What Choice But To Cherrypick?
An epistle to Jerry Pournelle
Dear Dr. Pournelle:
One of your correspondents chastised you for quoting Galatians 3:28 as an example of universalism. He pointed to neighboring verses as proving that the passage is not universalistic, exactly; really it’s tribalism for a new, bigger tribe. I agree that this is the normal course of universalism. Both universal principles and tribal identities can be manipulated for political convenience.
Your correspondent went on to mock “that favorite pastime of using the Bible to justify their personal positions”. There, I think, he went too far. Opportunistic cherry-picking of scripture is as normal as tribalized universalism, or cut-and-paste tribalism.
And why not? What alternative is there to cherry-picking? Original intent? That’s a fine theory; but in practice originalism tends to be more about the original interpretations of the originalist than the original intent of the author.
And who is the original author of the New Testament? There are two theories: documentarian and revelatory. According to the documentary hypothesis, the New Testament was written by a committee of 2nd century Hellenized Jews. According to the revelatory hypothesis, the New Testament is the Word of God, an immortal being of infinite wisdom. Both hypotheses are troublesome for the originalist.
For if the documentary hypothesis is true, then the originalist must try to know the mind of someone from 1900 years ago. This is possible but difficult, for we know little about people from that long ago. Worse, gaining such a perspective would be of limited value to us; for they knew even less about us than we do about them.
And if the revelatory hypothesis is true, then knowing the mind of the Author would be valuable - indeed, infinitely valuable - but for that very reason it would be impossible. What chance have you or I to read the mind of God? To claim to know infinite wisdom is folly. I know better than that; and no doubt you do too.
So the scriptural originalist must either work hard for limited value, or pine after limitless value in vain. In neither case is originalism worth the effort. Whereas opportunistic cherry-picking is simple, easy, useful and profitable. That is why cherry-picking prevails.
So scripture presents itself as a message, but in practice it is a medium. It’s a language, not a statement; you can say whatever you want to in its terms. There’s a verse for war and a verse for peace; a verse to build up and a verse to break down; a verse to laugh and a verse to weep; a verse to cast away stones and a verse to gather stones together. Scripture is more like a guitar than a tune; the sound it makes depends upon the skill and intent of the player.
That too is normal. Holy texts naturally evolve towards interpretational flexibility. They survive by justifying the personal positions of the believer.