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.


4 Comments on “Sola Scriptura 3 – Authority”

  1. 1 Andy Wilson said at 8:58 am on October 2nd, 2009:

    Scott, I really enjoy your thoughts and writings. I came across your blog through your comments on the Jesus Creed blog. I noticed your EO bent, which I have as well. In fact I like what you say here. I’ve come to this same conclusion as well and I think it’s summed up well by a statement I heard by an EO person: Orthodoxy is that “which is believed by all people(Christian), in all places as all times”. This removes historical, ethnic and cultural bias which is so often what we get from a theology based on sola scriptura.

  2. 2 Scott said at 11:24 am on October 2nd, 2009:

    Thanks. I suppose I have an EO bent, but I think that comes more from immersing myself in the ancient writings of the Church after I became Christian than from anything else. I keep discovering that Orthodoxy teaches and practices what I already believed.

    I definitely remember the first time I realized that was so. I had long since come to the conclusion that Western notion of original sin as inherited guilt didn’t really make any sense. Moreover, it produced problems and painted a picture of a God that were outright deal breakers for me. That sort of God was simply not one I was willing to worship. However, it didn’t seem to me that Scripture talks much about inherited guilt. And when it does, it seems most often to be refuting the idea that we inherit guilt from our ancestors. Rather, we are each judged according to the whole of our lives. (There is no description of judgment in Scripture that I’ve found that does not speak of us being judged for the totality of our lives in the light of Christ. Not a “what have we accomplished” sort of thing, but more a “have we followed Jesus” sort of thing.) The primary problem in Scripture that we all inherit and in which we all participate always seemed to me to be death.

    However, even knowing something (as I did) of a wide swath of traditions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) I found that “everyone” seemed to hold to some view of original sin as inherited guilt. So I kept pretty quiet about my thoughts and beliefs for years just as I outlined above. I’ve followed many paths and know that when I rely on my own individual spiritual perspective, I’m often headed for trouble.

    It was a huge relief when I final discovered a few years ago that the entire Orthodox tradition (“Eastern” and “Oriental”) taught and believed what I believed about man and God. It was like a weight was lifted when I could fully own my belief; when I finally learned that the idea that we’ve inherited guilt from our ancestor’s “original sin”. Of course, it’s obvious in retrospect how I ended up where I did, given that I had steeped myself in St. Athanasius, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximos the Confessor, and others. But I’m glad I did read them. If I had ever reached the point that I believed that one had to believe in transmitted guilt and accept all the problems that idea creates (both for our conception of man and for the picture of the God it paints) in order to be Christian, I possibly would not have stayed Christian.

    I forget the name for it, but the first ecumenical council also specifically rejected the idea that the faith was tied or bound by any particular ethnicity as heresy. I find that comforting. The church realized very early on that Christianity broke down all those traditional boundaries even as it took on somewhat different shapes and forms within the various cultures and languages.

    By and large, sola scriptura reflects ourselves back to us. If it doesn’t do so through our own reading and interpretation, it does so because anyone we tend to follow and trust will most often be more like us than not. That’s just part of what it means to be human. Our God, however, does not change. While I see through a very different cultural lens, he is still the same God that he was to 4th century Greek, a 6th century Syrian, an 8th century Celt, or anyone else across time and culture.

  3. 3 Andy Wilson said at 7:56 pm on October 5th, 2009:

    Good stuff Scott and I agree and have had the same concern and view sin as bondage and sickness and oppose to transgression. For me the bigger issue, which is linked to ones view of original sin, is the Atonement. I have found in EO theology a view of the atonement that puts a lot of concerns I had to rest. I’ve always felt so uncomfortable with the heavy emphasis on substitutionary atonement but never quite new why until I started studying the early fathers and EO theology. A God who offers healing to free us from bondage vs. a God who is angry and needs to be appeased is huge.

    BTW, my wife is a celiac as well. I’ve had her check out your sight for some celiac info!

    Blessing,

    Andy

  4. 4 Scott said at 8:33 pm on October 5th, 2009:

    I never did buy into the whole angry God thing. Not only did it not match my experience, but I read John’s Gospel first, saw he had some letters too and went and read those. After that, there was no way a vision of an angry, vengeful God was going to have any traction with me. And I read a lot of ancient writers, so I pretty much adhered to the recapitulation and ransom theories of the atonement long before I even knew what they were called.

    I hope you wife finds something helpful. I’m still learning, but the network of people I’ve found through twitter have been invaluable. (I also picked up many blogs for my RSS reader after discovering them on twitter.) I follow a hodge podge on twitter, but if she looks through the people I follow, at least half are celiac-related.