The opposite of dogma isn’t dogma

I guess I’m going on a posting spree 🤷‍♀️

Here’s some dogma: The Bible says x.

Dogma in this case isn’t pejorative. It’s just to say that this an undefended statement made with certainty. It makes a claim. In this case, it actually makes a few claims, because it assumes univocality of scripture. It assumes that when the Bible talks about something in different places, it’s talking about the same thing in the same way (or more technically, that the Bible can be thought of having a single theological paradigm).

A lot of systematic theology (but not all) assumes the same thing, tacitly or not. If we can just collect all the different biblical data, they will reveal to us a correct theological paradigm. The history of the church’s attempts at doing this and the (very) many traditions that survive and continue to be developed should really put the kibosh on that.

How do deal with a scripture that isn’t univocal is a really tough problem. It’s at least partly why the Catholic church, to take a single example, has come to rely on its ecclesiastical megastructure like it has, or why Anglicans have adopted a “three-legged-stool” approach to interpretation.

But for the recovering fundamentalist, the trappings of this are hard to shed. Take one of the big bones of contention, the doctrine of Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment.

When we read the Bible earnestly, taking it seriously in its context, recognizing the rhetorical goals of its authors, not simply assuming univocality, it’s clear that the Bible in the Old and New Testaments talks about the afterlife in a bunch of different ways. Which makes sense, considering the different cultural contexts (ANE vs Greco-Roman) these books were written in. The Old Testament talks about the afterlife in a variety of different ways, and the New Testament in a different variety. Broadly, it support (at minimum!) annihilationism, punishment followed by annihilation, and eternal punishment.

The temptation for the recovering fundamentalist is to read passages that seem to support annihilationism and say, Ah, actually the Bible doesn’t say x after all!

How is this better? It’s still a bit of dogma. It doesn’t match the biblical data. If we take that data seriously we have to say that the Bible says at least both. Which is confusing. Because we don’t want our scriptures to say two different, opposing things, on the same subject.

This is a hard thing to recognize and reconcile. We want to make propositions about stuff. We don’t want to consider that the Bible contains polemic, speculation, errors, rhetoric, and all that.

But it’s worth asking a big question. If we’re taking the Bible seriously, if we’re reading it as a guide to faith and life… where does it ask us to make these propositions?

I don’t think it does.

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