent these realities by invoking the “plain sense” of Scripture or “common sense” readings of a passage. I’ll say more about so-called “common sense” below. But for now, it’s worth noting that Dr. Mohler’s appeal simply re-locates the problem: what constitutes “common sense” in the first place is likely to vary depending on one’s historical location. Public consensus on all manner of questions inevitably changes. This is as true of scriptural interpretation as it is of slaveholding, or the earth’s relationship to the sun. An ordinary person living in the 21st century will approach these issues in a manner very different from that of a resident of the 1300s – or, for that matter, from someone living in first-century Palestine. Contrary to what Dr. Mohler may think, the unadorned individual, apprehending the message of the text apart from the mediation of cultural frameworks, is largely non-existent.
Put another way, Dr. Mohler’s claims embody an entirely ahistorical view of Scripture – as if it were a product of pure transcendence, unmoored from time, history, and culture. How else does one explain his publicly articulated positions on the contentious subjects under review? They evince little conscious recognition of the historical and contextual distinctives of either Genesis 1 or Paul’s admonitions regarding slavery. Tacitly treating the texts in free-floating fashion, Dr. Mohler has only succeeded in isolating them from the originating environments from which they emerged.
‘Solo’ Scriptura and the devaluing of tradition
This brings me to Dr. Mohler’s second major error. The current of ahistoricism running through some of his approaches to biblical interpretation also underlies his depreciation of tradition and its role in exegesis. This, too, is a consequence of biblicist naivety. As more than one theologian has argued, Christians – and the church at large – cannot avoid dependence on the growing body of critical reflection upon Scripture. Conducting an ongoing dialogue with past voices is an important part of deep biblical knowledge – relativizing one’s own perspective on the text, and exposing the historical contingency of so many “plain” readings. Attentively listening to those voices invariably shapes one’s views; at times, the exercise may even overturn previously untroubled interpretations of a passage. As N.T. Wright notes, if we fail to remember that exegetes of every period have left their “mark on subsequent readings of Scripture”, we will simply fail to realize “why we ‘naturally’ read the text” in the way that we do.
For Dr. Mohler, it seems that simply being in possession of a supposedly “timeless” Bible is enough; evolving historical interpretations of biblical passages are eschewed, or at least muted. Some may wish to call this sola scriptura, or the primacy of Scripture, in a misguided attempt to stave off the influence of tradition upon one’s reading of Scripture. But it’s a departure from the Reformation cry. At times, Dr. Mohler seems to drift towards what might be characterised as ‘solo’ scriptura: Scripture alone and isolated, detached from both its own socio-cultural matrix and the streams of subsequent interpretation that have come down to us through the ages. Of course, Dr. Mohler himself is a child of the Reformation, having been self-consciously shaped by the Reformers and what they achieved. But on certain questions, he reveals a limited horizon, failing to recognize the role tradition inevitably plays, even on putatively unmediated readings of Scripture.
Dr. Mohler’s apparent position is father to several problems, not least of which is a superficial engagement with historical interpretations. Witness his comments regarding Genesis 1. He has claimed that prior to Darwin, biblical interpreters were largely unanimous in their understanding of the oft-repeated reference to “day” (vv. 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). To be sure, he appeals generically to the history of exegesis on this question, but it’s one that appears to be heavily conditioned by the limits of his own biblicism. The reality is far more complex and ambiguous. Robert Letham, for one, has provided ample evidence from a variety of commentators – all of whom lived before the emergence of Darwin’s theory, or the development of modern geological dating – to show that there was hardly a consensus regarding the “days” of Genesis 1. While Reformation luminaries such as Martin Luther adopted a largely literal approach, others like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas sought different ways of understanding the text. Commenting on the evident variety of exegetical options, Letham concluded that “claims that a literal reading of Genesis 1 is obvious fall down when the history of interpretation is taken into account” (emphasis original).
Is it “common sense” or Common Sense?
Irony abounds at this point. Although Dr. Mohler seems to appeal to the idea of “mere” readings of Scripture, his position actually represents the incursion of certain philosophical traditions into the American evangelical psyche. Chief among them is what has come to be known as Scottish Common-Sense Realism (CSR). A reaction against Humean scepticism, it rests upon the belief that one’s perceptual apparatus provides direct awareness of objects as they really are. Church historian Mark Noll has traced the influence of CSR throughout conservative evangelicalism in the United States. A “cluster of convictions” associated with CSR, he has argued, “furnished broader habits of mind” and consolidated certain intellectual conventions, especially as evangelical thought evolved in nineteenth-century America. Conservative evangelicals past and present have appropriated CSR’s epistemological naivety regarding perception of the external world, tacitly applying it to an understanding of Scripture and its teachings. The consequence has been an equally naïve understanding of the individual reader’s capacity to apprehend the meaning of biblical texts.
CSR predisposed many nineteenth-century conservative evangelicals to study the Bible in a strictly inductive manner, on the analogy of a scientist studying nature. Hence, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge could liken the Bible to a “great store-house of facts” that one just needed to apprehend and arrange. The biblical scholar or exegete was like a botanist, simply observing the scriptural “ecosystem” before him. CSR has persisted, and its legacy may be discerned in current readings of Scripture within large sections of conservative evangelicalism. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, wherein the author advocates just such an approach, is perhaps the most well-known example of that legacy. As Noll writes of such readings:
“The most immediate result of this approach to theological construction was to eclipse systematic study of Scripture that relied self-consciously on the insights of theological tradition, or that sought to understand the fullness of the historical circumstances surrounding the actual writing of Scripture” (emphasis mine).
In his apparent approach to biblical interpretation, the status of the individual reader, and even the role of theological tradition, Dr. Mohler is, in many ways, an epistemological heir to CSR. His exposition of the “days” of Genesis 1 as a straightforward reference to 24-hour periods of time is a case-in-point: he reads the chapter as it stands, without interrogating the cultural conditioning reflected in either the text or his interpretation of it. Dr. Mohler’s capacity to perceive the semantic content of the passage is, in good “Common Sense” fashion, sufficient for accurate apprehension. As much as he may wish to lay claim to a direct encounter with the supposedly plain meaning of Scripture, his interpretive decisions have seemingly been shaped by extra-biblical patterns of thought.
A window into a wider malaise
I haven’t time to examine Dr. Mohler’s neglect of the hermeneutical “gap” between our era and that of the biblical authors. Others have made sage observations in this direction, questioning his apparent assumption that some biblical strictures can be applied in the modern world without any need for cultural or historical “translation”. In any case, this isn’t simply about the President of SBTS and his interpretive failings. The simplistic readings into which Dr. Mohler has occasionally fallen reflect a wider malaise within conservative evangelicalism. That malaise is characterised by a flat, mechanical approach to scriptural exegesis, a strictly prescriptive appropriation of biblical texts, and ignorance (often wilful) of the church’s grand interpretive tradition. In its crudest forms, this stance issues in a “concordance” method to the study of scriptural truth (something that Dr. Mohler has, in fact, criticised); as the term suggests, it simply requires the unconditioned reader to collect all biblical passages bearing on a particular subject in order to discover what the Bible, construed as a straightforwardly unified document, has to say about it. Deep methodological flaws notwithstanding, the approach remains endemic to the conservative evangelical world.
As Dr. Mohler’s unfortunate comments on slavery demonstrate, an attitude of naïve biblicism may also yield implausible – as well as morally dubious – conclusions. Not only does this fall afoul of Augustine’s caution against provoking ridicule from unbelievers; it also saddles believers with a series of positions that may collapse under the weight of their own absurdities. Yes, Christian leaders are called to be faithful to the Word of God. However, zeal wedded to impoverished models of biblical truth is injurious to the credibility of the church’s witness. In an aggressively post-Christian society, such harm may prove fatal.