Living Under What Authority

Particularly in the wake of the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference, I’m working to progress through that stack of books I’ve carried around in various lists and in the back of my head for at least a decade, those books on theologies of human sexuality, theological anthropology, and Biblical hermeneutics that would give me clarity for myself and language to speak to others. I started with Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, and because I am unable to read one book at a time, I also began N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Martin is an anti-foundationalist, while Wright is committed to historical criticism, albeit from a broadly evangelical perspective.

Starting with Martin gave me a particular lens for reading Wright. Martin is basically correct when he charges that Wright defends historical-critical questions so strongly that it’s difficult to know what the Church was doing with its Scriptures between the 2nd or 3rd century and the 18th or 19th century. That is, if the historical methods are the right methods, how was the church faithful in its reading of Scripture between the first couple generations–those who could draw on memory and personal testimony–and the post-Enlightenment creation of the historical-critical method?

It’s particularly disappointing that Wright neglects a real engagement with premodern readings, because Wright’s decision erases so much of historical theology, which is itself largely Biblical commentary, and which might give him some stronger foundations for his own method. (Luckily Christopher A. Hall’s Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers exists.) Wright likewise dismisses other more recent theological readings of Scripture, offering major figures–John Webster, Karl Barth, all of Radical Orthodoxy, almost all of postmodernism–only a sentence or three. There are plenty of important thinkers he never mentions at all. The only framework he works with is his own, which is framing the story of Scripture as a five act play: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, the Church. While I think Wright made this decision because he wanted to sharpen his focus on his own way forward, I still believe he should have engaged more deeply with others’ thoughts.

What still brings this up to a 4-5 star book after those critiques is that 1) Wright is writing as a pastor to the Church, and this pastoral emphasis shapes every page, and 2) Wright’s conversation about sources of authority in the church is offered through the lens of Richard Hooker and John Wesley.

As a United Methodist pastor turning to Wright while United Methodism appears to be flying toward schism, his writing about how these sources of authority interact is just terrific. He is especially helpful in speaking about how for Hooker and Wesley (and most of the Christian Tradition) reason is a particular kind of reason—not just the ability to think rationally, but reasoning within the Church, with its Scripture. Reason is thus a traditioned form of theological reasoning with the Scriptures. Experience, meanwhile, insists Wright, is no source of authority at all but rather the end of authority, if we take “experience” to mean that my individual experience determines my theology, rather than that experience is an important shaper and affirmer of our theology from other sources of primary authority.

In Wright’s own words (ellipses at the ends of paragraphs are mine, to shorten this lengthy excerpt, but italics are his, as is the bracketed Scripture reference):

For Wesley himself, scripture remained the primary authority; the “experience” upon which he insisted was the living experience of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit, through which what the Bible said was proved true in the life of the believer. It is quite an illegitimate use of all this to see “experience” as a separate source of authority to be played off against scripture itself, though this move is now frequent, almost routine, in many theological circles (“Scripture says…tradition says…reason says…but experience says …and so that’s what we go with”)…

Actually, for a start, “scripture, tradition, and reason” were never the same kind of thing. The image of the stool with three [or four] matching legs is itself misleading. They are not so much like apples, pears, and oranges as like apples, elephants, and screwdrivers. As we have seen, a long line of theologians from Aquinas through Hooker to many writers today would insist that “tradition” is the legacy of what the church has said when reflecting on scripture, and “reason” is the rule of discourse by which such reflection is saved from random nonsense and integrated into a holistic view of God and the world. This too, however, can only be part of the story, and might imply a more solid and fixed form for “tradition” and “reason” than the story of the church warrants…

But there is a more profound problem to be addressed, indeed a logical problem. The “experience” of Christians, and of churches, is itself that over which and in the context of which the reading of scripture exercises its authority. It is precisely because “experience” is fluid and puzzling, and because all human beings including devout Christians are prey to serious and multilayered self deception, including in their traditions and their reasoning (as Jeremiah lamented, the heart is deceitful above all things [17: 9]), that “authority” is needed in the first place. That, too, is one of the main things we discover by “experience”! To speak of “experience” as an authority, then, is to admit that the word “authority” itself is being dismantled, unable now to function either as “court of appeal” in the old wooden sense or, in the more biblical sense, as “that through which God exercises Kingdom-establishing power.” That dismantling— the muzzling of the challenge of God to the idolatrous world— was one of the main (anti-Christian) aims of the Enlightenment, continued in a different mode within postmodernity. If “experience” is itself a source of authority, we can no longer be addressed by a word which comes from beyond ourselves. At this point, theology and Christian living cease to be rooted in God himself, and are rooted instead in our own selves; in other words, they become a form of idolatry in which we exchange the truth about God for a human-made lie. This, or something like it, is what we find with the popular modern varieties of Gnosticism, in which the highest religious good is self-discovery and then being “true” to the self thus discovered. But to elevate that imperative (now radically challenged by postmodernity, though this is not usually noticed in the relevant discussions) to the supreme status now claimed for it is to take a large step away from all known forms of orthodox Christianity…

The positive force of the appeal to “experience” is much better expressed in terms of the context within which we hear scripture. Experience, as the necessary subjective pole of all knowing, is the place where we stand as we hear God’s word, know his love, and understand his wisdom. It is vital that Christians should “experience” the power and love of God in their own lives. This is never simply a mechanical application of “God’s authority,” as though human beings were mere ciphers rather than image-bearers. And, precisely because of the problem of evil within us as well as within the world (the problem which the Enlightenment sought to belittle), we need to be addressed and challenged within that place, that subjectivity, not simply informed that we are all right as we are.

pp. 101-104, Kindle edition.

By the end of this book, it was not that I agreed with every particular of Wright’s argument, but that I knew Wright has provided a set of arguments that are worthy of our engagement. And I greatly appreciated being reminded that the voice of someone, even a bishop, of a different tradition could shed light on the issues affecting the United Methodist Church. Even with some level of breakup on the horizon for the United Methodist Church as we know it, it was an encouraging witness to the mysterious unity that forever marks Christ’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Body.

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