Monday, March 21, 2011

Sola Scriptura -- Really!

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).  It's a phrase originally made famous by the reformer Martin Luther.  I'm not clear on the historical precedent, but today I hear it most often from those who consider themselves part of the Reformed tradition--which now seems largely to mean modern Calvinism--when they recite it as one of the Five Solas.  Aside from the irony of having five "onlys" in anything,  the claim of Sola Scriptura is that only the Biblical texts are authoritative for matters of doctrine/dogma in the church.

Sola Scriptura.  Not "Scriptura et magisterium," scripture plus the authority of the church.  Not "scriptura et patres," scripture plus the authority of the early church fathers.  Not "Scriptura et Aquinas," "Scriptura et Augustine," not "Scriptura et Calvin" (and sorry, I don't know how to make those names properly Latin).  Not Scripture plus John MacArthur or John Piper or Mark Driscoll or N.T. Wright or Rob Bell or Greg Boyd either (and I hope I have enough "liberals" and "conservatives" to satisfy the reader that I'm not taking aim at a "side" here).  And not "Scripture and my pastor or my bishop or my elders," for these are merely a part of the local incarnation of the Body of Christ, and while we should seek to understand Scripture together in the local body, there is no valid hierarchy or authority among human leaders in biblical interpretation.  To the contrary, these and all of the body should have their words evaluated over against Scripture, by all their hearers.

Sola.  Scriptura.

No doctrine or dogma or teaching or credal test dare be claimed with certainty, that is not clearly derivable solely from the properly-exegeted text of the Bible.  My choice of the word "derivable" is deliberate.  It's not enough to determine that a doctrine is not inconsistent with scripture.  It's not even enough that the doctrine, once framed, can be supported by scripture, although in reality I find such claims often fail to withstand careful scrutiny anyhow.  I suggest rather that any doctrinal claim should be subjected to the following thought experiment:

Imagine we could find a reader who knew nothing about church history or who had never heard of the various heresies and controversies and schisms of the church throughout the century.  Imagine further that, though ignorant of the faith, this reader was fluent in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and was able to read the texts and study them carefully.  Would this hypothetical reader be able to come up--solely from studying the biblical texts--with the doctrine at hand?  If yes, then we can and should ascribe it serious weight.  If no, then however helpful it may be in understanding a difficult passage or concept, it must be considered optional and not core to the faith.

(Even with "core" doctrine, I caution the reader with my previous warning about creeds).

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is precisely this approach that has led me to dispute the common doctrine of biblical inspiration.  Among the areas where I believe scripture must have sole and unchallenged authority, is over the texts' characterization of themselves.  So when the text states "thus saith the LORD," we take it seriously as the word of God, but conversely when it says "this is a praise song written by King David," we accept it as a praise song and don't extract doctrine from it any more than we do (or ought) from a hymn by Watts or Wesley, or a chorus by Michael W. Smith or David Crowder.

It's also why I reject credal definitions of the Trinity, eschatology, and many of the other contentious issues that have been used to draw lines and divide people over the stained history of the church.  I contend that these dogmas cannot be derived without significant reliance upon extrabiblical authority, and in matters of dogma, there must be no such thing as an extrabiblical authority.  Sola Scriptura, taken seriously, leaves one with far fewer certainties and "essentials" than most statements of faith will countenance.  And if that makes me another in a long line of church-defined "heretics," well then, I'll just quote Luther again:

"Here I stand.  I can do nothing else, so help me God."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

So, do you trust the Holy Spirit, or not?

The recent debate around the blogosphere as to whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist, has got me to thinking.  There seems to be a substantial contingent within conservative Christianity, that is extremely dedicated to the notion of a hell where those who do not "believe" will suffer unending, conscious torment.  Many of these people--dear friends of mine, some of them--are not angry, vindictive people in real life; in fact some of them are downright compassionate.  So why, I wonder, do they get so upset about the suggestion that there might NOT be eternal torture awaiting those who do not believe the right things about Jesus?

The simplistic answer, of course, is that they are passionate about the literal truth of the Bible, and since the Bible speaks of a literal hell, to discount it is to disrespect the rest of Biblical truth as well.  As I've pointed out before, however, the scriptural case for eternal, conscious torment is far too thin to support a dogmatic claim, and in fact a legitimate case can be made in scripture for annihilation or conditional immortality (a term I only recently encountered, but which accurately characterizes a perspective I found in the gospels).  The same can be said for the other simplistic answer: "that's what the church has always taught," because in fact a survey of church fathers reveals a far more nuanced and diverse perspective than that on display today.

So why the obsession with hell?  Although I have absolutely no proof for this speculation, I wonder if it really comes down to salesmanship.  I have known a number of "believers" whose initial entree to Christianity was a fear of the condemnation they believed awaited them if they did not believe.  I still remember the first time a Christian (this one was a Baptist missionary in Honduras) explicitly told me "If I did not believe there was a hell, I wouldn't be a Christian."  Combined with the definition of faith as assenting to certain truths, and the doctrine of eternal security to keep those who have "believed" in the "saved" column, it becomes reasonable to try to convince people to "believe," as Malcolm X said of a very different struggle, "by any means necessary."

The paradox in all of this is that those who most vociferously insist on the doctrine of hell tend also to be Calvinist in their broader perspective, and often believe something to the effect that only those to whom God gives the gift of faith are even capable of believing.  Here my comprehension starts to break down:  if faith only exists as a gift from God, then why do we have to worry about the particulars of the sales pitch?  Even more, if those who are predestined for heaven or hell are already determined, what's the point in trumpeting a hell that's irrelevant to those predestined for salvation, and the hopeless-but-inevitable destination of those who aren't?

And for those who aren't Calvinist predestinarians (emphatically including me), the question still stands.  Jesus called us to make disciples, not to rescue hellbound infidels.  He called people to follow him in an active life of love and service, not to rearrange their thoughts so they had the right concepts about him.  Certainly we all have plenty of screwed-up thoughts that need to be straightened out--no denying that--but the place and time to get those straightened is (and in fact can only be) AFTER we have joined ourselves to Jesus and his church, not before!

Jesus calls anyone who is thirsty to come.  When we come, he does invite us to take on his yoke, and elsewhere to take up our cross.  There's plenty to be corrected and redeemed and saved in all of us.  But that is the work of the Holy Spirit--and the fellowship of believers--to be accomplished in and upon and through us once we have believed.  It's certainly not a precondition of salvation.

So, do you trust the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of confused, mixed-up, doctrinally-heterodox people who've nonetheless dedicated themselves to Christ and his church?  Or do you think God is not up to the job of handling our doctrinal sloppiness?  Do you trust the Holy Spirit, or not?