So I’m beginning to get moved in and settled in New Haven. The city is quite lovely. Semester at Yale is starting to take shape. Meeting new people, learning a few of their names…
On the more heavy side, doing a decent amount of reflecting on where I am and what I’m doing here.
This is partly prompted by the other ever looming question- what tradition are you from? To which, it turns out, I do not have a good answer (and have taken on the label one of my profs gave himself- a walking ecumenical train wreck).
Instead I have a bit of a story.
Which I have been obliged to tell far too many times the last few weeks and the retelling has forced me to think through the story and try to make a little sense of it.
My Story in Brief
So basically, the story runs like this:
I grew up in a non-denominational but essentially Baptist church in Memphis, TN.
When I went to college I started to question some of the assumptions of that background and eventually began exploring the Anglican tradition.
Then I was hired to work as the Youth Director for a Methodist church for a year.
Then I moved to Yale.
Now I’m back to exploring Anglicanism and enrolled in an Anglican Studies program, but certainly not formally part of any Anglican/Episcopal Church.
But of course, that is a really, really boring, watered down, insufficient story. And given my record of writing very long blog posts, that ends far, far too quickly. So now to try and give some shape to “the rest of the story…”
The Not So Brief Version of My Story
The environment that I grew up in was very evangelical.
I would not say Fundamentalist. I think and hope that they would be just as appalled as I am by Terry Jones threatening to burn the Koran, for instance. But they were certainly conservative by anyone except possibly Pat Robertson’s standards.
And by that I mean that the Bible was held as entirely authoritative for the Church.
They acknowledged that there were different interpretations. In fact I remember many lively discussions in our youth group about differing views on Calvinist and Arminian theology or the ever-controversial issue of evolution and Genesis 1. The Church didn’t try to dictate views, at least when I was there, something for which I am very glad. But the general rule that they lived by was that the starting point for every endeavor (whether theological, political, or even medical or scientific) had to be scripture. Scripture was the authority.
Doubts Creep In
Growing up there were always two things about that broader evangelical culture around me that intrigued and perhaps I would even say bothered me.
One was the issue of women in ministry. I knew the consensus in the culture I was a part of was opposed to women pastors. I never understood why.
The other issue was apologetics- defending my faith against all the attacks from out there, especially the ones that claimed the Bible was not true or was not authoritative.
When I went to college my interest in those two issues led me to realize some very significant problems existed for this nice little world of thought I had grown up in.
The first realization I had was that the “liberal” position of allowing women pastors defended biblically with a case that seemed to me every bit as convincing as the Southern Baptist argument against. Upon discovering this I more or less switched camps overnight. In my world, still dominated by Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical churches, this switch didn’t have much in the way of practical significance at the time, but it was personally important in terms of opening me up to exploring ideas and traditions outside of my own.
The second realization I had was that there are a whole host of problems for the idea of scripture as an absolute authority for theology and life.
The most pressing challenge in my mind was the issue of canon. Growing up I had been told that the Protestant canon was the original canon of the church which was later added to or modified by Catholics seeking to justify heretical theology and practices. Such a narrative was completely dismantled by my (Protestant) professors who openly and honestly admitted that the question of defining the canon had never been universally settled by the church, that there were at least four Christian canons, and that three of those canons existed long before Luther determined the boundaries of what is now the Protestant canon. Studying this issue brought about the realization that appealing to scripture is essentially appealing to tradition, that evil, manipulative, Catholic force that I had been raised to disregard.
Another pressing problem for me was the issue of interpretation, the necessity of which seemed to me to undermine any claim that scripture alone was the basis of authority (how could it be if it had to be interpreted by fallible people?). The vast differences in interpretations of scripture that exist among evangelicals, let alone other various Protestant and other Christian traditions, seemed to further call into question what was increasingly seeming like a blind leaning on a caricature of scripture for theological authority.
Attempts at a New Theological Synthesis
Ultimately these realizations forced me to question the centrality of scripture and seek a new foundation for theological authority.
At first glance it seemed as though tradition would be a good alternative. But on further inspection it became apparent that many of the same difficulties emerged for the authority of tradition as had existed for the authority of scripture. There are conflicting traditions and conflicting interpretations of tradition. The divide of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, both claiming a heritage that goes right back to the Apostles, serves as evidence of such difficulties. So I concluded tradition alone is also inadequate as a basis of authority.
Eventually Karl Barth gave me the first steps towards a solution to the question of foundational authority. Ultimately, the authority has to be in God himself. The problem that arises, however, is that I don’t have a direct, on-demand line to God, nor does anyone else (with the possible exception of Moses, he seemed to have God’s ear whenever he wanted it). That is not to say we have not experienced God, that God does not speak to us. I certainly believe God does. But I also think that God does so as God wishes, not necessarily as we wish (though certainly sometimes they coincide). Any attempt to say that God is always, guaranteed to speak a certain way is, I believe, invalid.
So we are left with our direct experiences of God, a scripture that reflects the direct experience of God by others, and a tradition that attempts to understand all of this.
And though we do not have a complete, universally accepted theology, my studies of early Christianity seem to suggest that something of a synthesis or agreement exists among Christians. Such agreement formed the basic orthodoxy of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed (though its important to note is not original to those creeds, all these ideas exist much earlier).
For me right now, I think this is enough.
We can have disagreements beyond the essentials that are laid out there, but so long as we hold to the trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the universal familial relationship of the Church existing among all others who hold to that basic Orthodoxy then I think the disagreements in interpreting scriptures and traditions are ok.
I’ll talk more about how I think this synthesis plays out in the Church in another post.
- Baptists, Ministerial Rules and Interpreting Scripture (andygoodliff.typepad.com)
- Roman Rejection of Catholic Tradition: The Sufficiency of Scripture (reformedreader.wordpress.com)