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Interruptions—Part I: Canon


If theological reflection is a part of the church’s effort to carry out its mission, then one of the theologian’s responsibilities is to interrupt, to, when the occasion calls for it, to be a disturber of the peace. Whenever we risk losing our way, become too comfortable with out habits of life and speech, whenever we feel that we have finally accomplished something—at times such as these, the peace must be disturbed. Theology must be an interruption, a destabilizing mode of discourse that forces readers to revaluate previous ways of thinking, seeing, hearing, speaking, and so, finally, being.

This short, three-part series attempts to offer such an interruption in light of recent months’ progress regarding ordination equality in some pockets of the church. This is real progress, and precisely because it is progress, we must be interrupted in order to move forward. The recent movement toward equality of women in ministry is worth celebrating, but it is only a beginning. Recent victories temp us to rest, to think to ourselves, “Things are looking up.” Such stability must be disturbed in order to press on.

In three parts, we will reexamine three theological loci classici—Canon, Creeds, Clergy—which are typically joined together in discussion of doctrinal authority. Our goal here is to configure them in new ways to open new possibilities for church life in the world. In this first part, I will address the Canon. The next part will be written by Walla Walla University theology student Daniel Peverini, who will address Creeds. Shane Akerman, who is studying theology at La Sierra University, will write about Clergy.

On the Question
In the absence of a screwdriver, I have often used butter knives to tighten or loosen flathead screws. Sometimes, I confess, I’ve even used them on Phillips-head screws. Almost invariably, something will go awry: I will strip the screw, or scratch the knife, or, worst of all, someone who knows where the screwdriver is will walk in on me.

This, I suggest, is a helpful metaphor for some of our more common ways of thinking about the Bible’s authority, and so, consequently, some of our use of Scripture. The phrase “the authority of Scripture” gets thrown around quite a bit. Indeed, some people set out to “defend” the authority of the Bible, feeling that others are somehow undermining it. Others do indeed attempt to undermine the authority of Scripture, pointing out contradictions or identifying areas where the authors might have been doing some fictionalizing. Apologists of varying degrees emerge, attempting to prove anything from the existence of Noah’s Ark to the miracles of Jesus; and there are counter-apologists too, who think they’re accomplishing something by giving preference to the Gospel of Thomas or color-coding the sayings of Jesus. (None of this is meant as a criticism of biblical scholarship, including historical criticism.)

I think that the problem is we’ve been using the Bible as a screwdriver, when it’s really a knife. And it’s actually a pretty good knife. Most of the “defenders” of biblical authority are set on proving that the knife works as a screwdriver, and some of them actually try to demonstrate that it actually is a screwdriver. Most of the “underminers” have implicitly accepted that the knife should be a screwdriver, but are pointing out that it fails at the job.

The problem is a failure to complete the question of the Bible’s authority. We have misused the Bible, and this has backed us into a corner, where we must explain why it really does have authority, why it really is historically reliable, and so on. But the only way to properly think about where the authority of Scripture originates is to first answer: What is the authority of Scripture to do? And the awkwardness of the question is precisely the point. We must reformulate it: What does Scripture authorize us to do?

Knives 101
The way I have reformulated the question is doubly important. First, it makes clear the fact that Bible is not independently authoritative, that the authority of Scripture is inseparable from the authority of the church. That is, it resists a traditional Protestant temptation. Alternatively and second, it makes clear that, though biblical authority is inseparable from ecclesial authority, it is the Scriptures that authorize the church, and not vice versa. So it resists a traditional Catholic temptation as well.

But there’s something more. Authority is always authority to do something. And if the Bible is the church’s book—that is, if the one authorized by the Bible is the church—then the question of the authority of Scripture is more properly a question about mission than it is about a doctrine of revelation. This is key.

To illustrate the ramifications of my point, let us return for a moment to how the Bible’s detractors use contradictions in the Bible. To criticize the Bible by pointing out, for example, that the Bible says both that YHWH and Satan incited David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron. 21 and 2 Sam. 24) already assumes that the Bible is authoritative, in part, because of a singularity of authorship and a coherence of content. Attempts to resolve the contradiction rely on the same assumptions.

What we tend to forget, however, is that the Bible is first of all an anthology; and as with all anthologies, what holds the contents together is not perfect agreement, nor necessarily authorship—that is, it need not have intrinsic unity—but rather a unity found by the compiler, extrinsic unity. An anthology of poetry written in the antebellum South need not have anything holding its contents together beyond that each poem was written from the same place and time. Likewise, what makes the disparate documents in the Bible a single book is a unity imposed from without, by the church, acting under the guidance of the Spirit.

Using a Knife
I propose that the church put together the canon because the documents of the Bible tell the true story of God’s liberating salvation for his elect. In a word, the unity of the Bible is the unity of the gospel.

And since the authority of the Bible is the authority of the Bible, and not simply the authority of each individual document within it, a clear understanding of the unity of the Bible is essential for understanding what it authorizes us to do.

The Bible is held together by the gospel. Therefore, what it authorizes us to do is to announce that gospel, in word and action. That and that alone is Scripture’s authority. Scripture does not authorize us to predict the future, nor to specify what happened in the past. It does not authorize us to dictate how families should be structured or comprised. What it does authorize, however, is the announcement and enactment of God’s kingdom. And, in case we forgot, the power of God’s kingdom is the power of God’s Spirit. The Spirit and those whom the Spirit enlivens cannot be tamed, nor can their actions or ethical decisions be neatly decided beforehand. As our Lord said, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

—A graduate of La Sierra University, Matt Burdette is in the Ph.D. program at the University of Aberdeen. 

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, The Four Evangelists, c. 1614.

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