On Paradigms Protestant and Catholic
Anyone who has followed Catholic/Protestant discussions recently has undoubtedly heard more about “interpretive paradigms” than they care to recall. By the time one is five or six lines into an online debate, the charge of “Well, you’re just answering the question from within your own paradigm” will probably be leveled, and it can cause much confusion and frustration. What I’d like to do here, and perhaps in subsequent posts as well, is to describe how the whole paradigm issue functioned in my own thinking about the claims of the Catholic Church.
First, let me sort of set the stage. While a student at Westminster, Mike Horton had us read Michael Polanyi and (I think) Thomas Kuhn as a way of introducing us to the way presuppositions work in the philosophy of science. While many may believe that scientists simply gather data and extrapolate conclusions from it, the fact of the matter is that what they often do is begin with a broader working paradigm in mind (say, that the earth revolves around the sun) and then seek to interpret the data in the light of that bigger picture. But when the existing data fails to be explained by the operative paradigm — if there just seem to be more and more exceptions to the rule the more research they do — then a point of paradigm crisis is reached. When this happens, the honest scientist must be willing to scrap the old paradigm and come up with a new working hypothesis and test-drive it through the data to see how much explanatory value it has.
As a Protestant, the interpretive paradigm with which I approached Scripture derived from the confessional tradition of the Reformed churches of the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries. According to this paradigm, God demanded absolutely sinless law-keeping from any human hoping to gain eternal life, and since no man can accomplish this, God in his grace provided a solution to man’s plight in the Person of Jesus Christ, who assumed a human nature and rendered to his Father the perfect law-keeping which man could not, and then submitted to death on the cross in order to suffer the Father’s wrath in the stead of the elect. That obedience, both passive and active, is imputed to the sinner through the instrumentality of faith alone.
As I began to take the Church’s claims seriously, however, I started to discover more and more passages in the New Testament that failed to fit the Reformed paradigm well. Now, I want to be clear about something here: I am not saying that there were NT passages that I would read as a Protestant and think, “I don’t believe this” or “I have no idea how to fit this into my existing theology.” Indeed, I believed all the NT had to say, and I could explain each passage in the light of my larger theological paradigm.
But this isn’t really the issue. After all, any Bible-believing Christian can make any verse fit into his theology, that’s easy. For example, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics all have differing positions on what baptism accomplishes, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can all read Romans 6 or Acts 2 and say, “I believe those words and can fit them into my system” (despite the fact that their respective systems are incompatible with each other).
The thing we have to remember is that the earliest Christians didn’t figure out what baptism accomplishes by consulting verses like “As many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” or “Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins,” since the Church existed long before those words were penned and then recognized as canonical. No, the early Church had an apostolic doctrine of baptism that gave rise to, rather than being the result of, the relevant NT texts.
Here’s why this matters: If the NT was birthed by an already-existing apostolic tradition, then the question, “Can I make this passage fit my theology?” is the wrong question (especially since, as noted above, its answer is almost always “Yes”). A better question, I came to realize, would be, “Would someone who holds my theological paradigm actually say something like this?” And if the answer is “No,” then the follow-up question must be, “What prior-held theological paradigm would most likely give rise to a statement like this?”
I will provide concrete examples in future posts, but suffice it to say that I began to run into passage after passage in Scripture that, on the one hand, could be forced to fit my Reformed paradigm, but on the other, were passages saying things I would never in a million years think to say. And as I said above, when the data provides more exceptions to the ruling paradigm than it does evidence for it, paradigm crisis has occurred. And when that happens, well, you’re pretty much in a tailspin until you can find another interpretive paradigm through which to evaluate the biblical data.