Pastor Bob Cornwall recently gave us three excellent posts reflecting on Phyllis Tickle’s latest book “The Great Emergence.” They reflect primarily on the issue of (Protestant) Christian “authority” with special reference to homosexuality. They predict that the Protestant idea of sola scriptura is coming to a close. I posted a while back on this and concluded that sola scriptura is unable to accommodate the canonizing process.
To say the Bible is authoritative is to say that the compositional history and canonizing process is authoritative, which is to debunk sola scriptura.
Pastor Cornwall has hopes in the infamous “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Whatever the historical origin of this system – the convergence of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience – he feels that this system can be a methodology for arriving at doctrines or ethics which takes the whole of our reality into account and allows for the proper critique of our various interpretations.
I feel the timing of this is great for our site as the four of us only just took a break from this discussion but we had spent a fair amount of time (read chronologically!) going over this very issue. I am going to throw a few more posts out on this as the topic is garnering a bit of a buzz.
I would like to reassert what I have already said, that Authority as such, is actually a secondary issue to a larger question. Ecclesiology. Who’s in and who’s out of your/the church? (Tony Jones has just asked this very question) The reason that I believe this is a primary issue is because, if Bobs denomination The Disciples, were to vote on an issue, be it homosexuality, or Womens Ordination or the whatever; my bishop would have no say in this discernment. So his reason and experience do not play any part in The Disciples doctrinal decisions.
Bob himself notes that this is the eternal problem…Whose Reason and whose Experience? A Methodist commenter, Allen Bevere, also reminds us that “Reason” and “Experience” as distinct and wholly separable ideas simply fall apart under advances in epistemology. The idea of pure “Reason” is no longer a tenable understanding of the phenomenon of knowing. Thomas Kuhn also has derailed the myth of continuous progress in knowledge, going so far as to imply that we are unable to grasp reality ontologically because we only perceive external stimuli through our operating paradigms, or worldviews.
24,000 Protestant denominations bear witness to what happens when the privilage of individual interpretation without an interpretive magisterium is taken to its only conclusion. A Roman Catholic who was once talking with Tony Jones said in frustration, “You Protestants, you’re children of divorce, and as such, you’ll just keep divorcing.” I essentially agree with this statement. Not that I am one who has chosen divorce, having been raised a Protestant, but there is no Quadrilateral which will save us from divorcing when the issue gets hot enough. Look at how the Mainline is going down over homosexuality. Even some Anglo-Catholics, of all Protestants the ones who should be immune to such actions, are leaving North American Episcopalian churches in droves, heading off to the RCC, EO, or even attempting to start a new Province.
I for my part, think that a process of ecclesiastical centralization (not neccessarily doctrinal!)(this is what ecumenism is about right?!) is what could potentially save us from the future ensuing chaos. Though for a long time I have purposely identified with the so called “Emergent/ing (an ever increasingly intolerable descriptor) Church movement/conversation/yadayadayada, I fundamentally disagree with the seeming joy many voices get from predicting the demise of denominationalism. The organization of Christians allows for the protection of our Tradition from novel interpretation and provides a focus for discipline, encouragement and mission. That is not to say that “doctrines” are fixed, but that it should be a significant and difficult thing to do to alter doctrine; and in a free-church system, everybody gets to say whatever they want and others get no say in it.
It is precisely in a purposeful fellowship that diversity comes to find its good soil. Diversity in a free-church system is chaos, but diversity in a denomination is such that in Christian charity it can be wide, but it can also allow for boundries to be set as to how far diversity can go before it becomes an impediment to Christian witness.
This is essentially how it is in the great Catholic traditions. There is in fact quite a diversity within Catholicism, but unity is maintained through the Episcopacy. Though it is quite likely impossible, I for one feel that it is though a strong Church system that the diversity which is inevitable in interpretation can find roots which force us to be confronted with the “other” in interpretation. This idea is intolerable to us who have become accustomed to “freedom and democracy,” to “choice and conscience.” Authority is scorned in our society in no small part because of the Reformation.
To conclude todays post I would like to leave you with this. In his famous book “Orthodoxy,” G. K. Chesterton says something that I have pondered over much in the aftermath of my decision to leave the Assemblies of God and join The Episcopal Church. Perhaps they are words worth some reflection. Indeed, those too willing to “reform” might find some tempered thoughts in this gem of a book.