Its Not the Bible, Its Any Authority at All

A consistent complaint by UM traditionalists is that UM centrists and progressives do not respect the authority of the Bible, or that they have a "low" view of Biblical authority. While authority is indeed the key issue, it isn't related to the Bible. The question of the Bible (and for that matter science) is just a side-show. There is a much bigger problem.
 
Prior to the Reformation Western Christians lived in and accepted without question an integrated hierarchy of authorities that included those related to family and local tradition, political authority based on noble families, and the church (and ultimately Pope) which held the keys to heaven and hell. And this structure of human authorities was authorized by God, who was assumed to have created the entire social order. “The whole earth round was bound by chains of gold around God’s feet.” As a result Christians (and for that matter all pre-modern people) lived with the assurance that their individual and social lives had meaning; that they were part of something eternal and transcendent. 
 
The era in which we live began in the 15th century, and its key feature is the breakdown of the structure of authority, order, and meaning I just described. 
 
The reformers challenged the authority of Catholic church and insisted on sola scriptura; scripture alone as authority in matters of belief and practice. But this opened a can of worms, because the reformers also made scripture available to everyone, and soon everyone had their own interpretation of scripture. Reform movements quickly splintered over different interpretations of scripture. 

Those worms have never returned to the can, and in the fertile soil of religious freedom in the US we now have over 20,000 identifiable denominations, not to mention individual non-denominational churches. An appeal to the authority of scripture ends up being an appeal to idiosyncratic and ever changing interpretations of scripture. Not something to build a secure life upon. 
 
But breaking the back of religious authority wasn’t all. The political reformers (Hobbs, Locke, etc.) attacked the idea that political authority was God-given, and this gradually overthrew all existing political structures based on noble birth. For these reformers and their successors who founded the United States, political authority arose from the people themselves acting together. Suddenly every person was his/her own ruler, and acting together they overthrew kings and princes, formed political parties, and created emerging (and often unstable) nation states. 

And then there were Descartes and his successors, who sought to free the human mind from the chains of tradition by establishing doubt in any received knowledge as the basis for learning the truth. 
 
And finally science arose and questioned the ancient authorities concerning the working of the natural world. Science flourished by denying that the natural order was authorized by God and asserting that it arose under its own internal principles. The theory of evolution wasn’t the beginning of the dismantling of God’s authority over the natural world, it was simply the last nail in the coffin and related most directly to human self-understandings. 
 
We live in an era in which there are NO widely accepted authorities and no widely accepted structures of authority. In fact, in the United States we have arrived at a place in which even the broadest source of authority, truth, is no longer relevant. Instead our whole culture urges us to consult only our personal feelings and desires as a basis for assertions about reality and living out our individual and social lives. 
 
As a result we are in charge of our own destinies in a way unparalleled in human history. And this means that we live in an era of unparalleled anxiety over just what authorizes our decisions and actions. We live in an era in which there is unparalleled anxiety over what in this world is worth our life’s commitment. (See Charles Taylor’s Secular Age and his understanding of being “cross pressured.”) We are looking for one who “teaches with authority” to release us from our independence and anxiety and to place our lives in a bigger picture, a larger moral structure, than just the pursuit of our own desires.

And that is our real problem, not the authority of scripture, or tradition, or morality. Like John Wesley, who lived in the midst of this revolutionary destruction of authorities, we are looking for assurance of faith, knowing for certain that our lives are embraced by God’s love and finding relief from our anxiety in that assurance. And we're not going to get it from scripture, or doctrine, or law. 

In this situation of a complete breakdown of authorities and structures the status of the Bible is almost trivial. Neither a high view or a low, neither a literalist or critical interpretation, is going to restore us to a world of assured authorities to guide our lives. Neither, when it comes to it, will either a new Discipline or a reformed relic. Or indeed anything else within the realm of human action. 

Not that we haven't tried - but that is for the next post.  

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