Issues of epistemology have become increasingly important in recent Christian discourse. In the face of this many evangelicals cling strongly to a modernist epistemology in order to deny that issues of epistemology pose any problems to the scriptures speaking authoritatively. For instance, the following is part of one of the articles in the recent Together for the Gospel Statement released by several prominent evangelicals:
We deny that … the truth of the Gospel can be expressed or grounded in anything less than total confidence in the veracity of the Bible, the historicity of biblical events, and the ability of language to convey understandable truth in sentence form. (Emphasis mine)
This is not, however, the place for a long conversation about epistemology and whether or not a modernist epistemology such as that espoused above is necessary for the scriptures to be able to speak with authority. We may illustrate the problem of interpretation from a perspective that avoids most of this conversation by considering the problem of harmonisation.
Consider the issue of the two accounts of Judas’ death: the first in Matthew 27 and the second in Acts 1. Examples of passages such as these, which are held to be inconsistent, have often been used as grounds for denying the inerrancy of the scriptures but this is not our interest here. There are certainly certainly several questions raised by the two passages — `who purchased the field?’, ‘how exactly did Judas die?’, and so on — but let us assume that we can come up with some harmonisation of the two passages that allows us to answer these questions. For instance, it is often argued that when Luke says in Acts that Judas `acquired a field with the rewards of his unjust deed’ what he means that is that after throwing his money at the feet of the chief priests and elders and hanging himself, as in the account in Matthew, the chief priests purchased the very field in which Judas had hanged himself and so, in some sense, he `acquired’ the field indirectly via the chief priests. Furthermore, in the light of the fact that Luke was a physician it is argued that his account of Judas’ death simply records a detail of medical interest while leaving out the bigger picture; so Judas did hang himself, as in the account in Matthew, and he remained hanging for several days until the rope broke and his stomach, swollen from decomposition, burst open. Luke recorded the latter fact as it interested him that a body would burst open if it fell after several days of hanging.
Now, such a harmonisation is purely speculative. There may be, and probably are, alternative explanations that harmonise the two accounts. Only one such harmonisation, so long as it is plausible, is needed to defend against the charge of inconsistency. However, what is the status of these harmonisations when it comes to authority? Where is our confidence placed? In the two differing accounts in scripture? In our harmonisation of these accounts? If scripture is sufficient why should such harmonisations be necessary? Should we ever construct such harmonisations our should we simply treat competing passages separately from each other? There are many questions such as these raised.
While the construction of such harmonisations has long been part of the apologetic argument to deny that scripture contradicts itself it seems to me that the normal evangelical view of scripture does not allow us to formulate such harmonisations. When asked `what is the story of Judas’ death?’ we can only say that there are two different accounts in scripture and, while it might be possible to harmonise these two, we must read them on their own merits. To do anything more would be to place our trust in the harmonisation and not scripture itself. Most evangelicals would probably find this to be reasonable enough. However, the process of arriving at a harmonisation is the same as the process of deriving a doctrine from scripture. So, by analogy, when asked something like `what does Paul teach about eschatology’ we should only say that in this passage he says this, in that passage he says something else and while it might be possible to harmonise them in some way we must treat each passage on its own merits as to do otherwise would be to place our trust in a doctrine and not scripture itself. This is plainly not what is done in general.
In conclusion it seems to me that, while evangelicals generally treat scripture as a source from which we extract truths and rules for living, the normal evangelical view of scripture does not provide any real grounds on which to do this. Any doctrine of scripture we formulate must provide a clear explanation of how the authority of scripture is actually to be put into practice.