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What’s next? > the authority of scripture

July 7, 2011

Video of Phyllis on authority

Phyllis Tickle and others are arguing that we are at the end of the usefulness of “Sola Scriptura” – where Scripture is the only source of truth and all truth is encoded in the binding of a book. Having that much “authority” is perhaps more weight than even God desires to be on the sacred writings! So I for one am ready to throw out the “Sola” part. But that is the bathwater. The “Scritpura” part (the baby) deserves another look and to be set in a wider context as a primary source of authority though not the only one. Even more instructive perhaps is learning from the process of how the Scriptures came to be.

So why would I even be willing to let go of the “sola”? In part my reading and understanding of how the Scriptures came to be historically informs their place and role. The Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) and the collected writings and teachings of the apostles (aka New Testament) came about through a dynamic process of God inspiring human writers then those writings being collected, tested and verified over long periods of time then agreed upon at councils of recognized and trusted leaders then and only then bound into book form then distributed widely only much (hundreds of years!) later. So the earliest Christian communities had no Scriptures the way we have them. Some but certainly not all had portions of apostolic teachings in writing that they used and circulated but the vast majority depended on oral teaching for the first several hundred years. And it should be noted that God worked powerfully during this time to disseminate this truth, his gospel all over the known world and launch dynamic faith communities everywhere they went carried like a gospel-virus from person to person, city to city, village to village.

So how our scriptures came to be is in itself instructive for how we can begin to answer the question of authority for our time and in the year’s ahead. We recognize a special place for the teachings of Jesus as understood and applied by his earliest followers (and eventual leaders) called apostles. We note that scriptures were first lived in local communities before they became widely disseminated. We see that scriptures were recognized as authoritative by several people especially the leaders of local communities who eventually came together and mutually recognized their authority which resulted in canonizing them into the book we now have.

So there is a strong divine (God) AND a strong human element that is recognized over time, by faith communities and their leaders who then gather in councils to prayerfully discuss and discern what is and is not of God.

Perhaps it is time for new councils to emerge where the living voice of God meets our reason and tradition and where decisions can be made… can we even imagine that? Large scale, ecumenical gatherings where God’s voice could be discerned together about the very questions and issues we are facing today… and then to think that we could come out of those gatherings with a clarity and confidence that God had spoken afresh to our historical context? I can’t really imagine how that could come about… But there is a longing and even a faint hope that it might. Perhaps these councils would need to be local first before trying to be global. Perhaps that is all we would ever even need is local councils. What might it look like for God’s people in a region or even one city or even one neighborhood to get together to prayerfully discern God’s voice together? We would have a lot to learn from the early Quakers about discernment, sitting in silence, and making room for the Spirit’s voice.

Here are some writings I’ve found helpful as I pondered this post:
* NT Wright article on “How Can the Bible be Authoritative”
* An Emergent Village review of Phyllis’ book The Great Emergence

Next stop: Reason and experience as sources of authority (preview: I’ve been re-reading Willard’s book Knowing Christ Today and also thinking about Wesley’s quadrilateral)

+++ Lord Jesus, you are the living Word and we long to hear your voice! Thank you for the scriptures you have entrusted to your church but help us not to idolize them or think that we can box you into them. You are our leader and King and you lovingly rule over us and all creation. Help us to discern your voice above all the competing and sometimes confusing noise. Amen. +++

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2011 10:20 am

    love the shout out toward the Quakers! The Pittsburgh gang has been digging into our Quaker roots a lot, and I think that’s going to be significant for us.

    I like the scriptura-yes, sola-probably not trajectory, probably because its been the trajectory I’m on as well. As a Walter Brueggemann fan-boy, I love his suggested pathways in engaging and entering our sacred texts:

    • Biblical Inherency – the word of God is living, not frozen in the texts. This living word is where the authority lies, and where eternal life is found (not just in the text, as Jesus mentions in John 5). “…inherency is an acknowledgement that the divine is lurking within the text, but it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly where,” it can be elusive, (much like the Spirit) and it comes and goes as it wills. I know people who have memorized significant portions of the Bible yet they have no faith, no confidence that it has significance beyond some vague claim to history. But many of us can witness to reading scripture and have portions of it “jump off the page” and into our hearts…or we somehow recall scripture in a moment when we need it…this is the biblical inherency that Brueggemann maps out that welcomes people to join the search for this “Living Word”.
    • Biblical Imagination – we can employ the gift of our imaginations (that God created us with) redemptively in creatively interacting with our sacred scriptures. Biblical imagination creates space for bringing back communal and personal lectio divina, just like VC has practiced for years, and not just analyzing and fragmenting every piece down to some flattened and rote proposition. The bringing together of the charismatic and the contemplative around the text of scripture creatively can be a powerful path for connecting to God, I think I first encountered that in conversations with Rose Swetman and Bob Ekblad at the Feast of St. Patrick’s, Oh those many years ago in Norwood.
    • Biblical Inspiration – what Brueggemann gets at with this is not the traditional inscripturation of God’s revelation (where we’ve possibbly tried to reverse the Incarnation and unflesh the Word, which seems like a gnostic tendency to me, but maybe that’s just me. In fact, I think the Incarnation should stand as a marker for us as we re-dig these weels and reimagine new possibilities vis-a-vis our holy texts). What Brueggemann means is that the Spirit of God actively breathes through the text and “blows past all our critical and confessional categories of reading and understanding so that the text yields something other than an echo of ourselves.”

    I’ve had some interactiosn along these lines with our mutual and good friend Jason Clark.

    damn! you got me monologueing again! OK, enough of me…

  2. July 8, 2011 1:05 am

    I agree with the sentiment. Sola Scriptura as a doctrine might have been overreaching. The question of authority is huge. Does Scriptura matter? Does authority become subjective, wielded by the group with the most power, either from money or popularity or violence? Was Wild Goose a council? Who gets to call that one?

    I think i know how you might answer these questions. They’re largely meant to provoke. I’m guessing we’re going to have to live in the tension between Sola and (other Latin word here) Scriptura, always with humility.

    I also don’t want to succumb to the notion that the Church/church was any better at any other time. I’m going to role the dice and believe that Scriptura was God’s idea and, like Steve, go with Scriptura-yes, Scriptura Sola-probably-not. However, let’s be circumspect about our tendencies to like the things that seem to share our trajectory. (Mine is almost always suspect.).

    In closing, I’ll go with however Dallas calls it.

  3. July 11, 2011 6:39 pm

    Kevin and others,

    I’d like to implant a perspective I have on Tickle’s conclusions in “The Great Emergence.” I thoroughly read the book through twice because I was so encouraged and troubled by it. I’m encouraged by her thoughts in some very specific ways, but I’m troubled specifically by how she handles what she calls “sola scriptura.” Just as a warning, this comment is very, very long. I’ve been wrestling with these issues for a long time, and to sum up my case below, I wish Phyllis Tickle had displayed enough respect for the transitions and challenges of issues in history to handle the below issues more delicately and intentionally. I believe she sought to shove the issues described below into her own worldview, rather than letting the struggle of respecting the authority of the Scriptures guide engaging the issues. If you’ve read this far, please thoroughly read my below words as a living counterpoint to some issues Tickle speaks of as settled and done. I am not a “sola Scriptura” person, but under Tickle’s perspective below, I should be considered one.

    The most troubling section is a section subtitled “The Erosion of Sola Scriptura” that goes from pages 98 through 101. As I read this section, I couldn’t help but think Tickle was erecting her own “straw man” of what “sola scriptura” is, in order to be able to attack and beat it down with a series of statements. In order to accomplish her goal (to subvert her interpretation of sola Scriptura), Tickle went through a series of issues one after another. In each one, she made definitive statements about what the Scriptures say in order to prove her point that authority lies elsewhere.

    Tickle started with slavery. She said, “The first such blow to Luther’s resolution of the authority question came in this country with the Civil War and the years preceding it. While the Bible does not order up slavery as a practice to be followed by the faithful, it certainly does acknowledge it as an institution. And while it does not sanction slavery; it likewise nowhere condemns it.” (98)

    Her handling of slavery I found interesting because she had been so careful up to this point to avoid stereotypical statements about issues, wisely expressing the heart of a teacher to get inside the specifics, teasing out the differences so readers could walk away well-informed. But here, she categorically states what (a reader should think) the Scriptures (clearly) say about slavery, then moves on to talk about how denominations fractured on the issue, moving to state her conclusion, “Because the business of one person’s owning another person is neither morally defensible nor economically sensible in an industrialized society; we got over this major blow to sola scriptura.” (99)

    So, since slavery is mentioned in the Bible, there is no outright prohibition against it, and slavery is clearly wrong, then we decide Scripture is wrong and progress beyond its outdated word. Right? That’s her conclusion.

    But, along the way, Tickle never engaged in a basic analysis of the difference between slavery as an institution in the societies the Scriptures emerged from and the chattel slavery of America. The differences are STARK and OBVIOUS. She also didn’t walk in-depth into one of the most direct and powerful words in the New Testament having to do with the ancient practice of slavery. It comes in Philemon 1, when Paul writes,

    “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.”

    Onesimus is described as “my very heart,” and to be returned “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother…as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” These are dignifying words Paul wrote, words that elevated the conversation on slavery in the early church; and they are also prophetic words. Implied in Paul’s writing is the perspective that slaves who become disciples of Jesus should no longer be considered as slaves, but as “brothers.” This small but distinct change through Paul’s teaching is a clear departure from traditional perspectives on slavery in his society. Those of us who value a narrative approach to the Scriptures see a direction that emerges in the Scriptures towards elevation of slaves’ status as people and fellow freemen that establishes a foundation to ultimately eradicate the institution of slavery in due time. That’s certainly why the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries felt so convicted and spoke so boldly of abolition; because of this understanding of Scripture…and because chattel slavery was so fundamentally different than ancient slavery and morally depraved.

    Important to a narrative understanding of Scripture is knowing that Paul was writing as a pastor here. He inhabited different roles in church from bluntly prophetic to this more quiet case in Philemon. But the gradual difference in language in this letter of dignifying Onesimus and changing his status reflects the pastoral vision of meeting people where they’re at and taking them further. Just because Paul did not make a categorical statement on the evils of slavery does not mean, as Tickle would have us believe, that “while (the Bible) does not sanction slavery, it likewise nowhere condemns it.”

    Tickle did not use the careful writing of before on the issue of slavery, I suspect, because it didn’t fit the direction she sought to take in pushing readers away from the authority of Scripture and into what she imagines to be the authority of the Holy Spirit.

    I won’t go as indepth into the issues she handles in quick succession after this to support her point, but I do find it necessary to identify the same method she uses.

    On the issue of women being subject to man, she says, “it is impossible to argue that St. Paul does not operate from this principle.” Paul clearly said strong words about women and men, but the same Paul also said at the head of his words about marital relations, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He said even more directly in 1 Corinthians 7, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Tickle also again refuses to write with a pastoral, considering heart on this issue. She doesn’t deal with, for example, why Paul would choose to write directly to women (people without status in their society) and tell them “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” (1 Timothy 2) Why tell someone what they already know (something rigorously enforced by society). Isn’t that a waste of energy? Or is the fact that Paul wrote this an insight into how women experienced the freedom of the good news of Jesus? Might women have been abusing their newfound freedom, operating out of the wound of their prior status like many other wounded people in history? Would it possibly make sense that Paul, pastorally, would write strongly as a response to those abuses?

    Wouldn’t it have been helpful for Tickle to engage this issue deeply as well? But no, she simply said that the 20th century feminist movement “clearly was a violation of the Bible’s way!…Well, it may have been, but the truth was the biblical way simply could not stand up to the grinding, day-by-day onslaught of domestic pressure.” (99) Tickle again abandoned her thoughtful writing of before in favor of making a clean case for making the Scriptures seem outdated, outmoded, and therefore obsolete on the issue of gender issues. And never mind that a woman led the entire nation of Israel for a time (Deborah). (shhhhhh)

    Tickle then takes up the more pastoral voice when she deals with divorce, stating, “In all truth, we must acknowledge that what the Bible actually says about divorce is not quite so black-and-white or unbending as were the Church’s teachings on the subject.” (100) Nevertheless, she still simply states that the acceptance of divorce was still “another- and this time more intimate and personal- blow to sola scriptura. Now the Church was accepting what it clearly had taught against for centuries.” (100) How could the grudging acceptance of divorce under certain circumstances be a blow to “sola Scriptura” if “what the Bible actually says about divorce is not quite so black and white…as were the Church’s teachings”? Isn’t that more of an indictment of Church tradition apart from Scriptural teaching?

    She moves next to the ordination of women to the level of clergy. She states “here it is indeed impossible to wiggle around the scripturally recorded edict that a woman must keep quiet in the assembly. If she has questions, St. Paul says, she is to ask them of her husband later and at home. This time there was not, and could never be, any question of alternate interpretations or variant translations or Jewish practices that had been rendered obsolete by Christianity’s coming.” (100)

    Again I ask, couldn’t Tickle have engaged the social reasons for why Paul wrote the strong words he wrote to women? Couldn’t she at least have raised the issue that it was indeed strange for him to write such strong words in a Greco-Roman society were women weren’t dignified with full humanity? And beyond that, couldn’t Tickle have written about how the Hebrew Scriptures wrote about women in a way profoundly different that their surrounding societies; dignifying women who were barren (socially considered worthless), showing the central role of women in the story of God (widow of Zerapheth, Ruth and Naomi, Rebecca, Deborah, etc). No, simply based on the pastoral writings of Paul written in a specific context and cultural moment, she used words like “impossible” and “scripturally recorded edict” and a phrase like there “was not, and could never be, any question of alternative interpretations.”

    And now, Tickle moves to the capstone of her argument with an issue that is far from resolved yet spoken of as if it is already finished (based on the argument she has desired to establish); that of “the arguments and questions surrounding homosexuality.” (101) Tickle makes her strongest statement thus far, saying, “When it is all resolved- and it most surely will be- the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught by Protestantism for almost five centuries will be dead. This is not to say that Scripture as a the base of authority is dead. Rather it is to say that what the Protestant tradition has taught about the nature of that authority will be either dead or in mortal need of reconfiguration…of all the fights, the gay one must be- has to be- the bitterest, because once it is lost, there are no more fights to be had. It is finished. Where now is the authority?” (101)

    I do not, not for one nanosecond, believe it is simply coincidence that Tickle reserved her strongest words against her interpretation of “sola Scriptura” with her perspective on homosexuality. It is the capstone of her argument, and the one she sees as most present and most relevant today, establishing that once this argument is over (something she already sees as a foregone conclusion), “there are no more fights to be had.” Aside from how profoundly naive that last phrase is, the content of her statements beg to be dealt with.

    First of all, again speaking from the perspective of one who deeply values a narrative view of Scripture, the homosexuality issue is fundamentally different from most of the other issues Tickle dealt with. The way it is dealt with actually parallels most directly the way divorce is handled in the Scriptures; though the instructions regarding homosexuality are much more rigorous than even divorce. For example, while the Scriptures display an unfolding elevation of slaves, for example, which you could say culminates in Paul’s strong statement to Philemon. The story of the status of women, though more complicated (with big ups and downs), is one that follows that same contours as that of slavery.

    The issue of homosexuality, however, is dealt with strongly early on (Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy) and actually intensifies in the New Testament (even while the penalty of death is categorically rejected by Jesus, like other issues, in the woman caught in adultery). Jesus’ strong words on marriage in Matthew 19 that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife” reinforces the accepted belief and practice on sexuality and his words on divorce intensify accepted sexuality to be a monogamous lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. He gives one exception to this strong word, but this word radically heightened the importance of marriage so much that his disciples said with astonishment, “If this is the situation between a man and a wife, it is better not to marry!” Paul builds on this intensification of marriage and spends more time talking about proper desire in sexuality; while very bluntly identifying homosexual desire as wrong. There is no wiggle room in the Scriptures on this point; there is no unfolding revelation; there is no expansion of room for expression of sexuality. The Scriptures move from prohibition of homosexuality while allowing polygamy and divorce to continue prohibition of homosexuality while hammering home monogamy and marriage as covenant with one exception.

    Tickle also fails to include that modern-day scientific enquiry, especially genetic research and conclusions about our “identity,” are beginning to build a strong case against our society’s perspective that “my identity is my identity and it cannot be changed.” The perspective that GLBTQ identity is settled once and for all by our genetic code is based on the science of forty years ago; not cutting-edge genetic science of today. Just to provide a simple example (since this post is already waaaaay to long…though I would say an important addition to the conversation around Tickle’s book);

    Science of 40 years ago: “Identity (genetic, and expression) is stable. I am who I am and this cannot be fundamentally changed”.
    Science of today: “Identity (genetic, and expression) is relatively stable but constantly changing. I am who I am because of others and can change all the way down the building blocks of my genetic code; even if the change only “feels natural” several generations down the road.”

    This “new” or “current” or “progressive” science has profound implications for our considerations of why we desire what we desire, and how we can work to bend our desire towards ways we believe are more healthy…even if it takes generations to do so.

    All of this being said, I state them because Tickle’s case against her version of sola Scriptura, in practice, ends up being a case against Scriptural conservatism. Anything that doesn’t line up with her perspective on what is progressive and therefore “true” is derided as an outdated mode of authority. That is a very troubling, and I’d say subversive and destructive perspective to take. Because Tickle describes the authority of the Holy Spirit as “the immediate authority of the received message,” all other authorities be damned or at least relegated to vastly secondary status.

    My knowledge of human society and the social pressures that shove us to accept certain things and lifestyles as normal and right (ranging from free-market capitalism and violence to nationalism and issues of sexuality) is that we lack the ability to discern the difference almost completely between what is good and what is not. “The immediate authority of the received message” is a recipe for chaos; and a chaos that comes from the confused, rebellious human experience…not the order, beauty, and reconciliation of all things under the reign of our Creator.

    • July 13, 2011 10:23 am

      Nate, I wish you had thought about this a little more and taken time to write a fuller reflection !! haha Looks like I’m gonna need a conversation over a meal or coffee with you to really unpack this… you have gone a long way down this path. Thanks for sharing and let’s grab some time together soon. I’d love to interact over the these ideas in person.

      • July 14, 2011 2:39 pm


        I would love to talk more in person about this. I’m aware that my comment may have felt unnecessarily long and maybe inappropriate for a blog reflection. I just have felt for a long time that in order to meaningfully engage Tickle’s perspective on Scriptural authority and her understanding of “sola Scriptura,” one could not limit their thoughts to a paragraph or two.

        Matt Dawson and I talked a bit yesterday about my perspective on Tickle’s work here. I commented that her Episcopal identity shines through in her writing. Matt responded that she was writing a religious/theological survey without a strong perspective. I responded back that one of the gifts the postmodern transition has given us is that none of us, no matter how hard we try, is purely objective in our perspectives. In the section I walked through above, I just don’t think she tried very hard to seek objectivity.

        Like I mentioned throughout my first comment above, I respect and love the intentionality Tickle used through most of the book. But in her role as a historical surveyor of the religious landscape, pages 98-101 I thought were bad form. If they were “just three pages” in the book that would be one thing. But they were three meaning-packed pages; and three pages where her personal perspective and Episcopal identity (particularly regarding the Episcopal approach to the Scriptures) shone through. The piece on homosexuality was especially glaring to me. She leveraged the other cases of issues that had become “settled” to speak conclusively of the “settledness” of the sexuality issue. I hope this isn’t because I deeply disagree with her, but that to me was a clear case of dressing her personal agenda up in “historical survey clothes.”

        Your brother,

        p.s. The only beer good enough for this kind of conversation, thanks to Joshua Hanauer’s introducing me to it, is Bell’s Consecrator Doppelbock. It’s a spring-time beer, which means it’s not sold now. But in order to talk with me, you must track down said beer and/or brew it yourself or this conversation can’t move forward. 🙂

  4. July 18, 2011 11:54 am

    Nathan, a greatly appreciate your “comment” (I think I’ve given shorter sermons.) It’s a very helpful summation of those critical and often used examples. Seems like I’ve got Webb’s book ( in a box somewhere that hits these same issues (though its longer than your comment). It seems that Tickle has stepped out of her area of strength with this one.

    If Rains can brew something like Bell’s Consecrator, I might have to join that conversation.

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