If anything gives me a bit of hope for evangelicals and Calvinists and self-identified Reformed folks, it’s this kind of honest, clear-headed assessment from three leading scholars:
…Most of our theories of the world — philosophical, commonsensical, or even scientific — are underdetermined by the evidence that supports them. They are consistent with the facts, but the facts are not so compelling that their competitors can be shown to be logically inconsistent with the facts. When two such theories are in competition, no appeal to evidence, therefore, could determine the winner.
Biblical interpretations and theological statements are underdetermined by the biblical data. Scripture is a mix of history, myth, poetry, moral instruction, praise, hyperbole, prophecy, and so forth. Sorting through this array of genres requires some sort of hermeneutical [interpretive] method. The inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture are of themselves incapable of delivering God’s truth. Without a hermeneutical method, the inerrant or infallible biblical data cannot communicate truth claims…..
Underdetermination may account for the apparent intractability of theological disputes…. Theologians on both sides of these disputes believe their doctrines to be the only adequate explanation of the biblical data. However, if their competitors also adequately account for all of the biblical data, no appeal to the evidence could resolve the dispute.
Those are excerpts from the entry entitled “Underdetermination” in 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2004) by Kelly James Clark and James K.A. Smith of Calvin College (at least at the time of the book’s release) and Richard Lints of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (ditto).
Reading this assessment from top-notch scholars helped me exhale. Of course, I imagine Clark, Smith, and Lints have strongly held points of view, and I don’t think they’re saying all systematic interpretations are equal. Then again, they seem to be saying the available data does not lend itself strictly to one point of view.
I’m especially appreciative of the authors’ definition of “Underdetermination” and, as I’ve noted previously, “Aesthetics.”