This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


It used to be enough to just point to a text in Scripture to settle a theological dispute among Protestants.  That doesn’t work anymore.  In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle points to the slavery dispute in the 19th century as the time when this consensus began to fall apart.  It was no longer enough to identify biblical texts that tolerated slavery as a justification for the practice.  I suspect the problems with the proof-text approach to Scripture go even deeper and farther back than that.  In any case, she shows how a succession of social issues served to undermine Scriptural authority, as the church learned to accept divorce, women in ministry, and now struggles with gays in ministry.  

My view has been that the church was led by the Spirit to a broader understanding of Scripture and its authority.  But I am beginning to wonder about the authority thing as well.  The Reformation replaced the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with that of the Bible.  Tickle says we are at another hinge point in history and when the dust clears we will end up with a different understanding of authority.  While some will continue to hang on to sola scriptura, many will find this severely inadequate.  Many already do.  

Sola scriptura is collapsing, and it’s not just because of external cultural pressures.  It is also because of the different voices that emerge from Scripture itself.  Walter Brueggemann points out that Scripture is best interpreted dialogically.  Which is to say Scripture is always in dialogue, if not contradiction, with itself.  One of many examples of this is the disagreement in the post-exilic period between the Ezra/Nehemiah/Deuteronomist exclusivist position, and the Third Isaiah/Ruth dissenting inclusivist position.  Under Christendom the Church had to choose a single dominant narrative, and relegate other narratives to a subsidiary or even disregarded place.  Society would not bear mixed messages.  But now we are allowing ourselves to hear these other voices within Scripture.    

The need for having a monolithic and consistent message emanating from an established and unquestioned authority is probably part of the Christendom model of doing things.  In the imperial State Church it was essential to have one authority imposed hierarchically.  The Reformation did little more than adjust this authority from the Church to the Bible.  But the necessity for having a single authority and a single interpretive schema remained.  Hence the Reformed Confessions which spelled out the official, authoritative interpretation of Scripture for Reformed churches.  Hence the enthusiasm among some Presbyterians historically for requiring subscription to certain confessional standards.  Under Christendom any deviation from the standard party-line was considered a dangerous threat to the whole society.  

But our post-Christendom world means that what-is-good-for-society-as-determined-by-those- who-run-society is no longer the main consideration.  Increasingly, the Church sees something else as the main consideration.  This is its own calling as disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ.  Society’s rulers have always understood the Church to be subservient to their agenda.  Thus the Church was to bless government policy, instill productive values and loyalty in people, and administer social welfare efforts on the State’s behalf.  Now the Church is free to serve, not the State, the society, the will of the people, the economy, the ruling class, etc., but the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.

A single, hierarchical, objective system of doctrine, imposed and enforced from “above,” is not necessary in a post-Christendom arrangement.     

I am prognosticating that the emerging authority will reflect a post-Christendom context and be non-centralized, contextual, non-standardized, non-hierarchical, and non-objective.  While the authority in the Middle Ages was the Church, and in the Modern Age it was the Bible, I am suggesting that the authority for the next age will be a more fluid and dialogical interaction involving three elements: the Word, the gathered community/ecclesia, and the Spirit.  

1) The Word of God is Jesus Christ.  The Bible is indeed not less than the Word of God, but it is so only derivatively and secondarily by virtue of its unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.  The Bible is the Word of God when and because it witnesses to Jesus Christ.    

2) The gathered community is the locus for interpretation and application of the Word.  The gathering centers on Scripture as the primary medium through which they come to experience and know Jesus Christ and themselves as his body.  There is no question of the kind of individual and private interpretation towards which Protestantism always veered.

3) The movement and inspiration of the Spirit is known in and actively guides this process by driving participants out of themselves and continually offering challenges to conventional and comfortable readings.  The point of the dialogical approach is not to paralyze the gathering because one consistent, exclusive way forward cannot be identified.  It is to involve the gathering in the drama, an ongoing conversation happening among the Trinitarian God and the people.  The Spirit is the Presence of Christ leading the ecclesia towards and in himself.   

This means that not every gathering will have exactly the same theology or practice.  Ecclesial relationships will be less hierarchical or corporate and more network-like and fluid.  It will mean authority is exercised less legally and more as a matter of rhetorical persuasion.  Which is frankly more like the situation of the earliest ecclesia.  The Apostle Paul did not have the power of a hierarchy or a Book of Order or a denominational bureaucracy — or even a canon of Scripture —  behind him, let alone the force of army, police, or judges.  He had the power of his own experience, vision, theology, and ability to communicate effectively the narrative of salvation.

I foresee fluid and reforming networks of gatherings which change and shift and evolve according to the present and emerging missional requirements.  Yet I also see an imperative need to articulate and maintain the basics, the essentials, the characteristics that signify a shared faith. 

One necessary discipline will be to keep in communication with those who have different views.  The tendency will be to form coalitions of the like-minded.  The challenge will be to be continually challenged by the unlike-minded.  So this model of authority could blow apart by centrifugal force if it is not tempered and shaped by some kind of covenanting.


Theologue and Opiner said...

Peter Hofstra, Perth Amboy

I understand your concerns about 'sola scriptura' not carrying the weight of authority for this age. That sound bite served a powerful purpose at the time of the Reformation. It still serves as a powerful historical reminder in our own time.

But I am still a proponent of an authority in Scripture from above, above earthly authority at every level. I see your point of the fragmentation of 'sola scriptura' around the issue of slavery.

But 'sola scriptura' carried with it the unspoken notion of removing the accretions of tradition and ecclesial power of the medieval church.

In other words, 'only scripture' needs us to understand what else there was piled around Scripture.

I think we are in an age where that needs to be done again. As yet, we have not had our Luther nailing his theses to the proverbial cathedral door to push us into a new reforming time.

Paul Rack said...

Yes. And this needs to be done by letting Scripture speak for itself in all its glory... which is to say tension, contradiction, challenge, multifacetedness, diversity, etc. It cannot be nailed down to a neat set of propositions, and it does not need to be in a post- Christendom context.

I think we are moving from an imperialist reading of Scripture to a more direct encounter with Scripture similar to the hermeneutic of Judaism pre-1948. Through it God guides, critiques, challenges, rules, and renews a community in perpetual dialogue with it.

We have the supplemental benefit of holding that it witnesses to Jesus Christ who is the ultimate hermeneutical principle, as it were. It gets is authority from Christ and points us to Christ.

Doug said...

Paul, it interesting to me that following this post you then wrote about vestments. I think the thoughts in this post reinforce my movement away from vestments.