Updates on the Journey (1): Biblical Authority

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing lately, which makes me very sad.  😦

I’m hopeful that as I settle into a bit more of a routine, I will be able to make writing again be a regular part of what I do.

Later this week, I am having what I am sure will be the first of many meetings with the Committee on Church and Ministry in the Fairfield West Association of the United Church of Christ, the committee that will guide me through the steps of the ordination process over the next couple of years.

As I gear up for that meeting, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my own spiritual journey, sense of calling, and how I would articulate my own faith.  In the coming days and weeks I hope to share some of those reflections in a new series I’m calling “Updates on the Journey.”

Where I Was Then  (The Journey There)

Almost exactly three years ago, when I had first arrived at Yale, I wrote about the theological journey as I had seen it thus far, reflecting on the doubts I had about the “evangelical worldview” I had grown up with and looking ahead at how I might move beyond the boundaries of evangelicalism.

Harkness Tower, situated in the Memorial Quadr...
Harkness Tower, Yale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Very early in college I had come to question many of the standard evangelical beliefs around issues of gender, sexuality, and politics, but these questions didn’t really push me to break ranks with evangelicalism itself because I was asking these questions in the context of a community that stressed the diversity of evangelical thought.  As I learned at Southeastern, and still deeply appreciate, there are committed evangelicals at all points on the spectrum of every controversial issues in today’s world.  So that I didn’t toe the party line on political and social issues was not especially distressing to my evangelical identity, it simply put me in the company of “emerging” evangelicals like Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans.  And I could keep worse company.

By the time I got to Yale, however, I was really questioning my evangelical identity.  And the place where I had come to form a significant rift with evangelicalism was at a more basic, theoretical level:  I discovered that I did not share the evangelical concept of Biblical Authority.

To be clear, its not that I was hung up on “errors” or “contradictions” in the Bible.  I soon learned in my time at Southeastern that I couldn’t really be bothered to delve into the inerrancy battle because I don’t think the things the Bible intends to teach are dependent on every historical or scientific detail being accurate by the standards of our contemporary knowledge.  But what I also learned in my time at Southeastern was that if you delve into an argument about any particular “error” or “contradiction” in the Bible the champion of inerrancy can always muster a case defending the text.  And even if that case isn’t always compelling (to the critics) or doesn’t always fit together perfectly with other such cases at the macro level, it is almost always enough to satisfy the inerrantist and make any such argument an exercise in frustration for the critic.

Such claims about “errors” and “contradictions” weren’t what got me, though.  Where I broke ranks was on two different fonts in which I came to realize that I could not accept the evangelical notion that the Bible was the absolute and final authority in matters of theology and practice.

First, as I studied the history of the canon I came to realize that any appeal to the teachings of the Bible was also implicitly an appeal to particular traditions about what the Bible is and what defines its boundaries.  There are at least ten distinct traditions about the canon in the Christian world today, and each one can cite developments dating back to the earliest days of the church in making a case for its validity.  Before we can appeal to the Bible as “authoritative” we have to first determine which Bible we are granting this authority to.  And the answer to that question entails an appeal to a very different authority, the authority of “tradition,” an appeal which undermines the evangelical notion of scripture’s absolute authority because it implies that the authority of the Bible is derived from another source, not inherent to the text itself.

Second, as I studied philosophical hermeneutics I came to realize that any appeal to the teachings of the Bible was also implicitly an appeal to particular presuppositions that guide one’s interpretation of the Bible.  In other words, there is no simple appeal to the Bible, only appeals to our particular understanding of the Bible.  Such an appeal is a very different claim than you would guess from typical evangelical rhetoric about what the Bible teaches, and if taken to its conclusion might actually imply that the true authority lies in our school of interpretation and not the text itself (against evangelical protests to the contrary).

Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Cen...
Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The effect of these twin acknowledgements was that by the time I arrived at Yale I had begun seeking out a tradition that more openly and honestly dealt with both of these realities.  The credal and liturgical theology of Anglicanism initially appealed to me a great deal, and I spent a fair amount of time at Yale working with and amongst the Episcopal Church.  I learned a great deal from them, and I have a great deal of respect for my Episcopal colleagues.  But at the end of the day, I have come to realize that I am not an Episcopalian.

Where I Am Now (Almost Back Again)

One of the reasons for this is that I’ve come to realize that the same sort of problems that lie behind an appeal to the authority of scripture also lie behind an appeal to the authority of tradition or of a particular school of interpretation.

Book of Common Prayers in Saint Mary's Church ...
Book of Common Prayer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Say we place authority in our liturgical traditions (as is frequently done in Anglicanism, for instance).  The first question we have to answer is “which liturgical tradition sets the standard for our theology?”  This becomes especially complicated as our liturgies evolve and change with time.  Do we hold as the standard the theology of the original Book of Common Prayer from the days of the English Reformation?  Or perhaps authority should be invested in the liturgical theology of the mid-19th Century Anglo-Catholic movement?  Or do we go all the way back to whatever rites we find in the Didache (a second century Christian text)? Or perhaps it is the theology expressed in the most recent Episcopalian supplemental liturgies that set the standard?  And after we have attempted to answer that question, we have to grapple with what to do when earlier texts don’t do the rituals the same way we do now or seem to convey a different theology of those rituals than we hold?  How do we arbitrate between these competing claims?  What is the standard by which we evaluate and measure and who gets to make that judgement?  And if there is such a standard and someone does make such a judgment, doesn’t that imply that actually the theological authority is not invested in the liturgical tradition but in the liturgical actor?

Or lets say we uphold a particular school of interpretation as the gold-standard by which all other theology should be measured.  What do we do when there are evolutions within that school of thought?  Do we stick with the original progenitor (say, Calvin).  Or do we place primacy on the cutting-edge developments (whatever the latest theology book to come out of Princeton is for the mainline Reformed crowd or John Piper’s latest manuscript for my evangelical friends)?  Why choose one over the other?  Who gets to decide that?  And if someone is making a decision, doesn’t that undermine the authority of the “standard” we are supposed to be adhering to?

In other words, there is no bedrock authority in theological discourse that must not also appeal to and be interwoven with other sources of authority, be they biblical, traditional, liturgical, or interpretive.  Judgements have to be made no matter what we make as our staring point.

There is, in theological debates that attempt to arbitrate such judgments, an often cited fallacy of giving primacy to the oldest development or interpretation.  Older does not always mean better.  Marcion’s views on the Bible were maybe the first time in the Christian tradition someone had tried to write out what the Bible was.  But his views were also deeply problematic and were rejected as heretical.  First, or older, does not always mean better.

In a stroke of brilliance, the early church adopted a different standard for determining the boundaries of orthodoxy:  “universality” or “catholicity.”  The standard was essentially this:  those things which are universally accepted by the wider church should be the standard by which “alternative” theologies are judged.

Of course, “universally accepted by the wider church” meant everyone but whichever group of  “heretics” was being expelled in that particular debate.  That said, we can rework this idea just a bit and get something useful, I think.

If we think of the diverse world of thoughts, beliefs, and practices that make up Christianity, we can start by asking “what makes all of them Christian?”  Or, put another way, “what do they universally hold in common?”  Or, put still another way, “what lies at the core of the Christian faith?”

Of course, there would be a lot of debate about this.  There are lots of different ways of articulating many of the ideas of Christianity and frequently these different articulations are elevated to being “essential” or “core” beliefs.  And there are a few outliers out there who want to deny just about every element of the historical beliefs and practices of Christianity and re-invent the religion.  But if we sift through these complications, I think we can posit a few things that would be at the core of the Christian faith:

  • First, a belief in a God who wants a connection with humanity (with many different ways of understanding the nature of God and of the connection God desires).
  • Second, a belief that God makes that connection possible through Jesus Christ (with many different ways of understanding how that is accomplished).
  • And Third, a belief that the primary testimony to that connection through Jesus Christ is found in the writings of the New Testament (with many different ways of understanding how the New Testament was written and formed).
An original Gutenberg Bible
An original Gutenberg Bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’m keying in on is this: At the core of the Christian tradition stands the writings of the New Testament, who are granted this pride of place not by their own accord but because of the testimony they give to the work of God and the fact that their testimony has been universally accepted throughout the Christian church.  More than any particular school of theology, any particular practice, any liturgical tradition, any method of interpretation, the writings of the New Testament are the universal core of the Christian faith.

And in being such a core, I have come to believe, the writings of the New Testament should also function as the starting point for our theology.

Such a statement has a kind of evangelical flavor to it, but there are a few caveats that deserve to be mentioned:

The first is, as I have already hinted at above, that I break ranks with many of my evangelical colleagues by saying that the “authority” of scripture is not inherent to the text itself but something that is derived from both the testimony it gives of God’s revelation to the world through Jesus Christ and the universal acceptance of that testimony throughout the church.

The second is to make clear that there is a distinction between claiming scripture as the starting point for theology and claiming it as the authoritative ending point.  I believe that theology must be done in conversation with scripture.  This does not mean that we cannot or in fact will not also draw from other sources. Nor does it mean that our theology will not have to deal with contexts and challenges that could not have been imagined by the authors of the Bible.  What I think it means to hold scripture as our starting point is to say that the Christian faith must continually engage with the writings of the New Testament, constantly finding in it the inspiration that guides us as we seek to live out our faith in an ever changing world.

Third, I think when we hold the writings of the New Testament as our starting point because of their universality throughout the Christian community, we effectively make irrelevant all arguments about authenticity, authorship, and inerrancy.  Whether or not Paul actually wrote the Pastoral Epistles, they are part of the canon of scripture that has defined the teachings and beliefs of all parts of the Church.  Whether the gospels were written early or late, they are the received testimony at the core of the Christian faith.  Whether Paul really was blinded on the road to Damascus, that story has functioned as a trope for Christian thinking about God’s calling on our lives for centuries.  Arguments about these questions are mostly irrelevant to how we understand and respond to the text.  So I continue to say that I can’t be bothered to engage in any argument about inerrancy or authenticity (whether on the pro or con side).  There are bigger fish to fry.

And fourth, I think it is crucial in our interpretation of the text, and any subsequent movement out from the text to our present situation, that we be explicit about acknowledging the ways in which our context and presuppositions are guiding our interpretation.  So as one such example of this, my own exposure to historical-critical scholarship convinces me that understanding the context of the New Testament is crucial to good interpretation of it.  What that means on the ground for my own reading of the text is that I place a very high value on having a thorough understanding of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Jewish Literature, and Hellenistic Philosophy, all of which I think heavily influenced the writers of the New Testament and their readers.

What I’ve come to realize in my time at Yale is that, while I don’t share the exact same view of Biblical authority that most of my evangelical colleagues do, my objection to their understanding of the Bible frequently has less to do with their view of what the Bible is and more to do with what I see as really bad and dishonest exegesis that doesn’t acknowledge the agendas of evangelical politics or the presuppositions of evangelical culture.  Our views are not definitive and neither are our interpretations of the text.  Claims to absolute understanding or timeless interpretation are almost always misguided.  Simply put, we need to be more self-critical in our readings of the Bible and less quick to assume that we have it all figured out.

With these qualifications in mind, three years since I wrote about the logical problems of holding the Biblical text as authoritative for theology I have come to realize that, while not imbued with the same kind of inherent authority most evangelicals grant it, the position of scripture at the center of the Christian faith speaks to its importance as the starting point for our theological endeavors.

While that claim might fit more comfortably with a more Reformed protestant tradition than the Episcopal Church, it certainly doesn’t definitively declare “I am not an Episcopalian.”  In the next post I’ll talk more about some shifts that occurred in other areas of my thinking that pushed me more squarely (back) into Congregationalism.

Suggested Link From Amazon.com:



Evangelical Theology: An Introduction




4 thoughts on “Updates on the Journey (1): Biblical Authority

  1. A good, well-thought out piece, Alex. I really appreciate the way you share your intellectual and theological journey. Gabe Fackre has helped me sort out scripture and tradition as source and resource. I get a whiff of Karl Barth in your hermeneutic (a good thing). I would push you to broaden your scope to the whole canon and not just the NT, lest you fall into the Marcion error. Ironically, the random ad from WordPress on your page is an Amazon link to Barth’s “Evangelical Theology,” one of the great books, and very apropos to your argument. They either have a very clever person or an amazing algorithm! Best, Rick

    1. Hey Rick! Thanks for the encouraging comment.

      My limiting the starting point to the NT has nothing to do with thinking the OT is less important. Its more about continuing to grapple with the question of “which canon?” The convenient thing about the NT is that just about the entirety of Christianity agrees on the boundaries of the NT canon (setting aside a few curmudgeony profs who think the Gospel of Thomas should be included). There is a much wider range to be considered when we look at the OT, though, which creates a difficulty. I have two ways of dealing with that right now: the first is to acknowledge that as Christians we always, whether we set out to or not, interpret the OT through the lens of the NT. So the NT de facto functions as a kind of starting point. The second, though, is to say that I don’t think we can really adequately interpret the NT without understanding the way the authors were drawing from and modifying their own theological tradition as embodied in the OT (and some other related literature). So I think the OT is an integral part of the way we read and interpret the NT, but I also think, in a kind of hermeneutical circle, that we read and interpret it thru the lens of the NT. And since the NT is the more agreed upon text amongst the broadest spectrum of Christianity, I think (with these caveats) it serves as our “foundational” starting point.

      Don’t know if that makes any sense. Hopefully its enough to not be a Marcionite…

      Thanks again! Looking forward to seeing you guys in a couple weeks!

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