Saturday, October 15, 2005

From Stare Decisis to Sola Scriptura: How to Implement Belief in Textual Authority

For newly installed Chief Justice John G. Roberts, liberal concern in the Senate centered around his views on abortion and the right to privacy. Conservative concerns about newest Bush nominee Harriet Miers involve the opposite side of those same issues, among others. But what both groups fail to realize is this: If both new justices execute their respective offices within consitutional parameters, their personal views are irrelevant. What really matters is the authorial intent of the constitution itself. Similarly, Evangelical Christians who desire to avoid similar internal power struggles must put into practice what we have long professed in our confessions: That the heart of the matter is the authorial intent of the Bible, not the most popular understanding at the time.

But this view presupposes a particular view of texts like the Bible and the constitution: namely, that the authority lies within the text itself, not with the interpreters of the text! Unfortunately, the postmodern hermaneutical shift from "text" to "interpretation" has turned this view on its head, and even worse, the scope of this shift in our culture is not limited to politics. From the Constitution to the Bible, it has found its way into the interprative views of even the most conservative churches! And the consequences of such ideology are always the jettisoning of any real final authority and the subsequent advent of raw power struggles. Such a move tenders terrible results in a nation, and even more devastating consequences in God's church!

As little as five years ago (think the 2000 election), the dichotomy between the belief in "textual authority" vs. belief in "interpretive authority" was seen in much clearer contrast. One presidential candidate promised to appoint judges whose judicial philosophy was "strict constructionism." This school of thought believes that the final legal authority of the United States is vested in the text of the constitution itself (what a novel idea!) and therefore the judicial role is to arrive at a correct interpretation by seeking out the original intent of the document as expressed by the authors. This view was contrasted with Al Gore's vision of the constitution as a "living, breathing document," meaning that in the end, the actual words of the text mean nothing until meaning is injected into them by the Supreme Court, therefore giving carte blanche judicial authority to the justices who interpret the text, rather than the text itself. The result of this philosophy is expressed in the popular phrase "legislating from the bench." The constructionist view believed that a change in the constitution was the responsibility of the legislative branch. The latter view argued that change can come from the declaration of a majority of nine justices without the consent of the people for whom the constitution was written. As Justice Antonin Scalia eloquently stated at a Chapman University address early this fall, "Now the Senate is looking for moderate judges, mainstream judges. What in the world is a "moderate" interpretation of a constitutional text? Halfway between what it says and what we'd like it to say?" In short, the argument five years ago was over whether the final authority belonged to text, or interpreter.

Since the 2000 election, these two interpretive understandings have, regrettably, become less clear, as both conservatives and liberals simply struggle for control of what has become recognized as possibly the least accountable branch of our government. Liberals want justices who will rule in favor of the sound constitutionality of homosexual marriage, despite the fact that the constitution as written guarantees no such right. They also want justices to continue to pretend that the right of a mother to murder her unborn child is somehow protected in the Bill of Rights. Likewise, conservatives want justices who will take the Bill of Rights seriously . . . . that is, until our safety is on the line, in which case, they want conservative justices to bend those rights via their approval of the Patriot Act, forgetting Benjamin Franklin's warning that "those who desire safety more than freedom deserve neither safety nor freedom." And the end result of this struggle is, well, more struggle! Our divided nation is now seeing the results of "interpretive authority." If the text's authority is subservient to those who interpret it, then the final authority is never determined by actual law, but rather, by who has the most power! Where there is a vaccum of textual authority, that vaccum will be filled by a raw struggle for power!

But this political dynamic has a parallel in church life. For years, even in "conservative" churches, Bible studies have been held which centered around the question "What does this text mean to you?" Subconsciously, Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptists in particular have usurped the authority of the Scriptural text with the artificially imposed authority of the interpreter. The result, regrettably, is that the "correct" interpretation is now recognized as that held by the most powerful, or the most charismatic, rather than which most accurately represents the authorial intent of the text. At the denominational level, I think it is safe to say that recent denominational debates over Calvinism, Ecclesiology, Evangelism, Worship, Eschatology, and even the newest debate over the consumption of beverage alcohol have been guided less by the appeal to Scriptural authority and more by the wielding of denominational power and charismatic personality. And what makes this observation even more saddening is that this kind of "power struggle" comes on the heels of the "conservative resurgence" that was intended to take us "back to the Bible" for everything.

That battle, by the way, was absolutely neccesary as far as I am concerned! Prior to conservative efforts toward a "sharp right turn," Southern Baptists were headed for a fate much like that which other mainline denominations are now seeing in their own ranks. Our reticence years ago to speak directly from the Scriptural text to address issues like abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family issues, and the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ sent an "unclear sound" to the culture God had called us to reach. For those who desired clarity and conviction, the "inerrancy" banner provided a theological framework wherein we could preach and teach with the conviction that the words upon which we expounded were those of God Himself! My mentors in ministry taught me that Biblical inerrancy, in the end, meant that when I opened up my Bible to address God's people, I could do so with absolute confidence that God had spoken. For me (and I suspect, for many other Southern Baptists) inerrancy was not a political term used to gain control of the SBC "machine." It was, and is, a theological term which forms the basis, not only for what I believe, but for how I interpret the text in which I place my belief. Unfortunately, this term has been used politically, and may still be used in this way to accomplish political denominational ends. In the end, inerrancy (along with its hermaneutical cousin, the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation) was intended to point readers back to the text as the final authority (can you say "strict constructionism"?). Yet what has resulted is much akin to the above-described Supreme Court fiasco, and a subsequent struggle for power.

In his September 26 weblog, Tom Ascol notes that when SBC leadership draft policies, resolutions, or statements, there is an unspoken expectation that anyone who is "conservative" will be "lock-in-step" behind such actions. And if anyone questions or expresses doubt, the response is not to look to the text of Scripture, but rather to paint someone as less than conservative, or to suggest that any objectors do not "trust" SBC leadership, or that objectors are being "arrogant" in their principled opposition to a given policy. Says Ascol, "Now that conservatives are in charge, the theological commitments have changed, but the method of operating seems interchangeable with the previous regime. "

Ascol speaks here from experience. I remember vividly his objection to a change in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which dealt with the SBC view of Sunday. Was it the Lord's Day, or was it to be observed as the "Christian Sabbath?" Ascol's view was closer to the latter, and as a result, he objected to the proposed change in the statement which moved Southern Baptists confessionally toward a "Lord's Day" view of Sunday. I on the other hand, agreed in principal with the SBC decision on the view of Sunday, yet still recognized and respected Ascol's view, as well as his right to object. But some denominational leadership apparently did not take his criticism well. Ascol credits such offense to bureaucratic arrogance, in which any objection "is met with an almost incredulous disappointment that the actions of 'conservatives' would be questioned at all. 'We are inerrantists! You can trust us. We have 'Empowering Kingdom Growth.' We are good guys. Why are you questioning us?'"

The issue at hand then, is how to get past the Bureaucracy so that the practical outcome of Biblical inerrancy can be realized. It isn't conservative theology that stifles wholesome debate and honest and open dissagreement and dialogue. Rather, it is denominational bureaucracy that is neither liberal nor conservative, but simply seeks to retain power. But as Timothy George has saliently observed, "The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another doth not a reformation make."

So then, if the above suspicions are true, how will such stifling bureaucracy be overcome? And the answer lies in the worthy, two-decade long battle that conservatives fought and won. When moderates controlled the SBC, the Bible was still inerrant. Conservative political victory did not make the Bible inerrant, but simply brought our denomination into conformity with the metaphysical reality of such a doctrine. Ultimately, the resurgence was about asserting what was already reality: that the final authority in all matters of faith and practice is indeed the Word of God. And that fact doesn't change, regardless of who is in power!

Speaking at a recent forum at American University, Justice Scalia suggested the following: "I think it is up to the judge to say what the Constitution provided, even if what it provided is not the best answer, even if you think it should be ammended. If that's what it says, that's what it says." Following his advice here results in the end of the struggle for power, and the beginning of a common dedication toward discovering the intended meaning of the Constitutional text. Similarly, the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, when "fleshed out," leads to the same conclusion. The meaning of the Bible is not dependent on what the most charismatic or powerful SBC leader has to say about it, but rather what the text actually says, whether or not we are comfortable with it. This is not to say that there won't be honest disagreements about whether good Southern Baptists can drink socially, or whether the rapture occurs prior to or subsequent to the tribulation. It does however, mean that such honest dissagreements can be discussed as both sides humbly submit to the text of God's Word rather than one side seeking to seize power over the other. When this happens, we will have realized the practical outcome of Inerrancy: My personal opinions are irrelevant, as are those of every other pastor, missionary and theologian in Southern Baptist life. What really matters is the authorial intent of the text.

The bottom-line question that must be asked: Was the "conservative resurgence" really about the Bible, or was it merely about power? At present, I refuse to believe the latter, and pray that the future direction of the SBC will prove me right!

1 comment:

mom2 said...

It does however, mean that such honest dissagreements can be discussed as both sides humbly submit to the text of God's Word rather than one side seeking to seize power over the other. When this happens, we will have realized the practical outcome of Inerrancy: My personal opinions are irrelevant, as are those of every other pastor, missionary and theologian in Southern Baptist life. What really matters is the authorial intent of the text.

Beginning with "personal opinions are irrelevant", then "what really matters is the authorial intent of the text" says it all. Makes my heart feel good to see young people "getting" this.