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On Doing the Reading
Deconstruction, The Bible, and the Saints That Have Come Before Us
I recently saw someone say that while they were deconstructing, they didn’t read a lot of books surrounding their questions, doctrine, culture, history, etc, but primarily did their deconstructing by examining the Bible. I believe them. I also believe this person, as best as I can tell from afar, to be genuine in their seeking. There is an impulse here that is correct. In all cases, we should be like the Bereans and examine the scriptures for what is true and what is false. If someone does that, they will inevitably find that a lot of what passes for American Evangelicalism doesn’t pass the test.
If someone were looking to the scriptures to find justification for what modern evangelical culture has become, they will quickly realize that many of the cultural practices and values that we hold don’t come from the scriptures but from a nostalgia for a perceived golden age of 1950s America and angst about our culture not being that. Pair that with a literalist hermeneutic and a church environment that doesn’t allow any deviation whatsoever from the accepted conclusions of its particular subculture; well, you might as well start the clock for their deconstruction.
No matter what, we want to hold scripture as our highest authority in faith and practice, and many who are deconstructing are attempting to do exactly that. This is what most people who critique deconstruction don’t understand about it—that it’s an attempt to hold on to faith, not let it go. Going back to the Bible and searching the scriptures for the truth is a crucial aspect of that. It’s true that many people begin deconstructing because they started reading their Bible, not despite it. It’s when what they read in the Bible and what they experience in their particular subculture are misaligned that cracks start to form in the walls of their faith, and the house begins to fall in on itself. The community didn’t faithfully testify to the truth found in the scriptures. If the community tasked with representing God doesn’t represent him well, then God himself is called into question. Our collective witness to the trustworthiness of God is reason enough for us to be more biblically literate and measured in how we handle the scriptures. It’s when these tensions can’t be resolved that the person deconstructing eventually decides they have to cast the Bible—or at least its authority—aside.
Many times in these communities, there is a strict biblicism at work that really does take the “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” approach that interprets the Bible in a historical vacuum. The community isn’t tethered to any sort of historical confession; they don’t see themselves in a lineage of churches and believers who have passed on the faith from one generation to another. So the conclusions they come to—doctrinally and culturally—are unmoored from the historic witness of the church as the lone individual becomes the final arbiter of the meaning of the text. Sometimes they might be right, and sometimes they might be wrong, but there is no way to check their work or measurement to hold their interpretation up to and find out if it’s more or less within the realm of orthodoxy, and no way to determine which doctrines are more important and deserve to be held looser or tighter than others. Convictions about particular doctrines become distorted and out of balance as they see something in the scriptures that seems “clear” while downplaying other things that might be less clear but that the church has historically found more important. You won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible, but the idea is at the front of all of our creeds, and without belief in the Trinity, you aren’t a Christian.
That’s why we want to read the Bible in the wake of the great tradition, along with the saints that have come before us. They can “check our work,” not in an infallible way, but to help us determine our margin of error. If we come to conclusions that are wildly off-base from what the vast majority of Christians have believed through time, who is more likely to be wrong: them or us?
This is one reason I put together a website with some collected historic church documents. Not because I agree with everything in each of these documents, but because they introduce us to the wider tradition and allow us to find ourselves somewhere in the stream. We can have differences but still be in the same family.
Which brings me back to this person who said they deconstructed using only the Bible and hadn’t “done the reading.” There is an irony here in deconstructing your faith using the same approach to biblical interpretation as the fundamentalist community you are deconstructing out of. Both the church and the person deconstructing might say, “I don’t need your fancy books. I have the Bible, and that’s all I need.” But in both cases, there is no way to check your work. You might come to a conclusion that is wildly off base and have no understanding of why it has been condemned by the Church for centuries. Or even more alarming, you might come to a very normal conclusion that most Christians in most times have accepted… but your church didn’t, so now you feel crazy and progressive and completely different than the conservative Christians that you think are ruining everything, but actually you’ve just joined the rest of Christianity throughout history.
There have been more than one take I’ve seen online that posed as a progressive view of something that would shock conservatives… that I learned in a class at SBTS or read in an N.T. Wright book. Far from being a shocking, progressive take, it’s just mainstream, intellectually-serious, not weird Christianity. Welcome.
When I was deconstructing, I did the same thing. Lose a belief here, change a belief there, and feel completely lost at sea because it was so different than what I was raised with. Once I actually started reading, I realized that either:
a. There were good reasons why a belief I held had been rejected for most of Christianity’s history.
b. That belief was normal, I wasn’t weird, and it was completely okay to believe it.
You wouldn’t know that if all you read was the Bible.
My favorite example of this is people who want to replace penal substitutionary atonement with Christus victor—as if these beliefs can’t coexist and aren’t, in fact, mutually reinforcing. But there are many, many examples of this.
All this does is highlight the need to deconstruct slowly and not feel rushed to take a stance, publish your conclusions, or build a platform out of the “process.” This past week, I talked to a pastor who told me his deconstruction story. It took him 12 years, and he never built a platform out of it. Now he’s a pastor at a Presbyterian church in the midwest, faithfully serving the Lord, with different convictions than what he grew up with but more confident faith than before. He did the reading. It’s good to take your time.
So let’s keep reading. I have a long way to go, but I have benefitted tremendously from taking my time and learning from those who have gone before me. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We would do well to hear them out.
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