Evangelicals and the Crisis of Authority

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Evangelicals and the Crisis of Authority

Evangelicals and the Crisis of Authority

November 17, 2009 

An October 28 Christianity Today article began:

The homosexuality debate that has torn apart mainline denominations is fanning faculty and student protests at Calvin College, and highlights a growing issue facing evangelical schools.

The occasion for this was a memo from the Calvin board of trustees that prohibited faculty from "advocacy of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage." That is, the Calvin board exercised its governance responsibility by affirming a position held by the Church for the past two thousand years and that can be traced even further back to Moses.

It is also the position on homosexuality in the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism, one of the confessional documents of the Christian Reformed Church to which every Calvin faculty member must subscribe. Faculty "pledge to teach, speak, and write in harmony with the confessions." 

So from an historical point of view, there was nothing in the least bit controversial about the trustees' memo. It merely reminded the faculty of their confessional commitments to a traditional Christian and Reformed understanding of sexuality and marriage, commitments that had been in place for centuries and are, in some quarters of the Church being challenged.

Of course, that wasn't how the Calvin faculty or the students received the memo. They viewed it as an assault on academic freedom, as a trampling of due process—the faculty senate had not been consulted—and as a pronouncement having a chilling effect on, as Christianity Today put it, "Calvin's tradition of vibrant Christian inquiry."

They, in effect, said that despite more than two thousand years of agreement in the Church on sexuality and marriage, college faculty and students get to make up their own minds as to what Scripture says and what obedience to God looks like today.

"To me," remarked a trustee at another evangelical Christian college, "academic freedom means I can interpret Scripture in any way I see fit."

Can the result of this thinking possibly be anything but doctrinal and spiritual chaos, a situation where, echoing the Book of Judges, everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes?

Just as the debate in the Protestant mainline are emphatically not about homosexuality, the debate at Calvin and at other evangelical schools is not about homosexuality either. The debate is about authority. And that debate goes back to the roots of Protestantism.

"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason," averred Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521:

…I do not accept the authority of popes or councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. 

Luther's statement can be taken (incorrectly as we shall see) as the central tenet that most Protestants—including evangelical Protestants—share: my conscience, captivated by the Word of God above all else.

In his essay in The Future of Christian Learning, Notre Dame historian (formerly at evangelical Wheaton College) Mark Noll quotes Johann Eck's response to Luther.

For what purpose does it serve to raise a new dispute about matters condemned through so many centuries by church and council? Unless perhaps a reason must be given to just anyone about anything whatsoever. But if it were granted that whoever contradicts the councils and the common understanding of the church must be overcome by Scripture passages, we will have nothing in Christianity that is certain or decided.

The exchange between Luther and Eck can be taken as the archetype of debates that have run through the Church ever since including the current one at Calvin College. Trustees ask with Eck, "For what purpose does it serve to raise a new dispute about matters condemned through so many centuries by church and council?" The faculty each respond with Luther, "I do not accept the authority of popes or councils… my conscience is captive to the Word of God." That is, to the Word of God as I with no higher authority looking over my shoulders choose to interpret it.

Interpretation is key. The Bible is never simply read; it is always interpreted. What else can explain the bewildering assortment of Baptists, Reformed, Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Trinitarians, Unitarians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Anglicans, sacramentalists, non-sacramentalists, Dispensationalists, liberals, and a thousand others all of whom claim to take the Bible seriously if not literally?

But, you exclaim, some of those people are wrong. Agreed, but that begs the question, "Says who?" The modern answer—a thoroughly inadequate one—is, in the final analysis, "Says me."

As Alister McGrath writes in Christianity's Dangerous Idea, "The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves."

Then he immediately adds, "However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisaged or predicted." The revolt at Calvin over homosexuality is yet another in a long line of such developments.

It is also an indication that the radical subjectivity of the Protestant mainline/oldline denominations has leaked into the evangelical world more quickly than we hoped and that the defensive actions taken to this point are not working.

We need to go back to the Reformation and beyond to correct the missteps that got us here.

Regarding Luther, Baptist theologian Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School noted in his essay in Your Word is Truth, "Drawing on romantic and idealistic notions of the Reformation… Luther emerges as the champion of private interpretation, freedom of conscience, and modern individualism. This popular stereotype of Luther, however, will not bear close scrutiny."

George argues that Luther and the other Reformers were far more nuanced than a cursory reading of the dialogue at Worms indicates. Rather than seeing themselves as creating something new based on individual insights, they "saw themselves as part of the ongoing Catholic tradition, indeed as the legitimate bearers of it." The Reformers had a "sense of continuity with the church of the preceding centuries." Neither Luther nor John Calvin rejected the past or even the Roman Church in its entirety.

While the Reformers believed Scripture alone was the final authority for life and doctrine, they insisted that assent to ancient creeds was also incumbent upon Christians. They were so strongly persuaded, says George, that they saw justification by faith, the cornerstone of the Reformation, as "the logical and necessary consequence of the ecumenical orthodoxy embraced by Catholics and Protestants alike."

As to academic freedom, the Reformers were marked, "by their desire to read the Bible in dialogue with the exegetical traditions of the church." George writes:

In their biblical commentaries… the Reformers of the sixteenth century revealed an intimate familiarity with the preceding exegetical tradition, and they used it reverently as well as critically in their own expositions of the sacred text. The Scriptures were seen as the book given to the church, gathered and guided by the Holy Spirit.

These three, the sense of continuity with the Church through the ages, an embrace of ecumenical orthodoxy as expressed in the creeds, and a determination to read the Bible with the Church, form guardrails for academic and personal freedom and inquiry. They prevent biblical interpretation from falling prey to the latest cultural fad, the hippest intellectual fashion, and individual predilections.

As John Armstrong comments:

[W]e need to recover a proper emphasis upon tradition. Some Christians are accused of being stuck in the past, especially by progressive and more liberal Christians. I believe the much greater danger is an uncritical acceptance of new teachings and practices that undermine the historic faith itself. We need what my friend, the late Robert Webber, called "ancient-future faith." It is right to lean into the future and to prepare for what the Spirit will do. But the Spirit does not lead us to abandon the historic faith in the process. 

Christian freedom—academic freedom and personal freedom—is not the right to interpret the Bible in any way we see fit and then act on our interpretation. It is the freedom to be fully human in company with and under the authority of the Church throughout the ages and in accord with the unchanging truth that is in Jesus Christ.