"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Evangelicals and the Crisis of Authority

Jim Tonkowich has written a must-read article titled "Evangelicals and the Crisis of Authority." The article describes a present authority crisis at Calvin College regarding homosexuality and academic freedom. One person is quoted as saying "academic freedom means I can interpret Scripture in any way I see fit." The article considers the possibility that this seeming primacy of individual interpretive judgment is intrinsic to the essence of Protestantism. But in the last third of his article Jim concludes that that is a false understanding of Protestantism. I have quoted that last section in full:

[Timothy] George argues that Luther and the other Reformers were far more nuanced than a cursory reading of the dialogue at Worms indicates. Rather than seeing themselves as creating something new based on individual insights, they "saw themselves as part of the ongoing Catholic tradition, indeed as the legitimate bearers of it." The Reformers had a "sense of continuity with the church of the preceding centuries." Neither Luther nor John Calvin rejected the past or even the Roman Church in its entirety.

While the Reformers believed Scripture alone was the final authority for life and doctrine, they insisted that assent to ancient creeds was also incumbent upon Christians. They were so strongly persuaded, says George, that they saw justification by faith, the cornerstone of the Reformation, as "the logical and necessary consequence of the ecumenical orthodoxy embraced by Catholics and Protestants alike."

As to academic freedom, the Reformers were marked, "by their desire to read the Bible in dialogue with the exegetical traditions of the church." George writes:

In their biblical commentaries… the Reformers of the sixteenth century revealed an intimate familiarity with the preceding exegetical tradition, and they used it reverently as well as critically in their own expositions of the sacred text. The Scriptures were seen as the book given to the church, gathered and guided by the Holy Spirit.

These three, the sense of continuity with the Church through the ages, an embrace of ecumenical orthodoxy as expressed in the creeds, and a determination to read the Bible with the Church, form guardrails for academic and personal freedom and inquiry. They prevent biblical interpretation from falling prey to the latest cultural fad, the hippest intellectual fashion, and individual predilections.

As John Armstrong comments:

[W]e need to recover a proper emphasis upon tradition. Some Christians are accused of being stuck in the past, especially by progressive and more liberal Christians. I believe the much greater danger is an uncritical acceptance of new teachings and practices that undermine the historic faith itself. We need what my friend, the late Robert Webber, called "ancient-future faith." It is right to lean into the future and to prepare for what the Spirit will do. But the Spirit does not lead us to abandon the historic faith in the process.

Christian freedom—academic freedom and personal freedom—is not the right to interpret the Bible in any way we see fit and then act on our interpretation. It is the freedom to be fully human in company with and under the authority of the Church throughout the ages and in accord with the unchanging truth that is in Jesus Christ.

The solution to this authority problem, according to Jim, is that present-day Protestants need to recover a sense of continuity with the Church, embrace the orthodoxy of the ancient creeds, and read the Bible in dialogue with the exegetical traditions of the Church. The problem with Jim's suggestion is that it is just that, a mere suggestion. It has no authority. The things he proposes are all good things, but they are not, and cannot be, the solution to the authority vacuum within Protestantism. An authority problem cannot be solved without authority. Appealing to "the authority of the Church,"as he does in the last line of his article, is impossible when "the Church" is ultimately defined by each individual in terms of "those who agree with my general interpretation." Jim is trying to hang on to the solo scriptura / sola scriptura distinction in order to salvage Evangelicalism's decay. But as Neal Judisch and I recently argued in "Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority," there is ultimately no real distinction between solo scriptura and sola scriptura. By its rejection of apostolic succession Protestantism necessarily makes the individual the ultimate interpretive authority. And that entails that anyone can reject the ancient Church and her creeds as outdated and antiquated, and give no heed to the various exegetical traditions. Merely calling for a "sense of continuity" and an "embrace" of the ancient creeds and for reading the Bible in continuity with ancient exegetical traditions will not stop the flowering of the seeds sown almost five hundred years ago, when Protestants rejected apostolic succession and the authority of the Church. In doing so, they unwittingly made each man his own pope, though the full fruits of this sowing remained hidden under the gradually declining inertia of Catholic Tradition. Those who sow rejection of apostolic succession must ultimately reap the individualism and fragmentation of "solo scriptura." As Louis Bouyer argued:

The Protestantism which rejects the authority of the Church because it rejects all authority has come out of the Protestantism which rejected the authority of the Church because of the fear it wronged that other authority, held to be sovereign, of the Scriptures. If it was possible for the first to come from the second, it must somehow have been contained therein.

The only solution to this authority problem is a recovery of apostolic succession.


Devin Rose said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Bryan; I just left a comment on that article.

contrarian 78 said...

Pastor Tonkowich gave sermons on a semi-regular basis at the last Presbyterian congregation which I attended. Two points of interesting note--one sermon focused on discussing the Lord's Prayer, and in dealing with the paradoxical nature of praying "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" he utilized our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI's book Jesus of Nazareth.

Second, he also decried the Protestant practice of reading along with the reading of the Scriptures in a church service. He was an advocate of believing that faith comes by HEARING, and he had interesting comments on the individualism that came out of the advent of the printing press.

He also mentioned how his Eastern Orthodox upbringing (which he has clearly left to some extent) was a good remedy for such individualism.

May God guide us all into His loving arms.

Stephen Krogh said...

The perfidy, I think, which facilitates such perennial crises is the assumption (or perhaps presumption) that discussion is itself a per se good. When someone gets away with seemingly innocently asking, "why can't we just have an honest debate on the subject?" she has already been given the upper hand, especially on an issue such as this, where the church has historically and unambiguously ruled.

But,discussion is seemingly not a per se good, but an instrumental good the goal of which is the truth. If approached in this way, then the questioner has no answer to John Eck's question, "For what purpose does it serve to raise a new dispute about matters condemned through so many centuries by church and council?"

As both a Calvin alumnus and a Catholic, I have been ever disheartened by the direction the school has taken, not because it is liberal, but because it is non committal. Too scared to upset either side, the school, claiming to be a bastion of serious Christian inquiry, instead becomes a parody of it. Unwilling to have an identity, it has none. And this is called a virtue! I do think, as you intimated in this article, that this is a logical consequence of Protestantism as a whole. This realization was a primary, if not the primary, motivation for my conversion to Catholicism in undergrad. My heart truly breaks for Calvin College.