Alastair Sterne, authority, Catholic, church, Douglas Todd, inerrancy, infallibility, politics, private sphere, public, St. Peter's Fireside
Stuff circulates when you’re having a good time. Over the last day or so, my Chinglican response to St. Peter’s Fireside’s ten-part response to Douglas Todd’s 10-point primer on ‘Liberal Christianity’ has circulated back to its author, Mike Chase. He has graciously responded in a comment in the previous post. I have not yet had time to respond – apologies to Mike, as I do plan to get back. Douglas Todd has also now read my post – I should apologize to him also for not realizing that he was being ‘coy’ about whether he himself was a ‘liberal Christian.’ Fair points all around.
And yet, as the Gospel song says, ‘This great caravan keeps on rolling along.’ And so, without disappointment, St. Peter’s Fireside’s lead pastor Alastair Sterne has now issued his response to Todd on the ‘Bible as history and metaphor.’ Here are Todd’s words:
We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.” That’s a phrase heard often among liberal Christians. They follow Bible scholars like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and David Lull in viewing the Bible as a mix of history, myth, metaphor and poetry. They have long supported independent, critical study of the Bible. They recognize scripture was written by God-inspired humans, limited by time and context. Liberal Christians accept the Bible may include mistakes.
Sterne also seems to have read my post. Attempting a nuanced treatment of biblical scholarship, Sterne insists (along with Chase in a comment on yesterday’s post) that when he argues for ‘biblical infallibility,’ he is arguing a ‘truly Catholic and classical position,’ not the sort of narrow Anglo-American ‘evangelicalism’ that Chase outlines in his comment through what’s known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral, i.e. historian David Bebbington’s four-part definition of ‘evangelicalism’ as encompassing ‘biblicism, activism, conversionism, and crucicentrism’ (if you like polygons, wait till I tell you about the Larsen Pentagon from The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology). Citing church fathers like St. Clement of Rome and St. Augustine, Sterne argues over against a view of Scripture as only history and metaphor that the Bible must be treated as revelation. This means, he contends, that Scripture isn’t limited by historical context and isn’t subject to the whims of the reader; it stands over its readers and judges them, and it ultimately finds its culmination in the Word made flesh.
In many ways, I appreciate what Sterne is doing here. I’m glad, for example, that he and his colleagues now seem to be dealing more seriously with the implication that they’ve used the word ‘classical,’ not ‘evangelical.’ As one commenter I read somewhere said, ‘I wish Seattle were this theologically alive. But it’s intent on being cool.’ In many ways, I agree with this backhanded compliment to Vancouver, which has a public sphere that is not stupid. It’s the public sphere that is forcing St. Peter’s Fireside to clarify why they are using ‘classical’ instead of ‘evangelical,’ for changing a word without altering a theology raises more suspicious eyebrows than it calms fears in a putatively post-Christian Pacific Northwest. As our Catholic friends would say, it is right and just.
But, frankly, I’m still not entirely satisfied that Sterne has fully sussed out the term ‘classical’ by pairing it with biblical infallibility. That’s because using the word ‘infallible’ and then claiming an unbroken classical Christian heritage still doesn’t speak to how politically contested ‘infallibility’ is. That’s because whenever the word ‘infallible’ is used in ‘classical’ Christianity, we’re talking about politics.
It shouldn’t be shocking for anyone who has hung out in Christian churches of whatever variety to hear that the church is a political institution. As St. Augustine describes it, this is because there’s a city of God to be built, a polis premised on love instead of power, which means, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, that the church is itself a politics. This, of course, has long had local expressions going back to the beginning of the Christian movement (back when we were still called ‘the Way’!), with local assemblies of Christians gathering in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, etc., and the way that these assemblies — these ekklesiai, from which we get the word church — saw themselves relating to each other was through their overseers — their episkopoi, from which we get the word bishop. As the bishops across the different churches were in communion with each other, these churches were catholic, that is, all the local expressions saw themselves as united in the universal practice of what it means to be God’s people in Jesus Christ.
It’s from the church catholic that we get the canon of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. That’s because of the many things that these assemblies did in their gatherings (e.g. eat bread and drink wine together, greet each other with holy kisses, baptizing people, singing spiritual songs, etc.), one of the parts of their liturgy — i.e. the collective work of the people in worship — was to hear the ‘apostles’ teaching,’ i.e. the teaching of Jesus’ immediate followers, who reinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (see why Jewish-Christian relations is both tense and an imperative for continued conversation?). Eventually, these apostolic interpretations of the Scriptures (and frankly, how the whole world worked) in light of Jesus were written down, say, in the letters of Paul and Peter and John, the Gospels, the Apocalypse, etc. and read alongside the Hebrew Scriptures. While the Hebrew Scriptures pretty much had a set canon (they were usually reading from the Greek Septuagint), each of the local churches tended to have their own lists of which letters and books constituted the apostles’ teaching. One book, for example, that made it on some of the lists but not others was called The Shepherd of Hermas, which, if you ever get around to reading, is pretty trippy stuff .Eventually, the church catholic decided pretty much by consensus that it was probably a good idea to have a standardized list. According to most accounts, that was because there was this heretic Marcion going around denying that the Hebrew Scriptures had anything to do with the life of the church while cutting out parts of the apostles’ teaching to fit his own agenda, which tended to be all this body-hating, hyper-spiritual crazy elitist crap.
In any case, my point is: from this process of canonization — and I’ve simplified a few things here and there — you could technically make Sterne’s argument that the biblical canon is infallible for the Christian church. After all, Jesus speaks to the church through the Word in Scripture, which is what Sterne is insisting.
But in some ways, that’s an incomplete argument. That’s because you could also technically make the case that classical Christians believe that what’s actually infallible is the church.
In fact, speaking of the breadth of the church catholic and classical Christianity, what I’m saying might only sound radical to evangelical Protestants, because this other group of classical Christians — Roman Catholics — have pretty much been thinking this all along. You could say that this is how the whole idea of ‘papal infallibility’ came about. Sure, I’m about to oversimplify and not mention, like, the fraudulent Donation of Constantine, Pope Gregory VII’s ramblings, and the crazy politics of the Vatican I vote on infallibility. But the idea that the pope could speak infallibly ex cathedra (on his seat on the Chair of St. Peter) was because the pope — the Bishop of Rome — presides over the church that, as Pope Francis says, has long ‘presided in charity over the churches’ to maintain that sort of catholic unity that I described earlier. Actually, you could say that the real schism that the Catholics are concerned about — the one with the Orthodox — is pretty much about how the church gets to be infallible: is it through the bishop of Rome or through the collegiality of the patriarchs? Some work has been done on this question (see The Ravenna Document), and it’s particularly interesting to see how Scripture is framed by these questions of church power:
15. Authority within the Church is founded upon the Word of God, present and alive in the community of the disciples. Scripture is the revealed Word of God, as the Church, through the Holy Spirit present and active within it, has discerned it in the living Tradition received from the Apostles. At the heart of this Tradition is the Eucharist (cfr. 1 Cor 10, 16-17; 11, 23-26). The authority of Scripture derives from the fact that it is the Word of God which, read in the Church and by the Church, transmits the Gospel of salvation. Through Scripture, Christ addresses the assembled community and the heart of each believer. The Church, through the Holy Spirit present within it, authentically interprets Scripture, responding to the needs of times and places. The constant custom of the Councils to enthrone the Gospels in the midst of the assembly both attests the presence of Christ in his Word, which is the necessary point of reference for all their discussions and decisions, and at the same time affirms the authority of the Church to interpret this Word of God.
See what’s going on there? Scripture is revelation, yes, but its place is in the assembled people of God, addressing the Church while being interpreted by the Church as Christ speaking.
In short, questions about infallibility are really about church politics.
The same goes for Protestant Christians, then, which is what Sterne is. You would think that when the Protestant Reformers insisted that the Bible alone is sufficient for salvation, that settled the question completely. The trouble, though, as Brad Gregory points out in his ambitious Unintended Reformation, is that Scripture didn’t stop getting interpreted — it started getting interpreted in lots of different ways. Moreover, the rising modern states saw how useful this was in asserting their authority over against the church, and in political wranglings that saw this, that, and the other Protestant or Catholic (depending on the state) getting burned at the stake or getting their head chopped off, much of the authority of the church in interpreting Scripture wasn’t transferred so much to the individual, but to the state!
Talk about politics.
In an effort not to read the sixteenth century into contemporary times, though, it’s safe to say that the politics of biblical infallibility — or as it has been recently called, inerrancy — hasn’t gone away. In a fascinating account of the unlikely alliances that could be shared between indigenous sovereignty movements and the Christian Right, Andrea Smith recounts the politics of biblical inerrancy vis-a-vis questions of gender. Smith’s point is that what passes for, ‘The Bible is true,’ is often an attempt to create and maintain a specific political vision based on an interpretation of the Bible. This makes sense also in light of the recent removals of evangelical faculty who don’t subscribe to a ‘Bible is inerrant to every word and punctuation mark,’ like Peter Enns and Doug Green – again, there’s a social vision at stake for certain evangelical seminaries where the inerrancy of the Bible is caught up with building private domains.
But you see, that’s the point. What we have there is another transfer of authority vis-a-vis the interpretation of Scripture — from the church catholic to the state, and from the state to the private sphere. And that’s a bit of an ironic point. While many complain that conservative Christians are trespassing the secular boundary line between private religion and public politics, what I’m saying is that the politics of biblical inerrancy goes hand-in-hand with the privatization of religion.
Back to the main point. The point is that for all of Sterne’s attempts to address my concerns about the usage of ‘classical,’ I still am not quite sure that they can speak for all ‘classical’ orthodox Christians because — unless one wants to claim that only Roman Catholics or only evangelical Protestants are ‘classical Christians’ — I’m still not sure I know what this monolithic ‘classical Christian’ is. Indeed, to make the claim that a Christian is ‘classical’ as opposed to ‘liberal’ is political — and arguably unnecessary. As for Todd’s point that opposes liberal critical readings of Scripture to the politics of infallibility, one wonders, given the actual transfers of authority since the Reformation, whether the conservative Christians he opposes are themselves in fact ironic liberals. After all, for all the ‘independent critical study’ of the Bible that Todd claims that liberal Christians do, the move toward inerrancy politics in the private sphere is about as independent and critical as one can get. As a matter of fact, there’s a new provocative book out by a secular New Testament scholar, James Crossley, that observes that all the scholars Todd discussed (John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and David Lull) and all the evangelical scholars they seem to oppose are all really doing the same thing. As Crossley argues, they’re all contextualized by what’s called an age of neoliberalism, that is, an age where the private markets are given more authority to govern than the state, producing a lifestyle that requires an Anglo-American empire to subjugate and colonize dissidents in other parts of the world in order to maintain their economic foothold. Whether one agrees or not with Crossley’s anti-imperial politics is besides the point – the point is that when I say that there are more similarities than differences between putatively liberal and conservative Christians in approaches to the Bible, I’m not making stuff up.
The real question for a classical Christian, then, isn’t whether the Bible is infallible, per se. It’s: how does the authority of the church catholic work, especially in an age of privatized politics? As a hint for further exploration (probably again during this ten-part series), the late Swiss theologian Karl Barth may be helpful here. Like Sterne, Barth had a strong theology of revelation, one that he went to town on liberal German scholars with beginning in his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans. For Barth, the Word of God causes what he calls a krisis for the powers that be, exposing them as they act like gods to be No-Gods — which, by the way, came to be a great theology with which to oppose the Third Reich. But in Romans, Barth doesn’t play the politics of biblical inerrancy (which is why he was later disliked by American fundamentalists and evangelicals). For Barth, the Word of God is definitively revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the political Word that God speaks to defy the powers that crucified him. As I hinted at earlier, the power of the resurrection may well be how the apostles started in the first place to produce their teaching based on the Hebrew Scriptures about Jesus.
Bottom line is: in discussing the infallibility of the Bible, both Todd and Sterne have opened a political Pandora’s Box. My hope is that they haven’t gotten more than they bargained for.
Now that the categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘classical’ are adequately confused, we now look forward to St. Peter’s Fireside’s third post on the person of Jesus.
Aaron Anderson said:
This is a wonderful post. The only correction I would suggest is that you align your images left/right and wrap your text around it because it’s driving this web developer crazy! 😉
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