The next section in Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible deals with "A Historically Growing Grasp of the Meaning of the Gospel." It provides a helpful tool for thinking about a closed canon. Smith writes: "[T]he Christian church’s historically progressive understanding and working out of the meaning and implications of the gospel as mediated to us through scripture has never in church history been complete and is not now complete."
The common evangelical belief is that the New Testament provides all we need to know theologically, and modeled how believers work out the gospel in a "particular sociohistorial context. This does not mean the New Testament authors "understood and worked out all the long-term implications of the gospel for theological knowledge, human life, and society." Later generations continued to develop the authors' theology in new ways. It took over 350 years "to work out orthodox, catholic, christological, and trinitarian doctrines, which most evangelicals still affirm as theologically nonnegotiable today." I loved his description of this process, "theological wrangling."
"What was embryonic in scripture needed to develop and grow into a more mature theological expression of what was there all along." Smith argues the New Testament authors had simply not "worked out the full implications" of the truth they so cherished, but which later generations of Christians have formulated.
Slavery is a prime example of this "unfolding." The New Testament authors did not work out the gospel's moral implications for slavery. This has caused many to reject Christianity, which is understandable. I believe the doctrine of inerrancy keeps this stumbling block in place, ossifying what is supposed to be inchoate.
Smith notes early Christians were, "like all humans, limited in time, place, and range of vision." For them, slavery was an unalterable fact of life. The Gospel merely meant slaves should submit to their masters and masters should treat their slaves well. But, the Gospel started planting seeds, "in the form of the then-radical idea that slaves and masters were equals and brothers in Christ."
For all Christians to unequivocally understand that the Gospel means the end of slavery took time and struggle--wrangling. Today, all Christians look back and clearly know the truths of the Bible unfold in such a way that slavery is wrong. The denouncement of slavery was not itself a teaching found anywhere other than in embryonic forms in the New Testament. But eventually all Christians grasped this truth by fleshing out the Gospel's ramifications. Smith explains:
[T]he total meaning of the gospel did not land on the apostles’ doorsteps the day after Pentecost, like a cognitive FedEx package containing everything the church would ever need to know, think, and believe until Jesus returns in glory. The apostles understood and preached the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ. But they did not know and teach the fullness of the many implications of that truth for doctrine, relationships, and society. That was a task given to subsequent generations of believers across church history.
He later describes this process as a "slow but ultimately revolutionary leavening of the gospel in human life," not overtly prescribed but nevertheless a valid result of New Testament teachings.
Smith's use of slavery as an example, to me, highlights the necessity of decolonizing our faith. Of course there were those who knew from the start that slavery was unequivocally wrong - slaves themselves! And I'm wary of describing the process as slow. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. warned against white moderates' desire to take the civil rights movement more slowly, I wouldn't want the gradual, historical unfolding of the Gospel to sanction a delay in ensuring the liberty for all at the foot of the cross.
But back to Smith - he cites a litany of verses to support this premise (in a...biblicist sort of way), but his point remains that evangelicals only apply the "working out" and "growing" verses individualistically. Rather than strictly personal spiritual growth, what if these verses addressed the church's collective understanding of the Gospel? What if truth itself is developing, unfolding, and dynamic, like a mustard seed, or yeast spreading through rising dough?
Pervasive interpretive pluralism frames the Bible as the complete and final teachings on all subjects. But let God-fearing, Bible-believing Southern Christians in the nineteenth-century U.S. remind us: failure to grasp a historically progressive understanding of Scripture results in support for one of the ugliest times in human and American history, undergirded by what appears to be the Bible's defense of slavery.
If a developing, dynamic truth sounds uncomfortably close to postmodernism, most of us would acknowledge that denouncing slavery didn't require a radical postmodern turn away from "objective truth." I still believe truth has roots, but perhaps we've got to keep watering seeds and wrangling, careful not to let the Gospel fossilize. Or perhaps we should be more careful not to let our understanding of the Gospel ossify, lest we fail to see what was there all along.