Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Word of Scripture Hath No Authority, Apparently

So here we are with another run around the track of the modernist raceway, in this case loftily brushing off the "authority" of scripture. I suppose the reason these tracts get published is so that the textual liberals and modernists can rehearse their tropes so as to have them on the tip of the tongue when the equally ancient objections are raised anew.

This round used as a pretext an incident in which the "bible" used for an oath as recorded in an iPad app, with (I suppose) the physical iPad and its display as proxy. Now, the author of our tract quickly lost interest in whether this was an appropriate act, and so do I; it seems a less than ideal symbolic act, but in the end it doesn't have a lot to do with Christian ideas about scripture. But at any rate our author turns immediately to disparagement of the "existence" of the bible at all. What this turns out to mean isn't that it doesn't exist, but that it isn't one single inarguable reference, like the standard kilogram. Well, uh, yeah, but what's the point? Translation isn't an exact science; textual criticism is required to resolve the variety of variant texts; even the original language doesn't always seem to have survived without damage. But this is, in the end, overstatement. This is the kind of thinking that leads to spurious claims such as the notion that the Great Commission is a late addition to the gospel text when in fact there is no evidence for that at all. It's just a passage that someone wants to be late, so they can dismiss it.

And thus we are led off into a dream world in which there is no "authentic" text, but only a "process of engagement between a human psyche and the narrative contained within the text." OK, let's start off with the fact that not all of scripture is narrative, and never mind that there a different kinds of narrative. The trope here is heading off into the direction of reducing all of scriptural text to parable. As an Anglican I would agree with the notion that interpretation is an element of the scriptural reading process that has to be accepted as such, but there is more to what's going on then that, and the words traditionally used to talk about this are less abstract and less inviting of abuse.

Our author does go on to talk about one of the other key elements: the need to interpret the text within the community. But this community is not just present and proximate, but historical and spiritual. You cannot just read your favorite modern theologians or talk with your peers; you must know what the church fathers said and what theologians through the ages have said. And "within the community" has some specific content. If you are an Anglican, for instance, the creeds have a canonical function circumscribing the community. If you deny the creed, then to some degree you aren't fully within the community.

Likewise, going back to the narrative, it has to be admitted that there are certain parts of the scriptural narrative which force strongly divergent conclusions if different readings be taken. The crucial one, if you will pardon the pun, is of course the passion and resurrection narrative. The testimony of the church was and is that Jesus is actually no longer dead, and that the disciples and the women were direct witnesses to this. It is unsurprising, however, that the comments to the article in question are full of denial of the whole idea of authority in the first place, so one presumes that they do have a problem with the church teaching any such thing using scripture as a reference.

I on the other hand see no reason to respond to the text in this manner. I may argue with it, or may talk about various kinds of readings. But the obvious and only alternative to taking scripture and its accompanying tradition as a point of authority is making it up. Scripture is not a palimpsest, an erased manuscript over which I may write what seems best to me: it is canonical, a standard against which theology may be tested. It is testimony to how flaccid official theologizing has become that this kind of thinking is put forth routinely be clerics and others connected to the hierarchy and church institutions, but this is not the theology of the prayer book, which still upholds a standard of belief and faith which this debased reasoning fails to meet. It is only as it is read, wrestled with, "inwardly digested," that the narrative takes on reality, life and meaning.

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