Friday, May 13, 2011

OK, my peeps. A few things: My stroll in the English countryside otherwise known as my final exam with the one called "Jerram" went amazing. 94. Congrats and thank you to my comrades, Mr. Huensch and Mr. Keating, for excellent work. It turned out better than I thought. He had much to say in critique. Anne, Jerram has taught both a Tolkein & Middle Earth class, and a Jane Austen class; you would die of joy. You need to take a class with him. He's like the British grandfather you wish you had. Forget Boston; you need to find any excuse to be a Covenant student. But alas, now he is on sabbatical.
I think the question of interpretive authority is an important one, because it is another way of asking who and where the community of the redeemed is and are, respectively. I am in awe of Jerram. Because although like many of my teachers, he may be dodging the question of the location of the Church, this man knows Jesus Christ, and is utterly unafraid of proclaiming Him, using every available means conceivable. There are few like him, anywhere. And I'd hate to see him angry. He's one of those people that you know his anger is just, though he'd deny it.
We do a grave injustice to the Reformers and the communities they founded (ironically) if we soft-pedal or re-write the story of why they did what they did. Generally, these men and women felt that the cause of Christ and his gospel was lost in the Church as they found her; they were neither tolerant of doctrinal plurality, nor of obfuscation. It is only the cultural milleiu that we live in today that even allows for the empty vanity that we are "united in the essentials" of Christian faith, when the origin of our particular communities suggests exactly otherwise; the history of division indicates, by their nature and ferocity, that what constituted "the essentials" was precisely at issue. But if the Church is not external to oneself, visible, having an authority binding on every individual, no matter his opinion, then it does not exist. This is the obvious implication of the statement, "The Scriptures must be interpreted in the community of faith." The very existence of our various communities, at variance with the body from which we all sprang and each other (if as Protestants) indicates that, at the least, we are having mighty trouble defining "us" and "not us." The very 'humility' which causes us to hold our "church" and its conclusions at arm's length (allegedly in deference to Scripture) is the same that makes sure eventually that no group of leaders, no matter how prayerful, no matter how attentive to the Word, need ever be heeded. Because the final arbiter is me. This is why Dr. Bailey (a character on the famous hospital drama 'Grey's Anatomy') can say to Dr. Torres--a fallen-away Catholic who is about to "marry" her lesbian lover--that her disapproving mother "hasn't caught up to God yet." Even the most obvious of biblical teachings like this one can't be defended finally, because there is objective standard for what a Christian believes and does. There is no one definitive supernatural society from whom I ought not separate visibly in Protestantism; if I disagree with anything my "church" does, I can leave. Start a new one. Thus, whatever our community says the Scripture teaches is presumed correct.
You may think this unfair; you might say, "That's an extreme example." Why? Unless "The Church has spoken" and "Jesus has spoken" are exactly the same thing, pride and sin could compromise any of us, and we wouldn't know. Luther couldn't say, "I was wrong," because he'd made himself the interpretive authority. Try this one: What level of visible disunity between Christians would disprove "and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"? Explain how "invisible church" does not automatically lead to doctrinal relativity and individualism?


Timothy R. Butler said...

First, I agree on Jerram. He's an amazing man. Now, on to your challenge at the end. This is an easy one.

Notice that those who argue for allowing homosexual marriage (etc.) in the church do not (generally) deny that Scripture forbids it, they question the authority of Scripture. There is a reason for this: while we can argue different interpretations on certain issues, many are clear enough that only rejecting the authority of Scripture will get you off the hook. "Oh, that's just the way people thought back then."

To use my favorite illustration, consider Shakespeare. There's a whole "queering school" (that's what its called -- really) that argues for homosexual interpretations of Shakespeare and his characters. People fail to do a close reading of the text and come up with silly ideas about, say, Hamlet and Horatio, that are not permitted by the text. Folks who insist on actually caring about what the author wrote do not end up in this school, though, for a simple reason: while literary criticism does not always yield certainty in answers, it can quash a whole bunch of non-answers easily.

Much of what people like the aforementioned doctor on Gray's do is pre-critical thinking. The catholic Church (I mean universal, I'm not bashing Rome specifically, but all of the Church) fails the people of God because she rarely weans people off "milk" and onto "meat." We fear critical thinking, not realizing that because all truth is God's truth, teaching people about seeking truth is not a dangerous thing (hat tip to Mark Noll!). I'm not saying everyone needs to know the intricacies of theology, but they should know more than they typically do.

(I do think this is why the best Catholics often come from a Reformed background -- sometimes we over do it, but the Reformed Church has always emphasized theological education more than most groups of Christians. I'm not trying to pat us on the back, though: even we do not do it enough and, when we do, we too often do it in ways that aren't accessible to those who aren't theologians.)

In other words: words mean something. Therefore, the problem is that people reject the authority of words or engage in pre-critical thinking about those words; the problem is not the inability of the Word to authoritatively bind people.

Timothy R. Butler said...

One more thought: community is not needed for interpretation, per se. It is an accountability measure since we are fallen. We all slip into pre-critical interpretation. A good community binds us not to do that as much. Every theological stream has bad communities that fail to bind us to critical interpretation.

If the Word is not over the Church, how could the prophets condemn the religious leaders of Israel for failing to follow God's law? If the Church is the entity that defines proper interpretation and she proceeds to interpret the law in ways that justified the leaders of the Church (i.e. the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus's day), how can they be condemned?

Reductio ad absurdum: If you must have an authority to make something understandable, how can you know what I am saying when English has no central school of language defining it and there are even schisms over some matters of how the language works (British vs. American English; Yankee vs. Dixie; etc.)?

Jason said...


Your last comment regarding the Pharisees is inapt. While their use of Scripture left a lot to be desired, even on a "plain reading"--their principal failure lie in not recognizing Jesus and his authority. Recall He said, "And all this will come upon you because you did not recognize the moment of your visitation." I don't see Jesus ever slamming Tradition or truth committed orally; rather, they had interpreted it outside the stream of eschatological purpose with which the people of God were suffused, and for which they were created.
You still cannot tell me what constitutes the faith of this "Church" you speak of.

Timothy R. Butler said...

I think Mt. 23.23-24 is quite apt. The Pharisees worried about straining gnats but forgot justice, mercy, etc. They created these complex traditions and "hedges" and in doing so, forgot more important matters. Or, consider Mt. 15.3-9. If the Protestant interpretation is correct (as I would posit it is) there are numerous points at which one could argue "Tradition" ends up trumping Scripture. What we see is Jesus sees the law of God as the arbiter, not the Tradition of Israel.

I'm not accusing the Catholic Church of being wicked, mind you. But, I do think it is clear the Pharisees appealed to their traditions in precisely the same way. It is clear from Jesus's condemnation of them that tradition is only valid if it agrees with Scripture. And, if in extending Scripture, it distracts from the "weightier matters," it is to be rejected. I think that's precisely what Luther felt it was doing and reading the history, I'm very sympathetic to him. I've read the actual documents facsimiled on microfiche written by the Catholic Church in Scotland as they condemned believers to be burned to death...

What constitutes this faith and Church? Simply, it is the same things that lead you to say you recognize that we are Brothers in Christ. "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4.4-6)

If there is only one body for those who belong to Christ, and we both belong to Christ though not one visible church, qed there is something that unites us that is greater than any visible organization. If we agree on that, then the only way to argue against an invisible Church is to argue that Christ's Body and Christ's Church are not the same thing.

Timothy R. Butler said...

Oh, and yes, Protestants have burned people to death to. No argument from me there. But, I would argue if one is watching that sort of thing and chooses to separate over it, one is doing what God commands and the one who separates is the one who is a member of "those who embrace the covenant with the heart."