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Thanks and a (fascinating) Quibble/Sola Scriptura with Caveats

A reader writes:

I've read and loved many books--most of them novels--but I've never before written to an author expressing my appreciation for what they've written. Maybe I should do so more often--writing is a lonely, solitary activity, and those who do it deserve all the encouragement they can get. In any case, I'm doing it now.

I picked up A New Kind of Christianity a few days ago, and devoured it. It felt like it was written directly to me, directly to my experiences and struggles with God and the church, and it made me feel like I wasn't alone. You see, for a while now, I've felt like I've been living a double life: my faith life and my real life. In my faith life, I've heard others in my faith tradition pay lip service to the idea God calls us to live out shalom, the peaceable kingdom, in all areas of life, while in reality just preaching the same old Greco-Roman-influenced gospel of getting to heaven through faith and stressing personal piety in the meantime. In my "real" life, meanwhile, I've been trying to live out what I feel is God's true calling in my areas of giftedness and passion--literature, the arts, social action, and politics. In my "faith" life, I'm ashamed to speak my true feelings, and in my "real" life I'm ashamed to speak the name of God or claim the "Christian" label, so damaged is the brand among my real-life friends.

But when I read your book, I felt for the first time in a long time that the double-life I was leading could someday, perhaps soon, become more like a single, authentic life. I can't tell you how happy this makes me.

So, I hope you'll accept my sincere thanks. And, if you'll allow me, one small critique.

The one place that I was disappointed in your book was in your handling of the authority question. I didn't disagree with anything you wrote--far from it, I felt myself murmuring "Amen" as I was reading it. But I feel like you aimed too low with the question, and left a much bigger question unanswered. In your book, the authority question was cast as "How should the Bible be understood?" or "How is the Bible authoritative?" To my mind, the more difficult and much more pressing authority question is, "Does the Bible have any authority at all, and if not, then where now is our authority?" In other words, why bother with the Bible?

Perhaps this question is foremost in my mind because before I picked up your book I had just put down Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence. You're no doubt familiar with her argument: every 500 years or so the Church goes through a big rummage sale, and we're going through one now. The overriding question in such moments of reconfiguration is "Who or what is the authority for faith and life?" In the MIddle Ages, the authority was with God's representatives on earth, the pope and other church leaders. Gradually, events conspired to make this answer unsatisfactory, and the Reformation's answer to the authority dilemma was Sola scriptura: only Scripture has authority. Recent advances in science, new understandings of history, the study of comparative religion and myth, and changing perspectives on social issues like slavery, gender equality, and sexual orientation have rendered sola scriptura untenable.

These threats to the Bibles authority lead to two questions, I think--only one of which you truly address. The first question is asked by people who are a little embarrassed by some of the things in the Bible, but whose belief in the Bible's authority remains unshaken. Their question is the one you ask, "How should the Bible be understood?" The second question is asked by people whose belief in the Bible's authority is profoundly shaken. Their question is the one you don't ask: "Does the Bible have any authority at all, or is it merely a book like any other?"

I would call your answer to the authority question "Sola scriptura, plus caveats." You assume an audience who regards the Bible as a unique book with special authority. For this audience, I imagine that your answer is very satisfactory: it updates their view of the Bible's authority so they can stil regard the Bible as God-breathed, but live with the parts of the Bible that our postmodern minds now find embarrassing. But for an audience for whom the authority of the Bible is an open question (like me), your caveats may have the effect of leading us to dispense with the Bible entirely. If the Bible is a community library, representing an ongoing conversation among God's people about God and God's relationship with humans, and an evolving understanding of who God is--then what makes the Bible special? What makes it different from any other book? Don't the novels that I read, the sacred texts of other religions, and the discarded myths of various ancient societies also fit these same categories?

A lot of words for a small quibble. Again, my main reason for writing is to thank you for your book. So, thank you! It was exactly what I needed at a difficult, formative time.

Thanks for your encouragement - and quibble. A few responses come to mind ...


First, you said,

The second question is asked by people whose belief in the Bible's authority is profoundly shaken. Their question is the one you don't ask: "Does the Bible have any authority at all, or is it merely a book like any other?"

I think this question is indeed important, but it seems to me, before we can answer it, we need to ask what we mean by authority, and how any book can be said to be authoritative, and that's what I try to grapple with in the book.

Then you said,

I would call your answer to the authority question "Sola scriptura, plus caveats." You assume an audience who regards the Bible as a unique book with special authority. For this audience, I imagine that your answer is very satisfactory: it updates their view of the Bible's authority so they can stil regard the Bible as God-breathed, but live with the parts of the Bible that our postmodern minds now find embarrassing.

I know you don't mean this as disparaging, but I would want to quibble with this part of your quibble. I wouldn't want people's honest and important questions reduced to simply wanting to sanitize the Bible so it becomes more palatable to the postmodern mind, as if people are shopping for the revelation they want to hear. I don't think it's anything close to that simple or easily dismissed.

Finally, you ask,

But for an audience for whom the authority of the Bible is an open question (like me), your caveats may have the effect of leading us to dispense with the Bible entirely. If the Bible is a community library, representing an ongoing conversation among God's people about God and God's relationship with humans, and an evolving understanding of who God is--then what makes the Bible special? What makes it different from any other book? Don't the novels that I read, the sacred texts of other religions, and the discarded myths of various ancient societies also fit these same categories?

On a sociological level, I think we would agree that groups gather around certain texts. Communists gather around Das Kapital and capitalists around The Wealth of Nations, but not vice versa. Muslims gather around the Quran and Christians around the Bible and Hindus (in varying ways) around the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita. On one level, to say the Bible is special to Christians is to say it is the text we gather around. Why? Tradition is certainly a large part of it: our community has traditionally accorded a certain library of books special authority.

There are other dimensions beyond tradition and sociology. For example, many of us have "experienced" or "heard" the Spirit's voice coming to us in our engagement with the Bible. We have been deeply moved by other texts too, but many of us have found something special and unique in the Bible.

Subtraditions value other books too (Calvin's Institutes is [are?] special to Calvinists, the Confession to Augustinians, the Summa to Thomists), and most of our traditions have a "canon within the canon" - some parts of the Bible they favor in practice over others. For example, I grew up in Dispensationalist circles that by and large read and studied the words of Paul more than the words of Jesus. But even so, we all render ourselves vulnerable to the biblical library by giving it all authority. We don't throw out the parts we don't like (although Luther was tempted to do so with James), nor do we add texts like the Institutes or the Summa to the Bible.

The other works you mentioned - novels, ancient myths, others' sacred texts - are still there for us to read, and no doubt, our reading of them enriches our reading of the Bible (and vice versa). My suspicion is that if we can better clarify what we mean by "authoritative," we will find more treasures and fewer obstacles when we open the Bible. Anyway, thanks for your question. It's obviously an important one ...