It was an American Literature class. We read short stories and poetry and each day my classmates would slump into their seats unprepared to talk about Hawthorne or Whitman.
I could tell when the teacher’s frustration was high because she’d call on me, even when I didn’t raise my hand.
She knew she could get something from me. And I also knew she wasn’t looking for the mythical right answer or the classical interpretation of scholars.
She wanted my response. Because she knew I could respond to the text.
I was a poststructuralist before I knew what that was.
The Enlightenment changed the world. Postmodernism transformed the conversation.
You already know how the Enlightenment brought radical change to the world. Scientific breakthroughs! Archeological discovery! Rational philosophy! And then we’re looking for the historical Jesus. And over here a group of radical Christians are listing the fundamentals. They create a new creedal statement for the 20th century.
All these questions about creation, scripture, tradition, and the nature of faith itself blew apart the black and white world we inhabited. And the very nature of analysis: what we can see and know as true: changed.
The modernist era of the Enlightenment ushered in its successor age, a post-modern era of new questions.
But these questions were different. They weren’t questions about the accuracy of the texts. They were questions of how we read the text. What lenses we use to read and understand what we’ve read.
The idea that there could be a “clear” reading became a fiction.
In Poststructuralism, there is no way to know the “true” meaning. Such a thing is impossible. We are governed by our interpretive lenses and how we read and understand the text.
So the question isn’t whether there is an absolute truth or not. It isn’t even whether we can know it. The answer to that question is already “no.”
If GOD is up to something in Scripture, we can’t know it. We are slaves to our interpretive strategies.
That’s why Sola Scriptura baffles me.
It isn’t because I’m an Episcopalian (the American brand of Anglicanism). But it may explain why I’ve chosen to be Episcopalian.
Sola Scriptura is a Protestant doctrine teaching the supremacy of Scripture. It tries to present an absolute authority in the inanimate hands of the Bible. It’s often described in English as “By Scripture Alone.”
As a poststructuralist, this makes about as much sense as putting the feed corn in charge of a hen-house.
Because they didn’t like when the fox was in charge.
Sola Scriptura is a protest doctrine.
It is hard to separate the nature of Sola Scriptura from its origin. Protest is in its DNA. It is the church’s protest movement response to tyranny.
Sola Scriptura is a rallying cry, a protest song, a hashtag #ScripturalAuthorityMatters.
It’s a reaction. It isn’t the thing itself.
The trouble was this. Human authority was fallible and the protestors needed to find a new source of authority. So they took it out of the hands of one person and put it in the hands of the people. Through the book. And declared the book the authority.
But this isn’t the only time the church fought over authority. It isn’t the only protest movement there is. As Phyllis Tickle argued, every 500 years, we question authority again. And to find a new way of doing things, we open up the garage and throw a great big rummage sale.
So five centuries before the Great Reformation, the Roman Church led a coup to become that supreme authority over the global church, to put authority in the seat of the bishop of Rome. In protest, the Eastern Church broke away. The Great Schism came when the Roman Church exercised an authority that wasn’t theirs. And the Eastern Church protested its takeover.
Five centuries earlier, the Roman Empire fell and Rome was sacked. The Constantinian church was breaking. The developing communal authority through the great councils was tenuous. Remarkably, it was through the monastic orders and the mystical tradition that Christianity survived.
And it was five centuries before that when Jesus came and announced a new authority. An authority beyond Scripture. An authority in community and the Spirit.
The Bible isn’t our everything.
It isn’t what makes a Christian or defines our faith. It isn’t our only source of authority or the object of our worship.
This sense of Scriptural authority isn’t even Biblical. We don’t derive the supremacy of Scripture from our Scripture. It is a self-definitionally weak argument.
Sola Scriptura is an interpretive lens. Much like the one I use. The one that says Scripture is often the first place I turn. But to call it a supreme authority is to transform our guide into an idol.
We replace our sacraments with bibliolatry and our faith for a narrow and enlightened certainty.
A certainty of a different era.
An era of reaction to the evil fallout of the previous era. That era born of the mess of a previous era. It responding to the chaos and politics of its predecessor.
The Enlightenment is over and so is Sola Scriptura. The protest movement led by Martin Luther birthed a Protestant tradition of reform. And ushered in an era of individual grace.
But the Bible can’t be an absolute authority when the myriad individual truths compromise the protest’s foundation.
The protest was right but the conclusion was wrong. The authority isn’t in the hen’s feed. It’s in the hens gathered in the hen-house.
Beyond Biblical Authority
There is much more to faith than Biblical authority. And far more to authority than outsourcing it to an inanimate (even divinely inspired) object.
The protest movement which gave birth to Sola Scriptura is, even now, finding itself rejected. The new protest has been brewing for decades. A protest beyond the myopic Protestant worldview and reactionary theology.
A movement which reminds us of the failure of Protestantism (and its successors, too) to discover the true nature of authority. But its greater gift is reminding us of two thousand years of diversity in tradition.
It shows us what Sola Scriptura isn’t.
- It isn’t credal. Or orthodox. Or traditional.
- The Bible isn’t a singular authority above all else.
- Nor is it a secret peek at GOD’s daily pages or writing journal.
- It doesn’t reveal the absolute truth like a code we can break.
- Sola Scriptura isn’t revelation itself or representative of our various interpretive strategies. It isn’t the Midrash or wrestling with the text. Or the countless sermons preached in Christian communities.
And most importantly, Sola Scriptura isn’t a doctrine all Christians have agreed to. It doesn’t separate “real” Christians from the “fake”.
Scripture is a common character, an actor in our play. It gives us the words for our improv and the source material for our own scripts.
Through it, we find not only Jesus, but his methodology so we can become like him.
It is a way to better understand GOD’s dream for all creation.
A new movement is breathing new life into this old faith.
A movement found in decades of protest in the church and in discovering of new authority.
A movement reflecting the diversity of our witness and the inclusion of silenced voices. One which seeks to find a more honest reflection of GOD’s creation.
A faith beyond the Bible and open to the community gathering in discovery and love and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Which, ironically, seems more Biblical.