Friday, December 16, 2005

To What Shall We Appeal?

Protestantism has a problem with schism. The denominational fractures that dominate American Protestantism stem in large part from a critical issue: who has authority.

Ever since Martin Luther coined the phrase sola scriptura Protestants have jubilantly touted this ideology as if they truly espouse it. One wonders, if all Protestants base their beliefs on the Bible alone, why there is so many differing viewpoints and opinions on matters of theology and biblical interpretation? The reality is that no one truly uses the principle of sola scriptura. Why? In large part it represents an impossibility. Every person who attempts to interpret Scripture does so through a preconceived interpretive lens. Our cultural categories inevitably find their way into our theology (as evidenced with Hodge's insistence on penal substitutionary atonement as well as Anselm's satisfaction model), as well as various other paradigms from which we interpret Scripture. Never is one able to approach the Bible without additional frameworks influencing the manner in which one interprets the Bible.

The question becomes who or what speaks authoritatively on biblical interpretation? Is it the scholar? Your local pastor? Is it James Dobson and his politically polarized contemporaries? Who determines whether five-point Calvinism or Arminianism is correct? Are they mutually exclusive?

Inquiries such as this become even more daunting when one begins to interpret the trajectory of doctrinal development. Why do we trust the doctrine of the Trinity when it is extremely undeveloped in the biblical witnesses? Can we rely upon the creed of Nicea as true Christian orthodoxy? How can we validate the orthodox statements of Chalcedon when such statements find no exposition in the biblical text? What do we do with doctrines crucial to the Christian faith but are unclear in Scripture?

I have my own suggestions, but what do you think? Where does authority rest for you? Please do not flippantly say, "Well the Bible is my authority." That is to side-step the question. Perhaps the question should be phrased: on what authority do you determine what is an accurate interpretation of Scripture? For many Protestants they have become their own little Popes (although the Roman Catholic Pope is often a much better exegete), declaring their personal interpretation to be authoritative and anything that questions their myopic view is infringing upon their equally valid understanding. But is it equally valid? So, again I ask, who or what determines correct biblical interpretation? The way you answer this question defines what you believe and how you communicate the Gospel narrative. Do not treat it lightly.


Jason said...

well, I'm not sure. But i'll tell you one thing I DO ain't Dobson!

Seriously, it seems that although the councils conclusions are hard to back up using strict biblical text, it is interesting that most of them have stood the test of time, at least up to now. There are authoratative (is that a word?) opinions that come out all of the time except, like any prevoius "prophet" giving their knowledge on the exact date the world will end, time ends up consuming them, and they fall away. I find it very convincing that Nicea, Chalcedon, and the rest seem to at least still be valid in today's Christianity, just as it was in their own time. We still talk about the Trinity, we still use the Nicene Creed, and we still stand by the findings of these councils, even if we can't prove them.

As to the five-point Calvinist vs. Arminian debate, it seems a clear answer is yet to be determined. Maybe it never will be. I also know this for sure. I'm not a scholar, so my words too, shall pass away.

Kevin K. Wright said...

Well, I for one do use the Bible because I'm a fire breathing fundamentalist. Okay, all joking aside. I use the Wesley Quadrilateral (thank you Albert Outler). It's a good way to do theology running things through reason, scripture, tradition, and experience. I tend to lean a little more on tradition and Scripture but that's just me.

Ben Robinson said...

I was actually going to include a picture of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral but then I found this doozy regarding Dobson and just couldn't pass it up. :)

Kurt A Beard said...

I don’t think the Wesleyan Quadrilateral solves many problems. It leaves many of the same subjective issues open that sola scriptura does.
What is tradition? Does tradition extend to the ecumenical councils then take a break until the reformation starts? There isn’t a concrete ‘tradition’ to appeal to. On what authority do we place our tradition?
It’s the same for experience; I experienced infant baptism so I say it is good others disagree based on their experience. On what authority do we place our experience?
I can present well reasoned arguments for infant baptism and others can present well reasoned arguments against it. On what authority do we place or reason?
They don’t even work in harmony; the Lutheran view of infant baptism uses all 4 pieces and differs drastically from the Wesleyan or Methodist view that uses all 4 pieces.
The question always remains where do we find our authority for scripture, tradition, reason and experience?

Nathan Hart said...

"Every person who attempts to interpret Scripture does so through a preconceived interpretive lens. Our cultural categories inevitably find their way into our theology (as evidenced with Hodge's insistence on penal substitutionary atonement as well as Anselm's satisfaction model), as well as various other paradigms from which we interpret Scripture."

i have a follow-up question for you. I have noticed what i interpret to be a suspicion of certain atonement theories from you. i'd love to see an Orthodoctor post articulating exactly what you believe about them. Sometime when you want to put your thoughts together on this, I'd be a ready reader :)

Sniper said...

It would be interesting to draw a timeline of this discussion. Meaning, when was the question of authority asked? My first hunch wouldn't go back much further than the reformation itself, considering that is when the authority of the Church,Pope, and the priests was finally called into attention. I am wondering if this question of "who determines what" is a modern construct. Perhaps this is why postmodernism tends to wrestle with this idea so much. But if the trend of "community development" continues in the emergent conversation and in the postmodern dialogue, this question of authority must be relegated to the "community" of believers. This seems to be tied closely to how many of us view "tradition" in our theological endeavor. We see ourselves as a speck in the middle of a historic dialogue/community in which we must become a part of, or at least consult before coming to conclusions. Hmm...just adding a few emergent type lines in here. Have fun figuring this one out.

Ben Robinson said...

Okay Nate, I will oblige your desire and eventually create a post regarding your accurate suspicion. Nonetheless, first I have a post floating into my mind that will eventually be put into actual words. It is inflammatory, incredibly controversial, and probably very near correct. I hope I have whet your appetite. :)