Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

Posted: December 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is sola scriptura. Actually, that’s not exactly true — at least to my eyes. I would push a little deeper than Matthew Gallatin does at this point in his book. The fundamental tenet of Protestantism is that each individual can and must decide for themselves what is or is not true. Whether a particular strand says they depend on Scripture alone or whether they say they depend on some combination of scripture, reason, and tradition, that tenet holds. Sola Scriptura is one way of asserting individual interpretation over against any other interpretive grid.

Now, in practice, every Protestant sect tries to teach its members its own interpretation of Christian faith and practice. But since every strand began by asserting that the group from which it splintered was wrong in some way, there isn’t really any way for it to keep the views of its own members from also diverging over time. As we’ve seen over the past five hundred years, that inevitably happens in every single Protestant group. And it happens pretty quickly. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point of having tens of thousands of denominations and non-denominations who all claim to worship the same God even as they hold wildly divergent and often contradictory beliefs about that God. Why?

The Scriptures alone can never show us what the objective truth about God is.

That’s not a new realization. One of the early Christian apologists wrote that the Scriptures (speaking primarily of what we call the Old Testament, of course) were like a mosaic showing us the face of Christ. However, the heretics took the tiles of the mosaic and formed them into a picture of a wolf or a fox instead. Christians have always recognized that you could assemble Scripture to argue for many different ideas, but most of those were not true. In fact, the heretics were often masters at that task. Arius, for example, had a convincing interpretation for every Scripture with which he was challenged. Ultimately, his interpretation was not rejected because it could be proven wrong, but because it was not what the Church in all places had believed since the time of the Apostles.

So what’s important to a Protestant believer is not just “the Scriptures alone.” What he actually puts his faith and trust in is his interpretation of “the Scriptures alone.”

It’s axiomatic to me that no text says anything without interpretation. So that’s not the revelation to me that it was to Matthew. The normal response, of course, is to assert that the Holy Spirit is guiding our individual interpretation. But can that be the case?

Is the Holy Spirit directing both of us? If He is, then that leaves us with a most disconcerting picture of the Spirit of God. For the Spirit, whom Christ calls the Spirit of truth, is busily at work sabotaging the longings of the Son! (that we be one)

Is the truth about God settled? Is there an underlying reality? Or is it up to each of us individually to determine the truth and reality of God? The foundation of Protestantism rests wholly on the individual. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not up for the task of being the ground of truth.

Matthew has a funny quote from one of his Catholic friends that, I think, strikes true.

We Catholics have an old saying: ‘Protestants believe that everyone is infallible, except the Pope!’


Thirsting for God 2 – What is Truth?

Posted: December 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 2 – What is Truth?

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

It seemed to me that truth, for a Protestant Christian, is whatever you interpret it to be.

The turning point in Matthew’s journey hinged on this realization. That was obvious to me. My formation (whether you call it postmodern or something else) left me acutely aware that we perceive everything around us through layers of interpretation. Whenever somebody has proclaimed, “The Bible says,” I’ve always heard, “I interpret the Bible to say.” That’s been as obvious and as natural to me as breathing. I’m reminded of one of the second century Fathers who wrote that the Scriptures (primarily speaking about what we call the Old Testament at that point, of course) are like a mosaic. Interpreted correctly they form a picture of Christ. But the heretics takes the tiles and rearrange them to form the picture of a wolf or a fox instead.

The question then becomes a different one. Is God simply whatever we interpret him to be? Or does God have a reality that is independent of our interpretation? You might think the answer is obvious, but be careful here. If you equate truth with your own interpretations and belief, then in essence you are saying you get to define God. I’ve done that sort of thing before I began to be drawn into Christianity. I know its taste. And when you dig down deeply, the foundations of what we label “New Age” these days are a whole lot different from what lies beneath Protestant Christianity. Both ultimately depend on me.

And here we get to the realization in Matthew Gallatin’s life that forms the basis for the title of the book.

To me, Protestant faith had shown itself to be a great dream that cannot find its fulfillment, a deep question that cannot answer itself, an eternal thirst dwelling in a land of shallow wells.

And that led him to the question, “Who is the Jesus I trust?”

No, the question What is the Truth? is unavoidable. For unless I’m sure I know the truth about Christ, how do  know that my Christian faith isn’t just an illusion? The human mind and emotions are powerful things. It’s absolutely possible to create a mental picture of someone and have an intense relationship with him or her, even though he or she isn’t real. Think about the imaginary friends many of us have as children. If I’m not absolutely certain that I know the truth about who Christ is, my Christian life could simply be a love affair with an imaginary Friend. … So I could not sidestep issues of truth merely be saying, “I just trust in Jesus.”

Matthew then began to wonder if the problem was not in the distinctive teachings of different Protestant strands, but in what they all held in common. He came up with three common traits.

  1. They are all willing to invent the church.
  2. They all believe that the Holy Scriptures are the foundation of truth. While it is shaded in different ways, they all embrace some aspect of the idea of sola scriptura.
  3. Truth is a rational thing.

Those all ties together. Scriptures are the only reliable foundation. We can use our rational abilities to analyze scripture and by doing so we can uncover the truth. That truth will then show us the correct way to worship and live as Christians. To one extent or another, every Protestant strand of Christianity depends on those three ideas.


My Church History Perspective 3 – So what’s up with all the fighting over a book?

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I must confess that I’ve had a hard time determining which thread of my interactions with the Church and its history to tackle first. However, given the sort of Christianity within which I found myself, the first thread of strangeness I encountered had to do with the Bible, so I suppose it makes the most sense to start there. It has always been an area of strangeness for me, and it still holds surprises for me.

I landed in a part of the Christian spectrum that speaks often about the “inerrancy” or “infallibility” of the Holy Scriptures. Now, I’ll be honest and confess that even after fifteen years, I’m unsure exactly what people mean when they use those terms. Further, it strikes me that different groups and even different individuals often mean different things by those words. Sometimes the differences are minor, but other times they seem quite large to me.

I’ve never been able to grasp how the concept of “infallibility” can even apply to a text. Structures and powers can fail you. People can fail you. Faith and spirituality and religion can fail you. You can even fail yourself. But a text is just a text. It remains what it is. I suppose it’s true to say that it won’t “fail” or cease to be what it is. But I’ve never seen any great merit or virtue in that attribute. It is, after all, true of all texts.

In the same way, I’ve never grasped the point of trying to use the category of “error” with a spiritual writing of any sort. Error is the sort of category that best fits the sensible realm within which the scientific method operates. It’s the realm in which you can devise empirical (or as close to empirical as we can ever get) tests to show that an idea either corresponds to the nature of the physical realm or it does not. But I don’t see any way to apply that category to any spiritual writing. After all, they all purport to describe those aspects of reality that transcend the sensible and material portion we can directly test. So I have always tended to assume that any spiritual writing, allowing for the differences introduced by changing cultures and the supreme difficulty of translation, accurately portrays the perspective of reality as it intended to portray it and is thus “without error.

Yes, I would say that’s true of Christian scripture. But I would also say that is true about the Qur’an. I would say it’s true of the many different sutras within Buddhism. I would say it’s true of the Vedas. The question does not ever seem to me to be whether or not any of these texts contain “errors.” The question is which of the many very different perspectives accurately describes the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being? And that question far transcends the category of error.

Some would say these are really an expression of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura. I suppose in some sense they are a natural extension of that idea within the context of growing individualism that marked much of the modern history of Western Europe and the United States. It is not, however, what the Reformers themselves meant by the term. I actually had relatively little difficulty discerning and understanding what they meant. They were basically using the phrase or idea as a way to assert their own right to interpret Scripture over and against the interpretation of the Roman Catholic magisterium of their day. It’s obvious from their subsequent actions as they joined with the political powers of their respective states that they never intended that anyone and everyone was free to interpret Scripture as they saw fit. No, variant interpretations were as brutally repressed and opposed within the Reformation as within the Catholic states. The fury of war that swept Europe as a result left a solution born more of fatigue than any resolution of the question. It was decided that the people of any given state would be a part of the particular sect that held sway in that state and on that basis the constant wars would cease. And many of the states further resolved the problems with their internal religious dissidents by shipping them off to the “New World.” It’s little wonder we’re such a divisive and fractious lot here in the United States when it comes to faith.

No text, of course, has any “objective” meaning apart from interpretation. And the more that interpretation is divorced from the culture and language within which a text was written, the more subjective any independent or individual interpretation of the text will be. That is, for example, why the Qur’an cannot be translated. It is only the Qur’an in its original language. Any translation is instead a commentary on the Qur’an.

But Christianity has never been a religion based on a sacred text. We are not “People of the Book.” No, we claim to be the people of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Living Lord. We are the people, the ecclesia, the Church of those who are in living communion with him and with each other. We are the ones who know, acknowledge and proclaim him Lord. This is why Christians from the earliest days of our faith have held that the truth about Jesus could be proclaimed in any and every language and remain Truth. This is a part of the message of Pentecost. Christian texts could therefore be translated into other languages and still, within the context of the interpretation and proclamation of the Church, remain Holy Scripture. The translation was seen to be as holy as the original, not merely a commentary on the original sacred text.

Now that is not to say that the Holy Scriptures are somehow unimportant. No, they are vitally important and are easily the greatest part of our Christian tradition. But they are only useful to the extent that they are read in light of Christ. They have no independent or separate usefulness or validity. They have no life of their own and they can give no life. Our life is hid with Christ in God as the Holy Scriptures themselves attest.

The Holy Scriptures are not somehow magically self-interpreting in a way that no other text can be. They were produced within the context of the tradition of the Church. They were canonized within that same tradition. And they have no valid interpretation apart from the history of the interpretation of the Church. Since Christianity is firmly centered around the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical reality, indeed the very center of all historical time, and the community he formed, our Holy Scriptures have no independent or separate meaning or holiness.

Indeed, history works against such views of the Christian Scriptures. All of Christianity eventually settled on one canon for the New Testament and all traditions continue to use that canon. However, the Church selected those texts rather than others because they felt they were directly connected to an apostolic author and because these were the texts that were “read in Church” widely, and not in a specific geographic area alone. However, the various traditions today do not use the same Old Testament canon. And the Old Testament canon used by Protestants has the least historical credibility.

The Reformers selected the Jewish Masoretic canon for their Old Testament. However, the process that eventually produced that canon within rabbinical Judaism did not even begin until the latter part of the second century. When you see Justin Martyr, for example, accusing the Jews of altering the text of prophecies to reduce their connection to and fulfillment in Jesus, he is talking about those who were beginning the work that produced the Masoretic canon. Now, I have no idea how much merit those accusations had, but it does illustrate part of the problem with the Reformers’ decision.

What text did the early Church use? What text did the Gospels, Paul, and the other NT authors call “the scriptures”? Easy. The same text that was read in most of the first century synagogues, and virtually every synagogue outside the environs of Jerusalem in Judea — the Greek Septuagint. (Oddly, although the Reformers adopted the Masoretic text for their Old Testament canon, they used the Septuagint titles for those books.) That’s especially true once the Church began including gentiles. The only text the gentile converts could have read or heard and understood was the Septuagint. From what I can tell, the Reformers in part wanted to choose a different canon because they did not like what some of those books said. And, in part, it was simply a mistake. They correctly chose to look back to the Greek New Testament text to correct some errors in late medieval interpretations of the Latin Vulgate. They seem to have thought the Hebrew Masoretic text was the “original” of the Latin Vulgate Old Testament. It mostly wasn’t.

In the light of that history, the modern ideas about Scripture make even less sense. The Old Testament canon Protestants are using is not the same canon the Gospel authors, Paul, and others were calling “the Scriptures” when the texts of the New Testament canon were written. It’s not hugely different, of course, but there are still some significant differences.

In Christianity, unlike some religions, the text is a product of the faith. The faith is not a product of the text. The faith is a product of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  I think some Christians today have that backwards.


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 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.


Constantine and the Church 6 – Outcome of the Council

Posted: August 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Constantine and the Church 6 – Outcome of the Council

As I mentioned in the last post, many of the myths about Constantine’s influence or control over the Church revolve around his imagined ability to control the outcome of the council at Nicaea or over the bishops of the Church in general. I looked at the bishops yesterday. Today I want to look at the outcome of the Council at Nicaea. While there were a number of issues discussed and decisions made, the central one revolved around the novel teaching of a priest named Arius. For those who may not be familiar with his teaching, it revolved around an idea in a popular hymn he wrote: There was a time when the Son was not. In other words, though the Son might be the first of all creation, the Son was not co-eternal with the Father. The Son was not uncreated with the Father.

Arius was quite intelligent and charismatic. Reports of his examination indicate that he was able to interpret the Holy Scriptures at every point in a way that supported his view. (As a side note, that does illustrate one of the fundamental flaws in the idea of Sola Scriptura, the idea that a text as complex as the Holy Scriptures somehow has any authoritative interpretation independent of its interpreting context or agent.) He also was good at popularizing his view in hymns and other media of his age. As a result, his view had spread pretty widely across the empire, especially with the legalization of Christianity.

Constantine clearly wanted the council to make a decision for or against Arius. Just as he was looking to the Church to act as an agent to help stabilize the empire, the Church was being ripped and torn between those who held fast to the traditional view of Jesus as the Son of God and those who followed Arius instead. It’s less clear which side he personally favored. Constantine stayed neutral in his official pronouncements and statements. But there were certainly synergies between the views of Arius and the Imperial cult that may have led Constantine to prefer such a view of Jesus. Although he did banish Arius after the council, Constantine also later recalled him. When he was baptized almost on his deathbed years later, Constantine specifically sent for an Arian bishop to baptize him. And his son, of course, embraced Arianism wholeheartedly when he succeeded Constantine.

So if Constantine controlled the council and the bishops were willing to acquiesce to his will, it certainly doesn’t appear that he did so very effectively. And I find it odd that a man who was able to win military battle after military battle and reunite the entire Roman Empire under a single emperor couldn’t manage a simple council filled with bishops and priests supposedly cowed by his might any better than that.

No, in this case, the “official” story is simply the more reasonable one. The council itself was not particularly influenced by the presence of the emperor and came to a decision about which Constantine was at best ambivalent.

Unless someone a specific Constantinian myth to raise, this post wraps up this series.