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Scripture and Authority

October 20, 2014
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I recently read two short articles by Fr. Stephen Freeman about the Orthodox view of Scripture. The first was a comparison of how Christians handle and handled the Bible versus how Muslims handle and handled the Qu’ran. The second was a response to some of the criticism leveled at the first article by Protestants who objected that Fr. Freeman had lowered Scripture and placed it under the Church. These were interesting articles that got me thinking about one of my favorite topics, how we read the Bible. (Unlike God Himself the Bible is a book and I can put it down when it scares me too much. It’s also a document and susceptible to academic study. With those two advantages it’s no wonder I frequently prefer to deal with the Bible than any other form of knowledge about God.) While I was forming vague ideas for some sort of a blog article about this I also read an article by the always-fascinating brambonius about the Islamic State. Bram’s article is split roughly in half: the first part discusses what is and is not Islamic about the Islamic State and the second part deals with the state aspect of said State. It’s this second aspect that caught my attention – modern Islamic theocracy combines modern ideas of a state with Islamic ideas of governance while rejecting (perhaps unconsciously) a medieval world in which power was less concentrated. Naturally, these articles all inform one another in interesting ways.

Let’s start with Bram’s article. The argument (which I can’t fact check but which draws from some authoritative-sounding sources) is that the French Revolution invented the idea of a modern state that intervened and interfered with everything its citizens did. Previously many sources of power competed for allegiance with one another and so a person might move from the power of the church to the power of the feudal lord to the power of the King and back again. Who had power in a given situation depended on who was able to exert it and whose sphere of influence it fell into. (This part all makes sense – the divine right of kings was invented by monarchs in an attempt to claim that they could act within the church’s sphere of power and were not subject to being blocked by the Pope. It never really worked all that well.) However, the French Revolution invented the idea of a “flat” state that did not have the levels of feudal society and which ran everything that needed running in a more or less direct way. Modern Islamic theocracy supposedly took this idea (anything that needs to be organized in society should be organized through or with the approval and oversight of the state) and combined it with some long-held ideas about Islam and governance and arrived at the conclusion that if the state ran everything and God also ran everything then the state must be theocratic. One of the main thinkers in this line of Islamic radicalism actually claimed that no one could be Muslim outside a Muslim theocracy, a crazy statement that makes perfect sense if the state really does exercise such great control over its citizens.

So, simple enough. We move from a world of many sources of power to a centralized modern world and certain parts of Islam (mistakenly) follow suite. Now is when we return to Fr. Freeman. In Freeman’s second article where he responded to criticism of his first article he takes great pains to address the complaint that he has lowered Scripture and placed the Church above it. No, he says, it just doesn’t work like that. One isn’t above the other, they are part of one whole. The Scriptures inform the Church but the Scriptures exist because the Church collected them and denoted them as such. Moreover, the Scriptures didn’t really exist outside of a church context much at all until the invention of the printing press. Instead, the Scriptures were read in church, discussed in church, and interpreted in church. Immediately I saw a link between this and Bram’s article: in both cases someone is over-centralizing authority. In one case it is Islamic thinkers adopting a centralized world from the West and centralizing their own world in response. In the other a Reformed thinker reads Fr. Freeman and attempts to identify the central authority (because there must be one!) and identifies it as the Church – except that Fr. Freeman does not think there is a central authority like that.

Let’s play with this idea a bit more. What are the Scriptures of religions outside of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim line (each of which builds on the previous one and might be expected to inherit some ideas about having Scriptures)? It’s not hard to find some collection of text for a given religion. For instance, Hindus have the Vedas. However, this is not enough. Do these texts act in the same manner as Christian Scripture? It’s not at all clear that they do. Modern Protestants expect that individual believers have copies of the Bible, that they read it, and that corporate religious life includes group study of the Bible. Do Hindus expect the same of the Vedas? What about a religions like Native American religions? These religions appeared in pre-literate societies for the most part. If they now have sacred writings those writings exist as a testament to past practice but not as the foundational documents of the religion.

In fact, this is much like what happened with Christianity. Jesus did not swing by earth to hand out New Testaments. Instead, what Jesus did was written down to aid in its transmission. Other parts of the transmission of the Messianic beliefs centered around Jesus were also written down – letters and even accounts of the early church. However, these documents were not foundational for their authors. When Luke writes the book of Acts he writes about a community that responds to God’s action as revealed by the Spirit. He records past decisions but those past decisions were not steered primarily by writing. Even these early written accounts existed alongside oral accounts and sometimes witnesses to the relevant material.

If you lived in the year 100 in the Mediterranean world you might, as a Christian, have access to Scriptures, oral tradition, and people who had at least learned from direct witnesses to some of the events of the New Testament. Which one would you trust? All of them, probably. If you had several oral traditions you would weight them against each other and against the written tradition and against any information you could get from people who should be in the know.

Even today this is how Catholic and Orthodox thinkers handle these issues. What do the Church Fathers say? Well, they don’t always agree. When they don’t agree there isn’t a list to consult that says, “Irenaeus beats Clement, Clement beats Polycarp, Polycarp beats Tertullian.” Instead, one listens to the counsel of all the Fathers, and the tradition as passed down (which hopefully carries the results of other people listening to all the Fathers), and makes a decision. If the Bible is unclear at a point the same issue arises – what other sources might clarify this issue? When those sources disagree how do we know who to trust?

(While Protestants tend to dislike this approach almost all Protestants engage in it. What does John Calvin say about this passage? How about Luther? C.S. Lewis? Spurgeon?)

I opened this article discussing the odd fusion of post-Enlightenment ideas of statehood with Islam. I did this because this is a lot like the insistence on a single source of authority, preferably written down. That’s an Enlightenment idea. Find a body of knowledge, write down something authoritative, and then consult that known authority. The Enlightenment didn’t invent the idea of attempting to synthesize all knowledge and debate on a subject into a single authoritative source but it did strongly emphasize clearly-delineated and centralized authorities. How do you know X? Because it’s written in this well-regarded source, it comes from this authority, etc. The Enlightenment created an environment where a large number of sources which all hold authority and are in dialog just seems messy and inconsistent. Surely if you know something you’ve neatened up the structure by which you know it more than that!

Fr. Freeman’s Reformed critic is making two mistakes. The first is missing the real point of divergence. If I ask you what color your car is because I think it’s a different color than my car is and you don’t have a car I’ve missed the point at which we diverge. We diverge in car ownership, not car color. The second mistake is tied to the first – by importing a concept about how knowledge should be arranged in from outside Christianity Freeman’s critic makes a bad assumption. The point of divergence is at this assumption, that religious knowledge is well-centralized with a clear (and clearly-accessible) final arbiter. If that assumption came from within Christianity it might be a good one since both parties to the debate are Christian. However, it comes from elsewhere and is apparently imported as “basic knowledge”.

Now, I don’t have time to get into the question of whether I completely agree with Freeman. However, I think the debate is important in and of itself. Why do we believe that authority exists in this centralized form? The Orthodox sometimes accuse Catholics and Protestants of being two sides of the same centralized-authority coin with Catholics saying, “The Pope!” while Protestants say, “The Bible!” but neither stopping to ask whether there should be one answer. Whatever we end up concluding about the issue of authority it’s worth asking the question: should we expect Christianity to find a central, accessible authority short of God Himself?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. james permalink
    October 26, 2014 9:42 pm

    Hi. I liked your post but I’m not so sure about linking the enlightenment with the idea of a centralized authority. To mind mind the enlightenment has always insisted on the idea that reason is the ultimate authority, and also that reason is the possession of every individual. See Kant’s essay “what is enlightenment” for instance. I think that’s a very decentralized conception of authority.

    • Eric permalink
      October 27, 2014 5:07 pm

      “The Enlightenment” can refer to three things:

      1) The philosophical ideas that gave birth to the Enlightenment in the form held by philosophers.
      2) Those same ideas in the form held by kings, revolutionaries, colonists, parliamentarians, and others who made the decisions that shaped the world of the Enlightenment.
      3) A period of European history in which Enlightenment ideas changed society.

      In referencing Kant (a famous philosopher but not someone who made decisions of great historical import) you are making a case about the first definition. I am discussing the third definition in this article because that is the definition that has had the largest impact on modern people. So while we are both using the same two words we aren’t actually discussing the same phenomenon.

      Of course, I’d also argue that no matter how decentralized and democratic some of the ideas of the Enlightenment claim to be the philosophical project that emerged from the Enlightenment was actually to bring together (and therefore centralize) all knowledge. However, that’s a debate about definition #1 which isn’t the one I am using in my article.

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