Sunday, January 6, 2013


Epistemology is not a word that gets used very often in day to day conversation.

One of the foundations of the Reformation in the 1500's was the idea of "sola scriptura" -- Latin for "Bible alone."  Sola Scriptura was the reformers' answer to the question, "Where does the church's authority come from?"  The Roman Catholic Church's answer to the authority question for centuries relied on an appeal to the church's tradition -- basically this meant that the Church hierarchy, especially the pope, had authority to interpret the Bible and history and current practice to declare what was in and what was out for western Christians.  When Luther and the other reformers faced questions about how to do ministry, how to set priorities, how to make decisions, they turned time and again not to church tradition or to human reason but to the Bible.  If the Bible said something was true, that was enough.

Martin Luther, on trial for his life before the Diet of Worms (love that name, but it just means a gathering of the ruling nobility of Germany -- a "diet" -- in the German city of Worms) famously said that unless he was convicted by "scripture and plain reason" he would not recant his teachings.  "Scripture and plain reason" became the standard of Protestant Christianity for the last five hundred years.  So we have relied on the Bible's clear word, interpreted without a lot of scholarly sleight-of-hand.

Today we face a crisis that affects Christianity from many directions, but one dimension is certainly this question of authority.  "The Bible tells me so" doesn't carry weight with a great deal of the population anymore.  People are jaded to the Bible because they've seen Christians use the Bible's teachings to justify racism, homophobia, greed, lack of compassion for the poor, abuse of women, and much more.  (It is worth pointing out that those who justify these abuses in the name of Jesus have not understood the fullness of Jesus' message and have missed large swaths of the Bible's content.)  The world outside the church has pretty much thrown the baby of the Bible's teachings out with the bathwater of the church's institutional hypocrisy.  You won't sway public opinion by quoting the Bible these days, I guarantee.  Most Christians still hold the Bible in high regard, but even within Christianity there are huge differences in how much authority we ascribe to the Bible.  Outside of Christianity, though, the Bible doesn't carry a lot of weight.

No, the question is not about what has authority in the culture.  Postmodernism has stripped away any sense of shared authority in the surrounding culture.  But the church desperately needs to figure out the question of authority for our own sake.  If we don't understand our worship, teaching, evangelism, and service in terms of some legitimate authority, we will fragment and decay.  You can see this happening in much of Christianity already today.

Epistemology is the study of what we believe and why we believe it, and how it has been transmitted to us.  So for the last five centuries in Protestant circles at least, epistemology has mostly been about the Bible.  We know the message because of the Bible.  We believe it because of "sola scriptura."  It has been transmitted to us by means of textual transmission and translation (both of which have been important sciences in the last few hundred years).

Today epistemologists face a difficult task.  Within Christianity, the Bible still holds various degrees of authority.  Some Christian denominations treat the Bible as a history-bound book that points us toward our own search for God.  Other Christians take the Bible literally, claiming "verbal inerrancy" as an official doctrine.

(Verbal inerrancy, by the way, teaches that every word, every number, every "jot and tittle" to quote Jesus, of the Bible is divinely inspired and without any error.  Because there are obvious errors in our best manuscripts today -- e.g., the accounts of the same census or battle in Kings and Chronicles might list different numbers of people -- those who hold to verbal inerrancy generally say that the manuscripts are without error "in the original manuscripts."  Conveniently or no, we don't have any of the original manuscripts of the Bible.  So verbal inerrancy becomes more of a faith statement, saying that we have faith in the Bible, more than it is a useful doctrine of how we treat the Bible today.)

The question is about what has authority within the church.  I don't think we'll come to any agreement about this authority in my lifetime.  Other historians have pointed out that we're in a period of flux, a major transition time that will likely last about a century before we have any consensus about what is really authoritative.

I believe, though, that we are already seeing indications of where this authority might come to rest.  One possibility is that our postmodern thinking recognizes the need for the message to match the messenger.  We sometimes say, "What you do speaks so loudly that I can't hear your words" and we scoff at those who seem to say, "Do as I say, not as I do."  The message has to take concrete shape in the life of those who bear the message.  So I suspect that one place the authority of the Christian message will come to reside is in relational communities of people intentionally living biblical values.  As communities of people strive to know the Bible's message and to live it out, the intersection of their words and lifestyle carries an authority that is hard to dispute.

This need for consistency, for authenticity of life informed by the news about Jesus, is one reason I'm excited about pastorates at Central.  As these bigger-than-small-groups meet together, share life together, care for one another, minister to hurting people within and outside their groups, and strive to grow deeper into Jesus and into the Bible, they appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Epistemology today cannot be studied most effectively in academia.  It needs to be lived, or the people speaking and writing about it will be ignored.  The person who can tell the story of the group that has met in their house for the past five years has more authority to talk about the authenticity of this faith than the researcher who has collected statistics all over the globe.  The researcher may be able to tell us about trends, but the practitioner can tell us about transformation.

This is another epistemological key -- the authority of the Christian message will rest largely on its real power to transform.  Christian faith cannot be about theory; it is life change.  This is not speculation; it is experience.

While this may seem like a high bar for Christians to leap, moving from doctrine to transformation, it is really simply an opportunity to return to our deepest roots.  In the marketplaces of the ancient Roman empire, no one would have looked twice at Christianity if they had not seen Christians living out their faith.  It was not a doctrine about Jesus' resurrection that drew people to this new faith; it was the power of Jesus' resurrection demonstrated in the lives of his followers that drew them.

Yes, friends, theology is changing.  It's exciting to me, however, that the first glimmers of an epistemological future that I can see from here look a lot like the first few chapters of the New Testament book of Acts.  I think that's not a bad direction to be moving at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment