Martin Luther was surely one of the first to discover the power of the 30-second sound bite. And now, nearly five centuries after his protest began, the Protestant Reformation can still be summed up by the enduring slogans of sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura: only grace, faith alone, only scripture. Yet, though I’m a life-long Lutheran, I have often felt the exasperated urge to shout: “Come on, Martin! Which only is it?”
Grace and faith make an intriguing duet, for a couple of soloists. But trumpeting scripture alone just feels wrong. It seems to take the Christ out of Christian, especially when grace and faith get moved to the side to make room for a blast of biblical fanfare. A disparate collection of writings should be that which concerns us ultimately? Bible-believers alone are the recipients of grace?
In his historical context, Martin Luther’s proclamation of sola scriptura makes a great deal of sense. Luther spoke truth to power. He faced down the entrenched structure of domination that was the church of Rome, and claimed that authority over matters of faith ought to derive only from the Word of God, and not from the might of institutionalized power. Luther’s righteous rage was sparked by corrupt practices of the church that benefitted the elites, the hierarchy, over the laity, working people and the emerging middle class. Luther’s cry, sola scriptura, was meant to counter the unequal religious and economic advantages gained by the one-percenters’ control over the dispensation of salvation.
Fast forward to the century of my birth, to the society in which I was raised, and by then sola scriptura Protestants had constructed their own entrenched structures of domination. But so long as Protestant America was fractured into a multitude of denominations and independents, its power was buffered by the separation of church and state. Its domination was compartmentalized. Then an accelerating “culture war”–declared openly during the Reagan years–led to a new cabal of “bible-believing” radicals allied with a powerful segment of the political establishment. A new structure of domination has been erected which seeks to claim for the bible solitary authority over civil issues, legislative deliberations, and judicial processes.
Thankfully, our democracy has not let itself be taken over by religious law. But the real reason behind my philippic is–as the old 60s bumper sticker says–to question the authority of the Christian or any other bible.
From Sunday School on, it was drummed into me that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments were the divinely inspired Word of God. Okay, I can get my mind around the notion of inspiration, the working of the spirit of God. Truthfully, however, I don’t ever imagine such inspiration exactly as my teachers intended. Why just those 66 books? What about the various Apochrypha? What about the forgotten gospels? The Koran? The Rig Veda? Does the spirit of God only work through writers, and a very small pool of scribes at that? Still, the notion of divine inspiration is not really a stumbling block for me. I just cannot embrace any institutionalized attempt to list it, manage it, or control it.
The bible became an obstacle for me, as for many others, * with the political ascendance of the view that equates the Word of God with a particular collection of texts, along with the further stipulation of verbal inerrancy. Thus, according to this view, every word, every verse of scripture, must be taken as having emanated directly from God. And the doctrine of inerrancy has been further radicalized by some into an insistence on a so-called “literalist interpretation”: that time-bound and culturally-situated readers, provided they are true believers, can easily comprehend eternal and literal truths from words which were written down centuries ago in cultures far different and distant from their own. Granted, conservative proponents of the authority of scripture are not all irrational literalists. Some also recognize that the bible contains obvious inconsistencies, factual errors, and clearly metaphoric passages. But ultimately, they equate the Word of God with a particular collection of texts.
I can’t buy any of it.
For one thing, the notion of verbally inerrant scripture is, to the best of my understanding, not scriptural. I have heard the verses quoted to back up this doctrine, but I remain unconvinced by this interpretation. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the books of the bible were compiled or written by human authors in a continuing attempt to witness to and make sense of what their communities understood as God’s actions on behalf of his or her people.
The graver problem with any view that grants solitary authority to a particular set of texts, as I see it, is that it is fear or doubt, not faith, that drives the whole enterprise. Some segments of the modern church had to invent a doctrine of biblical infallibility to buttress the faith they professed. My question is ‘What is it that Christians believe in: the gracious acts of God? Or a particular doctrine about the Bible?’
From my experience, a lot of Christians answer that their belief in God is derived from their belief in the bible as the inspired Word (in a verbal sense) of God. I find this a backwards and misdirected faith. The books of the bible are much later written accounts of oft told stories of how God acted in history, through his people on behalf of his people. And when it came to Jesus, he didn’t pass out a textbook or employee manual for his disciples. He simply said “Follow me.”
I have long thought that the song that permeated my childhood, “Jesus loves me this I know/ For the bible tells me so” is, at best, misleading. It would be far more accurate to sing “Jesus loves me this I know/ For my mother told me so.” And her mother told her, and her mother before her told her, and so on and so on through a multitude of generations, all the way back to the early church. The truth of Christian faith came to us all through very human connections, through the telling of the stories, the performance of an oral tradition. Okay, there were a few discontinuities in the familial chain of transmission. Nevertheless, even during periods of imperial and national conversions, as priests told villagers and peasants, face to face transmission of the central stories and truths of the faith remained an unbroken chain. And written texts became a part of that chain. But behind it all, it was a spoken tale, an oft-told story. This is what God has done.
I expressed my rejection of biblical inerrancy in a respectful exchange (imagine that) with a blogger from the other side of the aisle. Our conversation concerned the moral authority behind our perspectives on current contentious issues. I refused to cede to the view that the bible is a rule book that one may easily consult for answers to ethical dilemmas. His conservative position, while allowing for a recognition of scriptural inconsistencies and the challenges of contextualizing an ancient text for today, led him, nevertheless, to rely on the words of the text as the final authority. He feared my position would further discount scripture and diminish God’s authority to only those cases where God agrees with me.
I detect a particularly American cast in his thinking, that admitting any degree of cultural relativism would leave ethical determinations purely up to each individual. In this common view, which I oppose, we need some sort of external authority–a doctrine–to rein in the mass of unruly individuals that includes believers, would-be believers, and non-believers. However, to devise a doctrine, whether it be scriptural inerrancy or biblical literalism, just because it is deemed necessary to buttress faith or truth or moral authority strikes me as an attempt to substitute a human construct for the kingdom of God. Luther had the same problem with the church of Rome.
Then where does moral authority come from? In the first place, morality can never become a purely individualistic enterprise. Morality is grounded in the reality that we are social creatures. All of morality has to do with how we treat each other in our families, our communities, our societies, and in the entirety of our planet. Ethics is, and always has been, a human construct, a human conversation, an interpersonal dialog. It is one of our most essential collective responsibilities. Though some wish otherwise, we have no timeless rule book to fall back on to relieve us of this awful burden.
But we do not have to do this alone. We are in this all together. Nor do we have to begin the conversation from scratch. Our elders have passed on to us the wisdom that they were taught, further refined in the forge of lived experience.
In my tradition, which stretches back several millenia, we have received the wisdom that we understand as the Word of God, spoken through human voices and oft repeated in communities of faith. That Word is witnessed to, but not fully contained or encapsulated by a set of particular texts. Clearly, one of the central elements of that witness is that God gave us the essentials of a moral life. Moses reported on his conversation with Yahweh, in which he received ten or so commandments to help his people live ethically. In the gospel narratives, it was reported that Jesus further boiled morality down to two core commandments: love God and love your neighbor (a category that includes both friends and enemies). In both of these central cases, the Word of God was a spoken performance, not a written script. **
As I see it, the Christian faith is rooted–and I mean this in the finest possible sense–in folklore. It is a tradition of stories and truths learned from those who came before, a tradition that in each generation has engaged in dialog within and between communities of faith. The authority of scripture is an ongoing conversation, a human construct. That construct should not be brazenly elevated to a Godlike authority. Our conversation about morality requires compassion, clarity, and humility from all parties. I am sure that God at times enters our ongoing dialog in surprising ways. But that is beyond our control.
** Some may quibble that, according to scripture, there were tablets of stone on which God or Moses or both wrote out the ten commandments (aka the ten words). But the account in Exodus 20 begins “Then God spoke all these words.” The tablets do not make an appearance for another four (or fourteen?) chapters.
Nota Bene: In college, I was a theology major (Valparaiso University, BA 1973). Forty years ago I left that path behind and followed another into the field of folklore (Indiana University, MA 1982, PhD 1992) and eventually became an anthropology professor. It is only recently that I have begun to reflect on how my two life paths connect.