Coercion and the Nature of Authority

In his incredible chapter on “Authority” in Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan offers this incisive summary of the relationship of coercion and moral authority as constituents of political authority, capturing much of what I sought to get at in my series on coercion a year and a half ago.  

“…political authority certainly owes something to two elements of natural authority, might and tradition (which are forms of strength and age respectively).  When law cannot be enforced, losing the authority conferred by might, it becomes a dead letter which people do not obey.  When law is changed too often and too drastically, losing the authority conferred by tradition, it forfeits public respect, so that people obey it cynically and without conviction.  From this some thinkers have thought it plausible to conclude that the authority of law derives exclusively from ‘power’, i.e. from an established structure of forceful domination.  But this is to overlook an important feature of the relation between authority and might.  Although it is true that the possession of might is an indispensable condition of political authority, so that one who cannot enforce cannot command, it is also the cause that an excessive dependence on might will destroy authority.  One who will only enforce, cannot command either.  Violent regimes lose authority, however much additional support they may claim from tradition.  For true political authority to flourish, there must be a stronger motive of obedience than is furnished by fear of sanction and habitual conformity.  People obey political authority because they think they ought.  It exercises a moral authority which can command a critically reflective obedience.” (127-28)


Why I Won’t Convert

In the wake of my post “Honouring Mary as Protestants,” I found myself drawn into an amicable Reformed-Orthodox dialogue of sorts on Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.  In the discussion, I was challenged to explain my rejection of the idea that any tradition preserved intact and entire the timeless essence of true Christianity–did this not make me postmodernist, rejecting the objectivity of truth?  Was this not just an excuse for Protestant subjectivism, picking and choosing my own little mix of traditions as I saw fit?  In my replies, I summarized my view on the relationship of Protestantism and tradition, and why I see the call to “submit” to “the Church” as a cop-out, fuelled by a desire for easy solutions to doctrinal corruption and division.  The following is adapted from those comments: 

I am not a “postmodernist”–I do not think that all we have are “fragments of the Gospel.” I believe that the Gospel once delivered to the saints is a rock upon which the Church is built, and from which it can never depart. I believe that the heart of that faith remains constant over the millennia, but as history moves forward, the Church grows (and occasionally backslides) in its understanding of that faith, and that, so profound is the truth to which we are called to witness that no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully; on the contrary, all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it, and must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own. I also believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church is advancing, and that we can be confident that on the whole, our grasp of the truth of God in Christ will grow rather than shrink.

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

 

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them. 

It’s hard to see how this can be dismissed as “convenient selectivity.” To my mind, this posture is a far more difficult and uncomfortable one than that which seeks the comfort of some ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions, so that we can simply rest on, say, the determinations of the first 700 years of the Church (or some idealised compendium of them), without having to wrestle with the Scriptures ourselves.

The critic may respond that this makes us each into our own popes, listening to no authority but ourselves. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it requires us to listen to authority even more. Instead of simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church, we have to take seriously the authority of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Gregory Nazianzen, of Anselm, of Gregory Palamas, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Hooker, of Newman, of Schmemann, of John Paul II, of our own parents and pastors and all those that God has put into our lives. We have to do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow. And let me tell you, this is a hard thing to do. It cannot, in any case, be rightly done in an individualist, me-and-my-Bible way, but only in constant dialogue with other Christians, waiting patiently for the Spirit to guide us through the wisdom of our communities.

I should add, moreover, that this should always be done from a standpoint of submission to a particular tradition in which one has been called, using the language and categories of that tradition as one’s starting point and interpretive grid. For me, that’s the Reformed tradition. I have all kinds of problems with that tradition, but that’s where God has put me, and I believe therefore that I am called to, as much as possible, critique and revise that tradition where necessary from within itself (while listening attentively, as I have said above, to other voices from Church history), not by constructing a personal postmodern smorgasbord that contains pieces of all traditions but the heart of none.



Some Ramblings on Sola Scriptura

In a blog post a week and a half ago, Peter Leithart addressed the issue of Sola Scriptura in relation to Christian Smith’s recent book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.  His defence there of sola Scriptura rightly understood was solid stuff, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between Scripture as sole authority and sole final authority.  Tradition may be a very important authority, may even be a guide to the interpretation of Scripture, but when the chips are down, tradition must always be revisable by Scripture, in a way that cannot be vice versa.  This line of argument is a reasonably familiar one, and yet it seems to me that there are really two distinct issues that have to be addressed when we are talking about sola Scriptura–the “intensive” question and the “extensive” question.  

The first concerns the “strength” of the sola–just how alone is Scripture, and how much is it aided by tradition?  What respective roles do the two play in establishing the rule of belief, and how much can each one do taken by itself?  The second concerns the scope of the sola–just how broadly does it reach?  On just how many issues are we claiming Scripture’s authority?  Is Scripture the authority over, say, mathematics?  This is the sort of idea that gets R2Kers all worked up.  Leithart’s notion of “final authority” is of course of some help here, for this allows that other authorities can command our respect in this field as much as they want, so long as they do not contradict Scripture, which, given how little Scripture has to say on the subject of mathematics, will be pretty rarely, if ever.  

This was of course how the Reformers explained the doctrine, according to their distinction between “things necessary for salvation” and “things indifferent.”  In things necessary, Scripture is the only authority; in things indifferent, it is the final authority.  Which means that, if Scripture is silent on a subject, you can believe whatever you want to, so long as you don’t say that it is necessary for anyone to believe thusly.  (At least, in theory that was the doctrine; pretty soon Protestants were saying that it was necessary not to believe in or do any number of things about which Scripture was silent.)  

This qualification also applied to the Reformation’s notion of the “perspicuity of Scripture,” a concept that has been much misunderstood and misused today.  The perspicuity of Scripture meant that God did not leave us so little guidance in His Word about the path of salvation that we needed other authorities and other information to repent and believe and be saved.  All the essentials, the bare necessities, were there in Scripture clear enough for the lowliest peasant to comprehend and act upon.  Of course, there were many matters in Scripture not so clear, and open to dispute; but the fact that they were so, according to the doctrine of perspicuity, was conclusive evidence that these were not matters necessary and essential.  

 

This, I take it, is the point on which Protestantism (or the varieties of it with which I am familiar), has veered so dangerously off-track, inciting a reaction away from its fractious dogmatism that often takes the form of a rejection of sola Scriptura altogether.  For, if one applies the doctrine of perspicuity too broadly, then potentially any doctrine can become the article of a standing or falling faith, potentially any doctrine can be a legitimate occasion for schism, since “it’s a matter of the authority of Scripture.”  If, for instance, I am convinced of Calvinism, and I am convinced it is demonstrated in Scripture, and I am convinced that Scripture is perspicuous, then if you reject Calvinism, this must be a rejection of the authority of Scripture.  It couldn’t be a difference of interpretation or application, since Scripture is clear.  Therefore, it must be because you refuse to accept Scripture’s authority.  Therefore, you have abandoned the material principle of the faith, and are on the brink of apostasy.  So the argument could run (although I’m not sure that’s how it has generally run in the case of church splits over Calvinism, which have usually proceeded on even more dubious theological logic).  

It is this theological breakdown that has contributed to the vitriol of recent debates between “liberals” and “conservatives,” and that distinguishes such recent debates from their counterparts a century ago.  Back when Machen left the PCUSA, it was, ostensibly at least, because the deity, resurrection and exclusivity of Christ were being rejected or at least quietly abandoned.  Nowadays, our great church splits and controversies occur over issues like Young Earth (or even Six-Day) Creation, women’s ordination, and homosexuality.  Now clearly none of these issues concern in themselves the essentials, the Gospel (although if one is Catholic, women’s ordination raises extremely serious issues about the apostolic succession, validity of the priesthood, and therefore ability to receive the means of grace–and so, presumably, affects salvation; and on the Creation issue, one can argue that the evolutionary narrative would have domino effects on key Christian doctrines that would ultimately undermine the Gospel).  And yet in many quarters, one, two, or all of these are considered make-or-break issues?  Why?

The rhetoric is clear enough most of the time–“It’s a matter of the authority of Scripture!”  Perhaps these “liberals” don’t reject the deity or resurrection of Christ, but they’re rejecting the Bible, and these other doctrines are thus sure to fall by the wayside soon.  Scripture, we are told, is clear on these points, and therefore, there is no way to deviate on these points without openly flaunting Scripture.  By this means, each of these issues, and potentially any number of others, can become automatically just cause for a breaking of fellowship.  

 

But of course, we can’t be so quick to dismiss this as a failure to distinguish between things necessary and things secondary.  Because that distinction does not map straightforwardly on to “things clear in Scripture” vs. “things not clear in Scripture” (as Hooker sometimes seems to imply). Obviously, there are plenty of secondary, indeed, plenty of completely unimportant things that are quite clear in Scripture.  For instance, that Paul spent three years in Ephesus.  Does it matter?  Well, not really.  But since Scripture seems clear on the subject, then how do we respond if someone were inclined to deny this fact?  Presumably this denial (or pick your own crystal-clear example) would be a matter of great concern.

So then, I suppose, what this distinction forces us to do is ask again whether the matters debated really are so crystal clear that to reject them is to reject Scripture, instead of simply assuming that they are.

 

Of course, it is also worth noting that some issues currently under debate, particularly the Creation issue, also pertain to what I have called the intensive authority of Scripture, and perhaps raise similar questions to those of the relationship of Scripture and tradition that proved so crucial at the Reformation.  For what we are now forced to ask is whether Scripture can stand on its own, or whether we need to listen to the testimony of Scripture and science (or, Scripture and historical studies) together in order to find truth, whether science must function as the interpreter of Scripture on certain points in the way that tradition once claimed to.  For many, yielding an inch to science to science seems like a rejection of sola Scriptura.  But could we apply Leithart’s same logic here–science may exercise authority over our interpretations, so long as Scripture remains the final authority, in light of which, if push comes to shove, science must be revised and not vice versa?

 

All of these are but musings, thinking aloud, so to speak.  How they all fit together, and cash out in practice, I’m not at all sure, and I’d welcome any input.



O’Donovan on the Fifth Commandment

In his incredible little book, Common Objects of Love, Oliver O’Donovan offers a fascinating re-interpretation of the fifth commandment.  It’s one of those re-readings of a Biblical passage that seems so blindingly obvious that you wonder how you never saw it there before…particularly as it helps make sense of what otherwise has always seemed like an oddly arbitrary relationship between the command and the attached promise.

“The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which hte Lord your God gives you.’  It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake.  The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them.  This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain.  The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once.  The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on.  Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’  No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations.  By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.”

If this is accurate, that does not of course mean that the more familiar meaning–the duty of children to obey their parents–is thereby invalid, as the Apostle Paul’s use of the passage in Ephesians 6 demonstrates.  However, it may mean that the widespread Reformation tendency to broaden the passage into a directive to obey all authorities, particularly political ones, is quite a stretch.  Or rather, that the passage’s relevance to political authority (something O’Donovan is definitely interested in in Common Objects of Love) is somewhat different, meaning something like, “Value the heritage of your society and do your utmost to ensure its stability and continuity, which may well mean loyalty to existing political authorities, but may not.”


Oriental Popery?

We recently started watching the recent BBC documentary series “The History of Christianity,” written and hosted by the renowned church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch as a sort of accompaniment to his new magnum opus, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  The first episode focused primarily on the early non-Western forms of Christianity, seeking to emphasize to we arrogant Western Christians that for a millenium, it was far from obvious that Christianity would be a primarily European phenomenon, and the particular forms of it developed in European contexts were only some of the many forms it took.  MacCulloch took us on a tour of such exotic traditions as the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East (the vast Nestorian Church that penetrated as far as China, establishing a large presence there for centuries).  Other Oriental churches include the Armenian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, and the Chaldean Catholic.   

MacCulloch’s purpose was to draw attention to the variety and adaptability of the Christian tradition, and to be sure, this is an interesting theme, but what struck me instead was the uniformity–the uniformity over against Protestantism in particular.  Isn’t it a strange thing that those things Protestants consider to be late unbiblical innovations, departing from the true form and spirit of the early Church–things such as vestments, priests, bishops, incense, icons, monks, lots of liturgical gestures, high sacramental theology, etc.–seem to be shared by most if not all of these ancient communions?  Note that most of these are churches that separated from the mainstream of Western Christianity way back in the 400s or even earlier; some were semi-independent from the very beginning.  They didn’t borrow all these “relics of popery” from later corruptions of the Western Church, they just had them from the beginning, so far as I can tell.  

Of course, this doesn’t in itself disprove the Protestant opposition to these things.  But it certainly means we need to face up to our remarkable peculiarity–the fact that we are the odd man out when it comes to Church history, not the litmus test by which all else that is Christian can be measured.  If Scripture is adamantly against all these things, then perhaps its testimony should prevail over such a universal testimony of church history, but if Scripture is at all ambiguous, it would be hard to resist such a universal weight of tradition as the truest form of Christianity.