On Authority (Jesus, Scripture, Tradition, Community)

I was doing some reading for my Systematic Theology class today (I know, sounds fun), and the writer, James McClendon, in writing about the subject of Authority, has brought up significant food for thought in my mind…thought I’d share a little.

I must say, when it comes to systems of thought, I would label myself clearly as a postmodernist who continues to struggle with the polemical debating going on between those who find freedom in postmodern approaches vs. the modernist camp that tends to write off postmodernity.

Oftentimes the folks who reject postmodernity as a legitimate development and system of thought couch their arguments in the primacy of Scripture (inerrancy and infallibility); accusing post-modernists of relativism and an unhealthy suspicion of authority. These folks also often cast suspicion (sometimes rightly so) on the postmodern emphasis on the primacy of experience. Being stuck in the middle (struggling with how to approach authority, recognizing the reality of experience) is clearly an uncomfortable place to be. But it seems right…and McClendon addresses well, by my estimation, the heart of these issues.

On Experience

He writes,
“While experience is essential, it cannot of itself be foundational for Christians…Peter Forsyth highlighted that experience is real enough, but necessarily points away from itself. It is an experience of the love of God, but deeper than love in God’s nature is holiness, which embraces even love and entails it. By holiness, Forsyth understood a claim laid upon one’s life such that one knew oneself both condemned of sin and forgiven. God’s holiness was a claim that transformed the life that it claimed into one that could only confess itself so condemned, so claimed, so forgiven. If that is the content of experience, then experience has nothing of its own of which to boast, nothing save the authority of the Holy One that it meets in Christ Jesus.
Only that experience that points away from itself and toward a holy and loving God as its author and final authority deserves the claim made for it as its (proximate) authority. To qualify experience in this way is to presuppose a formative community of interpretation (church) with its definite history (Bible and its tradition); thereby the entire triad we are investigating here (experience, Bible, community) could be invoked.”

I think McClendon’s made an excellent point. In the local church community of which I am a part and the larger church community, I sense often that folks have exalted their experience to a place in their lives that nothing else can touch. That strikes me as wrong, and if we took the time to analyze it, is terribly subjective. My experience is clearly different than others around me…am I right or are they? Instead of holding each other accountable, our society has settled on pluralism (That’s true for you, but not for me). That’s clearly relativistic and wrong. But if we are given only one other option (inerrancy) as faithful Christians, I think I would choose the primacy of experience myself…please hold your opinions for a bit till the end.

McClendon continues, remarking that,
“Once we recognize its narrative quality, the primal authority claimed for Christian experience readily falls into place. It can neither be idolized as though itself God, nor be dissolved into human subjectivity…it is Jesus Christ who is the center of Christian faith. Authority as Christians know it will be found in the center if it is found anywhere. Nor is it an absentee Christ who exercises this authority. Christological understanding begins with the present Christ- one who confronts Christians in their spiritual worship and their kingdom work, in their common witness, and in Scripture’s holy word.”

The reality, then, of life in Christ, goes beyond the two opposite poles of suspicion of authority and uncritical claims of inerrancy (when it comes to Scripture). Paul gave us an incredible picture in Romans 6 that we have been delivered from one realm (sin and death) to another (freedom in Christ), and in his argument clearly showed that though we are now free, we are called to submit to the authority of Christ in our lives (a fun little play on freedom and servanthood). As followers of Christ, there is no other Lord in our lives but him, but there are many voices that can inform us as we move forward.

On Scripture

When it comes to the authority of Scripture, clearly we must subordinate ourselves (beyond our built in suspicion of authority in our day) to the reality that the Bible is the central authority on how God revealed himself to us his people and live from this first premise. Because we affirm that Jesus is the reason why we have been freed from the chains of sin and death in the first place, we must submit to the Bible asI emphasize again that inerrancy is not part of this first premise, by my estimation. In the river of the greater family of God, my stream has been that of Anabaptism, and the early Anabaptists had a clear way of approaching their lives as followers of Christ that strikes me as beautiful and wise.

1) They took Scripture’s role to be the provision of broad models for Christian teaching and church order
2) In finding these models they decisively subordinated the Old Testament to the New, and
3) they sharply distinguished, though in differing degrees, the outer word from the inner, or the letter from the spirit.

The emphasis here on their approach should be on the words “broad” and distinguishing the “letter from the spirit.” How ironic that Paul would write that the “letter kills,” yet in seeking to be true to the intent of the Bible, we have found ourselves imprisoned either in drinking the inerrancy Kool-aid or tossing out a trust in the Scriptures either because of the excesses (and obvious contradictions) of the inerrantists or (probably more accurately) the distrust we carry of authority in general in our lives.

I’ve said enough to clearly ramble here, but it seems to me (and I’m sure I’ll wrestle with this further), that our roots as followers of Christ exist in trusting the Bible as a (secondary) guide, the community as a (secondary) guide, tradition as a (secondary) guide and giving primacy to God centrally revealed in Jesus Christ as the fullness of the life we are called to. Jesus, the apostles, the early church, and faithful followers throughout the centures have given us clear evidence that a life lived in compliance with the commands of God by its very nature is revolutionary and world-changing…a submission to Christ is a clear pillar of such a lifestyle.


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