I took one philosophy class in my short time in grad school. The main thing I remember about it was the notion of epistemology.
The dictionary defines epistemology as:
the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.
To me, epistemology is how you answer the question: what is truth.
It is the foundational question you must answer when you are trying to create your philosophy. It informs every other philisophical direction.
One of the hardest things to do is to have a meaningful conversation with people whose epistemology is different from your own. It's hard to find common ground when you can't agree what the ground is. There is no foundation from which to build on.
I've had many conversations with atheists (who deny the truth of God) and post-modernists (who basically deny the notion of truth altogether) and those conversations don't go very far.
In the independent Baptist world, I think many of us have been trying to have a conversation with a group within our ranks that doesn't share our epistemology. Specifically, I'm talking about the #oldpaths crowd. More specifically, I'm talking about:
- John Hamblin
- Shelton Smith
- Bob Gray Sr.
- Allen Domelle
- Justin Cooper
- Greg Neal
- Jeff Fugate
- Bruce Goddard
- Those who attend their conference and strongly identify with that group.
(I don't normally name names, I'm doing it here because I don't want to be accused of aiming at a nebulous target or causing collatoral damage to innocent men.)
Their epistemology isn't my epistemology. Their truth isn't my truth. We aren't on the same page much less buiding on the same foundation.
Let me tell you what I'm talking about:
It isn't the scripture
Every single Baptist fundamentalist pays lip service to the idea that the scriptures are our sole authority for faith and practice. That's a baptist distinctive. No one would overtly deny that. So how can I say the #oldpaths crowd doesn't hold to scripture as their main source of truth?
They refuse to be limited by biblical hermeneutics.
When people in the #oldpaths crowd do use scripture to back up their cause - it is almost always taken out of context. Take, for example, the infamous "great men" article that graced the cover of the Sword of the Lord - it was manifestly taken out of context. In context, the passage actually taught the opposite of what the article said it did. (By the way, it's been used in the SOTL advertising ever since.)
(Other examples could be furnished.)
Biblical hermeneutics is not a bunch of rules we are making up as we go along. You can find succint explanations of the rules of hermeneutics in the writings of true old paths preachers like Charles Spurgeon, F.B. Meyer, Cambell Morgan, and R.A. Torrey. To sum it up, all we are asking is this:
- Intepret a passage based on the ordinary rules of grammar.
- Interpret a passage in the context of the book, chapter and paragraph it exists in.
- If the phrase or verse is part of a poem or some other literary device, take that into account with your interpretation.
- Be careful to discern the true meaning of the words. A simple word study using a Strong's Concordance goes a long way.
- If there is an apparent contradiction, resolve it carefully by looking at:
- How was this subject first introduced in scripture?
- Is there clear scripture to help me understand this unclear scripture?
- Is this resolved in progressive revelation?
It's really as simple as that. Preachers in the #oldpaths crowd refuse to follow those rules. If a passage of scripture will work for their cause but doesn't mean what they are presenting it to mean (i.e. "I will get me unto the great men.") They just run with it anyways.
They don't appeal to scripture.
All of that presumes that they are appealing to scripture in the first place. Most of the time, they don't even take the time to present a scripture out of context. Sometimes they appeal to history. Sometimes they appeal to tradition. Very often they appeal to their own success. Most of the time, they jump all of that and go right to insult.
When a passage of scripture doesn't fit their agenda, they ignore it.
They love to use Rehoboam as a club for beating up young preachers - but never mention the fact that Rehoboam was being advised to reverse the course of his father (and his young compatriots encouraged him to intensify what his father was doing.) They love "get thee unto the great men" but never mention the New Testament command "therefore glory not in men." If scripture is antithetical to their cause - they don't try to resolve it, they just ignore it.
It isn't history
You would think that a movement that has rallied behind the term "old paths" would have a deep understanding of and respect for history. They don't.
Their history only goes back to John R. Rice and Jack Hyles (Maybe to Frank Norris)
They refuse to consider any old paths that are older than the 1970s. For instance, if you were to prove from history (which is pretty easy to do) that Baptists in the early 1900s or 1800s didn't preach on standards, had a different opinion on church leadership, or had a completely different understanding of soteriology they would just ignore it.
They ignore the parts of their heroes legacy that don't suit their cause.
John R. Rice wasn't King James Only - you'd never hear that from an #oldpaths preacher. Lee Robberson invited the NKJV committee to use the campus of the Tennessee Temple for their work - "hush, don't mention that." Southern Baptists like R.G. Lee and evangelicals like Warren Weirsbe preached at old paths institutions - "shh".
(For the record, I am King James only and would feel very squeemish about inviting most evangelicals to share my pulpit. I'm just not promoting men who did while taking pock shots at preachers for posting an Al Mohler quote on twitter.)
They sweep under the rug any part of their history that makes them look bad and take shots at anyone who mentions it.
If Joel Osteen or Rick Warren got caught in a public affair tomorrow - you had better believe it would be on the front page of the Sword. But several people who WERE on the front page of the Sword were caught in adultery or worse - arrested for child molestation and ... crickets.
So, if the #oldpaths crowd doesn't rest their epistemology on scripture and they don't rest their epistomolgy on history - what does their epistemolgy rest on? What is the basis of their truth?
It is them.
I've come to think that the ultimate source of truth for the #oldpaths crowd is the #oldpaths crowd.
I challenge you - look over every #oldpaths tweet. Listen to a couple of their sermons. If you are looking for it, here is what you will find:
They are reading their established position into the scriptures.
Divorced from hermeneutics and context - reading the scriptures becomes an exercise in self-approval. Preaching the scriptures more so. Divorced from hermeneutics - scripture means whatever they say it means. The authority moves from the Holy Word of God to the Holy Word of the Old Paths preachers.
They are only presenting history that backs them up.
When you can ignore any history that doesn't suit your cause - ultimately - you are just using your warped version of history to establish your own authority.
They are attacking people who are different with little cause other than they are different.
Change anything from the way they are doing it and you are in their crosshairs. No ammount of explanation. No appeals to the scripture. No appeals to history will matter. They are true. You are different. Therefore you are wrong.
Essentially, what it comes down to is: if you are different than them, you are wrong - game. set. match. It's not about the scripture. It's not about reaching the lost. It's not about history. It's about THEM.
How do you reason with people like that? Here's what I've come to understand: you don't. They don't want to reason. They want to dominate. If the facts, history or scripture get in the way - sobeit.
One more thing: I would like nothing more than for them to prove me wrong. Let's have a real substantive conversation about scripture. Let's have a real substantive conversation about our history. Let's take an honest look at how much variation we can accept within the idependent Baptist movement. Any one of the people I mentioned before has an open invitation to come on my podcast and explain their side. I'd be as kind as a kitten but I'd ask them the same questions I ask everyone else. I'd love for them to prove me wrong, I'm just not hopeful that they will.