Monday, August 11, 2008

Authority, Sola Scriptura, and Individualism

I have been having this inner argument lately about the nature of authority. Those of you who return to my site on a regular basis know of my frustration with individualism and its effects upon our doctrine and practices…particularly upon ecclesiology. Recently I had a conversation about such matters with a good friend from seminary though we failed to come to a true consensus on the nature of the problem or movements toward a solution. I think the conversation itself marks our very different theological trajectories.

I’ve come to have a burning issue with what may be the quintessential tenet of Protestantism…sola scriptura. Authority is found in the scriptures alone. At first blush this seems fairly straight forward and a good thing for a Christian to believe. It holds the bible as the divinely inspired (whatever that might mean…another conversation for another time) word of God. Now I can get on board with this (depending on how we define our terms). As Christians we claim that the scriptures are good for teaching and guiding our lives…and they are. But the short sighted nature of sola scriptura that gets overlooked is the authority of the interpreter. Who gets to interpret?

Our culture of individualism suggests that we are all interpreters. We take the passage of Acts 17. 11 “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” and apply it individually.

Who has final authority in such matters? Who can we trust? If we are to each weigh the words of the pastor, evangelists, theologians, or whomever, are we not essentially taking the power into our own hands to determine orthodoxy? American culture is so bound into this individualizing tendency that all forms of authority are meant to be questioned as abusive and oppressive to true freedom.

But without some central form of authority are we not doomed to death by individuation? When interpretive authority is centered in the individual, what happens to the church? Does it just become a means of organization? Another form of business structure? And I think we need to look beyond the temporal or visible church for authority as well into the riches of tradition lest our interpretations become too temporally oriented. The loss of tradition and how our spiritual ancestors have struggled to understand the scriptures in their times must color our interpretations. Its seems a terribly prideful thing to suggest that my interpretations are right without consulting the riches of wisdom from our church fathers and mothers.

How do we balance the fact that we are created as unique individuals with unique experiences with the communal reality of the Christian faith in regards to discernment? I don’t want to run off into radical individualism where my fallen rationality is the arbiter of biblical faithfulness nor am I comfortable with mindless acceptance of church dogma. Though I lean towards the latter in my reaction against individualism and much of evangelicalism's capitulation towards it. So in an individualist culture, whose rationality becomes the authoritative voice for biblical faithfulness? Is it really just up to the individual to decide? I don’t know...I go back and forth. I cannot help but wonder if the fact that I have been born and raised in a culture of extreme individualism keeps me from assenting to the authority of the church doctrine or another. In a sense I wonder if we use the "test all things" as a means to keep our precious identity as an individual... just like everyone else (pun intended). Any thoughts?