Saturday, November 10, 2007

Church Re-Formation

I think there is an important parallel between the Reformation era and today which the church needs to face up to and figure out what to do with. If we don’t it could be devastating, if we do it could propel us to be even truer and more beautiful. It regards the locus of the faith; the authority; the truth. To get it, first of all we have to take a trip back to the 15th century:

Early on in church history the truth of the faith had been carried primarily by the apostles and their successors, upheld by the oral tradition and the liturgy, and preserved in the apostle’s writings (which were then scattered around the continent). By the fifth century the apostolic succession had shown cracks, the liturgy had proven unable to answer every question, and so the Scriptures were collected and canonized. But the leadership still carried sway. Over time the reliability of the leadership waned. Power corrupted.

By the fifteenth century the power games of the Church authorities had been shown for what they were, and the base truth-dispenser of the Christian faith had eroded. Most lay people did not have the ability to read the Scriptures for themselves and, thought they sensed abuses were going on, did not have the ability to "check" their authorities. The abuses and the oppression piled up---until the Renaissance and other things enabled people such as Wycliffe, Erasmus, and Luther to check the Scriptures and hold the leadership to account. Their hope was for reform but it ended in a split. Reformers wanted the Church authorities to admit they’d gone wrong and proven unreliable in some (not all) ways and to work towards reform (not schism).

But the dilemma for the Catholic Church was that to admit that any Church authority in the past had been wrong was to admit that they could be wrong again. This perhaps sounds ludicrous to our evangelical ears today but we have to understand that, to them, for the Church to admit it failed was for Christianity would lose its credibility completely. The Scriptures, in their eyes, were hand in hand with the Church leadership. If they were undermined the whole ship went down. This is why the Council of Trent did not budge to the Reformers an inch.

Which brings me to today. The parallel to today is simply this: Evangelicals now have for a long time looked to Scripture as the sole authority for the Church. Sola scriptura. Certainly, the words on paper are more reliable a witness than twenty centuries of tradition. We actually have 99.8% accurate idea of what the original apostles wrote down. Tradition and Church authority can no longer compete with that.

But something has happened to the reliability of words. Beginning with Nietzche, postmodern thinkers have unveiled the power games and shiftiness inherent in language. Words are not perfect symbols for the thing they mean to express. Words, once said or written down, can be open to a variety of interpretations. People always knew this, of course, but it took Nietzche and the like to make us face it. The Word may be infallible, but our interpretation and understanding of it never is. Words, in themselves, have lost their certainty.

For some this has eroded all faith in Scripture. Many evangelicals have fought this erosion fiercely, holding tightly to the infallibility of Scripture, naively denying the realizations of postmodernism and chalking it up to a fad. They say all you need is the Bible and they become their own Popes. The truth of the faith is theirs. That’s where the locus of authority is now. Me and the Bible and the Holy Spirit will be just fine, thank you.

The Holy Spirit has been gracious and the Bible is clear on many points and so this does, admittedly, get people pretty far. But it also leaves them open to misinterpretations galore. The Bible can be read many ways and the Spirit misunderstood a thousand. Nowadays this just isn't holding water anymore.

This is difficult to accept. We can’t just say "the Bible says" and leave it at that. This is a huge hit to evangelical certainty. What can we rely on then? This is sending some evangelicals, naively, all the way back into Catholicism. This is also allowing the current Pope to take Catholicism back to Trent. We desperately want our security. But just as the reformers (rightly) took the security blanket of papal infallibility away before, postmodernism has (rightly) taken the security blanket of biblicism away. Now what?

What we need is to not panic, and to realize what has been true all along. The words of Scripture may be just the right ones selected by the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purposes, but they don’t do so on their own. Scripture alone, while the highest "check" against Tradition and spirituality, is not the authority of the Church of Christ. Jesus Christ is. For us to follow Jesus in truth as a church and as The Church we must see ourselves in a process. In this process Scripture is and always has been meant to work in tandem with the Spirit in the context of the community of believers past, present, and future in order to perform its task.

Where does that leave us? I don’t think it is a stretch, based on this and other parallels with the fifteenth century, to say that we might well be in process of a Re-Formation. My hope is that this ensues in a gradual coming together. When we realize that the only authority in the Church is Jesus Christ, who exercises that authority through the Scriptures as read with the Spirit in the context of the Church (Tradition past and present) we have perhaps a less tangible and visible locus for our faith, but therefore a better and more unifying one. We are united by our faith in Christ and our need for dialogue and perpetual reconciliation.

We become The People Learning To Speak The Truth In Love.


Colin Toffelmire said...

Very well said indeed. You haven't by any chance been reading Barth lately have you? Jesus Christ the Word of God and all that. If you haven't you should, you'll find, I think, a kindred spirit in the 20th century's greatest theologian.

jon or angie said...

yeah. Barth is influencing me greatly. glad to hear you too.

Tony Tanti said...

Love this one Jon. People acting as their own Pope, I've never heard it described that way but that's just it.

Last week I was talking to a guy about a biblical issue we disagreed on and he said "I'm just one of those people who believes the Bible means what it says." That statement just about made me hit him. Really what he's saying it that his interpretation of the Bible is the only right one and if you don't agree with him you don't agree with the Bible. He is his own Pope.

I love this post.

jon or angie said...

A great quote from my professor last week:

"There are more popes in [one of the denominational streams of evangelicalism] than there have ever been in the Vatican"