Sola Scriptura in the Public Square, Pt. 1

Last week, I presented a paper at a conference in Winchester entitled “Sola Scriptura in the Public Square: Insights of Richard Hooker” which was a sort of miniature, highly-condensed form of my thesis as currently envisioned, or at any rate of several key chapters of it.  I thought I would post it here for the benefit of anyone who’s been interested in my posts on Hooker, Reformed two kingdoms theory, natural law, and the role of Scripture in politics, although be warned that this relatively short essay can do little more than scratch the surface of the key issues, many of which have been developed at more length in previous posts here.

**Edit: As this paper will be published in an extended form by T&T Clark in a volume entitled The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society, they would obviously prefer if I did not have the full-text available here.  I have thus removed most of this post, and the next one, leaving only some tantalizing excerpts.**

The key problem with fundamentalism, then, is not that it claims that Scripture has something to say to politics, or even that it claims that Scripture has a great deal to say about politics.  The problem is that Scripture becomes a blunt instrument, a self-interpreting standard that demands a particular political result, and that will be repeatedly used to club the relevant authorities until they come into line.  In many cases, this is simply a result of ignorance–ignorance of the interpretive complexities of Scripture itself, and of the complex riddles of particular political circumstances.  But often, I suggest, and more seriously, it stems from a more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God, man, and revelation, and unfortunately, the Reformed two kingdoms theorists offer no real answer because they share this basic flaw.  

The flaw in question is what I will label the “Puritan impulse,” recognizing that this may do injustice to many fine Puritans over the centuries, but defensible because it appears most starkly in many assumptions of the Elizabethan Puritans and their theological heirs.  To paint with an extremely broad brush, so that I do not spend the whole of my twenty minutes dwelling on the problem, the Puritans felt that for God to be exalted, man had to be abased.  The extreme form of this appeared in the hyper-Calvinist doctrine that in order for God to reap the full glory of his sole sovereignty, sinners could not claim “credit” for their own damnation, which was to be ascribed exclusively to the divine will.  Divine action and human action were completely incommensurable, and the former must be emphasized at the expense of the latter.  This meant that any account of authority tended to be rather one-dimensional.  In rejecting the authority of the Pope and reasserting the authority of God exercised through Scripture, the Puritans liked to think that they were doing away with, as much as possible, any kind of human authority.  Human authority, to the extent it must exist, must be merely a passive channel for divine action.  A church minister could not teach or publicly do anything without the express warrant of Scripture.

Revelation must be conceived as extrinsic and arbitrary, depending as little as possible on prior human understandings.  Any subject about which Scripture might speak, it must speak, and it must speak exclusively and with such detail as to leave little or no latitude for prudential application.  To say anything else is to raise up human authority in competition with God, to raise up reason in competition with Scripture.  The Reformed two kingdoms theorists tend to share this legalistic conception of Scriptural authority; they merely tend to artificially limit this authority to the institutional Church, cutting Scripture off from the concerns of daily life and social ethics with which it is clearly so deeply concerned.

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