Thursday, September 09, 2004

The Problem with Sola Scriptura

The translation and interpretation of Holy Scripture is the task of the Church brought into being by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the written Word. The protesters who broke with Rome cannot have foreseen the fissiparous nature of their enterprise. In rejecting the authority of the Pope the Western reformers did not abolish autocracy but rather set in train a process the logical end of which is that every man is a pope in his own parish or in his own front room. The ‘idolatry’ of Rome was replaced by the idolatry of self, social group and nation in swift order. Reformation hopes gave way to puritanism. Parts of Europe descended into the fierce joylessness of Calvinism, others to the excitements of Anabaptism, revivalists, iconoclasts, Pentecostalists etc, each seizing upon an aspect of the faith and overemphasizing it to the distortion of the whole. The upshot is hundreds of ‘churches’, most of them with their own bizarre subdivisions (low, strict and particular, Southern, open etc, etc). In addition, there are thousands upon thousands of one-man band conventicles brought about by the falling out of Brother Smith with Pastor Jones. Pastor Smith, as he has now appointed himself, has the ‘real’ truth and hopes shortly to be needing to rent a bigger Scout Hut than the gravely misled Pastor Jones, his former guru. While both (and millions like them) claim, sola scriptura, the authority of the Word, they are in fact claiming merely a personal authority to interpret God’s Word with no reference to the historic and living community of faith. It is little better than theological piracy and insupportable vanity. It is the rejection, all too often, of the teaching of the Church in favour of the cult of private opinion. In an age which has so comprehensively rejected traditional forms of authority and embraced the highest good as individual gratification, it is scarcely surprising that disintegration is gathering pace.

From Robbie Low, "Divided We Fall," in New Directions, August 2004, pp. 17-18.


Allison said...

...I'm not sayin' a word... :-)

+ simonas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
+ simonas said...

O Captain, my Captain...

I realize my understanding of the issue is quite limited, but I hope you consider this. I’ve been reading a book lately: Dave Andrews, Christi-Anarchy. The author begins by describing some (and that’s just some!) of the atrocities done by the Church in the name of God – Church co-opting with the state and eventually seizing the power, crusades, Inquisition, which hunts both in Old and New Worlds, etc. If this Church has been led by the Holy Spirit, what kind of testimony does it bear to the world?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I think, structures are hardly capable of being led by the Spirit, but people.

I know, I am affected by the individualization, fragmentation, and democracy of our Western society, but it seems hardly logical that a Pope, who closes his eyes to the Holocaust, can be lead by the same Spirit of God.

So, what is our Authority in reading the Holy Scriptures? The Roman Catholic Church attributes this right solely to itself calling it the Holy Tradition through the Apostolic Succession. The protestants see the Holy Apostolic Tradition contained in the New Testament itself, the writings of the apostles. So, I choose to side with those that say: “Every man, who immerses himself in the study of the Biblical scholarship, understands his limitations, has good conscience, and consults others of the same mindset, is capable and has a right to read and interpret the Word of God.”

The argument, it seems, is not without problems on both sides.

+ Alan said...

Challenging stuff St. Kyle. I'll say this for Kyle - not being a Roman Catholic himself, I would doubt his answer to this cunundrum is to harken to the words of the papal seat alone.

I'm not sure this is a one or the other proposition - meaning: I'm not sure that having a problem sith Sola Scriptura necessarily takes you into the institutional arms of Mother Rome. I believe there are other ways to look at it. I think you can highly value Sacred Tradition wherever you are. I gain more and more attraction for John Wesley's "Quadrilateral" all the time. Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience - those things taken into account, always in the context of the Christian Community, I think we have a fairly good way to discern the journey.

To simply say "Scripture alone" really doesn't take proper consideration of the origin of Scripture itself. Even an introductory study of the development of the Canon will call for somewhat disturbing conclusions in the minds of the student.

Kyle said...

Thanks for your comments.

Simonas, you're certainly not going to hear me argue that Inquisitions and papal alliances with Nazis (overt or covert) are a good thing. I do agree with Alan that the dicotomy is false. Having an interpretive authority above the individual does not necessarily mean the Roman See.

As far as a "structure" goes, what does that mean? Wouldn't that be a group of people organizing for a common purpose and owning a common identity?

It's also a pointless comparison to drag out the worst excesses of authoritarian religion or of individualistic religion and suppose that one can really be shown as better than the other on that basis.

Regarding your statement on interpretive authority, I see a couple of problems. First, not every man or woman who attempts to lead others and interpret scripture meet those qualifications, because they are subjective in themselves. What is sufficient "immersion" in biblical scholarship? Who is to help someone understand his or her own limitations? I don't think many people are as self-aware as I think they should be, after all. :0)

The community itself must determine the meaning of those standards.

There remains a deeper problem. The goal of scriptural study and interpretation should never be, "How can *I* live rightly?" or "How can *I* have the truth?" Christians have been baptized into the Body of Christ, and to be Christians must live in a Christian community. They don't get to make interpretive decisions outside the authority of the community.

There simply must be authoritative teaching if there is to be any kind of consensus on how we are to live together. That doesn't require a papacy. It doesn't require buildings, or even bishops. It requires broad consultation: catholicity.

Aaron said...

Good stuff. Falls right in with conversations we're having over on the VC blg - (see posts and comments). Like Alan, I find myself more and more drawn to and impressed by Wesly's quad. - in the context of Christian Community. it seems the most robust hermeneutic that i know of.

DennisS said...

Rejecting papal authority does not equate to making oneself the authority. The Church can never be found in an individual, but must reside in the larger body of believers. Personal authority to interpret would also imply authority to determine which books belong in the Cannon.

While private opinion may SEEM to rule the day, it obviously does not. When people are in dire straits, they do not lean on their own understanding, rather, they turn to others. (If you spend much time around the dying and their families, you will find this.)

History and oral tradition are extremely valuable. Having a pope is optional. Did Jesus intend to establish Peter as a pope? Would anyone in the first couple generations after Jesus have anticipated having a pope? Not as currently understood. Look closely at the Pauline and Johanine books, and especially Acts. There are other historical problems as well.

If someone wants to worship what is said by a pope, then I hope they will not raise that pope to the level of God in their mind.

Did the pope establish the cannon of Scripture? No, it was the church, living in the texts, discerning what was Scripture and what was not. Did the pope appoint who would write the New Testament books? Did the pope suggest to Paul what should be written? In fact, Peter had to be corrected by Paul.

At the time of Christ, the oral tradition of the people had much more authority than the written word. When it is written down, it is easier to forget. We need to recapture the Word by learning it in our hearts, and living and testing it out in our lives, within the context of the church, the community of believers.

We have only one recorded instance of Jesus reading, and that from a scroll. Those who read from a scroll in the synagogue knew the text from the oral tradition. We have only one recorded instance of Jesus apparently writing - and that in the very temporary medium of the ground. Yet we have many instances of Jesus quoting Scripture, without reading from it.

I believe that we do need to internalize the Word, to store it within our bodies (individually and communally), to live it and breathe it. Only then can we, as the church, understand the times in which we live. Then we will not need a pope to interpret Scripture, but we (believers) can take the rhetorical question of Jesus to heart: "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:57).

The very next line of Jesus is to recommend reconciliation. This I commend to you as more helpful than drawing lines between those with different ways of being the church.

Console, encourage, & strengthen!

Kyle said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Aaron. I'll check out the discussion.

Thanks for your thoughts, Dennis, but I think I ought to respond to part of your comments.

Note that the reference to the Bishop of Rome was only in passing. I am nowhere near, as Alan rightly pointed out, an advocate of papacy.

The argument that I believe Mr. Low was making in the above excert, which so deeply resonated with my own experiences and thinking, is that the Reformers did not set up an alternative authority in a satisfactory manner.

Things I did not say:

1. The Protestant Reformation is bad.
2. We all ought to return to Roman primacy and offer allegiance to the bishop of that city.

Things I do say:
1. Councils ought to rule the Church
2. Scripture is of not private, individual interpretation
3. A conciliar model of church government, appropriate to our time and place (i.e., the post-protestant church in the post-christian West) needs to be created.

So I think we ought to get to it, yes?

I don't draw lines, by the way. I'm recognizing and confronting the lines that already exist. Discerning truth and repenting of lies are prerequisites to reconcilation, at least in terms of ecclesial polity. Reconcilation has to deal with the issues, after all, not just fudge over them on the basis of "love," whatever that means. Which is why I like the excerpt I found today...

DennisS said...

Thank you for the reply Kyle. I got to this site from a link someone provided on their blog, pointing to this specific topic. The last couple of days I've been trying to find my way back here, but couldn't remember how I got here. Did remember the name of the blog though. Got the blog bookmarked now.

You make some good points, and quite agreeable. However, the quote from Low does get my blood pressure up. The tone is far from conciliatory. We don't get to unified purpose by putting down other expressions of the church. It would be more helpful to say the Calvinists sought simplicity, the Pentacostals sought to assure the place of the Holy Spirit, etc. Then suggesting that these went too far is to state the obvious. Large parts of these movements are currently nearly indistinguishable from the rest of Christianity, though it seems a bland Christianity in many quarters.

The body of Christ needs to get motivated, and yes, unification would be helpful. We can't change the past, but as long as we have breath, we can strive to build the Kingdom.

We don't come together by looking at our differences. We come together by focusing upon a common enemy - such as global capitalism.

DennisS said...

Kyle - Thank you for the clarification. I can agree with the points you enumerated.

However, the quote from Low still causes my blood pressure to increase. It seems far from conciliatory. Why couldn't Low point out what Calvinists, Pentacostals, etc added to Christianity. By starting with the positive it is then possible to point out the excesses without putting people on the defensive. Then, when our strengths are clearly seen, we can turn to focus upon the enemy we face together.

When we point at the weaknesses, rather than the strengths, we tear down. When this happens in the chruch, it seems as though the Holy Spirit is not moving in our midst. It is the nature of the Paraklete to come alongside to console, encourage, and strengthen.

Low begins by speaking of the Holy Spirit. But after the first sentence the tone turns rather negative and divisive. In order to unify the church, it would be much better to point to our common enemy, not the stumblings of our brothers and sisters.

The sola problem with scriptura? - It is not written on our hearts, breathed into our lives, and out in our witness, as it truly should be. The living Word is to have authority over our life together in community, as the body of Christ.

By giving voice to the Word - we share it, and by enacting the Word - we live it. In this way we are true to, and are added to, "the historic and living community of faith."

At the end of the quote, in speaking of "disintegration," Low fails to recognize the forces of global capitalism - which is more of a factor than differences that different expressions of the church see in each other. This numerical-based economy (global capitalism) has crept into the institutional church in several ways. Ministries are evaluated for effectiveness based upon the number of people added, the amount collected, the amount passed along to other ministries, the number baptized etc. When numbers become the measure of the church, then the church is reduced to the tangible. There are so many intangibles that are not numerically measurable, yet are immeasurably more important. When decisions are based soley on "liability", and no thought is given to what love of God and neighbor would look like in the given situation, then it is obvious the church has bought into a cultural metanarrative that the Church should actually oppose.

I guess it's safe to say that I have issues with what Low said, and how it was said.

DennisS said...

Sorry about the double post. The first didn't show up when I re-checked, so thought I lost the post. Guess I should have refreshed.