Authority Again

Tony SigPastor 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.

‘Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls, but they are the walls of a playground. .. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.’



  1. Tony,

    Great post! It seems impossible to deal with ecumenism in lieu of differing sources of authority each camp finds themselves in. I think the ultimate authority is my wife (for reed, his mom). This question seems so big, it begs question of how, as divided groups, we can come together in mind when the foundations of discourse are scattered.

    I am not so quick to let go of the Quadrilateral, and I’ll admit, a great deal of time must be placed in every single corner of its complicated shape. Reason is such an enormously charged word. I attempted to throw the four variables into two here. Though, I think all I ended up doing was showing (inadvertently) the overcomplicated mess any schema is.

    I agree, giving up freedom and democracy is hard. I see few adhering to this system once living in a life of unaccountable protestantism. I don’t honestly think I am willing to give up my own. Where does the balance lie here in maintaining individual thinking and ‘joining the fold’? There has to be a time when one concludes, “I’m just gonna trust the community”, in order to survive within it.

    I see your point on anti-denominationalism. I think organization is inherently divisive, as anarchy is just destructive.

    Though, it causes me to wonder how far ecumenical dialogue can go in preserving christian identity. In just my few experiences with anglicanism, it seems most of their own leaders feud toward insiders considerably more than they do with outsiders. After reading that ‘Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue” book, I am convinced Anglicans are hell bent on keeping the peace – no matter how self assured their christian brothers are.



  2. love the tree picture. my seminary history professor is responsible for that. Phil Anderson at North Park Theol Sem in chicago…how’d you find it?


  3. Again, thanks for the links.

    Ecclesiology is the great forgotten issue, especially in a post-denominational age. Evangelicals have not had a strong ecclesiology. If you look at their statements of faith you will not find anything of substance about the church. That has, of course, given them a certain freedom to innovate.

    Having grown up Episcopalian, and having done my doctoral studies on 18th century High Church Anglicanism, I do understand the benefits and deficits of an episcopal system. But, as you’re seeing now, that system is under duress. Conservatives are undermining it by joining up with other primacies. They are acting, you might say, in a fairly free church manner. Indeed, most of the churches causing trouble in the Episcopal Church are ones that were started/taken over by evangelicals who came into the Episcopal Church because they wanted to have a more high church experience. But I don’t think they ever understood the latitude that is present in the Episcopal tradition as it had developed over the last century.

    The Disciples are a free church tradition, but in our restructuring of the 1960s we began to speak in terms of covenant relationships — between congregation, region, and general (national) manifestations of church. That covenantal understanding can extend, and I think does, to ecumenical relationships. Now an Episcopal Bishop has no say in how the Disciples function, but in a covenantal relationship we would seek to hear each other and act in a way that is fitting to a shared relationship.

    Does all of this work in practice? That’s a good question. Congregations are notorious for doing their own thing, but I’m not sure that it’s much different in more connectional traditions, at least if you can fly under the radar.


  4. Bob,

    Thanks for the response. I am glad you brought this up. My language was a bit imprecise in regards to the use of “Free Church” and “Denomination.” In fact I was thinking of bringing up the idea of Covenant as that seems a much better thing to gather together around than statements of faith, except perhaps the historic Creeds or whatever.

    This is, of course, the avenue that the Anglican Communion is attempting to plot out, one of Covenant.

    I meant only that organization can provide several things that I believe are necessary to the health and well being of the Body of Christ. It certainly need not be an Episcopacy, or Presbytery or what have you; but a somewhat accountable or binding relationship with others believers/congregations which basically says: “I will not do anything that grieves you severely”

    I think that the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the ELCA is very much as you are describing a Covenant can be.



  5. Dan,

    You know that I only like to talk about Ecumenism. I certainly don’t know what to do about it! I completely lack the wisdom that would be neccessary to judge how Ecclessial bonds should be formed and maintained.

    Anglicanism is indeed very different than the AG is it not?! The infighting has been around since their inception. First Puritans, Calvinists, Catholics…now Catholics, Evangelicals, and Liberals. Again, I think the idea of Covenant relationships might provide a way forward over something like a completely agreed upon doctrinal system. Though that won’t be good enough for either left or right, I think that it can provide a fruitful way forward.


  6. Years ago there was some hope that there could be a merger of Protestant bodies. Indeed, when the Disciples were restructuring themselves from a loose fellowship into a full denomination body, many believed this was a short term reality, one that would give way to a merged United Church — something akin to the Church of South India or Church of North India. That has never born fruit, and so the ecumenical movement has moved to a more fluid model — like Churches Uniting in Christ. We seek to work together, hear each other, but recognize that there will always be differences in polity, ecclesiology, etc.


  7. Oh, and the tree up there, the Stone-Campbell movement is missing. But, I think you would need to add us as a branch off from the Presbyterians as our Founders all emerged from the Presbyterians. We played with the Baptists for a time, because we practice believers baptism, but while the form was the same the meaning and purpose was not.


  8. I just found the tree, I am such a dunce when it comes to computers there is no way I could make something like that. In fact Chad above informs me that Phil Anderson at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago is responsible for the tree.


  9. In my reading it seems that CUIC is hoped to become a Covenant. I am absolutely passionate about Ecumenism, it’s a part of my calling, and so I try to be hopeful about what the body of Christ can do when it tries to act like he told ’em to! It seems essential to witness in this world. Look at Newbigin, certainly a highly influential “missional” theologian; he was very involved in Ecumenical dialogue.


  10. Bob you said:

    most of the churches causing trouble in the Episcopal Church are ones that were started/taken over by evangelicals who came into the Episcopal Church because they wanted to have a more high church experience. But I don’t think they ever understood the latitude that is present in the Episcopal tradition as it had developed over the last century.

    I’ve had it presented to me as the exact opposite: that transplants have hijacked the Episcopal church to make it more liberal.

    As one of those post-Evangelicals who is considering throwing my lot in with Anglicans, I’d hate to think I was trying to change something that was never really my own to begin with.

    Is it possible the real troublemakers are really just all of us North Americans trying to manifest our own individual destinies in a global movement?


  11. Reed, it’s always a matter of perspective, but many of those churches that are leaving, like Falls Church and Truro in Virgina became charismatic/evangelical and are now leaving.

    As an old Episcopalian, I can tell you that the one thing that guided the Episcopal Church was the principle of go along, get along. Liturgy, not theology was what drove people. Long before there was Bishop Spong there was James Pike.

    You had Anglo-Catholics, Liberals, broad-church folk, Evangelicals, and the like. This need for doctrinal purity is of recent vintage (at least in the 20th century forward era.

    But, of course, it depends on who you talk to.


  12. I recently attended the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John (Rio Grande Diocese). The Dean gave a wonderful sermon in which he encourged us to be “Anglican in the best sense,” which he defined as embracing the ambiguity between Tradition and Scripture; not willing to fall into the extremes of biblical literalism, or blind reliance on Tradition, but to live in that middle place despite the fact that living in the middle means taking criticism from both sides. He added the way to live in the middle road despite so much negativity and struggle is to assume and maintain Christlike humility. He, of course, was much more eloquent–in fact, he moved me to tears. My point being, even while the authority issue rages in many denominations including the Episcopal church, and rumors of war are heard all around us, there is hope: if our Head is any indication, the Body of Christ is more resilient than we can imagine.


  13. Since I cannot seem to edit my above post, here it is in revised format:

    While recognizing and affirming many of your (AD Hunt) complaints and reservations regarding the history of schism within the free-churches, I don’t believe they can be seen as terribly convincing considering the fact that you yourself have left a denomination–not a tradition mind you, for the pentecostal tradition is far more dynamic than its classical N. American manifestations–for greener pastures elsewhere and now want to criticize those who you once communed with on the premise that it is they who are the divisive and “chaotic” ones. This is not meant to hurt or offend, just an observation from an Anabaptist-pentecostal who thinks that you offered a generic and reductionistic portrayal of the free-church tradition in your post. I could say much of the “radical catholicity” implicit within the Anabaptist Vision of the church, a “unity-in-diversity” model of ecclesial fidelity and individual faithfulness that is not opposed to organization and structure. However, it would have much to say in regards to the epistemological and theological violence normally associated with “ecclesiastical centralization” as well as to the status quo social ethics that normally guide such movements. Just a thought
    A very Anabaptist or “free-church” suggestion from a remarkable Christian mind may be a theoretical and practical way forward:
    “Heresy is possible, but before we throw the word around, we need to remember that orthodoxy is common life before it’s common doctrine” – Rowan Williams


  14. I do not take offense at all D.R., I enjoy the push back, I find it essential to developing a healthy faith.

    One bit of context though. This most recent post on Authority was meant not so much as a critique of “Free-churchmansip” in general. It is a response to the general thesis of Phyllis Tickle in her newest book “The Great Emergence.” In the book she theorizes that “The Church” goes through a grand “Garage Sale” (her words) every 500 years where we re-make our doctrinal and philosophical foundations. She asserts that the current struggles in Christianity, especially in the Western world, are part of this happening right now. Many associated with the movement which she focuses on are in full support of this type of vision and have proclaimed the death of “denominations.”

    I know that a socially Trinitarian (indeed Pentecostal, which I still fancy myself) theology can provide a strong foundation for recognizing the validity of Free Church Ecclesiology. I think that Miroslav Volf has done this in his book “After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity” I meant not to imply that a Free Church is neccessarily chaotic, but that there is indeed, in my own opinion, a place for strong covenanted relationships between Christians and churches, especially in turbulent times such as this. I believe that this can provide accountability in doctrine and ethics, as well as provide a network for mutual support and mission.

    And, though I have indeed left my tradition, I have not sought to start afresh on my own. I feel that Anglicanism is a tradition that has room for Evangelicals, Liberals, Charismatics, and Catholics and I would rather be under a guiding tradition than making my own, which at my tender age of 25, would amount to some rather shallow theology!

    Thank you for your quote of Rowan Williams, I am only just learning Theology (I have till now focused on biblical studies) and the Archbishop, my Archbishop, has really been shaping me.

    Tony Hunt

    p.s.- I edited your comment for you

    Oh, and I still commune with the AG. My father in an Assemblies pastor, all of my family and most of my friends are as well. If you notice, George P. Wood comments here frequently and he is the son of the General Superintendent of the Assemblies!


  15. Tony, you shouldn’t neglect to mention that back in the ecstatic zeal of your MC days you had the 16 fundamental truths tattooed on your back. That’s another lasting physical communion you have with the A/G.

    Tell me again how much it’s gonna be to have them removed?


  16. George,

    I’ve gotta maintain my Pentecostal street-cred!

    And Reed, they were hemp. MC wouldn’t let me get real tatoos.


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