A Friendly Response to Rhyne Putman’s: Sola Scriptura and Christian Charity

Recently, professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Rhyne Putman published an article titled: Sola Scriptura and Christian Charity. Putman attempts to engage the recent debate in the SBC and broader evangelicalism over the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT). In particular, Putman attempts to address the passing of Resolution 9 at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention and the language of CRT and Intersectionality as “analytical tools.”

No doubt, anyone familiar with the recent debates within evangelicalism are aware of the clear divide between those who embrace CRT as a proper analytical tool and those who reject it as a godless ideology foreign to the text of Scripture. Putman addresses several key issues in this debate. I do not believe Putman is a critical theorist, nor does he embrace the central tenets of critical theory discussed below. He does, however, raise some good questions and I would like to commend his efforts, encourage him as a brother, and engage with his ideas.

First, Putman admits he has not spent ample time reading the original literature on CRT. Truth be told, I find it hard to believe the vast majority of Southern Baptist professors are well read in the original literature of CRT or Intersectionality. That’s precisely why Resolution 9 should not have been passed at the SBC—for if most of our theological professors are unfamiliar with the original literature, how could we expect the people in the pews to be aware of the original literature? By no means ought this to be taken as an attack upon the intellect of any Southern Baptist or evangelical. It is a simple reiteration of the fact several people were not prepared to discuss this issue for a variety of reasons, and it was the wrong time to pass the resolution.

With that being said, I think many evangelical seminary students are probably familiar with the concepts and philosophical presuppositions of CRT and Intersectionality, even if they are not familiar with the twist and turn of each key theologian or philosopher. This is because many people trained in present-day hermeneutical theory are aware of CRT’s underlying philosophical presuppositions, specifically: existentialism, historical situatedness, historical horizons, post-modernism, critical theory, critical linguistic theories, and much more. In fact, based upon the primary literature used in several seminaries, I would go so far as to say that most present-day evangelical hermeneutics courses are immersed in this critical approach to biblical interpretation. For that reason, I believe the philosophical preconditions of CRT were first taught and embraced in our hermeneutics classes, and the acceptance of CRT as an analytical tool was merely a difference of degree, rather than one of kind.

Second, Putman raises some interesting questions about the relationship between our affirmation of sola Scriptura and extra-biblical concepts and ideologies. Putman draws most of his material from Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Biblical Authority After Babel (even though he does not cite him). In Vanhoozer’s work you see many of Putman’s distinctions between the various types of tradition and how they might relate to sola Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. While time does not permit a full review of Vanhoozer’s book here, one could click (here) to find my more detailed interaction with this publication.

Since I was raised as a Roman Catholic, I found Putman’s discussion of sola Scriptura to be quite interesting. Putman is correct when he states there are different definitions of tradition throughout Church history. Anyone familiar with these debates knows Protestants argued for a ministerial understanding of tradition (where tradition informs and guides our interpretation of Scripture), rather than a magisterial view (where tradition overrides and supersedes the clear teachings of Scripture). The debate goes even deeper than this simple distinction, however. Within Roman Catholicism there is a more fundamental debate over the proper relationship between Scripture and the locus and nature of tradition. Some advocate for a Partim-Partim view, which claims Scripture is insufficient and that oral tradition is a separate and different (and inspired) revelation alongside Scripture. In order to have all that God intended you must have both, since Scripture contains part of God’s revelation and tradition contains the other part of God’s revelation. Together you get the complete picture of God’s revelation to His Church. On the other hand, some Roman Catholics advocate for a Material Sufficiency view, which claims divine revelation is contained entirely in Scripture and entirely in tradition. These Roman Catholics are not affirming sola Scriptura. Instead, they are saying all of divine revelation can be found, if only implicitly, in Scripture. Tradition is necessary for proper interpretation; hence, it performs a hermeneutical role. Nonetheless, the end result of both positions is the same; they deny the sole sufficiency of Scripture, and in its place, they establish an authoritarian system that overturns the clear teachings of Scripture.

For our purposes, one must not confuse a Protestant ministerial use of tradition with the Roman Catholic magisterial use of tradition. Both views rightly recognize the fact we all have ministerial traditions and those traditions affect the way we interpret texts. However, Protestants also recognized the fact that outside hermeneutical authorities or tools are not logically or analytically required (i.e., magisterially) for a proper understanding of Scripture, even if they are sometimes used ministerially (i.e., creeds, confessions, commentaries and so forth). For Roman Catholics one must embrace the Magisterium and her traditions in order to have a proper understanding of Scripture. If you do not embrace the Magisterium’s traditions, you not only do not, but cannot have a proper understanding of Scripture or any doctrine deduced from Scripture. Similarly, the debate between CRT and Scripture is not merely about whether tradition ministerially affects people or not, or whether there is a role for it in our exegesis of Scripture. Rather, it is a debate over whether someone must magisterially embrace the ideology of CRT in order to have a proper understanding of Scripture or any doctrines deduced from Scripture. Namely, in order to have a proper understanding of Scripture and Christianity individuals must use CRT as an analytical tool in their hermeneutic.

James Cone recognized that in order to have a proper understanding of Scripture and theology one must magisterially embrace the analytical tools CRT. Some of the following quotes from Cone’s book, A Black Theology of Liberation, confirm this point:

  • “there can be no theology of the gospel which does not arise from an oppressed community” (p. 5).
  • “the God of the oppressed takes sides with the black community. God is not color-blind in the black-white struggle, but has made an unqualified identification with blacks.” (p. 6)
  • “In passing, it may be worthwhile to point out that whites are in no position to question the legitimacy of black theology. Questions like ‘Do you think theology is black?’ or ‘What about others who suffer?’ are the product of minds incapable of black thinking” (p. 8)
  • “The revolutionary context forces black theology to shun all abstract principles dealing with what is the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ course of action. There is only one principle which guides the thinking and action of black theology: an unqualified commitment to the black community” (p. 10)

In other words, unless you are a black person or identified with oppressed black people, you ought not and cannot question black theology. Even more, unless you are a black person you cannot form, develop, question, or properly understand black theology. Why? Because your existential and historical situation forbid you from having a proper understanding of the true black experience. In short, in order to rightly understand Scripture, you must embrace the Magisterium of CRT and Intersectionality. In that sense, CRT and its “analytical tools” function like a Roman Catholic magisterial guide, not a Protestant ministerial guide. This is one of many reasons why historic Protestant and Reformed theologians are concerned about the effects of CRT upon evangelicalism.

Third, Putman raises two questions: 1) Scripture as the only source of knowledge? 2) Should we plunder the Egyptians? After discussing the twentieth century debate over evangelical opinions of counseling theories, Putman states:

As I understand it, sola Scriptura is not a denial of the value of other sources for Christian knowledge (especially regarding things related to the world created by God). It is a statement that all of those other sources must be measured by the only revealed standard, which is the Bible. Scripture is the supreme source of knowledge and the only norm by which other sources are read. It alone is inerrant and infallible. But this recognition does not preclude engagement with ideas or tools outside of Scripture or a Christian worldview.

Putman is correct in his assessment. No historic Protestant has ever claimed the Bible contains all knowledge or is an exhaustive catalog of all religious knowledge. The Bible is not a leather-bound encyclopedia of all knowledge. It is not a textbook for all scientific inquiry or catalog of governmental laws and procedures. Whenever someone points out that there are truths found outside of Scripture, they are not objecting to sola Scriptura.

There is a fear amongst some evangelicals who believe when we argue about the truths of Scripture based on facts outside of Scripture, we are somehow elevating those facts to a position of greater authority than Scripture. The push back against such a claim is that whenever we use facts found outside of Scripture, instead of denying the authority of Scripture, we are affirming the rationality of Scripture itself. There are times when we find our premises from the world that undermine a Christian worldview. Equally, there are times when we find premises in the world that conform with Scripture. The key is whether or not a Christian worldview sets the standards, preconditions, definitions, and axioms of our premises. Therefore, we can use outside sources, but not as an independent criterion to which Scripture must measure up. Namely, our theology ought to set the standards of our extra-biblical knowledge and doctrines, not vice versa.

Evangelicals have also debated the relationship between Scripture and natural revelation. Natural revelation reveals the eternal power and nature of God and provides humanity with a proper knowledge of himself and the God’s world. But after the Fall, due to the effects of sin, our noetic abilities began to offer sinful misinterpretations of natural revelation (this would also include the development of false ideologies and analytical tools). We also began to repress, disobey, and exchange the truths of God and His world for a lie. Thus, God gave us Scripture, or special revelation, to supplement natural revelation and to correct our misuses of it. For that reason, Calvin said the Christian should look at nature (or any other human source of knowledge) through the “spectacles of Scripture.” If unfallen Adam required a special Word from God to interpret the world according to God’s verbal utterances, how much more do we this side of the Fall? Given the reality of the Fall, Scripture ought to always take epistemological authority over all extra-biblical claims to knowledge, whether they be from secular counseling or CRT. In this instance, those of us who reject CRT and its analytical tools do so because we believe it represents a view of Christianity based upon fallen man’s sinful misinterpretations of the natural world, not the spectacles of Scripture. We do not deny the validity of appropriate tools. Instead, we reject sinful and wrongly appropriated analytical tools.

Putman proceeds to discuss the notion of philosophical ‘tools.’ He claims:

The trickier question has to do with the philosophical ‘tools’ we use to assess theological and cultural issues. Should we plunder the Egyptians (Exod. 11:2-3), borrowing the tools employed by non-Christian philosophers and academicians? This question is at the heart of the debate over Resolution 9. It is true philosophical tools can have ideologically problematic backgrounds. But the genetic fallacy practiced by many forces us to assume everyone who uses the tools buys into the worldview of the originator.

Putman proceeds to discuss Speech-Act Theory as an illustration of one way some evangelical scholars have used a philosophical tool without buying into the problematic ideological worldview. While I disagree with Putman’s assessment of Speech-Act Theory and have argued that it is irreconcilable with an evangelical view of Scripture both (here) and (here), I do agree with the overall thrust of his argument that in certain instances we can use appropriate tools from the natural world (with particular qualifications, of course).

First, while there are a variety of tools, not all tools function in the same fashion. There are basic tools that are pertinent to the very fabric of humanity, such as the laws of logic and the nature of propositional language. Logic is based upon the nature of being in this world and language is the means by which we communicate that being. Any and all attempts to deny these fundamental building blocks of the world result in absurdities and contradictions. Therefore, we could call this a fundamental tool of reality and creation, which is required for all other tools (whether good or bad) to function. There are tools that do not function in this way. They may be correct or false, but we could do away with these tools and it would not result in rational absurdities or contradictions. CRT falls into this type of category. It is not a fundamental building block of reality and its analytical tools do not and cannot function at that level. Therefore, we ought to weigh the evidence to see if it conforms to reality as interpreted by Scripture, and not grant that it functions as an axiomatic tool of reality. This is precisely the nature of the debate. Those who advocate for CRT believe it functions not merely as an analytical tool, but as an axiomatic tool to understand the fabric of society. With all due respect, we disagree with this claim and maintain by its very nature CRT is not on par with true axiomatic and self-evident features of reality such as the laws or logic.

Second, it is correct some truths come from bad sources and we should not deny or abandon the validity of those truths because of their origin (i.e., the genetic fallacy). Just because something came from a bad source, does not de jure entail that claim is false. Putman notes someone can use Aristotle’s view of logic and language without buying into the full Aristotelian worldview. But there is a world of difference between Aristotle’s use of logic and CRT. Logic is a fundamental feature of reality, CRT is not.

Third, one must grant the fact a genetic fallacy is only a fallacy if someone uses it fallaciously. Simply put: There is a legitimate case to be made that CRT arises from a godless worldview that is incompatible with Scripture and one can do so without doing so fallaciously. Ideas not only have consequences; they have origins too. We must realize the same arguments about the usefulness of tools were made in the twentieth century. The greatest threat against evangelicalism came from a naturalistic worldview. Some claimed that higher criticism was merely a tool (albeit an analytical tool) that could be used, even if it came from a naturalistic worldview. We know the effects this tool had upon evangelicalism. Similarly, in our day and age the greatest threat against evangelicalism comes not from the natural sciences, but from the social sciences. Those of us who criticize CRT because of its origin do so not upon the premise of a genetic fallacy, but upon the conclusion of rational arguments and evidential support. We believe much like the way the analytical tools of the hard sciences negatively affected evangelicalism, so too, the analytical tools of the social sciences have and will continue to negatively affect evangelicalism.

In his conclusion, Putman asks: By what standard do we distinguish between good ideas and bad ones? Putman rightly said this should always be Scripture. I grant him the fact we should give fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt, it is biblical. However, if throughout the course of that conversation we discover a particular “analytical tool” fundamentally undermines the Christian worldview, we ought to reject it out right and warn those who embrace it of its sinful effects.

We are not the first ones to investigate Cone and the effects of CRT as an analytical tool. Noted theologian and apologist Cornelius Van Til warned the readers of his day about the dangers of Cone’s views, claiming:

What James Cone has done in this as well as in Black Theology and Black Power is to lead his people into a new and horrible slavery. He has sought ‘liberation’ for his people where Sartre seeks it, i.e., in the declaration of independence from the only God and the only Christ who can set man free. He is in ‘good company’ when he does this. He is in the company of neo-orthodox theologians and existential philosophers. But this does not, finally, reduce his responsibility. Cone is preaching liberation through the would-be independent man, who thrashes about in a bottomless, shoreless ocean of chance, in vain seeking to identify himself. We hope and pray that Cone might seek liberation for himself and for his people where we all must seek it, in the once for all finished atonement through the blood of Christ. Mr. Cone, will you not with me, next to me, kneel at the foot of the cross and pray, Lord be merciful to me a sinner? May the Spirit of Christ enable you and me both do this?

At the end of the day, we must ask the question: Does Cone’s theology bear more of the marks of an “analytical tool” or a different gospel? Classic evangelicalism maintained the position that CRT and liberation theologies represented a different gospel, not a different viewpoint or analytical tool.

William C. Roach, PhD

President, International Society of Christian Apologetics

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