Beyond the Death of Authority
Let us be clear at the beginning. In our time and culture in the West there are no normative authorities that can authorize one's belief that one is loved by God and that one’s life has eternal meaning. Can we recover a sense that our lives are embraced within the life of God?
We can if we see our history in a different light.
Incarnation demands inculturation, but does not privilege the culture into which God incarnate came.
The New Testament may be understood as the history of the inculturation of the Gospel by the apostles and the church, just as the whole Bible is the history of God with the world leading to incarnation. What the New Testament shows us is a normative process of engaging people within a cultural context under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ. *
The identity of that normative process is Church, or more properly the Body in Christ. Like all bodies it is not a static substance but an coherent set of processes engaging an ever-changing cultural, social, and natural environment. What gives these processes coherence is their continuous nature and endurance over many and varied situations and cultures. It is this coherence that justifies identifying them as the Body of Christ as opposed to other more transient identities.
The particular processes central to this identity are: 1. care for those in need, 2. the preaching of the Word, 3. Baptism, and 4. the Lord's Supper. These were initiated by Christ and have endured over time through many different inculturations of Church and inculturated expressions of the Gospel. Where these take place, in whatever cultural form, the Spirit of Christ is present in the Body of Christ.
The structure of authorities mentioned in the previous post (Its not the Bible, its Any Authority at All) was an inculturation of the Gospel within the cultural setting defined by the Roman Empire and those cultures which it influenced; Christendom for short. Those structure's apparent permanence was just that, apparent. It appeared because the culture itself was one that associated eternity and meaning with substance, an idea that endures as a cultural residue in our own time. If the process of Church was to offer meaning in that cultural context it would have to provide structures of authority and an orderly hierarchy. It would have to be substantial. And it was. But the apparent substance was situational, not normative. In our cultural setting only the Church as a process can be considered normative.
Notably, the substantial nature of the Church in Christendom was different from the non-substantial understandings of Church found in the New Testament and early church, which were likewise appropriate inculturations of the Gospel. Each instantiation of Church in the New Testament and early church was the Body of Christ being incarnate in a specific time and culture, just as Jesus the Christ was God incarnate in his. Bodies are always formed by culture. If we could recognize that "episcopal" and "presbyterian" polities are simply two different inculturations of the process of Church we wouldn't have to waste time arguing over which is more Biblical. They both are. And both, or neither may be relevant to the inculturation of the gospel by the Church in our time.
Our challenge is to allow the normative processes that are Church to express themselves in our culture so that the Gospel is manifest and draws people into the process of salvation.
To return then, where I left off.
The assured structures of authority in the pre-modern world are gone. As yet nothing has replaced them. The result is unparalleled anxiety over the meaning of our lives. American Methodists have sought different ways to address this anxiety. Do they work as expressions of the Gospel in our time and place?
My heart an altar . . .
The holiness movement sought to ground assurance in God’s promises in scripture. One put one’s heart on God’s altar as an acceptable sacrifice, a sacrifice whose acceptance was ratified by the witness of the Spirit through ecstatic emotion. That remains part of our inheritance, although my generation may be the last for whom camp meetings and revivals were the primary means of encountering God’s love in Christ. (Whatever happened to Lay Witness Missions, the Aldersgate Movement, etc?) But can we build assurance on the fragility of emotional experiences?
Thy word is a lamp . . .
American Methodism also participated in the fundamentalist movement and its efforts to ground assurance in doctrinal fundamentals and in particular the authority of the Bible. The fundamentalists understood something of critical importance: you can’t just assert the authority of the Bible, you must also assert an authoritative method of interpretation. For them this meant linking Biblical inerrancy with literal interpretation.
While Methodist seminaries were typically not fundamentalist, up through the 1950’s most Methodist pastors had no seminary education and in the south and mid-west fundamentalist understandings of the authority of the Bible remained strong. The earliest Methodist preachers and Sunday School class leaders I remember were (like my grandfather who founded a Methodist university) proud Biblical literalists who rejected the nonsensical “extra-Jesus” of seminary trained pastors. Later I was exposed to seminary educated pastors and the difference was huge. But many of my Sunday school teachers, even in a well educated upper middle class church, were essentially fundamentalists who would move out in the early 70's to help found a Bible church. Or churches. Because the problem with literalism is that the Bible contains numerous literal discrepancies and contradictions. Hardly the basis for an assured sense of enduring meaning.
Yet even critical approaches to hermeneutics share in the fundamentalist assumption that authority derives from an agreed methodology. And quite obviously the adaptation of critical Biblical exegesis hasn't been any better at delivering certitude than literalism.
When the Church of Jesus. . .
In those vastly uncertain and revolutionary days of the 1960’s American Methodists participated in the movement to cement traditional family structures and values into our ethos. We moved from a list of social-gospel political commitments to a larger set of fixed social principles based on the assumption of God's ordering of the social world. Over time we would seek to defend the stability and meaning of our social lives against the reigning chaos of the mid 20th century with ever more specific affirmations of marriage between a man and a woman only. And again, it hasn't made our ecclesial structures more secure or our members any more assured of their salvation in Christ.
Faith of our Parents. . .
And most recently a significant number of United Methodists have become interested in the restoration of tradition as a source of authority. Like the Supreme Court, stare decisis has become, for some, the siren call. We long for the stabile authority of orthodoxy. Put a big fence along the cliff, as GK Chesterton suggested, and we'll play happily in the fields of the Lord. But when you build the fence yourself, or know who built it and how, then you'll always know there is something on the other side you are missing. That is a central point in Taylor's analysis in A Secular Age. The old naiveté is no longer available.
Ein Feste Burg . . .
Defend the Bible, defend the traditional family, defend traditional doctrine. All these are really one thing: defend my sense that my life is part of a Divine plan authorized by God and therefore has eternal meaning.
It isn't working. Our members drift away while younger generations have no interest in the re-creation of a long lost past. The more we hammer at our doctrines and discipline, the more we tweak our social principles to obtain absolute moral certainty, the more we exalt the Bible, the less we are relevant to our culture and thus the more our uncertainty and lack of assurance. The Bible, the Creeds, the Discipline: we heap them up and climb on top but they are sandcastles against the rising tide of an inexorably changing culture. They are not the rock on which we can build our lives.
Because our culture no longer possesses a worldview based on substance. Science and experience confirm that reality is a process. But the end of the culture of Christendom and its worldview that formed and was formed by the gospel need not leave us to relativism and nihilism.
There is another choice.
We could live by faith alone in God’s grace alone, and thus find our assurance of life’s meaning in the revelation of God's love in Jesus Christ rather than structures of authority. We could allow God's love to be the healing balm for our modern anxiety about the loss of a fixed order of creation upheld by traditional authorities. We could let the story of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ be our one and only Gospel. We could listen again to the One who "speaks with authority" instead of those who claim authority in his name. We could focus on the the normative processes of Church rather than crumbling structures of authority.
Like the disciples on the Emmaus road we could recognize that the Word of God and sacraments acted out in the Body of Christ are the occasion for revelation rather than the revelation itself. They are the means by which Christ accompanies us and reveals himself to us. They are not road, much less the destination, but in them we find the Way,
In short we could realize that the old pre-modern ordering of the world within golden chains around God's feet is never coming back. The assurance it gave can never be ours. We will never come back into God's presence by that door. But as C.S. Lewis realized, "There is a way into my country from all the worlds," said the Lamb.
Including our world. So we can be Church, seeking that new way to God's realm. Or we can argue about the authority of the Bible.
*A principle of critical hermeneutics is that a passage from the Bible cannot mean what it never meant for the original authors, editors, and readers. But this cannot be true of the Canon a whole because as a whole it is formed and reformed by the Church in different contexts. In other words "Canon" indicates a process, not a book.