Sola Scriptura 7 – It just hasn’t worked

Posted: August 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

It’s not a very good title for this post, but I couldn’t really think of a good one. The idea, at least at the beginning of the Reformation, but also still expressed in many places today, was and is that Scripture could somehow provide the only thing necessary to maintain at least some sort of unity in the church. You didn’t need a magisterium. (I’m unclear how much awareness there was of Orthodoxy at the time of the Reformation. I notice that some churches created something similar to the conciliar model in their organizational structure, but they could have gotten that far just from reading the ancient writings of the church.) Speaking as someone who is shaped to most naturally perceive the failings and shortcomings of modern overarching narratives, the assumptions in this one are glaringly obvious to me. Sola scriptura assumes that people coming together with clear and rational minds under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will naturally perceive the plain truth of Scripture and be bound together as one by their common acceptance of that rational truth.

It’s a nice idea if people actually worked that way. But they don’t. And as a result, we have over 30,000 distinct, countable Protestant denominations and non-denominations today. That result was inevitable as soon as rational agreement on the interpretation of a text was made the basis for unity. Our radical Christian pluralism makes a mockery of Jesus’ prayer.

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in you; they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.

I don’t find the growing unbelief, especially of the Western world, at all surprising. What Jesus and what God do people believe? Calvin’s? The Baptist one? (And which Baptist? We’re probably responsible for a sizeable number of that 30k count.) Church of Christ? Lutheran? The list goes on and on. You can’t say that everyone describes the same God. Not if God consists of three actual persons rather than being an abstract idea. They use many of the same words, but when you scratch much below the surface at all, they don’t use the words the same way. And they don’t describe even vaguely similar persons. Piper’s God who is responsible for tornados striking churches, bridges falling down, and probably hurricanes destroying cities doesn’t bear much resemblance to the God who is love, who is light, in whom is no darkness. If you think all Protestants are describing the same God, you really haven’t paid close attention to the God they actually do describe in both word and deed.

I’ve noticed a tendency to assert that earlier approaches have not “worked” as some sort of justification for Protestant pluralism. It’s an odd little game of don’t look at my failings, they have problems too. Aside from the fact that at the core, it doesn’t really matter what others have done, the question is: What have you done? Focus on that first before the failings of others. Moreover it’s simply a false reconstruction of church history.

Yes, there have been problems, heresies, and schisms over the centuries. Lots of them. People behaving badly and the whole nine yards. Nevertheless, over the course of the first fifteen hundred years, the church experienced just three broad, enduring schisms. The heresies and smaller schisms? They tended to either die out or be healed over time and communion restored. The three enduring ones (to this day) are the schism over Chalcedon and the later schism between Rome and the rest of the Eastern church. Both of them were as tied to political realities of the Roman Empire as to anything else. Nor were they simple or unified in reason or development. Some were at least in part the result of geographic distance and realities of culture and language. For instance, in the schism over Chalcedon, none of the Armenian bishops could travel to the council because of a war with Persia. They were not native Greek speakers and when word of the council and its decision reached them, their bishops interpreted it as a resurgence of Nestorianism and condemned it accordingly.

Over the long haul, for fifteen hundred years, the church actually did a pretty good job of maintaining unity. Sola scriptura has not over a much shorter period of time. In fact, Protestantism has so splintered the church that those within it have largely ceased to believe that visible oneness even matters at all. Where people do concede that perhaps it was important to Jesus, they generally can’t imagine how it could ever be done. Heck, I’m with them. I don’t have the slightest clue how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But we need to at least start trying to move that direction.

Seems like as good a spot as any to end this series.


Sola Scriptura 6 – Utilitarian

Posted: August 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

In a way, this thread I’ve observed seems a little odd. For some reason, the attempt to place the Bible in a place where it does not naturally fit distorts the manner in which it is perceived and the practices surrounding it. At first blush, it would seem that the elevation of the Bible to the preeminent place in Christian life (which is what sola scriptura tends to assert it does) would cause it to be treated with increased reverence. We do see that, for instance, in Islam. But that’s not the case at all.

Instead, the Bible comes to be treated in a very utilitarian manner. It becomes a resource that the individual can and should mine on a regular basis. Oddly, it becomes a tool for you as an individual. Earlier in his series on evangelical liturgy, the Internet Monk unconsciously and I’m sure unintentionally reflected this perspective. He developed a “toolbox” and one of the “tools” in it was the Bible. Now, Michael holds the Holy Scriptures in great esteem and would never deliberately do anything less than honor their place in Christian life. I’ve read his blog for a long while and I definitely believe that to be true. And yet even for him the utilitarian language of tools and toolbox informs his perception of reality.

I think, in large part, that’s because sola scriptura does not, in reality, elevate Scripture itself. Rather, it elevates our individual rational ability to interpret and use Scripture to the highest point. Scripture becomes subject to our intellect. It becomes a tool for the individual to use.

I compare that to the way the Holy Scriptures are treated in the ancient liturgies and their modern expressions. The liturgies themselves are filled with more Scripture than is often encountered in non-liturgical settings even before the liturgical readings are considered. (And the readings alone tend to cover more scripture than a typical evangelical sermon ever does.) People stand when the Gospels are read. (Of course, in Eastern liturgies, people stand for essentially the entire liturgy unless old or infirm.) In some liturgical settings, there is a procession of the Gospels. The Holy Scriptures may be many things in those settings, but they are never merely utilitarian.


Sola Scriptura 5 – Yanking On Those Bootstraps

Posted: August 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Yesterday I briefly touched on the complex manner in which the canon of Holy Scripture we often call the Bible developed over time within and as part of the tradition of the church. Scripture is not something which somehow stands apart or separate from the church and its tradition. Rather it is a product of the church and one of the foremost repositories of its tradition. This strange role in which many seem to place Scripture, as somehow in opposition to tradition and as somehow separate from and over the church, is an exceedingly distorted and unhistorical place. In some ways it really is a lot more similar to what Islam would say of Qur’an, which is even described at times as somehow with Allah from the beginning and engaged in the process of creation.

Moreover, as a philosophical idea, it has the proverbial problem of trying to tug itself up by its own bootstraps. A central assertion of sola scriptura in its various forms to the extent that I understand them is that every central or essential belief or practice of the Church must be found in the Bible. However, the concept of sola scriptura itself cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. Further, while there isn’t much related to that particular philosophical idea in the New Testament (since it’s not an idea that the first century church would have encountered in a predominantly oral culture), the things that are most closely related actually contradict the idea of sola scriptura. For instance, in 1 Timothy 3:15, it’s not Scripture that is the pillar and ground of truth, but the church. And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul exhorts the church to “..stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The church, the pillar and ground of truth, is urged to stand and hold to the oral and written traditions it has been given. There are a few other places with somewhat related ideas, but they all express that same general theme.

And that, of course, begs the question. If sola scriptura is not itself found in Scripture, and it’s not found in the historical life and practice of the ancient church, and it’s not part of the tradition of the church anywhere until it was invented in the 16th century, why believe it?


Sola Scriptura 4 – Canon and History

Posted: August 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The thread of deconstruction I have in mind today is a tangled one indeed. I’m not sure how well I can express it one post, but I’ll do my best. Put simply, many of the ways “the Bible” is discussed among those today who hold to some variation of sola scriptura simply don’t reflect the reality of its development and often strangely try to set it at odds with the Christian tradition which produced it. Now this is by no means everywhere true. (Actually, I would tend to say that very few statements I could make are everywhere true, but that’s another discussion.) But when any interpretation of Scripture that is divorced from traditional interpretations is promoted as somehow authoritative in some sense because of some quality innate to the text itself you see the influence of this thread of thought. Scripture is very important in the life of Christ in the church. Scripture, especially in the Gospels, preserves for all generations the core of the tradition of our faith within the context of the church.

But that last phrase is critically important. Scripture as we know it in a canonical form is a product of the Church. It can be nothing else. We see that most clearly when we look at what Christians call the Old Testament. Each of the various primary traditions of the Church, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant have a different Old Testament canon. (I would say the first three are most similar to each other since they are all essentially variations of the Septuagint which we know took various forms in the pre-first century Diaspora. The latter tradition adopted the Masoretic Jewish canon which was developed as a canon beginning in the second century. That summary oversimplifies things, but is the best I can do in a few sentences. As a matter of history, we know the NT authors and the early church used the Septuagint in one form or another since that was the Greek text in use in most synagogues and the text the gentile converts could understand.) The OT canon itself was rarely a matter of particular concern through most of the history of the church since everyone simply used the form of the Septuagint they had received (or its Latin translation). In the second century, as the Jewish rabbis were developing what became the Masoretic Hebrew canon, you do see some Christian writers complaining that they were changing some of the texts to reduce or eliminate the Christian interpretation of them by which Christians were still converting Jews.

The New Testament canon was another matter altogether. The writings from the first century were preserved, but it’s mostly in the second century that the awareness within the church that these writings were also Holy Scripture began to develop. The first references I recall are references to the Gospels being “read” in church.  I think it’s easy for modern Protestants to misunderstand those references, though. They don’t mean people gathered around, opened some scrolls, and talked about the texts. They would have been doing that anyway as time allowed or the need presented itself. To understand that phrase, you have to think of the synagogue worship that formed the framework for what we now might call the Liturgy of the Word. That phrase means that the Gospels were chanted or sung in the same place in worship where the OT Scriptures were chanted or sung. Other works also became ones that were read in church and over time we see various lists or canons of such writings.

Once the Church was legalized under Constantine, bishops from across the empire were better able to discuss their lists. They were all pretty similar and the process of developing the canon, in large part, involved eliminating those texts that were only read in specific places. That process reduced the number that required more detailed discussion to a relative handful. But the NT canon itself is a product of the church, not the other way around.

We’ll delve more into that tomorrow.


Sola Scriptura 3 – Authority

Posted: August 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Authority is a difficult and complex concept and I recognize I can’t begin to plumb its depths in today’s short post. But this feeds an important stream in the deconstruction of the philosophical idea of sola scriptura. So I can’t simply ignore it in the context of this series.

My own cultural shaping has been labeled “postmodern” in some contexts. To the extent that is used to describe a shaping that is sensitive to and suspicious of the assertion or application of power and describes a lens which is incredulous toward metanarratives, I accept the label. None of us are ever free from the exercise of power and influence by others. Or at least rarely does one become free. I have read descriptions and stories of monastics and martyrs who reach the point of submission to Christ that they appear truly free from all other powers — even their own passions. That is not true for most of us.

Although many people assert that they rely on Scripture alone for their authority, that is not typically the case. If you listen to them speak, in most cases they have readily discernible sources for their interpretation of Scripture. It is those people who actually exercise authority over people, not Scripture itself. Comparatively few people actually read Scripture and wholly interpret it for themselves. Rather they place their trust in the interpretation of other individuals or communities within a common context.

I do read somewhat widely and always have. And some interpretations hold more weight or feel more accurate to me. But I’m far too postmodern to actually place my confidence in the interpretation of any single human being or even a group of people situated in the same time and cultural context. And I’m far too postmodern to trust my own interpretation as authoritative. That requires a particular sort of arrogance I might like to have, but cannot develop. I’m all too aware how well and thoroughly and even unintentionally I can deceive myself.

Where then do I place my confidence? When it comes to an understanding of Scripture, I have more confidence in an interpretation when I see it held and taught in every age by a broad number of people. Both are important. If we believe our faith is rooted in a God who became one of us so that we might commune or become one with him, if we believe that that God is love (not as attribute or in part or in action or in feeling but in essence), then having become one with us he would work to help sustain our proper understanding of him. And he would do so in the only way possible, in and through his people across time and space and culture.

So I don’t trust my own interpretation of Scripture where I can find no confirmation for what I think I see. I hold it loosely. I don’t trust the interpretation of any individual. I don’t trust the interpretation of a group when the interpretation and the group are largely confined to a particular period of time or culture. One of those sources seems to be where everyone who holds to some idea of sola scriptura places their trust. And I can’t do that.

I think fewer and fewer people can.


Sola Scriptura 2 – So Many Sola Scripturas

Posted: August 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Sola Scriptura 2 – So Many Sola Scripturas

One of the things that quickly dawned on me as I explored this idea is that there isn’t really one concept called Sola Scriptura. Rather, there are a variety of different perspectives, often flowing from different times and places, that all operate under that general umbrella.

Luther, for example, had little patience with the idea that every single person could somehow rightly interpret scripture for himself. He primarily used the idea to assert his interpretation of the Holy Scriptures over against the Roman Catholic magisterium’s interpretation. That was really true of all the primary reformers who used the power of their respective states to enforce their interpretation and defend against Rome. They largely viewed themselves, to the extent I can tell, as rescuing the tradition of interpretation from the “corruption” of the Roman Catholic magisterium. Again, as far as I can tell, they perceived their interpretation to be informed and continuing the tradition of the Church.

The radical reformation and then revivalist movements added different takes to the concept. It became common to assert that all truth or belief and practice was found in the Bible. This took two sorts of forms. On the one hand, some held that anything done or practiced that was not found explicitly in the text was, as long as it did not contradict the text, something allowable that a person or community might choose to do if they desired. Others held the harder perspective that if it wasn’t found in the Bible, that meant it was prohibited.

Many pietists came to believe that using nothing but a Bible, without any context, cultural setting, or reference to any traditional interpretation, any individual believer would be led into the truth by the Holy Spirit. This sort of view became particularly prevalent as individualism began to be deeply intertwined with the threads of modernity.

Others interpret Sola Scriptura to mean Prima Scriptura. That is they look to Scripture for what they interpret it to say about a topic first, recognizing that many forces and sources influence our understanding, belief, and practice. To some extent, this is a chastened view of Sola Scriptura. In practice, though, each individual still makes the decision what to consider or not consider along with the Bible.

I’m sure in my summary I’ve mischaracterized some of the perspectives on what sola scriptura means and how it is practiced. Some of them are difficult for me to wrap my head around. They feel like very odd ways to view reality.  But the core idea is that sola scriptura itself has no single meaning. Rather, there are a variety of perspectives, some very different from others, that fit under this particular concept.


Sola Scriptura – Interlude for Dilemma

Posted: August 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

As I move into this series, Peter Rollins posted the video below. It also struck me as beautiful and evocative. I have the sense that there are those who will watch and truly see and others who may not. I can’t think of a way to translate my reaction to words. So I’ll leave you simply with Dilemma.

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=23059775

Sola Scriptura 1 – Intertwined with the Modern Lens

Posted: August 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

No, this isn’t going to be yet another one of those apologies for or arguments against the idea of Sola Scriptura that you find littered across the blogosphere and in print. I’ve read and listened to quite a few from a variety of perspectives over the years and found the majority of them … less than helpful. I didn’t really interact with this idea until well into my adult life, but as a member of an SBC church for a decade and a half, as someone who attended BSF for a pretty good number of years, and as someone who has participated in a variety of other evangelical bible studies, I feel I’ve pretty reasonably worked to inhabit the perspective as best I could for an extended period of time. I’m not really planning this series, but I expect it to be some short posts reflecting various aspects of the deconstruction of the idea of sola scriptura from my particular perspective and experience.

The particular idea of sola scriptura, of course, grew out of the Western modern cultural lens which in turn reflected the flowering of scholasticism in its Western medieval form. The core concept that a text, any text, somehow has an objective meaning which can be discerned by some means and which is somehow independent from any interpretation or interpreter of the text is intimately connected to the modern lens. It began as a modern Western idea and thrived within the modern context.

I don’t particularly care what you call the cultural, societal, and sociological shift which we began to undergo in the 20th century, which is in full swing now, and which will likely continue to work itself out over the next century or so. Whatever labels or terms you prefer to use, I am more formed by those forces than by the modern forces which birthed and sustained the various sola scriptura ideas. And I don’t see any way that the different sola scriptura lenses will be able to persist in anything like their various forms outside what is often called the modern cultural context or modernity. I’ll explore some of the reasons I believe that to be true in this series.